Thomas McGuane on Not Living
the Writer’s Life

The Author of Cloudbursts in Conversation with Téa Obreht

By  Téa Obreht

It might be convenient, perhaps even tempting, to compare the characters in Cloudbursts, Thomas McGuane’s mammoth new compendium—mammoth owing not only to its 576 pages, but because how else to describe the project of anthologizing a lifetime of short stories, some of them the best American literature has to offer?—to Ernest Hemingway “types.” Many of them tend to be sportsmen, wanderers, lovers of the outdoors, and representative of a very particular type of American masculinity. But below these surface-level similarities one finds McGuane’s fiction lensed with a great deal more vulnerability and heart, sorrow, and awe. His work, unlike Hemingway’s, resists instruction—be this kind of man, not that. His characters are aware of and baffled by the world’s absurdities—and, touchingly, they seem to realize they are not entitled to answers.

Don’t get me wrong—even now, I like reading Papa. But I like reading Thomas McGuane, whom a bright March morning finds emerging warily from the elevator of New York’s Warwick Hotel, so much more. “Well,” he says, turning back to watch the doors crawl shut behind him, “I started out about ten minutes ago.”

Over a career spanning four decades, he has gained renown as a novelist, screenwriter, and master of the short story; an angler and horseman; a friend and compatriot to legends of literature and music and film. And at 78, he is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a mix of heartening contradictions—a lifelong hunter who recently, and somewhat disastrously, rescued a Cuban tree frog from his Florida bathtub; a flyfishing Hall of Famer who was put off tarpon fishing by a story about a fish’s apparent suicide on the Chicago Aquarium floor; a former rancher and screenwriter of Westerns who finds himself somewhat unmoved by the genre’s canonical texts; a man who intersperses his anecdotes with quotes from Saul Bellow and John Updike, but also raves about the short stories of Nell Freudenberger and Jamie Quatro.

Before we’ve even settled into the blinding glare of the mezzanine lounge, he is talking excitedly about his recent trip to Florida, the #MeToo movement, the long-overdue ascendency of women writers, the turn-of-the-century home near Livingston, Montana where he and his wife spend most of the year, and his ritual search for the best Szechuan food in New York—“I’m a sort of amateur Szechuan cook,” he tells me. “It’s just physical enough to suit me. I’m not a candy thermometer guy, but I like blasting away with a wok.”

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Over the next hour, we talk about Cloudbursts, his process, the mythos of the West, and the sell-by date to which his mind keeps returning.

*

Téa Obreht: What were the impetus and process for assembling a collection like Cloudbursts?

Thomas McGuane: It was probably something as banal as Andrew Wylie telling me, “Isn’t it time?” I’m trying hard not to associate this with my sell-by date. But I’m proud of these stories, I would have to say, and I wanted them all swept up into the same bin. At the same time, I tend to keep writing them. And I like to feel that I might write another novel as well. Though in order for that to happen, I would have to be sent out from the interior of some sort of narrative preoccupation, and say, “this just won’t fit a short story.” I’d have to have that feeling rather than some sort of aerial view about setting out to write a novel … You’re obviously in for the long haul—it’s hard to know what happens over a career. I see a lot of brilliant young short story writers who can’t seem to find that next thing. You avoided that, I guess—you were able to sprint out of the gate.

TO: It’s been seven years since my last book, I’m not sure I sprinted anywhere.

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TMG: Well, that’s not so bad. You’ve already learned you can’t make a living at it—what’s the rush? And also like most writers I think you’ve discovered that we don’t occupy the place in the culture that William Styron and Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty did. We’re not as momentous in terms of all this array we’re living in.

TO: We were when you started, though. And so that transition must have been particularly—not that I’m suggesting in any way that that is part of the impetus for becoming a writer—but when the culture changes so drastically, it must be a particularly strange transition.

TMG: Yeah. In fact I remember when 92 in the Shade came out, there was a big excitement about it. It was on the front page of the New York Times book review and all that, with my picture. I remember how embarrassed I felt. I really did. I just squirmed, cause that was not what I was wanting at that moment and I thought: “well, this will soon blow up in my face.” One of the reasons I think I love writing short stories is that people who love and read them are only there out of a love for literature.

Annie Proulx is famous for saying she wished that movie of Brokeback Mountain had never been made, because it changed the geometry of her writing life. My old friend Jim Harrison died, and I mentioned him to someone who’d never heard of him and I said, “well you know Legends of the Fall” and they said, “Oh that guy!” The film meant nothing to Jim, you know. It was made 14 years after he got a small check for it. So the horizon is sort of off on this. And you end up loving and following the work of your fellow writers, and writing when it goes well, which is rare enough. But when it does, it’s the most exciting thing you can do.

