A Virginia Writer's Life and Work: A Conversation with Donald McCaig
An Interview by Douglas Gordon
January 29, 2001. A cold, Highland County, winter day. Donald and I take a late morning walk through the pastures and down by the Cowpasture River with three border collies and an Irish Water Spaniel on her first trip to the farm. Later, as we approach the house and a group of sheep, we meet Ruth, short for Ruthless, the large wooly, white dog who protects sheep from coyotes. After a tuna sandwich lunch, we sit down for our conversation in McCaig's book-lined study where he writes every morning. With a few guests due to arrive for dinner, "Doc" McCaig is cooking a free range turkey and potatoes. He is as exacting about the cooking as he is about the details of his plots. The hand-held timer beeped periodically during our talk. Often he paused in response to my questions; his responses were thoughtful and never evasive. At times he broke into great, loud, generous laughter, particularly at the end when he mentioned _Hardy's critics. Whenever he mentioned Harry, his aging, border collie with a failing heart, his voice was quieter, filled with respect for his long-time companion. Harry is out of McCaig's Gael and Wilson's Roy, promised originally to someone who never came to get him. McCaig finally called and said, "There are plenty of dogs that will suit you better." "Harry" is his puppy name-as in "Harry, harry krishna, harry krishna harry, harry." In May of 2000, McCaig was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Hum|ane Letters from Christopher Newport University. "I always did want to be called 'Doc,'" McCaig said.
DG: When you add up all the poems, Dog World columns, reviews, articles, NPR columns, non-fiction, and novels, you could fairly be called a prolific writer.
DMc: Yes. You gotta be if you're gonna make a living.
DG: You have now lived thirty years in one place. You have gone from young man to old timer
DMc: Old man!
DG: in Highland County. How has this place shaped your view of the world?
DMc: When we first came here, we couldn't afford plumbers, electricians, carpenters. And so, I found out if I take enough time, I can do what needs to be done. Now, I won't do it as well as a professional and certainly not as fast. But I am not afraid of trying. I have a pretty strong sense that if I think about it long enough and hard enough, I can then take a shot at it. That is not to say I will succeed, but I am not afraid to try it. That's been one change. I would have been afraid before I came down here.
DG: Do the people in the community know you are a writer?
DMc: Because of living here, I see people in church every Sunday. So as far as they are concerned, I might do something odd like insurance or sales, a slightly exotic occupation. How I relate to my neighbors here is very different than the persona that enables me to meet a large group of people who know me because of my books. I don't think that having the persona is necessarily authentic or good. But I am absolutely sure that if I tried to meet people at readings with the same deliberation I do with my neighbors it would drive me mad. I have some very close relations with the people here, as with you. The people I meet through books are essentially literary friendships. But I have all these people in the community who are decent people, and I got to say something to them. But I also have all these people I meet because of my books. I got to say something to them, but I think most of that is pretty shallow.
DG: Has the living on this farm for over thirty years changed your views in any way?
DMc: When we came here I didn't know anything. I had read philosophy in college; I knew how to put an advertisement together and to survive in the New York subway, which now I can't-d,all of which are useful skills. But here it was without a doubt a good thing to suddenly realize that if you did not fix the roof leak, it would leak. One early winter we thought you could drive in deep snow with a tractor to get firewood, so we weren't too concerned about firewood. Anne wasn't here at the time. It snowed; we couldn't get in or out; we didn't have a four-wheel drive. At one time I considered cutting the apple trees closest to the house. But even in those kinds of circumstances you cannot drive a tractor without chains on the tires, and even then it will hardly go anywhere. It is extremely dangerous. But a neighbor let it be known he had noticed the absence of a woodpile, came down with his bulldozer, cut a tree and dragged it over for us. So you try and do stuff by yourself, but at the same time you get really intimately bound to this community.
DG: Are you self-sufficient?
DMc: It isn't the case that we are self-sufficient. Not a'tall. We're perfectly dependent upon this small community out here. A lot of times I do the things simply because there isn't anybody else to do them. I went to my first Shenandoah Presbytery meeting because if I didn't go, who would go? The church members didn't go for years. They didn't want to be told they'd have to close because of too few members. There is a lot that you don't have the option of not doing if you are able to do it. If you don't do it, nobody is gonna. Everybody else is just as pressed or more pressed than you are. You just have to do some of these things. But it is not my inclination a'tall. My inclination is to sit down and read a bunch of books. But in this community if somebody calls you up and says "Will you?" the answer is almost always "Yes." They would not ask unless they needed it. No one likes to ask. So you probably ought to say yes. We are independent of the greater society in lots of ways. I don't watch television very often, so I don't know what George W. Bush is doing, and I don't care; but I do care about what is happening here in this community.
DG: Can you give me an example?
DMc: Well, a woman just brought a new baby to church and is going to come again next Sunday. There is a young fellow in some kind of trouble with the law, has a woman pregnant. Is he going to be sensible enough so they at some point can get married? There is a lot of good in him but at the same time he is the kind of kid that is a bit of a hothead and it could all go the other way. You can see that when you are an old fart like I am
DG: Dignified elder statesman!
