TavisSmiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with Salman Rushdie about his latest novel and The New York Times bestseller, “The Golden House”, set during the time period between President Obama’s election and the current political climate. It tells the story of an Indian businessman who moves to New York to start a new life.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with novelist Salman Rushdie in just a moment.
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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Salman Rushdie back to this program. The acclaimed author of books like “Midnight’s Children” and, of course, “The Satanic Verses”, is out with his latest. It’s called “The Golden House”. Salman Rushdie, sir, good to have you back on this program again.
SalmanRushdie: Always great to be here. Thank you.
Tavis: Glad to have you. I’m hearing — and you can correct me if I’m wrong — but I’m hearing that you’re starting to get a little bit annoyed by the comparisons that people are making to a particular character who has green hair in your book to another guy whose hair is sort of orange [laugh]. You wrote the book, so why are you getting annoyed by these comparisons?
Rushdie: No, no, that’s on purpose, you know. I mean, that’s a deliberate satirical idea. There’s one of the characters in the book says that what’s happening in America is the DC, like comics, is taking over DC, Washington [laugh]. So there’s the character of the joker who has very, very white skin and really likes that green hair and he’s running for president.
I mean, that stuff, you know, I’m not disguising it. What I’m saying is that it’s a minor character. It’s in the background of the story. The story is about somebody else, you know, and that’s just part of the — he’s like cackling at the edges of the story.
Tavis: But that doesn’t surprise you in this moment that we’re in, that anything that is Trump-like is going to get…
Rushdie: It’s true. All roads lead to Trump [laugh].
Tavis: Please don’t say that. Please don’t say that [laugh].
Rushdie: You can be talking about anything now. You can be talking about baseball…
Tavis: And it suddenly leads back…
Rushdie: Suddenly, it’ll be about…
Tavis: I think you’re right about that. And there’s a reason for that. It rates still. Since we’re talking about it, tell me about the lead character and the story in the book.
Rushdie: Well, you know, in a way, he has some things in common with the president as well, but he’s from another part of the world. The story actually began in India for me, in Bombay, my old hometown, where I had this idea of what really happened over there, which is a kind of strange linkage between, on the one hand, very, very wealthy people and criminal mafias.
For example, the movie industry there is like a mob money in the movies, you know, which used to be the case in Hollywood. Also, a linkage between the criminal mafias and the terrorists who attacked Bombay from Pakistan. I thought, if I could put somebody in the middle of that, that would be an interesting character.
So there’s this wealthy Indian businessman who gets involved with the mob and then his wife is killed in the terrorist attacks on the Taj Hotel. And he and his three sons decide we’re out of here. They decide they’re going to go far away to the other side of the world, change their names, be different people, and the story is about them.
It’s about them coming to America, coming to New York City to be different people and they all have their own problems which work out during the course of the book. And, of course, the tragedy that they think they’ve left behind, they haven’t left behind. It comes after them.
I mean, that’s really what the book’s about. But the other thing I wanted to do is to set it right now, to set it like the day before yesterday, you know, and to do something which in a way you’re not supposed to do, which is to write about the exact moment in which you’re writing, you know.
The reason you’re not supposed to do it is that, if you do it wrong, then your book becomes like yesterday’s papers. You know, it becomes like disposable. But if you do it right, then you can capture a moment for all time.
Tavis: That raises two questions that — I shouldn’t ask you two at once, but I know you can handle it, so I will.
Rushdie: All right [laugh].
Tavis: The first is, I’ve seen a lot of chatter from your fans and readers of the book who were trying to figure out actually when you wrote this story because it does, in fact, so much mirror what we’re going through, number one. And number two, since you raised it, how does one write to this specific moment?
Rushdie: Well, I actually had just about finished the book by the time of the election, but then I kind of tweaked it and polished it for the next several months after that. But it was written like the two years before, really.
The way you do it, I think, is that you stay inside the characters. You know, if you try and make it too much like news reportage, then that vanishes, you know. Because we live in a time where the subject changes so fast.
Tavis: In this White House — here we are back to Trump again. All roads lead to Trump. In this White House, every other hour, yeah.
