Lessons in Craft with David James Duncan
by Amelia Morand
Amelia Morand: After you agreed to do this interview, I bought a copy of your first novel, The River Why, and read it over the holidays. This was my first encounter with your work, and I was kicking myself for not reading it sooner. Not only is it a beautiful novel, but the longer I live in Montana, the closer I feel to its literary canon, which your books are very much a part of. What do you think sets Montana writing apart? What does it mean to be a Montana writer?
David James Duncan: I’m a fourth generation Montanan. But I was raised in Oregon and when The River Why was written, I had spent no time here. When I conceived the book, there was no such thing as “a fly-fishing novel.” There was one such novella: Norman Maclean’s 1976 masterpiece, A River Runs Through It. I hope it’s encouraging to you to know that A River Runs Through It andThe River Why were both rejected by every major publisher in the country. Twenty-five of them in my case. Maclean was finally published by his own university, and I was finally published when Sierra Club chose to make TRW their first work of fiction. Maclean and I both then had the delightful experience of having New York editors who’d rejected us with remarks that felt like slaps in the face come groveling after our second books. Norman wrote a letter to one of those publishers that reads like a Pete Townshend guitar solo at the Concert for New York. It ends like this:
If the situation ever arose when Alfred A. Knopf was the only publishing house remaining in the world and I was the sole remaining author, that would mark the end of the world of books.
I like to think that kind of eloquent orneriness sets a lot of Montana writing apart. I also think it’s fair to say that Norman and I penned a “canon” that for quite a few years consisted of two books total. I never met Maclean, but I feel close to him in that we were both inspired by a huge love for the river upon which we came of age (the Big Blackfoot for him, the Deschutes in Oregon for me) and by a lasting grief for a tragically lost brother. I didn’t get to my “tragic brother material” until I was 34 and wrote a memoir for Harper’s called “The Mickey Mantle Koan,” but the writing of that attempt to restore literary life to my flown brother opened floodgates, and a 650-page “Russian baseball novel” on family, religion, war, baseball, radical politics, and grief-shot love came pouring out. The Brothers K is my favorite of my books so far. Like The River Why, it’s also been a gift that has kept on giving. It’s strange to have done work in my twenties and thirties that continues to do things like send my wife and me to France twice for the French publications of both novels, and paid a lot of our bills, and inspired thousands of fan letters, lots of this more than thirty years later. Actually, it all feels a little backasswards. It’s the man my age who should be supporting the young fella who wrote those books. I still want to send the destitute me who wrote TRW and drove to his beloved rivers on bald retreads with no insurance some dough!
AM: The 20th anniversary edition of The River Why contains some great reflection by you in the afterword. I loved that you started it by recounting your first time falling in love with a novel, understanding the power and potential fiction has to convey “difficult truths.” This line particularly resonated with me: “This light made grief bearable.”
DJD: My brother John died at 17, when I was 13. My desire to try to become a novelist was born the day that, at age 16, I read scenes in a Thomas Mann novel that infused my grief with that “light that makes grief bearable.” The novel climaxed with the death scene of a frail boy that was so powerful and so healing that I thought: Even if it took me the rest of my life to learn this magic, if I could someday perform such a story for even one person, it would be worth it. My apprenticeship to the light that makes grief beautiful was long. But by damn, I did eventually write some work that inspired readers to write and tell me I’d done something for them akin to what Mann once did for me.
AM: In that River Why afterward, you went on to talk about your first novel attempt, poking a lot of fun at yourself over how overly serious it was. But despite the initial misfire of “Old Dead Xmas Half-Novel,” you went on to complete The River Why. Like you, I recently had a moment of realizing the novel I’ve spent several months on is not the novel I want to be writing. As someone who had 200 pages “usurped,” do you have any thoughts or advice on how to deal?
DJD: Let me put this in boldface: You deal by being true to your own nature. “Old Dead Xmas” novel was an attempt to wake America up to the fact that, to quote William Stafford, “the darkness around us is deep.” But so many writers handle that kind of material better than I do. And there was another problem: writing the Great Suburban American Heart of Darkness was a betrayal of the deep “light that makes grief bearable” experience that called me to fiction writing in the first place.
