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Straight out of Stanford University's creative-writing program studying under Wallace Stegner, novelist Thomas McGuane made his name during an era in which handsome young writers in droves, all with wind-swept hair, were pictured on the back of debut novels.
Unlike the vast majority of his competition, McGuane could really swing a sentence. From his 1971 novel The Bushwacked Piano to his first novel in more than eight years, this year's Driving on the Rim, few other writers produce a higher ratio of stunners per page.
No less a figure than Saul Bellow deemed McGuane "a language star." His characters, both men and women, exude a clumsy charm that's won the hearts of readers who would never think to set foot in Montana, McGuane's favorite stomping ground.
He also lived the kind of stereotypical writer's life that civilians might imagine. As a screenwriter in the 1970s, he brushed heels with Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando. He married actress Margot Kidder, had an affair with actress Elizabeth Ashley and went through a second divorce all while never straying too far from his home in Livingston, Mont. It was only after surviving a 1978 crash in his Porsche that McGuane settled down to a more bucolic life of fly-fishing.
Do you ever tire of words like "place" and "wilderness" in discussions about Western writers? Is the idea of "refuge" oversold?
You're playing right into my prime prejudice. I'm completely tired of it. Novels are about people, really. I can't think of a better way to kill a narrative than to introduce it with a long passage about landscape. Not only do I not believe in a literature of the American West, I don't believe in American literature. [There] are things that all novelists concern themselves with, whether French or Italian or American. Don't get me wrong. I'm besotted by nature. I treasure the natural world, but it's not really a subject for literature. As someone far more famous than me once said, "Nature is a wonderful thing, but it makes its point rather quickly."
Your daughter Maggie McGuane is a writer. Do you ever advise her on her manuscripts? How does having a child who writes complicate or complement the parent-child relationship?
A few times she's asked me to look at her manuscripts and make suggestions. I have. She thinks of me perhaps for my age as a useful editor. In terms of grammar and structure, I have strong views and they're quite traditional. I believe in one perception leading to another. I believe in strongly expressed things that don't waste readers' time. My views about English and grammatical structure probably aren't that different from E.B. White's.
Wallace Stegner is spoken of in almost godlike terms for aspiring writers in the West. What would you say were the most valuable lessons you learned from him?
By the time I got there, he was really tired of teaching. There was a teacher there named Richard P. Scowcroft, from Utah. He taught us at least half the time we were there. He was a much more committed teacher than Stegner. We learned more from him, but Stegner got all the credit.
How do you know when you've written a good sentence?
I take more than usual pleasure in language for its own sake. One of the real epiphanies in my life was finding a copy of Alice in Wonderland in our house as a kid. I loved all the verbal nonsense that had so much energy. I was knocked unconscious by it. To some degree when you write a page, you're looking for something that delights. You definitely feel a surge of energy when you hit that note. I'm sure that's what people feel when they play improvisatory jazz.
It's finding a way to line up all the neurons, then fire?
To a degree. Language is one of the things that give us pleasure, but as it occupies a smaller space of the cultural landscape, it still will certainly never go away. The test I often suggest to people is that they read a 1926 newspaper, then watch an old movie reel from the same time, then read The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises or As I Lay Dying. Which of the three has best preserved the consciousness of those days? Those rickety movies? Only art and literature seem to do the job.
Have you read Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, yet?
No, but I intend to. To some degree the current generation of writers has had their minds blown by Raymond Carver, who was a specialist in domestic agonies and travails. I've really been longing for a lighter heart in American literature. Dickens, Fielding and Twain were all great writers who could write with humor. We're at the point now where Dostoevksy is funnier than the average American novel. It's always possible to be perfectly serious and also humorous. I've been reading firsthand accounts from survivors of Battle of the Little Bighorn, both white and American Indian. Even in the worst of times, there were bursts of comedy in what they wrote.
Reading: Thomas McGuane
P Montana writer Thomas McGuane, promoting his latest novel, Driving on the Rim, is a literary draw for the 13th annual Utah Humanities Book Festival.
When • Saturday, Oct. 23, 2-3 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake City Main Library auditorium, 210 E. 400 South
Info • Free. Call 801-359-9670 or visit http://www.utahhumanities.org for more information.