A Fun Evening for Literature: McGuane, Harrison, Ford at MSU
Three famous writer alums revisited Michigan State last night and had a talk together in an auditorium. They're all friends, having gone to State in the 60's, but hadn't been together on stage before.
The organizers didn't know how many folks might show up on a summer night.
They got 500+ with the aisles full and many turned away.
I arrived early but not early enough. I peeked into the hall---it was already packed. In despair I went to the back of a long overflow line and waited. After a long time an usher called out for singles and grabbed me...there were just a couple seats left. As we were rushing forward I saw a guy arrive who I recognized: Hugh Fox, a longtime local player in the national literary underground---last year I'd made a pilgrimage to his local abode to try to meet him but no luck---rats, now no time!---but I stopped and said I was a big fan and could I give him a mag. He seemed happily surprised and took a copy of OYB. I'll have to follow up.
I had a stash of mags and "Texas Gang"s with me...and a little gift for Jim Harrison...just in case...
Literary writing is in something of a marginalized slump nationally...but when writers ENGAGE the public as these fellows often do in their work...via such subjects as DOGS, FISHING, HUNTING, EATING and DRINKING and particular locations...well, then, the public responds.
None of these guys made it by way of teaching. There are 2 paths in writing today and neither involve writing: teaching and Hollywood screenplay writing. 2 of them did it via Hollywood. I'm not sure how Ford did it.
All 3 have been what you could call fly-over writers. They cover turf that other writers overlook---the hinterlands. Other writers cover the coasts and the cities. These guys cover the territory.
They were funny and clever on stage. The organizers had a little living room sort of space set up. A local moderator tried to give some shape to the flow, but the flow did its thing.
McGuane leaned back, kicked his feet out and said when he was growing up his grampa said never leave a party unless everyone is laughing. This is not the "precious writer" approach.
Ford said writing is a way to show thought. Other media don't show thinking. He said when you talk with people they're usually not thinking. Talking is casual, social. But in a book you can put thinking into talking.
Harrison used a cane to get onstage then sprawled back and often spoke to the ceiling, in his stream-of-consciousness Paul Lind way, quoting Lorca about how writing is like probing a wound and how such thoughts didn't help him with his lacrimose, semi-suicidal ways. ...And how MFA writing programs try to standardize art...an impossibility...art is totally undemocratic...so many false hopes are encouraged...only as a way for scamming schools to make money...if a kid doesn't fit in in any other way and is dreamy you can get his parent's money by telling him he's an english major. Harrison's next novel is titled "The English Major." It should be a fun one! Jim went on to say that a writing degree should be something more like you meet at campus for a week then are obliged to go off and work in the inner city for a year, then to go work in the countryside for a year, then meet back and see what's happened. Quite a few folks cracked up when he sneakily cracked open an airline bottle of something clear that had the label removed in mid-show. I was looking down when it happened and looked up when I heard the sound---is that an airline bottle I hear? Sure enough! Funny how it was a recognizable sound.
All three said they became writers because they were no good at anything else.
At one point an audience member asked (on cards handed in) if Harrison was going to keep writing about his character Brown Dog. He said, Sure. Then later on they were talking about lust for life and getting quite jokey and Harrison said "Ya know, about Brown Dog, he just won't quit. Why, he's someone about whom I had a dentist in Escanaba say 'When I'm pulling his tooth he gets a hard-on.'" Ford then yelled to the moderator "I think there's your closer." The moderator laughed, threw up his arms and said "And there we have it folks!"
It was a good show. Lots of laughs. People would break out whistling. Lots of remarks about the lameness of college exploitation which seemed to bring on a mixture of nervousness and cheers.
I saw some local friends at the event---some were there because I'd sent them notice earlier. One friend, local radio guy Chris McCarus, had ridden his bike in from Detroit to make it. (5 hours maybe?) He looked beat! I said Dang, you're getting some training in. He said, But it isn't getting any easier!
There was at least an hour-long line for book-signing. A large local semi-indy bookstore managed the affair like clockwork. It was interesting seeing some of their colorful staff in action.
I had a goofy gift I wanted to give to Jim, but there was no way---security was tight.
So instead my bro and I went to the Beggar's Banquet bar for a beer.
A bunch of event people were at the bar. I notice that this bar attracts some readerly types. I had been sitting near one guy who I'd overhead him saying that he liked westerns. He was a wild hippy looking fellow and he was now at the bar. So I went over and said Hi and showed him a copy of "Texas Gang" that I'd brought along, saying that if he liked westerns he'd like this novel that I'd just published---it was the only cosmic western yet it was very hard core. He was interested and we chatted and joined in with other folks at the bar. I gave him a copy of my last big fat OYB issue. He said he was from Traverse City and liked tele skiing. We compared notes. With a big laugh it turned out that he and I had been emailing together for years! He was a big fan of OYB and he knew who I was right away and had been playing with me---Jim Barnes from the biggest independent publisher's consortium. He said that Jerry Jenkins, their president, is also a big fan...they're all bicyclists AND literary folks. What a hoot! See, I hear nothing...but the word DOES get out!
