The true benefit of being apart of a legacy publication is that we have a rich archive of material which to draw from. With that being said and without further preamble, we present to you Noel King's interview with the late, legendary James Crumley, which originally appeared in issue 2, Volume 1 of Crimefactory.
I hope you enjoy.
Interview with James Crumley, Missoula, Montana
18 May 1996
NK: Your new book, Bordersnakes (1996) brings together the two characters who narrate your earlier series of novels: CW Sughrue from The Last Good Kiss (1978) and The Mexican Tree Duck (1993) and Milo Miladragovich III from The Wrong Case (1975) and Dancing Bear (1983). They had encountered one another briefly at the end of The Mexican Tree Duck, with Milo unnamed as Sughrue’s “old partner.”
What are you up to by letting them both loose in one novel?
JC: What happened was that United Artists had bought the first Milo book and I was half way through The Last Good Kiss when my agent said, “Jesus, this is a movie man! Change the character's name.” So I did, but of course I had to rewrite the book; just changing the name didn’t help. And in this Texas novel that I’ve never been able to finish I had a character like Sughrue. He'd done some of the things Sughrue had done, he'd been in and out of the army three different times, been in Vietnam, played football under assumed names in junior colleges, worked writing sports for the Wichita Eagle Beacon and done skiptracing. And now it’s all so contractually confused that I thought some day I’d have to write a novel in which both of them appear but I didn’t know it was going to be this one. When I started this book, it was a third-person account of Sughrue who’d moved to El Paso, but that didn’t work, so I sat down and started with the Milo voice, thinking “what the hell, it’s going to be a Milo book”, and I got about 150 pages in and suddenly it became obvious that it was time to change voices. You never know how those things come about, but it did and I went into the Sughrue voice, and then went back and forth through the parts all the way to the end of the book. And then, in the sixth part, I’ve swapped voices back and forth in shorter sections. It wasn't as easy to decide when to change voices through the rest of the book as it was at the beginning, the first time. It turned out to be one of my least favourite chores. I had to think about this shit, and I hate that. I don’t mind rewriting and thinking about it that way, but thinking about it ahead of time always seems to me to be a waste.
NK: Have you thought about what these two characters, Milo and Sughrue, afford you as a writer, running them separately?
JC: I’ve been playing with this sort of thing since my first novel, One to Count Cadence (1969). The older character, Milo, gives me a character with a real sense of moral ethics and an approach to the world which involves kindness rather than violence, although he’s willing to be violent when it’s necessary, I guess. And the Sughrue character is just reckless and crazy and he’s not afraid of anything. That’s one of the things that starts this new book off. Sughrue is afraid now. Something has happened and he’s learned fear. So he and Milo go off on a double-edged jaunt, looking for Milo’s money and looking for Sughrue’s revenge and everything comes up fairly well for everybody, except for the bad guys.
NK: At the end of The Mexican Tree Duck you’d held Milo’s inheritance money off for one year.
JC: Yeah, he didn’t get it.
NK: Because of the confusion in the earlier books about whether it’s due him at age 53 (The Wrong Case) or 52 (Dancing Bear)?
JC: Yeah, what a dope I am! I never look back at those books when I’m writing a new one. Not even when I was doing the screenplay to Dancing Bear. It’s easier not to look back, to just go ahead.
NK: Speaking of that, you’ve said that you’ve had 8 or 9 goes at a Dancing Bear screenplay, and it’s currently optioned by Robert Towne. Could you run through some of the history there?
JC: Well, the first time was with a director named Tim Hunter who did The River’s Edge. It was a year at Warners and then a year at Mirage with Mark Rosenberg and Sydney Pollock. We did four drafts but they never could come up with a star that they liked. Sydney Pollock was a perfect gentleman about everything and he was one of the few people in the business who’d schlep into town to see you, not just call you. Actually, he was here in Missoula recently giving a talk but I was in the process of finishing up the book, so I didn’t get to go see him. You know what it’s like; Mark would say “if you'll do it with Don Johnson, we can start tomorrow.” And Tim would say, “fuck that shit.” Tim is a very hard-headed young man and he’s had a lot of trouble in the business because of that. He’s been offered big money to do sequels but he’s just not that kind of director. He’s worked steadily over the years, and struggled mightily, and he’s the least Hollywood person I know. Then the option lapsed and Tim couldn’t get anyone else to pick it up. I’d done a screenplay for Paramount which they dropped on when the strike came up, because I was working on Judge Dredd, but I went on and finished it anyway, and to make a long story short, this producer who’s now got Dancing Bear got the book to Robert Towne with the notion of maybe writing a screenplay about Californian women firefighters. Give me a break! And Robert said, “this book is too good, man, they should do the book.” So we had this big conference call while Robert was on the way to the Batman wrap party, he’s lost somewhere in Echo Park and he can’t find his way out and I know just where he is because I have a friend who lives up there and it’s in the process of getting him down to the wrap party that he’s saying “this could make a wonderful movie” and I say “it's not ever going to be a fucking movie unless someone like you says yes.” There's a long silence, a few more directions, and finally he says “yes.” So I get Robert Towne to say “yes” and that was the beginning of this endless project.
NK: Could you say something about your other screenwriting experiences?
JC: I did an independent script for some Mexican investors and a lawyer who was embezzling money from a drug launderer. And Dancing Bear, and a long time ago, I did a screenplay of The Last Good Kiss. Back then I didn’t have any help and didn’t know anything about it. Working with Tim Hunter, doing a lot of work over the years, has been a great help. And working with Robert Towne has been good because he's an entirely different kind of writer than I am.
NK: How do you see these differences?
