William Kittredge grew up on a ranch in the deserts of eastern Oregon. He's a Regents Professor Emeritus at the University of Montana, where he taught Creative Writing for twenty-nine years. His publications include "Owning it All" (essays, out of print), Hole in the Sky (memoir), "The Nature of Generosity" (book length essay), "Southwestern Homelands," "The Best Stories of William Kittredge," "The Next Rodeo" (essays) and The Willow Field (a novel). He's presently finishing Another Summer to Run, a memoir.
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Erin Regan. Of the process she said, “I was first introduced to William Kittredge’s work by a professor. I am so excited to be interviewing him because he is a truly prolific environmental and Western writer who has influenced many others in that field. His responses here mirror the pointed honesty and reflection of his memoirs and stories.” In this interview, he discusses his literary influences, the transition from memoir to novel, and the approach of the “new West.”
SR: Many of your works detail the settling and agricultural development of land. I read your words as both a celebration of the spirit of those agricultural people and a warning against blind progress. In your essay “Owning it All,” you write, “Agriculture is often envisioned as an art, and it can be … they are trying to create a good place, and to live as part of that goodness … It’s just that there is good art and bad art.” What responsibilities do we have to the land on which we live? How do you try to convey that responsibility through your writing?
William Kittredge: It’s obvious all of us are responsible for maintaining our commons, our air, soils, biosphere, and other animals. The more we obliterate, use up and wear out, the less we have. The bad art is usually a result of working toward power over nature and profit. The good art is dedicated to the complex arts of supplying food while preserving the environment we evolved in, where we can live comfortably.
SR: Since the publication of "Owning it All" in 1987, has the balance between good art and bad art in agriculture shifted? Do you see more or less bad art today?
WK: There’s more good art—cooperative garden projects for instance, often organic—street fairs where such food is sold. These are wonderful but don’t much influence food shopping in major cities. The population of the American West is 85 percent urban—Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Denver, etc.
The result, huge swaths of bad, chemically contaminated and almost always corporately managed, farming and livestock enclosures. Most of the dirty work is done unseen by poor and/or emigree disenfranchised peoples. A lot of that food is simply, in any long run, while beautiful and buffed up on the shelves in high end grocery chains, poisonous. It’s easy to get terrific food in a town like MIssoula. Not so easy in Phoenix.
SR: In your memoir Hole in the Sky, you describe overcoming a recurring nightmare as a child by changing the position you slept in, stating, “in my childlike way I had come to an understanding that the world can be lived in as one act of the imagination after another, and that much of what you are capable of imagining can become real.” How does your understanding of the imagination affect your work as a writer? How real is fiction?
WK: Fictions play in the mind, as does everything we experience. Everything we think, every opinion, is based on fictions we tell ourselves. But events in our stories, most of us understand, tend to be unlike actual events, which have actual consequences in the actual world. Our lifetime stories are blends of what’s called non-fiction and fiction. We’re constantly re-construing our memories. There is really no such thing as non-fiction. As was said of Borges, “Reality invaded by dream.” That’s the mix we always inhabit.
SR: You also write a lot about the Native American tribes that lived around your hometown of Warner Valley and the spiritual connection they shared with the earth. How does your understanding of these native communities affect your view of the land you grew up on? Has that view changed since you were a child?
WK: While trying to understand the Indians I watched and sometimes knew while growing up, I finally figured out what it was I revered about them while reading Raven Brought the Light by the anthropologist Richard Nelson. Telling us of the lives of the Koyukon, a nomadic tribe in central Alaska, he says they believe “Nature is god and god is nature.” See the last chapter in that book, The Koyukon World View.
An aside: The Indian poet and novelist James Welch once said “I never heard one Indian call another Indian a Native American. I’m part Gros Ventre and part Blackfoot and part Irish, Call me what I am, an Indian.”
SR: That’s a beautiful quote from Nelson’s book. Would you expand on how that Koyukon belief has influenced your own work?
WK: It highlighted and confirmed what I’d learned from many other sources-- nature everywhere, and so many other wonderful books, for instance Silent Spring, and John Hay, who said “We are not descenable from Nature.”
SR: In Hole in the Sky, you mention reading Ernest Hemingway for the first time and that “it was while reading him that I first sensed storytelling as a useful thing to do.” How has Hemingway impacted your writing since that first encounter? What other authors have influenced your work?
WK: For a long time I thought "The Big Two-Hearted River" was about as good as you could get. And then I read As I Lay Dying and To the Lighthouse and “The Dead,” And Marquez. So many influences. The most influential teacher I worked with was Richard Yates. Ray Carver edited my stories and made some influential changes. One nice thing. You get to pick your influences.
SR: In your essay “Drinking and Driving,” you include a poem by Richard Hugo, whom you knew at the time, and an excerpt in which Meriwether Lewis describes first seeing the falls in Montana. What connections do you see between these two narratives?
WK: They’re both about dealing with loneliness while wishing we could console ourselves by simply embracing the primordial beauties in the world around us. Kristina Ford (Richard’s wife) used to tell us boys, “For Christ’s sake, pull up your socks.”
SR: In Hole in the Sky, you describe meeting Richard Hugo for the first time—“‘You’re very drunk,’ he said. Here, I thought, now you’ve done it. ‘I’ll join you,’ he said. Maybe this was home.” How did your friendship with Hugo influence your early experiences as a writer?
