Before the 10 novels, three collections of short stories, essay collections and screenplays (more than 3,000 pages of fiction alone), you could find Thomas McGuane, at age 7, on an island in the Detroit River, inside a refrigerator crate, telling stories.
Upstream a few miles, McGuane was born in the town of Wyandotte to Irish Catholic parents who had relocated to Michigan from Massachusetts.
On the neighboring island of Grosse Ile, McGuane had started a friendship with a girl his age. The year, he guesses, was 1946 and her parents had just bought a refrigerator, leaving the large crate sitting out in the yard.
McGuane’s friend would climb out of her bedroom window to join him in the crate and he would tell her stories. They remained friends over the years, joking that her parents' purchase of a refrigerator helped start his writing career.
Post-refrigerator crate, the longtime Montana resident has managed to earn acclaim for more than his storytelling, having become both a skilled angler worthy of induction into the Fly-Fishing Hall of Fame and Cutting Horse Hall of Fame.
Yet after all these pursuits, McGuane managed within the last year to complete a kind of of a project he’s never undertaken before, and putting his own age at “18 months away from 80,” says he won’t ever again.
Sifting through about half a century of work, McGuane selected short stories for publication in “Cloudbursts,” a 576-page collection that gives life to characters navigating circumstances of both plausible absurdity and unshakeable melancholy.
The book represents a milestone in McGuane's career and stands as a larger symbol of his devotion to the short story despite his long history as a novelist.
McGuane’s literary career took off in 1969 with "The Sporting Club," the first of a trio of successful novels. It wasn't until he'd written five novels that McGuane finally published his first short story collection, "To Skin a Cat," in 1986. McGuane has published two novels since 2002, the last one in 2010. Still, he has continued to produce short stories, frequently published in the New Yorker and in the collections “Gallatin Canyon” and “Crow Fair.”
“I always felt that I had to write novels to learn enough about writing to write short stories,” McGuane told novelist Richard Powers during a March event at the New York Public Library. “They’re really much more demanding. And probably the sort of impure motive is the fact that I’ve noticed so many wonderful, mostly young short story writers coming along and I've looked on them and their work with a kind of envy and emulation. There are so many of them now, they’re so great. It’s a golden age of short story writers. I guess I felt I wanted to tag along."
There are other things that have contributed to McGuane’s tendency towards the shorter form. A restlessness curable only by time spent outdoors lends itself to lower page counts.
And then there’s the belief carried by experience that “inside every large novel is a small novel avoiding its responsibilities,” McGuane says, quoting a saying he’s heard.
“I wouldn’t want to make a lot of enemies among my contemporaries by doing a sort of shrink-to-fit on these long books and show you exactly in terms of hard content how they’re really short stories,” he said. “It’s all Hamburger Helper. Sort of elegant Hamburger Helper.”
McGuane’s commitment to abbreviated storytelling might seem contradicted by the overall heft all those stories have combined to create in “Cloudbursts,” but the author said not every short story he’s written made the cut. In selecting stories, McGuane found himself wondering at times just who wrote them.
“You go back and you see something that you wrote. And everybody has experiences like this. Something happens to you earlier in your life and you’re reminded of it and you think ‘Was that really me?’ And so you have to acknowledge that you were involved and that you kind of lose track of yourself over time,” McGuane said.
It also applies to his friend from Michigan. In April, the day before McGuane sat down for an interview at his McLeod ranch, he received a slideshow from her children depicting her “remarkable life,” including her struggle with cancer.
“I thought, 'Oh my god, there is this arc that goes through people’s lives and they barely resemble themselves from one end to the other, especially at this age.' You get to take note of that, you know?”
Time has a role to play, but McGuane doesn’t pretend to understand it well.
“Time is the great mystery,” he said. “It’s the central mystery of everything in writing, in life, in everything else. And it’s also the most difficult thing to address as a writer. Managing time in a narrative is a serious challenge. Faulkner was really quite good at it.”
McGuane has been in Montana since he arrived in the Paradise Valley in the 1960s and eventually became part of a group of artists and writers including Jim Harrison, Richard Brautigan, William "Gatz" Hjortsberg and Russell Chatham, that gravitated to the area.
Though he is relatively isolated from coastal literary communities, McGuane, surrounded by books in his three-room workshop adjacent his house along the West Boulder River in McLeod, doesn’t hesitate to talk about the writers he returns to and the ones he’s only recently discovered.
Anton Chekhov, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, Stephen Crane and Mark Twain are just a few of the writers McGuane says he still finds himself rereading. But he also spoke excitedly about Hannah Lillith Assadi’s 2017 debut novel “Sonora” and incarcerated writer Nico Walker’s upcoming debut novel “Cherry.”
Books tend to dominate the three rooms of McGuane’s shop, although the first and largest room is dedicated mostly to fly-fishing gear and a desk for tying flies.
His reading room is the smallest and full of windows from which he can see the water flowing past the tree-lined river banks. The works of famous literary figures like Chekhov, William Faulkner and John Cheever line the room and next to a cushioned chair is an old barrel of Wyandotte Cleaner and Cleanser that’s been re-purposed into a table. McGuane credits the barrel's discovery to Laurie Buffett McGuane, who he's been married to since the 1970s. Buffett often acts as a first reader for McGuane's writing and he says he's come to rely on her to "check his compass" on works in progress.
In his writing room, the role of books and windows is reversed, with the windows forced into a smaller part, above shelves housing paperback and hardbound copies of books from a range of writers.