JC: Well, I still tend to think like a novelist. I‘ve written a lot of screenplays and I'm not a bad screenplay writer, though I can’t seem to get anything made. Robert’s really a screenwriter and a hard worker and he’ll stay with it until he gets it right. He’s written a lot of scripts while this Dancing Bear stuff has been going on, while this last version supposedly has been rewritten by the guys down the hill. Then we’ll rewrite that but that contract hasn’t been negotiated yet. There’s two worlds that all writers, not just screen writers, have to deal with. You have to deal with the business and with the work. And it’s sometimes difficult to keep them separated. I’ve often talked to people who run writing programs, telling them that you need to teach a course in the business, you need to let these kids know what the fuck is happening in this part of it all. And Missoula is a good place to do that because there's enough writers here with enough horror stories to make you want to stop writing. So Hollywood was good for me in that way, in that I now deal with New York in Hollywood terms. I'm simply intractable, you can’t fuckin’ move me. I will not be bought on a deal and the word is I won't fuckin’ publish the book if I don’t get the money I want. I'll move to France and write porno novels! Or move to LA and write porno movies, I don’t care, but I will not be humiliated by these arseholes in New York and certainly not by assholes in Hollywood. So I’ve got a little bit of a reputation. Plus the fact that from reading the books everybody suspects that I’m a complete madman, they’re afraid I’ll go berserk in their office and bite their ears off. And that’s good, I’m glad of that.
NK: You’re now publishing with Mysterious Press, having previously been with Random and Picador. What’s happening there?
JC: I got an offer from Mysterious for four times the advance that I had and the editor at Random House at the time decided she wanted to teach me a little lesson. So she flew back to New York and lectured me about the sanctity of contracts. And I said, “Jesus, if I’d just won the Cy Young award, the baseball pitching award, you wouldn't mind if I wanted to renegotiate my contract. When I negotiated this contract originally nobody knew who I was and now people know who I am.” She wouldn’t budge though, so I moved to Mysterious and then my buddy Otto Penzler got in a fight with Warners over the backlist and so he sold them, and so now I’m left at Mysterious.
NK: So did Random House sign you up to a long contract initially?
JC: No, one book at a time for a while and then a two-book contract. No, eventually we weren’t that far apart in terms of money but I think it was just that they wanted me to back off, they wanted to face me down. I don’t have any regrets about leaving that Random House. Of course, the way the publishing business is now, there’s another Random House!
NK: Every few months ....
JC: Yeah, so I don’t know what’s going to happen now.
NK: You’ve also published some books with smaller presses; the collection called Whores done by Dennis McMillan and the lovely edition of The Muddy Fork collection you did with Russ Chatham’s Clark City Press. Both those collections are cult objects, in a way.
JC: Well, nobody in New York ever offered to do those books. The French and the Japanese have treated them like books but nobody in New York was much interested in publishing my short fiction. It’s terrible for the publishing industry to be located in one place, just like it’s terrible for the automobile industry to be located in one place. One of the reasons that Japanese cars are better than American cars is that Japanese executive’s wives have to drive a different car every month. They don’t get driven around in limos, and so they tell their husbands what’s wrong with these cars. It’s a much more sensible way of doing things than riding around in a limo and deciding what a car feels like, instead of having your wife drive it downtown!
NK: Have you any ideas on why you are so popular in France and Japan?
JC: I don’t have any idea. I don’t care either. The French have been very good to me, they put me up in nice places, feed me well, put me on TV with Randy Newman. I quite enjoyed it. French journalists are wonderful, they’ve always got different questions. When the Mexican Tree Duck came out in France, One to One Count Cadence also came out, so I got a lot of political stuff. Because they managed to lose that war before we did.
NK: Yeah, well, apparently it came as a big shock to them that their army, especially the legionnaires, could get beaten so badly.
JC: Well, they were great guys but the Vietnamese have been at war for 2000 years. I’m surprised they're not at war now. This is the longest peace they‘ve had since the Chi Com border clashes fifteen years ago. It must be drivin’ them nuts not to have a war ...
NK: I see the French have just issued a new translation of The Last Good Kiss. Philippe Garnier now calls it that rather than the earlier, not so good, translation called The Drunken Dog (Le chien ivre). And I see on the cover of the new translation there’s a lovely photograph of the art deco Club Moderne in Anacondo, Montana.
JC: Philippe Garnier did that, did it on his own while the other edition, The Drunken Dog was still in print. He’s been up here a lot and we drive around a bit and he took that picture of the Club Moderne in Anacondo. He loved the look of that place.
NK: I’ve only been in Missoula a couple of days but it seems to an outsider’s eye, a groovy, hip little town. You’ve been here, on and off, for thirty years and seen lots of changes. Could you comment on the sorts of changes you’ve witnessed over the thirty or so years?
JC: It’s always been a very hip little town, full of painters and potters and writers and poets. The question everyone always asks is, “why do all these writers live in Missoula?” We are not the first writers to live here. Jim Welch has lived here steadily for thirty years. He was in College here when I arrived, Kittridge has been here since 1969 when I left the first time. I don’t exactly know what it is. It was the middle of the bottom of an ice-age lake, so maybe it‘s the prehistoric mud that attracts us! But there is something Southern about Montanans that is different from people in all the other western states, there’s definitely something Southern about it. Montanans seem to have a natural politeness and charm that people in Idaho and Wyoming lack, although there are places in both those states that I like a lot.
And I think it may have to do with the fact that the State was settled, in large part, by Confederate deserters, guys running from conscription. So there's an openness and an easiness about this place, there’s no class stratification, although, like the rest of America, it’s suffering from the fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
In a state like Montana where there really is no economic base, the stupid sons of bitches should again legalise the growing of hemp for the making of paper. A three state area in the mid-west could grow enough hemp for all of the paper in America. They don't need to cut these trees down here. But they do cut them down and it’s the great American desert out here; these trees take a hundred years to grow, we get fifteen inches of rain a year. It's just foolishness. And it’s no place to raise cows. Shit, they raise more cows in Iowa than they raise in all seven western states. All the cattle industry does is break down the fields, break down the stream banks and it’s not going to get any better. These old people who’ve worked on ranches all their lives find it very hard to give up the notion of ranching, it’s almost impossible. And when you look at the sacrifices they’ve gone through you can’t much blame them. It’s the same for the people who‘ve been raised working in the woods, sawyers and what not; it’s very hard to try to persuade them out of the woods into some other job.
