The sage of Yaak Valley on writing, teaching and the late Jim Harrison.
BY DOUG HARE
After his second year of a three-year stint as Montana State University’s first writer-in-residence, Rick Bass is having the time of his life. Living in a cabin outside Pray, Montana, Bass somehow manages to balance teaching responsibilities, environmental activism and his own writing projects, still finding time to hunt pheasants with his trusty birddogs, Callie and Linus.
“I’ve taught what feels like my whole life, and I’m having more fun this semester than ever,” says Bass, the author of more than 30 books of fiction and nonfiction. “I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s the students. Or maybe it’s me reaching peace with being an editorial badass. If [the students] want to cry, they can cry,” he added in a wry voice.
Bass doesn’t pull punches when critiquing his pupils’ writing, but his teaching philosophy is versatile and reflects the humility he brings to his craft. Without putting in the effort, Bass says, even a seasoned novelist will fall short of strong writing. “If you have a student with a lot of talent as a writer, it’s more about coaching. If you have a student with good stories to tell without knowing how, then it’s more about teaching. But they have to want to learn. Writing is 90 percent desire.”
Bespectacled, unassuming with a wiry build, Bass can look the part of professor or an elk hunter returning to camp depending on circumstance. A native of Houston, Texas, Bass attended Utah State University in Logan where he studied petroleum geology, often slipping into the wilderness of northern Utah with little more than a sleeping bag and a backpack full of books. He says the solace of these excursions eventually drew him back to the Mountain West.
After college, Bass took a job and spent seven and a half years digging around for gas and oil reserves in Mississippi and Alabama. Despite a grueling work schedule, he’d visit independent bookstores on lunch breaks and read voraciously: Southern literature, the Russian greats, and eventually he got his hands on Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, a novella he credits with giving him the courage to try his own hand at putting pen to paper. He still writes longhand to this day.
As Bass tells it, one fateful afternoon he just “got in his truck and drove north and west.” He didn’t stop until he made it to the remote Yaak Valley in northwest Montana. Since answering the call to become a full-time writer in what’s left of the American frontier, Bass has spilled both ink and sweat trying to protect his chosen home from over-development. Most recently, he brought together dozens of Montana writers to defend public lands in the Treasure State against profiteering by multinational corporations.
Now 59 years old, Bass shows no signs of slowing the pace of his activism. “It’s amazing how much time I spend working on environmental advocacy pieces,” he said. “I’m still active with the Yaak Valley Forest Council: a lot of lobbying, fundraising and volunteering on the board.”
“[He] is the current giant of Western letters and activism … I don’t know a better contemporary writer of short stories.”
Mentor, now longtime friend, and fellow Montana writer and environmentalist Doug Peacock says that Bass has firmly entrenched himself in the pantheon of great writers in the West. “[He] is the current giant of Western letters and activism,” said Peacock, who continues his lifelong battle to protect grizzly bears. “He is the moral and logical successor of heroes like Ed Abbey and Jim Harrison as well as geezers like Tom McGuane and myself. I don’t know a better contemporary writer of short stories. But don’t lend him your rental car.”
When asked about his writing routine, Bass recommends getting an early start for clarity of mind. “Morning is best,” he says, “before the hard realities of the day intrude with their sharp edges upon the thin membrane of the dream world. I can write anywhere as long as it’s quiet. And the older I get, I find I can even write in places that aren’t quiet. Time is valuable, and I’m just not quite as particular as I used to be in that regard.”
In the hands of true craftsmen, the short story can have incandescent moments of revelation. With his keen eye for observing the natural world, an ear for the rhythmic cadences of sparse prose, and ability to move from elemental imagery to the mystery and awe of being alive inside of a paragraph, Bass’ best stories can have a transformative effect. The reader is somehow lulled into a false sense of security by a deceptive simplicity and disarming authenticity, only to be struck with observations that burst like Roman candles across a still night sky.
How did a petroleum geologist transform himself into a major American writer? Talking with him about shop, it becomes apparent that his attention to tradition—his literary predecessors—his perseverance as a writer, dedication to his craft, and his immersive methodology of writing fiction were essential to his successful career change.
When Bass moved to Montana, Jim Harrison invited him and his wife, Elizabeth, to dinner. It was the beginning of a friendship that died only when Harrison did in the spring of 2016, pen in hand. “He was someone who made writing look like a lot of fun,” says Bass of his longtime friend. “He made living look like a lot of fun. He was a man who was not happily imprisoned in academia, nor were many of his friends … They were living the lives they wanted to live, and writing about the things they wanted to write. He became a role model for me whether I knew it or not.”
“Now I think about things more like a painter thinking about the colors on the palette and the brushes. And I have a greater sinuosity to the flow of the story.”
While it would be nearly impossible to confuse their respective styles, Bass and Harrison share a kindred way of moving from specificity to generality, from “things” to cathartic realizations. Bass’ assessment of Harrison’s genius reveals where he was most influenced by the one-eyed bard of Livingston.
“His imagery was painterly and grounded in the five senses. I like the delight he took in surprising the reader with offbeat sentences, coming seemingly out of left field, but before you even finish reading it you realize there is a logic behind the setup and that ambitious sentence.”
Bass is currently working on a novel he has been taking notes on for 20 years. It would come as no surprise if it turned out to his chef d’oeuvre. While his activism will never take a back seat to his literary ambitions, Bass’ latest collection of short stories in For a Little While, published in 2016, offers a portrait of an artist growing old, yet one whose imagination and craftsmanship only seem to grow stronger and more refined.
Bass himself sees little importance in being overly introspective. He has never been a navel-gazer, but quite the contrary, one of our finest observers of the natural world. “The tunnel vision that a writer brings to his or her craft is intense. The focal point is binocular and precise. In the writer’s mind, the focus on each next word choice, each next value of positive or negative—in between the words, in the phrases, in the sentences, and then in the paragraphs—is so focused that you don’t think about things like, ‘How is this different than what I used to do?’ or, ‘What do I want to do next?’ That 30,000-foot view is not conducive to good writing. You want to be down in the subconscious, watching the dream of the real time of the story.”
So it seems for Bass that the act of writing is, like many art forms, a performative one. After some prodding on his evolution as a writer, he said that these days his perspective has shifted. “Now I think about things more like a painter thinking about the colors on the palette and the brushes. And I have a greater sinuosity to the flow of the story and sedatives—less volatile, jagged, helter-skelter bomb-throwing and pyrotechnics.”
As he continues to help produce Montana’s next generation of literary talent, Bass seems at ease, still perturbed by the degradation of our wilderness areas, but with a sense of serenity that one attains from fighting the good fight.
While his post-teaching plans are not set in stone, Bass will continue to travel, giving workshops, fighting for the causes he believes in, and return to the mountains in Montana where he feels most alive. “There’s that great William Carlos Williams quote: ‘No ideas but in things,’” Bass said in a pensive voice, and after a brief pause, “Montana is still a place that’s full of things. Things are good for writers. You can quote me on that.”
A native of Richmond, Virginia, Doug Hare attended Princeton University where he played soccer and majored in Religious Studies. He also studied philosophy and cosmology at Harvard Divinity School. Currently working on a book about the logician Charles Sanders Peirce, he also writes a column about Western literature for Explore Big Sky newspaper. An avid skier, he is steadily improving his fly fishing and still trying to give up the game of golf.