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Rick Bass: The sage of Yaak Valley

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By Doug Hare EBS STAFF

Bespectacled, unassuming with a wiry build, Rick Bass can look the part of professor or an elk hunter returning to camp depending on circumstance. A native of Houston, Texas, Bass attended Utah State University in Logan where he studied petroleum geology, often slipping into the wilderness of northern Utah with little more than a sleeping bag and a backpack full of books.

After college, Bass took a job and spent seven and a half years digging around for gas and oil reserves in Mississippi and Alabama. Despite a grueling work schedule, he’d visit independent bookstores on lunch breaks and read voraciously—eventually he got his hands on Jim Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall,” a novella he credits with giving him the courage to try his own hand at putting pen to paper. He still writes longhand to this day.

As Bass tells it, one fateful afternoon he just “got in his truck and drove north and west.” He didn’t stop until he made it to the remote Yaak Valley in northwest Montana. Since answering the call to become a full-time writer in what’s left of the American frontier, Bass has spilled both ink and sweat trying to protect his chosen home from over-development.

“It’s amazing how much time I spend working on environmental advocacy pieces,” he said. “I’m still active with the Yaak Valley Forest Council: a lot of lobbying, fundraising and volunteering on the board.”
When asked about his writing routine, Bass recommends getting an early start for clarity of mind. “Morning is best,” he says, “before the hard realities of the day intrude with their sharp edges upon the thin membrane of the dream world.”

In the hands of true craftsmen, the short story can have incandescent moments of revelation. With his keen eye for observing the natural world, an ear for the rhythmic cadences of sparse prose, and ability to move from elemental imagery to the mystery and awe of being alive inside of a paragraph, Bass’ best stories can have a transformative effect. The reader is somehow lulled into a false sense of security by a deceptive simplicity and disarming authenticity, only to be struck with observations that burst like Roman candles across a still night sky.
How did a petroleum geologist transform himself into a major American writer? His attention to tradition—his literary predecessors—his perseverance as a writer, dedication to his craft, and his immersive methodology of writing fiction were essential to his successful career change.

When Bass moved to Montana, Jim Harrison invited him and his wife, Elizabeth, to dinner. It was the beginning of a friendship that died only when Harrison did in the spring of 2016, pen in hand. “He was someone who made writing look like a lot of fun,” said Bass of his longtime friend. “He made living look like a lot of fun. … He became a role model for me whether I knew it or not.”

While his activism will never take a back seat to his literary ambitions, Bass’ latest collection of short stories in “For a Little While,” published in 2016, offers a portrait of an artist growing old, yet one whose imagination and craftsmanship only seem to grow stronger and more refined.

Bass himself sees little importance in being overly introspective. “The tunnel vision that a writer brings to his or her craft is intense. The focal point is binocular and precise,” he said. “You want to be down in the subconscious, watching the dream of the real time of the story.”

This article was adapted from “Rick Bass: The Sage of Yaak Valley on Writing, Teaching and the Late Jim Harrison,” published in the summer 2017 edition of Mountain Outlaw magazine.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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