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Jim Harrison Interview

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.

photo by Erik Petersen
photo by Erik Petersen for Whitefish Review

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?

JH: Yeah.

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?

JH: Yeah.

BP: That’s amazing!

JH: That’s not going to happen again. It was gorgeous! It was like taking dictation.

BP: Wow!

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.

photo by Erik Petersen
photo by Erik Petersen for Whitefish Review

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.

BP: Yeah.

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?

BP: No.

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.

JH: Exactly!

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.

photo by Erik Petersen
photo by Erik Petersen for Whitefish Review


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David Letterman Interview

Getting to the Heart of David Letterman

The beloved king of comedy—and part time Montana resident—talks about growing up and getting older.

By Brian Schott
Published December 16, 2015 by Whitefish Review

As of his final Late Show this past May, David Letterman had hosted 19,932 guest appearances on 6,028 broadcasts across more than 33 years—and redefined late-night and humor itself along the way. The man had earned some peace and quiet. Judging from the searching, thoughtful interview he granted to the Whitefish Review, he has found both—thanks, in large part, to life on his ranch in northwest Montana.

In an interview with Jane Pauley prior to his retirement, Letterman talked about the “white-hot adrenaline” he’d felt on his early appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: “It’s like you’re sitting on the knee of the Lincoln Memorial and Lincoln is talking to you. You know, it’s like, ‘Holy God, it’s the guy on the $5 bill talking to me.’” That’s about what it feels like to interview David Letterman.

After a good breakfast, a long walk, some quiet breathing, and a pep talk from my wife, I was able to calm my nerves and have a candid, wide-ranging conversation with Letterman on the telephone from his home in New York State. I followed up several days later with a few additional questions.

As I expected, Dave was introspective, funny and, more than anything, kind. Listening to him through the speakerphone—that unmistakable voice and laughter that I had grown up with—was as surreal and as special as it comes.

I owe thanks to Jeff Giles, a transplant from New York City and one of our new editors, for helping arrange the interview through his friend, Tom Keaney, Letterman’s publicist. Over nearly an hour of conversation across two interviews in late November, Letterman and I spoke about retirement, raising his son, his love of Montana, his own childhood, and growing that wildman beard.


Brian Schott
: Hello, Mr. Letterman.

David Letterman: How are you, sir?

BS: I’m well. It’s a gorgeous Montana day. Blue skies. Snow-capped mountain peaks.

DL: What is your temperature?

BS: We were at 34 degrees about an hour ago. It’s pretty cold. Clear and cold last night.

DL: Sounds ideal. Sounds lovely and normal in a time when weather doesn’t seem to be normal anywhere.

BS: You can’t count on much these days.

DL: I was just telling Tom that I’ve been—I believe the word is perusing—the Whitefish Review collections you sent. I’m in love with the publication and I feel stupid because prior to a month ago when I received them I don’t think I was aware of it. It’s a delightful project and must be very satisfying to work with.

BS: Well thanks for saying so. That’s really generous. We’re working with author Rick Bass right now on this next issue and Tom probably told you that we picked the theme “Growing Up and Getting Older.”

DL: Well, yes. But first of all let me tell you this, particular to nothing. Yesterday I was walking around a small town in Connecticut and the commercial grid of this small town reminded me of the commercial grid of what I remember of Whitefish. Except it’s not surrounded by lakes, rivers, or mountains. And I just said to myself then and there—I’m moving to Whitefish. I told my wife last night and she thinks I’m kidding. But why wouldn’t you move to Whitefish?

Central Avenue in Whitefish, Montana (photo: Brian Schott)
Central Avenue in Whitefish, Montana (photo: Brian Schott)

BS: That’s a good question. We could make you an intern here at Whitefish Review.

DL: I’ll do it. I’ve got nothing but time. (laughing)

BS: Yes, I love Whitefish. I grew up in New England, but I’ve been out here 20 years now.

DL: Where in New England?

BS: I grew up in Stow, Massachusetts, a tiny little town near
Concord­—a little colonial, historic town.

DL: But that’s an oft-told story, isn’t it? Somebody from the East comes out and never goes back.

BS: Yes, I think it is. I hang out with quite a few New Englanders out here in Montana. The West has such a collection of people from everywhere.

