Friday, December 28, 2012

Q & A with Thomas McIntyre

Bangtail Press: Can you talk about the writing of The Snow Leopard’s Tale?

Thomas McIntyre: It was always about creating the experience, the sensation of pursuit—a character who gave chase and was chased. It’s the looped fate of the “monster.” That’s what interested me, the peripateticism, the flight.

This monster was inspired by the feral image of the green-eyed Afghan girl staring from the cover of a National Geographic [June, 1985], an image that paced some back corridor of my thoughts for a long time. And that is as far as the tale developed, its keel settling into biogenous sediments on a mental deep-ocean floor, for many years nothing more than an accumulation of fractions, never totaling quite a whole number. I have traveled somewhat. I started going to Europe in the late 1960s, to Africa in the mid-1970s. I have also gotten to the Arctic, Scandinavia, Mexico, Central and South America, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and in the late 1990s I went to China. It was mid-March when I flew from Beijing to Xining in the west-central part of the country, to drive onto the Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau, the world’s highest and largest. The gravel highway summited up where blinding snow still lay under the sky and then crossed an alpine wasteland plain where we were met by another vehicle and struck off over roadless steppes. The winter grass was grazed down to near nothing, and that reminder of growth for some reason only intensified the impression of lunar-scape. Driving from dawn to dark brought us to a camp of Tibetan gers at an elevation of 15,000 feet and the nominal source of the Yellow River. At that altitude, without time to acclimatize, you live with a pounding headache, no appetite, and remorseless shortness of breath. So we rode ponies with Tibetan herders into the steep surrounding mountains in search of blue sheep. And that was where I found the mise en scène for my monster’s native range. Later I spent some days back in Xining, absorbing the city. We went to the local forestry department, and in a back room they had a collection of genuinely stuffed animals, rather than the modern taxidermy we are more used to seeing in museums. And in one cabinet were rosette-ed skins that had been confiscated from poachers. Out of all this I realized I had the island of Polyphemus for this odyssey. So I made notes. I studied Chinese legends about Huangdi, the “Yellow Emperor,” who ruled in a greenstone palace; about a secret looking glass that was shattered, its quicksilvered shards spreading into fields of shining snow and a maiden’s desolate tears crystallizing into blue glaciers; or how in the candle-less chamber of a summit cave a crabbed crone’s hand clutched a singular elixir as red-eyed carrion birds assembled, glossy crowned, tendering decaying flesh with mandibles of jagged keratin. And then I put all that aside. I learned the mandarin name for the snow leopard (xue bao), and held onto that. How long should the book be? Who was it being written for? Over fourteen years, starting with a hastily scribbled text, then literally perennial rewriting, the sending out of unfailingly rejected submissions, the failure of other publishers even to reply to an unsolicited manuscript, approaching agents who wanted me to limn for them how they should make money off my book (wasn’t that supposed to be part of their job description, along with making me money?), and for some reason never ultimately losing my resolve, I realized that questions about how long and for whom were immaterial. I was writing the book to be the book, if I may be so sphingine. And then finally, the finding of Allen Jones and Bangtail, or our finding each other; and in the Johnsonian manner in which the knowledge of the advent of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, the prospect of actual, upcoming publication led to a flurry of changes and re-craftings that had simply been unseen before, though patently obvious. Then after that it was a matter placing it all between covers and letting it continue on its own way to Ithaca.      

BP: When did you first want to write?

TM: I’m not sure I wanted to write, at first, I just started. I remember when I was five or six trying to produce a stick-figure comic book based on some 1940’s movie I’d seen on the television. All I can recall today is that a peacock rattan chair, a tropical setting, and I believe either Walter Slezak or Sydney Greenstreet figured prominently. In the eighth grade at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Downey, California, I wrote a “prose poem” as an assignment from Sister Mary Dolores of the Sisters of Notre Dame—they still wore wimples, black robes, and rosaries in those days, unlike the shameless hussies now—a description of a desert sunset that ended, “Night was now ruler of the world.” I remember her stopping in the middle of reading it aloud to the class and declaring, “We’ll be reading you in books someday!” I later submitted the sole copy of the work to the student literary magazine at Loyola High School (I would be one of the editors of the magazine in my senior year) in Los Angeles where it promptly, probably all for the better, vanished. From that time on I wrote fairly constantly for many years in ring binders, stuff hardly rising to the level of juvenilia. Tried to write a novel about a sport-fishing boat out of San Pedro (I actually had some minor experience of this). It and all the stories are gone now, or buried too deep in some cluttered corner for me to lay my hands on. During my freshman year in high school, a classmate, Kevin Doherty, now called back, showed up with a “novel” written on three-by-five index cards (curiously, this is the same composition method employed by Vladimir Nabokov). I think the title was Wild Thing, after the song of the time. And what impressed me was the notice he received for this accomplishment from our coevals. People seemed to think highly of someone who wrote, and gave them attention and perhaps respect. Need I say more about the real moment when I first wanted to write?