It's very hard for them to understand that we can’t do this any more, we can't cut these fuckin’ trees down, it’s not a good idea. But lots of things have changed over the years for the good. When I first moved to Missoula it was one of the two most polluted cities in America, next to Pittsburgh. There were seventy or so teepee burners in the Valley and also the Pulp Mill, where they burn scrap lumber, was putting out an enormous amount of shit. They’ve put scrubbers in but they still act like they own the town. I've had several lawyers tell me they could put these fuckers out of business in a heartbeat. But it would put the town out of business. There’s a lot more people now and still a lot of problems, none of the problems has really been solved, but it’s a nice town to live in. It’s nice to look around and see people you’ve known for twenty years, people who are actually working writers. In this town you better not call yourself a writer unless you actually are!
NK: Do you no longer feel, assuming you ever did, a displaced Texan?
JC: Well, I was always displaced. I was born in Texas but we went to New Mexico during WW2. We didn't move back to Texas until I was in the second grade. The part of Texas where I lived is the last place where there’s a great clash between the white minority and the Mexican American majority, where people are still race conscious in a really silly way. It’s an unhappy kind of place, it’s hot and humid, and the wind blows nine months out of the year. It was never a place that I was ever going back to once I left, although circumstances have forced me back a couple of times. I don’t think of myself as a Texan, but I’m more comfortable with going to Texas than I used to be. I used to feel like I was going to be trapped if I ever got back down there. Now I’m not quite as much that way. I’ve got where I kinda like going to Austin. I don't think of El Paso as Texas. I get into arguments in bars about that. I got sideswiped by the world’s biggest Chicano in a Holiday Inn bar down there.
NK: Earlier this year I was in Austin around the time of their film festival and their South by Southwest festival, with something like 700 bands coming into town for a couple of weeks. I’m a fan of Butch Hancock and Jimmy Dale Gilmour and some of the other Austin c & w bands.
JC: I've got a live cd they did in Australia! Austin has gotten so much bigger than it was when I lived there twenty years ago that you’ve got to really want to go into a crowd to go out. I was there in a cold spell in early March, just before South by Southwest. There was some kind of thing with Texas writers, so Martha and I went down and spent a week. The thing was out in a shopping place called Central Park, out Lamar. There’s a big bookshop out there, though I’m not crazy about chains.
NK: What is a rough chronology of your goings and comings?
JC: I came here in 1966 when I finished graduate school in the University of Iowa. I spent three years here, then they fucked me over academically and professionally, so I took a job, and a raise, and moved to Arkansas. And then I discovered that I wasn’t actually a Southerner, I just thought I was a Southerner, and I sold Cadence to the movies, so I quit down there and moved back here. Then I got broke again because the Hollywood guy wouldn’t pay me and I had to go back to teaching. I spent three years at Colorado State, running the writing programme and I just couldn’t hack that kind of job. So I came back here for a while, went to Seattle for a while, went to Austin for a while, got married again, then took a job at Reed College in Portland. That lasted a year, then I came back here, then went back to Texas for a while, then came back here for a year, got broke again and took a job at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, then came back here for two years, got broke again, went to El Paso for a part-time job for three years ...
NK: That’s why you were attracted to the Chandler lines from The High Window you use as the epigraph for The Mexican Tree Duck: “Nobody called, nobody came in, nothing happened, nobody cared if I died or went to El Paso.”
JC: I’d always wanted to use that anyway!
NK: On the subject of epigraphs across your first books: in The Wrong Case you have Lew Archer’s comment, “never go to bed with a woman who has more troubles than you do”, and with The Last Good Kiss you have some great lines from Richard Hugo’s wonderful poem, “Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg.” How do these quotation-epigraphs function for you? In Dancing Bear, you have the Benniwah tale.
JC: Which I just made up.
NK: I thought it was an authentic anthropological text!
JC: Well, some woman who does that kind of thing, she takes down Indian folk tales — she’s won the Caltin award a couple of times — she had her friend’s daughter call me up to try to find out where the tale comes from and I finally had to say I made it up. It would seem to me presumptuous to appropriate a legend from a real tribe unless I was using it for some purpose that they might want. So I just made it up, I make up a lot of shit ...
NK: And your use of the Richard Hugo poem? Because Hugo was already in Missoula when you arrived and you have that lovely description of him as “grand old detective of the heart.”
JC: Dick was here when I got here. He was integral to my crime-writing life because he turned me on to Chandler. He couldn’t believe I’d never read any Chandler.
NK: What age would you have been then?
JC: Let me see, I came here in 1966 when I was twenty-seven. And I just loved Chandler, it just took off for me.
NK: What were you attracted to in Chandler’s writing?
JC: Mostly the fact that it was really wonderful, fun writing; the general sense of fun, the sentences were fun, and that appealed to me. As far as crime writers go, I guess I was inspired by Nicholas Freeling and Raymond Chandler (chuckles). They’re the two disparate ends of my scale.
NK: What other forms of writing were important to you when you were starting out?
JC: Well, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandra Quartet was really a big book in my life, then Fitzgerald and Faulkner, and the Russians. Camus, but the philosophy, not so much the novels. In the month I started One to Count Cadence for the last time, I read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Rebel and The Brothers Karamazov. I finished the book and I remember jumping up and down in the snow in the middle of the night in my shorts in Iowa City, shouting out “Hooray for Karamazov, you motherfuckers!”
