About The Author
Rick Bass, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for his memoir Why I Came West, was born and raised in Texas, worked as a petroleum geologist in Mississippi, and has lived in Montana's Yaak Valley for almost thirty years. His short fiction, which has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire, GQ and The Paris Review, as well as numerous times in The Best American Short Stories, has earned him multiple O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes in addition to NEA and Guggenheim fellowships. He is the writer in residence at Montana State University.
His new collection. For a Little While, is the definitive volume of his stories, selected from thirty years of work and also including some new, specially written stories. His characters live with intensity and tenderness, struggling against their fate at the moment of recognition, while his sentences resonate with lush and exquisite language, and his writing can both shock and astonish.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Rick about how activism and writing should complement each other, why the short story and the novel are as dissimilar as the earth and moon and the correspondence between the processes of geology and of writing.
Questions & Answers
As well as being a writer and teacher, you are an Activist, working to preserve the last roadless, wild places in America. Which do you think is more effective, the writing or the lobbying, educating and other forms of direct action, or do they complement one another?
My friend Doug Peacock says one action is worth a thousand books. Edward Abbey said something along the same lines — sentiment without action is the ruination of the soul. Writing is a time-honoured form of activism that will never go away and in many ways is foundational for much activism. But by itself, it is rarely enough. There have been activist successes, from the pen, certainly. But rarely have those been accomplished without the direct action, and best of all, beginning, and growing, at the source, on the home ground of the affected. This is one of the great challenges and yet opportunities in the climate change movement. When everyone is affected, everywhere is home ground. It’s not just the melting ice and snow on Kilimanjaro, is not just the submersion of coastal cities, is not just the wildfires of southern California. There is no inhabited place on earth that is not burning, or beginning to burn.
This can be another drawback for the activist who would rely solely upon the pen or typewriter: the element of time. A great novel can bring forth a new idea, or old idea presented in new and attractive fashion — a meme — but it might take ten or twenty years to write that novel, and a generation or three for it to be accepted into culture. Sometimes, you have only weeks, hours, to act. So the various forms of activism should complement each other.
You’ve written two novels but several more collections of short stories (as well as non-fiction). What is it about the form of the short story that keeps pulling you back to it?
Novels are damned hard. I’ve published four — about 1400 pages’ worth. My five story collections (discounting novellas, which are their own creature!) total about a thousand pages. Novels take more time and there is less space between the lines for mystery, or the inexplicable. Smaller doses of these things are called for in a novel. A traditional novel typically has more connections to all its other parts. It’s like being an air traffic controller at an international hub, or having no air traffic controller at all — a rural grass airstrip, where only a handful of planes come and go all day, if any. There can be more space in the reader-writer relationship, in a story. No matter how precise the sentences, and gestures, in a story, anything can happen next. In a novel, there is a faint undertow of destiny, the sheer accumulating gravitational mass of the novel. The two are as dissimilar, really, then, as earth and moon.
Simply put, also, it’s easier — or less hard — to be powerful, to be good, for eight or twelve pages than for 400. The two genres aren’t even remotely similar; it’s fascinating to me that people think there can be a link between the two.
Loss and sometimes recovery are threads that run through the stories. Are you conscious of this as a theme from the outset, and is there any equation to be made between this process in nature as well as in people?
Tom McGuane says that Shakespeare said that all literature is about loss. I don’t know the source of this and as a younger writer wanted to disbelieve it. But I think he is on to something. Even in stories of celebration — which I like to write also — there is, in that celebration, an acknowledgment of the temporal; the fact that makes the celebration worth celebrating is the fact that it will not be the default 24/7 setting or condition.
How did you set about deciding which stories to include in this collection?
In the Selected portion of the book, I wanted to pick the best and most original stories, and to explore as many themes, points-of-view, and settings — South America, Vermont, Texas, the Deep South, the Far West — as possible.
In the New, I wanted each new story to be at least as good as any of my favourites/best from the past, and worked with them until they had met that standard.
When revisiting the stories during the editorial process and not having read some of them for a while, did any of them surprise you and if so, why? What is the feeling of revisiting an earlier self I this particular way?
I had remembered some of the earlier stories as being written by, no surprise, a very young person, and therefore assumed they might be long on bluff and short on wisdom. I was surprised that they held up to my values and sensibilities of today, 30 years later. As if the language itself possesses values, intelligence, intellect, passion. Which, of course, it does.
Your stories are all highly sensuous: how do you summon the intensity required to achieve this while sitting at a desk? Is it any more difficult than entering the minds and hearts of people very different from yourself?
To me, the act of writing is extraordinarily physical. I envision it as a descent to the bottom of the sea — in a diving bell, perhaps — walking around in different terrain, different media — then ascending. It is indeed taxing and it is through deep specificity that the writer places him or herself (and therefore the reader) in the dream.
You trained and worked as a geologist. Is there a correspondence between the processes of geology and of writing?
Absolutely. An intimate awareness of time and its movements, and of structure, and the processes of energy — erosion, currents, vectors — things being lifted up, things being compressed, buried, obscured — unseen things being sought, glimpses and clues — I can’t imagine a better way to learn to write than by learning geology.
Acceptance or a coming-to-terms with what life has handed out, rather than resisting it, is a recurring theme in the stories. Which quality – acceptance or resistance – do you admire more?
This isn’t a very satisfying answer, but obviously, it depends upon the circumstances. There are times for resistance, times for an earned acceptance. I admire both a great deal, as long as they are undertaken with passion and conviction, engagement, awareness. Whitman: 'Obey little resist much,' would seem to be as good a dictum for an artist as any; and, these days, there is so very much in need of resisting.