DMc: Not really. Nobody in a community like this runs it. Nobody comes and consults. There are people I call on when I want to get certain kinds of things done. One of them you are going to have dinner with tonight-Barry Marshall, fire chief, mechanic-been friends for years and years. y exIf I want to get something done, I will go down and talk to Barry. First the two of us and then we will ask around. We just don't go sailing out and do it. If the community seems to think it is a good idea and wants to support it, then it can get done. Other things, nobody talks to me a'tall-I am not good at certain things. Often people will come and talk towo Anne and talk about stuff that is important in the community. She's been running a yoga class once a week and has for five or six years. She teaches yoga. It is really good that the women can get together since it is so isolated out here. Female companionship had been breaking down here. In the old days they got together for quilting bees and husking bees. The kind of times where women meet together and talk were gone. You can get pretty isolated up here from each other.
DG: What has stayed the same in you as a person? When I see photos of you and the young friends who arrived here with you, I wonder what is the constant in McCaig.
DMc: There is a way in which I can't answer that question. I think a writer's preoccupations are formed pretty young-Yowhatever they may be. Most writers explore only a few things trying to get a book out. I think we explore and write a few things trying to get a book out, sensing we're writing the same book over and over, trying to get it right. Most times I really shy away from asking such an analytical question because I am really afraid I would find out and I wouldn't have anything to write anymore. It's hard to explain, but I can give an example. I went back to Montana this past summer to Butte, a difficult place to grow up, my hometown. The mining is out. The flying in and out was difficult. Butte is an industrial town-most buildings of stone and brick, two are boarded up buildings, one or two with an historical monument for this and that, two have been knocked down. All empty. But history can move you while empty. I would walk at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning for blocks and blocks and blocks. I was staying at a bed and breakfast which used to be the old boarding house. Before my time they would literally rent beds out in shifts. That is where the term "hotbed" came from. But I could sit there and see the old building and the sixth floor where the company had its offices. I could sit there in this old miners' boarding house, look out, and see these places where prominent people in that part of the state had worked. I'd sit there and wonder how those miners felt because they saw the same things. In one way it wasn't any different, but at the same time it is altogether different.
DG: And that is some of what you explore in Butte Polka.
DMc: Which most people think is an uncharacteristic book. And in some ways it is.
DG: I find common threads in all of your work. Every time I pick up something else to read that somebody else has written about you, I look at the biography, part of which I know you constructed. What has taken root over the past two decades or more is a sort of romantic story of you and Anne, the society dropouts. Dropped out of Madison Avenue life to come and live in this strange community
DMc: of Aborigines! Hillbillies!
DG: To what extent is that true?
DMc: Oh, not a'tall.
DG: Being here is not dropping out?
DMc: It is dropping in-in a very serious sense. It is an unfortunate thing about writers that if you want to give interviews to sell books, you have to give something in your PR release to sound interesting, usually _to a reporter who isn't the best reporter who'll see this and say, "Ah ha-interesting." ceZillions of people have the big fantasy of changing their life while doing something simple. Farming is enormously complicated. I used to design and produce television commercials-a piece of cake. Edited movies based on character. This morning we talked to Shay out there about the barn doors. [Shay McMullen is the McCaig's main farmhand, a young, talented carpenter and sometime guitar picker.] They have to be fixed and it's not simple. I know what we are going to be doing here well into the summer months. So you always put it into what season-where you will have that kind of time for that kind of job. This can wait, but this has to be done. What you tear down and start over with.
DG: Is it that the romantic PR bio allows you in some sense to maintain the amount of privacy a writer must have time to think?
DMc: Yeah. But it isn't that as much as you got to have a life-privacy. There are lots of things about my life that simply are nobody's business but my own and Anne's-period-under any circumstances. How do you tte, aavoid those questions? Well, you become a little cub in the woods. That aggravated Anne quite a bit for a long time. We were selling "locker" lambs to customers. Every doctor and lawyer's wife that would bring out their lamb for fancy meals- Anne took this personally-and say we bought this from this cute little couple in Highland County.
DG: And your view is?
DMc: That it is show biz. I know people, Wendell Berry for one, who doesn't have a persona. He goes out on these book tours, and they just tear his guts out. It is just awful. He gets on with NPR's Terry Gross who really doesn't care about anything much but rock-and-roll and celebrities. Yet here he is trying to explain in an honest and decent way what it is like living in a rural community where his grandfather lived. I just wince to hear it. I try to write honestly and answer questions honestly, but certainly the persona is entirely protected. I remember one fellow one time who was reading. He was terribly flustered. Afterwards I came up and said what you need is to use a hat, like this one, my Stetson. Others have different strategies. I have to disassociate myself. I give a performance.
DG: It struck me driving up here that, over the years, you have gone out of this out-of-the way place into a much larger world, whether to London or Kosovo or Scotland or Washington or California and then come back to this place. It is a pattern of your life. This past year with the many awards for Jacobs' Ladder and your honorary doctorate of humane letters from Christopher Newport .