So it’s a very sweet irony that, midway through my wallowing in darkness, “Old Dead Xmas Novel” flew off the rails and I began to write with an entirely new kind of energy about fly fishing and rivers and the spiritual search and romance and the glorious high desert and temperate forest regions I’d known and loved from the day I was born. My initial thought was: “Well, I’ll just spew this fishing crap till it’s out of my system.” But a year later, I had three-hundred pages of comedy that served as the crude first draft of Gus’s life, plus fifty pages of metaphysicated sermons that caused me to birth a scholar/nerd character, Titus Gerard, who helped me discover the usefulness of what Milan Kundera calls “novelistic essays,” where you stop just telling the story for a while and attack the themes of a novel directly, so when you return to the story-telling the reader has a fresh feeling for what is at stake. With that character in the mix, voila! I had a rough draft worth the hard effort of rewriting and condensing and cleaning up and submitting to twenty-five publishers and being rejected twenty-five times!
Seriously, The River Why material, unlike the “Dead Xmas” material, enabled me to articulate and grow more sensitive to things that had shown me glimmerings of “the light that makes grief bearable” all along: the company of rivers and wilderness; the wisdom of small children; our preposterous attempts to obey Jesus and love the impossible weirdos he so over-optimistically calls simply “thy neighbor.” The same material taught me to make comedy out of things I’d initially experienced as painful, but, after the passage of time and some spiritual effort provided a sense of detachment, I was able to find humorous—and isn’t levity a form of light? Take, for example, how badly politics and religion fuck up the mood at a family supper table. By making the schism between a redneck ranch brat’s murderous bait fishing and her effete British poobah husband’s catch and release fly fishing stand in for politics and religion, readers could laugh at a family’s total dysfunction instead of feeling miserable about their own. Another discovery: I gave Gus the ability to spoof his mother, who speaks what one critic called “a hick patois that makes the Beverly Hillbillies sound like Oxford dons,” and I also gave him the ability to lampoon his snobby British father. But I didn’t give him a strong voice of his own. Only by moving to the Tamanawis River and pursuing his passion did he begin to find his true voice. To show his voice grow authentic at the same time he’s discovering his true vocation and home gave the novel a subliminal music that created strong narrative pull. Another happy discovery: it’s possible to be as funny as you can, with serious intent. Although I was portraying the schismatic personalities that were tearing apart the Orviston home, I still laugh when Bill Bob loses his pet scorpion inside the family house, and Ma shrugs it off, surmising that the little guy “prob’ly found an’ fell in love with one of your old man’s mayfly imitations and died of lover’s nuts trying to figure out how to screw the thing.”
AM: Ever since I started writing my first novel, I’ve had a lot of questions for every writer that’s done it before floating around in my head. Namely, How? Like, how the hell did you do it? Why does my novel want me to hate myself? When did you realize this was a terrible decision you’d made? Does anyone actually have an order or method? Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?
DJD: Of these questions, Amelia, my favorite by far is: “Is it okay that so much of the “work” I’m doing seems to be just getting to know my characters and world and often takes place in my head while I’m walking my dogs?” This is your fiction-making compass pointing to true north. This is the most responsible work a young writer can be doing. Be proud of this good struggle. But you might also want to take a little notebook on your dog walks so that, when the world or your characters try to reveal themselves, you can write it down. Writing is not fly fishing! Catch and release writing leads to zero publications!
As to your question about how novels make us hate ourselves, no shit. Writing shoves our ignorance, failures with language, and artistic limitations in our face every damn day! It’s like the sports aphorism: “Tennis makes you want to kill your opponent. Golf makes you want to kill yourself.” Starting a novel is definitely a form of golf! But some people actually master that preposterous game, and ours, too. And it’s a noble struggle whether we master it or not. I long ago began to see my own writing struggles as a spiritual practice. And a daily dose of self-abnegation, though not self-hatred, is a famously valuable spiritual tool. Like meditation, literary concentration requires an intensely focused imagination, and focused imagination is central to all good work, so what a good thing to be struggling to master through our dreadful practice!
