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Tough Guy, Mad Poet

One glance at Jim Harrison tells you he’s not the sort of fellow you’d want to mess with. But one look at his writing tells you he’s one of this country’s foremost poets and novelists.

By Bill Beuttler (American Way, September 15, 1990)
Photos by Doug Milner

“Do Not Stop Unless You’ve Called First,” warns the sign nailed to a tree in front of Jim Harrison’s Lake Leelanau, Michigan, farmhouse. “This Means You.”

Harrison, you must understand, is a hard-working writer who doesn’t want to be bothered. Not by movie producers and magazine editors who keep seducing him to set aside time from writing his critically acclaimed fiction and poetry [an excerpt from his new novella collection begins on page 112]. Not by the vacationers who flock to Leelanau County each summer from places like Detroit and Chicago, causing the 52-year-old author to flee to his isolated cabin five hours away in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And certainly not by writers who want to write about him.

When you see him, you’re thankful to have taken the sign’s advice. One glance at Harrison — who looks more like a middle linebacker (which he was, in high school) or a barrel-chested Midwestern farmer (which he is now, as a landlord) than one of this country’s foremost poets and novelists — tells you this is not the sort of fellow you’d want to intrude upon.

Picture Dick Butkus’ bulk and thick, dark mustache. Harrison is a few inches shorter than Butkus, maybe six feet even, and a bit swarthier, mostly from all the time he spends in the sun — hiking, fishing, bird-hunting — though there’s a hint in his looks of what could be a trace of Native American blood somewhere way back in his genealogy (although if there is, Harrison doesn’t know it). Then there’s the eye: His left one was blinded in childhood and now stares off crazily out of sync with his right one. The bum eye gives Harrison a powerful, other-worldly visage, one seemingly composed of equal parts Tough Guy and Mad Poet.

Yet there’s nothing even slightly menacing in Harrison’s greeting. He steps out onto his front porch dressed in a plain white T-shirt and a favorite pair of gray Patagonia canvas pants that are just beginning to develop small, honest tears across the thighs. He cocks his head back to one side slightly, appraising me as I approach to shake his hand, then smiles and gripes a little about the weather. He’s planned a walking tour, but a cold, steady drizzle is falling; it now looks like a driving tour instead, seeing his farm and the Leelanau Peninsula from inside his four-wheel-drive Toyota Landcruiser.

First, though, the interview. Harrison hates giving them, but today he’s making an exception. He leads me past his barn to a granary he’s had converted into a wood-paneled office, and we sit at the big worktable that serves as his desk. Several talismans hang suspended by strings in a place of honor above the desk. Among them is a dried grizzly bear turd sent to Harrison by a friend, Doug Peacock, who studied the huge, fierce creatures for several years in Montana as a self-designed therapy for the horrors he’d witnessed as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam. Harrison sits, leans back in his chair, fires up the first of many Marlboros, and starts talking.

A dozen or so years ago, few would have been curious enough to listen. Harrison’s third novel, Farmer, despite good reviews, sold miserably when first published in 1976 and was remaindered almost immediately (since reissued, it now sells about 10 times more copies a year than it did that first year, Harrison says). The elder of his two daughters was nearly ready to enter college, and Harrison found himself broke and headed toward a nervous breakdown.

Help arrived in the form of a loan from actor Jack Nicholson. In 1976, Harrison had met Nicholson on the set of The Missouri Breaks, the script of which had been written by Harrison’s longtime literary buddy Thomas McGuane. “He reads a lot,” Harrison says of Nicholson, “so he asked if I had any of my novels.” Harrison gave him copies of his first two, Wolf and A Good Day to Die. “So he read them, and said, ‘If you ever have any ideas [for a screenplay], let me know.’ Well, I never did have any ideas.” But Nicholson liked his work. A year later, when they met again in Los Angeles and Nicholson heard about Harrison’s financial difficulties, Nicholson advanced Harrison enough money to live for a year while he worked on his next book. “He just loaned me the money, and I paid him back when I had a buck,” Harrison says.

That next book, the 1979 novella collection Legends of the Fall, became Harrison’s breakthrough. Screen rights were sold for all three stories (only Revenge has actually been filmed as of yet), and a version of one of them was published in Esquire. For the first time, Harrison was in serious demand as a writer. In the space of a year, he has said elsewhere, his annual income shot from $12,000 “to about 70 times that.”

