Jim Harrison: A Writer’s Life
In one of the last interviews before his death, Jim Harrison invited us into his writing studio for a vivid, wide-ranging talk about art, loss, illness, and the arc of his life.
By Benjamin Polley
Photos by Erik Petersen
Published March 28, 2016 by Whitefish Review
Jim Harrison was one of contemporary literature’s most versatile and prolific writers, publishing 39 books across many genres and drawing comparisons to Hemingway and Faulkner. He died in Arizona of natural causes on March 26, just a handful of months after giving Whitefish Review the following interview.
One of Harrison’s best-known works, the novella Legends of the Fall (1979), was made into a Hollywood movie in 1994 starring Brad Pitt and helped elevate him as a writer when he was a younger man. While a celebrated writer in the States, he reached legendary status in France, where his books sell by the hundreds of thousands and his followers call him the “Mozart of the Plains.”
When I met him one late day in November last year to ask him questions about his life and his work, he was 78 years old and obviously troubled by the effects of spinal surgery and shingles. His left eye was blind and wandered, the result of a childhood accident, but occasionally I found it staring directly at me. His wrinkled face looked like a broken-in baseball mitt. He emitted an energy that was jocular and jovial.
I was traveling with photographer Erik Petersen and we were fortunate to spend three hours with Jim at his seasonal home along the Yellowstone River, outside of Livingston, Montana. His wife Linda had died of a rare lung disease a few weeks before our visit. They had been married for 57 years.
Jim welcomed us into his writing studio where he sat at his writing desk. He was shirtless and wore grey fleece shorts. Brown hiking boots dangled from his feet.
Smoke rose from his ashtray where a cigarette had been recently stubbed out. A crushed empty box of smokes lay next to a full one. Books lined the back of his desk and yellow legal pads, full of scrawling, sat in front of him.
Duke Ellington’s voice crackled from the vintage radio on a bookshelf next to bear claws, masks, animal skulls, and war clubs. A dried and wrinkled rattlesnake hung from a tack above the window. Pinned to a bulletin board behind his desk were Buddhist maxims, family photos, and a photo of a raven and a vulture sharing a carcass.
Harrison was one of my all-time favorite writers and he was sitting before me. I felt excited, fortunate, intimidated, and a bit terrified. I had wanted to meet him for so many years. Months previous, I had sent some of the questions I planned to ask to his secretary in Michigan, who typed all of his books from the manuscripts he faxed. In person, our conversation flowed as naturally as the local rivers where Jim liked to fly fish.
Erik Petersen: Hello Jim. We met a long time ago. I photographed you once before.
Benjamin Polley: How’s it going, Jim? I brought you a gift. [I hand him a fancy bottle of French wine.]
EP: I see you have downsized in bird dogs.
Jim Harrison: Yeah. Folly. She’s a retriever. She likes to hide in the tall grass. She’s a bright, little girl. She’s an English Cocker. But I might get another Setter for four hundred dollars. I am too old to get another dog. My wife got her. But my wife died a couple of weeks ago.
BP: Sorry to hear that.
JH: She was in her seventies. Folly is an English long hair Cocker. She’s apartment-sized.
EP: Yeah, she has some energy. I watched her do a lap around the yard.
JH: I have been going to Patagonia, Arizona for twenty-five years. I like to bird hunt.
EP: For chukhars or what?
JH: No. Quail.
EP: I think you had one of those setters the last time I was here.
JH: One dog was bit in the yard by a rattler.
BP: I remember reading about that in one your books.
JH: I declared war on the rattlers. I shot about 30 of them. Then I decided I couldn’t handle it. I got a snake man to come out and he trapped a thousand. There was a big den straight uphill from here. They all gathered here.
BP: Wow! Did you cook them up?
JH: No. I’ve eaten them before. I don’t think they are good. You put them on the grill and they squirm from the heat. Some Mexicans stopped by and they asked for them. They asked for salt. They said they can’t eat them without salt.
