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A master on the margins of life

July 16, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds

"I like my life now," Thomas McGuane says by phone from his ranch in McLeod, Mont. It's 8 a.m. and he's just come from three hours of writing in the old bunkhouse by the river, surrounded by cottonwoods he can't bear to cut down. He's 170 pages into a novel about a crazy country doctor, a "tremendously compassionate" man who is "in and out of disgrace."

The author's days are spent working the ranch he has owned for more than 30 years. He has 174 head of cattle and 19 horses, "two thirds of them pensioners." The other third require about five hours of training a day. He'll write a bit more, read, work the ranch and ride after supper -- when it gets cooler -- until 9:30 or so.

"I've tried to live among the unconverted," McGuane explains when asked about the outsiders who populate his new collection of short stories, "Gallatin Canyon." Where do they come from? How does he know so much about the edges and margins of life? "I do a fairly poor job of ranching," he says with characteristic modesty. "And I don't spend much time among literary people. But in the course of my work, I meet a lot of people who are fresh meat for literature. I am surrounded by wounded birds; people who are in serious danger of not finishing their lives. The characters in my stories and novels are suggested by the people I see. I'm not inventive enough to make them up."

Many of McGuane's characters have a mysterious core. As to how he moves around that core without puncturing it, he offers a story: "A couple of years ago, I was judging ranch horses for a sale in Billings. A friend of mine and I drove down there at 4 a.m. We saw this guy standing on the side of the road. 'That's a cowboy,' I said. 'Let's give him a ride.' Turns out he could do anything. He stayed and worked with my friend for six months. But we both knew that one day he'd just vanish, and sure enough, he did. In this more spacious part of the country, these people turn up. We had a handyman working for us when I was a kid. He used to be a hobo. I think he knew that I didn't have much of a father, so he told me all kinds of stories about his life. He and I became close. I like these people who are so full of originality that they are completely unpredictable, almost ghostly. You go on writing about them as best you can, and they emerge somehow under their own steam."

McGuane's stories are written around his characters, but also around metaphors, small things with enormous meaning. "It's one of the great challenges of short fiction," he says. "Finding things that have a resonant feel, that look innocent on the surface but have a lingering aura. It's very important how these things are positioned in the text, how to raise the pitch around them without signaling too loudly. It's like developing film: You have to let them emerge. Chekhov was a master at this." As an example, McGuane cites a story in which a boiling pot of potatoes falls on the ground. "What could be more quotidian than that?" he asks. "But it's huge. Any attempt to explain the importance of this event fails."

"Gallatin Canyon" is only McGuane's second collection of stories in a career spanning more than three decades. "I'm a fanatical reviser," he says, confessing to having done as many as 15 drafts of these stories during a three-year period. "It's much easier to write a novel" -- because with a novel, "you don't have to start over very often. You have the momentum of the preceding text. With the stories, I had to start over 10 times." As for his nonfiction, which includes "The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing" and "Some Horses," McGuane says it's not "anything I've ever set out to do."

"Come to think of it," he says, talking about the direction of the new novel, "I never really know what I'm doing. I used to sit out there and write all day. I wasted whole chunks of my life hoping something would happen."

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