Harrison found success almost as maddening in its own way as being broke had been, and he bought himself a cabin on the Upper Peninsula to get away from the pressure and demands on his time. But he managed to keep writing. Each subsequent novel — Warlock in 1981, Sundog in 1984, Dalva in 1988 — was more ambitious than the last, and each attracted more and louder praise from critics.

Dalva — the story, in part, of a tough, independent 45-year-old Nebraska woman’s search for her illegitimate son, the product of a short teenage romance with a Native American ranch hand who turned out to be her half-brother — received especially glowing notices. Washington Post books critic Jonathan Yardley called Dalva’s namesake protagonist “that rare fictional creation, a character whom the reader dearly would love to meet,” and said that the book should earn Harrison a wide audience “if there is any such thing as literary justice.”

In the two years since Dalva, Harrison has garnered still more recognition. He was profiled in Vogue and Outside magazines, started writing a food column for Smart magazine (like several of his fictional creations, Harrison has an intense interest in fine food and considers himself an expert chef) and early this year saw the first of his Legends of the Fall novellas released as a movie (Revenge, starring Kevin Costner). This summer, the title story from his new collection of novellas, The Woman Lit By Fireflies, was published in the July 23 issue of The New Yorker (a bit of a surprise even for Harrison, given his work’s often swaggering earthiness and The New Yorker’s reputation for excessive gentility).

All of these accomplishments were well and good. But the amount of work that went into them left Harrison exhausted. That’s why he’d just as soon not hear from any more people bearing writing assignments, at least for a while. “Last year I wrote two novellas and six versions of two screenplays,” he says, “and was finally so geeked out I took off on this driving trip in April. Just said, ‘I quit.’ Period.”

To help fill his time while recharging his soul, he indulges in two favored hobbies of his “later years”: cross-country driving and hiking. “I had to have something to do, so since I’ve been wandering around in the woods since I was five, I decided to become an amateur naturalist. Very unsuccessfully. I wrote a letter to a friend, [author] Peter Matthiessen, told him — told McGuane this, too — [that] they’ve evidently changed the birds since I was in the Audubon club in 1948.” He laughs. “Somehow they never look like they do in the guidebooks.”

A tad more eccentric is Harrison’s penchant for “driving at random all over the United States.” In good years, he says, he logs close to 50,000 miles, most of them solo in his Landcruiser on remote stretches of Nebraska, Montana, and the American Southwest. The less inhabited, the better; Harrison does very little of his driving east of the Mississippi because “the traffic is a hassle.”

The idea is to get as far away as possible from what Harrison calls the “dream coasts” — the literary and cinematic worlds of New York and Los Angeles that, as Harrison says, “grind you down and destroy your soul.” Coping with this new world of success is what keeps him on the road and moving. “The one way to get butchered as a writer, really butchered, is not to stay light emotionally, personally,” he says. That means doing whatever is necessary to keep the dream coasts from overwhelming him. “Like when that movie came out of Revenge,” he explains. Knowing that a barrage of attention would soon follow, “my solution was to go to Nebraska immediately.”

Why Nebraska?

“It’s just one of those places, utterly charming. I mean, there are a lot of people who don’t care for it, for understandable reasons — its not a chichi place. But to think that there’s someplace like that left where you’re not suffocating ... ” He lets that stray thought drift a moment, then returns to his main point. “So if you’re under a lot of pressure both as a novelist and a screenwriter, then you need a lot of hideouts throughout the United States. And you need to spend an enormous amount of time away from [the literary-cinematic] world. That’s my theory.”

Harrison soon grows bored with hearing himself talk. He starts getting fidgety, then abruptly cuts himself short while describing his new novella Brown Dog by saying, “Let’s go ride around in the car.”

... So they fled to an area that held for Warlock the summer memories of his youth until college: the northland with its crystalline lakes and streams, small villages pervaded by the scent of pine forests that surrounded them, hills, dales, valleys with small marginal farms owned by people not at all unlike their southern counterparts; that is, basically small minded and stupid but possessing a specific archaic attractiveness — nostalgia in the flesh. The catch was, he thought, looking out the window at the small lovely valley, the catch was that the north was growing daily more and more unlike the north of his dream-bound youth. The small farms were being steadily bought up by doctors and stockbrokers for vacation and retirement homes. The quiet lakes were crowded with cottages, and the small villages had begun to affect a false front, mansard-roofed, Swiss chalet look. Solvent hippies had moved in with their arts and crafts boutiques and health food stores — leather and hokum Indian jewelry, groats and granola and magnum vitamins to counteract their drug ingestion. There were even a few shabby communes supported mostly by collective allowances. Back road properties now abounded with No Trespassing signs to protect the swamps and pine barrens from nonexistent intruders, and garish Day-Glo Keep Off signs for nighttime wanderers.

