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Sex in the Sky: Publisher’s Weekly Talks with Keith McCafferty (complete interview)

  1. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

         

I think those of us who want to be writers started as avid readers.  I was fascinated by snakes growing up in the Appalachian hills, and it occurred to me at a very early age that adults didn’t know much about them, that they were prejudiced because of their ignorance.  My grandmother was steeped in superstitions.  She would place towels under the doors in her house so my snakes couldn’t slither  in and would say things like, “For pity’s sakes, child, I see’d that milk snake suck the breath from a baby.”  I realized that the only way I could learn was to teach myself how to read, which I did with my mother’s help at about four years old.  That was beginning of the journey.  Later, I was enthralled by a volume of The Complete Sherlock Homes, which was so heavy it put a dent in my chest, and later still by Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers in India.  I knew then that I not only wanted to lead a life of adventure, but to write about it, and by my teens I knew exactly what kind of a writer I wanted to be, and exactly whose job I wanted.  My hero was Al McClane, the fishing editor of Field & Stream magazine, who was deliciously rumored to be a cold war spy.  He had a beautiful daughter about my age, and my goal in life was to impress him, to marry his daughter and ultimately to take his place as the fishing editor.  I did none of these things but I came close in the professional sense; I wrote more than a thousand articles for the magazine and was even a finalist for two National Magazine Awards for my work.  The road from magazine writing to being a novelist was long, but I was on my way.

 

  1. What do you enjoy most about writing in a contemporary Western setting, as opposed to a “classic” one?

 

The one-word answer is the characters. One of the first things that struck me upon moving to Montana, some thirty-odd years ago now, was its diversity and the openness and collective humor of the people.  In the East, it seemed, people tended more to stay within their socio-econominc/philosophicale/religious/political and age classes.  But in the changing West, people from all walks of life walked together, talked together, hunted and fished together, shot pool over the long winters together. As the big old-family landholding broke apart and were sold in twenty acre allotments for second homes, as the economy changed from timber, mining and agriculture to tourism and fishing, with some counties such as my fictional Hyalite County running on money generated by trout slime, people of all different stripes were thrown together.  You might have a state senator living in a riverside log mansion living next door to barista renting a rundown cabin, next to a medical marijuana grower, next to a fishing guide, next to a movie star.  And they all know each other and are in a sense equal inhabitants of the land.

This West contrasts with the Old West of Zane Grey and Louis Lamoure, two great writers writing a West that maybe never was.  It also contrasts with current literature of the Rockies, which champions iconic loner lawmen in enormous empty counties — the admirable fiction of Craig Johnson and C.J. Box.  Now their novels are relevant in the sense that their setting do still exist, especially in Wyoming,  but the clock is ticking down on the wide open West and it is in a process of flux.  My protagonist, Sean Stranahan, is a transplanted Easterner because I wanted him to observe this dynamic, and to see the country with fresh eyes that aren’t always comparing his vision with a disappearing ideal.

 

  1. Crazy Mountain Kiss is the fourth book in the Stranahan series. How would you say that Sean has changed and grown the most since the first book?

 

When this series started, Sean Stranahan was a lost man recovering from divorce and searching for place to call home. He moved west because his father had always wanted to take him west to fish and had died before they could make that trip, and he didn’t much care what happened to him just as long as something happened. Which did, with a knock at the door, as soon as he put his shingle up — Blue Ribbon Watercolors, and, in discreet script he hoped nobody would notice, Private Investigations). As the sheriff, Martha Ettinger, put it, he was one of those people who would step into shit even if there was only one horse in the pasture. He was also notably sane, the center of a cast of eccentrics.

Maybe too sane. He changed or, rather, Montana changed him, for the better I hope, and he found that in blue ribbon rivers and his relationships he had found not only a home, but a reason to live. Like Martha, he is a lonely heart not without lovers, and they circle each other, one’s shadow always upon the other no matter whose arms they are in– what could have been, what should have been, if the stars had only known better. They danced in the dark in The Gray Ghost Murders, danced apart in Dead Man’s Fancy. In Crazy Mountain Kiss . . . but no, I won’t give it away.