DMc: I loved that ceremony, I really liked President Trible. I loved those students. I really liked that, and the students, and I expected that I would hate it.
DG: You were invited to the War College in Montgomery. How did that go? What did you talk about? Did they ask you about using border collies to get geese off the runways?
DMc: A couple of people came up to me with books for me to sign, which was very flattering. But I like these guys a lot. Couple of real dopes, a few vacuosities, but as a bunch they were smart. Reminded me of the Amish, who are technologically great. If you had a little problem with jacking your house up, get a bunch of Amish and they solved it in 47 seconds. It was after having gone to CNU-a very interesting contrast where some of the people seemed to be the ultimate theoreticals. The cultures were so different. Those military guys were sharp cookies.
DG: What about your own reading. You read and studied philosophy. You still read philosophy?
DMc: Probably once a year.
DG: Whom did you read most often?
DMc: Probably the existentialists. I am interested 'cause an ordinary reader might read it. Heidigger. Sartre. Wittgenstein. I couldn't read Kirkegaard for a long time. I do a bit now. I'm more open to religion. I am currently reading this philosopher at U.Va. I don't read abstruse philosophy at all, rather ones the ordinary reader would.
DG: You think philosophy made its way into your own writing?
DMc: Oh, sure. I often find I don't have a good, logical mind. I think I am a good storyteller, and as a consequence my philosophical papers were awful, but I find the way I learn things is I can learn things quickly. That is an advantage when doing research for a book, an article. Next year I won't remember a thing about the Bozeman Trail. But something that I want to learn, like dog training, I tend to bring it into my bones not into my head. So a lot of the philosophy is in my bones, so it comes out at times.
DG: Once you were looking for a recipe-for your follow-up to =Jacob's Ladder from some famous hotel restaurant during the aftermath of the Civil War, the Reconstruction? You found it in the Swem Library. I sent you a copy. When you go to the library, like the Library of Congress, and look at documents, for your research, do you keep notes?
DMc: It depends whether I can get copies made.
DG: But you are more likely to rely on photocopies?
DMc: It all depends on whether I can get copies made. When I go up to the Library of Congress next time, I want to look at a microfilm guide to the very first passengers in the First Continental Railroad, 1868, see photos of the early Pullman cars. Literally there will be a dozen things there for me. I have a friend who is a research librarian there. So when I arrive there will be a stack of books I go through fast enough to find what I'm interested in. I'm looking for all this stuff on the Black and Tan convention, their actual minutes from Reconstruction. When I get to that section in the novel, I have what I need.
DG: Do you read it then and construct that part of the novel that you are working on almost immediately after involving yourself in the primary source?
DMc: It goes back and forth. For instance, I just finished a draft to the Jacob's Ladder sequel. There's research I haven't done yet, paragraphs to fill in that happen at every stage of the novel. I tend to build a skeleton and put meat on it. I want to know what happened. You start out with a bunch of characters and some of them just disappear or become important. I have a vague idea, write a draft that is usually awful.
DG: How fast does the draft go?
DMc: Depends on the book. Some are just hard. Jacob's Ladder was hard. Nop's Trials was easy. There are times when you are ready-sometimes not. Sometimes you have to make yourself ready because once you start you have tremendous impetus to finish because it's going to be just as hard to start the next one. But I was just looking at the draft of The Happie Land of Canaan, which was a mark made on a tree, a carving, by the Yellowstone River, and I was looking at the eighth draft on the first half. I'll be able to go through the first three hundred pages in about two weeks because I already know what happens.
DG: How have your writing habits changed? How do you work? Do you write all day?
DMc: No, I can't. Mostly I now have a better sense of time. I write from eight 'til noon six days a week. Works out to probably four days a week with travel. And I write whether or not I have anything to say. If I can't write, I rewrite. I read research I do something. I'm back here working the full time. I have a June date for The Happie Land of Cannan. I have a contract. It has to be done. It's a five hundred page book. So I was pushing hard this last year. You get crazy. I don't write in the afternoon because I don't want to. But if I go over the hours I set aside, I'm just wastin' my time.
DG: Is it a problem working on a major magazine article, The Happie Land of Cannan, and another novel all at once?
DMc: No. It's kinda nice. The hardest thing to do is put your nose to the grindstone. I like thinking about different things. With work now it is relaxing because I'm thinking about different things. When I finish The Happie Land of Cannan, I'm going to be working on one thing. Then if I can't get going I'm stuck. [Beep] Time to turn over the turkey.
DG: You've written poetry. You still write poetry?
DMc: I read it. Wendell Berry's most recent poetry I really liked. Just loaned it to the guy down the road. I'm reading the Australian poet Les Murray, couple of his books. I was reading one this morning. It's on the table. I'm enormously fond of Phillip Larkin. I love his work.
DG: You're more likely to read poetry than any other thing?
