Writer Sights in on Bozeman Life

by Carol Schmidt?

While many writers are concerned with the grand entry in the parade of life, Richard Brautigan is most fascinated by the leavings.

Brautigan says he takes pleasure in "the tiny nuances of things, the smallest particles of reality," the candy bar wrappers and forgotten spangles of our existence.

Things such as Tupperware, Westerners' preoccupation with the weather and the correct dosage of Vitamin A earn Brautigan's enthusiastic interest.

Too much Vitamin A can be deadly, Brautigan warns, his eyes narrowing to concerned slits. He opts instead for Vitamin C, which he washes down with a generous swig of George Dickel whiskey.

Of such inconsistencies are woven the life of Richard Brautigan, the author who gave a new meaning to the phrase "Trout Fishing in America" with the publication of his second novel in 1967. He became something of a literary cult figure, a spokesman for a generation, a practitioner of the "new fiction."

Twenty years, 10 novels and several volumes of poetry later, Brautigan spends much of his writing time on his ranch in Paradise Valley. He is now teaching a writing course at Montana State University and focusing the bizarre microscope of his imagination on life in Bozeman.

Brautigan is, as the postcard cliche goes, having a wonderful time. He said he enjoys his relationship with his students and his fellow faculty members at MSU, but most of all, he's enjoying going to college.

"I never went to college," Brautigan said. He has, however, lectured and given readings at many institutions including Harvard, the University of Chicago and Stanford. This is the first time he has taught a quarter-long class, he said.

Of all writers who live in or write about Montana, Brautigan is probably most well-known outside the state's boundaries. His books have been translated into 20 languages and his fans are intensely loyal.

But even though Brautigan says he is rejuvenated by life in Montana, he doesn't really consider himself a "Montana writer."

"I get a lot of work done in Montana and I have written about Montana, but I also get a lot of work done in Japan and write about life in Japan but I don't consider myself a Japanese writer," Brautigan said.

"I don't know where my home is. I'm trying to figure that out. My life would be easier if I knew where I really lived."

Brautigan has long been something of a vagabond. Born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1935, Brautigan and his family moved a lot and he lived in various communities in the Northwest. His first stay in Montana was in Great Falls during World War II.

"When I got back to Great Falls in 1978, I was stunned at the Missouri River," Brautigan said. "As a child I remembered it as a mile across. The thing that stunned me was that the river is not a mile across."

Brautigan said that as a child he wasn't particularly interested in school. He twice flunked first grade in Tacoma and said he eventually taught himself how to read. What he did excel at was fishing. He began fishing in small ponds when he was about 9. His recollections about the people who fished the ponds in the Pacific Northwest during the 1940s are the subject of his latest book, So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away," to be published this fall by Delacourte-Seymour Lawrence Press.

Brautigan decided to be a writer when he was about 17, he said. He closeted himself in an Andrew Carnegie library and read voraciously. He didn't go to college, and instead headed south to San Francisco where he met people who had read the same things and had the same passion for the written word.

Brautigan learned to write by reading, but he didn't find an easy answer to writing success. He recalls sending short stacks of his poetry to magazines and having them filter back in a matter of days. He persevered and at 23 his first book, the volume of poetry The Galilee Hitch-Hiker, was published. He still was not what anyone would call a raving success, but was able to publish several more volumes of poetry and a novel. Then in 1967, a small San Francisco publishing house published a Brautigan novel written several years earlier. The book was titled Trout Fishing in America, not for the sport, but after a character in the book.

"The book was turned down by 20 editors," Brautigan said. "No trade publisher in America would publish it."

Brautigan said he is still at a loss to explain its incredible popularity.

The flower-children of San Francisco aligned themselves with Brautigan's gentle view of nature, his amusement with man's frailties. Soon communes, free-schools and stores were all named for Brautigan's characters. Brautigan became the author to read on America's campuses. After a decade of toiling, Brautigan became an overnight literary phenomenon.