One has to be careful when pairing characters up in plot driven novels. It’s not so much that married people are boring, but that the other half is hanging around and has to be dealt with. If he or she is not a part of the story, they slow it down. It’s the same reason you don’t want your main character to have a dog, because you’re always dealing with the dog. I broke that rule, because there isn’t a man in Montana, a single man anyway, who doesn’t have a dog. If you don’t have a dog, who’s there to talk to? And now I’m paying the price, constantly inserting little reminders into parenthesis — (WHERE’S THE DAMNED DOG???).

I have a few readers who complain that Sean doesn’t fish as much as he used to. But then these are not fly fishing novels so much as novels that have a little fly fishing in them — NPR’s Cherie Newman says I’ve invented a genre, fly fishing noir — and sometimes Sean just has more important things to do than wave a rod. But don’t worry. He will always return to the river, for it is his reflection in the face of water that reminds him of who he was, who he is, and in its distortion, who he will be. Hopefully, some day, with Martha.

 

  1. There’s a thread in Crazy Mountain Kiss that involves a different kind of “Mile High Club.” What gave you the idea for that?

 

Several years ago I helped host a dinner party in Key West (my part was to cook antelope steaks I’d brought from Montana) and was having a drink with the tarpon fishing guide Simon Becker, who told the story of the infamous Key West mile high club, called “Fly Key West,” a service which offered “quickie” flights for couples who paid up to $350 to be flown around the island while they cavorted in a Piper Cub. The service included souvenir sheets and the option of having their couplings recorded on a voyeur cam (“By Request Only”), the business coming to an abrupt end in 2001 when a couple in their sixties, posing as lovers, high-jacked the plane to fly them to Cuba. A struggle ensued with the pilot, who crashed the plane in the Florida Straits; the plane sank, the pilot alone survived to tell the story.

Only in Key West, I thought at the time, but then thought, “Why not Montana?” Certainly there had to be sex clubs in Montana, though as a happily married man I had to look them up. I looked them up — there were plenty. Trade the plane for a forest cabin, up the elevation and viola — “The Mile and Half High Club.” It gave me the opportunity to write some quirky but sympathetic characters and is true to the nature of the area, which has never been at a loss for avenues of sexual escape. The police in Bozeman, my home town, recorded the names of some 600 local and transient prostitutes during just one calendar year in the 1880s, this in a town that started that decade with roughly a thousand people. Most were men, obviously, and evidently starved ones at that!

 

  1. You’ve undoubtedly influenced other writes with your work, particularly Western writers. What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

 

To do the work.  East, West, South, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.  This is easy to say, but ninety percent of success is showing up, as Woody Allen and lot of other people have said before.  Just write the novels.  Muddle your way through that 250 pages in the middle where most of the competition jumps ship, and then rewrite it until it’s as good as you’re going to get it.  If I have learned anything traveling around the country and meeting other authors, it’s that those who have success, by which I mean they are working authors who make a living putting words together, it’s that they have achieved their status somewhere between books ten and twenty.  So it’s never too early to start.  Don’t set out to write the great American novel, and then rewrite it half your life; write a lot of books until they start sticking to the wall.

I do think younger writers have lost sight of this a little bit. I have been a panelist and presenter at many writing seminars and conferences, and it seems that the emphasis is more on the publishing end of the business than the writing aspect of it.  But to get house published, as opposed to self-publishing, the work has to stand first.  Tara Singh, a very wise editor I worked with at Viking/Penguin, said that writers are always telling her how many Twitter followers they have, as if that should be what convinces her to accept their book.  It isn’t.

And it’s okay to start small.  You can learn more as newspaper reporter in three months than you might as a masters candidate in an MFA program.  Write in different mediums — newspaper, magazine, poetry, blog, whatever.  They feed off each other to make you a better writer. I know I’m a better novelist for being a magazine writer (I know how to meet deadlines, for example), and being a novelist has made me a more fluid and better magazine writer.

Last, give yourself room to surprise yourself.  I was a quote “literary writer” in the magazine world, someone who wrote thoughtfully and elegantly about his family.  I thought that was my strength.  But essays are driven by the declarative sentence, whereas novels are driven by character and dialogue almost entirely.  Humor, character and dialogue came naturally to me; they were my real strengths and I’d never have guessed it.    It only  took me thirty years to find that out.

