Where I Am: An Interview with Rick Bass

Article by annalia

My tendency when I am on the phone is to pace. Unless it’s windy, outside is best, but every roommate I have ever had can tell you I am not afraid to make laps around the house. For interviews, though, I have to stay put: I use a hands-free headset and type. For this reason, it’s comforting when I can tell the authors are doing something, some activity other than simply talking to me, to remain a body outside of their voice. When I spoke to Mary Karr last fall, she was moving pots and pans; University of Houston’s Martha Serpas took a moment to grind some coffee beans.

When Rick Bass calls, he is driving through the mountains on his way back to Montana. It takes us a few tries to find a stable connection—during phone tag, he sends me a frantic, endearing e-mail that simply says, “Crap!”—but when the line is clear, we talk about the weather, of all things. “I got tornadoed out over Christmas, and then two days ago coming out of Mississippi,” he says. “Dallas was shut down for a good part of the day.”

Bass is based in Missoula now but, as a former Fort Worth native, knows Texas well. “I always love coming back,” he says. Every year, he visits his father in Houston and his brother in Austin. Brazos, too, has its own special place. “There’s no better confidence that a writer can have than your hometown bookstore supporting you,” he says. “That means everything.”

It’s been twenty-seven years since the publication of THE WATCH, his first collection of short stories, but Bass insists “Brazos was very supportive” and that the “support across the years” is not forgotten. “It’s not a small thing for an established bookstore or editor to support a younger writer,” he says, and I am charmed because it means our store—our events—are just as important as all the other fanfare: sales numbers, lectures and panels at book conferences.

In other words, we can put out folding chairs, pour the wine, attempt to put people in those seats, and that is enough. It is possible to be both kind and small.

I don’t ask Bass if he is religious, but it’s clear that gratitude to him is holy. When I ask him about his new or upcoming projects, he says he has spent the last four years on a “prolonged, ON THE ROAD gratitude type tour” where he “[fixes] a real nice meal” for his literary mentors. The working title for the memoir is EATING WITH MY HEROES. His best students come along, too, going as far as France for John Berger. For him, Bass snuck elk meat in his suitcase, which resulted in “dripping elk blood” all over the airport.

“I think [gratitude] is always important in every direction you look,” Bass says. “There’s the obvious unquestioned case, the reciprocal component of generosity, but from a more distant perspective, I think it brings balance and fullness to both parties, to the artist mind.” Gordon Lish, for example had to cancel at the last minute due to illness. Since Bass and his students were only in town for the evening, “we took his meal by and just left it with his doorman.” True, the “great food, great conversation” is rewarding, but Bass said “it’s more important the people that have influenced you know that you’re grateful.”

Bass also stresses the importance of now because “in the writing culture, we tend to say nice things about people after they’re gone” but “that doesn’t do them any good, you know? They don’t get too see it.” All these tributes and think-pieces once someone is in the ground, to Bass, is “too little, too late.”

Is thinking about mortality, then, what inspired FOR A LITTLE WHILE? Nope. In fact, when I ask him if there was any particular reason he chose to do a comprehensive collection now, Bass does a verbal shrug and says, “No significance. That’s just where I am.” He did add that his youngest daughter had been bugging him to do a big collection but his agent, too, was just as unbothered. “I got to thinking about it,” Bass says, “and my agent said, ‘Yeah, you could do that if you want.’” If you want—as though Bass were a child asking his mother permission to play on the swings!

The actuality of putting the collection together, of course, was much more demanding. At nearly five hundred pages, Bass says FOR A LITTLE WHILE comprises “my very favorites from over the last thirty years” along with five new stories and two new novellas. When I comment that it’s risky to pin a collection on greatest hits, rather than center around a certain theme, Bass says, “They had to be my favorites, my best.” Sure, “I had to leave out quite a few because sometimes there would be a repetition of a theme or an idea,” but the goal was that any person could pick up this new book, begin anywhere, and “any one of them would be as good as any other.”

“Like a survey in your work?” I ask.

“Exactly,” Bass says.

If Bass in this piece does not match your expectations for “Rick Bass, the writer,” maybe part of it is that he didn’t always write. “I learned to write by being a geologist and by playing football and by hunting,” he says. “When you’re hunting and you’re moving into the wind with your senses hyper illuminated, very keenly alert to the smallest details, that’s exactly what it’s like when you’re inhabiting the dream for a short story.”

This unconventional approach informs his teaching. His classroom, he tells me, “has elements of the workshop experience but it gets pretty deep pretty quick.” Rather than focus on drills and fundamentals—Bass, without prompting, tells me an MFA would have been too fast-paced for him—he teaches “how I would’ve liked to learn” which is “more like coaching, really.” More than motivation and connection, Professor Bass focuses on “building the short story brain,” a situational awareness that must become part of “a daily regiment.”

It is the practice that counts. “This is not like rocket science,” Bass says. “It’s just commitment and passion.” Or “it’s like riding a bicycle. There’s all sorts of ways to ride a bicycle but it is still a bicycle.”

Rick Bass reads from FOR A LITTLE WHILE on Tuesday, March 29 at 7PM. Order today and reserve your signed copy.

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