Rushdie: Yeah. There’s too much news, you know. So if you try and tie it too much to that, then your book’s going to get outdated before it’s published, you know. What you have to do is talk about how human beings are dealing with the situation, how are we living in this world? And if you stay like that, inside human nature, inside the characters, then that’s a novel. Then that’s a thing which has a chance of sticking around.
Tavis: Let me leave the pages of the book and come to the pages of your real life where you talk about how you navigate the moment. How are you navigating this present moment? I ask that against the backdrop of knowing that your first time voting as an American citizen was in this last election.
Rushdie: That went well [laugh].
Tavis: We have you to blame for that [laugh]? So your first time, when was the last time around? And for those of us who follow you, we noted that you just pretty much stopped tweeting.
Rushdie: Yes, I did.
Tavis: Right after the election, on that day?
Rushdie: On that day, on that day. Yes, I did.
Tavis: So how are you navigating this moment? And why’d you disappear on Twitter?
Rushdie: You know, I don’t know whether — I mean, I used to quite enjoy Twitter. I had fun. But I don’t know whether I changed or it changed, but it began to seem to me that I didn’t like the tone of voice. I didn’t like the noise that was being made on Twitter.
It seemed to become almost like a lynch mob, you know, and ugly and bad-tempered. People talking with incredible aggressiveness because they’re protected by anonymity, in a way that they would never talk if they were sitting here, you know.
Rushdie: And I just thought I don’t like this. As I say, I don’t know whether it got worse or I became less patient with it or some mixture of that, but I just thought I don’t need this noise in my head and I just quit, stopped.
Tavis: There are a lot of people — I’m curious to get your take on this, Salman — there are a lot of people who feel — and I’ve expressed this view on my own in certain instances — feel that there are certain fellow citizens who feel emboldened, who buy the behavior of the guy in the White House.
So when the president can behave that way, then all bets are off. So you’re right. We have the anonymity on social media to throw bombs or rocks or whatever, bottles and hide our hand. But do you think there’s anything to the fact that people are emboldened by his bad behavior?
Rushdie: Absolutely. You know, I think there’s no question that white supremacists in this country have felt enabled by the Trump victory, and we see that. We see that in Charlottesville. We see it everywhere, you know. But it’s worth pointing out that it’s not only in America that this is happening.
Tavis: Sure. Europe?
Rushdie: You know, in India where Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is doing something very similar. He’s cranking up a kind of Hindu extremist politics and minorities, of which the largest is the Muslim minority, are being targeted. There’s people being lynched. There are people being — you know, journalists being murdered on the doorsteps of their homes, etc.
And this is, again, you can’t say that it’s directly attributable to the government, but it’s people feeling exactly in the same way, emboldened, enabled of feeling that they have the right to behave like this.
Tavis: I’m listening to you and I’m thinking about the irony of Muslims catching hell there and catching it here as well.
Rushdie: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That’s for sure happening.
Tavis: What is your read on why this sort of mindset isn’t just within the U.S. borders? It’s happening around the globe. In fact, Trump is one of the more recent examples of it. It was happening elsewhere before we got this. What’s your sense of why that’s happening the world? You’re a citizen of the world.
Rushdie: You know, I think there’s a real disillusion with globalized capitalism, a sense that that benefits a tiny minority of the country and that everybody else is basically ignored, you know. And then if somebody comes along saying I can fix that, I can make you great again, people are going to listen. I think because there’s a real disillusion with the system.
And on top of that, I think one of the big dangers of the internet is the way in which truth itself becomes so subjective. You know, the people can say anything on the internet if it sounds as truthful as anything else, except some of it is truth and some of it is lies. You know, there’s a famous quote of Abraham Lincoln that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the web [laugh].
Tavis: That’s funny [laugh].
Rushdie: The internet is full of stuff like that. It’s full of people allegedly saying things that they never said, you know. And I think, when people are in a situation where you don’t know what’s true anymore, you know, and then a strong man rises up and says, “Just follow me. I’m the truth”, it works.
Tavis: What’s behind all the angst and all the anger, though, that you referenced that you see on Twitter and the rest of us see it on social media as well? What’s behind that?
Rushdie: Well, look, the first thing we have to say is that race is behind it. You know, I just think that there was a substantial part of the population of this country that could not stand that, for eight years, there was a Black man in the White House. Could not stand it.
