The Salon Interview: Jim Harrison

The poet laureate of appetite talks about the saving power of animals, Charles Frazier's prose style and the tyranny of sexual correctness.

Published December 2, 1998 7:08PM (EST)

In his seven novels, three novella collections, 11 books of poetry and innumerable essays, Jim Harrison has probed the breadth of human appetites -- for food and drink, for art, for sex, for violence and, most significantly, for the great twin engines of love and death. Perhaps no American writer better appreciates those myriad drives; since the publication of his first collection of poetry, "Plain Songs," in 1966, Harrison has become their poet laureate. His characters -- and, by extension, their creator -- hunger for a wild and sinewy abundance: for, in his words, "mental heat, experience, jubilance," for a life fully lived.

Harrison lives in the remoter corners of northern Michigan and southern Arizona with Linda, his wife of almost 40 years. These are places with profound quantities of birds, bears and elbow room; for him these are necessities. He grew up hunting, fishing and hiking in the Michigan woods, and it was these activities -- and the landscapes in which they were conducted -- that fired his early imaginings. And though such aspects of rural life continue to spark his work, Harrison can hardly be accused of being an isolationist bumpkin. He's been moonlighting as a screenwriter for the last two decades and has been paid vast amounts to write scripts for films that almost never reach your local cineplex (1994's "Wolf" was a notable exception, as was the film based on his book "Legends of the Fall"). Harrison claims his own Hollywood hot-list of pals -- Jack Nicholson (who starred in "Wolf"), Harrison Ford, Michael Keaton and the late John Huston among them. He is also a pronounced aesthete, a man who can deconstruct Jung, laud Parisian strip clubs, condemn cuisine minceur and pepper his speech with quotes from Rilke -- all this, perhaps, in the same sentence.

This interview was conducted at the bar of New York's Stanhope Hotel, where Harrison was staying during the Manhattan leg of his tour for his new novel, "The Road Home." The book, a prequel/sequel to 1988's "Dalva," is written in five voices -- distinct though similarly rambling and discursive -- that extend the prarie-family saga that Harrison established in "Dalva." We met slightly prior to Harrison's strict 4 o'clock cocktail hour -- the only pinch of discipline, he says, that he regularly upholds. A few minutes into the discussion, however, Harrison ordered a glass of Cttes du Rhtne. Tapping his wristwatch, the bartender mildly rebuked him, saying, "Seven minutes still, Mr. Harrison." Harrison's reply was quick: "I promise just to let it breathe until 4," which he did.

His book tour had recently taken him to France, where he is accorded virtually superstar status. His longtime pal Terry McDonnell, the editor in chief of Men's Journal, says the French have dubbed Harrison the "Mozart of the Plains," an odd though flattering designation. We began the interview discussing the roots of that legion of French fans.

How do you account for your popularity in France?

The French have quite a tradition of interest in American literature. You know, it was the French that busted Faulkner open. And they like somewhat rural American fiction. They don't need to read New York fiction -- they already know that. It's the landscape and the setting that they've long been interested in. They don't have that there -- that enormous space -- and they have a much more homogeneous social life. They like the stew that America is.

Barry Hannah is very popular there as well. They must also appreciate a fondness for lush language.

That's true. They will accept that in a way that it's hard to get accepted in America. They're not so grotesquely plot-oriented. Even if you look in their literature -- try reading Proust and looking for a plot line.

Or a short sentence.

Exactly. The sentence started two pages ago. [Laughs] The French are very sophisticated in a literary sense, but they aren't lit majors. They're just people -- butchers, actresses, actual bakers. They're not in the lit game or the lit industry. I think it's interesting what someone there said to me once -- it's something that I hadn't thought before, and it startled me. He told me that (the French) read me because in my fiction you have the life of relative action but also the life of the mind. In so much fiction we have one or the other, but never both. We tend to try to separate them. You find that in Barry's work as well -- this marvelously convoluted thinking system but yet people are still doing something. I don't sit around thinking about fiction ever, except the work at hand, but that comment was somehow a fresh approach. This is true about a number of my books, but especially this one. There aren't any real dumb people in my voices. It's always irritated me about Hollywood dialogue -- there's so much dialogue that would just bore a Ford mechanic. This is not how people talk. Even the pulp-cutters in my hometown tavern have more interesting speech than this. So where does this stuff come from? It's some kind of incredible reductive urge.

Do you find that in literature as well?

