An afternoon with Jim: Famed author talks about work, favorite things
The voice on the other side of the door said, “Come in.”
A bluish haze of cigarette smoke wafted through the writing studio of perhaps America’s greatest living author.
Jim Harrison sat behind a desk, smoking a cigarette, shirtless (due to a painful shingles outbreak), squinting one blind eye.
His writer’s desk and bookshelves were visible nearby, all in a comfortable jumble. His actual desktop — not a computer desktop because Harrison famously writes only in longhand — includes a small thermos of coffee, an ashtray, a yellow legal tablet and a bottle of red wine, in anticipation of his daily 3:30 p.m. cocktail hour.
Harrison is the recipient of numerous literary awards and grants, and he’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of the most prestigious literary distinctions in the country.
In addition, Harrison learned recently he was named a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, another very prestigious distinction. He and 196 other new members were honored at a ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, earlier this month. Other new members this year include singer Judy Collins, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and novelist Tom Wolfe.
Harrison is the author of more than 30 novels and several volumes of poetry. His work has appeared in numerous national magazines — including The New Yorker and Esquire — and literary journals, and he’s written screenplays for Hollywood.
For those who may not be familiar with Harrison’s work, he may be best known for his novel “Legends of the Fall,” which was made into the 1994 movie starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.
Harrison and his wife, Linda, divide their time between Arizona and their rambling home in Paradise Valley.
While the Harrisons have lived in Livingston for about 10 years, they’ve been hanging around here for more like 45. He’s part of the McGuane migration, those writers and others who settled in Livingston after author Tom McGuane did so in the 1960s.
Harrison and McGuane were acquainted in college at Michigan State University, but became better friends a few years later when McGuane looked up Harrison in northern Michigan after Harrison’s first book of poems came out in 1965. McGuane told Harrison he was in the process of moving to Livingston. In 1967, Harrison came for a visit to do some fishing and visited here every year thereafter for 40-plus years, becoming close friends with McGuane.
Harrison’s daughters, Anna and Jamie, settled here when they were adults, and the elder Harrisons eventually sold their Michigan farm and came to Livingston to be closer to their grandchildren.
His daughters are also involved in books, one as a seller, one as a writer. Anna is the manager of the Country Bookshelf bookstore in Bozeman, and Jamie wrote a couple of very popular murder mysteries set in a thinly disguised Livingston she named Blue Deer.
Harrison said he — along with lots of other readers — would like to see Jamie write more books in her mystery series, which debuted with “The Edge of the Crazies” in 1995.
“I wish she’d go back (to them),” Harrison said. “She’s been trying to write more straight novels. I said go back to Jules (the main character) in Livingston. I’d like to know what happened to Jules.”
Harrison likes where he lives, but thinks Linda, when she says their house is too big for the two of them, is actually campaigning for a move into town. Harrison said it’s too easy to spend too much time in bars when one lives in town, but driving isn’t really an option.
He lost his license — and subsequently got it back after a lot of legal wrangling — about two years ago. Harrison said a state trooper pulled him over for driving erratically, which Harrison maintains he was not.
“I’m always polite to cops because it doesn’t do you any good otherwise,” he said.
Harrison at that time had recently had spinal surgery, and the trooper asked if he might be under the influence of painkillers. Harrison assured him he was not because he can’t write when he’s on them.
“I wrote to the governor. I told him I’m stuck here. I can’t write ‘Legends of the Yard’,” he laughed.
Harrison had praise for a number of Livingston people and locales.
He praised Elk River Books, co-owned by his friend Andrea Peacock, as a nice little bookstore, but deadpanned he doesn’t get the juice bar aspect — Wheatgrass Saloon, which is located within the bookstore.
“If they had vodka there to mix with the juice …” he laughed. “I’d go around the corner to Glenn’s. I follow good bartenders around.”
Harrison, who has also written extensively about food and is himself a gourmet cook, praised the brisket at Zac’s Montana Barbecue on North Eighth Street.
And he praised local author Callan Wink.
“He’s a marvelous young writer,” Harrison said.
Harrison is both a novelist and a poet, although he says he makes his living on his novels. He quotes the poet W.H. Auden, who said writers have to be “word drunks.”
“You have to have an intoxication with language,” Harrison said.
He said he didn’t have any favorite words, but he liked “etiolation” and “desuetude.”
“What rhymes with desuetude?” he was asked.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s like ‘orange.’”
The topic of conversation swung to James Joyce’s book “Finnegans Wake”.
“It’s one of my favorite novels of all times. I blew several months of college reading ‘Finnegans Wake’ over and over again,” Harrison said.
He recites a short passage from the book — “She thought she’s sankh neathe the ground with nymphant shame when he gave her the tigris eye!” — which is a couple hundred pages of free association word salad, which he loved, but didn’t necessarily always completely understand.
“It comes back to being a word drunk,” he said. “If you aren’t drunk on words, why aren’t you selling real estate?”
Harrison said he’s recently written some odes, and he’s currently working on two separate novellas, which, he learned the hard way, he has to focus upon separately and distinctly.
“I got a couple of things confused, and it took a whole day to unravel that mess,” he said.
His French readers have told him he has to write a sequel to the novellas that featured a character named Brown Dog. Harrison’s work is very popular in France, and when he visits the country, he is frequently recognized. He’s not sure why the French like him so much.
