In Sweet Grass County, Mont., Thomas McGuane missed his scheduled interview: he had to round up some heifers that had wandered onto the county road. His latest novel, Driving On the Rim, is set in his beloved Big Sky Country.
Most of your books are set in Montana. Do you consider yourself a regional writer?
I'd like not to be seen as a regional writer, but I understand that anybody who doesn't write about that northeast corridor is going to be considered a regional writer. I would like people to understand that you can deal with universal themes wherever you live. I write about here because this is where I've lived most of my adult life.
Your first book was published in 1969. How has your writing changed over the years?
I think I'm less satirical. I like to think that my heart has grown a bit warmer. My empathetic capacity has increased. My writing is more direct. My prose style is less flashy. And I like to think it's getting a bit more moving in a way. I know that those are the things I look for as a reader—although I'm happy to laugh cruelly with a clever writer, but I try not to indulge myself with that side of my talent.
Who do you read?
I read a lot of traditional fiction, although lately I love literary comic novels of any kind. There are a couple of good ones just out—The Ask by Sam Lipsyte and another marvelous book called The Imperfectionists. Maybe I'm a writer to justify my life as a reader. That's my great source of pleasure in life.
There is an ongoing debate over the importance of fiction. In your opinion, do novels still matter?
In terms of impact on daily lives, the novel certainly does not pack the weight that it once did. But there are some things that serious literary fiction can do that no other medium can do—and that is to convey the real consciousness of a time. I'm not really worried about it disappearing because literature does what nothing else can do.
You wrote the screenplays for three cult movies of the 1970s. Do you ever plan to write about your Hollywood experiences?
I've been tempted. I have a lot of great stories. I kind of stayed with [Marlon] Brando when we were working on Missouri Breaks, lived in that twilight world of his Mulholland [Drive] house. Most of the time he stayed in bed, and we had script conferences while I sat at the foot of the bed and he just free-associated for hours on end. I found at a certain point that I really just didn't want to have anything to do with that world, not even writing about it. But I think that's come and gone. I would have to figure out a way to write about it sympathetically. And I hope I still have time to consider such a thing.