DMc: Poetry and popular fiction. I have a large collection of popular fiction. Sometime I can't read a'tall. Then sometimes I read nonfiction-_history. I probably find it hardest to read good fiction. It was easier to do when I was teaching.
DG: You read detective fiction?
DMc: Some. Some reading I call comfort reads. There's Neville Chutes's Trustee From the Tool Room. You'd like it. Completely unassuming. Like the macaroni and cheese of literature. And another was Alistair McLean's first book, HMS Ulysses, just a wonderful adventure story. I read those the way people watch television. If I want to read really good fiction, I have to read it first thing in the morning-while I have brains left. With really good fiction you have to give as good as you get.
DG: You have a fine library. What if you had to choose a certain number of keepers?
DMc: Well, that's sort of an unfair question. You keep the ones you haven't read. Hardy would be one-Mayor of CasterbriDG:e, Return of the Native, even old Tess. Dickens. Eliot was right. When you ask writers what they like, it's the one you're learning from right now?
DG: Who are you learning from right now?
DMc: Jim Harrison. Alice Munroe. Might be Russell Banks. Wendell Barry definitely. Some are so good you can't learn anything from them. Raymond Carver is one of those. At least I can't. And poetry. I love poetry of all things. If I had my druthers, I'd write poetry.
DG: Almost all of your works seem to have at the core some mystery that has to be solved. Some knowleDG:e that has to be gained. Some order that has to be set right again. All of this implies some hope. But when you get to the end, when the murderer is caught but not punished If the
DMc: The Cooney catcher goes down
DG: If the dog napper doesn't pay a price then there is a sense of exhaustion. Justice comes at a great price. Is that something you have thought about?
DMc: No I haven't. I have no particular doubt my general worldview is fairly bleak. That's part of the Butte Polka. Let's see. Let me get the book. I may have used it as a epigraph. [Reads] "Butte, Montana, is a place where the company is too big to beat, where the house cut is always too steep, and where victory, below ground or above it, consists in snatching a draw out of the jaws of certain defeat."
DG: Justice is done, but people are worn out. It's like Lewis Burkholder going after his stolen dog, bashing down the wall of the lab with the fire truck.
DMc: He'll never be a fireman again. He had to resign.
DG: People tell me my view is too bleak and I say
DMc: Read some McCaig.
DG: Go back to the mystery again. If you can think about Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: You go out into the world to search for something that is mysterious and unknown to you, and you don't know if you can do it. And you do it, and you come back, and you are glad you did it. But, boy, it was sure tiring to work your way through that.
DMc: You never find what you think you are going to find. I sometimes say I am a writer because I am a student-and I am! _I really want to find out about this stuff. I want to find out how things work, and I almost always do. When I go out to find one thing, I always find something altogether different.
DG: Is your idea- I think of Lewis Burkholder in this sense-that somehow a man will go out and learn these things, but then he will bungle it again? Lewis finds Nop, and then runs the dog nearly to death and he has noregret for it. Is that a fair characterization?
DMc: Yeah, it is something I had not thought about. On the other hand, I certainly am convinced my days of bungling it are not over. I have new and bigger bungles to make. I suppose for some there is a sense in some fiction that when the story is over that life is over. That's it. But I don't have that sense at all. Almost always I have a sense of taking a slice out of it. To be sure it's a slice that has the convenient beginning, middle, and end, but that does not mean that life stopped.
DG: What about work? In Butte Polka people work and live their lives working hard. People work hard, and dogs, too, in your other writings. Do human beings redeem themselves through work?
DMc: I ever tell you this story? I spent some time near the Blue RiDG:e Parkway with horse-drawn loggers. I met this guy who owned the land. He had a little tiny ranch house the size of this room. I admired his woods, and he says to me, he's retired from the C&O, says, "Wanna see my fiddles?" I said sure. We go to his workshed-dirt floor, his shelf is nailed up by one bolt, dangling there. He's made violins the Audubon Quartet are playing. We are looking in this country woodshed through Stradivarius's various recipes to replicate these varnishes. His dream is to go to Cremona. He is discussing how he is trying to replicate these varnishes. And he taps the violin body: it is a "C". Taps the briDG:e-an "E" and taps another part of this damned violin and it is an "A". The instrument is a musical chord. I am not sure, but what I do is that I find this guy interesting, his life interesting because he finds life in that instrument. _Now that may be simply because I use work as a displacement for life itself. That may be the case. That is one of the things that I like about Wendell Berry. He is one of the very few people who writes sensibly about work. In our culture the idea is that it's the unpleasant thing you do until you got enough money stacked aside to-just stop doing it. wsThat is just insane. First of all, most people don't do that. There are those who feel that way. There are those that feel the need, but most people rather enjoy what they do. I think that is true. [Beeper.] Oops, time to roll the turkey over. Turkey break.
When Donald returns from the kitchen, he looks at Ducks, our Irish Water Spaniel, lying on the floor and says respectfully to her "You're a literary dog, aren't you?" She looks back in earnest.
