The Detroit Free Press recently headed to Arizona to catch up with novelist and Michigan native Jim Harrison, who’s become much more prolific in recent years. According to the story, much of his newfound productivity comes thanks to some (relatively) clean living, but it’s also due to an impulse to get closer to his roots:
“I miss the U.P. terribly,” Harrison says. “It became a retreat for me from the real world. … It was like, after a disgusting two weeks of movie meetings, and then a day later you’re at the Dunes Saloon in Grand Marais after taking a 4-hour walk with your dogs and never seeing anybody, because I’d say 99% of my hiking, I never saw another human being. Which is the way I liked it.
“I know I’ve written about Michigan a lot lately, and I wonder if the origin isn’t homesickness. Which is a very deep feeling, what the Portuguese call saudade. It’s that longing for a place.”
Harrison spent much of his career with fellow Michigander Thomas McGuane as his closest peer and friend, making for a literary orbit I confess I don’t have much feel for. I didn’t much care for books like Harrison’s 1990 story collection, The Women Lit By Fireflies, and early McGuane novels like Ninety-Two in the Shade can be obnoxiously showy, products of the worst of the Beat era and the New Journalism combined. (Sometimes he verged into the just plain nonsensical: According to Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, McGuane once wrote liner notes to a Jimmy Buffett album that praised him for being “one of the last of the sucking chest wound singers to sleep on the yellow line.”)
McGuane has transformed his prose style beautifully in recent years, though, and perhaps Harrison has as well. Maybe they even spent time commiserating over the matter, though we won’t know that for a while yet. The Free Press story mentions that while Harrison’s papers reside at Grand Valley State University, his correspondence with McGuane is strictly off-limits until 2015 (PDF). “Some of it’s indelicate,” Harrison tells the paper. “It contains actresses’ names and dirty stuff. Stacks of it. He writes beautiful letters.”
Don’t try to be clever and attempt to get at the sordid details from the other side: McGuane’s papers reside at Michigan State University, but Harrison’s letters to him are accessible only with his written permission.