Jim Harrison: Literary Shape-Shifter

Shape-shifter: noun; 1887: one that seems able to change form at will.
—Merriam Webster”s Collegiate Dictionary

Jim Harrison—novelist, poet, screenwriter, outdoorsman, gourmet cook, world traveler, Zen Buddhist, father, and husband of 40 years—straddles a precarious line. It”s one that pretty much all writers struggle with: the line of intimacy you must cross in order to be absorbed by your characters. It”s a line that a less devoted writer will never cross. Harrison explains: “You have to temporarily be the character in order to understand him. It”s sort of what they used to call ”shape-shifting”.” His choice of terminology reflects both Harrison”s love and respect for Native American teachings, as well as his practice of Zen Buddhism. “Zen is what keeps me alive more than anything,” he says. In his essay “Everyday Life, the Question of Zen,” Harrison declares: “Without (Zen) I”d be dead as a doornail since I have been a man, at times, of intemperate habits.”

Harrison, the Northern Michigan writer who has hitch-hiked from one ocean to another, winters in the Arizona desert, and sojourns to France as often as possible, has said that Michigan is the only place he has ever been able to write. Often based in the woods or wide-open spaces of America”s heartland, Harrison”s stories richly explore the cycles of family relationships, and are earth-dampened, taut with muscle-flexing and vengeance, and crackling with the bygone fires of woodsmen and Native Americans.

Since 1971, Harrison has written 11 novels, four screenplays, nine books of poetry, and innumerable works of nonfiction, including articles for Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and Playboy. Now, of all things, he”s also written a children”s book titled The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (Atlantic Monthly Press). Harrison, blinded in his left eye from a childhood injury, explains: “I wrote this children”s book because my grandson asked me how my eye was hurt, and the only adequate explanation seemed, to me, to be a story where I could tell the whole thing. So The Boy Who Ran to the Woods is completely true.”

Not only is it completely true, it”s also an example of Harrison becoming someone else for the sake of a story. In this case, he became Little Jimmy, the hero of the story and the little boy he used to be. After his tragic injury, Harrison “had become the King of the Wild Boys, which is not something to brag about.” He began causing trouble in school and getting poor grades. In an attempt to tame him, his father and uncle took him on a trip deep into the woods. His father said: “you”re a wild boy, and this is a good place to be wild.” After a few weeks of crazed running through the woods, Jimmy slowed his pace and began to discover some things. He learned that if he crept quietly he wouldn”t frighten birds, and could observe them in their nests. He noticed snakes and turtles sunning themselves, and learned how to caw with the crows. He slept outside. He rose at down and swam with loons. He learned to use a compass, to fish, and to hunt. He became self-reliant. He also learned that nature would always be there for him when he needed solace. The woods became the setting for his life.

Nature is also central to his characters” lives. If his characters do end up in a city, they are usually pining for the country—possibly an echo of Harrison”s time spent as a university professor. “Universities are in the wrong places,” he says. “I like to live in the country, and universities are always in the cities or suburbs. It seems the soul life of an area—to me, at least—resides in its landscape. The Sand Hills of Nebraska, for instance, are like some kind of dream landscape. I mean, we”re animals. We”re sensual creatures, and it is sights, sounds, and smells that jog our over-intellectualized brains.”

To help induce this “jogging,” Harrison will get in his car and drive for weeks, with his only destination being “to gather new memories.” He mentally collects the aforementioned sensualities of sights, sounds, and smells that he can nurture into stories and characters. For example, he says, “the novel Farmer came from the smell of a weed. There”s a ground ivy that”s in all barnyards. Dalva came from that Edward Hopper painting of a girl looking out a window in the evening.”

Harrison describes further: “Sometimes you enter some characters more than others.” The novels Dalva and its sequel The Road Home follow the lives of the Northridge family beginning in frontier days. Dalva, the title character, is one that Harrison says he “entered too deeply for real sanity at the time.” Not only is Dalva a woman seeking her identity, but “the woman I wanted to be in love with,” Harrison says. The transition to a feminine point of view shows Harrison”s ability to shape-shift, or as he has described, engage in a Buddhist process in which he will “totally abnegate” his own personality to become the character. That critics had accused Harrison of being a “macho fiction writer” for many years made the successful transition into a woman”s point of view particularly satisfying.

Dalva is not the only time Harrison has successfully ”become” a woman. He did so again, as Clare, in the novella The Woman Lit By Fireflies, and again as Julip in the novel of the same name. But, he says, “Dalva nearly killed me. Both my eardrums were broken because I had different kinds of flue and viruses, and I ignored them totally until I was about dead. But I guess it was worth it.”

Once he has transported himself into his character”s world, how exactly does he get the story written? “I don”t think it matters how fast you write. It”s how long you thought about it. I like to think of it as a well filling up. I think about it until the well is full, and then I let go.” For example, at a 1997 lecture Harrison mentioned that he wrote Legends of the Fall in only nine days, “but I thought about it for three years.” As he said in a 1996 interview: “You have to get it all down before you change your mind. The alternative is not bothering to write at all. That”s something you”re fighting all the time, what Tom McGuane calls ”the loss of cabin pressure.””