NK: You’re a very helpful and important figure for some younger crime writers. Craig Holden acknowledges you, you’re blurbed generously on Les Standiford’s Spill.
JC: Craig used to house-sit for me when I would go down to Hollywood. Les is an old buddy of mine. I just got around to reading his new book, Done Deal. I helped him move to LA. He hired me in El Paso and then he took off for a year in Florida and came back for a year, and then got an American Film Institute screenwriting thing, so he moved to LA for two years and then went back to Florida for his job. But his Deal books are getting pretty good, he’s doing OK.
NK: So there is a literature-friendship factor in your life?
JC: Friendship has always been more important to me than literature and so I try to find something to say for friends’ books if for no other reason than that they’re friends. And I get a lot of stuff in the mail and every now and then I’ll run across something I really like and I’ll blurb it. Like Michael Doane’s Bullet Heart which just knocked me out. So if it’s somebody I don’t know I pretty much make sure it’s a book I like a lot. I get so much stuff that every now and then I'll miss one and read the galleys later. I did that with one called The Late Man, set in Wichita, it's a newspaper mystery. But it seems to me that what you do is give back to someone else what was given to you. I wouldn’t have gotten where I am if it hadn't been for the guy who was teaching writing at Texas A & I when I was a physics major (chuckles). That was William Harrision, and then the guys who helped me in Iowa, Vernon Castle and Dick Yeats.
NK: I guess much of your reading is quite programmatic, purposively directed towards things that you'll incorporate into whatever you’re writing at the time.
JC: No, usually I just read with nothing particular in mind. I finally got a degree in history as an undergraduate and I still read a lot of history but lots of it doesn’t come to anything in the way you’re suggesting. There's no place to put any of it, but knowledge itself is worth having.
NK: Have you any opinion on the critical reception your work has received?
JC: What critical reception! My books have been pretty effectively ignored for a long time. The Last Good Kiss sold 4,500 copies in hardback. It’s been in print ever since then, and all my books are still in print. I think I confused people. I’m not writing detective novels and I’m not writing literary novels, and nobody knows what to do with them. Although that's a problem I don’t I have at all in foreign markets. In Germany and Italy I’m in a crime series, in England I’m in Picador, a perfectly legitimate literary press. Now the Italians are bringing my books out in hardback after I had been out in cheap paperbacks; the Greeks have just discovered me.
NK: Will you be checking the translation?
JC: Let ‘em go, man. Whatever they do is OK with me.
NK: And you went to the Nottingham Shots in the Dark Crime Festival at the time of publication of The Mexican Tree Duck, Adrian Wooton who’s long been associated with that, is very knowledgeable about your work.
JC: Adrian had me introducing Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. This is the print from the British Film Institute which is a perfectly beautiful fuckin’ print man, and it’s the director’s cut. So I get to the back of the movie theatre and he says, “well, our table is ready” and I say “Our table’s ready! I haven’t seen this fuckin’ movie since 1974 or something!” So Adrian arranged for me and Martha, Adrian and his wife, to watch the movie in one of the smaller theatres the day we were leaving. Myself, Martha, Adrian and his wife and one other person, nobody knew who he was. It was wonderful. The film held up like a charm.
NK: With Warren Oates driving around, throwing some ice into the bag that contains the head of Alfredo, and talking to it.
JC: I’d always thought that Warren would have made a great Milo.
NK: Well, he got gathered.
JC: Poor devil. Went upstairs to take a nap. Said he wasn’t feeling good and then he was dead.
NK: And there’s that gag scene in The Wild Bunch where the bottle of whisky goes around all the people and Warren doesn’t get a drink. William Holden gets a drink, everyone ...
JC: And the Mexican actor, Jaimi Sanchez, lets the last drop pour onto the ground. I saw that in the Roadshow cut in Dallas one night. I’d moved to Arkansas and my folks were still alive and living in South Texas, so my second wife and all our kids got in the Volkswagon station wagon and headed for Texas. We stopped in Dallas and I opened the paper and there was The Wild Bunch finally out in the Roadshow version. And I told Maggie, I hope you can find a babysitter because I'm going to the fuckin’ movies! The motel found us a babysitter, we got stoned senseless and it was in one of the big downtown Dallas theatres, a 500 seater with maybe four people in it. I was still laughin’ when the credits came up, I just loved that movie.
NK: Did you ever meet Peckinpah?
JC: I got to meet him once before he died. He’d stopped drinking and I was meeting him at Harry’s American Bar in Century City. He was across the way at a meeting with ABC. I heard the bartender saying on the phone, “no there's no Jim Crumley here” and I said “hey, what the fuck is that, here I am man!” It was Sam calling to say he was going to be late. He died not too long after that, goddamn it.
NK: What’s this story about how you almost came down to Australia once?
JC: My father worked for a little junkhouse oilfield outfit owned by a family called Glasscocks. Old man Lonnie had gotten sick with Parkinson's Disease so the sons were running the company. I was back from the Phillipines so I guess it was around 1961 or 1963. And there was a big boom in north-eastern Australia and they’d gone down and put up for the bids and they’d gotten a pretty good-sized small lease — everybody else was giant — Arco, Mobil, Exon and Enco back in those days, and so we were slated to go down there.
My old man was a drilling superintendent, the guy that was in charge of the exploration operations, after having worked his way up from a roughneck. And that’s what I was doing because I didn‘t want to play football any more, I was roughnecking and going to college. The idea of going to Australia and teaching people how to roughneck was very appealing. We all had passports and were ready to go, I think we’d gotten as far as tickets and some little finagling going on down there among the Australian government and the oil companies, and that lease just sort of disappeared. I don‘t know exactly what happened. It may also have been the time when you had the CIA living out at Pine Gap!
NK: What is your writing regime; how do you carve up your day when you're writing.