DL: It’s just delightful.

David Letterman with his son on their Montana ranch. (courtesy photo for Whitefish Review)

BS: So apparently, along this theme of growing older, we’ve heard that you’ve retired. (laughter)

DL: Yes, I have retired. I am no longer in show business.

BS: So how has that change in your life affected you?

DL: We did this television show—my friends and I—for a very long time. It’s probably like anyone else’s professional pursuit. When you are doing it for so long, and for each day—I have always likened it to running a restaurant—because you get response to the day’s endeavor immediately. Either from the audience or the ratings, but you know as early as the next day how you did.

And because of this introspection, you believe that what you are doing is of great importance and that it is affecting mankind wall-to-wall. And then when you get out of it you realize, oh, well, that wasn’t true at all. (laughter) It was just silliness. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and I realized, geez, I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.

BS: Are you able to look back with some pride and enjoy what you have accomplished or does your inner critic always get in the way?

DL: Well, I have this conversation with my wife all of the time. And my wife—I can’t tell yet whether she’s being diplomatic, whether she’s being polite, deferential—I just don’t know what it is—and she’ll say, “Well, look at what you’ve accomplished.” And I’ll say, “Well, what have I accomplished?” And she says, “Well, look. You’ve employed a lot of people for a long time…” (laughter) So I always laugh and think, okay, I’ve put a lot of people to work. And that’s usually the end of the conversation.

BS: (laughing) Well, you’ve certainly made a lot of people laugh and take a lighter look at—

DL: Well, I’d like to see the paperwork on that. But as to your theme here, I was thinking a bit about that. How old are you?

BS: I am 44 years old.

DL: Okay, good enough.

BS: I’m starting to have to think about the answer to that question. I’ll soon be getting closer to 50 than will feel comfortable. My brain feels really young, but my body is starting to get a little more stiff and sore on the ski slopes. It’s a wild ride. We have a ten-year-old son and a three-year-old son. So they keep us hopping.

DL: Well that was my point. Our son just turned 12. And you mentioned skiing. We started skiing together when he was about four or five, because I wanted something we could do together—for the rest of my life certainly—and it’s worked out just fine. I’m happy to say that of all the places we’ve been lucky enough to ski, his favorite, and my favorite—well we liked Alyeska pretty well up in Alaska—but in the lower 48, our favorite, without question is Big Mountain [in Whitefish]. We just really get a kick out of that place.

BS: It is a really special place. Well, if Harry needs a tour guide, my son Ethan would love to show him around.

DL: Okay, cool. Well, I’m moving out there, so I’ll let you know.

BS: That’s right. We’ve got you docked for the internship. (laughter) On a more serious note, what’s the mood right now in New York after the attacks in Paris?

DL: Well, I’m north of New York City and the television coverage has been on in everybody’s house and it’s that sickness, that vague sickness that you feel. We felt it here vividly when we were attacked, and it’s hard to believe that we lived through that attack and then tucked it away some place and it was less vivid. Now you can see that the people in Paris and in that part of Europe are going through that vivid terror, the aftermath of it, and how to reconcile it, like we did on 9-11.

So, you worry about—well, my son goes to school in New York and we ride trains in and out of the city and we’re on subways—but so far, it’s like unless it happens in your lap, you just don’t have that visceral, gut-wrenching…. I don’t know how to articulate this. If you read about a typhoon in Singapore you can have empathy, but you don’t quite get it. Here, we have had that experience, so we do get it.

BS: You mentioned 9-11. You went back on the air a week later. I actually re-watched your monologue from that night. Your voice was shaking. You said, “Courage defines all other human behavior.” I wondered if you could talk about courage as it relates to growing up.

DL: Well, I know more about courage now being a father. I always used to say to people—you know when a co-worker might be facing surgery, or a co-worker might have a friend who is ill, the way things happen in people’s lives—and I would always want to say something meaningful, because you can’t really help other than to listen and say something meaningful. And I used to say, “Pretending to be brave is as good as being brave.” And I find myself applying that to my son. And this ties into the idea of growing up.

