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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas McGuane’

“I think I wrote Legends of the Fall in about ten days.
Jim Harrison on his novella for which the movie* was based

Though Jim Harrison’s novella Legends of the Fall is less than 100 pages long and he said he wrote it in about ten days those numbers can be deceptive. In one interview he said it usually takes him about 10 years of thinking about things by the time he finishes writing his novellas.

Before Harrison became widely known as the writer of Legends of the Fall (which became a 1994 movie and helped cement Brad Pitt as a movie star) he had long been carving away at his craft in Michigan.

He was born in rural Grayling, Michigan in 1937. In Off to the Side: A Memoir, Harrison calls Reed City, Michigan where he lived between the ages of five and twelve his “golden years.”

“My background used to embarrass me. I’d think, I want to be like Lord Byron, or Vincent van Gogh. And then I’d realize, how can a boy from a little farm town do that? I think the years I spent at manual labor as a block layer, a carpenter, a digger of well pits, have given me more physical endurance for later in my life. And in an utterly corny Sherwood Anderson way, it makes you think those long thoughts. If you’re unloading fertilizer trucks for a dollar an hour all day long, and dreaming about New York City, it really means something. I remember a month before my first book of poems came out, I was working on a house foundation and the lumber truck couldn’t get close enough to the excavation, so I had to wheelbarrow 1,200 cement blocks for about seventy yards, load them and unload them. It was a cold, icy, early November day and it took me about nine hours to do it. That day I manually handled thirty-five tons worth of cement blocks, and that was for two and a half dollars an hour. When I got home I was hungry and tired, and what I had to show for it was right around twenty-five dollars. But you got a lot of thinking done. What it does do for you is, if you can hoe corn for fifty cents an hour, day after day, you can learn how to write a novel. You have absorbed the spirit of repetition.”
Jim Harrison
The Art of Fiction No. 104, Interview with Jim Fergus

It is interesting to note that Ernest Hemingway, Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade) and Harrison all spent time hunting and fishing in the same general northern area of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. All also came from religious families who put an emphasis on reading as well as an outdoor life. And while they all wrestled with their faith it impacted their writing. All three also gravitated to living at least part of the time in the northern U.S. region of the Rocky Mountains.

McGaune and Harrison also attended Michigan State at the same time as did fellow writer Richard Ford. In 2008, Esquire magazine listed The 75 Books Every Man Should Read and placed Legends of the Fall at #23 and Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter #60.

Harrison went on to get his M.A. in comparative literature at Michigan State and then struggled to earn a living for well over a decade existing on fellowships, grants and publishing books of poetry while writing in Michigan. In interviews he has said that he never made over $10,000. a year for the first 17 years of his marriage. Then there were some tax problems, some drinking problems, cocaine, depression, followed by suicidal thoughts.

After a hunting injury he was encouraged by McGuane to try his hand at writing a novel. The result was Wolf; A False Memoir (1971). A few years later he published  A Good Day to Day and that would open the door to Hollywood where Harrison was paid well, but produced little as a screenwriter. He wrote his first screenplay in 1975 for filmmaker Frederick Weisman (though it was unproduced) and worked as a contract screenwriter though 1997.  A side benefit was hanging out with people like Orson Welles, John Huston, and Jack Nicholson.

He continued writing novels and eventually some of them found their way to getting produced as movies. Sometimes he was credited with working on the script and sometimes other screenwriters were brought in to write the scripts. Harrison’s credits include  Dalva, Carried Away, Revenge, and Wolf, along with Legends of the Fall. In 2007, Harrison was elected into the American Academy of the Arts.

These days Harrison splits his time between Montana and Arizona. When asked by The Paris Review if he had any advice for younger writers he replied:

“Just start at page one and write like a son of a bitch. Be totally familiar with the entirety of the Western literary tradition, and if you have any extra time, throw in the Eastern. Because how can you write well unless you know what passes for the best in the last three or four hundred years?”

More on Harrison tomorrow and some of his thoughts on the movie Legends of the Fall.

*The screenplay for Legends of the Fall was written by Susan Shilliday and William D. Wittliff.

Related post: Writer Jim Harrison (Part 2)

Screenwriting from Michigan

Scott W. Smith

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“I really do believe that chance favours a prepared mind. Wallace Stegner, who was one of my teachers when I was at Stanford, preached that writing a novel is not something that can be done in a sprint. That it’s a marathon. You have to pace yourself. He himself wrote two pages every day and gave himself a day off at Christmas. His argument was at the end of a year, no matter what, you’d got 700 pages and that there’s got to be something worth keeping.”
Scott Turow
Writer of Presumed Innocent interview with Robert McCrum

“Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described ‘wandering childhood’ that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California.”
Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
Wallace Stegner inVQR


Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972 (Angle of Repose) and has been called “The Dean of Western Writers.”  Though born on a farm in Iowa (and earned his Master’s and Doctorate degrees at the Iowa Writers Workshop) he really was a man of the country having lived in 20 different places (including Canada).

