Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Lawrence E. Morgan
Trout Fishing in America: A Conversation with John Gierach
Lawrence E. Morgan (Ph.D., University of New Mexico) spent 20 years as a professional journalist, primarily in South Texas. He received writing awards from the Texas Outdoor Writers Association while an outdoor columnist in Corpus Christi, and now is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
Timing is everything when trying to meet with John Gierach. The author, whose specialty is writing fly fishing essays, spends a considerable amount of his time as one would expect, fly fishing. Beginning in early spring, when weather first permits an angler to cast a fly, and ending with the first snow flurries of late fall, Gierach is fishing. That’s how he makes his living as a professional writer. Gierach spends spring, summer, and fall fishing and gathering material for essays that will be published first in magazines and newspapers, and later will be assembled as collections in books. Gierach fishes in the United States for the most part, with an occasional foray into Canada. He is often fishing in his home state of Colorado or neighboring Wyoming, but his travels also have taken him to Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and Maine. From, roughly, March into November, Gierach is, more often than not, either fishing or traveling to or from fishing.
Gierach is the best-known and most widely read fly fishing author today. He has a philosophy degree (Findlay College, Ohio) and has written 15 books on fly fishing. Gierach became a favorite of fly anglers with the 1986 publication of Trout Bum, of which a 20th anniversary edition was published in 2006. Among the early books that sparked his popularity are Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing (1990), Even Brook Trout Get the Blues (1993), Another Lousy Day in Paradise (1997), and Standing in a River Waving a Stick (2000). Gierach also is known for his columns in the magazines Fly Rod and Reel, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield, and in two Colorado newspapers, the Longmont Daily Times-Call and the Redstone Review. He has also contributed essays to Fly Fisherman Magazine.
So it is that it is November as I proceed north on Interstate 25 toward Denver, then northwest through Boulder, and on further north to the tiny hamlet of Lyons. By November the best fly fishing is over, and the hunting seasons for grouse and deer in Colorado have concluded. The onset of winter is near, which means that Gierach is shifting his focus from choosing flies for trout to choosing words to describe the details of his surroundings when he saw the trout, who he was fishing with, what happened along the road to the stream, and, maybe, what flies were in his fly box and why he picked out the one he used to catch the trout. That makes it a good time to visit with Gierach.
Gierach and I met for breakfast at the Lyons Café, which claims on its sign to be "world famous." No doubt that is because Gierach has mentioned the Lyons Café numerous times in his essays. Gierach was easy to recognize as soon as he walked through the door because he was dressed just as I picture a trout fisherman in the Rockies would be dressed: blue jeans, a wool shirt, and a weather-worn brimmed hat.
The majority of the following is a printed version of our conversation. Some additional questions and answers taken from follow-up conversations via telephone have been interpolated into the final text below.
Read an essay by John Gierach published in this issue of Weber.
You’ve said that you approach your writing more from a literary angle?
My actual aim is more literary but facts and correctness are important. It’s not that details don’t interest me but my goal in most stories is to tell the story rather than explain to somebody how something works.
So details are a way to build a framework or fill in gaps? Is that where they come in?
The story inevitably is about fishing. It’s like a novel. When writing a short story you can get away with sort of telling a story, but when you’re writing a novel it is the accretion of detail. You’re not so much telling a story, you’re telling what happens day to day, and the details serve to put you in a place and serve to define the parameters of the story. If there’s a conflict, they’ll define the conflict. It goes back to that old claim, "tell ‘em, don’t show ‘em." Everybody sort of understands that fishing can get tense—the fish aren’t biting, you’re having trouble catching fish, you get upset or even desperate, or whatever. But if people know precisely why they’re not catching fish, what the problem is, and what you’re doing to fix it, then they tend to get more involved.
I’ve done plenty of stuff that was straight how-to, the old style "hook and bullet" stuff—here’s how you do this, here’s how you do that—but it was never what quite interested me. I always wanted to tell stories, be an essayist. But all of the essays I like use a lot of details and you end up learning a lot of things. You read Tom McGuane’s essays and you end up learning a lot about cutting horses, and all kinds of interesting stuff. Every once in a while McGuane will do something really courageous, like he’ll say, "we rode out to the south forty to sweeten up the spring," without telling you what that means; because it’s just a great sounding phrase, "sweeten up the spring." That takes balls, to use an obscure phrase without explaining it, but I admire it.
What else do details do? Don’t readers tend to learn from details?
That I do almost subconsciously. How to is not my intention, but at the same time, if people don’t know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it—you can’t make that assumption that they do. In a book that all kinds of people are going to read, it’s a good idea to give them a sense of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
Who are the writers that you like to model or pattern yourself after as a writer?
Tom McGuane would be one, Jim Harrison, Russ Chatham, Charles Waterman, Jack Curtis—I also tend to like what people call serious novelists, like Scott Spencer.
