Today, we welcome award-winning author and environmental activist, Rick Bass, to our blog to talk about his book, All the Land to Hold Us. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, United States, Rick Bass worked for several years as a Petroleum geologist before starting his career as a writer. He received several awards including General Electric Younger Writers Award, a Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation for fiction, and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. His writing has also appeared in several periodicals including Esquire, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, New York Times Sunday Magazine, and many others. Moreover, he has been a contributing editor to On Earth, Big Sky Journal, Sports Afield, Audubon and many more. Rick has been living in Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana with his wife and two children for over 20 years.
In this interview with Rick Bass, we will get to know about the authors that influenced him to become a writer, his upcoming books along with his message for readers about preserving nature.
Let’s get started by asking how and when did you think of taking up writing us your career? When you were young and having the budding desire to be writer, which author(s) you think influenced you the most?
I came to writing when I lived in Mississippi in the 1980s, where I worked as an oil and gas geologist for a small independent company. On my lunch breaks I would visit the fantastic independent bookstores there—Lemuria, in Jackson, and, on weekends, Square Books, in Oxford—where the store owners would recommend great books to me. I’d had a couple of undergraduate classes in literature at Utah State (from the great Tom Lyon and Moyle Rice), where I studied wildlife science and geology—but the bookstores really continued stoking a passion for literature, simply through their keen recommendations, and old school hand-selling.
Writers they suggested were the great short story writers of the 1980s—Joy Williams, Amy Hempel, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford, Annie Proulx, Tobias Wolf, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Tom McGuane, Susan Minot, Alice Munro, James Salter—really, there is no end to the influences from that era—and writers like Barry Lopez and William Kittredge, and so many of the Western writers, and the Southern writers—O’Connor, Welty, Faulkner—John Graves and Good-Bye To A River—and Chekhov and Tolstoy. Lots of poetry—W.S. Merwin, Mary Oliver, Jane Kenyon, Gary Snyder, Pattiann Rogers, Billy Collins, Charles Wright…There’s nothing like a great bookstore! I’ve also been fortunate to work with great editors, among them Carol Houck Smith, Gordon Lish, Tom Jenks, Harry Foster, Camille Hykes, Rust Hills, Michael Curtis, Jennifer Sahn, and Nicole Angeloro.
You have been writing in fiction, creative nonfiction, and journalism categories, which form of writing, you enjoy the most?
Fiction is far and away the most challenging for me, and for that, the most gratifying when it succeeds, though also of course the most excruciating when it does not yet reach the level you want it to. Fortunately, there is no limit on the amount of drafts you get to do, in that attempt to get it right.
You have been acclaimed as “One of this country’s most intelligent and sensitive short story writers” by New York Times. How does it feel?
Sometimes I wonder what they mean by that—what they are seeing. It would be rude and ungenerous to argue. I suspect they may be talking about a different kind of intelligence than the sort we are most used to thinking of.
Teaching or writing, what do you like the most?
The latter! Though the former is extremely gratifying, particularly as I grow older. It’s nice to pass on one’s values.
If you have to pick top 5 best books written by you and from some other authors what would they be?
I wouldn’t say “best” but some of my durable favorites include Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, Larry Brown’s Joe, Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, Doug Peacock’s Grizzly Years, and Jim Harrison’s Legends Of The Fall. That’s five, right?
Is there any fiction work which you read and wish if you had written that?
I don’t mean to sound boring, but no, not that I can think of. There are books that blow the top of my mind away, but maybe I’m too much of a lightweight to want to be that person who wrote it. Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Annie Dillard’s Teaching A Stone To Talk, Peter Matthiessen’s In The Spirit Of Crazy Horse, John Berger’s To The Wedding—I would much rather read their books, or anyone’s, than write them.
It’s been almost a year now for the book All the Land to Hold Us being published. Can you throw some light on the response you got from your readers and fans for this novel?
A lot of my readers have said it’s their favorite book. And folks like Marie, and like the elephant, a lot.
Our readers would be very much interested in knowing about the storyline and characters of this novel, can you please throw some light on it.
That’s a tough one. It took 16 years and tens of thousands of pages of drafts. To boil it down is almost impossible for me. The influence of landscape and history, the nature of desire and yearning in human (and other) species, the luminosity of the brief condition of life…I don’t know quite how to answer this. It’s a big novel. McGuane says Shakespeare said all literature is about loss or the recognition of loss—though the other side of that same coin is of course the celebration of what is in the here-and-now. It’s safe to say that landscape and its influence on the nature of human imagination is a theme that inhabits much of the novel.
What are you currently working on? Is there anything to be published in near future?
Two big projects: a New & Selected story collection, to be published in 2016, and a big nonfiction project. Eating My Heroes, in which I travel around the world visiting my literary heroes, preparing a nice meal for them in their kitchen and telling them thank you in person: thanking them for their influence on me as a writer, and often for their support, when I was a younger writer. I take my youngest daughter with me to meet them, and sometimes one of my best fiction or nonfiction writing students, to introduce the generation before me to the writers of a generation or more older than me. To help resuscitate gratitude and mentorship. It’s an amazing journey. The writers—my heroes—have all been so generous. I want to celebrate them while they are living. And I find that even mid-career—especially mid-career—I still have much to learn from them. That book will probably be out in 2017.
Can you please let us all know a few best lines from All the Land to Hold Us?
None really come to mind—I worked hard on every sentence in the novel, beginning back in 1997 or 1998. Ideally I’d be able to open a page and point to any sentence and say, “I like that one.” That’s the goal, anyway! Scanning through it, though, I open to page 84, and find one that makes me laugh, not for its precision—it’s windy, for sure—but for its ambition and enthusiasm. It’s probably a pretty typical sentence, indicative of my tendency to want it all:
“She knew the love of her family and of the community, and then, as a young woman in the first year of courtship, she had known the love of a hardworking young man, Max Omo, whom she married at the end of that same first year, with the wedding held late in the breezy springtime, out in the orchards, while the blossoms blew loose from the trees, flashing through the sky like the scales of fish and catching in the hair of the wedding guests.”
Since you are so close to nature and environment do you want to give any message to your readers about preserving nature?
You bet! Get involved with groups—it’s vital, these days, to be part of larger movements. Global warming is obviously a game changer for the life of every living creature—groups such as 350.org are doing tremendous work—but please support small local grassroots groups, who work at the community and watershed level, as well. I’m affiliated with one such group, the Yaak Valley Forest Council (www.yaakvalley.org). They do heroic work, seeking to protect the last roadless areas on the public lands in northwest Montana’s Yaak Valley, and would love your support!
Thank you so much, Rick, for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us today. Wish you good luck for your upcoming projects.