 

  1. What comes next for you?

 

In the immediate future, I’m traveling to Cuba to fish.  One of the great perks of keeping my hand in the magazine world is travel.  I could do more if I had the time.  Writing novels is a be-careful-what-you-wish-for profession.  Crazy Mountain Kiss, my fourth novel in the Sean Stranahan series comes out in early June and I am contracted for two more, which basically means I work too much and fish too little.  I do still enjoy the characters. I wrote my first novel, “The Royal Wulff Murders,” partly to amuse myself, and aimed to surround myself with characters I’d like to hang out with.  I’m thankful that I will have more time to do just that.  I’ve also been working on a novel about children growing up in Appalachia, though that one’s sleeping the subconscious for the time being.

This is strange business.  When I was a crime/nightside reporter, I had my finger on the pulse of the city, knew everyone, could tell you all the back stories.  A story for a newspaper took two hours.  Then I became a magazine writer, taking a big step away from interactions with my fellow human beings.  And a story took two days or two weeks.  Still, not long enough to become obsessed.  Then I became a novelist, that most isolating of all the writing professions, where you sit with a cat on your lap (or I do), summoning lies from the ether, and having a full year to go mad about something that in a sense isn’t even real.  I’m not altogether sure that’s healthy, but I wouldn’t change my fortune for a round-tip ticket to the best trout stream in New Zealand.

 

–Thanks to Kristin Centorcelli and Publisher’s Weekly for allowing me some space in their excellent publication.  I’m honored.  Keith McCafferty

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The Mystery of Novel Writing

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Note: Below is an excerpt of the blog I recently wrote for Printasia, the online bookstore. Be sure to follow the link to read it in its entirety.

This afternoon, while sitting on a folding chair on a footbridge along the Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, I wrote “The End” to my fourth novel in the Sean Stranahan detective series.  I’ve not yet settled on a title, though the setting is Montana’s Crazy Mountains and it’s hard to pass up using the word.  Lost in the Crazies, Deep In The Crazies, A Killing In The Crazies, any — the most apt would be the first, for I certainly was lost for a long time writing it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, that writing a novel is like setting sail for a distant land. You can see as far as the horizon, and that will get you a few chapters in, and at a certain point you’ll smell land or a shorebird will perch on your mast, and you’ll be able to see the end and work toward it with a sense of excitement — say over the novel’s last four chapters. It’s those 250 or so pages in between when you’re lost at sea, sharks circling, and no stars to take a bearing, that separate those who wish to write novels from those who actually do.  READ THE REST HERE

 

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Poisoned Pen Video with Nevada Barr

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I thought some might be interested in seeing video of my event with Nevada Barr at the Poisoned Pen.  She is quite a performer and I, well, I’m the one wearing the reindeer socks! It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I’d like to thank Nevada for her generous invitation to share the stage, as well as Poisoned Pen owner Barbara Peters for putting me up at her lovely home in Scottsdale. Independent bookstore owners such as Barbara are the true knights in shining armor for struggling and best-selling authors alike.  

See the video here:
 
http://new.livestream.com/poisonedpen/nevadabarr-keithmccafferty

In another piece of news, signed first editions of my books, complete with postcard/bookmark, are now available at VJ Books (503-750-5310). 

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Writing The Gray Ghost Murders — Saved By The Birds (and Oprah)

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They tell you the second book is the hardest. You have all your life to write the first.  Nobody expects anything to come of it, there’s no pressure but what you apply to yourself. And the third, well, you’ve done it twice, you can do it again.  But the second book, especially if your first novel came with a two book contract and a deadline, well that’s a different story.
 
Dominick Abel, my literary agent, explained my predicament at our first meeting by putting his forefinger to his temple and cocking his thumb.
“Tick, tick, tick,” he said, and added, “I don’t envy you.”
 
At the time I was trying to write The Gray Ghost Murders, my second novel in the Sean Stanching fly fishing detective series, set in Montana’s Madison Valley.  The first, The Royal Wulff Murders, set a high bar, having received a red star review from Publisher’s Weekly and having been chosen by both the Mystery Guild and the Book of the Month Club.  And Dominick was right, the publisher of Penguin Press was expecting something new from me and I was feeling the pressure. So far, my sheriff, Martha Ettinger, had managed to unearth the bodies of two older men, hence the title, from the slopes of a mountain called the Sphinx; now my problem was getting Stranahan involved and figuring out how and why my gray ghosts had gotten buried there in the first place.
 