“One critic over there told me the French don’t want to read about New York — ‘We already have Paris,’” he said. “Some of it’s the rural things, they like the northern Michigan background.”
When asked if it might be because of all the food and drink in his work, he responded, “Well, maybe part of it. And they’re not housebroken books, not polite, mannerly books. Anybody can get tired of that.”
Most recently published
His newest book in print is “The Big Seven”, a novel featuring Detective Sunderson, a tough-guy retired cop, who gets involved with an incestuous, murderous family near the remote fishing cabin he buys with blackmail money — it’s a long story.
The previous book that featured Sunderson, “The Great Leader,” featured a cult leader.
Harrison said the cult figure had no connection to the Livingston area.
“I’m very interested in cults. They’re everywhere. The kind of s___ you can get people to believe is preposterous,” he said.
In “The Big Seven”, 66-year-old Sunderson has an affair with a 19-year-old, which strikes many as unlikely. Harrison said it is not. Younger women in some areas of the U.S. are more amenable to older men than they are in other areas.
He said his New York editors had a hard time with the idea, too.
“The literary community in New York just reads the New York Times. And nothing is printed in the New York Times about the true low-rent nature of many American communities,” he said.
In “The Big Seven”, Sunderson thinks about the seven deadly sins and decides to try to write about the eighth, which he has decided is violence.
The kernel of the idea of writing about the seven deadly sins — gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, pride and lust — came from Harrison’s former agent, Bob Datilla, who used to have a house on Fifth Street in Livingston. Datilla had found in an antique shop seven statues depicting the sins.
“I stared at them. I always thought they were interesting fictionally,” Harrison said.
The sins frightened him when he was young, thanks to a sermon by a Lutheran pastor. He thought you could literally die from committing one of the sins.
“If you had lust, you could die, so you had to stop looking up the teacher’s legs at school,” he laughed. “So I gave Sunderson that.”
Dogs and heaven
Harrison had a church-going youth and at one point considered becoming a pastor.
“What’s interesting about Christianity, you grow up going to church and Sunday school, and you learn to believe. But you never learn how to disbelieve, and it’s all stuck in your head,” Harrison said. “I’ve wondered if I’m the only literary writer in the United States who believes in the resurrection.”
Harrison’s love for dogs, especially bird dogs, is well known, and in an anecdote he combines his religion with his love for dogs.
He heard about a kid who wrote to the Pope concerned his dog wouldn’t go to heaven. The Pope wrote back and said it might be arranged.
“Which was a kind thing to do,” Harrison said.
When the famous Will Rogers quote, “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went,” was paraphrased for him, Harrison laughed.
“That’s great, that’s wonderful,” he said.
The topic of dogs going to heaven inspired in him the idea to write a poem where he imagines a stray dog from town following Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days.
In the poem Harrison wrote, Jesus explains to the dog that he’s going to be crucified, and Jesus puts him in the tomb ahead of time.
“So he shoots up to heaven like a rocket and takes his dog with him,” Harrison said.
His favorite writers
Harrison said he likes authors Michael Ondaatje and Louise Erdrich, poet Gary Snyder, who is also a personal friend, and of course, McGuane’s work, particularly the short stories. His favorite novel of McGuane’s is “92 In the Shade”, because it’s completely “whacko,” he laughed.
Harrison was asked what his own favorite works are. He hesitated and said probably the best novel was “Dalva” and “The Woman Lit by Fireflies” the best novella.
His favorite readers
He gets letters from fans about his work. A woman wrote to tell him she left her husband like the character in “The Woman Lit By Fireflies”, who climbed over a fence at a rest stop. The letter writer said she was in the American Airlines lounge at Kennedy Airport on the way to Europe with her husband, “Mr. Blowhard Bigshot,” as she described him. He was at the bar ordering drinks and she eased out the door, flew to San Francisco, got a divorce and never saw him again.
“Such a great image, ‘Hey f___ you,’” Harrison laughed.
Another letter came from a woman in Indiana who wrote that she had considered suicide.
“She couldn’t take life anymore, went down to her den library, turned on the lights, got her husband’s pistol out of the desk, and she held it to her head for the longest time,” Harrison said, pointing his index finger at the side of his head in the universal gesture. “She looked up and saw my novel ‘Farmer’ and started reading it, and she was still there in the morning. So she didn’t commit suicide, which I was really charmed by.”
Harrison defers a drink until 3:30 p.m., which follows a day that usually includes a walk with a dog in the morning, which sets him up for an afternoon of writing.
“When you walk you secrete endorphins, which calms me down for writing. Watching a dog, you don’t think about your multiple problems in life. You don’t care if they’re cutting your salary in New York — they’re always cutting your salary in New York,” he said.
Harrison said readers always want to know what happened after the end of a book. But Harrison, as an author, doesn’t always know, either.
“They’re still in the same room you left them in forever,” he said.
Literate, literary and delightfully profane, Harrison stood, ready to walk outside. He pulled on a white bamboo-fabric T-shirt, an orange fleece vest, and grabbed his hardwood cane, carved in the shape of a serpent’s head.
He said earlier in the conversation that as a novelist who also writes poetry, some of the novelist critics think there’s something “unfaithful” about also writing poetry.
“I’m making a living as a novelist,” he said, “so what do I care, when you live here, so remote from the so-called centers of power?”