JC: Try to stay sober til midnight and go to work. Having worked in Hollywood all those years, working with someone else, you have to do it a little differently. But doing a rewrite of a novel I just write and go to bed and get up and write. I don’t really have a schedule, like I used to have, mostly because I always seem to be doing a bunch of different things. I wrote four screenplays while I was writing Bordersnakes, the last novel.
NK: What were they?
JC: I did the adaptation of Ellroy’s The Big Nowhere, and then I did a low budget horror movie, it doesn't have a title any more, and a low budget adaptation of a book in which the hero is a retired drug smuggler, called Bloodworks. And then I had to do the horror movie again, alone. And I was working with Tim Hunter on a script he's been trying to get made for years, a cop movie set in LA. And somewhere in there was the Judge Dredd script; someone disputed a credit on it, and as a consequence all of the writers who ever worked on it had to be copied on everything that had happened. There were sixteen writers! Tim and I were the first and we thought we were writing a twenty million dollar movie. Then the strike came and they wanted to do it for 8 million. So all the shit we did for the first thing they had to take out, and then they ended up paying Stallone $12 million just to do it!
NK: Do you have any thoughts making the differences between novels and screenplays?
JC: They’re very different forms of discourse. I was rewriting The Mexican Tree Duck while I was writing a screen version of Dancing Bear, and there were occasional moments when I’d forget what the fuck I was doing, and why, but it’s a fairly easy switch from novel writing to screenplay writing and I’ve been doing it for quite a while now.
NK: Well, it’s often the case that novels can quite literally represent more kinds of things than are allowed in Hollywood, with their internalised self-censorship rules.
JC: One of the other things I like about Robert Towne is that he simply tells those guys to stuff it up their arse. That’s never been a problem with the Dancing Bear project, the stuff about the drugs. They're just silly. The world changed significantly when the studio heads stopped trusting their own judgement and started wanting to know what audiences thought. And then came the dreaded MBA and I’m not convinced that the MBA hasn’t ruined America. If you think of all the kinds of losses of loyalty of employees in large corporations, and all the kind of shit that’s going on in the movie and publishing worlds in terms of looking at it as a product. It seems to me at one time there were a lot of book salesmen who read books, and an editor said to me in a conference recently that she didn’t want that kind of salesman. She said, “if I give them spoons, I want the fuckers to sell spoons.” And that kind of thinking has essentially ruined what at one time was a fairly gentlemanly business. A friend of mine was at the Burbank Book Fair and it seems that the corporate overlords are complaining to their editorial boards about the mid-range novel, novels that have runs of four to 8,000 copies. That’s not enough, they don’t want to publish those books any more.
NK: You said earlier, in relation to your most recent trip to do signings in Austin, that you don’t like the chains. Is that a factor here?
JC: The chains now control how many books are sold, really. If you can sell to the chains then that controls what happens to a book. They're putting all the independents out of business. I was talking to Barbara Thoreau last night at the party. She has an independent bookshop here, and a Barnes and Noble is opening soon and that will make things difficult for her. I try to stay out of chains as much as I can. The best places I was at on The Mexican Tree Duck tour were A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco and Duttons in LA.
NK: And in the UK I guess you read at Murder One in London?
JC: Yeah, but I had more fun in Manchester, a better crowd. I liked Manchester. I was doing an interview with two little girls from the BBC Radio; the usual stuff, they asked me what I thought about Manchester and I said we were looking in the guide book on the train coming up and Manchester didn’t get a mention and that led me to think I’d like it. And one of them, about 4’ 8”, jumped in the air and said “Not in the fuckin’ guide book! We invented the canal, we invented the Industrial Revolution, quantum physics, we may have the best football team in the world, of course we’re not in the guide book,” and she stamped her foot. I liked Manchester and I expect to be back there one day. I liked London too, but that’s a different deal.
NK: Have you any more to say on the chains vs. independents?
JC: The chains get discount books from the publishers. They buy their books at a price that Barbara can’t buy her books at. And they’ll come into town and try to drive the independents out of business. One of the things that’s nice about Missoula is that it's got three independent bookstores, it used to have four but the little professor went out of business. There’s a federal trade law that prohibits certain kinds of discounting, like on washing machines and things, a fair trade agreement of some sort. Books have never come under that and now the independent booksellers of America are trying to get them to change that. I don’t know if it’ll happen but it seems to me that the corporation has served its purpose and you can’t have a country where there’s no sense of personal responsibility. It’s not going to make one world, it’s going to make one McDonalds and you know that as soon as the chains drive the independents out of business they’re not going to sell books for half price anymore and they’re not going to hire people who know what they’re doing.
NK: Speaking of the changes in the publishing industry, do you get much interference, rather than assistance, in the production of one of your books?
JC: I don't get much of that. The only thing they tried to get me to do on Bordersnakes was write the convertible they’d put on the cover into the novel. I gave that editor so much shit, told him I’d keep his letter in my files and publish it one day so that his kids would say, “what the fuck was dad thinkin’ about?”
NK: So who do you trust to read your manuscripts and make any suggestions?
JC: I don't let anybody do anything as I'm going along. My wife Martha proofs for me. She’s been writing for a long time and her first book of poetry is coming out next month.
Something I learned working on screenplays with Tim Hunter is that you may have a different idea from somebody else but when you’re working together you have to be able to say why that’s a better idea. And sometimes what happens in the process is that you come up with something entirely different from what either one of you suggested but which is better. So it’s not that I completely resist what people think, it’s just that that’s something that has to come later for me. When I’m in the middle of a book I just don’t have the time or the inclination for that.
NK: I was more thinking of the finished manuscript, when you felt it was completed, do you get other people to read it then?
JC: No, there's a time in your life for that but I’m at the point where there’s no purpose in showing the manuscript to anybody who can’t give me some money, or some drugs! I’ll let people read it for fun but they have to come up here to the house to get the manuscript.
