Friday, October 22, 2010

An Interview with Thomas McGuane: The Outtakes Version

Captain Berserko got out of his SUV, crossed the street, and climbed the stairs to my front door.

Correction: The Writer Formerly Known as Captain Berserko walked across the street to my house, mounted the stairs, and grabbed my hand in a vigorous shake, for this was not the Tom McGuane of the drug-fueled 1970s when he'd earned that nickname, for better or for worse.  The genial, silver-haired gentleman standing on my front porch was not the Thomas McGuane who once wrote the movie Rancho Deluxe (known as "Rauncho Deluxe" in some quarters) in which Jeff Bridges has sex while wearing a hound-dog mask.  This was not Tom McGuane, serial divorcee, partier, drinker, and hot-fueled young writer who once drove his Porsche going 140 miles per hour on an ice-glazedTexas highway before flipping it into a ditch.  This was Tom McGuane, the Second Act.

Actually, it was closer to Third-Act Tom since, by all accounts, he long ago gave up the hedonistic days of boozing with Jim Harrison and Jimmy Buffett, trading it all in for the ranching life in Montana where he now spends nearly every day "immersed in animals," venturing out to hit the publicity circuit when one of his books is released.  Otherwise, he is perfectly content to be the gentleman-farmer, flicking a dry fly across a trout stream, or hunting for partridge with his dogs Abby and Daisy, "the Pointer Sisters."

This was the man pumping my hand, saying he was happy to meet me (and genuinely meaning it), and following me into my house.  McGuane was kind enough to stop in Butte on his way to Missoula where he would start the energy-sucking publicity tour for his newest novel Driving on the Rim.  This was the book's launch day and as he sat at my dining room table, he seemed to be full of coiled springs, eager to go out into the world and meet his readers.

As we talked about everything from the writing process to the sad suburban sprawl of Bozeman, Montana, I was struck by one thing: Tom McGuane loves to laugh.  He'll be in the middle of a sentence when it starts somewhere just below his lungs, rolls upward, and breaks out over his teeth, often chopping off the trailing words of that sentence.  I'd have expected nothing less from the man who once wrote: "That food was so bad I can't wait for it to become a turd and leave me" (the short story "Dogs").  As much as his fiction is peppered with wry, sly humor, so is the man.

Here's another thing: Tom McGuane is just about the nicest guy I've met.  When he looks at you and asks you a question about your personal life, you get the feeling he really cares about the answer.  That makes it pretty damn easy to talk to the National Book Award-nominated, bestselling author of 10 novels, two short story collections and nearly a half-dozen books about the sporting life.  Even if he did put Jeff Bridges in that dog's mask.

You can read my interview with McGuane at New West by clicking here

As a special bonus to Quivering Pen readers, here are some of the outtakes from our interview, stuff that didn't make the final cut, for one reason or another:

On waiting for inspiration:
Writing is a job like any other job; nothing much happens unless you show up for work.  And there are times when you go in and have a little burst in the morning and you stay there all day long and lo and behold, at 2 in the afternoon, you say, "Oh!  Now I see what I should have done!"  And so it was worth the wait.

On novels:
Henry James has said that the only obligation a novel has is to be interesting. It doesn’t have any obligations to form, it doesn’t have any obligations to theme.  It just has an obligation to be interesting.  That’s number one.  You either win that one or you lose that one.  That’s the whole game.  One of the mistakes the meta-fictionists and the post-modernists are making is they think they have no obligation to be interesting.  They only have an obligation to be ingenious.

On critics incorrectly pigeonholing his writing as macho or Hemingway-esque:
I don’t know what I can do about that.  I just let the chips fall.  There used to be a rule in journalism where if you have a choice between the facts and the legend, print the legend.  It’s one of those things you can’t do anything about.  It’s not even worth thinking about.

On what he's been reading:
I read The Ask by Sam Lipsyte—quite delightful.  And The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, which is a brilliant first novel.  Tom Brokaw and I were in Belize and we both by utter accident were reading it at same time.  We finished it and we were blown away by it, so I said, “Let’s just take a moment out of our lives, because he’s just starting as a novelist, and send him fan letters.”  Which we did.  Eventually, we heard back from him and he was grateful.  But I mean, this guy is no beginner.  He’s just a terrific writer.

On writing Panama (1978):
That was a book where creatively I definitely felt full immersion.  I wasn’t at arm’s length, thinking, “This needs this or that needs that” or “I need to change the order of things.”  F. Scott Fitzgerald said that writing is like holding your breath underwater.  Well, that one was like having an aqualung—I didn’t have to come up for air at all.  It might be better if you retain a certain objectivity, but on that book, I didn’t particularly have that.
On writing humor:
There’s a wonderful essay that Howard Jacobson (author of the Man Booker Prize-winner The Finkler Question) wrote which said in recent times books have become so un-humorous that there’s a feeling that humor and seriousness are somehow mutually exclusive.  He took a real stand for comic literature and articulated it well.  I actually copied out his essay and put it on the refrigerator.  We’re in a situation in American literary fiction where it’s so gloomy, it’s driven away all the readers.  They don’t want to just read about disease or putting Mom in the rest home or domestic squabbles.  It’s this sort of post-Raymond Carver gloom-and-doom writing which now passes for a standard in literary fiction.  That’s one of the reasons I read the Rachman and Lipsyte books recently—they’re funny, but they’re also serious.

Photo credit: Corbis Images


  1. He is all of those things and more, even when one is standing on his doorstep talking through an ill-timed visit. Great stuff. I'll be reading his recommendations!

  2. Thomas McGuane is a gentleman, gracious to his readers, even if they fail to see all the things he's up to, and also a great guide to modern literature. His most recent novel, Driving On The Rim, is so masterfully written you are swept away from the first paragraphs. But the craftsmanship is there, on every page, and the insights into American life, not simply life in the West, but in all America, are unique, penetrating, and right on the money. In a world beset with a lot of silly, empty, snarky talk and joyless pretentious literary posturing, McGuane's fiction stands out there by itself. Few novelists can make you laugh and sigh at the human condition as often as he can. To me, McGuane's the Miles Davis of contemporary American literary fiction, without the scowling.