BP: Who do you consider your influences.

TM: Somewhat embarrassingly, I think writers influence us in both our ways of, or outlooks on, life and ways of writing. I’m sure more than one person’s been perversely attracted by the idea of turning himself into an unwashed, absinthe-swilling, licentious symbolist poet after reading the verse and, even more important, the life, of Arthur Rimbaud. (My grandfather, who was not a writer, read Jack London as the books came off the presses, and went to sea in homage.) So, from the day I heard of Hemingway’s death on the AM radio of my father’s blue Chevy Bel Air as we rode down a small avenue called Cherokee, which was probably my first definite knowledge of that writer’s existence, I was fascinated by an artist who engaged life in the way he did. It was only later, in the course of reading all his works, that I came to appreciate his writing above his persona. Mailer had the advantage, as it were, of being alive and a regular presence on television. Again, another writer with a certain, to say the least, swagger, and again a lack of realization on my part how much pure ass-sitting at a desk went into doing the writing that allowed him to affect such panache (especially that hair) and swagger. I read The Deer Park, The Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, and for some unfathomable reason, Why Are We in Vietnam? three times, though never The Naked and the Dead. In the year of grace, 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared in two parts in Rolling Stone, and the less said about the impact that had on one’s writing the better. Luckily, in light of the above, I read Charles Bukowski outside my formative years. Of the writers I came to, first, for their writing, and without naming the far too obvious, there was Joyce, grinding to a halt short of Finnegans Wake, Eliot, Beckett, The Gambler, Fathers and Sons, Nabokov, Lewis Carroll, Huckleberry Finn, desultory swaths of Melville, full works of Camus, Gide, Flann O’Brien, A Hundred Years of Solitude, Borges, very little Proust, The (great) Great Gatsby, The Ginger Man, The Grapes of Wrath (still a very fine novel, no matter what anybody tells you), The Sound and the Fury, Junichiro Tanizaki, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Lafcadio Hearn, Yukio Mishima, Under the Volcano, and a steady diet of noir—all of Hammett and Chandler, most of Ross McDonald, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, Simenon, and Patricia Highsmith. Along with mystery writers I read mysterious ones, such as B. Traven, Mikhail Bulgakov, Horacio Quiroga, and John Collier. From the half generation preceding mine I read McGuane, Harrison, McCarthy, even Brautigan, as well as Pynchon (well, The Crying of Lot 49), and his friend David Shetzline (author of the criminally neglected Heckletooth 3). Obviously, not many women writers, which I do not necessarily account as a benefit to my work. I also seem to have failed to develop an interest in most contemporary authors—too many Jonathans to keep track of. In a place in my heart reside a number of special odd, generally-small books, including, but not limited to, The Circus of Dr. Lao, Heart of Darkness, “The Metamorphosis,” Candide, Rameau’s Nephew, Animal Farm (though Orwell’s non-fiction shines rather brighter), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Michael Kohlhaas, Billy Budd, The Mysterious Stranger, and “The Bear.” 

BP: Did you take any formal writing classes?