What is it about those writers that you like as models of writing?
From Harrison, who is not really a nature writer, you can get pretty far afield and still be talking about the same ecosystems. McGuane fits the plot of his essays into the natural history of a place, and he does the same thing in his novels.
Annie Proulx, who wrote The Shipping News, does the same thing. The Shipping News is situated in Newfoundland, and I’ve spent some time in Labrador, which is near there, and when I read it, I really recognized the place and felt I was back there. The people are part of the landscape. If you live your life in Labrador and are a fishing guide, you are part of the landscape as much as the animals. All fishing writers do this to some extent, but those writers raise it to an art form.
You said you don’t take leads from outdoor writing at this stage of your career. Did you at the beginning of your career?
Only to the extent that I needed to know what magazines wanted. Most of it is not very good, and new outdoor writers base their expectations and model their work after other outdoor writing, and since it isn’t very good it tends to keep the standard low. The quality of the writing tends not to be particularly good because it doesn’t have to be. It has to be clear and succinct and relatively precise, but basically it’s technical writing: you go here and do this, and you’ll catch some fish. It’s really more a matter of degree.
What genre do you put yourself in?
I don’t think it’s run of the mill outdoor writing. I’d just say I’m an essayist. I happen to have fallen into this thing where I write mostly about fishing and outdoor sports but I could have gone another way. I’m just trying to be a writer. I’m not trying to be a particular kind of writer.
How did you get started writing professionally about fly fishing?
I fell into it because you could get paid for it. I was trying to be a poet and short story writer and essayist and all this serious stuff, but I couldn’t make a penny. I was fly fishing and reading these magazines and, like I said, most of the work is not very good. It’s adequate, but not very good. I thought, I can do this, and I started writing for contributor’s notes, and Fly Fisherman was paying $75 for a feature and I thought, that’s like a month’s rent.
I was reading the magazines anyway, so I wrote a couple of stories and sent them out and started selling them. They were pretty near the top of the heap compared to most of what they were getting, because I was already a writer; I’d spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write. And then somewhere along the line I think it was Chatham, McGuane, Waterman, Harrison—I saw their outdoor writing and I thought this can be done as well as…. You don’t have to be a poet; you don’t have to be a literary essayist to achieve quality. You can achieve quality and it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is if you do it well. So I finally just gave up my ambition to be a serious writer to do this because it could be done well.
People would see that it was done well and appreciate it, and I could get better, and get paid. A paycheck is really compelling. I think there’s a lot of, say, graphic artists who, if you would say, "Why did you end up doing this or doing that?," they’d say, "The real answer is because people would buy it." So you concentrate on that and get good.
Plus, jeez, the stuff I get to do, what I have to do is fun. I get to go fishing. Editors call, or publishers call, or my agent will call me, and if I’m not there they say, well, I guess you’re fishing. Call me when you get back.
Using the section you wrote on firewood (At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman) as an example, are you presenting information or using the various kinds of firewood as a metaphor for something else?
I tend to not put gratuitous information in. There are a couple of basic rules you hear about writing. One is a fiction writing rule. It is that anything that doesn’t either develop a character or advance a plot has no business being your story. And the same thing with journalism—anything that isn’t immediately germane to what you’re talking about has no business.
One of my publishers calls what I do creative nonfiction, another calls it literary nonfiction. Writing stuff that aspires to be literature, there’s room—that whole thing about firewood is all true. There’s a little anthropomorphism in there when you start talking about a certain kind of wood: It doesn’t like to be used this way so it pouts, and it gives off lots of ashes. So that anthropomorphism early in the book begins to set a kind of tone: we’re going to relate to this stuff in a really personal way, where we really like this stuff, we really like being out there and having a personal relationship with our subject matter. The details of the wood, doesn’t that put you in a place? That’s why it’s there. A guy can go home—a certain number of my readers are urban folks—and say, "O.K., we’re in the Rocky Mountains and here’s a guy that spends half the winter studying firewood," because you have to; it’s your furnace and if you want certain kinds of fires you use certain kinds of wood. It sets the tone and introduces the kind of subject matter that you’re going to see later on.
I can’t say it isn’t gratuitous, especially in a book when you’ve got 70,000-80,000 words to wander around in and you are committed to advancing your theme through detail. Occasionally, superfluous detail that is simply interesting to you is going to go in there. If it doesn’t work, hopefully, it’s one paragraph out of 20 that didn’t work and no one will notice, and if it really flat out doesn’t work, your editor is going to say, "Now, on page 500, what the hell is this?"
Your background is writing poetry?
I studied philosophy. My actual degree is in philosophy, and I was in the English department for a while, but didn’t like the way they taught literature. Either they misunderstood literature entirely or they thought we were so stupid they had to dumb it down to teach it to us, but one way or the other I was offended by the way they taught. They were always saying, "What did the author mean?," and I would say, "Why can’t he mean what he says?" And they’d say, "No, no it’s code, it has to be decoded." I would say, "No. no, actually I don’t see that it does."