Because of my son I’m not growing up. Because of my son I do things I would have done when I was 12, to show him—look, you can do this. It’s okay. You can do this. Don’t be worried about this. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. A lot of this is in Montana. A lot of this is skiing or hiking. I have gotten into the habit of jumping into any body of water we come across when we’re hiking in Montana—that as you know, is really too cold for any form of life other than fish. (laughter) You can feel your heart being sucked into your digestive tract. And so I’ll just jump in. Because I want him to know that it’s okay for him to just jump in.

We’ll get in the river and we’ll float the river. We’ll get out of the boat and he and I will just float in the river. You know—let’s do stuff. So, I find on his behalf, I’m not growing up. You have to grow up to have some wisdom, but I think part of that is letting your kids know that there’s some pretty silly stuff that you can get away with that is going to enhance your life.

BS: Nice.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana (photo: Brian Schott)
Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana (photo: Brian Schott)

DL: Another thing I’ll tell you is that as I grow older, I can’t stop talking. You let me know when it starts to get dark and we’ll call it off. (laughter)

BS: Talkability is a wonderful trait. So, Tom Brokaw was nice enough to talk with us a few years back. He does a cold plunge in the mountain stream in his back yard every morning when he’s in Montana. Do you do the cold plunge out by your ranch?

DL: Yes, we do it in the summer and we do it anywhere we can. We have Deep Creek running through our ranch. We’re near the Teton River and we spend a lot of time in both of those. Down south we’ve been in the Ruby. We’ve been in the Madison. We’ve been in the Big Hole. I mean, how can you not? Well, it’s beautiful for one thing.

I’m no good at fishing, but I just like standing in the river. Years and years ago, Michael Keaton was talking about fishing in some publication, he mentioned the joy of putting his son on his back and wading across some river to go fly-fishing. I thought, wow, he’s a lucky man to have experienced that. And then lo and behold years and years later I got to experience the very same thing. The fact that his early comments meant so much to me and then later I was able to relive them, it increased the emotional impact of what he was talking about. And I’ll never forget it. I have a picture of my son and me in the Ruby River—he’s on my back. And that’s all you need to know about Montana.

BS: Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship to the space out here? Does the land have a real calming effect on you?

DL: Yes. Tom Brokaw is the reason we ended up in Montana. For years and years, Tom said [in Brokaw accent] ,“You ought to go to Montana.” And I said, “Okay, sure, Tom. Sure.” And I would look at Montana and I would think, Good Lord—who wants—why—I mean, look at that!—it’s too wide, for one thing. And so finally we went. And Tom said, “You’ll know where you’ll want to be. You’ll feel where you want to be.”

So we got ahold of a real estate guy and he took us around and he started running down celebrities and famous people—and they all live here and they all live there—and I said, “That’s fine, but that’s not where we want to live. We want to live someplace else.” And so we stumbled on the Rocky Mountain Front, where no one lives, because of the 200-mile an hour winds, but it was thrilling to be there.

Beef cattle graze on lush spring grass in front of Sawtooth Ridge near Augusta Montana.
Beef cattle graze on spring grass, Sawtooth Ridge near Augusta Montana. (Chuck Haney)

The first thing that this experience brought to us is that you just can’t stop seeing once you’re out there. The big sky and all—and for heaven’s sake, it’s true—but also the endless horizon. And we still haven’t gotten over the land. The other neat thing about this was it was like signing up for some extended college course where you began to learn about stuff you never thought about before in your life.

Every time we go out there we learn something about the land, about the animals, about the plants, about the trees, about the fires, about the wind, about the weather. It’s a never-ending education and it’s been so gratifying and so enriching for my wife and myself—she’s from Ohio, I’m from Indiana—and my son, it’s in him now. Whereas Tom Brokaw had to talk me into going to Montana, my son, he won’t have that problem. He’s there.

You must know something about the Front? The Chinooks and the winds?

BS: Yeah, it blows like hell over there.

DL: Yeah. Hurricane force and beyond. I can remember one day being out there just walking around. The wind was coming at me and it was fairly gentle. And what it was bringing to my ears was just dead quiet. And I couldn’t believe that the two things could exist—that the wind could be blowing and what it brought to you was absolute silence. The place is full of surprises like that. Full of experiences like that. And the process of learning is endless. Just through the dumb luck of having to shut Tom Brokaw up, it is something that has changed our lives.

