Michigan author featured May 9 at Dogwood Festival

Published 3:27 am Thursday, May 1, 2003

By By JOHN EBY / Niles Daily Star
DOWAGIAC -- Jim Harrison is much more than the first Michigan author to headline Dowagiac's Dogwood Fine Arts Festival.
Though he shuns literary limelight for a more secluded existence in his wooded native state -- the area coastal dwellers dismiss derisively as "flyover" -- Harrison, 65, has a few prominent pals from populated places, not to mention superstar status in France.
There's Jack Nicholson, whose star turn in "Wolf" in 1994 made the cover of Vanity Fair.
They met in 1976 on the Montana set of "Missouri Breaks," which also starred Marlon Brando.
Nicholson, who is "quite disciplined" as an actor, "heard through a mutual friend I was broke" and lent a financial hand so Harrison could finish "Legends of the Fall," which eventually became a movie with Brad Pitt.
Harrison, who has teased actors that maybe they ended up in show business "because they started as kids dressing up funny," said it was Nicholson "who once said to me, 'An actor is three people, an actress five.' "
Harrison doesn't just hang out with actors in Montana, of course. Writer Thomas McGuane is a friend.
There are musicians. He said he has known Jimmy Buffett from Key West, Fla., since he couldn't afford very many cheeseburgers or margaritas playing for $50 a night.
He and Don Henley of the Eagles have compared notes on the benefits of touring with a rock band versus a book tour, which Harrison finds "ghastly" except when they take him to Oxford, Miss., Seattle and Chicago, which seems a bit less "claustrophobic" with Lake Michigan alongside.
Hollywood "I can only take in small doses," despite his stints in screenwriting. He has said of continuing to want to write about this state, "I'm actually forced to write about Michigan because as a native of that state it's the place I know best. Michigan is two radically different places -- the North and the South, which makes for good drama and contrast."
Harrison is a man as beholden to car trips on back roads and Blue Highways as William Least Heat Moon.
In fact, "I've driven through (Dowagiac) before," and he came close to attending Kalamazoo College instead of Michigan State University.
When the Daily News caught up with Harrison Friday in Arizona, where he spends five months of the year in the mountains by a creek on the Mexican border, he was packing for the drive to Montana four days after his wife flew there.
He lives 17 miles from Nogales, where "Traffic" filmed. He married Linda King in October 1960, the same year he received his bachelor's degree from Michigan State.
He added his master's degree in 1964 from MSU.
The Harrisons have two children, Jamie Louise and Anna Severin.
Big Sky Country will be his departure point for another daunting drive, to Dowagiac for his May 9 lecture at Central Middle School.
Harrison said Dogwood Visiting Authors Chair Rich Frantz thought his audience might be interested in how a writer does what he does, so he'll talk about that and read from his memoir. He does only three lectures per year.
Except for his contributions to several versions of the screenplay, Harrison said he didn't have much input into the big-screen version of "Legends of the Fall." He writes novellas out of a preference for density over loose, sprawling prose.
Harrison, who regards "Lonesome Dove" as the best TV western ever, turned to screenwriting partly to make a living because teaching proved "a complete blow-up. My temperament is not suited for academic life. I hate repetition." He was briefly an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York -- Stony Brook, 1965-66.
Harrison believes he could enjoy an even larger literary reputation had he succumbed to living in New York or San Francisco. "I've taken a hit there," he said, because such stature depends on social networking. Instead, he chose the solitude of trout fishing and training his own bird dogs, which he finds "fascinating," although his interest in hunting has waned.
While often compared to Ernest Hemingway, Harrison doesn't think it's apt. He believes William Faulkner to be more of an influence. At the time of a previous interview Harrison mentioned he was reading a book by Sherman Alexie, who will be following him to Dowagiac in October and whose new movie, "The Business of Fancydancing," shows tonight at 7:30 at Southwestern Michigan College.
Harrison said, "I liked (Collins') work," though less so his movie-in-mind Michigan mystery novels, "The Keepers of Truth" and "The Resurrectionists," influenced by his time at the University of Notre Dame on a running scholarship.
"I think part of it is that they don't read about New York. They have Paris. They're fascinated by the rural thing." Novelists tend to live in heavily urbanized parts of countries and to write about that life.
Harrison said of U.S. animosity toward France over the war, "I think it's a scapegoat thing" because few traditional allies, including Canada, Mexico, Russia and Germany, accepted the Bush administration's "suspicious" premise for disarming Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.
It also has elements of "Greek tragedy," he said, because of the president avenging his father from the first Persian Gulf war.
And with oilmen elected to lead the federal government, "They invaded Baghdad and protected the oil fields, and not the treasures in the museum, as has been pointed out."
Harrison, born Dec. 11, 1937, in Grayling, grew up in Reed City. His father was a county agricultural agent, but his parents read a lot.
He began entertaining the idea of becoming a writer when he was 14.
His family moved to Haslett before he started high school. He's based in Traverse City, but kept his cabin in the Upper Peninsula, where he will head after the book tour to work on his next novel about the decline of a predatory UP logging and mining family.
Will novelists become extinct in the information age? "Seventy-five percent of Americans only read on a fifth grade level," he responded. "The audience is limited" even before it is aggressively fought over by a variety of media clamoring for attention.
Journalism schools are another institution which arouse Harrison's suspicion. Writers should spend a year working in the city or in the country at a job. "You can't know anything without working," said Harrison, whose own resume runs the gamut from bookstores to car washes and "a lot of construction -- block laying, hod carrying, roofing."
He has dabbled in journalism, from writing a column for Esquire to reporting on the wage disparity at the border for Men's Journal.
His family almost moved to Kalamazoo so his dad could manage Upjohn farms. Harrison himself owned a farm, but sold it last year.
Farming, "like writing, is fulltime and extremely complicated."
He gives no thought to retiring because "I can't afford to."