As a writer I’m what you call a muddler througher as opposed to an outliner.  I start with a scene, I write the first line, the second is born of the first, and so the story develops.  It’s like setting sail, you can see to the horizon, then you’re lost at sea.  Finally you smell land, and you exhale the breath you didn’t know you’d been holding the past few months when your inclination had been to jump overboard into the teeth of the sharks. As a way of writing a plot driven novel, this is not a method I recommend, but it seems to be the only way I can work.
 
Still, I was muddling along admirably, despite the invisible gun to my head, when the birds appeared.  To make a long story quite short (you’ll have to read the Author’s Note at the end of The Gray Ghost Murders for the full tale), I took over the rearing of four baby Brewer’s blackbirds that had been transplanted, together with the spruce tree their parents had selected for a nest, some 140 miles on a flatbed trailer.  Finding the transplanted nestlings I called the local wild bird rescue person, who told me to dispense with formalities and just call her Captain Marvel.  I asked Captain Marvel if she would take on the rearing of the little darlings — after all, I thought naively, this is what such people do.  Captain Marvel said, “Honey, that’s how we all start.”
 
From that point forward, The Gray Ghost Murders emerged in fifteen minute bursts, for baby birds must be fed every quarter hour.  It was sink or swim, not to belabor the ocean analogy, and the birds taught me to swim. Some three months later my blackbirds, fully feathered and boldly iridescent, migrated south.  In another week, I completed the book.  Yes, I thought, the plot worked. All that was left to do was hike up to Sphinx Mountain, which I hadn’t climbed in 25 years, to make sure the country in the novel matched the country of the gods.  The week before, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had tranquilized several grizzly bears in the area, taken their blood, administered other tests and released them, putting them in a bad mood when they saw humans forever after. I had visions of one sinking his teeth into my own (slightly?) graying hair and wondered if the newspaper story of my death would help sales of the novel.
 
A mauling may not have, for if it’s true that the second novel is the hardest to write, it’s equally true it’s the hardest sell. Eventually, Oprah’s Book Club resurrected interest by selecting it as “One of Five New Mysteries We Can’t Put Down,” and today many readers have told me it’s their favorite in the series.  I would meet my personal Waterloo trying to write the third novel, but then that’s another story for another day.

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Dead Man’s Fancy: What’s your take?

dead man's fancy

The above is a mockup of the cover for the third Sean Stranahan mystery, Dead Man’s Fancy (click on the image to see it at full size). Personally, I love it, but I wanted to post it here to get feedback from readers on the design–sooner the better. Leave comments or shoot me opinions on the Contact page. And thank you all for the help!

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Notes from a traveling novelist

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I recently returned from a week in New York, the first few days at the invitation of the Outdoor Writer’s Association, which held their 86th annual wingding at Lake Placid in the Adirondack Mountains, the last three in Albany at Bouchercon, the international convention of mystery readers and writers.  An interesting contrast in purpose and humanity that ended with great news — The Gray Ghost Murders is officially an Oprah Book, having been chosen last week by the Oprah Winfrey Book Club as one of the “Five Most Suspenseful Books Out Now.”  Pretty cool.  In fact way cool, and I’ll never hear a bad word against this great  woman for the rest of my life.

But back to New York.  The OWAA people write for the greater good of our environment, carrying on the Theodore Roosevelt tradition of fish and wildlife  conservation; I actually was eating lunch with Scott Hed, Director of the Sportsman’s Alliance For Alaska, when he announced that  Anglo American had pulled its support for the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, effectively ending the prospect that the controversial mine would be developed anytime soon.  The mine could have spelled doom for the crown Jewel of Alaskan wilderness and the most productive salmon fishery on earth, and Scott had been the driving force, forming the coalition of commercial fishermen, Native Americans, and hunting and fishing groups that put the pressure on the mining companies.   It was embarrassing for me to be considered one of this altruistic band of brothers and sisters, especially as I was the featured speaker the group had brought in and treated like royalty, being put up at the $500 a night Mirror Lake Inn, when even the OWAA director and program chair were sleeping a place so run down that the hotel offered to give them part of their money back.  One woman had come all the way Iowa to hear me speak, saying that she knew if I read something she would cry.  So it was a lot pressure to perform, as I committed to take part in a panel discussion about working with editors, as well as being the speaker for back to back sessions, the first hour on making the tradition from writing articles to novel, from “Fact To Fiction” as I called it, and then a two-hour session on “The Craft of the Narrative.” To prepare, I wrote down some introductory comments in an essay,  which is posted on the website as “Why Narrative Writing Matters.”