BP: You care if I ask you a few questions, Jim?
JH: Go for it. That is what you are here for.
EP: [motioning to the window shades] You care if I open these up and get some light in here?
JH: Yeah, you can flick the second switch against the wall behind you too. Did you drive all the way up from Missoula?
BP: Yes, I did this morning. It’s a beautiful drive.
EP: I live up in the Shields Valley.
JH: Oh, you do? That’s a nice place to live. Linda, my wife, liked to go out there in the fall when the poplars turned yellow.
EP: Yeah, it’s beautiful.
JH: We used to hunt down there. One year we got one moose, two elk, two deer. That’s a lot of meat. I will tell you the reason I don’t have a shirt on is because now for two years after I have postherpetic neuralgia. Because that is what you get after you have shingles. Now it’s all in my right scapula. Now, it hurts to wear T-shirts.
BP: Do the shingles itch? What does it feel like?
JH: It hurts. It’s like electric impulses keep zapping you.
EP: It probably hurts when you sleep at night?
JH: It can. Now I need some Mexican salve. I get it from a doctor in Nogales. It’s made out of trees. All my doctors use it for burns and stuff. So I give a guy money and he goes across the line. Then I bought some marijuana salve. But it doesn’t work very well. I wanted it to work but you have to use quite a bit. My insurance won’t pay for it either.
EP: They probably won’t pay for the Mexican variety.
JH: They won’t pay for either. Because I was at Mayo to get over my spinal operation, which I never did successfully. Which is why I walk slowly and makes it hard to bird hunt because I have to use a cane. [He shows us his cane.]
BP: That is a beautiful one!
JH: Ironwood. Made by some Mexican Indians. I don’t know where they got it.
BP: It grows down there, don’t it?
BP: I worked in Big Bend National Park several years ago and ironwood grew there.
JH: My mother was raised by bird watchers and she counted 115 different bird species from our patio in three days, once. Which is amazing when you consider how many we have here.
BP: Yeah, it’s a major migratory route through there.
JH: It’s lovely! When I see a bird, I need to hear it give a call. And the next time I see it, I will know. We saw an elegant trogon from the patio and they are like a paint-by number bird. Very beautiful! About four different colors. How did you get to work in Big Bend?
BP: Well, I worked on trail crews in Glacier National Park and other national parks for thirteen years. And I worked down there one winter and it was beautiful!
JH: I could tell when I shook your hand that you have a long dark past of manual labor. My dad always said, “If you are a good shovel man, you will never go hungry.”
BP: Yep, I have worked the shovel a lot over the years.
JH: I know. I was a laborer in my younger career. Manual labor was very serene compared to being in an office. It kept your mind clear so in the evening you can write. You know that way you are not stuck in your head all day.
BP: You used to be a mason, right?
JH: Yeah, that is tough stuff. When I was younger I carted those corner blocks. They are 85 pounds. I just twisted my fingers.
EP: Do you write everything out longhand? That is easier on your hands.
JH: Yeah, I typed Legends of the Fall with one finger at a time.
BP: You wrote that in nine days, didn’t you?
BP: That’s amazing!
JH: That’s not going to happen again. It was gorgeous! It was like taking dictation.
JH: Lots of my books come through dreams. I actually dreamt Dalva.
BP: Oh really? Was it hard to get out of that head space of being in a female character?
JH: It was hard to get in her head and hard to get out. Not bad. You know we are all born female, cellular wise. I had five aunts, one mother, three sisters, a lot of female chickens, female dogs. So, it wasn’t too hard. I had to act a certain way. I would lose the voice of Dalva if I got too drunk the night before. I had to monitor my drinking.
BP: How long did it take to write Dalva?
JH: A long time. A year or so.
BP: There seems to be a constant theme in your books that could resemble your life—such as in the characters Swanson, Tristan Ludlow, Brown Dog, and others that are main protagonists in your books. They always seem to be on the periphery of society. They usually are all rebels filled with the Dionysius spirit—intoxicated on Bacchus. They all march to a different drummer. What can you say about these characters and how they relate to you and your own life?