TO: You talk a lot about the process of writing a novel and going in without really knowing what it’s about and having to draft and redraft and discover it along the way. I get the sense that you take a tremendous amount of pleasure in revision. Is the process of writing a short story different?

TMG: No—not really. The idea of making a sort of voyage out of it, at least in the first draft, kind of reminds me of the 70s, when somebody would hand you some drug and you’d say, “What’s this gonna do, if I take this drug?” And this guy said to me once, “Why would you take drugs at all if you knew what was gonna happen?”

TO: Words to live by.

TMG: I know! So I feel that way about writing. I don’t really want to know too much. But I do want to start out by knowing one or two things very definitely. The story “Riddle”—well I knew that opening paragraph, where the boy sees the old cowboy. That really happened, and I really knew it, and it was very vivid to me, but I didn’t know why. Hemingway said, “start with something you know and go elsewhere.” And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I do think there’s something wrong with “write only what you know.” But I don’t think it’s a bad idea to depart from something you feel strongly from your own life, or have seen, and you don’t really know its meaning. The reason you’re doing this work is to find out. At the end of that process, you have something that is extremely faulty. You’ve darted all over the place, but you’ve bought yourself a certain level of freedom by saying that you will enthusiastically revise. How else can you do it? I think people lie about knowing every step of the way.

“One of the reasons I think I love writing short stories is that people who love and read them are only there out of a love for literature.”

TO: The more I’ve been in this pursuit the more I realize how much we lie to ourselves and each other about our own process. So much of it is ethereal and happens in a strange headspace and you come out of this fog to find that something is done and realize you don’t really know how it was achieved.

TMG: F. Scott Fitzgerald said it so beautifully: “Writing is like holding your breath underwater.” I mean you go into that other space and you hope you can hold your breath long enough to get something done—but you’re basically underwater. You don’t know what’s going on in there. I would have no idea how to otherwise invoke your subconscious, which is where a lot of the power of writing comes from.

TO: Do you read your reviews?

TMG: Yeah, I do. I wish I wouldn’t in a way. But it’s the usual thing. This book so far, for instance, has got some good reviews, and I think, “Oh these people are so right!” And along comes a bad one and suddenly it’s, “this guy needs a career change!” But what I hide behind is that wonderful remark that Updike made, which is: “The reviews are inexorably mixed.” They just are.

TO: That’s a good thing to hide behind. I remember comforting myself with this notion that you just don’t fall in love with every book or short story, the same way you just don’t fall in love with every person who comes through the door.

TMG: Or you can read the collection of a writer that you really like—John Cheever, or Mavis Gallant—and there’ll be stories that you don’t like. You have to take what you’re given in a way. I’m always startled by that.

TO: You also have to order your collection so the best story isn’t the first one.

TMG: That’s a good point. I think what happens is—and this is one of the advantages of growing old in this trade—is at some point or another, maybe just due to weariness, you just say, “this is me.” For a long time you’re saying, “this is the me I wish I was!” And then at some point you just say, “this is just me.”

TO: Well, the you you are is renowned for the mixing tragedy and comedy in your work. All these small emotional tragedies more or less always begin in a place of comedy—and the voice, the lens with which you render narrative tends to have a way of seeing the world in this absurd and hilarious way. And I think that it’s particularly interesting thing to work with when writing about the American West, because those landscapes lend themselves to very serious, mythic narratives and very rarely list towards humor. But someone like you—and to a degree Thomas Berger and Ivan Doig—make it work beautifully. Can you talk about that?

TMG: Well I just think it’s probably embedded a little bit in my personality. And you kinda pay a price for that living where I live, because you’re supposed to pay homage to the official literature of the West, which never really did much for me—except for William Eastlake, who really nailed it. And Willa Cather. But I remember years ago hearing this story about Crow Indian people who lost a beloved family member and they were very heartbroken and had to take him to one of their traditional burial grounds. And they took the body on a sled and they get to the place where they’re going to bury him, which has a kind of hill overlooking the burial ground. And the sled got away from them and started going down the hill and the beloved corpse flew out of the sled and started bouncing down the mountain and the burial party were just rolling on the ground laughing. Which strikes me as a very familiar sort of emotional absorption of that particular reality.

