The Author Talks about Writing, Life, and Livingston, Montana
BY DAVID ABRAMS
With Driving on the Rim, his first novel since 2002’s The Cadence of Grass, Thomas McGuane has delivered one of the finest books of his career. The novel primarily pivots around the trials and tribulations of Dr. Irving Berlin “Berl” Pickett who must fight small-town gossip and politics to preserve his reputation in Livingston, Montana, after a patient dies under his care and he’s charged with negligent homicide. Like many McGuane characters, Pickett spends most of the book trying to find his center of gravity; when times get really tough, he goes back to house-painting—a job that helped pay his way through medical school. I had a chance to talk with McGuane when he stopped by Butte on his way from his 2,000-acre ranch in McLeod, Montana to Missoula where he would begin his book tour. Our conversation was punctuated by his frequent laughter, which rolls as easily out of this throat as it does off the pages of his fiction.
David Abrams: When did you start working on Driving on the Rim?
Thomas McGuane: I did a kind of test run for this novel with a story I wrote for The New Yorker (Tango in 2006) and that was a launch pad that got me going.
DA: Was there any one incident or person which inspired the novel?
TM: I’ve lived in Montana now for 43 years—mostly in towns of comparable size—and there are a lot of people in those towns who are outsiders. They may be fourth-generation Montanans, but for one reason or another, they’ve just never seemed to fit into the melting pot. For example, when I first lived in Livingston, you were either a railroad family or you were a ranch family and if you were something else you were going to have a wobbly path. I was intrigued by the idea that somebody (like Berl Pickett) who was bright and came up through this Fundamentalist madhouse and economic insecurity could end up being a doctor. I was also intrigued by the idea that in small towns, doctors still tend to be these sacro-sanct figures but they have a hard time living up to it. So I thought about a guy who comes out of nowhere in a community, achieves a modicum of success, but never believes in himself. What does that do to his behavior?
DA: Do you think Berl Pickett believes more in himself as a house-painter than he does a doctor?
TM: I think that anybody who has a cerebral job has a longing for more palpable, tactile work. I think one of the reasons that my ranch has been so satisfying for me for most of my life now is because there’s a lot of low-level stuff that has to be done. It’s kind of liberating. I don’t know why, but I do know that if you spend too much time in the confines of your head, it can be a kind of prison. I think I would have enjoyed painting houses.
DA: When you’re out there on the ranch working with your horses, how does that help you with your writing? Does it clear your head?
TM: Yeah, sure it does. I think it would for anybody with any kind of a mental job. It also has a kind of kaleidoscopic effect of shaking things up; you’re not so obsessively tied into each thing you’re writing that you can’t get a little overview of it. It doesn’t have to be work, it can be recreation or playing with your kids—anything that gets your face off the grindstone enough so you can see what you’re doing. And the other thing, frankly, is that you can’t write from dawn to dark. One of the things I regret about my life is that’s what I used to do, but probably two-thirds of the time, there was no result from it. I’d have a couple of hours where I was productive and then I stayed filled with hope for the rest of the day and maybe nothing happened.
DA: You weren’t actually writing, or you were tossing what you wrote into the garbage can?
TM: I was struggling to have an idea, to add to the day’s work. Some of the best years of my life I was at my desk all day every day, year round.
DA: Are you an early morning writer?
TM: It changes throughout the project, but once it really gets rolling, I’m an early morning guy, yeah. What I do when I’m really cooking on a book is, I get up, I have my coffee, and then I start writing. Our global consciousness is such these days that if you don’t start right away in the morning then the array of information available to you on the internet, TV and newspapers is going to send you off on some other course.
DA: How many drafts did you go through with Driving on the Rim?
TM: Five. I just read this interview with Philip Roth who said you set out with a few signposts but you really don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s a voyage of discovery. I’m a big reviser, so I’m a pretty reckless voyager in the first draft because I know that a number of drafts lie between me and what I’ll sign off on. I can’t wait to revise, I can’t wait to cut things. The way I look at it, the first draft is if I was building a house and I’m just bringing in rolls of Tyvek, two-by-fours, roofing materials, and concrete blocks. And when it’s all out there, I think, “Now, let’s build the house.”
DA: So then what type of cutting decisions do you consciously make?