He taught at the University of Utah (where he did his undergraduate work), the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University before being the founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His students over the years included Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), Thomas McGuane (Ninety-Two in the Shade), Ernest Gaines (A Lesson Before Dying),  Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of America), and Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

Here is part of Stegner’s advice to a talented writer who had studied with him:

“I imagine you will always be pinched for money, for time, for a place to work. But I think you will do it. And believe me, it is not a new problem. You are in good company…Your touch is the uncommon touch; you will speak only to the thoughtful reader. And more times than once you will ask yourself whether such readers really exist at all and why you should go on projecting your words into silence like an old crazy actor playing the part of himself to an empty theater.”
Wallace Stegner
the Atlantic, To a Young Writer

And in case you are intimidated by Stegner’s academic pedigree, it may help you to know that Stegner spent part of his youth in an orphanage and once said that he didn’t grow up with any art, music (except for some folk music), or literature.  The only architecture around him was a grain elevator. In fact, he never saw a city of any kind until he was 12 years old. He once said, “Coming from nowhere. you have lots of places to go.”

In one talk, he also stressed the importance of having a sense of place and continuity, “You are members of a community—most of you. You are a members of a region, of a country, of a culture, of an ecology, a species, and if you find it as I do a ‘weed species,’ that isn’t any reason to belong to it less, or love it less, it’s only an excuse to mitigate its weediness.”

Robert Redford narrated the documentary Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life.

The Papers of Wallace Stegner can be found at the University of Iowa and are open for research.

*Back in the day, spending time in an orphanage didn’t always mean that your parents were dead, but perhaps they weren’t able to afford to raise and care for you properly. I’m not an expert on the subject, but I’m guessing that wasn’t too uncommon throughout the depression. By the way, orphanages find their way into stories because the place is so rich to explore from a perspective of the universal themes of home and belonging. And as I’ve pointed out before, orphans make for great protagonists. (See the post Orphan Characters.)

Scott W. Smith


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“As a script reader, I noticed that every variation of Die Hard had sold. Not all of them got made, but they all sold.”
Michael France (On what led him to write Cliffhanger on spec)

One of the fun things about doing a small niche blog like this is making all kinds of odd connections, which I believe is what creativity is all about. (See the post Where Do Ideas Come From?)

For instance, as I mentioned yesterday I flew out of the Tampa airport and learned that the first commercial flight ever was between St. Pete and Tampa. That led me to learn that screenwriter Michael France (Cliffhanger, Hulk) was not only born in St. Pete Beach, but lives there today. Not only that, but he owns an old movie theater there which is currently playing the Jason Reitman/George Clooney film Up in the Air that I spent several days blogging about recently. In one of those posts I mentioned that Walter Kirn, who wrote the novel Up in the Air, was once married to and has two kids with the daughter of Thomas McGuane. Well, it turns out that I found an interview with Michael France where he said his favorite book is The Buchwacked Piano by Thomas McGuane.

One big interconnected world.

In an interview with Stax at ING, France was asked, “What do you feel has been your most important professional accomplishment to date?

“I took this question a couple of different ways. My first response to this is, managing my writing career so that I’m able to live where I want – which is waaaaay out of L.A. – and spend my off hours with my wife and kids on the beach. That’s not an easy balance to pull off, and it allows me to live the way I want to, so…that’s important to me personally. But I think you probably mean artistically, so I’ll take my head out of the beach for a minute. When I was writing Hulk, I wanted to make Bruce Banner an extremely complex, emotionally sealed off character, and to make his relationship with Betty romantic but still tragic. Those dynamics are difficult to make credible even when you’re not bringing in large science fiction ideas – but I tried to make that work in balance with the large scale action scenes that you have to have with Hulk.”
Michael France

To be fair, France did do time in New York & L.A., but a screenwriter “waaaaay out of L.A.”—huh, what an interesting concept. (Of course, to pull that off, it doesn’t hurt to have a few blockbuster films to your name and Marvel’s Stan Lee in your address book.)

Though I’ve never met France, I bet in that funky, creative way our paths have crossed somewhere. We’re the same age so it may have been that Jimmy Buffett concert I went to at the University of Florida campus (where France went to school) in the early 80s (Coconut Telegraph tour if I remember correctly), maybe somewhere in L.A., but most likely it would have been St. Pete Beach where I’ve spent much time visiting over the last 30 years. In fact, I shot part of a commercial there last summer.

One thing is sure, the next time I’m down that way, I’m going to catch a movie at France’s Beach Theater after my regular fried grouper stop at The Hurricane.