I was thinking how unpleasant it would have been if Harry didn’t like being in Montana. Leave him back here with a sitter? (laughing) But it’s part of his life. If it’s just a fraction for his life of what it has been for our life, he will be a rich man forever. Did you notice that experience? That it never stops?

BS: The mountains out here really grabbed me and got into my heart. I never really expected to stay, but it really got inside me.

DL: The last time we were out there at Big Mountain—I guess they call it Whitefish Mountain now­, you’re looking into the Canadian Rockies, then you’re looking back at Glacier, then you’re looking south to the ranges that run forever in that direction. One of my early ski instructors said to me that the first lesson in skiing is that when you get off the chairlift, take in the view. We’d been half way up the chairlift and it was like an IMAX movie. It’s beyond an IMAX movie—it’s all there. It’s crazy. You don’t see stuff like that.

BS: The scale is so massive that it’s indescribable.

Whitefish Mountain Resort and the peaks of Glacier National Park (photo: Brian Schott)
Whitefish Mountain Resort and the peaks of Glacier National Park (photo: Brian Schott)

DL: The first time I went through Glacier I thought, I’m looking at the hand of god here.

BS: I said that same thing to my parents when I first moved out here and I was in Glacier Park with them. They were still wondering if I was going to move back east or if I was going to stay in Montana. I told them that when I was out in Glacier it was the closest I can describe being to god as I’ve ever been.

DL: From our location on the Front you can see up to three or four, maybe a half dozen different weather systems operating at once. It’s bizarre. It’s a special effect of some kind. And it’s just lovely.

BS: You’ve said that “life is hard work.” Is laughter a way to keep some of the harder and darker spots of life away?

DL: I suppose. It doesn’t work. It works superficially. You can make jokes at a funeral and that will create a vibration. But it doesn’t take away the grief. But it does something. It alters…I don’t know what it does. If you have the facility to make somebody laugh, I think you ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a nice gesture for somebody. And I’m in hyper-drive, because as parents know, the greatest thing you can do when your kid is first born is to try and make him laugh. And I try. He just got home from school and I will try as hard tonight as I did when he was three months old to make him laugh.

It’s a selfish thing, but what I’ve noticed now is that he makes me laugh so much that I feel like, well, maybe I had a little something to do with that.

BS: Do you watch any TV these days?

DL: Mostly news. I’m like the idiots who always used to come up to me—and I knew they were lying…. They’d say, “Yeah, well, geez I can’t stay up late enough to watch your show,” and I’d think, you’re lying, you’re just lying. But I’m like that guy now. I can’t stay up late enough to watch TV. I like to be in bed right around 10. Anything that happens after 10, I’m not there.

BS: Do you miss the craziness of the TV business more or less than you thought you would?

DL: No, I’m surprised­—I can remember the first day that Stephen Colbert took over—put his [new] show on the air. I thought I would have some trouble, some emotional trouble, or some feeling of displacement, but I realized, hey, that’s not my problem anymore. And I have felt much better. It’s something for younger men and women to take on. So I haven’t missed it, the way I thought I might. And I do little things here and there to sort of keep me up and moving. But no, I don’t miss it the way­ I thought—and then I think, holy crap! I’ll be 69 next year and I’ve been doing this for 33 years. What did I want? Like you work until you’re a hundred? So there’s a lot of practical reasons why a person wouldn’t miss this.

BS: So in terms of getting older, when you had heart surgery 15 years ago, did it change your outlook on life?

DL: Well, it did. Compared to my father who dropped dead of a massive heart attack when he was 57—he had a history of heart problems. The advancements that they have made in treating heart disease are remarkable, as I think with all medicine. But when he had his first major heart attack—and he ended up having about six before the one that killed him. I can remember the president at the time was Dwight Eisenhower, and he had also suffered a heart attack. So Dwight Eisenhower was the hero for surviving heart attacks, both for my father and my father’s doctor.

