Among the recurrent refrains that lend power and poignancy to writer Jim Harrison's magnificent literary memoir, Off to the Side, is the phrase "it could have been otherwise." More a question, really, than an assertion, the phrase is sometimes colored by regret and other times by amazement.
"I thought, frankly, that it would be more pleasant to write a memoir than it was," Harrison says from his home in Montana, where he has recently moved after living some 60 years in northern Michigan. "I once wrote in a poem about reaching the point in life when I would have the courage to admit my life. There were some rough spots, as you probably sensed reading the memoir, especially in my early married years, when I simply had no idea what I was doing or how to support myself. During that most difficult period of 10 years, our house payment was $99 a month, but quite often that was hard to muster."
Harrison's financial picture changed dramatically with the publication in 1978 of his brilliant novella Legends of the Fall. David Lean wanted to film the title story and John Huston wanted to film another narrative in the collection. Harrison went from barely supporting his wife Linda and their two daughters to making "well over a million bucks in contemporary terms." He was utterly unprepared. "My life quickly evolved [into] a kind of hysteria that I attempted to pacify with alcohol and cocaine," Harrison writes in the memoir.
Harrison believes it was the devotion to his calling as a poet and fiction writer that kept him from going over the edge. When asked about this, he quotes his long-time friend, writer Thomas McGuane, who told him, "you can't quit or control anything until it gets in your way. But when it gets in your way, you control it or remove it. You don't really have the freedom to continue because it is getting in the way of the main trust of your life."
The intensity of Harrison's devotion to the main trust of his life—his writing—is evident in both the memoir and in conversation. "It's a religious calling in a sense," he says. "The trajectory started when I was on the roof of our house looking out at a swamp when I was 19. I had written for several years, starting at about 15, but that day on the roof I took my vows and acknowledged my calling."
For Harrison, part of what his calling demands is an intense curiosity about both the internal and the external lives of people. "I asked a French critic a couple of years ago why my books did so well in France. He said it was because in my novels people both act and think. I got a kick out of that," Harrison says, and then adds, "I read a lot of memoirs to see how people did it a couple of years ago. A lot of them are too full of whining and they pretend they didn't have a philosophical, mental or spiritual life and just describe what happened. I couldn't do that."
Lucky for us. What emerges in Off to the Side, is about as complete a portrait of the inner and outer Jim Harrison as one could hope for. He writes about the lasting influence of his parents and grandparents and their hard-nosed Scandinavian values (despite some years of hard living, his "essential Calvinism made it unthinkable to be late for work, miss a plane, fail to finish an assignment, fail to pay a debt or be late for an appointment"). He describes losing the vision in his left eye at age 7 when a neighbor girl shoved a broken bottle in his face. He writes about the liberation of striking out on his own during the summer between his sophomore and junior years in high school; about the confusion of a short-lived academic career; about the deaths of his father and sister in a car crash and his mistake of peeking at the coroner's photos. "When my father and sister died I figured if those you love can die like that, what's the point of ever holding back anything," he says.
With insight and a dash of humor, Harrison catalogs his seven obsessions: alcohol; stripping; hunting, fishing (and dogs); religion; France; the road; and nature and Native Americans. And he describes his experiences writing for the movies, a sometime profession that supported his fiction and poetry and led to friendships with Jimmy Buffet, Harrison Ford and Jack Nicholson, among others.
Harrison says Jack Nicholson, who remains a friend, "was a good teacher on how to handle that reality. There's simply no other actor or actress that I know who handled it better and kept control. He would just simply never be on television. He thought of it as the enemy. It uses you up. The sad thing you see over and over again is how people who suddenly become famous' get used up so fast and discarded."
At this point in his life, Harrison has no fear of being used up himself. "I've retreated so far from that kind of life," he says. "And," he adds, referring to a new novel he has begun working on, "I have something to write."
Harrison says he decided to call his memoir Off to the Side "because that is a designated and comfortable position for a writer." Throughout the memoir he mentions his lifelong need to hide out, at least metaphorically, in thickets, to be where he can look out and see but not be seen. He also notes that "nothing is less interesting . . . than the writer in a productive period."
But in conversation Harrison asks, "Do you ever read Rilke? He says only in the rat race can the heart learn to beat. So I guess I just vary between the antipodes of hiding out in my cabin and being anywhere—New York, Paris or Hollywood." He laughs, then adds, "A writer friend who has read the memoir asked, How did you manage to do all that?' And I told him it was inadvertent. I was just leading with my chin."