All went well, and I segued from being a big fish in a good-sized lake to being a small fish in a big sea indeed at Bouchercon.  Going in, I didn’t know that it was primarily a readers event, that for every writer there would be half a dozen women toting around bags of books to be signed by their favorite authors (and God bless them every one).  I participated in a panel there, as well, my fellow panelists including New York Times best-selling authors and two writers who had movies in development.  All were very well spoken and it was a little intimidating, but they were nice people and I held my own and got my share of smiles.  Civilians at these writer events look at me as a bit of a Martian — the idea of a Field & Stream editor amuses them, and my story of hiking into the woods to survive for three nights with the clothes on my back and peeing on myself in the middle of the night because it’s too cold to crawl out of the debris hut is always good for a laugh.

Then afterward it was a kick to go to the Private Eye Writer’s Dinner, where guitarists serenaded us with the theme music from Peter Gunn and the Shamus Awards were presented, and the next night was fun, too, at my agent Dominick Abel’s annual Bouchercon dinner party. I got to rub shoulders and lift a few with fellow clients including Max Alan Collins, who wrote “Road to Perdition,” and Rod Philbrick, whose young adult novel “Freak The Mighty” has sold 3 million copies and was made into a movie starring Sharon Stone.  Philbrick is a great guy and a fellow fishermen who spends half his time in the Keys. Hopefully, we’ll do some fishing together down the road.  And there were other in Dominick’s stable, all very accomplished writers who make me realize I still have a long way to go, the blessing of the generous and beautiful Ms. Winfrey notwithstanding.

So it’s back to the page for me, fingers on the keyboard, cat on the lap, and counting down the days with the hope I can still get a little fishing in later this fall.

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Why Narrative Writing Matters

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As hunters and fishermen, we have a need to tell stories. It has always been so, since the beginning of recorded time. The first stories that humans ever told, that we are aware of, are recorded in the pictographs painted on the cave walls of Lascaux in southwestern France. They are more than 20,000 years old. They do not tell stories of love or war, or of politics or philosophy. They tell stories of hunting. Paleolithic scholars believe that some of these drawings of bison, cats, bear and rhinoceros are accounts of past hunting successes and are a mystic ritual to improve the chances for success in future hunts.

As outdoor writers, this is the tradition we come from. Our Paleolithic ancestors were the first storytellers. The need to tell our stories, to record them so that others might read them and learn from them and draw inspiration from them, is one of the oldest human impulses. It began with cave art and the oral tradition. As we developed written language, our hunting and fishing stories became narratives on pages made of papyrus, wasp nests, and finally wood paper. Narrative writing does not have to instruct, though it can instruct. It does not need to illuminate larger issues or reveal fundamental human truths, though the best of it can do that too. Its primary purpose is simply to tell a story.

One of the greatest fishing stories I ever read was written by Roderick Haig Brown and began something like this: “I’ve told this story before in different ways but as it is the best story I know . . .” –he then proceeds to talk about trolling in a rowboat for king salmon in a place where nobody had caught salmon before. There is no moral to his story except the unwritten one, that the best fishing, and hunting, too, has a sense of discovery at its core. Nobody wants to read a story about fishing for hire, a man casting his line where a finger points, or a man pressing the trigger after the guide has done all the real hunting. The gun writer Elmer Keith wrote one of the best hunting stories I ever read, and it was just his account of one soggy, rainy day’s hunt up on the Lochsa River in Idaho. Keith is the only one in the story, turning the bowl of his pipe down so the rain won’t put it out, and tracking elk, killing elk, and dressing them out in the dark, providing winter meat for his family and the families of those other hunters back in camp. Keith wrote stories as if he was telling them to a friend and in fact in his later years his stories were dictated. His detractors, and there were many, fault him for being ungrammatical and not having the slightest idea how to use punctuation, that compared to someone who had real writing skills like his nemesis Jack O’Connor, the late great gun editor of Outdoor Life, Keith was a very poor writer. They entirely miss the point. Good writing may accompany good storytelling, as it does in Haig-Brown’s stories but isn’t necessary. A raw story, told straight, like Elmer Keith’s, is often better and more memorable than an elegant story that lacks narrative drive. The skill is not in the perfect crafting of sentences, but what those sentences say, the art of storytelling.

