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Jim Harrison learns his money lesson

Jim Harrison Had he been born to a more appropriate time, Jim Harrison easily would have made the Lost Generation's dream team of American writers alongside the likes of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck and Wolfe.

That he followed those literary lions by a generation relegated him to a less lofty position as a writer's writer and critic's favorite, a curious fate for such a raging talent and one he poignantly explored in his aptly-titled 2002 memoir, "Off to the Side."

Don't misunderstand. Although Harrison admits he was prone to arrogance in the days before he had anything about which to be arrogant, years of struggling as a highly paid screenwriter in the deep but shallow trench between art and commerce have left him a humble and wiser soul.

Had he actually achieved the celebrity status of, say, Hemingway, he probably would have fled from it into his lifelong sanctuary, the woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Along with fellow young lions Thomas McGuane, Peter Matthiessen and Philip Caputo, Harrison wrote some of the most powerful American fiction of the 1970s, including "Wolf" (1971), "A Good Day to Die" (1973) and "Farmer" (1976). But by the '80s, times had changed and TV actors and rock stars were supplanting America's literary icons.

Harrison's Calvinist upbringing in rural northern Michigan gave him a firm set of priorities that in retrospect may have helped save both his art and his life.

In 1966, to support his wife and young daughter, he accepted an invitation to teach at the State University of New York at Stony Brook on Long Island alongside Alfred Kazin and Philip Roth.

It was a disaster. Harrison suffered from both claustrophobia (a condition caused in part by losing sight in one eye in a childhood accident) and a series of severe depressions "from living an outward life my inward being couldn't accept."

In the early 1970s, McGuane introduced him to Jack Nicholson, who was starring in the McGuane screenplay of "Missouri Breaks" with Marlon Brando. Harrison was in financial straits for having failed to file federal income tax for almost a decade, and Nicholson easily lured him to Hollywood, where top-rank literary writers were in demand by the new breed of filmmakers. He spent the next two decades living well on Hollywood projects, writing more than 20 screenplays from his Michigan cabin, most of which never made it to screen.

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Harrison closed up shop in Hollywood six years ago. His two daughters are grown; his eldest Jamie Harrison ("Edge of the Crazies") is a writer with three Montana-set mysteries on the shelf and his youngest Anna works in a bookstore in Bozeman, Mont. He and Linda, his wife of four decades, recently sold their Michigan cabin in part to spend more time with their children and grandchildren in Montana.

Bankrate spoke with Jim Harrison by phone at his winter home in Patagonia, Ariz.

Bankrate: You grew up in fairly humble circumstances?

Jim Harrison: We were quite poor. There were five children and my dad was a county agricultural agent in a farming community in northern Michigan. So when I made some money, I didn't have any idea how one handled such a situation because no one in our family ever had any money.

Bankrate: Did you go to work at a young age?

Jim Harrison: Yes. I'm trying to slow down with some help from professionals because I've been working pretty steadily since I was 10. I was doing farm work and I was pretty good at it. When I was 20, I was a straw boss on a big horticulture farm and had about 100 workers under me.

Bankrate: You went off to college eventually.

Jim Harrison: Yes. My brother John, who just died, was dean at the University of Arkansas and my younger brother was dean at the University of Washington. We were smart enough, but there was certainly no financial base. But I think, with some exceptions, that writers and artists are terrible [foul-ups] with money. I've watched them closely.

Bankrate: What do you think their main blind spot is?

Jim Harrison: Like doctors, they think that because they are good writers or good artists, that they ought to be good at money, too, but they aren't; it's a different game. It's that idea of Mark Twain spending the last three years of his life on a worldwide book tour, trying to get out of debt. I've known only a few that seem to know how to do it.

Bankrate: What was it like the first time you actually saw money for your writing?

Jim Harrison: I got $30 from Nation magazine for a poem and $500 for my first book of poems. My first novel, "Wolf," I was shocked because they gave me $7,000, and that seemed unimaginable. At the time, I had taught at Stony Brook, and that didn't work out, and then I got two years in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim. I was in my 20s and I never went back to academics. It was horrifying.

Bankrate: How so?

Jim Harrison: I just couldn't teach because it used up all your time. I couldn't run a tight schedule, and if you're any good at teaching, you get sucked dry because you like your students and you're trying to help them, but you don't have any time left to write yourself.

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-- Posted: June 22, 2004
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