And readers don’t have to decode your writing?
There is some smoke and mirrors in all good writing where the writer, with his or her choice of language, length and brevity of sentences, tone of voice, his or her choice of subject of matter and theme, leads the reader.
I mean, in a way, you’re trying to trick a reader into thinking about how you think about something. You might use reasonable, rationally sounding language in one instance and real provocative language in another, and if you want to set sort of a down tone, you might use a word like "funereal" rather than just something is "dark," and you might use a word like "mournful" or "dirge-like." You don’t want to tell them how you feel, you want to trick them into feeling that same way.
So, there’s plenty of trickery in good writing, but it’s not code. It’s right there. You go, and all good readers do this, and ask, "Why did he use ‘dirge-like’? Why, in this instance, did that slow song on the juke box sound ‘dirge-like’?" It’s an interesting little game because I’ll catch somebody doing that to me and I’ll say, "Aha!" It’s like somebody’s doing a really good magic trick and you know how they’re doing it, but they’re doing it really well. And if you’re not aware of it, you still get it. You come away and say, "I feel a certain way, and how did he do that? I don’t feel that way when I read a newspaper article about something, so what did he do."
When you’re a writer you go, "That’s a great story. Gee, that’s great." And then you go back and figure out why. And you never get it all. I don’t want to get it all, I just want to go back and find all the tricks I can steal. I don’t want to know how all of the tricks work. I don’t want to know exactly how Jim Harrison wrote Dalva. I’ve read that book four times now, and I’m just committed to about every 18 months reading that book because it’s arguably the best novel I’ve ever read. Parts of that remind me of Finnegans Wake; it’s totally stream of consciousness. You go, "What?" And then you sort of taxi out and go right back to where you should be, and say, "What?" But it was a wonderful ride and it worked, and I can’t begin to guess where that came from or why it works. If this guy was in an English class, he’d get an F. The English teacher would say, this is stupid, this is superfluous, but it works. Now, more and more, I’m flirting with stream of consciousness. It’s pretty interesting.
Do you have any naturalist training?
It’s all amateur, self-taught. I’ve done some reading but never took any courses. I learned a lot by doing that outdoor newspaper column going on, jeez, 30 years. I do a lot of reading. I have a whole bookshelf of guide books. You name it and I’ve got a guidebook on it. It’s a passion for me to know: "What’s that tree, what’s that rock?" Then there’s some survivalist aspect: what’s edible, what isn’t, how do you find it, how do you catch it, and cook it. I like aspects of it that aren’t totally scholastic and distanced. I like to be out there. I started learning that when I was a kid, hunting and fishing. I just liked the woods and lakes better than town.
Have you read other nature writers?
I like Annie Dillard. She’s got a take on nature writing that I really enjoy. A lot of it is awfully dry and dull, and I never understood why, because I had the same impression with philosophy. Some of the ideas are really interesting, but the writing is drab and dull and plodding. You go, "Why can’t these guys write well? What would it hurt if they wrote well?" Occasionally you’ll get a Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, Kierkegaard—pretty good writers. For the most part, though, they are really boring people.
I like Annie Dillard’s involvement and enthusiasm. And I like the fact—and it’s way out of fashion in academic writing—that fact she’s not afraid to anthropomorphize. You know, to write, "I think inch worms are thinking this…. I think inch worms are prone to panic. They spend half a day climbing a blade of grass and then they get to the top and panic, or seem to." I just enjoy her enthusiasm.
She is marginal. She’s a nature writer like I am. She’s written a lot of stuff—American Childhood, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek—that was nature writing—The Writing Life. A lot of it is, she’s dealing with larger subjects. When she writes a whole book like The Writing Life, there’s all kinds of muskrats, sea gulls, and all kinds of natural stuff in it. But that’s not what she’s writing about. She’s using detail to put you in a place, but she’s talking about writing. She’s not talking about muskrats and sea gulls.
I tend to like writers—and this is entirely selfish—but I tend to like writers who are successfully doing what I’m trying to do. Because I can go, "Well, there’s one. Maybe I can use that." That’s why I take comfort in Jim Harrison. I start using a stream of consciousness style and I go, "Boy, I don’t know if this is going to work at all." But I can find a passage in Harrison that is patently incomprehensible, but makes perfect sense in context and go, "OK, I can do that. I can wander off, I can take them alongside." It’s there for good but obscure reasons. As long as it’s entertaining and fashionably correct, people will let you do that. They’ll go, "Well, I don’t understand why it’s there, but I’ll go along with it."