DMc: It's going to be hard to go to readings without Harry. He's just about at the eDG:e of not being able to go anymore.
DG: Does your commitment to work make it comfortable to be in a Calvinist church, to work with Calvinist dogs? Because they are Presbyterian dogs?
DMc: Oh, they're Calvinist, all right. They live to work. Most the reason I go to the Williamsville Presbyterian church is it's in Williamsville. If it were the Williamsville Methodist I'd go. I'd be more comfortable in a Quaker or a Unitarian church. It's a community church, so o.k.
DG: I read somewhere that your grandfather left Scotland and went to Canada?
DMc: I don't really know. I've never really been interested. He was a stonecutter. He was a Wobblie, died of silicosis. His father (legend has it) was a professor at McGill in Canada.
DG: Were there serious dogs in your life before Pip?
DMc: Sure. We had this dog in Montana, a dog and just a pet. He was named Rascal. And there we had this 16-year-old with a driver's license. I put Rascal in the car and took off. The family thought I'd be gone a couple of weeks. At the beginning of that summer I had $100 saved up, took that cocker spaniel, and there were a couple of highway patrol men looking for me by the end of the summer. I had a good time with that dog.
DG: My Dog Rascal! Have you read My Dog Skip? The famous boy and dog story?
DMc: I reviewed it for The Post. You know what's interesting is very often writers' best books are often about dogs. I think it is true of J. R. Ackerley. London. It is an odd thing. And it is almost always taken as an unimportant part of the writer's work. It's not unusual. You also often find that the dog is often the only friend a child has. You read Women and their Dogs? You remember some of those stories. Maybe they are very unhappy children. I don't know. Anne never really had a dog. Her family was very tidy, cold. So we got this big Labrador, half Chesapeake, named Lucille. She was the first farm dog.
DG: I asked Carol Lea Benjamin [Benjamin is a well-respected dog trainer and award-winning author of numerous training books, such as Mother Knows Best and fiction, most recently detective fiction in which dogs figure prominently] what she would ask you
DMc: You're a mean bastard
DG: if she had one question. I found this very interesting. xShe said that you often say a border collie uses his human as a way to get to the sheep. And she wants to know other than the opportunity to work-what does "Doc" McCaig think the dog is getting out of this relationship with man? And how do you think this might have changed since the onset of the partnership? What's the dog getting out of this relationship?
DMc: We got this puppy out of the pound. Probably not socialized very well. Mac. We probably got it in time to repair a lot of this damage. There are lots of things they do not understand. The concept of being caressed, being petted. The same way you have to beg your dog to beg for treats. They are not blank slates by any means. When Harry went to a reading at an old folks' Methodist group a couple of weeks ago, everyone sort of uggie-boogie's Harry, and Harry looks at them and walks away. He's willing to be courteous, but he's never been taught you should go up to these people and pretend you like them. What counts with these people is affection, a complicated thing. When I saw my first Westminster dog show, there were these Golden Retrievers. The dogs jumped away from their owners trying to jump on total strangers. I was going nuts. Where did this come from? They were trained to do this and it varies a lot from dog to dog. Harry and I have been together for so long that we have this tremendously deep bond. It is inarticulate. Shay works him but he is still my dog. In the way that Josie is becoming Shay's dog. Shilo, the dog I trained, kind of likes me I think, but I think but she is pretty much an opportunist. Things work better when she pays attention than when she doesn't. Then she gets to work the sheep. She does not want to get yelled at. I guess what I am saying is I can speak about that for very specific dogs, but I cannot speak about it for dogs in general, and speak with some confidence.
DG: So Harry has gotten something out of his relationship with you other than the opportunity to work?
DMc: You know that is hard to say. I could tell you what I have gotten out of my relationship with Anne, but I really could not tell you what she got out of her relationship with me. I'm not being coy. Harry'd have to tell you that.
DG: You have dogs buried on the farm not far from here. You expect to be buried on the farm near them, I presume? What does it mean to think about being buried in the same place with your dogs because most people are not and maybe would not want to be?
DMc: I haven't thought about that. It just seems to me I spend more time each day relating to dogs than to people. Part of that is because there are so many of them. Unless Shay is here, I'm in charge, and now we have a visitor dog here. Shilo wants to get to the sheep. Mac wants to play with Ruth, and I don't want him to because he's starting to get a little rogue on me. Festus, the visiting dog, wants to play with Mac in the house and doesn't know how and will destroy it. Silk is being scared to death, fearing that Mac might knock her over and trample her. He will. Dottie is taking advantage of the fear so she can get in and nail Silk. Zippy hates it because Anne is not here. Josie is pregnant and far more timid. I picked the dogs we walked with this morning. The wrong combination would have turned into a nightmare. So, they are part of my life, and I am going to be buried somewhere. But I would not bury them in the cemetery-it would be disrespectful to kinfolks of people already buried there.
DG: Is there a heirarchy of dogs in your memory? Some more irreplaceable than others?
DMc: They are all mortal, all irreplaceable. That's an honest answer. It's going to be hard to see Harry go. I'm really fond of him.