People like me and many people, when Obama was elected, thought that that might be the beginning of a better attitude on race issues, but it seems to instead have created a kind of backlash. So there’s race.
There was a whole misogynistic thing about Hillary Clinton. I mean, I was quite surprised that this country seems still not to be ready for a woman leader. You know, other western democracies and even not western democracies have had women leaders for decades.
Tavis: More than once, yeah.
Rushdie: But here, it still seems to be an issue. And then I think there was this sense of, in some parts of the country, people were being felt they were being ignored, that they were sort of on the scrap heap. All that combined, it’s like a perfect storm.
Tavis: Let me swing this way and then I’ll swing back since we’re talking about the election and since you are a writer extraordinaire, perennial New York Times bestseller. What do you make of strategically the way that Hillary has handled looking back with her own book?
Because she’s getting a lot of backlash, a lot of pushback, on the way that, for a lot of people, she’s playing into the narrative that people didn’t like about her, blaming others. I mean, what’s your read on it?
Rushdie: Well, the truth is, every politician who loses a campaign writes a book. I mean, she’s not unique in this. I think, you know, there’s a lot of sort of mansplaining going on. There’s a lot of men telling Hillary she shouldn’t write a book, which they would not do if it was, let’s say, Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders has a book, nobody says he shouldn’t write it, you know.
Tavis: I don’t think the critique is that necessarily she should write a book. It’s what she’s written in the book. No question, though.
Rushdie: Well, the thing is, you know, there are things we don’t know about this election. I mean, I haven’t read her book, but I’ve read some of the stuff about it. I know that she’s suggesting that the Trump people were collaborating with the Russians in order to try and fix the election, to put it bluntly. I don’t know if that’s true.
I mean, I’m waiting to see like everybody else, waiting to see what the Mueller investigation says. But she has every right to say that if she thinks it, you know. I mean, I have no plan to read her book, but by and large, I think that the election is over and that we need to turn the page and that really we need…
Tavis: That’s what she wants you to do [laugh].
Rushdie: Yeah, exactly. She wants us to tell the back pages and talk to you at the next pages. Because I think the Democrats need — we need somebody much younger, you know. You need somebody of a next generation. If you see what’s happened in Canada with Justin Trudeau or even in France with Mr. Macron, the fact that this a kind of younger generation…
Tavis: Well, we had that with Obama. We just went through that stuff.
Rushdie: I know, but we need to get it back.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah [laugh].
Rushdie: We need to get it back. Obama was an unusually charismatic leader, you know, but we need somebody like that. We can’t have 200-year-old people fighting in the next election.
Tavis: Unpack for me why you are so direct, so bold, about saying you have no intention to read Hillary’s book. I’m asking that because, for a guy who voted the first time and saw what happened to her, like why would you not want to read her story?
Rushdie: Oh, because I watched every day of the election. You know what I mean? I have the election up to here. What I’m trying to think about is the next thing, you know, and Hillary is not the next thing. I mean, I admire her in many ways, but she ain’t the future and that’s what I’m interested in.
Tavis: I’ve quoted so many times on this program the great Paul Robeson because I think he’s a great American hero, often overlooked, but I quote him because he was so right when he said that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. I believe that with every core of my being.
The flip side of that, though, is in moments like these — you’re eloquent and not just articulate, but eloquent in talking about what this moment means and yet what you write is fiction. The question I’m asking is whether or not you ever feel like writing fiction in a moment where the nonfiction of our lives is so real? You know where I’m going with this.
Rushdie: No, I hear you.
Tavis: If you ever feel out of place or feel like you’re wasting your time doing stuff like “The Golden House”?
Rushdie: No. Historically, fiction has been one of the great ways of telling the truth.
Rushdie: If you think about, you know, “War and Peace” is the most brilliant portrait of Napoleon’s Russian campaign, etc. So fiction itself is just another road to the truth. What I do think has happened, certainly to me, I can’t speak for other writers, but to me is it’s made me question and set aside some of the ways I was writing.
Because I’ve been very associated with the kind of fantasy fabulist, what gets called magic realism, you know. In fact, my previous novel which was also a novel set in New York, was a novel of that kind. It had like genies and flying carpets and stuff.
