Did you have jobs to support yourself before your writing success?
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.
AJHow did you feel about guiding as a profession?
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.”
AJI hear permit’s pretty good eating. I’ve obviously never eaten it, but …
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 Anglers Journal
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.
AJ 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?
AJ 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
Mcguane We kind of invented what?
AJ 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.
AJ 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.
AJ Were this 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.
AJ 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.
AJ 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.
AJ 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.
AJ 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.
The writer sometimes wonders whether he should have spent more time outdoors and less time writing.
He might have been a poor caster, but the “mailman” always put the fly in the perfect spot — right through the slot.
Reflecting on the changes in Montana, Mcguane says Bozeman is the only town he’s been in where soccer moms will give you the finger.