A Conversation with Thomas McGuane - Anglers Journal - A Fishing Life
The writer reflects on fishing, the old days and his work.

Art by Derek DeYoung

Since publishing his first novel in the late 1960s, Thomas McGuane has gone on to create a large body of work — novels, screenplays, short fiction and essays — beloved by sportsmen and literary critics alike. McGuane is the only individual to be an inductee into the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame, the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. While novels such as Ninety-Two in the Shade and Nobody’s Angel established him as a true literary talent, McGuane’s most recent book, Cloudbursts, cements his legacy as one of the foremost practitioners of the short-story form.

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We caught up with the longtime resident of southwest Montana at his winter residence in Florida. He was kind enough to take a break from tarpon fishing to talk with us about, among other things, the good old days in Key West, the changes he sees coming to Montana and his long friendship with Jim Harrison, who died in March 2016.

Anglers Journal
This past March you published your latest book, Cloudbursts. According to my count, this is your 17th. As a prolific writer with a well-documented love for the outdoors, do you ever feel as if you should have gone fishing, or hunting, or riding more, and written less?

McGuane
I feel that all the time. In fact, at this elevated age, I look back and think, Oh my God. All the time I was trying to write and a lot of times it went nowhere. I had thousands, millions of hours produce nothing. I always remember, it was a beautiful day in July, and the PMDs were hatching on the spring creeks in Paradise Valley. I was in my little office hunched over trying to blacken a page, and Russ Chatham came by and said, “I just can’t believe how great the fishing is down at Nelson’s. Let’s go down there.” And I said, “No, man. I’m trying to write.” He started to leave, and then he turned back and looked me in the eye and he said, “I couldn’t live like that.” I’ve never forgotten it. It was — what you call in literature — a stinging rebuke.

Anglers Journal
Did you have jobs to support yourself before your writing success?

McGuane
I worked on a ranch in Wyoming several times. I used to work in gas stations when I was a kid. I liked working in gas stations. I learned how to do brake jobs. And so when I went out to Wyoming hoping to be a cowboy, they quickly found out that I knew how to do brake jobs. So I went ranch to ranch doing brake jobs. But I was lucky — I got a pretty early start writing. I was able to hide from reality in graduate school, and then not too long after that I was able to publish. Also, I had a friend who was a really great guide in the Keys who would give me two clients — he hoped never to see again — a week. People who were either drunk or couldn’t cast, or something. Back in those days it was easier. You’d see sawfish; you’d see bonefish on every trip; you’d see permit; you’d see tarpon. You didn’t have to know anything. It was so innocent.

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Anglers Journal
How did you feel about guiding as a profession?

McGuane
I was definitely the low man on the totem pole. But it was a bit of a boost for my economics. The one thing I noticed about it, though, especially in that saltwater environment, it was a very tense job. Most of the guides had been at it for years and years; they had a lot of problems. I knew two of them that committed suicide. I knew several who had major alcohol problems and things like that. A lot of the guys that I knew carried a gun. There were guides that felt like they owned their section of the Keys. The guide who was the model for the bad guy in Ninety-Two in the Shade was a convicted murderer from Appalachia, who was a great fisherman. Great bait fisherman. And he was a very dangerous guy. He would scare the shit out of you. I remember the first time that I met him. I came in to the dock; I had about a 25-pound permit laying across the foredeck, and I was pretty proud of it. He walked over, and he said in his Appalachian accent, “That’ll fry up pretty good.”

Anglers Journal
I hear permit’s pretty good eating. I’ve obviously never eaten it, but …

McGuane
Yeah, it’s terrific. It’s not as good as manatee, but it’s good. But seriously, Del Brown — the guy that invented the merkin crab — he ate about every permit he caught. He had a little hotel room in Marathon, and he would pack those suckers home. He was really secretive. If I pulled my boat over to see how they were doing, he had this thing with a little snap covering, and he’d run get his rod, and he’d snap it over the fly so I couldn’t see what he was using. He was a terrible caster, but the fly would always land in the perfect place. We used to call him the mailman because he just put it through a slot.

Anglers Journal
I’ve definitely learned from guiding that there are people who can cast and people who can catch fish. And they’re not always the same people.

McGuane
Fascinating isn’t it?