And then I thought just what you’re saying. I thought in a world where there’s so much on truth out there, there’s so much make believe being propagated every day that may be not fantasy, you know. Maybe not hold the flying carpets.
And maybe there’s a role for artists or at least I felt a role for an artist like me to start reestablishing an idea of the truth, to start reestablishing between the writer and the reader at least, some sense of this is how it really is, and let’s start trying to agree on what is really the case. Because we do live in this country in which people can’t agree on what is the case.
I mean, I found myself lecturing to a quite conservative crowd in Florida a few months ago in which they didn’t believe in climate change. They thought The New York Times was fake news. I said, you know, it’s only fake news when they review my books [laugh]. But that idea that there is no such thing as climate change, etc., we just live in these different realities.
Tavis: And then Irma hit Florida.
Rushdie: Exactly. Well, but it’s kind of scooting around all Trump’s properties, you know, proving there is no god [laugh]. But it’s, I think, become very important for America as a country to regain a sense of the difference between truth and lies, you know, and what literature can do if you do it right is that the reader and the writer can make that agreement. You could read the book, or a book, and you can say, yeah, this is how it is. This is how it is.
Tavis: Has that line between what is true and what is false — the line clearly has been breached. We’ve blurred the line. But is the damage done from that irreparable — put another way, Trump did that and won and he continues to do that and his tweets — I always tell people I’m not so much impressed by the pushback that Donald Trump gets when he puts something crazy out.
What blows me away are the number of times he gets re-tweeted by people who apparently at some level agree with what he said. So I guess the question is whether or not the damage has been done, whether or not it’s irreparable, whether or not we are now in a whole new era where we will never be able to distinguish again the truth from a lie.
Rushdie: You know, I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, I think it’s a danger. I think Trump’s core vote, you know, his core base followers, are incredibly loyal. I mean, nothing that’s happened even in the last six or seven months has shaken them.
Around like 38%, it just stays there no matter what happens. Now whether that’s enough to get him reelected, I don’t know. You know, it got him elected once.
What I think may happen is, first of all, that there are opposition leaders who can speak as persuasively to the American people as he has and which somehow Hillary did not do. So that’s one thing. The other thing is I think in the end people — when reality bites is when they notice that things are not working out the way they think they’re going to.
I mean, coal ain’t coming back no matter what Trump promised. It’s just not. A lot of the jobs that he says he will get back are impossible to get back because basically they’ve been taken over by robots. They’re not being taken over by Chinese people. They’re taken over by mechanization.
Tavis: Or Mexicans, yeah.
Rushdie: Yeah. So when people begin to see that the promises aren’t being delivered, then hopefully that will detach people from him.
Tavis: You used the word hopefully just now. What your book’s like “The Golden House” do for us at the very least, even though there are truths, obviously, told in the book and we appreciate that, what they do at their best, though, is allow us some sense of escapism.
I guess the question is whether or not escapism really matters when a society is experiencing hopelessness. Is escapism a real alternative to hopelessness?
Rushdie: Well, I don’t think it’s exactly escapism. I think it’s just I hope that what books can do at their best is to make you reimagine things, make you see the world at a slightly different angle, which just helps you think about it. I mean, this book’s quite funny, you know, and funny is good.
Tavis: I’ll take funny.
Rushdie: Yeah. Funny is good just because people need to laugh, you know, and political funny is good because, in this particular case, we have a president who’s so thin-skinned that it hurts him, which is nice [laugh].
Tavis: You know, what’s funny about that, I was in a conversation last night — I’m not even sure I should raise this on television. I’m sure I’ll get mail for this, but we’re into it now — but this line of political funny is another line that’s being blurred and it’s starting to annoy me. So, for example, I didn’t find it funny that Sean Spicer showed up…
Rushdie: Nor did I.
Tavis: You didn’t?
Rushdie: Nor did I.
Tavis: Sean Spicer and Donald Trump and that ilk are dangerous people, and leave it to Hollywood to turn it into a freaking joke. He shows up at the Emmy Awards. This is not jokes and laughter to me. This guy and what he represents and what they represent is dangerous for our democracy.
You can’t tweet one day that it’s dangerous for a democracy and the next day he’s playing along with a skit. I don’t get that.