Scott W. Smith

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“Anything that comes to me from the Los Angeles zip code is subjected to a 99% skepticism test.”
Walter Kirn
author Up in the Air

My third look at the film Up in the Air involves a closer look at the original writer of the book (Walter Kirn) that inspired director Jason Reitman to make the film. Kirn has solid Midwest roots being born in Ohio and raised in Minnesota. Though a jock in school he was also aware of the talents of the St. Paul writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). And he was smart enough to go to Princeton University where Fitzgerald attended for a while.

Kirn graduated from college in 1983 and moved to New York and ended up writing for a variety of magazines and published his first of several books in 1990.  His book Thumbsucker was made into a movie in 2005 starring Keanu Reeves and Vince Vaughn. Along the way he moved west to Livingston, Montana and married the daughter of actress Margot Kidder and writer Thomas McGuane. Kidder is most known for her role in Superman and McGuane for his book Ninety-Two in the Shade. Though now divorced from his wife, it would be interesting to know how the relationship with Thomas McGuane influenced Kirn’s writing development over the years.

I remember become aware of McGuane in the 70s from stories about his hanging out in Key West with the likes of Jimmy Buffett and Tennessee Williams.  In fact, Buffett has a song on the soundtrack of the 1975 film Rancho Deluxe that starred Jeff Bridges and was written by McGuane. It’s not a surprise that Kirn lives in Montana as it has a rich tradition of literary talent.  I grew up on Buffett’s early music which often had references to places in Montana like Missoula, Livingston, and Ringling, and was taken by the place and I finally got to visit the place in 1984. It’s a state built for reflecting on life. Something Kirn seems to have a knack for.

(If my facts are correct, Thomas McGuane married Jimmy Buffett’s sister in the 70s, so while Kirn was married to McGuane’s daughter he and Buffett were related.)

One thing is for sure, if Up in the Air, is nominated for an Academy Award then Kirn will have fared better in dealing with Hollywood than both Fitzgerald and McGuane. And much of that credit goes to director Reitman.

Up in the Air was first published in 2001 and was selling well until September 11, 2001 when like a lot of things the sales just dropped off. Though Kirn’s book was optioned and he had written a script based on the book it seemed doomed to never be made. But after a few years of laying dormant the book’s stock was back on the rise. Kirn writes;

“The ascent commenced with a brief email from Jason Reitman, a thirtyish film director who, at the time he wrote me, was not well known, but would soon become famous for his first two movies: Thank You for Smoking and Juno. He was writing a script from my novel, he informed me, and would get back in touch when he was finished. Right. Heard that one. Though another one of my novels, Thumbsucker, had by then become an indie, I knew from experience—my own and others’—that when Hollywood promises to get back to you, it’s best not to wait by the phone. You’ll starve to death.”

It would still be a few years before Reitman would finish the script and then several months after that when George Clooney came on board to star in the film. Kirn was starting to believe the film might actually get made. And once the film finally did get made he had a simple prayer request before he viewed the film for the first time, “Please let this not be crap.”

His prayer seems to be answered. The film is not crap, and has garnered solid reviews across the board. (91% from the top critics at Rotten Tomatoes.)

“Up in the Air is a defining movie for these perilous times.”
Peter Travers
Rolling Stone

And while the film is different from the book in many ways Kirn is glad that the DNA of the book is intact.

“(Up in the Air), which I started writing at the peak of the dot-com mania, was conceived, in part, as a morality tale about the spiritual distortions forced upon people by techno-capitalism. It was also a satirical treatment of the drive to pile up useless wealth. But mostly it was a character study of someone (or a class of someones) who I felt was invisible in literature despite being all around me in real life: the pretzel-eating, mini-bar-raiding nomad, his existence pared down to a single carry-on, but his soul the same size as everyone else’s.”
Jason Reitman
George Clooney Saved My Novel
The Daily Beast

Perhaps the film resonates with me because Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham is a character I recognize from my travels—perhaps even in myself. I flown enough over the years to earn enough frequent flyer miles to fly free to Alaska, Hawaii and Europe. On one trip to the west coast I remember being gone from home for three weeks for productions in San Diego/Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. A friend said to me on that trip, “Don’t you hate traveling?” I remember thinking, “I could live my whole life on the road.” Up in the Air is an exploration of one such character who does just that and it ends up being a reflection on our culture.

Of course, once Reitman finally got the script to the point where it could actually get made, he had to make the film and did a super job of guiding the solid cast that included Clooney, Vera Farming, Anna Kendick, and Jason Bateman.

It’s a fitting end to 2009 to be talking about another Jason Reitman film. For it was his movie Juno, based on Diablo Cody’s script (as well as her life’s story that included a stint here in Iowa) that inspired this blog in the first place. (See post Juno Has Another Baby.) Kirn sounds a lot like Cody when he talks about the Reitman’s film based on his story, “Sometimes miracles happen and this was one of them.”

Happy New Year.

Scott W. Smith


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