DG: Is that because of the shared journey with him? The travels to the outside world? Travels with Harry.
DMc: He was also a wonderful sheep dog. The skills. I always liked him. He's getting a little grumpy now. I just like him.
DG: You wrote in Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men that the work of man and border collie is metaphysical. What do you mean by that?
DMc: You start with the fact that it's an unknowable mystery. You are trying to do something perfectly that cannot be done perfectly. Never seen a perfect run in a sheep dog trial.
DG: It is pursuit of perfection?
DMc: Yes, but you cannot fall off very far from the perfection. To the unknowleDG:eable eye the difference between what I do with the dogs here and when I do major sheep dog trial is not evident. The task requires (and the dog knows it as well as I know it) every bit of everything-your intelligence, your reflexes, your knowleDG:e, your life experiences, your physical health, your stamina. acWell, the story I remember is J.M. Wilson, who had a hip replacement very early on. The greatest sheep dog trialer in the world. I'll tell you a better story than that. There was this guy who would trial in a walker. I was in Scotland in spring, and I saw a guy go out to trial in a wheelchair. He wheels out, and then comes the dog's final time to go to pen. This is intricate, precision work between human and dog. He rolls out and he sits, dog gets through, then rolls off the field. I asked him if he had been doing this a long time and he said, "Nay, I got into this after I had me accident." He learned to handle his dog from a wheelchair when he started out. I asked, "You buy your dogs trained?" He said, "Nay. I train me own dog," and he takes on other dogs to train. I don't know how the hell he does that. He takes in other's dogs for training. I know next time I go to England I really want to see him work a dog.
DG: Can you add anything more about what makes this metaphysical?
DMc: It is impossible. It is in search of beauty. It may be ideal communication. The kind that husbands and wives can have in a happy marriage. One will start a sentence the other will finish it. That is what you are doing-but with another species.
DG: Is that the same with a husband and wife?
DMc: Maybe. There is a chance in which some real bastards can be involved. In trialing, in the act of trialing, they cannot be. When it does work, what you will see in the best case is kind of transfiguration.
DG: It requires purity of heart in some human beings.
DMc: I also remember round at national finals two years ago. Alistair McCrae had a wonderful run. I was sitting there because I was the media guy, talking to some PBS guys who were thinking of filming next year. He started to come off the field, and one these producers wanted to go congratulate him. I said stay away. That man desperately needs silence, time with his dog. You won't see people rushing. Might applaud. You won't see people trying to talk after something like that. There's a moment to come back into the world.
DG: I was thinking about Nop, before Jacob's Ladder and the praise for it. Sometimes it was almost as if Nop was the only thing you had written. I wondered if you thought about the success of Nop's Trials and that it limited you in terms of how people see you.
DMc: Oh, sure. It is real difficult when, in terms of attention span in modern culture, people can take in a couple of sentences and that is about it. "Dog writer. Urban Homesteader." If you are lucky, they might say literary writer. In general that means you won't make enough to pay your bills. Some few do. It isn't wicked. Nobody cares about what I am writing as much as I do. They ought not to. They got their own lives. Maybe a moment of entertainment on an airplane. A piece of insight here or there. Someone who's been where they would like to go. I thought I was lucky. Jacob's Ladder went to sixteen publishers before it was accepted. Norton is a literary publisher-period. I suspect it was helpful they had not read anything else I had written before they got the book.
DG: Vicki Hearne said to ask you where all the doggies have gone. [Hearne is the author of the highly regarded Adam's Task, named by Audubon as one of the twelve best "animal" books of the 20th Century. In her book she called Nop's Trials one of the best of the best in dog literature. A friend of McCaig's, she died in August.] They are not in the schools, not in the galleries, not on the streets . Where, oh, where, have my little dogs gone?i
DMc: At the rate of 3 million dollars a year up the chimneys. We are a dog unfriendly country. We like to think of ourselves as a nation of dog lovers-ofthe old ideal (you read Thurber's accounts of dogs), but somebody's run over them. There was a tremendous sea change right after WWII. The world changed. Changed for dogs, too. Nobody had pure-breed dogs before then except rich folk. You have a society now of two-income families. Who's going to take care of the fancy dogs?
DG: You have written that ours is not a dog-friendly society, as manifested in Crofts? [The British National Dog Show] What is the difference between the English approach and the American approach to dogs?
DMc: You have these little villages in Scotland, and at six in morning you will see people walking their dogs-/farmers, shopkeepers, they are all out there walking their dogs. You will not see that here. If you see dogs at all, say out in Montana, they are in the back of pickup trucks. I don't know what the reason for it is. The English are more dog savvy than we are-more dog democratic than we are. Which is to say that the most i_mportant dog in the world is sleeping by the owner's foot. A gasping old mutt. Not one with ten thousand trophies. We don't think that. We think that the Westminster dog with "Champion" in front of his name is somehow a better dog. England's a better democracy for such a caste-ridden society. You sort of see two things in this country: fewer people with dogs and in general getting more involved in something with their dogs. I think the AKC herding events are Mickey Mouse, but I'm glad that people are out doing something with their dogs-lure coursing, search and rescue. Fewer but more intense- the success of f trThe Bark is interesting. Several years ago I would not have thought it would have been possible.
