From big city writer to Big Sky Boy Scout 

The many heads of Walter Kirn

“There’s probably no more embarrassing introduction than to tell people you’re a writer,” says novelist Walter Kirn, sitting in a booth at Liquid Planet. “Because if they haven’t heard of you, they figure you’re a bad one. And they usually haven’t heard of you. Then they always ask, inevitably, ‘What do you write about?’ and the answer is something like ‘life,’ which makes you sound like a pretentious high school freshman, but that’s really the truth. So I’d rather hide it. My new answer’s going to be Christian graffiti artist.”

Cut to Charlie’s 10 hours later. Kirn walks in alone, and in the packed crowd you can see people point. He makes his way to the back, and you can hear people saying his name.

That’s because Kirn adds Christian graffiti artist to a long list of titles for which his name has already become known: author of three novels and a story collection; contributing writer to Time magazine; book critic and writer for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic Monthly; formerly literary editor for GQ; and now, for this semester, Kittredge Visiting Writer teaching at the University of Montana. Raised in Minnesota and seasoned by the New York City magazine world, Kirn comes to Missoula from closer by—for the last 14 years, he’s been living in Livingston.

“I swore up until the minute I came to Missoula that I would never teach,” says Kirn with a characteristic blend of conviction and bemusement. “Call me a Boy Scout, but if they want you to be in the parade in your town, you go.”

Kirn says his own approach to writing is “so idiosyncratic—depending on all kinds of transient brain states—that I’ve always thought, what the hell could I possibly teach anyone? I might as well tell them to drink 18 cups of coffee and smoke a pack of cigarettes, go without sleep for three days, break up with your girlfriend and then write a short story.”

But for a man who credits a series of accidents for his successes, this is just humble-speak. The Princeton/Oxford grad may have fallen into some early jobs through meeting the right people at the right time (“A college classmate thought I was wasting my life, and he told me so at a party, and I said, ‘well then you get me a job,’ and so he said, ‘OK, I’ll get you one tomorrow,’ and he got me a job at Vanity Fair.”), but as we all know, luck is never just luck.

Case in point: Kirn’s first book, My Hard Bargain, began as a single short story he wrote after interviewing editor Gordon Lish, who had said to him: “Everybody’s a writer, Kirn. What have you written?” Kirn replied that he’d written stories—though he had never written one—and Lish asked him to send him some.

“I’m one of those people who puts his hat in the ring before he puts his head in the ring,” says Kirn. “So I went home and sort of put a gun to my head and wrote a story.” And, as luck would have it, the story was good.

So good, in fact, that Lish had Kirn write a collection of stories for him, and My Hard Bargain was published in 1990. It’s an experience Kirn now likens, facetiously, to a gambling addiction: “There’s nothing worse that could happen to you in Las Vegas than to walk into a casino, put a quarter in the slot machine and win right off the bat. Because it’ll never be that easy again. You have that first moment of acceptance, and it’s followed by pretty much constant rejection in one way or another.”

Rejection, of course, being relative. Kirn has since published three novels: She Needed Me, Thumbsucker (filmed last summer as a movie starring Keanu Reeves), and Up in the Air (optioned by director Ivan Reitman), while also making a name for himself as a tough book critic and journalist. His research has landed him across the table from billionaire Warren Buffett and inside the home of filmmaker David Lynch. “That other hat,” Kirn says of his journalistic career, “gives me a passkey to all kinds of roles that I can use in my fiction.”

That hat also brought him to Montana. On assignment to write a story for The Village Voice about a survivalist cult waiting for the world to end outside Livingston, Kirn flew from New York, where he was feeling “cooped up and poor.” He was driving his rental car near Yellowstone, windows down, music playing, when he thought: “I can’t go back into that cage. It was a physical response. I knew that my hair wouldn’t fit back under my baseball cap after I’d been here.”

That was in 1990. Today, Kirn has no trouble summing up why he’s stayed. “There’s a bottom line why I like Montana,” he jokes.

“Less paperwork.” He owns a farm in Livingston, where he has mysteriously escaped the label of Montana Writer.

“I just don’t think my themes or preoccupations are those of the usual Montana writer,” he says. “My last novel [Up in the Air] to my mind was all about the West. It was about a guy who lives out of the Denver airport, basically, and flies around between Western hub cities accumulating frequent flier miles. I thought, it’s about nomadism, it’s about all kinds of appropriately Western themes, but it didn’t have a cow in it, it didn’t have a trout stream, it didn’t have a grizzly bear, and it didn’t have a rugged, independent anyone. It had an obsessive, very needy businessman. And so, in a sense, it didn’t qualify.”

Listening to Kirn talk, though, you start to understand why big game and Big Sky haven’t yet been a focus of his work. As a person and a writer, he exhibits keen radar for the smaller, intricate wirings that make us tick—those peculiarities that both make us individuals and also draw us, sympathetically, to each other. His first inkling that maybe he could be a writer came when he was in New York, “meeting actual fiction writers and actual editors and seeing that they were creatures of flesh and blood. They didn’t have larger, or at least visibly larger, brains than anyone else.”

When he sat down to write his second novel, Kirn again responded to what he calls “a sort of dare” from Gordon Lish. “Brag about your successes,” Kirn explains, “and no one will feel they have anything in common with you. But tell people about the most embarrassing aspect of your life, and everyone will identify with you. And so, as we’re all mostly losers—even the winners—I sat down and said, well, what actually is the most embarrassing feature of my being? And it was that I sucked my thumb until I was well into my teens—and I hate to say it, but I will still find myself half asleep and say, ‘What’s that doing there?’ And so I thought, OK, I’m going to go through the incredible clutch and embarrassed paralysis that overcomes me every time I think about thumbsucking and write about it, and I did, and it was very popular.”

Kirn takes a similarly in-your-head approach to reading his students’ work [full disclosure: Robin Troy is a student in a class taught by Kirn]. “I find stories fascinating artifacts,” he says. “They’re almost like brain fossils, is how I see them. They have a brain print, a mind print on them, and I love trying to decode it.” Not that he presumes to have all the answers—or even many of them. Teaching, like book reviewing, like writing, “is not a job that occurs outside of time and space,” he says. “It occurs within our lives, in conjunction with our bad moods, our life crises, and so to do anything so arrogant as to propose a final revision plan for a story somebody’s working on is something to be approached cautiously.”

But how about defining who writers are, this group who will weather disappointment and forgo job security? That, Kirn will do.

“I know the truth,” he says, grinning. “The people who write are often more emotionally imbalanced, they’re somehow addicted, codependent on some substance, driven by complex infantile needs that they don’t understand or couldn’t master, and more power to the whole circus-like lot of us.”

Walter Kirn reads at the Elks Club on Friday, March 19, at the 31st anniversary celebration of CutBank, the University of Montana’s student-run literary magazine. Doors open at 7PM. The reading begins at 8 PM, with music to follow. Suggested donation: $5.

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