Rushdie: Yeah, there he is in Hollywood. No, no, it’s sort of enabling him. I thought that was a bad misfire, a bad misfire. I don’t know. I switched the Emmys off. They were boring. But I thought that was a bad mistake.
Tavis: It just troubles me because I just think that when we’re talking about, again, things that are really dangerous for our democracy, the more we make jokes and laughter about this, I just don’t know that’s…
Rushdie: Well, you know, there’s a kind of cozy — the trouble with that joke is that it was cozy. It was like saying we’re all the same guys, really. Well, actually, we’re not, we’re not.
Tavis: We’re not, yeah.
Rushdie: I mean, I think satire is a very sharp-edged tool.
Rushdie: And actually not just in this presidency, but ever since the George W. Bush presidency. I’ve actually been grateful to comedians, to Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart and John OIiver…
Tavis: John Oliver, all of them.
Rushdie: Samantha Bee…
Tavis: Trevor Noah?
Rushdie: Trevor Noah now. I think, because they’ve been providing some of the most pointed political critique while being funny of anybody. They’re doing the job which maybe the mainstream media should be doing, but doing it better.
Tavis: Yeah. And what do you make of — you’ve listed what you think of the late night comedians. What do you think of what the mainstream media is doing or not doing, as it were, in telling the truth, getting at the real story?
Rushdie: Well, I think they’re trying, you know. I think the papers like The Times and The Western Post are trying very hard. But sometimes they get it horribly wrong. I mean, I went on election day, The New York Times had a gathering in their theater, their offices, at like seven p.m. Had all their heavy hitters there from the editor downwards, all the main commentators.
They had no idea what was about to happen. They were talking about how their headline for the next day was going to be “Madam President”, you know. And this is like two hours later, Trump was president. At seven p.m., The New York Times had no idea. So that made me think you guys are not nearly as smart as you think you are.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, what do you make of how badly they and everybody else missed the mark?
Rushdie: Everybody missed, but I think the person who was most surprised was Donald Trump.
Tavis: Donald Trump. I totally agree. I think he still is.
Rushdie: Yeah, and I don’t think he wanted the job, but he certainly can’t do it. I mean, he’s announced on some show a couple of weeks ago that it was harder than his previous job [laugh]. The idea that it hadn’t occurred to him that being the President of the United States was harder than being a real estate mogul. I mean, what can you say?
Tavis: This may be an unfair question. I’m not even sure it fits, but let me ask anyway. What do you hope the takeaway is for readers when they get to “The Golden House”?
Rushdie: Well, you know, what you want to do is, first of all, tell a good story. That’s it. You want people to be engaged with the characters, they care about them and care about what happens to them. That’s the most.
But then, if you’re trying to write this kind of a social novel which tries to deal with — you know, take a panoramic look at what’s going on. Because there’s all sorts of things in this book, you know. Occupy Wall Street, all kinds of things get in there.
Then I think there’s two things I hope for from readers. One is for like now, contemporary readers read it and they have the pleasure of recognition. They have the pleasure of saying, yeah, this is how it is. This is how it’s been.
And then, hopefully, if I’ve done it right, then in the future when people read it, they can say, oh, I see that’s how it was, because you captured the moment. So for readers today, I hope that they’ll read it and say, oh, yeah, this is a pretty good portrait of how things have been.
Tavis: And there you have it from the author, Salman Rushdie. The book is called “The Golden House: A Novel”, the latest from Salman Rushdie. Good to have you back on, my friend.
Rushdie: Always good. Thank you.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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His most recent book of fiction, “The Ancient Minstrel,” was published this month. A book of poetry, “Dead Man’s Float,” was published this year.
[ Read an appraisal of Jim Harrison’s writing ]
In Mr. Harrison’s fiction, especially, lay some of the most vivid, violent and evocative writing of its day — work that in the estimation of many critics captured the resonant, almost mythic soul of 20th-century rural America.
“His books glisten with love of the world, and are as grounded as Thoreau’s in the particulars of American place — its rivers and thickets, its highways and taverns,” Will Blythe wrote in The New York Times Book Review in 2007, reviewing Mr. Harrison’s novel “Returning to Earth.” He added, “Bawdily and with unrelenting gusto, Harrison’s 40 years’ worth of writing explores what constitutes a good life, both aesthetically and morally, on this planet.”