DG: People who are involved in trialing-are those people prone to tell stories about their dogs?
DMc: I am reasonably convinced that if you get three people talking about their dogs, no one is listening to stories about someone else's dog. They tend to talk about it in very short shorthand. Oh, he came in third at this trial or I got this training strategy-it paid off. Very short, truncated. One they will tell you is a psychological life history of the dog. This dog has this, this dog has that, and that's what this means to that dog-all the best clinicians and trainers. The very first thing I'll do when I see a dog working with a novice is go up to the novice and say very close to these words, "Now, this dog is thinking this and you want to be thinking this." So it is mental. And finally, it is mysterious. I have been startled time and time again by dogs doing things that dogs cannot do. I know perfectly well they just cannot do this, and there they are doing it. When I was out in Montana Working pens with sheep is really very high stress because the dog just gets jammed against with sheep. And they were working from 7 a.m. in the morning until 2 p.m. in the afternoon. They pushed 800 sheep through the chutes. Then a guy jumps them on the back of his flatbed, dismounts his motorcycle and off they go through the sagebrush. Not a soul for miles. Essentially brings another 800 sheep off about 2,000 acres. Just can't be done. They tree mountain lions, his guard dogs do. His Ruths. Wolf almost killed one of them, but had this spiked collar on, couldn't bite down.
DG: Are you still trialing?
DMc: Not successfully.
DG: What dog are you running? You have been working her about three years now? How is she doing?
DMc: Silk. She is bundle of neuroses. The most neurotic dog out there. It is a really good thing she likes to trial, or it'd be a disaster because it is such a separate world in her mind. She is a basket case. She reminds me of the most weird, most neurotic, college girl we knew. The beret-wearer with a flower in it. That's Silk.
DG: Leads me to Claudia's question, editor of The Bark. She said I would love to hear him talk about the moment when dog and man are one. What's that mean?
DMc: You can from time to time- you become something separate from the dog or the man. What I will say is-it is an out-of-body experience. You are focused, your spirit is out there on the course, not as the dog, bu_Blat as the proper place for the dog. You get so focused you wouldn't hear someone shooting.
DG: So it is art in a way. It is a creative moment?
DMc: It is fairly similar. The closest I can come to it is when the writing is going very well and this gift occurs. Every word in the English language is available to you. Most of the time you are separate with a narrow vocabulary and way of expressing things. And from time to time every word is available to you.
DG: I wonder if it is like Yeats saying how can you tell the dancer from the dance, tell the shepherd from the sheepdog-because there is training behind it and discipline.
DMc: It's all to reach beyond training and discipline. I remember one time I came home from a trial course, Harry's best run. Ran at the Nationals and he was a point out of the top twenty, but afterwards people came over to congratulate us. You're out there for about fifteen minutes, and it seems like you are out there for a year. This was five years ago and I can explain today exactly what happened. At the end of it a friend came over to congratulate me, and she's a nurse. She said I thought I would see you in the emergency room, you were hyperventilating so bad. I can remember at the end, at the shedding ring there was a real darkness at the eDG:e of my vision, but I could still see the sheep. All I remember was I had enough vision to work the dog.
DG: Dog talk has fascinated me and students are always interested in talking dogs. I will be teaching dog lit in the fall. Nop will show up. Where did this come from for you as a writer-in _Nop's Trials for the dog talking?
DMc: It is kind of interesting. Random house wanted the book but said you cannot have the dogs talking. They talk. That's non-negotiable. Publishers did not want it. Thought it was weird.
DG: I wonder why? This is an ancient form, goes back to Lucian, the Latin poet, in his Dialogues. Cervantes wrote about talking dogs. Did it come naturally to you?
DMc: Publishers and editors don't get time to read enough. Some are not well-educated to start with. Yeah, right from the start. The first line, which later came out. "If thou art a sheepdog like Nop." It never occurred to me to not.
DG: Did you know you write in a tradition that stretches back to Latin poets?
DMc: No, but as soon as I wanted to write a dog book was the only time I read a lot of dog books. The only time I'll read books on the reconstruction is before I start a book on it because you can see where the difficulties are. For dog books it is= the difficulty as I saw it was that very few writers have managed to make the dogs and humans alive. White Fang is a wonderfully drawn character in the book, but there are no human beings, only cartoons. Peter Maile's books have nothing to do with dogs. [Beeper]. We're getting critical here, close to 160 degrees. Generally, you have reporters asking why did your dogs talk? 'Cause they do! No, I didn't know. It certainly did not seem absurd to me or that I was inventing a new tradition. I was not aware of other dogs talking.
