Author, 83, Is Racing Against Time : Ex-Professor Has Two More Books in the Works


When a prominent New York publishing house wrote Norman Maclean a few years ago soliciting the opportunity to publish his next book, Maclean hastily replied.

“If things turned out so that Alfred A. Knopf were the last publisher in the world and I was the last author,” Maclean wrote back, “that would mark the end of the world of books.”

It was sweet revenge.

Relishing the Memory

Ten years ago--when Maclean was 73 years old and a newly retired professor from the University of Chicago--his first work of fiction was rejected by Knopf and other New York publishers, some for reasons best described as arbitrary. “It has trees in it,” one explained.


“I felt I was speaking for the dream of all rejected authors when I wrote that letter,” Maclean said in a recent interview in his cramped Chicago apartment, relishing the pleasure of that moment once again.

Today it would seem that Maclean is living the dream of every writer. His first book, “A River Runs Through It,” won the admiration of critics, the attention of film producers and the celebrity of a near-miss with the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The University of Chicago Press broke an 85-year tradition of publishing only academic works when it published the collection of stories in 1976. Today it is one of the publisher’s biggest sellers and is available in four editions.

Upon reading it, writer John McPhee wrote Maclean to express his enthusiasm for the work. Publisher’s Weekly called it “a stunning debut.” The Pulitzer Prize jury chose it as the best work of 1976, although the advisory board made no award for fiction that year.

In the world of literature Maclean is what is called an overnight success.

But, at 83, he is racing against time. Maclean wants to finish a second book this year and has hopes of writing a third.

Like the first book, which Maclean calls “my love poem to my family,” his second is a tribute to people from his past in the West.

“Darling, the only thing I’m short of is time,” Maclean said to a visitor. “I have about as much health as I can expect at my age, a little money to live on and children who are alive and successful.

“When you’re younger you can get held up or thrown off the track but I can’t make up time anymore. So I’m kind of desperate for time.”

Maclean’s literary success springs from a collection of three stories comprising “A River Runs Through It,” which he began when he was 70, three years after the death of his wife.

The title story is about his life growing up with a brother in Montana as they learn about life and fly fishing from their Presbyterian minister father. The others humorously recount his experiences in the logging camps and the early days of the U.S. Forest Service.

Some folks feel Maclean was robbed of the Pulitzer Prize but he seems to care little about the Pulitzer he never won. He is honored instead to have won the Dan & Helen Bailey Award given for carrying on the ideals of those two legendary American fly-tiers and fishermen.

Lucrative Hollywood Offers

Nor is he seduced by lucrative Hollywood offers. He has resisted numerous efforts to make a movie of the title story in “A River Runs Through It” because he fears compromising his story.

But the retired professor, who once taught literature to writer Philip Roth, can point to a file cabinet filled with correspondence from people eager to turn his story about fly fishing with his father and brother into a movie.

“All the way from Paramount down to the odds and ends of graduate students from UCLA who’ve taken summer courses in film, they’re all dying to do it.

“And any actor who fishes,” Maclean said smiling, “we’ve got him hooked.”

Playwright and actor Sam Shepherd, he said, was the last to volunteer his services. Recent Oscar-winner William Hurt even traveled to Montana a couple of years ago to fish with Maclean. At the end of the day Hurt asked for a critique of his fishing prowess. Was he good enough to play Maclean’s brother, the fly-fishing genius of “A River Runs Through It?”

‘A Pretty Good Fisherman’

“I said, ‘Well, Bill, you’re a pretty good fisherman but not good enough to be my brother,’ ” Maclean recalled.

Last summer Maclean spent a week with Robert Redford and his staff at Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah, an organization the actor established to aid independent film productions. Maclean and two other Westerners were given money to help them develop a film.

But Maclean is wary of the project.

“You see you’re not dealing with some guy who wrote a story for a movie. This is my love poem to my family,” he said.

He said he is determined that what happened to Bernard Malumud’s “The Natural” will never happen to “A River Runs through It.”

He described Malumud’s story as “a sardonic replica of the quest for the holy grail” that Hollywood turned into “an American-boy-makes-good movie.”

“I’m not going to allow my story to be reduced to a stereotyped Western,” he vowed. “Nobody’s going to touch it unless I can control it--and be sure it’s not changed and my family is not degraded.”

“I was a divided soul for a long time, maybe always,” Maclean said. “In early life I switched back and forth from the forest service and logging camps to teaching as a profession. It probably goes back to the way I was brought up by my father--as living very intensely in the world of learning in the morning and out in the woods in the world of fishing and hunting in the afternoon.”

Reared in Montana

Maclean was reared in western Montana, the son of a strict Scottish-born Presbyterian who taught his sons to love God and fly fishing--though not necessarily in that order. And, in the tradition of another Scot, John Stuart Mill, his father taught them at home.

Mornings were reserved for “family worship,” when his father would read aloud from the Bible and from the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton. Afternoons were reserved for nature.

From those boyhood mornings, Maclean developed a love and mastery of rhythmic language. In the afternoons, alone in the woods, he was witness to an American West as yet unspoiled by earth-moving equipment, power saws and pavement.

The Western woods figure prominently in the book he is now writing, tentatively titled “Sky, Young Men and Fire.”

It is the story of 13 smoke jumpers in the U.S. Forest Service who died in a Montana forest fire in 1949, and it is a story Maclean is impatient to finish.

“I’ve been on it too long,” he said. “I started it a few years after ‘A River Runs Through It’ and thought I’d just take a flaming forest fire and use it for a backdrop.”

To Maclean’s dismay, he discovered that Forest Service documents on the fire had been classified. Some of the parents of the firefighters had brought suit against the service. Research he expected to take months wound up taking years.

It piqued his sense of justice to see these “tough young men” die in anonymity. So Maclean, who vividly recalls his days nearly 70 years ago as a timberwilly in the Forest Service, decided to write their story.

Structured Days

“I had spent my life with these young guys, why not die fighting for them?” he said he asked himself.

Maclean’s days are still structured in the morning and afternoon pattern of his Montana youth. But they are far less leisurely.

He rises early and spends his mornings writing. At noon, “I reward myself by having a drink and lunch and sit in my chair and rest about a half hour before going back to work.”

Later in the afternoon, he walks in nearby Jackson Park or drives to a forest preserve where he walks. Back home, he works in spurts until midnight.

Maclean seldom fishes anymore. The isolated cabin in Montana that he built with his father in 1922 and returns to each summer has been vandalized in recent years. The Big Blackfoot River, which he once felt belonged to his family and a few neighbors, “is a commercial river now, fished to death.”

It pains him to think of selling his Montana home, but he swears he will do it this year.

His decision to begin writing books at “three score and 10" has come at personal cost. “In my 70s, I didn’t find the costs as high. The excitement of the book overset them,” he said.

Misses Friendships

Now he misses the friendships he has sacrificed, the reading he no longer has time for and the fact that he doesn’t “even get to sit and just look at water. Even when I rock,” he said, “I don’t have time to absorb it.”

But just as there is not a word he would change in “A River Runs Through It,” the writer with a face as creviced as the Western landscape he loves insisted that he would make the same choices again.

Looking back, he said, “I have accomplished what I set out to do through writing. I have put the pieces of myself together.”

“I wrote what I wanted. I have lived a blessed life.”