JH: What was that word besides Dionysius? What’s that other word?
BP: Bacchus. Spirit of revelry or fertility of life, intoxicated on life. Kind of like Pan.
JH: True, that is what it means. McGuane wrote a couple lines that you can either do what other people want you to, or you do what you want to do. That’s an easy call. [laughter]
BP: I read an interview with Tom Robbins years ago. The journalist asked him what writers he recommended. He mentioned all of these different authors and one book they were known for, but he said he reads everything that Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jim Harrison ever wrote.
JH: Oh, that’s nice.
BP: Are there any books that you recommend that people should read if they are going to consider themselves a writer?
JH: Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet was the best book, I think. I read it several times when I was young. He was so austere. And he found a noble woman who would support him [laughter], which is good trick. Now are you guys studying literature or environmental?
BP: In journalism right now. I have been out of school a long time but came back again.
JH: Yeah, I like that. I think I quit college a total of ten times. I kept going back.
BP: You went to school with Tom McGuane and Richard Ford at Michigan State?
JH: Yeah. Ford, McGuane and I went back and did a luncheon that cost them plenty. I don’t do anymore presentations. We spoke in front of a couple thousand people to talk about how writers emerge. My dad was on the faculty for a while. He was an agronomist and I was born on a farm, which was delightful—memory-wise. First thing you remember is throwing corn to the chickens and touching a cow’s nose. When I was four or five, my grandfather on that side was a Swedish immigrant. Him and his brothers, Nelson Gustafson Olaf, migrated out of Sweden to avoid the draft and came to America. My grandfather worked for the railroad and could carry two ties at once, which are about six hundred pounds. He would throw the softball out into the cornfield, way out in front of us to go look for it. Swedish fun, hah. [laughter]
BP: Do you have any thoughts about why your books are more popular in France than they are in the States?
JH: [coughing fit] I really have no idea. I took a degree in comparative literature. You just don’t know why. I had one critic tell me it’s because unlike a lot of American authors, I don’t write about New York. They don’t need to hear about New York. They have Paris. I love Paris. I got to know it real well. It was the place to be.
BP: I know from several of your books and interviews that you try to meditate everyday. Do you still try to do that?
JH: Yeah. Look over there. [He points to the Zen Zafu pillows stacked under the shelves.] The trouble is, after that spinal surgery, I can’t sit in the lotus anymore. [He stands up to show us the incision.] It went from my neck to my tailbone.
BP: Oh, wow!
JH: When I had my surgery, I basically had it for my dog because I couldn’t walk her in the morning. I couldn’t walk at all when I had the surgery. The doctors said I wouldn’t recover very well. That’s when I had to go to Mayo for a month. Which is a suck hole. I mean, I hated it. The food was two cubes.
BP: How long ago was your spinal surgery?
JH: It was four years ago. But now when I hunt, I just shuffle. Now I spend a lot of time sitting on logs for an hour when I go hunting. Which is nice. I still am out there. One day I shot a hundred doves, which is sort of unbelievable. She retrieved every one of them that I shot. That kind of dog is invaluable because you have trouble seeing doves in the grass.
BP: It seems like a lot of your dogs have been females?
JH: Yes, except once. I got a bear-hunting Airedale, which I called Hud. He was the only male dog we had. He was a real pain in the ass. He thought he could kick anybody’s ass in the world. He really was a bear dog. Usually most bear hunters use hounds. Bear dogs are a closing-in-dog because they are not afraid of bears and they won’t let the bear move. They are just that way.
BP: What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers coming up today?
JH: Read a great deal. You can’t learn to write unless you are well-read. Like I say to poets; You are responsible for reading all the world’s poetry because how else will you learn to be a poet? Just like a novelist, you must read the best novels of all. When I was in my teens, I read all of Dostoyevsky, which will darken your soul. [laughter] But that is essential. I don’t agree with these MFA programs. People should get out and travel at random everywhere. I don’t see the point of sitting around campus like a full can of worms all stuck together. [laughter]
BP: Do you still stay in touch with Gary Snyder much?