You have a lot of questions when you’re in the hospital after a heart attack and my dad said, “Um, well, is it all right if I keep smoking?” And the doctor said, “Oh, yeah, that’s not a problem.” And my dad—you’d go to see him in the hospital recovering from a heart attack having a cigarette. Oh my god, really? So I feel that I am awfully lucky not to have had a heart attack and to have been treated the way I was treated, irrespective of the completely barbaric nature of the surgery. Once they get you open, it’s pretty fine work they are able to do.

It’s also made me realize that there are people in this world that you absolutely can trust­—professionals who know what they’re doing. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to be skeptical. But there are people who have been really well trained and are eager to help and save lives. And I found that gratifying.

BS: What do you look for in a houseguest—maybe a guest out to your ranch­­—and how does that differ for what you looked for in a TV guest?

DL: (big laughter) Well, there’s a couple of similarities. When we have guests at the house, I like them to be wearing makeup. That’s always good. (laughter)

But it’s interesting. We’ve had a lot of people to the ranch. Because you want to share this with people. And a lot of people don’t get invited back. Because for some reason they don’t get it. I don’t know if you’ve had that same experience. But when I first saw the Rocky Mountain Front, I had to get out of the car and walk around to calm down. I remember one time, I had a buddy of mine out there, someone I’ve known forever, and he says to me, “You have a tennis court out here?” Well I said, “Okay, let’s see, you’re not coming back.” So not everybody does come back. But if you respond to it, and your family responds to it, you’ve got the run of the place. You can come out any time you like.

Fiery sunrise light strikes Ear Mountain along the Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau, Montana.
Sunrise strikes Ear Mountain, Rocky Mountain Front near Choteau, Montana. (Chuck Haney)

BS: So we saw a pretty good-looking lumberjack beard photo of you recently. We were just curious about your plans for your facial hair?

DL: You know what? I used to say, every day, “I am so sick and tired of shaving.” I had to shave every day, every day, for 33 years. And even before that when I was working on local TV. And I just thought, the first thing I will do when I am not on TV is stop shaving. And everybody hates it. My wife hates it. My son hates it. But it’s interesting. I’ve kind of developed a real creepy look with it that I’m sort of enjoying. And I can tell that people are off-put by it. And the more people implore me to shave, the stronger my resolve is to not shave. So the day that I shave, I’ll call you.

BS: Okay, perfect. At Whitefish Review we don’t have any requirements for shaved beards, so your internship would be safe here.

DL: (laughing) Good! And I know, it’s not a good-looking beard. But I don’t even care. I just don’t care. And it’s kind of fun—well, I won’t say that it’s fun to walk around irritating people, I think I’ve proved that on TV­—but it’s sort of amusing to see the reactions.

BS: You’re a playful guy. A lot of people move out to the mountains so they can play. Some people refer to them as Peter Pans. I was curious­—was there a part of you that never really wanted to grow up?

DL: Well, I don’t think of myself as having grown up. I think, like you mentioned, you feel like in your head you are still a certain age. I know I’ve grown old. But I don’t think I’ve grown up. I think I have achieved a certain level of wisdom, probably not what it ought to be, but in terms of growing up, no, I still like goofing around. I don’t know if I would qualify as a Peter Pan­, but thanks anyway—

BS: No, that’s just the ski bums­, not you—

DL: (laughing) I think about having grown old, yes. Grown up, no. No, not at all.

BS: Has your thinking about your childhood changed over the years?

DL: I do think a lot about it. Like everybody, the mirror of your life would be your kids. And you can see yourself, you can see a fairly accurate version of yourself, you can see a different version of yourself, but the reminder is always there. When I was a kid, god bless my parents—and I think I speak for generations, mine and prior—if there was trouble, it would be solved by a firm yank on the arm, or you might get spanked with any number of objects.

And I can see those moments with my son and I remember it would have gotten me a spanking. And I think to myself, I kind of see why my parents did it. I know you can’t do it anymore, so what the hell do I do? And so you’re sort of left to your own wits. What I usually do is I call Regina into the room and I say, “Can you take care of this for me? I’m going outside.”

BS: So you talk about that mirror and I’ve experienced that with my children. I’ll see them do something and realize, wow­—I do that. That’s me. Does that happen to you?