TM: Two. The first was at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, in my freshman year there (as for college, I adhered to the true Reedie tradition of dropping out without a degree). Admission to the class was dependent upon submitted work; and I had to see the instructor, the poet Robert Peterson, who was writer-in-residence at the time, for thumbs up, thumbs down. I remember this rather good looking blond girl on the stairs at the same time as I, and her saying, “Looks like we’re walking up together”—I should only dare hope. She went into Peterson’s office in Elliot Hall first, and about three minutes later rushed out, holding her hand over her face. Not the best of signs, I thought. When I walked into his office, Peterson, gray-bearded as I recall, veteran World War II combat medic, sat in his desk chair, nodding at my submission in his hand and saying, miraculously, sure, you can take the class. We would get blank beet-juice-smelling mimeograph stencils to type our poems on (the class was all poetry); and then we’d meet at his off-campus rented house where he’d have French Market coffee waiting, and we’d read our poems aloud and critique. Again, it is my good fortune that none of this verse survives, to my knowledge.  I was also overtaken by D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature (Lawrence was a curious, particular favorite of English departments of that day, as B. F. Skinner was of the psychology professors—perhaps it had to do with the double-barreled initials in lieu of forenames) and under his unhinged, stylistic influence produced a term paper for Humanities 201, which the teacher, the historian F. Smith Fussner, tore to shreds, sobering profoundly my opinion of my writing talents. I retreated to a small red notebook and began writing the clearest, most declarative sentences I could, only to have to relearn this ability all over again when I took two writing courses with the novelist John Rechy in the late 1970s through the UCLA Extension. There is, it seems, simply no excuse for verbs not agreeing with nouns and leading logically to objects.

BP: Where were you first published?

TM: I believe I wrote some poetry and film reviews for a Portland underground paper after college, and also did some book reviews for a small newspaper in Pasadena. I got a few more book reviews in the Herald Examiner and the Times in Los Angeles. I must have two or three partial and completed novel manuscripts lying around somewhere from this period. My first published story, fiction, for which I earned actual money, was “Africa Passing Relentlessly Beneath the Sun,” published around 1976 in Gray’s Sporting Journal, which was about the time E. Annie Proulx, as she was, then, was also publishing stories, like “The Wer-Trout,” in Gray’s. From there our two career roads diverged. I sent another story, “The Bandtail Above All,” non-fiction, that Gray’s was not going to publish anytime soon, to Sports Afield, even though the editor at Gray’s told me “good luck” and that SA was hardly likely to take it. But they did, and in a year or two the SA editor Tom Paugh made me a contributing editor on the masthead. My SA story “Buff” was selected by The Sporting News as the Best Magazine Story Co-Winner for Best Sports Stories 1982, which led to a book contract with E. P. Dutton and two books that today can be found as those small gray flecks of paper used for padding shipping envelopes. My third book, Dreaming the Lion, was probably for better or worse the best composed of all my “works” up till now. After Tom Paugh retired from the magazine, the notorious Terry McDonell took, in journalese parlance, the reins; and that was a, if not entirely long, certainly strange trip. I actually got Terry out to Wyoming on a pronghorn hunt, to which he responded, after taking a buck, that he had received a vision of shooting me. After Terry came an editor who shall remain nameless, with an expression that seemed to lack only the nictitating membrane to rival a feeding thresher shark’s and a penchant for placing zoftig bikini-clad fly-fishing models on the covers and running articles about “pum’kin chunkin’.” I went over to writing for Field & Stream. The Hearst Corporation murdered SA; and Robert Petersen of happy memory, for some, bought the title; and I came back. That lasted until Petersen committed his own magazine-icide in the advertising downturn following 9-11. Back to Field & Stream, then the resurrection of Sports Afield under the enigmatic aegis of Ludo Wurfbain, publisher of Safari Press. At this point SA has intentionally reduced its circulation to a level which permitted me to work for both it and F&S without considerations of competition. Did another book, Seasons & Days, this time for my long-time editor and friend Jay Cassell at The Lyons Press/Globe Pequot Press, and an anthology for Ludo, Wild & Fair (do note the mania for ampersands), in which I managed to publish works by Robert F. Jones, and two Pulitzer winners, Philip Caputo and David Mamet. During the last few years I have written hundreds of outdoor-television scripts for Orion Entertainment. And in the meantime I continued to scribble, scribble on The Snow Leopard’s Tale.

BP: What about your personal life?

TM: I can’t improve upon Hemingway’s dictum that the best early training for a writer is an unhappy childhood. Because there are those still alive who knew all the principals involved in that disastrous ménage, and to avoid opening partially healed emotional wounds, I won’t say more. Nonetheless I wanted a wife and child of my own (insert Philip Larkin here). And in pursuit of that, I, like Churchill, married and lived happily ever after.

BP: Do you have a wish for your book?

TM: I wish, more than anything, that I had not been the one to write it, so I might be able to read it for a first time with new eyes.

No comments:

Post a Comment