Here are two depictions of focused imagination that remind me very much of our practice. The first is by Peter Anderson in his book First Church of the Higher Elevations:
A wild gait and shortness of breath revealed my lack of mountain experience. Eyes riveted to the pass, I was more interested in the destination than I was in the process of getting there. An older mountaineer took notice and offered some simple yet sage advice. “As the slope gets steeper,” he said, “shorten your steps. When you take a step, take a breath. When you take the next step, let it go.” When I practiced this properly, climbing became a kind of moving stasis and the oxygen coming in fueled a slow steady burn instead of an energy inferno. If I could stay focused I was rewarded with the energy to get to the top of the pass and beyond. It would be a few more years before I would learn to appreciate the stillness in the midst of that motion.
Beautiful, huh? And a good writing day can actually feel like that, including the stillness in the midst of the motion. On my best work days, nine hours of effort feel like an hour or two spent playing music with friends.
In the same vein, here’s Per Pettersen describing how to log a big stand of tree-farm timber in his novel Out Stealing Horses:
We started in the morning just after seven and kept on till evening when we fell into bed and slept like the dead until we woke with the light and went at it again. For a time it looked as if we’d never get to the end of the trees because when each spruce has to be felled with a crosscut and you begin to count, you can lose heart and feel you’ll never finish. When you’re in the swing, though, and have fallen into a good rhythm, the beginning and end have no meaning at all, not there, not then, and the only vital thing is that you keep going until everything merges into a single pulse that beats and works under its own steam, and you take a break at the right time and you work again, and you eat enough but not too much, and you drink enough but not too much, and sleep well when the time comes; eight hours a night, and at least one hour during the day.
AM: Another thing I’ve been struggling with lately is the difference between building characters in short stories versus a novel. Specifically, I’m finding it difficult to manage more than two or three, which is generally all you need in a shorter story. A novel necessitates a long-term, polyamorous relationship! So I’ve become very focused on how novelists handle their characters, especially as the cast grows. How do you navigate this?
DJD: Might your question on how to handle numerous characters boil down to this?: What kind of dreams or urges or obsession or knowledge or unforgettably haunting experiences or, hell yeah, random idiocy, cause a person to give birth to a full-fledged CHARACTER in a novel? And what a great question! And the hard-won, hopefully wonderful answer, of course, is the full-fledged character herself.
Let me also say: your use of the word “polyamorous” is consoling to me. A polyamorous writer, by definition, loves her characters. And so many writers don’t! I struggle with authors who condescend to all their characters in order to be able control them. I like a good foil or pluperfect asshole thickening the plot as much as anybody, but I love writers brave enough to love their characters, defend their idiosyncrasies and blunders, portray people better or smarter than themselves, and paint the amazing dance we’re all in with our own character. Here’s the late great James Hillman: “Some of what I mean by ‘force of character’ is the persistence of the incorrigible anomalies, those traits you can’t fix, can’t hide, and can’t accept. Resolutions, therapy, conversion, the heart’s contrition in old age—nothing prevails against them, not even prayer.” Give a fictitious character some of that incorrigibility and you will mine literary gold. I love authors willing to marvel at people more conscious than themselves, not less, in defiance of the vast confederacy of dunces and haters who get 90% of the news headlines as if the goal of life is to aspire downward. The best humans on our planet remain incredible creatures worthy of our keenest interest and extreme admiration. Why not portray them?
You mention short stories versus novels. I can’t say much about short stories. By force of character, I aspire to write books that feel like long pilgrimages on foot or long walks through amazing cities like Paris or Portland or hundred-mile canoe voyages or long hikes along high mountain ridge lines. By force of character, I’ve walked well over a thousand miles in rivers and streams. Not just alongside them: in them. By force of character, I love the spirit of complexity that fuels novels, love the novel’s defiance of the anti-thought that inspires tweets and sound-bytes. And by force of character or something even deeper, sense of soul, maybe, life itself strikes me as polyamorous, so I feel best when my story gets complex and many-peopled and runs long.
And finally, I feel that life is polyphonous. Multiple-voiced. That’s a big change since TRW. I use several narrators in The Brothers K and even more in my current effort, Sun House. How better to speak the polyamorous truth of being human than via polyphony?
