Monday, November 7, 2005

A Short History of a Salmonid: Answers to Some Questions

While my opinions on inane questions from novice writers seem to have left some leery of posting their thoughts (yes, there is such a thing as a dumb question), a few intrepid readers have emailed some worthy inquiries. I will answer them here.

Recommended reading? Anything and everything. I preferred the Great Russians as a youth. No other country has had such a literary run, and while the socioeconomic and cultural reasons behind this are fascinating and warrant volumes, I will only say: Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pasternak, Gogol, Pushkin. One should even included Nabokov, especially his early German and Russian works. Next, read all of the Moderns. The world has never seen such a gathering as Paris in the '20s. Where you go from there is your choice. I preferred Hemingway because I grew up not three hundred miles from his boyhood home and because all youths essentially grasp Nick Adams. There's a literary line that, uniquely American in style, can be traced from Hemingway to Carver until the Iowa Workshop finally killed it off. And I'm not just saying this because I was fired from that program after teaching there for only three weeks.

Fraud? Yes, incidentally, people have accused me of imitating both Jim Harrison and Garrison Keillor. Also Rick Bass. In truth, all three are better writers than I, though Mr. Bass's first book, "The Watch," came out long after my last good novel was published. As for the other two, we are all largeish northerners with rural roots. There are obvious differences. I consider Mr. Harrison a dear friend and a better fisherman. I know Mr. Keillor only through radio, and I thank him for his work. If I've stolen anything, my only defense is lack of imagination and what Mr. Costello concedes: "Any good artist is both a thief and a magpie."

Origins of the species? My mother was born and raised in Berlin. Being Catholic and Jewish, her family fled before the war for obvious reasons. My father was likewise part German, and part rural Mississippi, hailing from Chicago. They met at a dance where he was the drummer in a polka band. They settled down on a dairy farm, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Music? Billie Holiday first stirred me. I initially thought there was an angel trapped inside the little transistor radio I clutched up in the hayloft as a little boy; it was the only place on the farm where I could receive the jazz station from Milwaukee. I was obsessed with her for some time. When I hit puberty, the sound of her voice alone could cause the ermine to stir in his warren...still the only woman who has been able to accomplish this feat through singing (discounting those saucy female hip hop artists). Ella Fitzgerald is glorious. Louis Armstrong. The flute concertos of Frederick the Great. The usual Germans and Austrians, including the Strausses, Beethoven, Mozart, even Wagner. More recently: Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash's later albums, John Prine, Bonnie Rait, Steve Earle. All the blues musicians, especially Buddy and Phil Guy, Koko Taylor, Son Seals and Big Daddy Kinzie.

If I could be any other writer, who would it be? An inane question, but still somewhat intriguing, so I'll answer it as my mood allows. It would be Arundhati Roy, who has created a new genre of music with her prose. I would give all my remaining hours on the stream to write like her for three minutes. I don't know if I'd actually want to "be her" as that would rob me of the pleasure of falling in love with her, which I've done on three separate occasions. The last time was when we were co-panelists at an anti-war roundtable, and I was so smitten that I walked for three hours through Central Park in driving sleet, contracting viral pneumonia. I eagerly await her second novel, which is long overdue.

Fishing? I actually prefer brookies to brown trout. I love fishing the clear streams of my home country where the fish are so skittish that a misplaced #22 midge on 2-weight line can clear a quarter-mile stretch. I don't mind those one-fish days at all. The roiling waters of the west are fine, but I'll as soon fish for bass, walleye or northern pike with a crank bait. In my newest "home waters" they tell me that a tan fabrication known as a "woolly bugger" is the best fly, but I've had no luck. I'd sooner use my midge rod for panfish. All trout, however, are gorgeous creatures, the fly being the best way to take them. But I'm no snob: I'll fish with a worm and bobber from a dock if it suits me.

Are any writing programs worthwhile? Sure. My good friend Ed Doctorow runs one of the best at NYU. Also, Columbia College (Chicago), which another friend, the longtime fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly, has called "the true home of the American story." Both are urban institutions, and the non-homogeneous nature of the studentry surely amplifies the rare ability of the instructors.

Food for fiction? Ah, the most intrepid question of all. My favorite meal is always my most recent excellent dining experience. It depends, too, on season. Braised lamb. Steamed asparagus. Sauteed oyster mushrooms (no more than 1 day from harvest). Pair this with a quality Coates du Rhone of your choice, or even a grassy Sauvegnon Blanc. I've also had luck with this fall table: crostini with tomatoes and olive oil (extra, extra), risotto con fungi al porcini, roasted chingili (Italian wild pig). This would be paired with a good Brolio or Montalpulciano (or even Montalcino). For dessert, apple slices with fresh lime-raspberry glaze and a glass of espirito santo.

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