DG: It strikes my students who read it the first time as natural. When I read it, I was not surprised because of my awareness of the tradition. Some people believe to have animals talk is to be of the devil because God gave humans speech and did not give speech to dogs, and that prompts a deep suspicion of that tradition. One of the reasons people try to get fairy tales banned is because animals talk.
DMc: That is interesting. I did not know that. I do remember driving down the road and picking up some Christian broadcaster talking to kids: "You may love old Shep, but Shep is not like you. Be kind to him. He hasn't got a soul." In one way that makes great sense. If you are a Christian, for example, Jesus Christ died for old Shep's sin!?
DG: It's a thought I like. You wrote the introduction for a new edition of Vicki Hearne's Adam's Task. Why do you think that book has had such an enormous impact?
DMc: Because she takes human- dog communication seriously with the seriousness it deserves. Vicki's book is about human animal understanding and how it can be achieved. It is unique. The notion that the human has as much to learn as the animal is true. Every dog you train is a new experiment. Because we got Mac, a pup, we have made very radical dog arrangements here, very quick ones. It has been in response to him. The household has been disordered and reordered because of this dog, and I have trained a lot of dogs but they are all different. And they all have changed me.
DG: She thinks one of the remarkable things about you is you came to dog training late in life.
DMc: I'm not a great dog trainer. It is hard to tell. If I am at a sheep dog trial with pretty good people, they don't come up to ask me questions. People who read my books are not dog trainers. I do not get complaints from dog trainers. The ones who read tend to like them. My friend Ken Kukyendall recently tried to explain something (you know Donald, he is an author). I would put myself in the B-minus league as a dog trainer. B-plus as a trialer.
DG: Let me ask about Anne. She's part of the legend. Raiser of prize Rambouillet sheep. A. A. McCaig. What role has she played in your writing?
DMc: It's changed very recently. Very little in the writing- except she changed me as a man. She certainly did. Recently, with aJacob's Ladder, she was one of the two most important editors of the book. Her strength is language.
DG: She can bite on the coin of your work and see if it is authentic?
DMc: Yes, in great detail. "Patoohie" and sometime triple "patoohie" is written all over the drafts. It is essential if I want to find something in the book-enormous help. She's made a chapter- by-chapter outline of my next novel.
DG: Your next project is not widely known?
DMc: It is vaguely known-contractually I'm obliged to share very few details.
DG: Any other projects in the hayloft when you get through these two novels? How long do you see yourself capable of creating fiction?
DG: Some writers are finished by time they are forty.
DMc: It's unpredictable. Generally, if you write big novels you ought to do it when you have a lot of strength left. It's no surprise lyric poets are young men and women. One of the reasons I wrote Jacob's Ladder was I was really quite aware if I was to do a big novel I was going to have to do it before I got much older.
DG: Was it agonizing to you to have such difficulty finding a publisher?
DMc: The usual agony is "Jesus, how am I going to pay the bills?" I often worried about that. As a freelancer that comes with the territory. On the other hand, when I've finished a piece of work, if I do not find anyone likes it well enough, there's not much I can do about that. I cannot go back and change things. It is done. There ain't no more there. [Beeper] We're getting close to the Magic 160 here. Good books are not good books because they are not flawed. Good books' virtues overwhelm their vices. There comes a time I just can't stand to look at it again. That is it. It is very difficult to me when people call me between prints and say you've got this wrong, these facts wrong. This is misspelled. It's difficult for me to change-not because it ought not to be changed. It ought to be. But it's over. _It is done with. I joke with Anne every now and then that one of these days we'll hit the lottery, get a big movie sale and open the "Leaning Tower of Pizza." This writing is the only thing I am good at. I am not going to do something I am half-assed about.
DG: Can you imagine yourself doing something other than writing?
DMc: I have a dream. I would like to do a book on the last wolves of Scotland. I would like to see if I could write poetry. I've written a couple of good poems in the last couple of years. Are they one-shots? Since I'm only writing one a year, it's hard to make predictions. But I'd have to have 25 years to have 25 good poems. Farming is real interesting. The dogs are real interesting. If I am not careful I could get too many events. If I am not careful, I could get sucked up in community events. It is nice not to have to write more than five days and have Saturdays and Sundays days off. After I finished the draft of this book, I didn't write for three or four days. You can't tell. And you get to be an old man.
DG: I've thought that to get old means to become more clearly what we are-if we're lucky. What might not be virtuous in a younger man, in an old man is
DG: Have you ever thought how you would like to be remembered when all is said and done? How your friends will remember you?
DMc: No. One minute and the turkey is out of the oven.
DG: I think in Hardy-esque fashion. Within a short period 4-6-8 semesters, in my terms-no one remembers teachers very long. But I wonder about people who read your books?
DMc: Well, you see I don't know what it is like to read my books. I write them but I don't read them in a certain kind of way.
DG: And on your tombstone?
DMc: My tombstone. Old fashioned river jack. I'm gonna get one of those old-fashioned ones. Like in slave cemeteries. Just a marker for the head.
DG: With your name on it?
DG: Thomas Hardy would appreciate that.
DMc: Yeah. But the critics tore him apart.