And the writers that I really treasured when I was growing up were people like Nikolai Gogol—so there was always this kind of mingling thing and there was an impulse as a writer to keep the reader a little bit on his or her toes—because that’s the way I find life, you know. When you’re walking down the street you walk past people making fools of themselves, people self-aggrandizing (hotel builders). I find a mixture of those things just on a daily basis. How can you think otherwise? Taking a sort of homogenous approach to what you see in human life never really made much sense to me.

TO: Why do you think we have such an impulse toward it, then—to make serious, homogenous myth of everything? Why is the go-to narrative move to steer everything toward gravitas?

TMG: I think there was embedded in American literature—not necessarily other literatures—the feeling that if there was anything funny about it, that was a sign that it was less important than it would’ve been if the comedy had been expunged. I mean, Mark Twain is obviously one of my favorites. I get sort of frustrated with the dirty realism movement, the sort of endless Ray Carver afterlife—which I think was a very good thing, though I think Updike took the photorealism idea as far as it could go, and did it brilliantly. But the idea that we’re confined to one of two options: either dirty realism, or the David Foster Wallace approach, expanding on microscopic material until all the atoms separate. So a lot of the renowned novels these days are way too long by my standards. It’s like that public statement Saul Bellow made about American literature: “It seems to me that everything’s too long!” Though Rick Powers seems to justify writing very lengthy work, because he’s so idea-driven and he never loses touch with reality.

TO: I wonder if the cultural impetus of this moment leads us away from novels that zero in on “the one small thing”—it has to be everything, otherwise it’s not serious or literary enough.

TMG: You know, here’s the situation I think you find yourself in directly. You had great success with your first novel—but what’s number two?

TO: It’s set in the American West, though I wouldn’t call it a western. It’s about a failed military project in the 1850s that starts off in Texas and goes all the way to California.

TMG: Some of those Civil War aftermath stories are fascinating, aren’t they? I wrote a movie with Steve McQueen called Tom Horne. I didn’t know it at the time, but McQueen was dying. And we had access to everything because everyone wanted to do everything for Steve McQueen, so we got into all these old territorial prisons. Tom Horne had scouted for General Crook against the Apaches, and McQueen got us a helicopter to fly down into the Northern Mexican stronghold of the Apache, the Rancheria where the last of the Apaches were holed up. And everybody was killing them—the Mexicans were killing them, we were killing them, and there was a last battle on top of this range.

“But the idea that we’re confined to one of two options: either dirty realism, or the David Foster Wallace approach, expanding on microscopic material until all the atoms separate. So a lot of the renowned novels these days are way too long by my standards.”

And we went in there on the helicopter and there were horse bones on the ground and ammunition and all sorts of stuff from this battle—and almost nobody had gone in before. It was the Northern Sierra Madre, probably a hundred miles south of the Arizona border. You know, when they rounded up Geronimo, they promised him he would go to the reservation, but they shipped him back instead to Alabama and Florida. And there was this old Confederate general to whom Geronimo had given a hand-carved cane. And I remember reading this thing in the Mobile paper—my wife’s from Alabama—that when this old general’s house burned down he ran into the flames to get his Geronimo cane back. It was the only thing he wanted to save.

TO: You’d have to!

TMG: I know.

TO: I was struck by a passage in your short story, “Weight Watchers.” Speaking of the narrator’s father, you write: “He believed that the fine education he’d paid for should have led me to greater abstraction, but while it’s true that the farther you get from an actual product the better your chances for economic success, I and many of my classmates wanted more physical evidence of our efforts. I had friends who’d trained as historians, literary scholars, and philosophers who were now shoeing horses, wiring houses and installing toilets. There had been no suicides so far.” I keep returning to this passage. We seem to be so culturally invested in the myth of the writer as coddled, dissatisfied intellectual—that writers are made miserable by their writing, that they are dissatisfied with everything even the act of writing itself.

TMG: That’s just narcissism.

TO: But it’s very, very persistent. And yet you seem to have made a life that in many ways feels antithetical to that—you’re a great outdoorsman, you’re renowned for it. You live in a place you love, surrounded by family. Your life seems like a case for fulfillment as a pathway to successful creation.

TMG: Well, I think so. You know, I’ve certainly had plenty of negative things. I had a serious drinking problem. It was a very odd thing. It was the surprise of my life. And you know I really made a mess of things. I was an angry guy. Got thrown in jail, all sorts of stuff. But the general statement you made is pretty true. I’ve always been very drawn to the world. I wouldn’t probably thrive in a hermetic literary situation where everyone wrote and then talked about writing and hung out with other writers all the time. I love doing it when I haven’t done it in a while.