Some of Richard Ford's stuff I've liked enormously, but in some of his fiction it's all cold and bleak and I don't quite get it. It doesn't touch me at all. Fiction writers tend to err either making people more than they are or less than they are. I'd rather err on the side of the former. I suppose it's because I was so addicted to Faulkner and Dostoevsky when I was young -- that's probably the root of some of that. Take Shatov or Stavrogin, these monstrous characters [in Dostoevsky's "The Possessed"] or Alyosha in "The Brother's Karamazov," or the 14-year-old boy who delivers this fucking 28-page monologue on the life of the spirit and how he forgives somebody for dragging his father down the street by his beard.

Faulkner's Thomas Sutpen [in "Absalom, Absalom!"] seems to fit in that crowd as well.

Or Quentin Compson, or Caddy -- who is still, by the way, the most erotic woman in literature to date.

Faulkner once said that "The Sound and the Fury" arose from his inability to divest himself of the image of Caddy Compson with her dirty drawers, standing by the water. Did this novel arise from a similar inability to divest yourself of "Dalva"?

I didn't have her -- she had me. I actually dreamed her. She was on the porch in Santa Monica, longing for home. I even saw her naked in a dream, and it was quite overpowering. [Laughs.] There's something frightening about finding a woman who would take your heart.

Yet you've also written about the sort of Jungian idea of "Dalva" being your own twin sister separated from you at birth.

There is a bit of that, too. The person that was closest to me growing up was my sister, who died at 19. She was an incredibly powerful girl, deeply committed to art and literature. So there might be some connection there, too. It occurred to me when I wrote "Legends of the Fall": Isn't your metaphor here that he's trying to save someone who is already dead?

You've said before that your dream life is very important to you.

It's not been vivid for years, because I'm not having a nervous breakdown. That's when you get these really vivid electric dreams that are probably in their own way your subconscious trying to save your sorry ass. If only we paid as close attention to our dreams since the Pleistocene period as we have the global economy for the last 20 years. But the global economy is supposed to be relevant, right? Well, fuck the global economy. Why should we discard a third of our lives? I remember I was quite upset once because I had this dream that people were murdering me in New York. They were pushing me off of this enormous waterfall and at the last moment I flew away, but of course it's very difficult to fly. I landed in a tree and looked down and I was a bird with a bear's body, a bear with a vast wingspan. The bear and the bird is what helped me survive. Of course I live in close contiguity to so many bears at my cabin. We even have some down in Patagonia [Arizona] that come from way over the Oachuca and Patagonia Mountains and down around Sonoita Creek. I like that kind of contiguity. One night I couldn't go to the bar where I go because two bear cubs were playing with my garbage cans and the mother was leaning up against the pump house looking at me, like, "Let my kids play, asshole." [Laughs]

Animals play a major part in your work, and you often note the similarities between the desires of humans and animals. In a very fundamental sense they're not all that different for you, are they?

They aren't. Of course, I grew up rural, around animals. I had my eye put out when I was a kid and ran to the woods, and I'm not totally sure I've emerged. [Laughs] This strange Hasidic scholar I know named Neal Claremont, a brilliant young man, said to me one day: "Don't you really think that reality is the accretion of the perceptions of all creatures?" I said, Jesus Christ, that's a monster statement. But of course it's true, and what a marvelous thing to say. I don't think I'm any more important than a dog or a cat. It's become alien to my nature -- that sort of self-importance that is so egregious in this fucking pop stand. I could do my imitation of an important novelist entering Elaine's, but why? There's no bigger trip than self-importance -- to blind you, to decrease the energy of your art. So the animals come in there -- whether horses, dogs, cats, bears, birds -- to help keep you ordinary. You know, in terms of the history of language, the first Chinese ideograms were really imitations of animal tracks. I like that. I like to hike after a good rain because every track is fresh and I always have Olaus Murie's "Field Guide to Animal Tracks" with me. The tracks speak their own language. They reveal everything that happened -- what crossed here, what went that way. But we don't know about that any more. We've become more dislocated and urban. Most people who eat beef and pork and chicken now have never known a cow or pig. They've never held a pig in their arms or chased a rooster. That's one thing I enjoyed about [Charles Frazier's novel] "Cold Mountain." And, too, its revivification of language.

Greil Marcus has a tirade against Frazier's use of language in the current Esquire.

Oh, fuck him. Maybe I'll buy it and respond to it. There was all this controversy when Frazier won the National Book Award instead of Don DeLillo. But who gives a fuck? That's children's play. It's not even children's play -- it's neurotic play.

Prizes and accolades have never mattered to you, have they?

