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Author Tom McGuane Talks 'Crow Fair,' Police Killings And The Art Of The Short Story

03/09/2015 09:57 am ET
Ulf Andersen via Getty Images

It was early March and starting to snow heavily outside his hotel in Midtown, but the unseasonable blizzard didn’t seem to have chilled Tom McGuane's enthusiasm. “I’ve been going like a house afire,” he said, counting off the interviews he’d done that day and The New Yorker fiction podcast he’d recorded for the press tour promoting his new short story collection, Crow Fair.

McGuane, 75, was in New York City for a whirlwind visit from the Montana ranch where he lives with his wife, Laurie Buffett, and his schedule seemed to be packed. McGuane admits he still feels as vital as ever, though several stories in the book seem to betray a preoccupation with the burdens of aging. “I’m doing pretty much what I did forty years ago,” he explained, which is saying something for a man who’s won cutting horse championships and run a working ranch. “I am kind of delusional about it, because I haven’t had a lot of the problems that are associated with aging yet.”

Profiles of McGuane often nod to how significantly he’s changed since the ‘70s, when his turbulent, divorce-prone lifestyle earned him the moniker “Captain Berserko.” Since his marriage to Laurie, which he’s described as extremely happy, these problems seem to have ebbed away, leaving behind a dedicated writer and rancher living a quiet country life for the past few decades.

His prose has undergone a similar evolution, from the explosively comical first novels to the subdued, pared down stories of Crow Fair, which deliver their moments of dark humor in the form of almost absurdly passive protagonists and imperceptibly tragic moments.

The Huffington Post spoke with McGuane about his stunning new collection, why we keep our frenemies, the rise of extrajudicial police killings and much more:

Why he’s become a more prolific short story writer in recent years:
“It took me a long time to know enough about writing to really write short stories. You can’t just immerse yourself, as you do in a novel, and see where everything goes. Novels are a very flexible, accommodating form. Short stories aren’t.”

On the state of contemporary literature:
“When I look around for writers who are really cutting edge and really hold my attention and the general array of stuff out there, I find myself more interested in short story writers than novelists. That said, I’ve started a novel, and that’s probably what I’ll do again, but I really love short stories. It’s a characteristically American form, and something we’ve always done well in this country.”

“There’s no shortage of good writers right now. It’s amazing because of all the information about the decline of the book culture or the decline of print -- obviously we occupy a smaller part of the array of artistic communication out there, but it doesn’t seem to be weakening.”

On working with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman:
“She understands not only what I do well, she understands what I do poorly.”

On writing spare, restrained prose:
“Probably, subliminally, I think of the reader as a kind of collaborator. I don’t want to say something for the reader that the reader could have said for himself. I’ve trained a lot of horses, and one of the rules is “Never ask a horse to do something that he was going to do anyway.” And it sort of applies to readers. I don’t want to say something that would be better unsaid, and second-guesses the intelligence of the reader.

“I’m not as in love with language-driven fiction as I used to be. I’m very interested in the idea of one perception leading to another, and you keep it clean and direct and get on with it. So I think my writing’s probably getting sparer. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so spare. I read writers who have a wonderful lyrical streak, and I think, you know, why don’t I take more time with my sunsets? [Laughs]"

Why he writes passive characters:
“I am drawn to the idea of people drifting into the worst mistakes of their lives. And the inability to identify their approach.

“I’ve learned that people don’t seem to be as sufficiently proactive in their lives. You wonder how sweeping things can happen to people like what happens to the people who end up in ISIS or what happened to the people who end up in Nazism.... People are swept by rock and roll fads or celebrity fads; there’s a real impulse, a passive impulse, of people to be swept up in bigger things, and it’s kind of a bad idea, so I like to write about how that goes haywire.”

