Juggling war and peace
Author Rick Bass, whose best short stories have been compiled in For a Little While, tells James Kidd how he reconciles his need for quietude with his fiery environmental activism
I hit the end of each morning’s work. I decompress. And then I put on my uniform and go to war Rick Bass author
There are two very different sides to Rick Bass. The first version I encounter is Rick Bass the acclaimed writer who wakes early and gets to work as quickly and quietly as he can. “Before I get too agitated. Just silence and coffee. It’s hard to go into a dream when you are too agitated. I like to slip into it unobtrusively.”
This Rick Bass could be the poet laureate of the unobtrusive. He writes by hand, he tells me, because “It’s a little quieter. You can really sneak up on a story. It’s like hunting.” This quest for tranquillity is enhanced by a preference for solitude in secluded places. The 58-year-old talks to me from a cabin in Bozeman beside the Yellowstone River that he uses when he is working as Montana State University’s first writer-in-residence. “I’m in a place called Paradise Valley. Great name.” That evening Bass will return to his permanent home in the even remoter Yaak Valley.
The word “unobtrusive” could also apply to Bass’s literary reputation. Despite a plethora of high profile awards, fellowships and admirers such as Lorrie Moore, Carl Hiaasen, Joy Williams and former Paris Review editor George Plimpton, who called Bass one of the “best writers of his generation”, he has not earned the international recognition his impressive body of work undoubtedly deserves.
If there is any justice, this situation could change thanks to For
a Little While, which collects the best of Bass’s short fiction from the past 30 years. As each of the 25 extraordinary stories illustrate, Bass specialises in emotionally intense relationships, often duos or trios, which he stages against a vividly rendered American wilderness. The physical hardships that many of his protagonists endure (hunting in frozen wastes, swimming down forest rapids, fighting fires in more suburban settings) double as existential trials. There is loss, grief and pain, but also love, tenderness and redemption. Indeed, bleakness and hope are movingly intertwined. Throughout, Bass writes sentences that lodge in the mind and haunt the imagination: “The cracks and fissures of chance, ruptures at the earth’s surface claiming the three of them, as all must be claimed – those crevasses manifesting as random occurrence but operating surely just beneath the surface in intricate balancings and alignments of fate …” (Pagans)
I find this Rick Bass at least in an upbeat mood. “I’ve had a good morning,” he tells me. “I am working on a novel, which I have been trying for 20 years. It’s moving well. I think it suffered from me knowing too much about the characters and the subject. So I just put aside everything I knew and started blind. That’s the way to go – to not know what the next day is going to bring. Everything else is gravy from here.”
Away from the writing desk, a second, very different Rick Bass emerges. “I hit the end of each morning’s work. I decompress. And then I put on my uniform and go to war.”
This is Rick Bass the environmental activist. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, he followed his father by studying geology, before working for the petroleum industry for much of the 1980s. Bass’s ambivalence about this career are expressed in the story
Lease Hound, in which an ambitious young man convinces people to sell their land so energy companies can drill for oil. Having begun writing on his lunch breaks, he finally quit the day job in 1987. Today he supports his fiction with journalism and teaching.
The war Bass is helping to wage is for the survival of the planet itself. His army are organisations such as the Yaak Valley Forest Council, Round River Conservation Studies and the Blue Skies Campaign, which protect the natural world from humankind’s increasingly destructive impact. This, he argues on his website, is the defining question facing humankind today: “if global warming (what we used to call a few short years ago “the threat of global warming”) is not the moral issue of our time, then none exists.”
Just when this threat seemed to have reached crisis point, the new political climate in Bass’s homeland raised the stakes even higher. Bass mentions he is writing an op-ed piece for a Los Angeles newspaper. About what I ask, ill-prepared for the vehemence of his response. “About Trump and his reign of terror, about his trying to take away public lands. It’s unbelievable. In a worst nightmare horror movie, you would not have such goings on.”
Earlier that morning, President Trump had announced his intention to reverse a law preventing coal companies from dumping waste in surrounding streams, many of which are used for drinking water. For Bass, such flagrant disregard for environmental concerns is only the start. “There’s no end. Everybody who is in mourning and is speechless is searching for a centre current of resistance. How do we stop this as quickly as possible? No clear way is emerging. I think it is going to have to be done the old-fashioned way through sustained protest and cultural disapprobation. The bullying aspect is alarming. The creeping edge of fascism. The militaristic component. I for one am glad that I have guns. It is pretty terrifying over here.” A committed hunter, Bass insists he is not advocating armed struggle, or not just yet. “I think the rules are changing as we speak. Fighting violence breeds more violence. By the same token I am not going to say what I will and won’t do. What we are facing is unprecedented.” Bass explains what he means: “Trump is privatising public resources. He is taking away people’s rights. It is happening so quick that everybody is having to defend their rights and their property. We are going to be left with nothing at this extrapolation.” Like many Americans, Bass was surprised at Trump’s victory last November. “I thought people were paying attention to him out of a bored sense of crude entertainment. I know there has been a long-standing protest vote against both Clintons. I overlooked that because it’s become a cultural, deep-set attitude. I think it really came into play.”
In fact, Bass suspects he would have had substantive problems with a Hillary Clinton administration, especially over the environment. He was a vocal critic of Barack Obama’s policies, landing in hot water on several occasions. In 2012, Bass was arrested during an anti-coal demonstration in Missoula. A year later he was arrested in front of the White House alongside actress Daryl Hannah, American poet laureate Robert Hass and environmental guru Bill McKibben for (successfully) protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline. “We would have had our hands full as environmentalists with Hillary. I don’t think she would have been a great champion for the environment. I think she would have been too easily a pleaser of big business. But she certainly would not have been threatening judges and would not have made the appointments Trump has made. We would have easier battles against Clinton than we have against Trump.”
I wonder how Bass navigates the apparent divides and tensions in his own nature: does the meditative writer and vociferous campaigner ever come into conflict? “I try to keep a firewall between the two. What makes good art for me, which is to say pretty sentences and luminous or intriguing stories, does not come from terror or fright or even discontent. It comes from a celebration of mystery and beauty. Those are the great, rich wellsprings for me, as a reader and what I strive for as a writer.”
He admits that stories such as Pagans or Titan do blur the line. “I was aware that Rick the environmentalist was on the horizon. If I see that guy coming over the hill I am going to shoot at him. It’s like having two jobs. I just have to remember who I am working for,“he says with a laugh.
Both Bass and his nation have arrived at turning points. For a
Little While marks the end of one creative period and start of a new one. Trump represents a rather different pivot. While Bass admits to fear and pessimism, he says there isn’t time to sit back and complain. So, I ask before he heads back to war, what can concerned citizens do? “Speak out. Large gatherings, small gatherings. Protest marches. Inundation of op-ed and letters. The person-to-person conversations we are seeing are a start.”
Above all, Bass advocates working in the local community. “You can have a huge influence,” he says before passionately speaking about his 20-year association with the Yaak Valley Forest Council, which protects the natural resources around his very home. These areas are newly threatened by Trump’s promise to de-regulate public land. Bass is irate. But if I didn’t know better, I might say that he almost welcomes the coming battles. “We are digging in and fighting,” he says defiantly. “It is terrifying if we lose. But it feels good to be doing something.”
Rick Bass’s stories tend to centre on emotionally intense relationships against the backdrop of American wilderness.
For a Little While Rick Bass Pushkin Press Dh78