AM: In TRW you spend the first several chapters fleshing out the narrator, Gus, and his crazy, complex parents and their hilarious, contentious history. Then you, via Gus, introduce his brother, and there’s this great line following a very loaded paragraph of Gus listing his brother’s habits and traits: “There. Now everyone knows Bill Bob as well as I do.” I found myself thinking about this line for days. It’s such a great writer’s trick. I’m having a hard time figuring out what my question is here or how I can expect you to offer specifics on a line in 25-year old novel, so I’ll shoot you a few options, including just responding to my thoughts on the line. How did you do so much with so little? How do you balance your unapologetically full, lyrical language (I love when you say you were born without a minimalist bone in your body) with this sort of simplicity? Can you teach me?
DJD: I have two responses to these questions.
First response: I’ve always loved holy fools, in mythology, in folk tales, in literature from King Lear’s fool and Huck Finn to Mockingbird’s Boo Radley. Bill Bob was my first attempt at a holy fool. He’s immune to the family obsession with fish, so their strife doesn’t touch him. He is so simple, yet he loves to do six or seven things at once. He has an amazing bedtime spiritual practice of speaking in language similar to myth, or the best speeches of Socrates, as he falls to sleep. Bill Bob, to me, really is a fool and really is holy. I have a 13-years-younger brother and took care of him and lots of other kids when I was young, and sometimes they said and did the most incredible things. If you’re ever in such a situation, Amelia, remember: pull out a little notebook and capture some of that stuff!
My second response is to your question about getting power into short sentences, though you prefer lyrical language most of the time: there comes a point in most any long narrative where things start happening fast and dramatically. I find that the greater the drama and faster the action, the greater the need for terse and very precise language. Lyricism kills a description of a tragic event unless you’re spoofing the whole affair. But the tension between the two kinds of prose—lyrical and terse—can be a very powerful tool if you become aware of, and judiciously vary, your prose rhythms.
Norman Maclean had four axioms for prose writers:
1. All prose should be rhythmical.
2. The rhythms should be barely perceptible.
3. The rhythms should become noticeable at times, however, as when the author is “fooling around and showing off.”
4. “If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart.”
Notice how Axiom #4 illustrates the very topic Norman is addressing? Listen again: If an author writes out of a full heart and rhythms don’t come with it then something is missing inside the author. Perhaps a full heart. Almost anybody but Maclean would place a breathing point in the first sentence by sticking a comma after the word “it.” But Norman doesn’t want that! By leaving the sentence commaless, he gives it the odd, floaty flight of a butterfly. At its worst, oddity distracts. But at its best it can mesmerize and disarm us. For me, this is “Muhammad Ali prose.” Ali said, “I float like a butterfly but sting like a bee.” Norman’s commaless advice flitters and floats the same way, then his five-syllable fragment stings us—especially if we realize we lack “a full heart.”
Here’s a full-hearted passage where Norman does his rhythm thing:
In the middle of the river was a rock iceberg, just its tip exposed above water and underneath it a rock house. It met all the residential requirements for big fish—powerful water carrying food to the front and back doors, and rest and shade behind them. My father said, “There has to be a big one out there.”
I said, “A little one couldn’t live out there.”
My father said, “The big one wouldn’t let it.”
Two long floaty sentences, then Maclean confines his speakers to three short ones beginning, “My father said...” “I said...” “My father said...”
What he is creating, knowingly as a lifelong student of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, The Book of Common Prayer, is litany. Why? To let you know you’re entering the realm of the incantatory; realm of the Inexpressible; realm of what Norman regards as holy. The brother about to embody this holiness, brother about to be resurrected, brother who, among his admirable qualities, was also an alcoholic gambling addict who was found beaten to death in a back alley almost half a century before Norman was able to write of that loss at all. But skilled rhythmic prose doesn’t care how long Paul Maclean had been gone. It resurrects when and whom it pleases. Listen:
My father could tell by the width of Paul’s chest that he was going to let the next loop sail. It couldn’t get any wider. “I wanted to fish out there,” he said, “but I couldn’t cast that far.”
Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards, and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring, and then everything sprang and sang.
