On Being an Outdoor Writer: A Pseudo Interview with The New York Times
|Mark Twain's Greatest|
Each Sunday, the New York Times publishes in the Book Review section an interview with a noted author. Most have or had fiction on the Best Seller roster. Since I have not had fiction on the Best Seller list, Iím unlikely to be interviewed. So, using mostly questions from the Times with some variation to suit the occasion, Iím going to interview myself.
What books are on your bedside table? My bedside table includes the floor close to the bed. The floor is where most of my magazines go before they are read. On the table, Iím finishing Thomas C. Grubb, The Mind of the Trout. Itís an analysis of trout based on optimum foraging behavior. Iíve also got Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence. Wilson is a biologist at Harvard and Iíve read several of his books. And in the stack is Paul Kerlinger, How Birds Migrate. Outdoor writers need to have a good grounding in biology and not just in the areas they write about most frequently and Iíve always been interested in birds. Baseball has been a life-long passion and Iím reading Michael A. Humphrey, Wizardry: Baseballís Greatest Fielders Revealed.
What stirred your interest in books and writing? My interest in books goes back to the beginning. Before I could read for myself Dad read aloud Treasure Island and Huckleberry Finn. I still remember the horror I felt when Blind Pew was run down on the bridge. When Craig was in the crib I read Treasure Island to him, but he did not care for Huckleberry Finn. In the intervening years, Iíve read those books multiple times each. That Dad thought books were important was a more significant matter than the subject of the readings. And I learned a critical lesson from the librarian in the small town where I lived. The library was only open a few hours, a few days. Mom let me walk to the library on my own. No one would let a kid do that now. When I got there the librarian Ė a very old woman, must have been 40 Ė asked me what kinds of books I liked. I told her I read a book about Robin Hood and enjoyed it. She said the book is right over here and sometimes books are worth reading more than once, so I took it. A few years ago I was in a remainder shop and saw a paperback Robin Hood for 95 cents. I bought it and it had to be the same because I could anticipate some of the events. Books are worth reading more than once Ė at least some are.
Norman Maclean published A River Runs Through It late in life. Most of his career was as a University of Chicago Professor of Shakespeare. Does that tell you anything about writing as a career? Well, Macleanís wonderful little volume is not about fishing. Fishing is in it, but thatís not what the book is about. Itís about the same subject as Kinselaís Field of Dreams which is superficially about baseball. What Macleanís career tells me is to write well, you have to read well. Two of my favorite contemporary writers, Ivan Doig and Jim Harrison, both have advanced degrees in history and literature. True North by Jim Harrison features Michiganís Upper Peninsula, including several small towns I know very well. Harrison nails them.
You are having a dinner party. What three writers in the same genre you write in would you invite? Rather than a dinner party, I think we would do better with pancakes in some cabin in the woods. Real maple syrup. Izaak Walton wrote the classic The Complete Angler. I read and re-read that book. One of my favorite Walton tenets is an angler cannot lose a fish ďfor no man can lose what he never had.Ē John Gierach would add a contemporary perspective. Gierach writes a column for each issue of Fly Rod and Reel. His columns are collected into books and I have most of them. Not usually thought of as an outdoor writer, Iíd also include Thomas McGuane. McGuane writes fiction, but he also collected essays into The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing. What do these authors have in common, besides fishing? They write about fishing as a mirror on life. The conversation would be about more than where-to, how-to. If youíd let me add another, Iíd toss in Robert Traver, author of Anatomy of a Murder. Traver, actually a retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice, wrote several books superficially about trout fishing in northern Michigan but really about the enduring issues of life.
How would you describe your best writing? Most of what Iíve written in the years since I published my first article in the early 1980s has been where-to, how-to. Where can I go to catch some fish and when I get there, how can I catch them? But my best writing, and I think this is true of most of us, is narrative. My narratives meet the standard Huck Finn said Mark Twain set in Tom Sawyer. Huck said Twain, ďtold the truth, mainly.Ē Thatís what I do, I tell the truth, mainly. Several people have told me when they read about themselves, ďThatís really what happened.Ē Larry Barden, a good friend who has appeared in a number of my pieces, has often asked how I got the quotations Ė did I have a notebook he never saw? Did I record somehow? Or did I just remember? My book, Quetico Adventures, is principally narrative style.
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves? I read widely. One of the things Iíve tried to do since I retired is to restore, perhaps extend, my liberal arts education, a thrust I had to put aside when I taught. Iíve read some of the Russian novelists, War and Peace by Tolstoy, a couple of novels by Dostoevsky, though The Brothers Karamazov sits here unread. Craig, my son, and his girlfriend got me an APP for my phone which plays audio books over the radio in the truck. Iím most of the way through Cervantes, Don Quixote. Lots of biology books. Sitting here is Richard Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth and a friend sent me Gary Parker, Creation: Facts of Life: How Real Science Reveals the Hand of God. While Iím not reading the professional literature anymore, Iíve always thought I could have passed the PhD. written exams in American political history. Iíve been reading biographies of presidents. Iím about half way through, though some presidents have had multiple readings.
What books encouraged you to become an outdoor writer? I donít know that books had much to do with it. When I was in high school, I devoured Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Sports Afield. It occurred to me a couple of years ago that my folks subscribed to the magazines so I would stay home and read rather than run with the crowd. It worked. When the family traveled, we often played ďWhatís My Line?Ē based on the popular TV show. I could never last very long as I picked one of the fishing writers or a Detroit Tiger baseball player. Certainly one of the crucially important books was Ray Bergmanís Trout. Once when I came off the North Fork of the AuSable River, Mom said, ďThe man who was fishing there and came up ahead of you Ė he looked just like the man on the back of that book.Ē Was I fishing with Ray Bergman?
When you are asked how to become an outdoor writer, what do you tell them? Read well, write often. About five years after I began publishing outdoor articles I got a phone call. Chap wanted to become a writer and asked how to submit an article. I told him whom to contact and to submit clean copy, no typos, no grammatical errors, no spelling errors. He answered, ďI canít do that. Thatís why magazines have editors.Ē Iíve used my answer many times since. I told him, ďWell, look at it this way. Itís Friday afternoon and the editor has two articles on the desk, yours and mine, and one space to put it in. Getís a phone call saying to remember to pick up Susie at soccer practice, stop at the store and get a quart of milk, and not be late because there is a dinner party in the evening. Which article do you think the editor will buy?Ē
Last updated on November 29,2015