Let me make that point in another way. When I was preparing this essay, I started by making a list of what are to me the greatest hunting and fishing stories ever written. Of those, only three were written by undeniably great writers. The are William Faulkner’s “The Bear” from Go Down Moses, “Big Two-hearted River” by Ernest Hemingway, and “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” also by Hemingway. Let me excerpt a couple pages from the beginning of the “Short Happy Life.”

It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.
       “Will you have lime juice or lemon squash?” Macomber asked.
       “I’ll have a gimlet,” Robert Wilson told him.
       “I’ll have a gimlet too. I need something,” Macomber’s wife said.
       “I suppose it’s the thing to do,” Macomber agreed. “Tell him to make three gimlets.”
       The mess boy had started them already, lifting the bottles out of the canvas cooling bags that sweated wet in the wind that blew through the trees that shaded the tents.
       “What had I ought to give them?” Macomber asked. “A quid would be plenty,” Wilson told him. “You don’t want to spoil them.” “Will the headman distribute it?” “Absolutely.”
       Francis Macomber had, half an hour before, been carried to his tent from the edge of the camp in triumph on the arms and shoulders of the cook, the personal boys, the skinner and the porters. The gun-bearers had taken no part in the demonstration. When the native boys put him down at the door of his tent, he had shaken all their hands, received their congratulations, and then gone into the tent and sat on the bed until his wife came in. She did not speak to him when she came in and he left the tent at once to wash his face and hands in the portable wash basin outside and go over to the dining tent to sit in a comfortable canvas chair in the breeze and the shade.
       “You’ve got your lion,” Robert Wilson said to him, “and a damned fine one too.”
       Mrs. Macomber looked at Wilson quickly. She was an extremely handsome and well-kept woman of the beauty and social position which had, five years before, commanded five thousand dollars as the price of endorsing, with photographs, a beauty product which she had never used. She had been married to Francis Macomber for eleven years.
       “He is a good lion, isn’t he?” Macomber said. His wife looked at him now. She looked at both these men as though she had never seen them before.
       One, Wilson, the white hunter, she knew she had never truly seen before. He was about middle height with sandy hair, a stubby mustache, a very red face and extremely cold blue eyes with faint white wrinkles at the corners that grooved merrily when he smiled. He smiled at her now and she looked away from his face at the way his shoulders sloped in the loose tunic he wore with the four big cartridges held in loops where the left breast pocket should have been, at his big brown hands, his old slacks, his very dirty boots and back to his red face again. She noticed where the baked red of his face stopped in a white line that marked the circle left by his Stetson hat that hung now from one of the pegs of the tent pole.
       “Well, here’s to the lion,” Robert Wilson said. He smiled at her again and, not smiling, she looked curiously at her husband.
       Francis Macomber was very tall, very well built if you did not mind that length of bone, dark, his hair cropped like an oarsman, rather thin-lipped, and was considered handsome. He was dressed in the same sort of safari clothes that Wilson wore except that his were new, he was thirty-five years old, kept himself very fit, was good at court games, had a number of big-game fishing records, and had just shown himself, very publicly, to be a coward.
 

In those short paragraphs, Hemingway introduces three vividly drawn characters and sets the stage for the unfolding of the story. A man has turned and run when charged by a lion. From here the story will flash back to the hunt for the lion, and then forward to the next day when Macomber must face his demons and try to resurrect his manhood while hunting Cape buffalo. It is a story of redemption. It is not only a great hunting story. It is a great story, and widely considered one of the most perfectly crafted short stories written in the English language.