Read that sentence six times and you’ll learn something great about the difficult conjunction, “and.” Read it six more times, messing with the placement of its commas, and you’ll feel how breathing enhances meaning. Inhalations and exhalations are, along with our pulse, rhythms injected in us by the powers of creation from our birth till our death, and the comma—our punctuation mark asking for a beat of silence between sounds, shows us when and how to breathe, and almost how to eat what we read. Read it again to yourself, exaggerating your inbreaths as you reach the commas:
Paul’s body pivoted as if he were going to drive a golf ball three hundred yards [inbreath], and his arm went high into the great arc and the tip of his wand bent like a spring [inbreath], and then everything sprang and sang.
Suddenly, there was an end of action. The man was immobile. There was no bend, no power in the wand. It pointed at ten o’clock and ten o’clock pointed at the rock. For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved...
Deliberate incantation, invoking the Invisible in the form of a merely imagined teacher pointing; invoking the Unseen again in just three spirit-of-God-moving-over the face-of the water words: Only. Water. Moved. Now Norman is as ready as Muhammad Ali ever was to clock us, especially those of us who’ve lost close loved ones, and love the beauty of rivers, and the beauty of great departed fishermen merged with them:
For a moment the man looked like a teacher with a pointer illustrating something about a rock to a rock. Only water moved...
Somewhere above the top of the rock house a fly was swept in water so powerful only a big fish could be there to see it. Then the universe stepped on its third rail. The wand jumped convulsively as it made contact with the magic current of the world. The wand tried to jump out of the man’s right hand. His left hand seemed to be frantically waving goodbye to a fish, but actually was trying to throw enough line into the rod to reduce the voltage and ease the shock of what had struck. . .
Everything seemed electrically charged but electrically unconnected. Electrical sparks appeared here and there on the river. A fish jumped so far downstream that it seemed outside the man’s electrical field, but, when the fish had jumped, the man had leaned back on the wand and the fish reentered the water not altogether under its own power, the wand recharged with convulsions, the man’s hand waving frantically at another departure, and much farther below a fish jumped again. Because of the connections, it became the same fish. . .
“Waving frantically at another departure.” I feel these words saying: Goodbye Norman’s brother, Paul. Goodbye my brother, John. Yet my body recharges with convulsions as, much farther below, an enormous trout and two long gone brothers somehow reappear, and “because of the connections,” all three live in the spirit of God that moves over the face of Norman’s beloved waters. Rhythm-aware writing like this offers constant counterpoint to every word, giving us a second melody (that’s what counterpoint means), telling two stories at once, one entering our imagination via imagery, the other entering our bodies, hearts, lungs, via rhythm.
‘Zounds! Talk about a power tool! Eat your hearts out, Black and Decker and Milwaukie Electric.
AM: Can you talk about your new novel? You told me you were in the “final throes.” What would that be in fly fishing terms?
DJD: The only way I can speak of my new novel, Sun House, at this late stage in its progress through the birth canal is “in fly fishing terms”: beaching a big wild salmon or steelhead is the most dangerous moment of the entire struggle. When we coax them close to shore and their bellies first feel that stone cobble, they get a last burst of energy, inspiring a last run for deeper water and, if that fails, the wildest of thrashing. With Sun House I’ve been enduring that thrashing for months. It was wearing me out. But I have a famous and skilled editor, Michael by name, who has edited Donna Tart, David Foster Wallace, and other writers who are marathoners by nature. You could say that Michael is the fishing equivalent of a legendary Scottish ghillie or Montana fly fishing guide. Battling my novel’s late thrashing, I wrote to Michael three weeks ago, begging him to enter 100% into my polyamorous, polyphonous, thirteen-year thousand-page effort with me and stand ready with his net so that, if my line breaks, he can sweep the net in under the novel before it can escape. I’m happy to say he is now doing that. Being able to discuss the late details freely with a brilliant literary and editorial mind and heart is giving me an enormous lift.
AM: This might be a bit too heavy, but sometimes the speed and degree of chaos in the world makes me question the notion that art can save or redeem us. Do you still believe in the power of fiction?
DJD: In times like ours, heavy is true and necessary.
I believe a great story told with power and love, a great poem or novel, a great wisdom text, a beautifully told and timely myth, a spontaneous cry from the heart, is not only the greatest force for change in humans, it is the only way the ancient devas, genius loci, secret agents of the Unseen, unknown heroes and heroines, can penetrate the stupendous noise of the trillionfold Tower of Babel so innocently called “the internet” and speak to us.