You have more freedom in a book. When you’re in a book, every 30 pages you can drop something in and start getting really subliminal because people do not remember what you said 30 pages back. You can begin to get a little subliminal in a larger piece. In a smaller piece, to get subliminal you have to be really subtle. And I don’t care whether it’s subliminal or not. It’s actually more effective when people read a book and come out of it with the hair on the back of their neck standing up without quite knowing why, and it really wants to make them buy the next book. It’s really gratifying. I’ve had people say, "I don’t know why or what it is, but I really love that book." (Laughing) I can tell you why, but it’s not my job.
When you put your books together, do you go essay by essay or have an idea before how it will come together?
I’ve changed my style a little bit. The first number of books I did—Flyfishing the High Country, Fly Fishing Small Streams, Fishing Bamboo, Good Flies—a couple of those books were clearly monographs, either small books or long essays on a specific subject, and they were actually outlined and written from scratch in that style. The bigger books that have sold better, and have sort of gotten me my reputation, originally were collections of essays as they were written. I would make them into a whole only in that I would read them all and say, "This is a good way to begin, and this is a good way to end. Now, where is the middle?," and arrange them. If I introduced A.K. Best in Chapter 2, then for the rest of the book he’s just A.K., stuff like that, so there’s some continuity.
In the more recent books, I’m actually working on the book for a couple of years beforehand, selling what amount to chapters of it as essays or columns. And then I’ll go back, and there’s a progression. So, instead of having a book of essays, each with its own title, I’ll have a book with Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3, and it’ll start in one place and end in another, maybe in time, maybe in other ways. But it definitely starts in one place.
At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman follows the seasons, doesn’t it?
When I sat down to do that, I thought, "Well now, every fishing writer who’s ever written books has done this, so is this a tired idea or not? No. Every novelist has written about love and death. Is that tired? No. Not if you do it well." Nothing is tired if you do it well.
Still Life with Brook Trout is a little more complex because it jumped around in time a little more, but it was talking about the drought and things that happened around the drought. Some of that speaks to your earlier question about detail because you had to say, "How did the drought affect fishing?" Well, everybody assumed it messed it up but, in fact, it helped it in some places, and nicely. That whole thing about the Arkansas River, where they said the Arkansas, after five years of drought, had three times as many fish, and they were 80 percent bigger because it was easier for them to spawn, is a case in point. They spawned more successfully—they didn’t have this terrible runoff in these canyon stretches where they had to hide—and it actually did very good for the river. The best in anyone’s memory. And it was because of the drought. And the high country season was months long instead of six weeks because there wasn’t all of that runoff.
I might actually go back to a collection of essays because what I have right now is very disparate. There is not an obvious theme.
At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman actually is, I’ve had to confess a couple of times, about 9/11. I wanted to do it entirely in a tone of that period of time, and I wanted to write about the way things were after that attack in tone and details, without ever mentioning it. So I didn’t. And I have had a couple of readers and a couple of writers come to me and say that it’s an oddly comforting book. And one guy got it. But you don’t have to get it for it to work. And I didn’t realize it until I was a third of the way through it. I didn’t realize what I was doing. That’s a great realization when you get into a story and you sort of know it’s right.
There are times when you struggle to get it right?
I’ve finally become convinced when you have trouble saying something right, which we all do, it’s the writer’s bug: "How do I say this?" When I get to the point I can’t say something right, it simply means that I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m not clear about what I’m saying. If I knew what I was going to say—I’ve done this for 30 years—I would say it clearly; maybe not to you on the first try, but on paper. And so when you hit that, that’s when I go for a walk, or take the shotgun and try to hunt grouse or something, and try not to think about it at all, and come back.
It’s a struggle, but it’s less of a struggle if you know who you’re fighting. You’re not fighting the language, saying, "If I understood the language better I could say this." All of a sudden you’re going, "I can say this fine as soon as I figure what it is I actually want to say. I’ll be able to say it just fine." That’s when you go, "OK, I’ve painted myself into a corner and I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I better either find out or abandon this and start something else."
That’s why I don’t like taking assignments, because every once in a while I’ll be halfway through an assignment and say, "Well, this was stupid because you don’t have anything to say about this." Anymore, when people give me an assignment, I think they understand it’s pretty open-ended. Every once in a while I’ll get an assignment and somebody will say, "This isn’t what I had in mind." And I’ll say, "That’s as close as I could come. Don’t buy it. I’ll sell it to somebody else." And I always do.
Why did you shift away from essays with Good Flies and Fishing Bamboo?
Part of it was a business consideration. Nick Lyons, who was with Lyons Press, and his son, Tony, were doing some monographs. There were collector’s sets in boxed editions, very expensive. They were almost breaks in the schedule because they were very different books, and they were subjects that interested me and that I thought I knew something about. I had been tying flies for 30 years and using bamboo rods for about 30 years. People would always ask, "What’s the deal with bamboo rods?," so I thought we’d answer the question. And that book actually did quite well.