Master of Form: Writer Thomas McGuane on the West, His New Book, and Jim Harrison

Thomas McGuane
Courtesy of Penguin Random House/Andy Anderson

Since publishing his first novel, in 1968, Thomas McGuane has become one of the most revered writers in American literature, penning such classics as The Bushwhacked Piano and Nobody’s Angel—books often populated by the roughneck drifters, ranchers, and river guides of Big Sky Country.

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This month, McGuane, now 78, releases his 17th book, Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories. We caught up with the author this January, while he was in Florida to escape the cold. He’d spent the morning doing rehab exercises with his English pointer, who was recovering from a hip flexor tear, and preparing for a quail hunt that weekend.

How did you come to live in Montana?
In 1968, I came straight from the writing workshop at Stanford with some pals. We were all fishing nuts. I think I had $600 left from my fellowship, and I had applied for teaching jobs at about 30 places and got not one reply. But my first book came out while I was there and it made a little money. That allowed me to avoid making a decision about what I was going to do with the rest of my life and where I was going to go. And 50 years came and went, and I’m still here.

How has Montana changed over the years?
It has changed a lot. When I first lived in Bozeman, the city ended at North 7th; it was farm from there on. Now it’s gotten very intense. It’s the only town I’ve ever been in where soccer moms will give you the finger. I have mixed feelings about it. There are probably more people I can relate to in Montana than ever before, but it’s still a place where a guy like me has to watch what he says.

Novels sell better than short stories. So why do you still write them?
In part, what attracts me to short stories is that the people who write and read them seem to be the last little society of folks who really care about literature.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is “The Refugee,” in which you use an amazing amount of beautiful sailboat lingo.
I’m a lifelong sailor. One time in the Keys back in the ’70s, some of us decided to race to Cuba illegally, but this horrendous storm came in. We had a pretty big boat, so we made it through. But when we got into the harbor, we were just happy to have survived. Well, at about that time, these dope-
smuggling captains started showing up in their little J/24 sailboats, laughing and asking us, “What was the problem? You guys get scared out there?” We did a lot of stuff like that in those days.

You, Jim Harrison, and Guy de la Valdène had some wild times in the Keys back then.
We did, but I was also writing a lot. I had a fault-finding father, and I was driven from dawn to dark by my fear of failure. I still have it, I think. I’m just hoping to get out from under it before my sell-by date.

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It’s been almost two years since Harrison died. You corresponded regularly, correct?
We wrote each other weekly for 40 years. There have been attempts to publish these things, and I’ve always been reluctant, because my letters were painfully candid and full of things I wouldn’t want anybody to see. I’ll probably give in at some point, but I want to take the dirty stuff out first.

Do you ever feel like you should have gone fishing and hunting more and written less?
I feel that all the time. I’ll never forget this one beautiful July day when I was hunched over in my office, trying to blacken a page, and my buddy Russ came by. “I just can’t believe how great the fishing is down at Nelson’s,” he said. “Let’s go down there.” And I said, “No, man. I’m trying to write.” So he started to leave, but after a moment he turned around and looked me square in the eyes and said, “I couldn’t live like that.” I’ve never forgotten it.

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