Story & interview by Ben PolleyWhitefish Review has become known for its groundbreaking interviews. In one of the last interviews before his death, Jim Harrison invited Review editor Ben Polley into his writing studio for a vivid, wide-ranging talk about art, loss, illness, and the arc of his life.
Jim Harrison was one of contemporary literature’s most versatile and prolific writers, publishing 39 books across many genres and drawing comparisons to Hemingway and Faulkner. He died of a heart attack while writing his last poem in Arizona on March 26.
One of Harrison’s best-known works, the novella Legends of the Fall (1979), was made into a Hollywood movie in 1994 starring Brad Pitt and helped elevate him as a writer when he was a younger man. While a celebrated writer in the States, he reached legendary status in France, where his books sell by the hundreds of thousands and his followers call him the “Mozart of the Plains.”
Ben Polley: Are there any books that you recommend that people should read if they are going to consider themselves a writer?
Jim Harrison: Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet was the best book, I think. I read it several times when I was young. He was so austere. And he found a noble woman who would support him [laughter], which is a good trick.
BP: Do you have any thoughts about why your books are more popular in France than they are in the states?
JH: [coughing fit] I really have no idea. I took a degree in comparative literature. You just don’t know why. I had one critic tell me it’s because unlike a lot of American authors, I don’t write about New York. They don’t need to hear about New York. They have Paris. I love Paris. I got to know it real well. It was the place to be.
BP: I know from several of your books and interviews that you try to meditate everyday. Do you still try to do that?
JH: Yeah. Look over there. [He points to the Zen Zafu pillows stacked under the shelves.] The trouble is, after that spinal surgery, I can’t sit in the lotus anymore. [He stands up to show us the incision.] It went from my neck to my tailbone.
BP: Oh, wow!
JH: When I had my surgery, I basically had it for my dog because I couldn’t walk her in the morning. I couldn’t walk at all when I had the surgery. The doctors said I wouldn’t recover very well. That’s when I had to go to Mayo for a month. Which is a suck hole. I mean, I hated it. The food was two cubes.
BP: How long ago was your spinal surgery?
JH: It was four years ago. But now when I hunt, I just shuffle. Now I spend a lot of time sitting on logs for an hour when I go hunting. Which is nice. I still am out there. One day I shot a hundred doves, which is sort of unbelievable. She retrieved every one of them that I shot. That kind of dog is invaluable because you have trouble seeing doves in the grass.
BP: It seems like a lot of your dogs have been females?
JH: Yes, except once. I got a bear-hunting Airedale, which I called Hud. He was the only male dog we had. He was a real pain in the ass. He thought he could kick anybody’s ass in the world. He really was a bear dog. Usually most bear hunters use hounds. Bear dogs are a closing-in-dog because they are not afraid of bears and they won’t let the bear move. They are just that way.
BP: What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers coming up today?
JH: Read a great deal. You can’t learn to write unless you are well-read. Like I say to poets, “You are responsible for reading all the world’s poetry because how else will you learn to be a poet?” Just like a novelist, you must read the best novels of all. When I was in my teens, I read all of Dostoyevsky, which will darken your soul. [laughter] But that is essential. I don’t agree with these MFA programs. People should get out and travel at random everywhere. I don’t see the point of sitting around campus like a full can of worms all stuck together. [laughter]
Read the full interview in the newest “Change” issue, available at local bookstores and online at www.whitefishreview.org. In addition to fiction, essays, poetry, art, and photography by more than 40 contributors, the Change issue contains a special tribute to Harrison with short essays by Rick Bass, Tom Brokaw, Tom Crawford, Chris Dombrowski, David James Duncan, William Kittredge, Teddy Macker, Thomas McGuane, Doug Peacock, and Annick Smith.