"It was a great place to write: No Internet, piss in the snowbank, keep your coffee going on the stove"

Author Brian Hart on Cormac McCarthy comparisons, writing in the Idaho wilds, and the gift of an unhappy childhood

Published September 3, 2014 10:58PM (EDT)

Philipp Meyer (photo courtesy of the author), Brian Hart (photo credit: Wyatt McSpadden)
Philipp Meyer (photo courtesy of the author), Brian Hart (photo credit: Wyatt McSpadden)

Brian Hart is the author of the new novel "The Bully of Order" -- "Think the brutal realities of Cormac McCarthy’s 'Blood Meridian' set among the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest frontier," wrote one early critic.

Philipp Meyer, his classmate in the MFA program at the University of Texas at Austin, is the acclaimed author of "The Son" and "American Rust."

With "The Bully of Order" published on Tuesday, who better than an old friend and close reader to lead a conversation.

Philipp Meyer: Your first book got compared to Cormac McCarthy and I think the praise for this one is going to be over the top. How does that make you feel?

Brian Hart: I’ve taught myself to more or less ignore all that talk. The book comes out and—you can file this under good/bad—people chime in, some of them have earned the right to publish/post what they think, others not so much. It’s like anything, assholes and iPhones; opinions, everyone has one. Of course I was flattered to be compared to someone like McCarthy, but nobody wants to be called derivative.

What were you doing when you wrote "The Bully of Order"? You were in Idaho.

Yeah, being broke, living in Idaho, competing with all the other goons trying to out-redneck each other. Not really. I rented an old farmhouse that had a small workshop with a woodstove built onto the side of the carport. I remember that first winter because I’d go out there every morning in the dark and start a fire. I’d go back in the house and make coffee and by the time I returned the shop would be nice and warm. Sometimes I worked in shorts, sweating, with a blizzard hammering at the windows. It was a great place to write; no Internet, piss in the snowbank around the side, keep your coffee going on the stove. And I left the carport empty, nosed my pickup in just enough to keep the snow off the cab, and set up a 20-yard (three-car carport!) bow target right out of the shop door, and when it got too hot with the wood stove cooking I’d open the door and shoot arrows until it cooled off.

If it wasn’t for the stress of imminent failure—the first book hadn’t sold yet and it was looking like maybe it wasn’t going to—and economic ruin, it would’ve been better than Yaddo. There was no framing work to be had that first winter. None. In the whole county there wasn’t more than a couple building permits pulled. Everyone I knew was on unemployment, the government fishing team, but I didn’t qualify. The good news: I had 60,000 words by the time the snow melted and I finally found some wage work.

The recession flatlined the Mountain West. It went like that for years, feast and famine, with the majority being famine. Anyway, I finally picked up some more or less steady framing work and not long after that I met Rachel, my wife. My daughter was born in 2012. If I slept very little, my wife slept none, so I got off easy. The mornings kept getting earlier and I kept hammering away at the book, day by day. The economy finally started picking up and people were ready to build again and I found a spot on a framing crew building custom homes, big bastards, lots of wood, working 10-hour days. That’s where I was when I finished up "Bully." I was putting up siding on a balmy five degree morning in March when Bill Clegg called and told me that HarperCollins had come in as the top bidder. I kept framing right up until I left to move back to Texas in September.

You were framing before you got to the University of Texas, where you and I met. We were roommates for a couple of years, shot our bows and arrows in the backyard, went hunting together numerous times, you were always working on your motorcycle. It was probably the only house in our graduate school program where people were equally likely to walk in on us arguing about poetry as butchering and wrapping a deer one or the other of us had shot. What made you go back to Idaho?

The short answer: Texas is hot and they mostly forgot to put any mountains in it. Great people, though. I was (still am) always wrenching on motorcycles, that’s what you get when you buy 30-year-old bikes. I’m a horrible mechanic but the love to ride has dragged me into a certain level of competence. I learned a lot in that house, about poetry and internal combustion, but when it was time to go, it was time to go. But I came back anyway, right? Just in time to leave again. Maybe I heard you were coming back ...

"Then Came the Evening" was set in the present day. What made you decide to write something historical?

I was researching a short story I’d been working on for a while and I stumbled onto some books about logging on the Northwest coast. The photographs were stunning, the size of the trees, the smallness of the loggers, the hubris. I got on the scent and I couldn’t put it down.

I read everything I could find and the scope of the book just kept growing until finally I reached a kind of overload and abandoned the "true" history of the coast and invented my own. I had to deal with some questions about what I wanted the truth to be, what my responsibilities to the truth were.

Meaning what, exactly. Which truth?

My allegiance is to emotional truth. The rest is hearsay. Hardly any primary texts exist and if they do they were almost always written by old white men trying to justify their behavior, spinning a yarn, back in my day kind of bullshit. I don’t generally go for that, I go for the underdog. I see the world as the bullied kid getting punched in the head in the back of the bus or by turns as the bully doing the punching.