NK: Do you have information on your book sales, which books have done the best?
JC: The Mexican Tree Duck has sold more copies in hardback than all the other books put together. It’s sold somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000 copies. At $22 a copy, that’s in the neighbourhood of $700,000 gross. Cut that in half, they haven’t lost any money on me. They’ve never lost any money on me but then, I've never made any money.
NK: So are you saying that in your writing life you haven't been able to live from your books alone, it’s always been the teaching and the screenplay writing?
JC: Maybe if I’d written more. But I took about ten years off. Shit, it just wasn’t happening. If I can get people to read my books, they like them, but the people who are in charge of getting people to read books don’t know how to get people to read my books. I’ve met at least a dozen people who have family or friends who never read books but they’ve read The Last Good Kiss, two or three times! People who read my books call me up on the phone. Sometimes they call me up collect. That’s why I still have a listed phone number.
NK: That prompts me to recall a remark Don DeLillo once made about letters he received from his readers, many of whom were “disturbed.”
JC: I get some disturbed letters. I got a really fuckin’ ugly letter from a blind woman in California when The Wrong Case was out on books-on-tape. It was insulting, attacking the profanities in my book, and I don’t think you have a right to insult someone you don’t know like that. That’s just not in my breeding, and so I wrote her a scathing letter back but this woman I was seeing at the time talked me out of sending it. About six months later I was moving and I found the letter again, re-read it, thought it was a wonderful letter, and I sent it. And I've got a letter down here in a box from some guy in Tucson, the answer to whom will be “not only did your parents not teach you not to be insulting to strangers, they also didn’t teach you the proper use of fuck.” His letter is full of “fuck,” trying to make fun of my using “fuck” all the time. But those things only happen every now and then. I get some stuff from ex-drinkers and druggers and Vietnam vets who dispute the ability of my characters to carry on the way they do and still live. And what that means is, they weren’t able to, and they extrapolate from that. But what fans I’ve got are fairly steady and secure. If they get the books out on the stands I’ll sell some, but like everything else it’s all shelf-space and distribution. I’ve got all sorts of odd critical reviews. They just don’t know what to do with the books. It’s like in LA, it's very difficult for them to understand that you can laugh and be violent at the same time. I don’t know how the Coen brothers ever got work!
NK: Well, it’s been independent work.
JC: I never could connect with those kinds of LA people, but it ain’t over yet.
NK: Your last book started with Hank Snow jukebox reference. What musical references are in the new book, who do you like in country?
JC: In this new book I’ve got Warren Zevon, Bob Seeger, the Flatlanders. I like Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Joe Ely, I’ve got almost all of their stuff, and Iris Dement, a lot of Nancy Griffith, and Steve Earle.
NK: Bordersnakes is due out in November. Can you say something about it without giving too much away?
JC: Milo and Sughrue take off and try to get Milo’s money back but they also have to do something for Sughrue first and in that kind of way where everything turns out badly, lots of things turn out badly; it’s almost all set in west Texas and California. I don‘t think there’s any scenes in Montana at all. Everybody writes about Montana now. And I’ve never been one to do what everyone else does. My mother used to called me “a contrary son of a bitch.” Milo and Sughrue go all over the country, their friendship is put to the test and is not found wanting.
NK: You’ve been married five times. How is life now for you, family life?
JC: Life is good. I’ve got five kids who have grown up fine. Four live in Washington and one is down outside LA. They’re aged between 39 and 11, three boys, two girls and a batch of grandkids. My oldest grandkid is the same age as my eldest son, 15.
NK: Are you on good terms with your former wives?
JC: I’ve got one I’ve never seen since I split. Two I have children with and they live in the same town. And one I’m still friends with. They all live over near Puget Sound now. I used to live on Vachon Island in the middle of the Sound, and I’ve often thought of moving back there, Seattle, Tacomo, Port Townsend. But it’s a little too dampish and my arthritis gets bad in that damp weather.
NK: How did John Williams come to visit here, doing his Into the Badlands book. He describes having trouble locating you and then being drunk and crashing cars.
JC: I knew John in Paris and we got on quite well. The time he came to town to do that piece I was involved with a woman who wasn’t exactly stable, I guess you could say, and she hated the notion that I was being interviewed and that she couldn’t have anything to do with it. As a consequence it was a very tense time and I’m glad we all survived. John’s been back twice since then and he was here two or three weeks ago to do a piece on Jimmy Lee Burke. He handed over some tapes of Los Lobos and Steve Earle.
NK: You’ve been involved with creative writing courses over the years. Do you have any opinions on them?
JC: There’s too many of them. There must be a hundred unemployed MFA’s in Missoula alone. It‘s nice that it turns out intelligent readers but I now think you shouldn’t get the MFA until you publish. You should take the MA and you take an extra year on the off chance that if you publish, we’ll give you an MFA. Also, there’s not much quality control. When I ran the programme at Colorado State I actually kicked people out. Nobody does that any more. Without anyone there to exercise individual judgement and take responsibility for it, what you end up with is a lot of people getting MFA’s who can’t write, have no talent. They may have a lot of heart and willingness to work but you can’t overcome that lack of talent. It’s almost impossible. When I took my MFA in Iowa in 1966, there were about 3 places that offered them and now there’s about 270 places. It’s nice that it gives young writers a place to teach while they’re trying to get their career off the ground. A lot of these guys have it in their minds that they’ll get a degree, get a job, go someplace and live there for rest of their life. And I’ve never much had that middle-class dream. Coming from a working-class family, there were no great hopes. My parents haven’t owned a house since WWI, so, you know, it gives me a different outlook on things. Also, I’m broke a lot! It’s now possible to get an undergraduate degree in creative writing in lots of places and I find that sort of abhorrent. And I tell everybody, if you really want to write, get a degree in something actual, get a degree in philosophy or economics. You don’t need a degree in English. Chances are you’ll read all the goddamn books anyway and you’ll like ‘em a lot better if you haven’t had to go to those fuckin’ courses. There’s lots of things to be learned out there. Major in history, anthropology, wildlife, biology, don’t major in English and don’t get an undergraduate degree in creative writing, for God’s sake.