I taught a little bit—I taught at Berkeley one session, the University of Wyoming in another. But what I learned is that I wasn’t really interested in writing myself after doing that all day long. And so I began to think it would have to be one way or the other: I would either be a teacher—and I think I would’ve been a good one because I loved it. But it would’ve been the end of my own work. I wouldn’t have been able to do both. Clearly lots of people can—but I wasn’t really one of those people, because I was always very drawn to the world. So I drifted into all sorts of things. I started cattle-ranching with my first movie money and I did that for decades. My wife is very hard-working. I often tell people that my wife has always worked very hard and I deserve a vacation. We’ve been married for a little over 40 years, and I hope we get another 40 cause it’s been wonderful. So no, I’m not unhappy—maybe that’s an impediment to writing. But I would generalize and say I’ve been a lucky person. It’s just that I’m wondering about my sell-by date.

TO: What are your rituals? What does your writing day look like—is every day a writing day?

TMG: I wish it was. I haven’t yet put my shoulder to the wheel on a new novel because it’s such a submersive process. You really have to ask yourself whether you want to submerge from the rest of life—for years sometimes. Because when you’re not writing the damn thing, you’re thinking about it all the time. And you’re looking at people through a haze, going, “oh yeah, your trip to Paris sounds like a fantastic time.” And they see right through you, so they begin to push off—and pretty soon you’re all alone with this fucking manuscript.

You know, I used to rope steers in rodeos: I’m always reminded of this big moment when you’re on your horse and you back it into the box, and the steer is there, and then the gate goes up and the steer goes out and you gotta rope it. It’s a moment of fear. I mean, you ride up and you got all these people watching you getting ready to maybe make a fool of yourself, and you back your horse into the box. And then the only time the panic goes away is when the steer goes and you’re on your way down the arena. So I was talking to an old cowboy and I said, “God it’s such a tense time.” And he said, “Remember this. When you back your horse into the box, there’s about five hundred million people who don’t care whether you catch the steer or not.” I always think of that when I’m writing.

TO: A particularly useful way to isolate the process, considering the way we now live our lives, out in the open, on social media, on constant display. Everything feels like it’s very publicly high-stakes.

TMG: So the furrow-browed artist has gone out of fashion, I think. And there are several of them around—we know who they are. They’re all males.

TO: I worry for my students. I want to steer them away from this kind of thinking as much as possible. I want them to live whole, fulfilled lives.

TMG: The other thing about that is that they’re striving toward a mental grade of strain that is usually rewarding when it works. To keep describing it as torment is just really not accurate. One time about ten years ago I had finished a book and I was talking to Gretel Ehrlich and I said, “I don’t know if I want to do this again.” And I suppose I was expecting her to plead with me to press on. But instead she said: “So don’t.” And I was stunned.

TO: Turns out it’s just you, backing your horse into the box!

TMG: But I think the trouble is that the die-for-your-art school, you’re impermeable. Though… you do have to believe some of that to answer why you’re writing, you know. You have sort of questionable rewards and sacrifices you make and the various poisons you spray on your relationships—so where’s the pay-off otherwise? You know it’s funny. I had a Stegner Fellowship and I went back to Stanford to speak about a year or two ago. One of my classmates still lives in Palo Alto. He said, you won’t believe these guys the other Stegner Fellows. See them? They’re all well-dressed, and they all have agents. We looked like dogs and we were smoking dope and we were very excited about writing literature but we were truly unkempt you know. And now, these really smart individuals they really get their act together. We certainly didn’t. But when I look back at what Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone and several of the others have achieved. I don’t know whether this latest wave will do it or not.

TO: What’s the worst advice you ever got—writing or otherwise? And did you follow it?

TMG: That’s a tough one. My dad had a business, and my then father-in-law couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to go into that business, why I was never tempted. And he said: “Why won’t you take advantage of your advantages?”

TO: Wow.

TMG: And so I responded with twenty years of subsistence living.

Téa Obreht
Téa Obreht
Téa Obreht's debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction, and was a National Book Award Finalist and an international bestseller. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading, and has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Vogue and Esquire. She was a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree, and was named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty. A recipient of the 2016 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she lives in New York City and teaches at Hunter College.





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Lit Hub Daily: May 24, 2018 Thomas McGuane talks to Téa Obreht about ranching, writing, and deciding not to live the “literary life.” |...