Of course, at some point a writer must let a character go and shape-shift back to his previous form, a regular person who pays telephone bills and watches television and has to change his socks. When he releases that character he has been for so long, is it like grieving a loss? “I do mourn my characters,” Harrison says. “I wrote an essay once where I was sure that far back in a marsh there was a hummock—a little hill of hardwoods—and an old farm house, where all the heroines in my novels lived together with all my beloved dead dogs.” He laughs: “I”ve discussed this with my therapist, naturally. He says it”s okay in fair amounts.

“I know actresses and actors who have the same problem. See, they get into the character so completely that it”s sometimes hard to get out of the character. Although Jack Nicholson said ”you gotta do something completely different,” and in fact after the finishing of Brown Dog it was helpful to go immediately to Paris.”

Brown Dog also known as B.D., is a self-reliant woodsman from, aptly, Northern Michigan. He”s a comic hero who appears in three of Harrison”s stories, including his 2000 novella The Beast God Forgot to Invent. “Brown Dog is my continuing survival mechanism. You know, what I can fall back on. I have a remote cabin and when I”m unhappy with the world I just retreat to that reality. Brown Dog”s reality. He”s living art in a sense that he”s very resilient. He”s very similar to a lot of stories about Native American tricksters.” (The trickster is often portrayed in Native American stories in the physical form of Coyote, a crafty figure who plays tricks on people or is the butt of other people”s jokes.) B.D., like Harrison, is a man fulfilled by the simplest of lives. B.D. states in The Woman Lit By Fireflies, “My favorite thing is just walking in the woods. I can do it for days on end without tiring of it.” Says Harrision: “Brown Dog gets into horrible situations but he manages to get out. That”s why I like him.”

Much like Brown Dog, Harrison has suffered horrible situations and gotten out as well. His low points include financial struggles and ensuing depressions early in his writing career. His lowest, most painful point was the sudden death of his father and sister in an automobile accident. “I was 21, and I thought, ”well, if this can happen, you better do what your heart tells you to do, because you just might die for no reason.” Either as a result of—or in spite of—his personal familiarity with loss, his writing embraces the natural cycles of life, including, of course, death. “It seems to me that in America particularly, we have an unreasonable preoccupation with the idea that we might never get old and die. I heard on the radio that the only way to escape growing old is to die young.” The loss of his family members didn”t directly nudge him into writing more, “but it”s a calling,” he says. “And you give your entire heart to your calling. Period.”

That”s a struggle many writers deal with: balancing “giving your heart to your calling” with giving your heart and time to your family. “Don”t do it unless you”re going to give your life to it,” he says. Yet, he has two daughters, “and I”m still married after 40 years, and hardly anyone is married to the same person after 40 years.” He explains how he has managed to give his life to writing and maintain a family life: “Well, what my family always wanted was a small farm, and that”s what we”ve lived on for 30 years. They committed to it. My wife was always a great reader, and so were my daughters, so they knew that that was what was most important. We lived very cheaply for 20 years before I had any kind of success, but it was worth it, you know?”

Indeed. One portion of his success has come from screenwriting. He has written the screenplays for the films Wolf, Legends of the Fall, Carried Away, and Revenge. For Harrison, the process of writing for films is different from writing other works of fiction. “When you write for the screen, you have to see it before you write it down. You have to frame. Your imagination is just this frame, like in a movie. That”s not hard because I have to see what I write anyway. You know, I imagine it in visual terms. I started out trying to be a painter, actually, when I was a teenager. That”s such a large part of my imagination, visual. Things look more interesting in my head.”

Does he have any favorite adaptations of his books? “My favorite is the one that nobody”s seen, which is Carried Away,” he says. I think that one is the most accurate rendition of my work. Dennis Hopper was so perfectly a farmer, even the peculiar way he sort of looks up from underneath the brim of his hat, rather than raise the brim,” he laughs. “Hopper was incredible, and so was Amy Irving as Rosalee. She was right on the money.” Of his other adaptations, he says: “Nicholson had the character down right in Wolf, but I had too many quarrels with the director changing it too much. The made it too housebroken. Wolf is a wild animal.”

A benefit of his success is having the freedom to choose a publishing company for personal reasons. Harrison went with the small publishing company Grove Atlantic for his 1998 release The Road Home, and remains with them. “I went with Grove Atlantic because I knew the owner and I want to be with an independent, you see? It”s a smaller group of people and I know everybody.” He prefers an independent because “they”re not part of a big corporation. You know, the most irritating thing about America now is our sense that it”s an empire with a capital ”E.” I just prefer more intimate surroundings. I don”t want to go into those huge buildings where you can”t even hear the elevator.”

This interview appeared in Novel & Short Story Writer”s Market. Click here to learn about the current edition.

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