TM: I follow Robert Stone’s rule, which is, “If you think there’s something wrong, there is.” If you think something’s wrong with a passage and you try to fix it, and nothing works, then at a certain point, you have to cut it altogether. Some things that resist repair are just trying to tell you they’re not supposed to be there. Your feeling for the text will tell you.
DA: Am I right in thinking that this is the first novel you’ve written in first-person since Panama?
TM: Yes, that’s right. I was thinking of Driving on the Rim as a mock autobiography. I also wanted utter chronological latitude. If you’re writing in the first-person, you can say, “I was suspended from kindergarten for throwing my crayons and now that I’m in the rest home, they’re giving me crayons again.” You can do eighty years in that one sentence. But you really can’t do that in the third-person. Having said that, I really doubt I will write a first-person book again. It was right for what I had in mind for this one, but I greatly prefer writing in the third-person—partly because in the third-person you have the objective feeling of making a surface, whereas with the first-person point of view you’re interactive with the text itself and you get the whirlies.
DA: You write that Berl is “self-absorbed,” a “misfit,” and “a feckless professional drawn from absurdity to absurdity by bad impulses.” How do you think he fits into the long cavalcade of McGuane characters?
TM: He’s certainly no Thomas Skelton (Ninety-Two in the Shade) or Patrick Fitzpatrick (Nobody’s Angel). He’s a much more comic character. He’s more vulnerable and disorganized and impacted by the human environment than any of my characters. The earlier characters strike me as quite a lot more self-sufficient than he is. But one of the things I like about him is how he throws himself upon the world. In some ways, he’s more heroic than the other characters of mine because he risks more of himself. His opportunities for figuring out who he is are maybe a little more broad because he’s taken those risks and somehow survived them. I would see him as a departure from my other characters. He’s not a cool guy, for one thing.
DA: In what way?
TM: As they say in the rock-and-roll world, he just hits the fool button too often. (Laughs.)
DA: Driving on the Rim struck me, in terms of structure at least, as a picaresque novel. But I know you’ve shied away from that term in the past. What would you say about the episodic nature of this narrative?
DA: One of my early readers asked me if I thought it had a rambling plot. I said I was astonished by that question—I was unaware that it had a plot. (Laughs.) The books that really made the biggest impact on me as a young writer, the imprint I’ll never really escape, were basically picaresque novels—Don Quixote, Tom Jones, The Pickwick Papers. With Driving on the Rim, since I took this kind of biographic approach to [Berl’s] life, I never really thought in terms of “Where’s the climax?” or “Where’s the second- and third-act curtain?” You know, life is episodic.
DA: Here we are on launch day for Driving on the Rim. Do you ever feel a certain anxiety when this day approaches?
TM: I’m getting a thicker skin; I’ve been doing this for forty years. But yeah, I do feel a kind of anxiety. I was always averse to public anything. I didn’t speak until the third grade in school. The recurring shyness of public speaking is something I have to fight off. I’ve gotten better at it, but it used to be nearly impossible for me to get up and read from my own books. Some of that’s always liable to resurface.
DA: What about reviews? So far, the critics have been pretty positive about Driving on the Rim.
TM: John Updike said reviews are inexorably mixed—and that’s true. But it doesn’t exempt you from the storm and stress of them as they roll in. You’ll get one from the daily New York Times that says you’re the worst writer in the world, and one from the Sunday New York Times that says you’re the best writer in the world; the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says somebody ought to shoot you, and the San Francisco Chronicle says, “Let’s welcome him to Mount Parnassus.” It’s this senseless thing, and when you’ve done it as long as I have, you can remember books that were just blistered by the critics that are currently thought to be your best book. But still, you’re battered by it as you’re going along. …Richard Ford told me ten years ago you just can’t have a good life if you read reviews. And I’ve kind of lost interest in them.
DA: But they probably mattered to you when you were young and starting off.
TM: Well, it was a different kind of world back then. You published a book, but you never heard from anybody. I lived up a dirt road south of Livingston. A book came out, then four months later, a big manila envelope came and it was the reviews. I’d rip it open, read one or two or maybe three, and think, “Yeah, I get it.” And that was it. Now, everything is completely interactive. You need to go on the road, you need to talk to this person, you need to do NPR. And so you’re really viscerally in the process…I actually like this part of it because I live in a non-literary situation. I don’t get off the ranch very much. I’m always anxious to get out and meet people and talk about writing and press the flesh a little bit and see that I actually have readers, that this hasn’t been an illusion. I’m always grateful that people take the trouble to come out to a signing. Then after a little while I’m ready to go live the quiet life again.