Anglers Journal
Speaking of the Florida Keys, I’ve always wanted to ask you about the movie Tarpon. It was filmed in the early ’70s, and it’s become a cult classic, with appearances by you, Jim Harrison and Richard Brautigan, among others. When you were making this, did you have any idea that people would still be interested in it decades later? I feel like, whether you realized it or not, you guys kind of invented what all the kids are doing now with their GoPro cameras.

McGuane
We kind of invented what?

Anglers Journal
What all the kids are doing now with their GoPros.

McGuane
Oh. That was really Guy Valdene’s work, and then his brother-in-law, who was a very renowned French cinematographer. And then Buffet was there to do the music. You know, I didn’t have too much to do with it really, because I was being driven from dawn to dark by my fear of failure. I was trying to write. I’m still trying to get over that compulsion.

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Anglers Journal
It’s been two years since Jim Harrison died. He was a longtime friend of yours, and you two kept up a faithful correspondence over the years. With what sort of frequency did you write each other?

McGuane
We wrote each other weekly at a bare minimum for probably 40 years, I would say. There have been attempts to republish these things, and I’ve always been a little reluctant to go along with it because my letters were painfully candid. And they’re full of things that I wouldn’t want anybody to see. But Jim was much more guarded, I think, than I, although that doesn’t make his letters any less brilliant. They were fantastic, but they were meant to be published eventually. Since the paradigm was a little bit askew in that sense, I was never really keen to get them published. I’ll probably give in at some point but not yet. I want to take the dirty stuff out.

Anglers Journal
Were these literary discussions, or were they just what was going on in your life? Or some combination of those things?

McGuane
A little of both. We talked a lot about what we were reading. Jim was just a remarkable reader. One thing that Jim had going for him — and I knew him as a young man and as an old man — was that he was really, really, really smart. And he had an extraordinary commitment to the idea of being an artist and what that meant. Seems a little bit old fashioned these days. And, in fact, I didn’t always agree with him that we belonged to a separate society with separate rules. But it was a pure flame for him, and I still look at it with a real respect. He was one of a kind, and one of the things that I envy most about Jim was he was really independent in some remarkable ways. He did lots of things that you really had to not give a shit to be able to do. When I think of somebody else who was as radical a personality, I think of Hunter Thompson. However, I think Thompson really had one eye on the audience when he was pulling his antics. Much more than Jim. Jim did what he felt like doing and waited for somebody to throw a drink in his face to come out of the reverie.

Anglers Journal
You’ve been living in Montana since the ’60s. How did that come about?

McGuane
In 1968 I came straight from the writing workshop at Stanford. I’d been in Bolinas for a year, and I had a lot of fishing pals there. We used to black out our faces and go night fishing on private ponds and stuff like that. We’re all fishing nuts, and we went up to Montana to fish. I think I had $600 left from my fellowship, and while I was there my first book was published. I thought at some point I’d figure out where I was gonna live and what I was gonna do. I had applied for teaching jobs at about 30 places, and I got not one reply. But then my first book came out, and it made a little bit of money. There was a movie sale. It allowed me to avoid making a decision. And 50 years came and went.

Anglers Journal
Do you have any thoughts on the direction Montana is going, how it’s changed since you got there?

McGuane
Well, it has changed a lot. Bozeman is the only town I’ve ever been in where soccer moms will give you the finger. It’s gotten very intense over there. You know, I have mixed feelings about it because there are probably more people I can talk to in Montana than ever before. I live in the most conservative county in Montana, and I’m the typical progressive art guy, but my society is way to the right. Almost alt-right. That can sometimes — if I missed my breakfast or something — be suffocating.

Anglers Journal
Thoughts for the future? Are you going to write more stories? Do you have another novel in you?

McGuane
Both. I’d like to do both. I feel like I’m getting pretty old, but I seem to be lucky with age. I’m doing everything that I ever did before. I don’t seem to be worried about short term memory loss or those sorts of things.

Anglers Journal
You stopped drinking at the right time. That probably helped, right?

McGuane
Oh, yeah. It sure did. I tried to get Harrison to give it a whirl but never got anywhere with him. Even bribed him to quit smoking one time. I had gotten a movie sale or something, and I said to him, “I’m gonna give you some of this money if you quit smoking.” He took it and kept smoking.

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