Though not strictly a household name, Mr. Harrison was long esteemed by a large, devoted cohort of readers in North America. He was also hugely popular in Europe — especially in France, where he was venerated as a cult author.
Considered a master of the novella, a rarely cultivated discipline, Mr. Harrison was also known for his essays on food: He was perhaps the leading exponent of the small subgenre in which shotguns and shoe leather play a far greater role than balsamic reduction.
His food writing, much of which first appeared in Esquire, was collected in his 2001 book, “The Raw and the Cooked,” whose title invokes the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s volume of that name. Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s book is about myth and ritual. Mr. Harrison’s is about rituals that include his flying to France for the sole purpose of having lunch — a lunch that spanned 11 hours, 37 courses and 19 wines.
Because of his books’ hypermasculine subject matter, their frequent setting amid the woods and trout streams of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and his own knockabout life, Mr. Harrison was chronically, and to his unrelieved disgust, compared to one man.
In fact, his prose is nothing like Hemingway’s: It is jazzier, more lyrical and more darkly comic. His characters, more marginal and far less self-assured — many abandon jobs and families to light out in search of meaning they never find — are handled with greater tenderness.
“Driving out of the woods I felt a new and curious calm but doubted it would last,” the rootless narrator of Mr. Harrison’s first novel, “Wolf” (1971), says as he returns reluctantly to civilization after a sojourn in the wild. He continues:
“When I reached the main road I would stop at a gas station and make a reservation at a hotel in Ishpeming and when I got there I knew I would shower and go down to the bar and drink myself into the comatose state I knew I deserved. Maybe King David drank heavily in his canopied tent the night before battle.”
At bottom, Mr. Harrison was not so much like Hemingway as he was like something out of Hemingway. Or, more accurately, something out of Rabelais — a mustachioed, barrel-chested bear of a man whose unapologetic immoderation encompassed a dazzling repertory:
There was the eating. Mr. Harrison once faced down 144 oysters, just to see if he could finish them. (He could.)
There was the drinking. One fine summer, he personally tested 38 varieties of Côtes du Rhône. (“It was like a small wine festival. Just me, really,” he told The Washington Post afterward.)
There was the drugging, in his Hollywood period, when he wrote the screenplays for films including “Revenge” (1990), starring Kevin Costner and based on Mr. Harrison’s novella of that name.
There was the hobnobbing with his spate of famous friends, including Jack Nicholson, John Huston, Bill Murray and Jimmy Buffett.
All these ingredients were titanically encapsulated in a dinner Mr. Harrison once shared with Orson Welles, which involved, he wrote, “a half-pound of beluga with a bottle of Stolichnaya, a salmon in sorrel sauce, sweetbreads en croûte, a miniature leg of lamb (the whole thing) with five wines, desserts, cheeses, ports” and a chaser of cocaine.
But constructing Mr. Harrison merely as a rough-and-ready man of appetite — a perennial conceit of profile writers, and one he did relatively little to dispel — ignores the deep intellectualism of the writer and his work. In conversation, he could range easily and without affectation over Freud, Kierkegaard, Stravinsky, Zen Buddhism, Greek oral epic and ballet.
An acclaimed poet before he began writing fiction — his collections include “Plain Song” (1965), “The Theory & Practice of Rivers” (1989) and “Songs of Unreason” (2011) — Mr. Harrison received a Guggenheim fellowship for his poetry in 1969.
Throughout his work, Mr. Harrison was intensely concerned with the natural world, though he was probably America’s least effete nature writer. There are no dewy prospects in his poetry and prose, but rather looming, unfathomable landscapes with the power to unleash an almost biblical violence.
Yet for all this — and for all its man-made violence (in “Legends of the Fall,” for instance, one character kills another with a pitchfork) — the world of his fiction is an eminently moral place, one in which vengeance follows violation with a ruthless internal logic.
Counterbalancing the undertow that pulls at Mr. Harrison’s characters are food, alcohol, sex and outdoorsmanship, ideally in combination. As he often said, this restorative cocktail was his own remedy of choice for the bouts of deep depression from which he had suffered all his life.
“If you’ve known a lot of actresses and models,” he once confided with characteristic plain-spokenness to a rapt audience at a literary gathering, “you return to waitresses because at least they smell like food.”