DL: Well, as you know it can both be satisfying and be a frightful reminder. If it’s something positive, if it’s something good, and it’s usually some small things that you get some reward from when they come back out of the kid. But then also when you recognize behavior that is not positive, then it’s pretty frightening. The other day, I heard my son, I don’t know what he was doing but something had frustrated him, and I could hear him screaming, “Oh, for the love of god!” And I laughed out loud because I am constantly throwing myself around the house when I can’t get a jar open or I can’t find my car keys. And that’s kind of the signature line—“Oh, for the love of god!”

And when I heard that coming out of Harry in equally silly circumstances, it was pretty funny. But I also recognize, he’s almost pathologically shy. And I can remember when I was a kid, I was just quiet and shy and had no friends and that was fine with me. And it didn’t bother me when that was me, but when you see that behavior in your own kid, you think, jiminy, what have I done to the kid? On the other hand, it never really bothered me and I kind of grew out of it, so a lot of this is a leap of faith, isn’t it, in terms of parenthood?

BS: Yes, it sure is. They don’t really have that manual totally dialed in.

DL: No, and in the beginning I was always prepared for a squawking, screaming, monkey-like brat throwing himself around the house, and so for the first couple of years after he started walking and talking, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And with Harry it never did. I can remember the first time he and I alone went into a toy store. And I said, “Okay, we’re only going to buy one thing.” And he said okay, and picked out what he wanted, and now he’s looking at other things.

And I’m just waiting for the classic story where the kid throws himself on the floor and is throwing a tantrum and you have to haul him out of there by his pants, and I was stunned and gratified when I reminded him that we were only getting one toy, and he said, okay, fine. And we took the little miniature Volkswagen Beetle, it was just this little plastic and metal replica of a car, and that was it.

And I thought, holy crap. I thought it was going to be a drunken brawl. So I was wildly delighted. You hear parents tell stories of their kids­—he was up on top of the refrigerator, or we found him driving the car, or he was downtown buying cigarettes—and we have never had that. So that’s been a wild surprise. You hear the clichés—it’s the terrible twos and he was up all night screaming, and we never had any of that. He was always fairly agreeable.

Lately, when he turned 11, that’s when we discovered what we had in common was arguing. So we argue about everything. But he seems fairly levelheaded. I worry about his shyness, but I think that will improve. You want your kid to be the life of the party. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t even want your kid going to parties. I don’t know.

BS: You said you were a shy kid, but did you have any breakthrough moments that pushed you out of your shyness?

DL: When I got into high school my grades were really, really bad. I took a speech class in my second year and the first day in the speech class you had to get up and tell a little something about yourself. And it was that moment that I realized I know exactly what I want to do. I’ve found something I can do. I can’t do algebra. I’m no good at anything else. But I’ve found something that comes naturally to me, which is yak in front of a group of people. Then the rest of my life I stopped worrying about everything.

I thought okay, now you just have to figure out how this can become your life. So from that point on I didn’t worry about the future or anything because I knew exactly what it was that I could do. I just had to find a way and a place to do it. So I always felt like I was really lucky. My grades weren’t going to get me anywhere. My SAT scores­—the sample was too low to measure. They were really bad. But none of that bothered me. Because I had that one semester of public speaking, and I thought, well, here you go.

BS: That seems like a moment when you took a step in growing up. Are there any other moments in your childhood or adolescence when you said to yourself, ‘Wow, I am growing up.’

DL: I do remember one birthday when I was just about Harry’s age when I kind of got it that the trend was not reversible. Oh geez. I was nine last year. I’m ten this year. Oh, I see the way this is going to go. And it put a fair amount of panic in me, because if you take that out to its extreme, you realize what is at the end of it. I guess also when my father died, I felt bad for him. I just felt like he never quite got to do what he wanted to do, and at that point I was already doing what I was doing.

So that was a very strong observation for me. I really wanted to make good on my personal commitment, because I know it was probably the same as my father’s personal commitment, but he just never had the opportunity or the pathway to fulfill it.

BS: Thank you, Dave. I appreciate you taking the time and I hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

DL: Happy Thanksgiving to you, too­. Maybe I’ll run into you on the ski hill one day.

Ear Mountain reflcts into calm Lake Theboe along the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana
Ear Mountain and Lake Theboe along the Rocky Mountain Front, Montana. (Chuck Haney)


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