Of course it was all still beautiful compared to anyplace else, or so he consoled himself for the area’s inability to cooperate with his dream ...

You’ve just been treated to one of Harrison’s rare fictional descriptions of the region he calls home, from the 1981 novel Warlock. Harrison’s poetry abounds with images from northern Michigan [see sidebar on page 106]. Not so his fiction, most of which is set in places he has traveled to rather than the place he lives. Harrison is a place-oriented writer who can and does write accurately about many places. He disdains regionalism. “A writer’s just a writer,” he says, bumping along a gravel road in his Landcruiser, “and anytime a writer gets buried in regionalism or ethnic background he’s making a mistake. He has to stay free of all entanglements like that.”

And yet Harrison is very firmly rooted here. He spent part of his childhood in Reed City, Michigan, about 100 miles southeast of where he and his wife, Linda, live now. They met when he was 16 and she was 14, have been married for nearly 31 years, and have two grown daughters and an infant grandson. (“At one time Nicholson told me he was going to erect a monument to us, for the longest marriage he’d ever heard of,” says Harrison, who attributes his marriage’s success at least in part to traveling as much as he does. That and “ordinary etiquette.”)

Harrison grew up hunting, fishing, and reading, the son of a government agriculturist. Both his parents “read a lot of quote unquote literature,” he recalls. “I mean, my dad liked Faulkner and Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, so when I was a little boy there were books all over the house.” That and good schoolteachers whetted his appetite for good writing, and by the time he was 14 he decided to become a writer himself.

After graduating from high school in 1956, Harrison enrolled at Michigan State University, but dropped out two quarters later to spend a few months living the beatnik life in New York City. There he worked odd jobs, wrote poetry, and hung out in jazz clubs.

He returned to Michigan to resume college, and finally — after dropping out briefly a couple of more times to spend short stretches in Boston and San Francisco — graduated with a degree in comparative literature in 1960.

The MSU undergraduate population in those years included an unusually large number of writers-in-the-making, and Harrison ended up forming lasting literary friendships with some of them: novelist-screenwriter Tom McGuane; poet, novelist, and onetime Sports Illustrated staff writer J.D. Reed; and poet-novelist Dan Gerber.

“I don’t think anybody took writing courses,” Harrison recalls, “but there were a number of professors who were intensely involved with literature as a living thing. And that’s something you need to get started. The only writing course I ever took was essay writing, where I was taught to imitate models — to sound like anybody you wanted to. That helps, you know. But fiction relies on you finding your own untutored voice, and that takes a long while.”

Such a long while that Harrison didn’t bother writing fiction until years after he’d graduated. Instead, he put in two years of graduate school in comparative literature (also at MSU), dropped out and moved with Linda to Boston in 1962, where he spent a couple of years selling books for a wholesaler while writing poetry at night. His first book of poems, Plain Song, was published in 1965, by which time he’d returned to northwest Michigan and was working as a laborer.

The book helped launch Harrison’s short-lived career as a college professor. He taught English three semesters at State University of New York, Stony Brook, then won back-to-back National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim grants that enabled him to return permanently to Michigan in 1967. The Harrisons rented a Leelanau farmhouse for a couple of years, and in 1969 bought their 118-acre farm for $19,000. He spent the next several years writing four more books of poetry, supplementing his income by writing articles about hunting and fishing for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and Playboy. In 1969, at McGuane’s urging, he began writing his first novel while convalescing from a back injury, the result of a nasty fall he’d taken while grouse-hunting. Wolf appeared in 1971, followed two years later by A Good Day to Die.

In those days, a writer didn’t need all that much money to support himself in rural Michigan. While land isn’t so cheap on the peninsula anymore, what with the influx of wealthy vacationers and retirees, the region still has its natural beauty.