NK: I gather you don’t have a particularly high opinion of the academic world.
JC: It’s just another kind of bureaucracy, very self-serving, and frightening in its insularity.
NK: You’ve been able to make these little sorties into it for a time and then get out of it.
JC: Yeah, but I’m the entertainment. I learned that a long time ago. As long as I was entertaining I could do whatever the fuck I wanted to.
NK: The eccentric in their midst.
JC: The dancing bear.
NK: You’ve had a couple of acting roles. Could you talk about that?
JC: I’ve managed two roles in the last twenty-four years, both in low budget films. I played a hotel clerk in My Samurai and a corrupt sheriff in Rocky Boys which they shot up here last summer, but which won’t be released yet because they don’t quite have the money for the final print.
I mentioned to a friend of mine, Roy Jensen, that toward the end of my life, I was thinking of working my way into a film career playing heavies and Lloyd reared back from the bar and said “you might do OK but you look too much like that other son of a bitch, Wilfred Brimley.” And Jimmy Gammon, the big gravel-voiced guy who played the horse-trader in Tony Scott’s Revenge, was working on something in Austin when I was down there this last time, and we had some drinks together and I told him the Wilfred Brimley story. And he says everybody in the business hates Brimley because he won’t do anything they tell him to do, he lives in some fuckin’ trailer house somewhere in southern Utah and he’s been known to punch directors. So it might not be just my “resemblance” to Wilfred Brimley, it might be my resemblance to Wilfred Bremley that keeps me from getting work! Whenever I tell this stuff to Tim Hunter, he just shakes his head, bemused that a friend of his wants to be an actor.
NK: Are there any future roles slated?
JC: Well, I write one for myself in every screenplay I do, so if something happens, maybe I'll at least get to do a reading!
NK: Do you have any opinions on the election that’s looming, what with Dole withdrawing from gubernatorial activity to concentrate on the Presidential race?
JC: Dole is living proof that political ambition can ruin your life. For many years he seemed like a fairly sensible, decent Senator and as soon as he decided to run for President he became a literal fuckin’ idiot. Whereas Clinton is not exactly the cream of the crop at least he’s not George Bush and he’s not Bob Dole. I don’t think Dole has much of a chance unless Clinton really fucks up somehow but there are a lot of unhappy people in this country. They don’t like the fact that Clinton’s wife is a lawyer, and perhaps a little bitchy about things sometimes. I hesitate to even say Clinton’s heart is in the right place but he’s a Democrat so I’ll certainly vote for him.
NK: How many congressmen does Montana return?
JC: Only one. He’s been a Democrat for fifteen years but he’s gone and I don’t think there’s much chance we'll elect another Democrat. So we’ve got to try to get the least worst of the Republicans. And also one of our Senators is up for re-election but because of the assault weapons vote he could be in trouble.
NK: Could you elaborate on that?
JC: Congress finally passed a bill that outlaws the making, selling, importing of seventeen different types of assault weapons, military style, semi-automatics. These people out here are really touchy about that stuff. Mostly because people in the East don’t really understand people in the west at all. I’ve owned guns all my life and I belonged to the National Rifle Association until it went crazy. And for some reason out here they find this stuff, stuff like the Brady bill, a five-day wait for handguns, an insult of some sort. I don’t know what the fuck they could be thinkin’ about. I think that before you can own firearms you should have to take safety lessons, I don’t mind that at all. The only people who do mind that are the people who think, “they're going to take all our guns away from us.” I mean, give me a break, that’s not going to happen.
NK: Recently you and Martha were off to Virginia, visiting Martha’s mother. Do you travel around much and if so, where do you tend to go?
JC: Not too much any more. Mostly because it just costs too goddamn much. Last Christmas Martha and I and the kids flew to Tulsa and drove to Fayetteville, Arkansas and spent Christmas with my oldest friend, who lives on a farm outside Fayetteville. This February, Martha and I went to Austin for a week when I finished the first draft of Bordersnakes, because the book I’m working on now is set in Austin.
NK: What’s it about?
JC: It’s a Milo book, Milo’s gone to live in Austin. This is a book I’ve been wantin’ to do for sometime.
NK: It’s not the long-promised Texas book?
NK: You must get tired of people asking you about that book?
JC: Well, I’m the one that didn’t finish the son-of-a-bitch. I don’t know that I ever will. I haven’t forgotten about it and I’ve got a frame for it. It begins on the day of Nixon’s resignation.
NK: I remember watching the televised broadcast of his resignation where he managed that amazing turnaround and said he was leaving “with no bitterness and no regret,” kind of a forgiving of his fellow Americans!
JC: I was living on Vachon Island at the time, riding bikes with a friend of mine who teaches up there. We walked into a store to have a beer and there was no-one in the front of the store. It was an old hippie kind of place and I hollered out, and they said “come in the back here, fuckin’ Nixon’s resigning on tv.” So we sat there, smoked dope and drank beer while the son-of-a-bitch went to the grave. We were so happy that we got so fucked up that we had to find the least fucked up person to put our bikes in the back of his pick-up and get him to drive us back to my house on the other side of the island. I was really happy because I really hated that son-of-a-bitch.
NK: Does your hatred of him continue through the degree of redemption he achieved in retirement, when he became a kind of statesman-like figure, what with China and all?