JH: Yeah, but I haven’t had the heart to write him and tell him that my wife died. His wife died in 2006. She had cancer for twelve years. He nursed her for twelve years.
In Alabama they have dogs that are trained now to smell skin cancer. The doctors bring out the dogs and they can detect cancer by smell. They are interesting creatures. Snyder thinks people should have dogs because it reminds them of the wildness in their lives to be around an animal. [He points to a movie poster that has Gary Snyder and him on it.]
The movie I did with Gary Snyder, called The Practice of the Wild, was done at one of our friend’s ranch—Will Hearst. The ranch was 25 miles of empty California seashore. They have a conservation easement so that it can never be developed. So, I go there every Memorial Day on a five-day camping trip. And this year we had a tremendous time because they had two full-grown California Condors. So we opened the back doors and helped release California Condors. They have a nine-foot wingspan. Their wings are so feathered that when they take off you can feel it in your stomach. That was one of the high points in my bird watching.
BP: That would be awesome.
JH: It’s glorious! Occasionally, we do something right, not too fucking often.
JH: I recently watched a movie about Upper Michigan. Before the Civil War there was fifty-mile long virgin forest. Massive white pines. But now they are like stump forests. It’s wilderness they are cutting off. It’s massive stumps. I saw a hole in one of them and wondered if I could crawl into it and sit straight up. That’s my church I went to. The only other person I took there was an Indian Chippewa woman whose only son was dying of AIDS. She said, “Do you have some sort of secret place?” I said, “I do.” So I took her out there. I put her in there for three hours. I could see the scat of mountain lions, bobcats, and black bears.
Wilderness like that still has secrets even though they logged it. Such a gorgeous ode to death. In this one area it has over 1000 acres of choke cherries and sugar plums. And the blooming of 1000 acres is just overwhelming. There’s nothing like it.
BP: Do you still make it back to Michigan? I know most of your books take place there.
JH: I had to sell my cabin for financial reasons. I had that cabin for 25 years.
BP: Is that the same cabin you had when you wrote Wolf?
JH: No. It is in that area. Just north of the Big Two-Hearted River, that Hemingway wrote about. My father was friends with Hemingway’s uncle and he said, “What’s Ernest doing in Europe, fucking around?” [laughter]
BP: I know you have been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway quite a bit. And you mentioned in one of the interviews, “Hemingway’s writing is like a wood stove that doesn’t put off much heat.”
JH: Yeah, he was just a tourist from Chicago. [laughter] I mean he wrote beautifully. Moveable Feast was a beautiful book. I went to Paris to see where he lived and walked and where Rilke lived and walked. It has such a literary past. You should go to Paris sometime and just walk.
BP: I want to.
JH: Don’t go where all the tourists go, though. I got an assignment once from Esquire to trout fish the Seine River. But, there aren’t any trout on the Seine River. It was pretty funny. I just like the idea of being in a little skiff floating down the Seine fly-fishing for brown trout. [laughter] I started fly-fishing when I was six because my Dad was such an ardent fisherman. And then I got my eye put out. Then I started misbehaving. So, I was getting up at 3:30 in the morning as a six-year-old with a little fly rod and off we’d go for the day catching some nice trout. And that was something I wasn’t suppose to do because I would get lost.
EP: Is writing easier now in your life because there are fewer distractions?
JH: I don’t know if there are any less distractions. I have been out here in this studio every morning since my wife’s death and I must say I haven’t got much done. Rene Char, a French poet says, “You have to be there when the bread comes fresh from the oven.” You just gotta keep doing it. It’s like being a photographer—you got to drive around until something catches your eye. Like [Russell] Chatham, when bird hunting, and I can remember him just standing there looking at the landscape. We’re supposed to write poetry to keep the gods alive.