So I showed Barnes the gift I was going to give to Jim Harrison: a pint of fresh-picked wild black raspberries from our yard. I was thinking it was a bit embarrassing, at the same time I knew Harrison loved food and especially local, wild food...and I'd thought that maybe he hadn't been in lower Michigan lately and hadn't had berries in awhile. Barnes said, Man, that would've been great to give him! He, too, had been put off by the hugeness of the security and the booksigning line.
A beer later and...into the bar walks Jim Harrison and Richard Ford!
The party then kicks into overdrive.
As Jim is walking back to a table I grab my little bucket of berries and go up to him and say Hi and that I have something for him in case he hadn't had any lately. He looks down and lights up and says he indeed hasn't had any lately and thank you, "My family used to pick them for a living when I was a kid. These are lovely." He went and got a big table and opened up the berries and started eating them then passing them around. Everyone seemed to get a kick out of them.
I ended up sitting next to Jim and we had a fine time. I mentioned to him that we partied once the day he finished his Wolf screenplay and he seemed to remember, so I got included right in and he poured some wine for me. He was also surreptitiously pushing wine on two teen relatives who were sitting nearby---they would laugh and slide the glass back. Jim was growly and streamy. We talked about calf-head cooking and the new wild pigs of Michigan. We talked about the career options for writers. And I mentioned a new third option that some friends and I were trying to create with the ULA and how we seemed to be making some headway. He seemed interested. I left a copy of OYB and "Texas Gang" with his wonderfully patient secretary and they both seemed to take the bequeathals seriously.
Later on I got to chat with Richard Ford about the Michigan type in literature. I told him that I thought he hit it spot on in "Sportswriter." And we discussed how the fly-over, hinterlands, "red state" people need to be included in Lit for it to regain social relevance. Man, Ford is a sharp guy! And friendly, too. He's well over 6 foot with clear gray eyes. It was nice how after a big, long show that he seemed so willing to engage a stranger. We were standing with the Detroit News reporter who'd done a big story on the event and had gotten to interview them all considerably.
I also visited with a couple guys who said they were fishing buddies of Jim's---then it turned out that the one had edited the collection of interviews with Jim---which I bought---and the other was just finishing a bibliography of his work ("There are about 1500 citations.") We all marveled at the recent and fitting respect Jim's work has found, after a long drought in the 80's---I said thanks in large part to work like theirs. We didn't mention the obvious, but I suspect that the blindered dominance of feminism in the 80's was largely responsible for Jim being overlooked. Then they shocked me by saying, "Is that yours?" when I showed them my OYB. "Oh we know you!" They both said they'd referenced my story from decades ago about bumping into Jim in a bar up north and thought it was interesting and funny enough to include in their own work. Come to think of it, I did recall seeing it listed in the "Conversations" footnotes.
We talked about fishing with Jim and I mentioned that this was an angle that I'm trying to build on in my own promotion of literature. I found Hemingway because of his fishing stories. I said that regular people need a way they can relate to literature if they're going to care about it---it has to be about life as they know it---and they have to be better off for spending time reading or they'll do something else and miss out on this rare chance for uplift---they'll watch TV and end up exploited---but that writing today is being pitched to writing students and wannabes---and a certain fairly narrow social class---it's gotten smaller and I'm trying to bring it back out again to that Hemingway scope and size with things like my OYB. It's hard though. But it doesn't seem like it should be, because people are so thirsty and there's really so little recent work that's worthwhile out there. If they only knew about the good stuff it would really catch on. But they won't find it in literary journals. It has to catch them first in a fishing magazine, like it did for me! Or a biking, canoeing, skiing mag, like OYB!
Well, that's my theory anyway. I didn't tell these guys, but obviously, it hasn't worked. Thousands of people read OYB for the bike/boat/ski...and hardly any of them run with that same mindset out farther and try the bold literary work that I'm also putting out there. There's a near total breakdown and separation. Even the outdoor culture fans who I speak to won't respond to my other cultural tips. Crazy! Yet the couple other outdoor culture mags like "Dirt Rag" will cover indy music and microbrews along with their bike stuff...and that seems to work fine for them. Well, I'll just keep pushing!
So it was quite a night after all. First I almost missed getting a seat. Then I got shunted away from the stars by security. Then I ended up partying with them anyway (too bad McGuane doesn't do bars anymore...well, for us anyway). And I met 4 new people, 3 of whom already knew what I was up to. Crazy times when you leave your house!