JC: Absolutely. An old friend of mine, Mike Koepf, who lives in Mendocino County, and I stayed on the phone all through the televised burial of Nixon. We both had FBI files, and I was the Vietnam Veteran’s Against the War faculty adviser at Colorado State, and I was a SDS affiliate. Nixon was the whore-dog of American politics. He had no honour, no decency. I didn’t find anything even vaguely amusing about Nixon. Everybody talks about Nixon going to China. This seems to me to be a thing of limited value, as we’ve discovered over and over again. Being involved with China is not necessarily a great idea. They say you have the politicians you deserve, but this county has never completely recovered from the beat-up about the threat of Communist rebellion when there simply never was any such threat. After the Comintern in 1932 the Soviets decided that world rebellion wasn’t going to take place and all through the 1950s there were more FBI agents in the Communist Party than there were Communist Party members. That’s really damaged this country in a way that may not be fixable. All you have to do is say, “socialised medicine.” An English friend of Martha‘s said to her, “it must be terrible to live in a country where if you get sick, you don’t know what's going to happen to you.” It is terrible. Because I haven’t worked in the screen business for a while we don’t have any insurance.
NK: How does it work? You get it paid for if you’re a member of the guild?
JC: You have to make between $11,700 and $16,000, which is nothing, if you can get a job.
NK: Is it really important to live in LA in order to get screenwriting work?
JC: I think it makes a hell of a difference. I think that if I lived in LA I could go to work anytime I wanted to. I like LA, I’ve got a lot of friends inside and outside the movie business. But it’s not a bad price to pay, living here.
NK: What is it about cities like LA you don’t like?
JC: The fact that it’s a city! And there’s lots of people there. I grew up in the country and the nearest neighbours were the Hardins and I couldn’t play with the Hardin kids ‘cause they'd fling rocks at me till I went home. Unlike a lot of kids who grew up in the country and longed to live in the city, unlike a lot of country Texans, who’ve moved to New York to live, I find living in cities is just too tough. I’m not uncomfortable visiting a city, but Missoula is about as citified as I can deal with.
NK: How big is Missoula?
JC: It’s about 40,000 people. It seems bigger because it’s the shopping centre for about 100,000 people. It’s 200 miles to Spokane and 500 miles to Salt Lake, 500 miles to Calgary, 320 to Billings. People from all over the western part of the state, and over from Idaho come here to shop. So it’s deceptive. And there’ve been some recent annexations. People want to have city service but don’t want to pay the higher taxes.
It’s a really fragile water table here. There’s a river beneath the river about as wide as the valley and that's where all the water comes from. You can drop cleaning fluid in a steel sewer and it’ll show up in the water table.
NK: When we met in Charlie’s Bar yesterday, it was a lively place, and it's written about in Into the Badlands.
JC: It’s in the same spot as wonderful old bar called Eddie’s Club was in the old days. I didn’t go into Charlie’s when it first opened because it was too fraught with memory, but it’s sort of the only bar like that left. Friday afternoons, 5 o’clock, you get a good cross-section, a tremendously literate working-class crowd. They just know me as “the writer guy.” A place takes its atmosphere from the owner. It used to be just a wino bar, Eddy’s Club — Mahoneys in The Wrong Case. Charlie’s a great bar owner, he takes care of the old men who live upstairs on their social security cheques and he hires the best bartenders in the world. I’ve known all the people in there for a long time. People like Lewis Davis, the black guy we were talking to, he’s one of the guys I thank at the start of Mexican Tree Duck. He’s a Vet, drifted up here for some reason, maybe because there’s no black people and he figured he’d be OK! In Montana the licences are controlled by population, it only costs $5,000 a year for the licence to keep a bar, but over $120,000 to get one. It was an important bar for me in the seventies.
Missoula used to be a great bar town, you used to be able to walk into a bar on Railroad Street and go out back doors, all the way down to the river without getting onto a sidestreet. What happened in the 1980s was that they went to an 18 year old drinking law and suddenly all the guys realised they could make money on the kids. It changed the nature of the bars in this town.
French TV crew - last Spring finished shooting on the deck, finishing the TV smoke, some dope. Next thing I know it's gettin' dark, we'd all shit-faced, stumbling around TV equipment. So I called up Ed down at Depot and said, I've got some drunken frogs, I need to feed them. Ed said I'll put you guys down in the wine-room. So we're down in the wine-room, eating/smoking and these little frogs were just impressed shitless. I also inrtroduced them to some good Californian wines.
NK: Political history values of Montana.
JC: They had a strong union movement here because the copper industry were such arseholes, and also because of the IWW in a lot of ways. There was a socialist newspaper in Butte and a black newspaper in Butte. There’s some tradition of liberal politics and union politics in this state but mainly because of the power exercised by the railroad and the copper companies, Anaconda copper used to own every major newspaper in the State except for the Great Falls Tribune which was independently owned, and they called the shots. That was as recent as right before I got here. This has been a colony, a place where they’d come to extract the minerals, cut the trees down, overgraze the grass and take the money away somewhere else. One of the reasons the people here feel isolated from the rest of America is because they've been treated like a colony for so long, so they resent all that — but they do so by thinking it’s the government at fault and not the companies. If you could convince the guys who work in the woods that the environmentalist’s are not their enemies, it’s the corporations, which are their enemies. They don’t cut trees down with people much anymore, they use machines, and the corporations want to depreciate the machines they use to cut the trees down, as quickly as possible, and ship them off to Indonesia or Brazil. It’s the companies that are keeping these guys from work.
NK: What places do you like to travel to around here?
JC: Chico, Hot Springs is a place I’ve always liked. We spend a week there in the summer with the kids and another week during the year when we can get away. We try to float the Smith River every year. It’s a four day float over into the Missouri River, white shell fish plains. I still like to drive up to Glacier, go through the park, and I still like Yellowstone. Even with the tourists there, it’s always impressive. There’s tons of little towns in Montana you can stop at, stop and have a beer. You buy the first one, they buy the next one.
NK: Next thing, you’re “drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.”
JC: That’s for sure.