Harrison is particularly fond of the sand dune and bordering forests of the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan, a 60-mile stretch of essentially nothing. “It’s sad,” he says, at a lakeside promontory overlooking the dunes. “The other day down here I was hiking for a couple of hours, and I found a little baby dead coyote, about that big.” He holds his hands maybe eight inches apart. “He couldn’t have starved to death because there’s so many dead fish on the beach. So I stood there trying to figure out why he died. Unless he was the runt of the litter or something. Very beautiful ... just broke my heart.”

He pauses as he scans the horizon. “See, this is all Ojibwa and Ottawa country. We’re a passing phase up here in their minds.” He laughs. “And there are two sacred islands out there: the Manitou Islands.” The overcast weather makes them difficult to make out today, but there’s still something eerily beautiful about them. Ojibwa legend has it that the islands were once bear cubs forced to flee a Wisconsin forest fire with their mother by swimming Lake Michigan. The cubs drowned, then resurfaced as islands; their mother lay down on the mainland to spend eternity watching them, and metamorphosed into the sand dunes.

Harrison is fascinated by Native American culture. He became interested when he was a child after his father gave him a copy of Ernest Thompson Seton’s book Two Little Savages. He remembers that when he was growing up in the Michigan Indian country, his uncles nicknamed him Little Beaver after the Red Ryder comic strip character. And he’s always wondered, without ever really knowing, if his skin that so easily tans chocolate brown might mean that he’s part Indian himself. His interest in Indians plays heavily in his fiction, from Brown Dog and Dalva back through A Good Day to Die, whose title was borrowed from Indian lore.

As Harrison explains: “That comes from the Nez Perce saying, the whole idea you have to be able to morally and spiritually, as a warrior — whether you’re a writer or a businessman — you have to live so correctly that you can wake up in the morning and look out and say, ‘Today is a good day to die.’ One very rarely is in that kind of shape, but it’s a tremendous thing to be able to say.”

Zen Buddhism promotes the same sort of intense attentiveness to the present, and Harrison has dabbled in it half-seriously for the past 20 years. There’s a saying that Harrison likes from the Zen master Deshimaru that helped sustain him through the writing of Dalva. Harrison quotes it from memory: “...that you should like each day, you know, intensely, as if a fire were raging in your hair. That’s a wonderful thing. You know, in Zen terms you try to sit like a lion. Try sneaking up on a lion, or a raven for that matter. I’ve been trying to sneak up on ravens for about 20 years. It can’t be done.”

The next day, the Harrisons make a big pot of menudo — a spicy Mexican tripe soup — for lunch with Dan Gerber, in town for a book signing. Harrison is just waking up, having been up till three that morning completing a script proposal (he does nearly all of his writing late at night). He grumbles about the weather, more rain threatening to drive indoors a friend’s wedding he and Linda will be attending that afternoon.

The menudo is dished out and served with warmed soft tortillas. Condiments include finely chopped radishes and green onions, and wedges of lemon. Gerber, modest and unassuming, politely spoons out some of each; Harrison grabs his with his hands.

When lunch is over, everyone follows Linda to the barn to watch her feed Petey, a two-week-old orphaned fawn she is taking care of for a local animal-rights group. Petey comes bounding spasmodically into view on wobbly legs, making a couple of passes across the barn, eager for his baby bottle. Harrison stoops over to knee height, pokes his nose through the wooden gate blocking the barn door, and accepts a lick from Petey. He has Gerber do likewise, and he gets his nose licked, too.

Then we go to the granary for still more show and tell. A body tag from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A decorated coyote skull given Harrison by a Chippewa shaman. An advance copy of a new book by naturalist Barry Lopez, featuring gorgeous color-plate illustrations.

When it’s time for Gerber to go, Harrison offers to loan him the Lopez book, but Gerber begs off, saying he’s already busy carrying out his plan to reread James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake this year. Harrison laughs and recalls what a literary weirdo he was in college. “I spent my freshman year reading Finnegan’s Wake,” he says, “for the dirty parts.”

By now it’s time, Harrison says, for him to get “prettied up” for that wedding. This being summer, his time at the farm is also almost over. Tomorrow he’ll be up at dawn — or at least by 10 o’clock, which passes for dawn for him — ready to drive that familiar route back across the Mackinac Bridge to the solitude of his cabin and his writing.

Bill Beuttler is an American Way contributing editor.

© Bill Beuttler