What united Mr. Harrison’s literary output was an acute awareness of the sustenance that close observation of ordinary things can offer, as well as an essential truth he summarized in a 1980 interview with The Washington Post:
“I’m always having a man in desperate straits trying to help somebody else out with no apparent success,” Mr. Harrison said, “because nobody can be helped by anybody.”
That truth became evident when he was very young. James Thomas Harrison was born on Dec. 11, 1937, in Grayling, in northern Michigan, the son of Winfield Harrison and the former Norma Walgren; he was reared in Reed City, 90 miles away.
Winfield Harrison, a county agricultural agent, passed on to his son a love of books as well as more pragmatic endowments that would be useful in life and in literature. (“When you sit in a bar,” the elder Mr. Harrison counseled, “never curl your feet under the rungs of a bar stool in case you’re sucker punched.”)
When Jim was 7, as he recounted in a memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), a neighborhood girl ended a quarrel by thrusting a broken bottle into his face, permanently blinding his left eye. For years afterward, he sought solace alone in the woods.
He also found solace in fiction — his father had turned him on to Faulkner, which became a lifelong passion — and by the time Jim was a teenager, he was determined to be a writer. His father encouraged him, buying him a typewriter for about $15.
When Jim Harrison was in his early 20s, his father and his 19-year-old sister, Judith, were killed on a hunting trip, when their car was struck by a drunken driver. Jim had also been invited but had vacillated before choosing not to go.
The decision probably saved his life. But in delaying the start of the trip, which put his father and sister on the road at precisely the wrong moment, he felt he had caused their deaths.
Mr. Harrison earned a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature from Michigan State University, where his classmates included the future novelist Thomas McGuane, followed by a master’s in the field there. In the mid-1960s, he taught briefly at the State University of New York at Stony Brook before turning his back on academe for the writing life.
It was a life of real poverty at first. His first three works of fiction — “Wolf” was followed by the novels “A Good Day to Die” (1973) and “Farmer” (1976) — were well reviewed but not hugely successful commercially. There was no security in poetry.
By then a husband and father, Mr. Harrison was earning barely $10,000 a year. He considered suicide.
He pulled himself through by starting work on “Letters to Yesenin,” published in 1973 and widely considered his finest volume of verse. Its title invokes the great Russian poet Sergei Yesenin, who committed suicide in 1925, at 30.
In a poem from the collection, Mr. Harrison wrestles with the decision the poet confronted. But, addressing Yesenin, he reaches a far different conclusion:
And what a dance you had kicking your legs from
the rope — We all change our minds, Berryman said in Minnesota
halfway down the river.
Beauty takes my courage
away this cold autumn evening. My year-old daughter’s red
robe hangs from the doorknob shouting Stop.
With the publication in 1979 of Mr. Harrison’s fourth volume of fiction, “Legends of the Fall,” he found his métier in the novella — and with it the commercial success that had long eluded him.
Mr. Harrison had his detractors. With its boozing and brawling and bedding, his fiction was often called misogynistic. He did himself no favors with a 1983 Esquire essay in which he called his feminist critics “brie brains” and added, in gleeful self-parody, “Even now, far up in the wilderness in my cabin, where I just shot a lamprey passing upstream with my Magnum, I wouldn’t have the heart to turn down a platter of hot buttered cheerleaders.”
But by all accounts he redeemed himself with several later works narrated by strong female protagonists: the novels “Dalva” (1988), about a Nebraska woman searching for the child she gave up for adoption, and “The Road Home” (1998), which continues Dalva’s story; and the novella “Julip” (1994), about a woman trying to free her brother from jail.
Mr. Harrison’s wife, the former Linda King, whom he married in 1959, died in October.
His survivors include two daughters, Jamie Potenberg and Anna Hjortsberg; a sister, Mary Dumsch; a brother, David; and three grandchildren.
In an essay in “The Raw and the Cooked,” Mr. Harrison neatly summed up the modus vivendi that had long sustained him. He was talking about food, but the imperative clearly applied to any of his variegated passions:
“The idea,” Mr. Harrison wrote, “is to eat well and not die from it — for the simple reason that that would be the end of your eating.”
Correction: March 27, 2016
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year Mr. Harrison married Linda King. It was 1959, not 1960.