A wooden desk sits in the center of the room and behind it is a small bed which McGuane says he uses sometimes for quick naps to help him rejuvenate his physical and creative energy.
One red hardcover book sits at about eye level on a shelf behind McGuane’s computer monitor. It’s Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s 1958 novel “The Leopard,” and it’s on McGuane’s shortlist of favorite books. Lampedusa, in McGuane’s telling, was a member of an old Sicilian family descended from Crusaders who lived in the same house for 700 years on the island of Lampedusa. The writer died with his manuscript rejected and never saw himself in print.
“That happens more than you think,” McGuane says. “People just vanish, they think, ‘Well, it didn’t work out. I never was a writer.'”
Writing has undeniably worked out for McGuane and he's not done yet, although he said he's still waiting to find his next project.
The “unromantic reason,” behind “Cloudbursts” is that McGuane agreed to the project after a suggestion from his publisher, but the author put forth other contributing reasons, including a desire to put things in order in light of his age.
Having selected stories, arranged them, and put them in one place, McGuane proposed that as a result “maybe somebody would start figuring out what I have been trying to do.”
After a reader approached him at a book signing earlier this year asking for story recommendations from the book, McGuane’s advice was simple: “Don’t drop it on your foot.”
Early influences on McGuane, including Russian writers like Nikolai Gogol, earned his admiration because of their ability to write stories that leave a reader unsure of whether to laugh or cry. That tension between emotions remains as “a thing that still compels me as a sort of goal in writing,” McGuane said.
McGuane said he's also moved over the years toward a more accessible style of writing, something he thinks is the result of time spent in the West and in the company of ranch hands.
The stories in "Cloudbursts," are at their best hilarious or heartbreaking or both. Without sacrificing depth or detail, McGuane manages to unfold narratives using a lightness of touch that keeps the pages turning.
McGuane’s stories are often set in Montana, but he also returns in writing to both the Michigan of his youth and the Florida Keys where time spent in early adulthood as a fishing guide has kept him returning all his life.
Some stories draw on material from his own life, McGuane said, describing how he sometimes tries to write about what he calls “micro memories that won’t go away.”
One story, “Miracle Boy,” drew on McGuane’s experience as a youth when he was tasked with urging his uncle to visit McGuane’s grandmother on her deathbed. His uncle told him “Sick people depress me,” and stayed put. It’s a line McGuane says is "sort of funny in the Irish or Russian sense.”
On page one readers will encounter “Sportsmen,” the story of how a dive into shallow water severs the innocence and friendship of two young Michigan boys who believe hunting to be life’s only worthy pursuit.
“The wash came in and sucked the water down around the pilings,” McGuane writes. “Jimmy dove from the tallest one, arcing down the length of the creosoted spar into the green, clear water. And then he didn’t come up. Not to begin with. When he did, the first thing that surfaced was the curve of his back, white and Ohio-looking in its oval of lake water. It was a back that was never to widen with muscle or stoop with worry because Jimmy had just then broken his neck. I remember getting him out on the gravel shore. He was wide awake and his eyes poured tears. His body shuddered continuously and I recall his fingers fluttered on the stones with a kind of purpose.”
Halfway through the book is “Grandma and Me,” a story about an alcoholic preschool teaching assistant living somewhere in central Montana. The narrator takes his blind grandmother for picnics along the river and routinely feeds his boss made-up headlines from imaginary newspapers, including “Drone Strike on a Strip Club.”
Thoughts of Grandma fall away when the discovery of a body along the river interrupts one of their picnics.
“The corpse had rotated in such a way that I could now see the heels of its shoes and the slight ballooning of its suit coat. Just then I remembered that cheap Allegiant flight I’d taken back from Las Vegas. I’d lost so much money, I got drunk on the plane and passed out, and someone scrawled LOSER on my face in eyebrow pencil, though I didn’t see it until the men’s room at the Helena airport,” McGuane writes. “Was I so far gone I was identifying with a corpse?”
The last story in the book is “Riddle,” a cryptic piece about a disorienting night in the life of a Paradise Valley architect who wonders if answers to questions he can't quite understand might lie in the memory of a limping cowboy and a small child walking down the street in Livingston one night.
Drafts are often rough and sometimes experimental exercises that McGuane says he tries to approach uninhibited by preconceived notions. He revises heavily and believes that writing draws on some strange combination of the subconscious mind and practical knowledge.
A former student of Wallace Stegner, McGuane says he learned from his teacher to look at writing as a knack, something that improves with activity or declines from a lack of it.
After years of working at it, writing hasn’t gotten easier and he still has his doubts.
“I worry that I won’t have any good ideas or that I won’t have an idea again. And I look back at a lot of things that I started and took up a lot of time and effort and went nowhere. You know? Just blackened pages,” he said.
But when writing is going well, "it's as much pleasure as you can have," he says. "It's just hard to get there."
In explaining how he finishes a story, McGuane tells another story, of the time he met one of the makers of Purdey and Sons shotguns, customized firearms made in London that can cost upwards of six figures.
“They make an action body for a shotgun, they take a block of steel and start filing until they build one. They do that with every single part in the gun. He said the whole thing looks like a railroad tie that they make the most beautiful stock out of,” McGuane said. “I met him through another friend in Montana. I said ‘Look, there’s thousands of hours in there.’ I said ‘How do you know it’s done?’ ”
He said, ‘Well, there comes a point where you recognize that further effort is not going to improve it. It’s just kind of a truce.’ ”