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Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie

31 March 2016

From The New Yorker:

The first chapter of Jim Harrison’s first novel, “Wolf,” begins with a two-page sentence. Jim said it was vanity, that he wanted to show it could be done, because he was a young writer and hungry. That was in 1971. A few years later, when I was starting to work with him, I asked if his editor had tried to do something with that first sentence.

“Of course,” he said, wearily, as if in my tragic inexperience I was unable to grasp the basic construct of editing him. Jim did little revising and was proud of it. Rewriting was for people who hadn’t worked everything out early—not for Jim, who insisted he always thought things through before he wrote anything down. As for editors, why should he let them fool with his choices? They were not, as he had explained to me when we first met, writers. He also liked to note that he was a poet and “editors don’t change poems.”

“I wouldn’t change any of your poems either,” I said, but when it came to his journalism I wasn’t so sure. Being above editing was a pose some writers found situationally useful the way some children are “allergic” to lima beans. It was the foot Jim liked to get off on, and, sure enough, we tangled over copy our first time around. I was at Outside magazine and suggested that his lede on a piece about Key West was really the second paragraph and that the first paragraph should be the kicker. He hung up on me.

I got an immediate follow-up call from his agent, Bob Datilla, a tough, reasonable guy.

. . . .

Some writers set themselves up so they can work with a view—the mountains, the sea, a river, perhaps an interesting cityscape. Others work closed-in, with no distractions, just their desk and whatever they have on the wall in front of them. Jim lived on a farm in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, fifty miles from where he was born. There was also a cabin on sixty acres off a two-track road five hours north by car, beyond Grand Marais on the Upper Peninsula, where he sometimes retreated to write. But he worked best from two to four in the afternoon in a tight place like the one-room ranch cabin in Patagonia, Arizona, with small windows and a twenty-year out-of-date calendar on the back of the door, the winter place Jim’s early screenwriting money had paid for. A journalist sent from New York to interview him had walked with Jim the half mile from the main house to the writing cabin and asked if it was a movie set. This turned into a story Jim would tell about what he saw as the double misunderstanding about his work, because no, he wasn’t in the movie business. Not really, anyway.

The stories about Jim’s adventures writing for film began when Jack Nicholson loaned him thirty thousand dollars to live on for the time it would take to write three novellas that might make good movies. They could also be published together as a book, which was more important to Jim. He had a draft of “Legends of the Fall” in ten days and was done with the second, “Revenge,” in another two weeks.

. . . .

 For years after, the prominent blurb on the paperback editions of all of Jim’s books was from Bernard Levin, in the Sunday Times of London, about the “Legends of the Fall” collection: “Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him.”

. . . .

 Jim’s books had always sold very well in France, and when I heard that “Mozart de Prairie” was the headline of a story about him on the arts front of Le Monde, I looked for it and found many pieces in French newspapers about him, but none with that headline. Maybe it was apocryphal. If it had run, I hoped the photo was the one of Jim as a young poet in overalls without an undershirt, leaning back with his arms spread across the side of a farm horse.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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