BP: Have you been up to Snyder’s place? Kitkitdizze.
JH: No, I never went up there. Allen gave him that land. Allen Ginsberg was the only one that was really good with his money. And he gave it all away. Allen was a very passionate man. I knew him real well. It’s funny. I went as a poet to this big poetry Festival at Stony Brook. There were 200 poets including international poets. Allen was there. I won the standing poetry contest, but I hurt my leg and couldn’t stand up. I had to use a cane for two days. Ten years later, I saw Allen Ginsberg in New York and he asked me, “How’s your leg doing?” Meaning he remembered.
BP: Didn’t you meet Jack Kerouac?
JH: I met him at the “Five Spot” when I was eighteen.
BP: I think you talk about that in Wolf.
JH: “The Five Spot” was a jazz club. Magnificent jazz there and you could sit at the bar and buy beer and I saw Kerouac and we started talking. On the Road just came out. He’d gotten a new corduroy suit that was already a fucking mess. [laughter] Cause he slept in it a couple times. [laughter] He was in great shape because he was an athlete. He was a fullback. He was a wonderful man, but he was living with his mom and drinking a case of beer a day.
BP: He was only in his fifties when he died, wasn’t he?
JH: It was sad.
BP: Do you still try to take a walk everyday?
JH: Yes, but I can’t walk very well. Walking’s been critical to me all my life because it smooths out my mind. I go for a walk into here. [points to head]
BP: There was a great line you wrote, “The ancient rhythm of walking tends to delight the mind.”
JH: Yeah, it sure does. That was Thoreau’s idea. He wrote a book of essays, Walking. Kierkegaard, too. However your troubles are, a long walk will loosely smooth them out. Equilibrium junk that we have in our body accredits away.
BP: Have you read any David James Duncan?
JH: Yeah, of course. He’s come over here with Chris Dombrowski, who is great poet. He was down here fishing. Chris couldn’t stand the Midwest or the university anymore. But it’s getting too crowded here. Which you don’t sense here on this road. But you do in town in the summer. But, I don’t give a shit. What can I do? [silence]
I talk to my wife sometimes, you know. Actually you would after 55 years, because, well, after she died, I was so depressed I was thinking of suicide, and then her voice came to me and said, “You have two daughters and three grandsons, so you can’t do it.” Because it is selfish, which is true, because survivors of suicide internally think it is their fault.
BP: I remember another time in your life when you were writing Letters to Yesenin that you were thinking about it then too.
JH: I was having a hard time. He [Yesenin] was a Russian. He was a cokehead who married Isadora Duncan, of all people.
[To Erik] Would you mind—in the bathroom up in the corner, there are some yellow paper cups, up in the corner to the right.
EP: Do you want a cup of water?
JH: No, I am gonna have some vodka.
EP: Do you want just one?
JH: Well, unless you guys want some vodka?
BP: It’s alright, Erik. I am good.
BP: Did your wife’s voice come to you when you were sitting here [in your writing studio] or in a dream?
JH: In my studio. I found in Dalva, Naomi was always talking to her husband, which I find is frequently true. The more you hear their voice, you hear it as it exactly is, you know. Little spooky, now of course.
I never wanted her to work because I wanted to bring home the bacon. I wanted to generate the income, which I couldn’t until I was 39. We had ten years we called, ‘The Macaroni Years.’ Because then I wrote Legends—and that got picked up by Hollywood. I was broke before that but [Jack] Nicholson knew and fronted me money to write Legends of the Fall. ‘Cause I was broke and in debt and couldn’t do anything. So he stepped up. We were down in Mexico. You can tell by the way he acts that he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. He is just looking around with his sunglasses on. [laughter]
The Whitefish Review always interested me. It’s not all choked on this shit about what I did last summer and taking my kids to the mall. It has a different feeling to it totally. Don’t you think?
EP: Yeah, It does.
JH: My one son-in-law [Max Hjortsberg] is a poet and he has had some poems published in there. I think I got some poems coming out in there. Don’t I?
