Callan Wink, a 32-year-old Michigan native, has called Montana home since almost the minute he moved there for college. The avid outdoorsman has lived there ever since, graduating from Montana State in Bozeman and then pursuing an MFA at the University of Wyoming, and spending his summers as a fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. These days he splits his years between the two — guiding during the summer fishing season and writing the rest of the year. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, Granta, and even Men's Journal, and his first collection of short stories, Dog Run Moon, was published this month.
The stories, which Jim Harrison — author of Legends of the Fall and a friend of Wink's — called "fine, old-fashioned, rich and juicy fiction," take place mostly in Montana and Wyoming, his characters fighting to etch out a life in an environment that frequently fights back. A General Custer impersonator travels to the Little Bighorn reenactment every year to continue an affair with a reenactor from the Crow Tribe. A middle-aged widow comes home from work to find one of her steer shot dead in her driveway. A schoolteacher leaves his responsibilities for the summer to work on a hunting ranch in Texas. A construction worker steals a chained-up dog and then finds himself being followed by its crazy owner, Montana Bob. Currently a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, Wink talked to Men's Journal, from a beach coffee shop after his daily surf, about the western canon, the life of a fishing guide, and living an envious life.
Between fiction and fishing, you're sort of a modern-day renaissance man.
I do a little hunting; I know the fishing thing is my main deal. I like to camp, I do a lot of trail-running. Since I've been in California, I've been surfing every day. It's starting to take over my life; I don't want to write anymore, I just want to go surfing all day. That's a problem. But I think you don’t live in Montana because you like to hang out and go to restaurants and go shopping. If you’re living in Montana, it's because you want to be outside, because that’s the best thing it has going for it.
The book is being compared to lots of other classics of western literature, such as Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway — a little bit and Jim Harrison. Do you consciously think of yourself in that canon? Or is it just that you want to write, and you know that genre the best?
Yeah, I definitely wouldn’t put myself in the same room with those people. I admire Jim, who I know, and consider him to be a friend. I like Cormac McCarthy's writing quite a bit. But I don’t see myself necessarily doing quite what they are doing, or even following in their footsteps, other than that my stuff does take place in the west for the most part.
You grew up in Michigan, but spend a lot of time out west. Your book definitely has the feel of western cannon. When did you decide you needed to make the move?
I'd never really been west until I was probably like 19, until I actually moved there. But I did grow up reading a lot of crappy western novels. I loved Clint Eastwood and stuff like that. It was probably my first introduction to at least a myth of the American West.
Did you have experience fishing before you moved to Montana?
Yeah. There's a lot of good fishing to be had in Michigan. I started that from a pretty young age.
In an interview you did with The New Yorker, you said you write during the winters, and guide during the summers. Is it completely separate? Do you do any writing at all during the summers, or do you save it up?
I'll do a little, but I definitely don't have a routine in the summer. I may have to do a few things, or may get an idea that I half-ass scribble down. But the fishing is really all of my life for those months. It's a short season, so I will work every day for a month and a half, long hours. And I go to the bar afterwards, get up early. No writing happens, really. I still get a little worried about it. I used to get more worried about it, feeling that I always should be writing something all the time. But I think having a good break from something makes it healthy. I like that; I try not to stress out about it too much.
Do you think writing and fishing have much in common that draws you to them?
I think they are actually quite different. Fishing, I'm guiding people and trying to be entertaining, and friendly, and nice, which don't come naturally to me. So I had to work at that a lot. Writing, which is more my kind of natural mindset, which is to not talk to anybody and hole up in my room and just do some stuff. So yeah, they're very different. I don’t see a lot of similarities between them, at all.
My dad has taken up fly-fishing; he's gone out three times with a guide. The first day that he went out, after the orientation and sort of instructions, he said, "Just so you know, I only want to talk about 10 times today." We can say ten sentences to each other, and that’s all we have to do. And the guide was like, "Oh that would be amazing!" So they just didn't talk all day, and they loved it.
The fishing guide thing is funny. I think when you are a young fishing guide, you think of the goal, or what you should be doing, is making sure they catch a lot of fish. But that’s such a small part of it, it’s more like trying to read them at the beginning of the day and see what they want. Some people are like your dad, other people want you to be talking to them and teaching them something every second of the day. People have very different expectations; a small part of that is actually the catching of the fish.