Is that where you came up with the title?

No, but I have an interest in bullies and bullying, mostly because, like I said, I’ve been on both ends, which is I think the most common way for it to be, the jailed and the jailers. We could be dogs the way we give exactly what is put into us. Or maybe we’re born stupid or mean or both. Hemingway said something like unhappy childhoods are the best training a writer can have.

I think you were talking about the title, though …

I was. I cannibalized the title from a poem I wrote about a job I had framing some apartments in Bozeman, Montana, during the winter of 2000. In the world of the poem I use the phrase, the bully of order, to describe the ligaments and tendons controlling the muscles in my arms and back. Now, in one of the earlier sections of the book Jacob describes the Harbor in human terms. “I see a passable mind,” he says, “but cruel; a functional form, but twisted and ugly.” This got me thinking, what controls the Harbor, what forces, economic and otherwise, hold it together and drive it along? If Bellhouse is pulling one way, then Boyerton is most likely pushing the other. In this scenario the muscles of the town would be the men working in the mills, in the woods, and shipyards. Maybe greed is the bully of order, maybe righteousness, maybe it’s just human nature. In any case, I like the music of the words and the way it looks on the book jacket.

I don’t think most readers realize how difficult historical novels are to write. How much research did you end up doing?

The form introduces a whole new level of anxiety. My next book isn’t going to be historical. For "Bully" I read a lot, whatever I could find. Surprisingly, the PCL in Austin turned out to be a  great resource, as were the small town libraries in Idaho, Oregon and Washington. They’re lousy with logging books, from histories to instructional texts. I also rode my motorcycle to Aberdeen a couple of times and camped out. Drove out in the winter once and camped on the coast, watched some monster storm surge roll through. I went to museums. Early on, I had a month-long residency in Oysterville, which isn’t very far away from the Harbor. I snuck off from there quite a bit to do research when I was supposed to be working on something else.

Mostly I packed in as much reading and experience as I could and then I’d write until I felt like I was running thin, and then I’d go back to the research again. At one point I had to learn how to build a Case steam engine that came in a crate just to write two sentences. I probably put 40 hours into as many words.

What about the landscape? How did that play into the structure of the book?

In the Harbor as it exists today there aren’t any old growth trees left. Actually, that’s not true, there’s one. There’s one big twisted bastard up on a hill above a museum. It’s big and it’s old but it’s pretty tough to imagine the whole of the countryside covered by trees like that.

When the biggest trees were standing, there were only hand saws and axes. Chainsaws hadn’t been perfected yet and were rarely put to use. Dolbeer in NorCal changed the whole game when he built his Dolbeer Donkey, a steam-powered log skidder. Cutting down a tree is not such a  big deal now but back then, before Dolbeer, it could take weeks to fall and buck up one tree, whereas it might only take hours now, since all the trees are smaller and our machines are wicked, helicopters and Hitachis.

These guys, the early Pacific Northwest loggers, they went out there and just started hacking trees down. A lot of them had come from Michigan and the East, overseas too. They couldn’t believe their luck. Sure it was hard work but these were giant, soft wood trees that grew straight and tall with rivers and creeks and waterways of all kinds around to move them, and there was no end to them, not at first there wasn’t. But after they cut the easy ones it got harder, as it usually does. They relied more and more on technology (sound familiar), Dolbeer’s engine, short-line trains, and less and less on oxen and corduroy roads. What a roll they had, though. What a fucking run. I look at the old pictures and read the histories and it just staggers me what they did. I remember at one point I was reading this Edwin Van Syckle book "They Tried to Cut Them All," and I said out loud, fuck the pyramids, this is bigger, and with a volunteer army. Fuck the canals. Fuck the great wall. It is incomprehensible the amount of wood that got hauled off that coast. It defies reason.

And the people that weren’t logging, they were working in the mills and loading ships and building the towns, the railroads; or they were feeding and clothing and entertaining the ones that were. There might’ve been such a thing as easy money but none of these poor bastards ever saw any.

Now if you had the money to get the leases and run the crews or start the mills, you were going to be buried by the profits, but if you were just some FOB Swede. Good luck. It’s an old song.

To your question: The landscape of the Harbor in the book dovetails thematically with the narrative in that with each generation, the returns—on all fronts—are diminished, but ultimately, it’s a book about one of the towering achievements of the last 1,000 years—the big cut—and the people who were there trying to find a place in the wilderness, and facing questions about love and loyalty and liberty; old, torturous questions. How can we fulfill the unspoken promise, that human drive, to hustle it up? And how do we live with ourselves when and if we do?

Most people don’t like to think about cutting down whole forests, as far as the eye could see, but places like that are what built America—every boat, ship, and house. Now we just live here, not building much at all.

By Philipp Meyer

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