The Holy Fool in Sun House says this late in the story: “Mother Earth is dying, and she is giving birth, both at once. Both at once, even as so many work to kill her. So even though I’m almost helpless against her killers, I’m trying nonstop, with more attention than I’ve ever given to anything, to tend our dying Mother’s failing body, and listen to her labor moans and last whispered wisdom words, in the hope that I can help find, and catch, and love, and help raise the infant world she is delivering into our care as if not only the infant’s life, but all life, depends on it. Because it does.”
If I had more time I’d demonstrate how, despite the profound gravity of this view, a true Holy Fool does not surrender his sense of humor. I’d love to die while cracking a good joke at the same time I was planting a tree. In times like these, we’ve got to be prepared to show the powers that be that we refuse to kiss the rancid ass of despair. How better than by serving the forces of humor, forests, and hope?
AM: You were teasing me a bit the other day about your top-secret workshop in which participants produce novels while sleeping, but I think this was the advice you really wanted me to hear (and not just because you bolded it): write an awake novel.
I love that. Can you tell me what it means?
DJD: I can if you’ll let me steal from the sage and great myth-teller of Devonshire, England, Martin Shaw. (And you can find some of his best work in Emergence, the excellent new online magazine, for free! Emergence. Check it out.)
How can we write an awake novel, or any other story form: Martin Shaw:
“If you trap a story, you’ve put it in a little allegorical cage where you pretend you know what it means. The moment you think you know what the story means from beginning to end, it’s lost its nutrition, it’s lost its protein, it’s lost its danger...
“Because I’m a storyteller and a writer, people are always saying to me, Can you find us a story so we can make this point? We wanna make a point about climate change. We wanna make a point about gender. Will you send us something over that supports it? Now that’s backwards to me. Story is first. You have to be in the presence of the story, which I regard as a living being: it’s a wild animal; it’s got tusks, udders; it’s got a tail; it doesn’t behave; half the time you want it to be there it’s disappeared, it’s shuffled off somewhere else. Stories should be filled with so much consequence and danger, they won’t behave for your polemic... Old myths are not necessarily always coming from a human point of view at all. They are a multiplicity. “
Which returns us, Amelia, to your excellent word: polyamorous.
AM: Last question: How do you know when you’ve redeemed the life of the tree?
DJD: For me, it happens when a wonderfully sincere stranger, or a dear and trusted friend like my recently flown Irish brother, Brian Doyle, reads what you’ve done and sends you a comment like this:
I been saving your scoops of novel for an hour when I could be alone, serene, alert, and ready—out of respect for the author and the work. Found that hour yesterday in Bellingham on a sunny deck and read through the chapters twice. Wow. Whew. Top of your game. I am instantly drawn into the life of the characters, instantly cared about them, instantly sensed their good and bad and honest and greedy and cool and troubled—was also delighted at the craft with which you infused spiritual pursuit and learning into the very being of the people, so that the former was not speech lecture homily but part and parcel of who they are and their roads and paths and struggle toward cracks of light. Most of all I think I was so slurped into the people and their lives that I finished with a little startle—o, right, Bellingham!—which seems like an enormous kudo to the mind that made those sentences. Very impressed with the depth and passion and genuine of the story, with the peopleness of the people. Thanks, man.
Amelia. Thanks man. Wonderful questions. And best of luck, MFA crew and aspiring fictioneers everywhere, with your own pages and their trees’ redemptions.
David James Duncan is the author of the novels The River Why and The Brothers K, and several collections of stories and essays. His work has won the Western States Book Award, three Pacific Northwest Bookseller’s Awards, a Lannan fellowship, and other honors, and has appeared in fifty plus anthologies including Best American Sports Writing, Best American Essays (twice), and Best American Spiritual Writing (six times). David is wrapping up a novel called Sun House, to be published by Little, Brown, which fuses his loves for acoustic folk and blues, world wisdom traditions, and the mountains, river valleys, critters and free-range humans of the American West.
Amelia Morand grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Before coming to Montana, she completed her BS in Economics at Portland State University where she was awarded the Tom and Phyllis Burnham Scholarship for fiction. She recently received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's 2018 Short Story Award for New Writers, and her work is forthcoming on apt.