Harrisonian Heroics

by | Apr 29, 2011

“Frankly, a writer should be a hero of consciousness.” -Jim Harrison

In 1986, novelist and poet Jim Harrison entertained Jim Fergus, an interviewer from The Paris Review, at his Michigan farm over a period of five days. Harrison was busy bird hunting and preparing elaborate meals for his guests, but he made room to talk shop. In my mind, Harrison is plain brilliant, so to “hear” him speak in this interview is a special treat. I’m especially impressed with how he continually offers up what Rilke, Rimbaud and other poets had to say on any given subject.

I’m also interested in what Harrison had to say in ’86 on “the business” of his writing. “The first seventeen years of our marriage we averaged less than ten grand a year,” he says.

Curiously, things kept going downhill. I would get cheated on the most minor little screenplay. I’d write one for money and then they wouldn’t pay me. These things kept happening. My older daughter is still angry about what we went through, and I must admit I am occasionally. But there’s nothing unique about it, and all it does is make you enormously cynical. At the end of that ghastly time I met Jack Nicholson on the set of McGuane’s movie, The Missouri Breaks. We got talking and he asked me if I had one of my novels with me, and I had one, I think it was Wolf. He read it and enjoyed it. He told me that if I ever got an idea for him, to call him up. Well, I never have any of those ideas. I wasn’t even sure what he meant. I think he said later that I was the only one he ever told that to who never called. A year afterwards, I was out in L.A. and he called up and asked me to go to a movie. It was really pleasant, and I was impressed with his interest in every art form. It was right after Cuckoo’s Nest and all these people tried to swarm all over him after the movie. Anyway, later he heard I was broke and he thought it was unseemly. So he rigged up a deal so that I could finish the book I had started, which was Legends of the Fall.

I love how Jack–who Harrison calls “an extraordinary person, really literate and intensely perceptive”–thought Harrison’s poverty unseemly. The power of a benefactor is as potent today, as ever.

Further along in the interview, Harrison is asked if he feels any pressure to write the Big Book? “I feel absolutely no pressure of any kind,” he says. “People don’t realize how irrational and decadent an act of literature is in the first place, and to feel pressure in a literary sense is hopeless.”

Previously on Burnin’: Dogs, Man and Nature | The Bear-Man of Northern Michigan | For Harrison Fans He’s Front And Center (Not Off to the Side) | If You Want to Write, Write.