DA: In Driving on the Rim, you write of one character, an old rancher, “Wiley was raised in the twilight of a world in which the horse was involved with everything.” Those days aren’t that far in our rear-view mirror. Do you think our world was better when it was more horse-centric?
TM: Yeah, I do; I’m just horse-crazy. But you know, we have an almost hysterical new relation ship to pets in this country. It could be one of two things: either we’re so disap-pointed in our fellow humans with their genocides and their wars and their ethnic cleansings and their overpopulation and their selfishness, that dogs and cats and horses are looking better every minute; or it could be that human isolation is in some ways getting worse and our need for contact with other aspects of the created world are getting more desperate and more profound. Speaking for myself, I live immersed in animals. I have four dogs and twenty horses ranging up to 32 years of age—all of whom I have a hands-on relationship with every single day of the year. I find that a very consoling way to live. My dogs go everywhere with me. Probably the hardest thing about being on a book tour is waking up in hotels with no critter there.
DA: You could always take a lap dog with you.
TM: I’m not picky. I’d be happy with mice. I had mice as a kid and I thought they were just great. (Laughs.)
DA: You resist the label of regional writer, but yet the West—and especially Montana—is as an essential element to your fiction as Key West is in some of your other work. Don’t you think place shapes a narrative?
TM: I think it does, but I’m not sure I know how. A novel’s really about the interaction of people—
DA: But yet they’re against a very specific landscape.
TM: Right. Our best writers of natural history and landscape have been our novelists—Faulkner’s one of them and Hemingway’s another. I think the reason they had such a good handle on the landscape is because they were ever aware of its relationship to the human partici-pants. If you look at the canon of writing about the American West, most of it could have been written by the Chamber of Commerce… Generally speaking, western literature has been dominated by the [Wallace] Stegner, A.B. Guthrie kind of backward-looking historical novels. But I think that the West is sophisticated enough that we can write about the way people are actually living in the times in which the author is writing. Most of the books that are so-called “Montana books” are about ranching. And yet, only three percent of Montanans are ranchers.
DA: Have you ever gotten the idea for a story based mainly on setting?
TM: No, it’s always people first.
DA: Do you think your novels help to de-romanticize the West?
TM: I don’t know if I’ve done that because I feel very romantically inclined toward the West. I’m just saying we need to shift the focus a little bit here. We’ve said enough about cowboys and Indians.
DA: Driving on the Rim also seems to me to be mellower in tone than, say, Ninety-Two in the Shade—
TM: The contrast between those must be stark.
DA: It is.
TM: I wouldn’t know because I haven’t looked at Ninety-Two in the Shade since I wrote it, but I’m sure they’re nothing alike…You know, when I was done with Ninety-Two in the Shade, I felt very complete. I had worked on it so intensely, I could recite the book. I’ve had no particular inclination to look at it again, however.
DA: How have you seen your progression as a writer over the years?
TM: I think I’ve gotten to be a better writer, a more humane writer. There’s a kind of humility about other people that I didn’t have when I was a testosterone-fueled youth.
DA: Is there ever the thought that ranch life will eclipse the writing life?
DA: Would you be okay with this being your last book?
TM: I’d be okay with it. I’m struggling with this right now, actually. My self-definition seems to be to some large degree the fact that I get up and go to work as a writer. I was just talking to my son this morning, telling him this is the first day of my book tour, and that I’m not going to do this again. This is the first time in 40 years I haven’t been under contract for another book. Usually, I’d have a book coming out and things would look pretty good and I’d do a new contract with the publisher. But I haven’t done that, and I’m not going to do that. This is the third book of a three-book contract, and I’m sure Knopf would be happy to have me back, but I don’t know what I want to do next. I have a really great working relationship with Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, so I’m dying to get something to her that we can work on. And that’s what I’m going to do next—I’m going to write some stories.
David Abrams’ short stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review, and other publications. His blog is The Quivering Pen (www.david abramsbooks.blogspot.com). He and his wife live in Butte, Montana.