After writing about Brown Dog, aka B.D., for more than twenty years, Jim Harrison has collected six B.D. stories into a collection called Brown Dog (one of our Best Books of the Month for December). These novellas--one of which has never been published--span nearly a quarter century, and it's an enormously satisfying reading experience to spend so much time with Harrison's hard-drinking, maddening, loveable, horny, scrappy B.D. We asked Harrison (via email) to discuss his most enduring fictional character.
B.D. is a (mostly) likable f**kup, maddening but worth rooting for. He's very familiar to me (he's my brother, he's me), and I wonder: has that always been the idea--to craft a recognizable, all-Id, Everyman Screwup?
Yes he is, but he's comparatively free. Part of being free seems to be being broke. You don't have to worry about money all the time if you're willing to just get by on a little food and a six-pack. I don't think of him as a "f**k-up" but as someone who lives within the limits of his environment quite well. His is in a tough place. I remember a miner out on strike years ago who fainted from hunger while playing in a park with his kids.
You've been writing about B.D. for many years. Has he evolved? How?
I don't think of Brown Dog changing. That's more an upper + middle-class tactic, where they're always saying, "I've changed." He's not involved in that kind of psychodrama. In his world it's about pussy or getting a drink.
There are strong female characters in these novellas, as in many of your books. Is there a source for that apparent understanding of women? Have you learned about the female perspective from the women in your life?
I was raised around strong females, with my mother and her four sisters, my own two sisters, and then having a wife and two daughters who are very strong. Plus female dogs, horses and chickens, so I'm used to them. You can't help but absorb their perspective, plus I read so many female novelists that it naturally gets into my system.
The Upper Peninsula… is it your Yoknapatawpha County? What is it about that region that inspires you? And what is it about the country, the woods, that gives you so much to write about?
I'm not sure about Yoknapatawpha County. I revere Faulkner above any other 20th century writer, but I must say I don't think of the Upper Peninsula in quite that way. What I like is its immense expanse of woods, gullies and water, what with being bordered on the south by Lake Michigan and on the north by Lake Superior. It's a rich community in that mental sense of a vast number of people just trying to get by. You don't have to hear about the grand ambitions of our society in that culture. If a guy has a pickup that works, he doesn't get stuck too often and he can afford a few drinks he's a success. He doesn't complain about a hangover because he'd be ignoring the fact that he can afford to get drunk. There are thousands of places to fish and hunt. What more could one want?
Where would you rather be, walking in the woods or writing at your desk?
Both. I'd take a hundred walks a year and rarely see another human being but see an endless array of songbirds because of that vast arboreal thicket. This is all I want besides dinner. Of course I write, though I'm getting a little tired of it at my advanced age, so I begin the day by walking with my dog. Then I invariably write. I do a book a year because I don't know what else to do. It's my profession.
The novellas in Brown Dog span over 20 years of work. Why collect them into a single volume now?
The idea of collecting the Brown Dogs came from my Canadian publisher, Sarah MacLachlan. I said "Why would you want Brown Dogs in Canada?" and she said "We have more Brown Dogs than you do". This character is universal. I've met Brown Dogs in France, in country bars. They have no real complaints because they're free men and are living as best they can under the conditions they've set up. Brown Dog is the Chinese ideal of having a life where nothing much happens. This is a better thing than people realize.
Finally, can you describe your desk and work space? What are the "essentials" that you always have within reach while writing?
At my desk. I have to face a bare wall so I'm not diverted by my highly suggestible mind. When I need a break I look out the window or go outside, sit in a chair and stare at my wife's flower garden, with vegetables mixed in so you have both beauty and something to eat. It's kind of a simple life, but if I lived in New York I'd never get any work done because there are too many temptations.
Photo credit: Wyatt McSpadden
See all of Jim Harrison's books