EP: I don’t know? In the Whitefish Review?
JH: Yeah. I asked my editor to send some. I can’t send them out by myself. It was such a raw experience when I was a younger poet. [Jim takes a sip from his tumbler of Vodka and has a coughing fit]. My flap in my esophagus doesn’t work properly. But, I am fucked if I am going to get surgery. That’s how Edward Abbey died is esophagus cancer. I knew him quite well before he died. He kept telling his wife to quit complaining about her stomachache and then she suddenly died of stomach cancer.
Are you guys married?
EP: I am.
JH: Do you have kids?
EP: We have a six- and a seven-year-old. Two boys.
JH: That’s lovely! I have a brother, a year older than me.
EP: Is it just the two of you?
JH: No, five kids. My sister and father died in a car wreck going deer hunting together.
BP: Which child were you in the configuration?
JH: Number two. My brother worked at the university. Then he started working at Harvard and then he went to Yale. He took over the University of Arkansas system. It was nice when he was at Harvard because he was at a library that had six million books. I could get any book I wanted. I could run around the stacked shelves. He was very good with me. He was the eagle scout and I got kicked out of the scouts.
BP: Didn’t your brother have a big role when you sent off your first manuscript of Wolf out to Simon & Schuster?
JH: Yeah, it was lost in a mail strike. He was such an important figure in New Haven, they let him look through all the mail containers and he found the manuscript.
BP: Do you think there was a bit of serendipity there that helped place you on your career path?
JH: No, I wasn’t taking myself seriously then as a novelist and then it became my day job. It feels good that it started that way. Wolf did pretty good.
BP: It is actually one of my favorites because it reminds me of my life and how I wanted to live in a cabin and see a wild wolf and all that.
BP: I love that book. It means a lot to me. I reread it once a year.
JH: Funny, I saw a wolf on the little two-track near my cabin. She was looking at me. Then I dreamt that she got hit by a car. Then I picked her up and she flowed into my mouth and flowed out my body and then… aah I don’t know if I ate the whole thing, but I jumped up out of bed and went so high I cut my head on the chandelier and I was howling and I ran outside naked. I went howling and all over the yard. My poor lab at the time was scared for days. [laughter] I started howling one day in the car and she jumped way in back. No more Rose.
BP: Rose was the one bit by a rattlesnake, right?
JH: Right. Exactly, yes, that was sad. Such a lovely creature. You can train any dog to do anything, you know? She was a very good bird dog even though she was a retriever. Her ass would wag one way for grouse and one way for woodcock. So I was always ready. [laughter]
You can teach them to do anything, you know. The bartender downtown was a dog lover, so when people weren’t hungry he says, “Jimmy go get your dog.” I go out and get her and I lift her up to the bar and she stands there and eats fries and a cheeseburger.
BP: Where are your masks from? [pointing to doorway]
JH: Mexico. See that wolf mask right behind you? There is a little figurine of a girl across its nose.
BP: [looking out the window] There’s an owl outside in the tree.
JH: A great horned owl. There are three of them around here. My hired hand said, “No one will break into your cabin if they see those masks.” And no one has ever broken into my cabin. They broke into my house down on the border of Mexico. Some Mexican migrants. They took some warm clothes and canned foods.
BP: Do you think they were people coming across and needing help?
JH: Yeah, they come across and I meet them down by the creek and I talk to them and they ask, “Where is Chicago?” And I start to sigh because it is so tragic. Tragic!
BP: Yeah, I grew up in a town that is 50% Mexican, outside of Chicago.
JH: Patagonia is like that too and in the grocery store. It is very touching. I like these people, such hard workers.
BP: We could learn a lot from them. It’s too bad there is so much contention with that and wanting to force them back.
JH: Exactly. What time is it now?
BP: It is 5:15 right now.
JH: Oh, I am going to eat something and go to sleep pretty soon. I nap, then I get up and work again.