CHICAGO — When a prominent New York publishing house wrote Norman Maclean a few years ago soliciting the opportunity to publish his next book, Maclean hastily replied.
"If things turned out so that Alfred A. Knopf were the last publisher in the world and I was the last author," Maclean wrote back, "that would mark the end of the world of books."
It was sweet revenge.
Relishing the Memory
Ten years ago--when Maclean was 73 years old and a newly retired professor from the University of Chicago--his first work of fiction was rejected by Knopf and other New York publishers, some for reasons best described as arbitrary. "It has trees in it," one explained.
"I felt I was speaking for the dream of all rejected authors when I wrote that letter," Maclean said in a recent interview in his cramped Chicago apartment, relishing the pleasure of that moment once again.
Today it would seem that Maclean is living the dream of every writer. His first book, "A River Runs Through It," won the admiration of critics, the attention of film producers and the celebrity of a near-miss with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The University of Chicago Press broke an 85-year tradition of publishing only academic works when it published the collection of stories in 1976. Today it is one of the publisher's biggest sellers and is available in four editions.
Upon reading it, writer John McPhee wrote Maclean to express his enthusiasm for the work. Publisher's Weekly called it "a stunning debut." The Pulitzer Prize jury chose it as the best work of 1976, although the advisory board made no award for fiction that year.
In the world of literature Maclean is what is called an overnight success.
But, at 83, he is racing against time. Maclean wants to finish a second book this year and has hopes of writing a third.
Like the first book, which Maclean calls "my love poem to my family," his second is a tribute to people from his past in the West.
"Darling, the only thing I'm short of is time," Maclean said to a visitor. "I have about as much health as I can expect at my age, a little money to live on and children who are alive and successful.
"When you're younger you can get held up or thrown off the track but I can't make up time anymore. So I'm kind of desperate for time."
Maclean's literary success springs from a collection of three stories comprising "A River Runs Through It," which he began when he was 70, three years after the death of his wife.
The title story is about his life growing up with a brother in Montana as they learn about life and fly fishing from their Presbyterian minister father. The others humorously recount his experiences in the logging camps and the early days of the U.S. Forest Service.
Some folks feel Maclean was robbed of the Pulitzer Prize but he seems to care little about the Pulitzer he never won. He is honored instead to have won the Dan & Helen Bailey Award given for carrying on the ideals of those two legendary American fly-tiers and fishermen.
Lucrative Hollywood Offers
Nor is he seduced by lucrative Hollywood offers. He has resisted numerous efforts to make a movie of the title story in "A River Runs Through It" because he fears compromising his story.
But the retired professor, who once taught literature to writer Philip Roth, can point to a file cabinet filled with correspondence from people eager to turn his story about fly fishing with his father and brother into a movie.
"All the way from Paramount down to the odds and ends of graduate students from UCLA who've taken summer courses in film, they're all dying to do it.
"And any actor who fishes," Maclean said smiling, "we've got him hooked."
Playwright and actor Sam Shepherd, he said, was the last to volunteer his services. Recent Oscar-winner William Hurt even traveled to Montana a couple of years ago to fish with Maclean. At the end of the day Hurt asked for a critique of his fishing prowess. Was he good enough to play Maclean's brother, the fly-fishing genius of "A River Runs Through It?"
'A Pretty Good Fisherman'
"I said, 'Well, Bill, you're a pretty good fisherman but not good enough to be my brother,' " Maclean recalled.
Last summer Maclean spent a week with Robert Redford and his staff at Redford's Sundance Institute in Utah, an organization the actor established to aid independent film productions. Maclean and two other Westerners were given money to help them develop a film.
But Maclean is wary of the project.
"You see you're not dealing with some guy who wrote a story for a movie. This is my love poem to my family," he said.
He said he is determined that what happened to Bernard Malumud's "The Natural" will never happen to "A River Runs through It."
He described Malumud's story as "a sardonic replica of the quest for the holy grail" that Hollywood turned into "an American-boy-makes-good movie."