Now, what does this story share with the other two I’ve mentioned, besides artistic merit and the subject matter?

There are two things all these stories have in common that strike to the heart of great narrative writing. The first is that all three are fiction. “The Short Happy Life” was inspired by a story Hemingway heard about a titled European woman who accidentally shot her husband while on safari, and the white hunter, Robert Wilson, was based on two professional hunters who were friends of Hemingway, Philip Perceival and Bror Blixen. But the story itself came about in the customary manner—one person shutting a door and stringing together lies summoned from the ether. That’s not to say that all great writing has to be fiction—but all great writing draws from fiction; it relies on fiction techniques. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise, for if it is true that ancient hunters and fisherman were the first storytellers, I’m guessing it is equally true that they were the first liars. I can image some cave man finding a mountain goat that was killed in a rock slide and dragging it home to his cavewoman and while she cooks it, painting a picture on the rock wall showing the goat charging and the hunter standing firm with his spear. And her shrieking, “Liar! Liar! Liar!” like the wife of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride when he’s trying to breathe life back into the Man in Black with a bellows stuck down his throat.  And let’s face it, has that really changed in 20,000 years?

Who amongst us can honestly say that no one has ever accused him of stretching the truth in print, or at least around the campfire? Where I live in Montana, I hear stories about 20-inch trout being caught every day of the season; I’ve seen some of those 20-inch trout, which invariably grow to 22 inches by the second telling, and they were 17 inches. Honest 20-inch trout, unless you fish at night, come to the net once or maybe twice a summer. We are natural born liars. And this isn’t something to be ashamed about. In fact, it’s to our advantage. It gives us a leg up on other writers, those soulless city dwellers who read literature in which nothing ever happens but bad behavior and then, when they try to emulate it, find they may have ink, but what their pens lack is blood. I have a friend, Barbara Peters, who owns the Poisoned Pen Press and The Poisoned Pen Mystery Bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona. Barbara has mentored a great many writers over the years and likes to say that a story that doesn’t work can be fixed, but that there’s no cure for a boring writer. You’re either interesting and vital or you aren’t, and we hunters and fishermen have the right stuff. It’s in our DNA. All we have to do is get out of way of ourselves and let the stories we were born to tell find their way onto the page.

Now, there’s something else the three stories I mentioned have in common: They’re old. Really old. “Big-Two Hearted River” was written in the 1920s. “The Short Happy Life” was written in the mid ’30s. “The Bear” was first published in 1942.

Great hunting and fishing stories, fiction or fact, endure. To my mind, the greatest true hunting stories ever written were Jim Corbett’s tales of man-eating tigers and leopards. I was six weeks in India following his footsteps. Much of Jim Corbett’s India no longer exists. Most of the tiger habitat in the India Corbett knew is no more, and in many areas the tiger itself has disappeared into the realm of myth. But the stories in “Man-eaters of Kumaon” are as thrilling to read today as they ever were.       The greatest reading experience of my life happened when our Volkswagen bus broke down when my family was on a camping trip in the Rocky Mountains. We had to be towed into Denver to get a new engine put in the van. I was nine years old, and at one point, my mom dropped me off in a public library to read for a couple hours. My dad had told me about Jim Corbett and I found one of his books in the library. I thought I’d only have time to read one story, so I chose the longest one in the book, which was “The Talla Des Man-eater.” On that first trip west from our home in Appalachia, I caught my first decent-sized trout, saw my first bear, saw the sun come up to illuminate my first ever mountains. But what I remember most is reading the story of a man with an abscess that threatened to explode inside his brain, who was in so much pain he could no longer sleep, and who, with one eye squeezed shut and his right eardrum destroyed, hunted on foot and alone, at night as well as by day a man-eating tiger in the foothills of the Himalayas. I opened that book wanting to lead a life of great adventure. I closed it wanting to write about it.

I think what I’m trying to say is that the craft of narrative writing matters. It has the power to move us in ways that other forms of outdoor writing can’t and the best of it is timeless. Read an article about how to catch fish and it is out of date in ten months. Read a piece about where to hunt elk and there may be no elk there by the time you shoulder your pack. Stories about gear are outdated before they are published (in hardcopy, anyway).