Why it’s so difficult to really know each other:
“One of the illusions that we live by is that we can really know anybody else, and we’re often surprised by traits in people that we thought we knew very well. The struggle to overcome loneliness, which is sort of our universal burden, leads us to leap to conclusions about who other people are. The comic version of it would be if some well-to-do old guy marries some piquant young woman who he thinks will really fit into his life, and she turns out to be mean and deceitful. [Laughs] All the things that he wouldn’t have predicted by how cute she was when they went out to dinner. “

Why we hold on to friendships with people we dislike:
“A lot of relationships of any kind, including friendship, are based on very sketchy information, and by the time the thing develops it’s sort of no-exit, but it’s based on flawed assumptions. I have friends like that. I have friends I’ve had for decades who drive me crazy. Don’t you?”

Coming to the realization that friends, like significant others, can be disappointing “reinforces your feeling of generalized loneliness,” McGuane noted.

On the importance of the landscape to Western literature:
“I feel very strongly about the landscape that I live in, and I feel umbilically tied to it in a way, and to the rivers and wildlife and human populations. For some reason it’s an emotional attachment that I feel, and I don’t think I’m particularly unique in feeling that way about it. It’s a feeling that you wouldn’t strongly have living in New York. There are other things you’d love about living in New York, but it wouldn’t be the landscape, or the skyscape, or the river. All of these things are here, but the humanscape is what presses itself on you here.”

“For better or for worse, where I live, you really know everything about everybody else, there’s very little, on a certain level, privacy. That’s a little claustrophobic in some ways, but when you’re writing you can see these people in three dimensions.”

The problem with the dream of land ownership:
“The only mistake people make is that they think the relationship with the land is best served by owning it, which is something the Indians could never understand. That just seemed outlandish to them, any more than owning air or water. I think people still make that mistake, I mean they want to own thousands of acres. I have owned a lot of land, but I considered it sort of illusory. It just meant that I got to do what I wanted with it for a while.”

Why he feels nostalgic for the America of his youth:
“I remember reading Eudora Welty ... she said she and her family used to drive to Ohio from Mississippi. She said she remembered each town, as you rolled along the highway, was as individualized as a human face, and you would recognize them along the way ... There was a kind of definitiveness that in my lifetime has kind of disappeared. She said the last time she went up there it all kind of ran together.

“The distinctiveness of the West or other places has become a bit cloudier, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad but I think it’s inevitable.”

On the Midwest:
“I’m from the Midwest originally -- it’s always the case in the Midwest that people want to get out.

“One of the things that I really liked about the Midwest was there wasn’t this kind of self-consciousness that New England has or that the West has. I mean everyone in the West is sort of vain about its natural attributes, and it gets kind of tiresome.”

Why he’s frustrated with America today:
“Right now it seems like the country is pretty close to being ungovernable. Maybe this is the point of view you have from living in Montana, but from afar it seems like the government of the United States is pretty close to dysfunctional. And it also seems like the uniting idealism that used to be part of national life, where people felt like, ‘We have all these problems but we’re in this together,’ that seems to be gone. There seems to be a rise of this kind of septic regionalism. It’s an angrier country than I remember. If I were going to put it in Hallmark card terms, I would say we don’t seem to love each other as we once did. [Laughs]"

McGuane also expressed anger over the failures of campaign finance reform, saying, “[Politicians] could just submit a list of their donors and you’d know their positions, and that would be that.”

On recent police killings of unarmed men and women:
“You hardly pick up the newspapers at all anymore without some homeless person in handcuffs who’s been shot, or some terrible thing like that. It’s getting to be common. I don’t know why. I don’t think it’s because police are getting more wicked. I think it’s a kind of aloofness toward our fellow citizens.

He’s also baffled by the extent of violent imagery in popular entertainment:
“You never see a teaser for a film on television that doesn’t have someone running around a corner with a gun. Have you noticed that? …. I think Hollywood has as much responsibility for gun violence as the National Rifle Association.”

...And addressing that in a story, “Shaman,” in his collection:
“I wanted to have, not a Christ-like figure, but a figure of benign innocence as the victim of this kind of shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality that’s swept the country.”

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