Brautigan said while he was pleased with the unexpected popularity, he was puzzled with his "hippie writer" tag. Most of the books that earned him the indentification were written years prior to the Flower Child era, he said.

"There were tremendous changes going on in America then," Brautigan said. "It was impossible not to be involved in those changes."

"I never thought of myself as a philosopher, either. My writing is just one man's response to life in the 20th century."

In time, the buildings in Haight-Ashbury were divided into condos; the flower children grew up to sell real estate. Brautigan was already gone, developing an unusual juxtaposition of residences in Japan and Montana.

Brautigan said he visited Montana about 10 years ago at the invitation of his friend, writer Thomas McGuane. He spent about a month in the Paradise Valley and returned the next summer.

"I already knew the fishing was fun, but I wanted to see if I could write here," Brautigan said. He rented a cabin for the summer and wrote The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western. The popular spoof was dedicated to "The Montana Gang" whose membership Brautigan declines to specify.

Brautigan bought a ranch in the Paradise Valley in 1973 and has been returning since.

"I like the heroic landscapes and the people, Brautigan said. "The people of Montana are outstanding, there's a directness, an honesty I love. I love to listen to their conversations. The weather plays such a huge role here.

"I get work done here. It's good for my head . . . The people and landscapes clear me out . . . So many of the ambiguities are eliminated here, so many of the clanking noises of civilization."

But when Brautigan isn't in Montana, he's likely to be living and working in Tokyo, one of the world's most densely populated areas.

"It is bizarre, isn't it?" Brautigan admits, but said he has long admired Japanese culture. The energy of the Japanese people both fascinates and inspires him, he said.

As for San Francisco:

"I keep returning there," he said. "But often I find I'm returning to a place that really vanished 10 years ago."

Some of Brautigan's recent trips to that city have involved the controversial ban of five of his books. In 1979, the board of Anderson Union High School in Shasta County, Calif., banned the Brautigan books from library shelves and use in the classroom, citing use of obscenities and explicit sexual references. The books had been used in the school for about a decade prior to the ban.

The American Civil Liberties Union took on the case, joined by Brautigan's publisher, Delacourte-Seymour Lawrence. It was the first time that a publisher joined litigation involving a book ban.

A California trial judge upheld the books' ban from the classroom but said they had to be put back on the library shelves.

"It was a kind of split-the-baby decision," said a spokeswoman from the ACLU. Both sides appealed and the case is currently being briefed in the California Intermediate Appeals court.

Brautigan continues to be bothered by this ban.

"It's as if I was a butcher and took care of my shop and made sure I only sold fresh meat and then someone picketed me for selling rotten meat," Brautigan said. "It does upset me."

"In the matter of censorship, I think there are several levels of maturity of children and some would not be expected to have the maturity and insight to grasp some of these things. The decision should be made with responsibility and without violation of the Constitution of the U.S. and the Bill of Rights."

Brautigan said he has long been sensitive to the concerns of children who may not be ready for his writing. For instance, prior to his readings there is an announcement read saying Brautigan's lecture will include strong language and explicit sexual descriptons. Brautigan said he frequently steps into the audience to make sure that parents of any children in the crowd understand that. Brautigan said he is more sensitive to the ban issue than his usual criticism. And he admits, he does have his critics.

"There are those who say 'Richard Brautigan sits down in an hour and a half and writes his annual best sellers.' I am not quite that quick, although I am prolific," he said. "I work very, very had to make things appear very, very simple."

Brautigan said he writes a book about every year or so, but frequently has been working on them in one stage or another for years. For instance, he worked about 17 years on So That Wind Won't Blow It All Away sic before he finished it.

As for his future, Richard is characteristically Brautigan. Brautigan said he is polishing the final proofs of his next book and doesn't have another in the works, on paper at least.

"I don't know where or what I'll be working on, but I do know why I'll be writing. Because I like it."

Bozeman Chronicle?
April 26, 1982: 1-2

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