Thursday, November 22, 2012

Remembering A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

Pulitzer winner A. B. Guthrie, Jr. was best known for his western novels, "The Big Sky" and "The Way West," but he also wrote six mystery novels, five of them featuring Montana Sheriff, Chick Charleston. Three of his western novels were adapted to film and Guthrie wrote several other screenplays without prior experience, including “Shane” for director George Stevens. I visited Guthrie at his home near the face of Montana's rugged Sawtooth Mountain Range on a 160-acre, sagebrush-covered hideaway where he lived with his wife Carol, who was nearly as young as 86-year-old Guthrie’s spirit.

Why do you call yourself "Bud?"

Because Alfred Bertram is a sissy name.

Tell us about your background and how it influenced your writing.

I was born in Bedford, Indiana, January 23, 1901. When I was six months old, my father, a graduate of Indiana University, and my mother, who graduated from a Quaker college at Richmond, Indiana, came to Montana. My father came west to become the first principal of the first free high school in this considerable territory.

Did your mother also teach school?

No, she was too busy having kids. Nine in all, but most of them died in babyhood. The mortality rate in our family was terrific. I was the third child and am now the family patriarch.

Were you a precocious child?

I was an ornery little bastard. I was always impatient about something. And I was a sickly one, too. They didn’t think I would live for long. In fact, we moved to Ontario, California, when I was ten for my health and that of my baby brother. There, my sister, who was three years older than I, contracted spinal meningitis from a tick bite and died. We’d hardly gotten back to Montana, within a matter of three months, when my baby brother died. (Only three of nine Guthrie children survived to adulthood.)

Did you read incessantly as a child?

Dad used to read aloud to us from Dickens and Kipling. My tastes were omnivorous. I read anything I could lay my hands on, but the memory that stays with me is that of my father reading the Jungle Books to us when we were young. Beautiful stories!

When did you begin writing?

In high school, fiction and some essays although I knew little about the craft of fiction. I majored in journalism in college and may have been influenced by my father who worked as a news reporter for four years in a small Kentucky town. I guess he thought it was the way to become a writer—a point that I will dispute because the crafts are so different. Newspaper writing, aside from a little investigative work, is so much on the surface, while fiction goes a lot deeper.

An example of that: a well known man in Lexington died and afterward, his widow had a full-size portrait of him in the house, and when people came to visit, she would refer to the picture as if he were still alive, saying, ‘Isn’t that so, Enoch?’ So you see, you can’t put that in a newspaper, but it’s great for fiction.”

How then did you make the transition from journalism to fiction?

With luck. I won the Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, while working as an executive editor of the Lexington Leader in Kentucky, and there I became friendly with a professor of English, Theodore Morrison, who knew so much about writing, probably more than I’ll ever know. And somehow, he took me under his wing. My writing to begin with was wretched. I see that now. But with patience and gentleness and always deliberation he taught me the language of fiction.

To begin with, I couldn't understand him at all. I didn't know what he was getting at but after six weeks of conferences, and trying to write The Big Sky, all of a sudden it was just as though a veil had been lifted and I knew!

Why is fiction so difficult to write?

Fiction is such a varied field. I happen to be a writer who can't bury the author on the age. Any sign of him and I'm through. Let's take an example: a typical western where a cowpuncher is seated on his horse and looks down at a town in which his father was improperly disgraced, or strung up. Then the author comes on the page and says, 'He was a lean and lanky man with the look of leather in his face.' Who the hell is talking but the goddamn clumsy author? I can't stand that kind of thing and it goes back so far, you know.

I can't even read Hardy anymore, because he's all over the page as the author. At the end of Tessa, here comes the clumsy-footed author who says in effect, 'The president of the immortals has had his sport with Tess.' Well, Christ Almighty, who doesn't know it by that time? Why did he have to dive in and nail?

After working for 22 years as a news reporter and editor for the Lexington Leader, why did you decide to write your first novel?

I was still with the Leader when I won the Neiman Fellowship in 1944, and I'd been trying to write the story of the mountain men, but indifferently for some time. It wasn't until I went to Harvard that I got in gear. Then I went back to work for the newspaper for another year or so. I had a very understanding boss. As long as I kept the newsroom up to snuff, I could make my own time, so I took afternoons off. Then when I thought my books had been successful enough--Big Sky and The Way West--I felt I could live by freelancing. So I quit my newspaper job and went on my own, except for a couple of years when I taught creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

How would you like to be remembered?

I'm going to be cremated but if I had a tombstone, I'd have them write, "He done his best."

© 2011 Jean Henry Mead
(Excerpted from Maverick Writers.)

7 comments:

  1. That was an excellent interview. I have read Mr. Guthrie's wonderful books for a number of years.

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  2. This author will look out for her foot/mouth/pen getting in the way of the story with more dilligence! Thanks, Jean, for sharing the interview again.

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  3. I loved Guthrie's The Big Sky and The Way West and they will be on my keeper shelf for good. Thanks for the fascinating interview.

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  4. Thanks for the kind words. Interviewing "Bud" Guthrie at his home in rural Montana was the highlight of my career. :)

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  5. What a great interview, Jean! I'd planned to tease you about how he had to be 110 years old until I looked him up on Wikipedia and learned he died in '91.

    He seems to have been an engaging gentleman.

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  6. Fascinating interview. When you read about his siblings that died, it's a reminder of how very different life was for people not that very long ago.

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  7. Just began re-reading Guthrie and found this interview. I enjoyed the interview, but wish Ms Mead had done some editing of quotes like, "I happen to be a writer who can't bury the author on the age." I assume the last word there should be "page," but even then "I can't bury the author" doesn't make sense. Perhaps he said something like, "I want to bury the author on the page." That at least seems to go with his further explanation.

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