I made an agreement with myself long ago that I would never complain about anything as long as my books were in print, and they've stayed in print. You can't cut your suit of clothes to fit anybody else. But I'll let someone else defend Charles [Frazier]. I can't get any more irritated than I have been with all this Clinton mess. Before I went to Paris I did an old traditional ritual. I went up to my cabin and vomited up the world for five days. No contact with newspapers, radio, nothing but running my dog. I think even Jesus said you have to step aside in the wilderness and rest awhile, an interesting view. You have to avoid suffocating in lint. We're not choo-choo trains on a track. Nothing tells us we can't swim across a lake and climb a tree. We're human beings. Some of us are still Pleistocene bipeds, no matter that we like James Joyce and Heidegger. It's that idea that Nelse [a character in "The Road Home"] talks about, and Shakespeare said it first: We're nature, too. It's that schizophrenia that you often see in the environmental movement -- on the dweebish side of the environmental movement -- that wants to save something. Well, save yourself too, asshole, on the way, or you won't have anything to save anyway.

The idea seems to be to preserve nature the way you preserve a museum piece.

True. Trying to create an outdoor museum isn't the point. There's a great book on that called "The Abstract Wild," by Jack Turner, published by the University of Arizona Press, that has been savagely attacked by the so-called deep ecologists. As the kids would say, "Get a life."

What sort of distinctions do you make between your mediums -- novels, poems, screenplays?

I don't make any separation between poetry and fiction. You're called upon to do one or the other depending upon happenstance. With screenplays, you know up front that it's going to be a collaborative effort. One hundred and twenty people at least are going to get involved.

So a screenplay isn't going to break your heart?

You get pretty carried away with anything you write, but it's not going to wrench the living shit out of you and strangle you. After I wrote "Dalva" I went to a doctor who said, "Didn't you realize that both of your eardrums are broken?" It's that kind of thing -- in the Faulknerian sense, what we call the demon. It's something that won't let you go.

On that level, how difficult was "The Road Home" to write?

It was the hardest yet and it took me nearly two years. It was all the different voices. I had a hellish time getting out of the old man's voice -- it took me nearly four months to get out of it. I had to talk to [Jack] Nicholson a couple times on how you get out of a part, because I've known him so long and I've seen him trying to emerge from a part.

So in a way you had to confront Walker Percy's "reentry problem" five separate times.

That's it exactly. Nelse was the hardest because he was the youngest. I couldn't quite recapture that free-floating anger you have at 30 -- that rage at everything. I talked to guys that age off and on -- they didn't know why I was asking. But what I finally did was reread "Wolf," my first novel, which I wrote at about that age. I said, My god, is this guy pissed off. Nelse has a more restrained voice than ["Wolf's"] Swanson but it's bubbling underneath. I've done a lot of wandering like he had, so that part wasn't so hard, in terms of the flora and fauna. I've even been to the strip club in Lincoln, Neb., where he went -- where the girls are all from the college dance classes. Refreshing, to say the least.

The character of John Northridge, the old man, seems to typify the sort of macho character you've been accused of sympathizing with in the past.

Of course, he was written from some distance. What I really had to have there was this delusion that you think you're a nice, even-tempered, pleasant person and then you realize that other people don't look at you quite that way. But it's a misuse of the word "macho," which is always pejorative. It denotes the kind of a guy, as I said once, that would throw a rattlesnake in a baby carriage. [The misuse of the term] is one of the unfortunate things about feminism but I certainly understand it. A lot of men are just assholes. You think, where did they get it? You always wonder if they're feeling a little ambivalent to insist on the preeminence of their weenie in the world. Something's gone haywire in there. But what I liked about creating [John Northridge] was that this was the first time since Tristan that I've created a full-fledged man without irony.

In one of the monologues, his son Paul remarks that John Northridge was perhaps just born in the wrong century. Has masculinity undergone a major transformation in recent history?

It's just our dislocation. I grew up hunting and fishing and nobody in my family ever said anything about masculine, or male, or any of that. That would've been really bad form. It would be to vulgarize what you were doing. I think certain males began prating about masculinity when they thought they were losing it. I keep thinking of this interesting point I read in the Utne Reader: What sex are you when you wake up suddenly at 3 o'clock in the morning? Who knows anything? That whole idea of gender is illusory. But then you can't blame feminists. They're like the revisionist historians. The old white historians that I grew up on left out women, Indians, Mexicans, blacks -- what were you going to do with this kind of stuff? It was just a bunch of suits, big-timing it.

They were trying to rectify that when I was in grade school but instead of integrating it all into one history they gave us separate parallel histories -- first the white men, then women, then blacks. It doesn't seem that they've found the right remedy yet.

No. I don't like to go to colleges to lecture. I won't anymore. There's a Robert Duncan poem in which he writes about Theodore Roethke falling down -- falling to pieces -- "within the deceitful coils of institutions." This whole idea of political correctness that began in the Northern colleges has the exact cellular structure of Cuban communism. Nobody even flirts anymore. You have to pretend you don't have a winkie. Last year it was tobacco, this year it's blow jobs. What's it going to be next year?

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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