WK; What to say. I owe him so much. Here’s a quote from the memoire I’m presently working on. ”Dick Hugo was my necessary man. Dick looked out for me, and educated me. After working as a technical writer at Boeing, Hugo hadn’t started teaching until the age of forty. In Montana he revealed himself as a natural. Students like Jim Welch were soon publishing in New York. Dick was connected in the literary world, and experienced in the politics of publication and success. He liked to brag about the fact that he’d once got drunk and slept it off with Dylan Thomas. Dick had come of age within a schema thick with ghosts, to a degree that seemed to him normal. We were all, his poems implied, fated for failures and loss – his favorite movie was The Blue Angel.”
This could go on. But there’s the idea.
SR: In 2006, your first novel The Willow Field was published. After writing essays, memoirs, and short stories for decades, how did you approach the process of writing a novel?
WK: I tried a number of novels that flopped. At Sundance years ago I asked Frank Daniel, a European film director who’d won the Best Foreign Film Oscar about organizing a long narrative. Eight parts, he said: 1) false problem 2) real problem 3 and 4 and 5) a series of false solutions 6) recognition of a real solution (the protagonist hopes) 7) enactment of that solution 8) consequences. It’s the through line in Shane and a memoir about a beloved mother. Novels need a coherent through line and this will give you one.
SR: Do you use a narrative frame like this when writing nonfiction? What is your approach to organizing memoirs?
WK: Sure, Every story, supposedly true (I really don’t believe there’d any such thing as non-fiction) or straight out make-believe, needs a through-line. Characters in our stories, even ourselves in memoirs, confront problems and try to solve them. It’s the most commonplace thing we do after breathing. We try to focus the process in stories.
SR: The Willow Field focuses on the buckaroos of the 1930s West. The character Tarz Witzell insists that they are not cowboys but that “what we are is buckaroos. All we ever been.” What is your definition of a buckaroo and what is their role in the character of the West?
WK: Vaqueros (buckaroos), brought an elite tradition from Spain to Mexico and then to California and on to the Great Basin in the 1870s. Cowboys came up from Texas to Montana and Wyoming, following trail herds across the plains. Working methods and equipment differed in ways that counted. They had little use for one another. After all, who would want to be a “cow boy.”
Critics complained that the horse drive in The Willow Field went a little flat after they crossed into Montana and Alberta (cowboy country). Wish I’d thought to deal with this disjunction between these varieties of horseback hero.
See North American Cattle Ranching Frontiers by Terry G. Jordan.
SR: Your descriptions in The Willow Field of each new landscape Rossie encounters as he travels from Nevada to Canada are so rich. How did you craft such vivid scenes? What was your research process like for creating the novel’s setting?
WK: I grew up on the MC, a horseback cattle ranch during my boyhood, and saw versions of those anecdotal scenes at one time or another. In a failed novel I had a short version of that horse drive to Calgary. And had done some tourism in the Canadian Rockies. Plotted out a through-line centered on Rossie (name taken from Ross Dollarhide and his son Rossie,). The old man was cow boss at the MC, and his son was a Champion of the World rodeo guy who died young. There they were—endless scenes. I added some imagining and let the characters play out their lives. All of which seems to mean, so far as novels are concerned, that I’m pretty much a one-trick pony.
SR: Rossie from The Willow Field is caught between the old and the new west—he begins the story as a ranch hand and ends as a gubernatorial candidate advocating for change. Your writing seems to be poised on the same border. Would you explain how you balance the two worlds of the old and new West?
WK: One evolves from the other, relentlessly growing more complex, while some of us hope we’re evolving away from the old conquest culture and increasingly into a culture based on taking care. At the same time we’re of course being swamped by a cascade of information from all over the world, so many of them electronic. I occasionally think of the new west as a runaway. Thank god we’re resilient.
SR: In an interview with Willow Springs, you said “the mythology of the West is artificial … there were no Lone Rangers riding around.” Would you explain the role of the Western myth throughout your writing?
WK: The story of the West (and Americas) has been about heedless conquest. Slaughter the wildlife, kick the Indians down the road and take their lands. The dream of a masked man coming along and setting things right is a way of evading our responsibilities. It’s us – we have to set things right. We attempt to duck put on that responsibility but it sours. Slowly, I think, we’re making progress. See my story, “Phantom Silver.”
SR: Your story “Phantom Silver” really humanizes the mythic Lone Ranger: “The light is cold in the early morning, and the silver bullet rests on the mantle like a trophy. Only in the morning is it possible to think of that masked man as old and fat and slow and happy.” Would you describe how you began to peel back the layers of this iconic Western figure?
WK: By turning him back into an individual he was as a boy rather than the mythological Achilles presence he morphed into (which he becomes in the eyes of witnesses). The ancient Chinese gentleman gets him down off his high horse (poor old Silver) and back into accepting the singular person he has always been behind the mask.
SR: In the same interview, you said that the characters of The Willow Field began to appear in your dreams as if they were real people. Would you describe the process by which your characters become real?
WK: Finally, spend five years on a novel, imagining and re-imagining, and eventually those make-believe people become real enough to inhabit dreams. Sometimes you watch and see them doing things you can then put in your book.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
WK: Small second floor room up the Rattlesnake in a town house. Very OK, looking out on a sort of a deer park. Bears wandering around at night, raiding garbage cans. The room itself is strewn with notes and books and computer crap. It’s a semi-organized hide away. At this moment I’m watching a whitetail doe pick her way across my drive.