Rick Bass is often classified as a nature writer of short stories, novels, and memoir, as well as an ardent conservationist of the Wallace Stegner school. He writes lovingly and at times longingly of place—land is a prime character in both his fiction and non-fiction—and he’s written extensively about his home in the Yaak Valley in Northwestern Montana. To say that the Yaak has shaped Bass would be a crude understatement. He cites the west, and the Yaak Valley specifically, as being a place that he felt almost spiritually drawn to, its untamed wildness an antidote to the suburban Texas sprawl of his youth.
I caught up with Bass via telephone before his April 9 reading at Northern Kentucky University to discuss expectations, elk burgers, and slurping soup with personal heroes.
JD: In Why I Came West: A Memoir (Houghton Mifflin, 2008) you write about looking back one autumn at the abundance that you’ve harvested—both hunting and gathering—from the Yaak Valley. You list huckleberries, mountain thimbleberries, wild strawberries, smoked trout and whitefish, wild mushrooms, bull elk, whitetail and mule deer, ducks, geese, grouse, pheasant, Hungarian partridge, dove, chukar, and wild turkey. To be fair, these are the kinds of ingredients that rarely pop up outside of three-star Michelin restaurants in Burgundy! There’s got to be some pressure in the kitchen to do right by this outrageous bounty. I’m assuming you really like to cook.
RB: I do love to cook, but I often think I don’t put enough pressure on myself. When you’ve got ingredients like that you can’t go wrong as long as you don’t overcook it. Great food is very forgiving—a little bit of preparation goes a long way with wild birds, as well as elk. Salt, pepper, olive oil and it’s better than anything you’ve eaten all year. Although, I’d say pheasant is an exception. You can really knock yourself out with pheasant: I have a pretty fun preparation that I do with white wine, chanterelles, butter, cream, parsley and thyme. It’s outrageous—very delicious.
JD: Before moving to the Yaak Valley and writing full-time, you worked as a geologist for a petrochemical company in Mississippi. Experiences from your years as a corporate scientist crop up in your writing, notably in Oil Notes (Flamingo, 1990), and All the Land to Hold Us (Houghton Mifflin, 2013). And while your latest book is a collection of short stories called For a Little While (Little, Brown 2015), you’ve invested several years in a project that fascinates me, called Eating My Heroes to be published in 2017 or later. How did this idea come together for you?
RB: I always get cross when I see a nice obituary and it’s after the fact. I’ve decided to travel around the country—and to some extent the world—to visit my literary heroes and mentors and fix a nice meal for them. To tell them thank you for the help they’ve given me either through instruction or just example. It’s a fun series of journeys, but it also shows how naive I was about cooking: It’s tough to cook in somebody else’s kitchen.
JD: Your dinner and visit with three-time National Book award winner, ex-CIA man, naturalist, and co-founder of the Paris Review, Peter Matthiessen was published in Mountain magazine in April of last year, the month that he passed away. You cite him as one of your greatest literary heroes. You and a female mentee, Erin Halcomb, arrive at his house (a place Matthiessen assured you would recognize by the bleached whale skull on the front porch) bearing a freshly dug, homemade parsnip soup with tarragon and morel cream, an avocado salad with balsamic vinaigrette, and fresh bread. And while Matthiessen’s body is weakened by chemotherapy sessions, his mind is as razor sharp as ever—the three of you bouncing back and forth discussing his friendship with George Plimpton, the Everglades, wolverines, fisher cats, and his advice for writers, young and old. Flash back to when you first read The Snow Leopard as a young person. Did you ever think you’d be slurping soup with Peter Matthiessen?
RB: On one hand it was surreal but on the other hand it was as natural as getting a haircut or walking down to the post office. I can’t really imagine having expectations. It seems impudent to have an expectation of what your hero is going to be like. I’m just all ears and eyes—glad to be there. It’s fascinating to see some of the similarities and differences between them (the heroes). Their common denominator is greatness but they all come to it a little different and from different directions.
JD: In your recounting of the visit, you write: “I think that to attempt to form any narrative would yield a telling that would ultimately be false—so wide-ranging are Peter’s interests. On paper, the structure wouldn’t hold even a straight chronology.” This observation totally jives with a theme that I see in both your and Matthiesson’s writing where the focus is on the actual “journey,” not a timeline or any preconceived “goals.” And while everyone loves an armchair adventure, I think it often takes courage to actually live a nonlinear life—staying accessible to chance, to non-traditional opportunities. I may be a little biased, but I see this as especially difficult for women, for mothers. For those of us who write, Matthiessen advises, “You’ve got to be ferocious.” How do you think we, as writers, can be “ferocious” while still holding down domestic lives?
RB: I’ve got a very domestic life—two daughters. Like you said, just being open to those non-linear movements of the day. It comes back to those expectations. I spend a lot of energy going into situations with expectations. Either they don’t meet or match the expectations or I’m trying to force them into another off-way where that pre-determined narrative is still viable. To some extent that’s almost a metaphor for the writing process, or for hiking. If you’re at the endpoint pre-determined, that’s just not going to be the most interesting journey. It’s easy to say but I try to remember that on both simple and complex days. On the simple days it may be even more useful on the days that you expect challenges. You can waste a day pretty easily if you’re not careful. You can miss a lot of stuff if you’re not careful. Or you can find a lot if you’re open. The one thing I tell my writing students is that they have one charge—to be interesting. It’s the same deal in life. That’s your one job—to be interesting. But if you’re not interested and interesting, it’s just all shit.
JD: Can you give us any insight into any of the other heroes?
RB: I’ve been fortunate already to go and cook for Tom McGuane, Denis Johnson, and Loorie Moore, who’s actually more of a contemporary but I’m really an admirer of her work. I went to cook for John Berger in France—that was just magnificent. What a great mind, a great man.
JD: And how does the menu come about? Is it something you really think about beforehand?
RB: It’s kind of a mix of both. Obviously, it’s seasonal. Gary Snyder—who’s just great fun—I wanted to take him morels and elk burgers from the (Yaak) valley. Here I was meeting this great Buddhist mind and practitioner as we’re eating these dripping, greasy elk burgers, which he totally reveled in. I don’t want to overthink the menu and get too precious with it but it’s primarily seasonal—what looks good and where.
Northern Kentucky University’s Friends of Steely Library present an evening with the celebrated writer Rick Bass, on Thursday, April 9, at 7 p.m. in the Eva G. Farris Reading Room, 2nd Floor of Steely Library, on NKU’s Highland Heights campus. The event is free and open to the public. The reading will be followed by a signing. Books will be available for purchase, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the Friends of Steely Library.
For more information: Sandra Rodgers-Webster at 859.572.5636 or firstname.lastname@example.org