But read a great story and it stays with you the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if you can’t recall where you read it or that the magazine you read it in has been composted and the paper returned to the earth. It is alive in your mind. When you are the writer of the story, it takes on yet another dimension. It becomes a record of those times in your life when you lived most fully. I have never kept a journal, I wish I had, but I’ve written hundreds of stories and they run together to form of diary. Those stories are what I read aloud, hour after hour, as my father lay in his death bed, hoping but uncertain that he heard them, and those stories are the legacy I will pass to my children. This is who your father was. This is who his father was. This is what I thought about taking you hunting and fishing with me, before you were ever born. Take what you will from them.

So, that’s my pitch. That’s why I believe that outdoor writers need to pay attention to the narrative as our highest and only enduring form of art, and it’s why the editors who are so fixated on service articles should shake some of the leaves of “how-to” and “where-to-go” and “what-to-buy” to the ground, so that they can see the tree standing behind them, the one form of outdoor writing that has roots, and find some space to run our stories.

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Two Novels Down… A Writer’s Advice

A few years ago, a fellow novelist gave me a piece of advice I didn’t give a lot of credence to at the time, having only started “The Royal Wulff Murders” and not really knowing what lay in store when the initial flush of excitement wore off. “I learned that if I wanted to write books the first thing I had to do was stop smoking dope.”

As a child of the sixties I have to take the fifth when asked about partaking banned substances, but at the current stage of my life the advice seemed irrelevant.  Of course he didn’t mean it literally — well, he did, but what he was getting at it was this:  You need a clear head. A novelist puts a lot of balls into the air over the arc of a story, characters pop in and out, story lines start, stop, and start again, relationships change, tensions build, and everything has to be assigned a frequency of appearance as well as a specific gravity.  Another way of putting it is that a cloud forms over your head, and your job is not only to form the raindrops but to release them from the cloud in a precise sequence and correct their trajectory so they hit the ground with the right force at the right time.

When you start a book the raindrops come really easy.  It’s fun, or as fun as writing ever gets. Then, thirty or forty pages in, it becomes work and stays work until you see the spot of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Then and only then does it become fun again.  If you succeed or fail it’s usually because you didn’t have the perseverance it takes to wade slog through the unfun parts. Or you smoked too much dope.  There are a lot of fifty page starts to novels collecting dust in a lot of desk drawers or taking up space on ancient floppy disks (remember those?), hard drivers, and flash drives.

So my advice to aspiring novelists is keep a clear head, keep the raindrops coming, don’t expect the middle part to be easy, and finish the damned book. It will be the hardest work you’ll ever do without getting blood on your hands — which might go to field dressing and boning a bull moose by yourself in the wilderness.  But that’s another story.  

Hoh River Portrait

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Tying a Grey Ghost Fly

Learn how to tie the Grey Ghost, the fly for which my second novel The Grey Ghost Murders is named. A historical and beautiful pattern… Click on the images below that link to videos.

gray ghost fly tying 1 gray ghost fly tying 2 gray ghost fly tying 3

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Back from My Visit to The Poisoned Pen

gray ghost cover Just returned from Scottsdale, Ariz., where I had a great time with the wonderful folks at The Poisoned Pen. They put up a great webcast audio stream here: Listen to the webcast!

And here their review of the book:

The delightful sequel to The Royal Wulff Murders, continues the sort of River-Runs-Through-It/Spenser blend—plus fishing and collectible lures. When the graves of two men are discovered on Sphinx Mountain, Sheriff Martha Ettinger suspects murder. But with the only evidence a hole in a skull that might or might not have been caused by a bullet, she once more finds herself turning to private investigator Sean Stranahan for help. Stranahan already has a case, having been hired by a group of eccentric fly fishermen called The Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club to find a valuable fly that they suspect has been stolen. Could the disappearance of a vintage Gray Ghost from a riverside cabin in the Madison Valley be connected to the gray ghosts who haunt Sphinx Mountain?  Montana may be the main character here but Field & Stream columnist McCafferty—already working on books three and four—has the journalist/sport background of a Randy Wayne White and is a whiz with characters and dialogue, and he’s sure enough a Spenser fan. Think also CJ Box, Craig Johnson, William G. Tapply, and Peter Bowen.

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