Sarah MacLachlan on the Passing of Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison (December 11, 1937 — March 26, 2016)
In October last year, Jim Harrison’s wife Linda died. I read about it on one of the social networks, probably Facebook. I was shocked and saddened. I hadn’t spoken to Jim in a couple of years and thought I should write to an author who had been a friend and one of the most literate, contrary, inspiring people I have met in the business. For six months I planned to write to him, but didn’t. For six months he was on my list of people to write, for six months I kept bringing his name forward in my day timer week after week . . . The office flooded, my mother was ill, there were plenty of excuses, but the plain fact is I didn’t write to him and now it’s too late and I’m filled with remorse and regret.
My husband Noah told me that I should write to Jim anyway, but what would that serve? “The two of you are still talking,” he said. “And you need to tell him what he meant to you.” So, instead I thought I should tell you, dear Anansi reader, what he meant to this press.
I came to know Jim in 1998 when I was running the Toronto offices of Publishers Group West, a distributor for independent US publishers. One of them, Grove Atlantic, had just acquired Jim’s newest novel, The Road Home. It was a big deal for the press and for all of us who were Jim Harrison fans. Sundog, Dalva, Legends of the Fall — the poetry — all of his readers remember their first encounter with his heady work so brimming with life. We first met at the American Booksellers Association in Chicago, and we got along like a house on fire. It can be risky, meeting an author whose work you cherish, but certainly not this time. Immediately, I loved his irreverent sense of humour, his wild way of looking at people with his one good eye, and his evident, and now legendary, love of eating and drinking and smoking! Soon after, I asked him if he would come to Canada to do some literary festivals and media. It was a challenge to get him to say yes to anything.
Leaving his wife Linda was always difficult, but he also truly hated flying. When I asked if he would consider flying to Vancouver to attend the Vancouver Writers Festival, he faxed,
regardez le map du canada! eight hours in a plane without a cigarette – you must be joking!
In the end, he not only visited Vancouver, but also Calgary and Toronto a number of times.
Five years later, I left PGW to run Anansi. We had a small, underpopulated list at the time. I thought if Jim were willing and we could convince Grove to split Canadian rights for his next novel, True North, that adding him to our list would be a sure way to garner attention and to show that our dedication to literary writers of singular character and quality reached beyond borders. Jim’s book became the first acquisition for what would become our “Anansi International” imprint. We proceeded to publish four of Jim’s novels and a collection of his short fiction. His visits were always a highlight of the year. At dinners hosted by me and my husband Noah Richler at our house, he met many of Canada’s young up-and-coming writers: Gil Adamson, Kevin Connolly, Lynn Coady, Michael Helm, and Michael Winter, who came fresh from hunting and brought a caribou roast for the occasion. And Jim was a dear friend of Michael Ondaatje’s. Noah remembers his conversation with Michael and Jim, for A Different Drummer Books and Brian Prince Books, as an occasion that both thrilled him and made him nervous (they were both heroes). Jim also wrote a regular column for Michael Redhill and the gang at Brick. He was generous with advice about writing and film deals, and he loved talking about food, cooking, and wine (Côtes du Rhône being his favourite), but most of all he was generous in spirit. He had time for people, loved stories, followed the careers of young writers, and insatiably wanted to read writers he did not know about. Jim cared. He was interested. When Noah’s father Mordecai died, he wrote him a tender letter that included the unforgettable line (one of so many), “You are now crossing into that eerie land where there are no judges.”
We shared many wonderful times with Jim.
That said, with the publication of every new book he became more and more reluctant to travel and to promote. The whole business of publishing was anathema to him. And, concurrent with his reluctance, there was increasing pressure for us to deliver a writer who was good at and willing to do public events. Without him actively promoting we found it harder and harder to get people to pay attention to his work and the sales diminished.
Finally in 2013, when Jim had pulled together an eponymous collection of novellas featuring his legendary protagonist, Brown Dog (the idea for the book was one that he readily credited to me), I decided not to publish them. It had become clear to me that Jim would sell the same number of copies if he were distributed in Canada through Grove as he would were we to publish him separately. We could no longer make a difference to his audience and it no longer made financial sense. It is a decision that I deeply regret. But while I think Jim was disappointed by my decision not to publish Brown Dog, he took it with great good humour.
Here is the last email I ever received from him dated November 13, 2013:
I pray that you stop sleeping with the mayor of Toronto. He could roll over and crush the future of Canadian Publishing. But be proud of him for being featured in U.S. news.
Did you see brown dog collection?
Very pretty. It was your idea, remember?
He was one of a kind — we will not see his like again. I adored him and will miss him. If you haven’t read his work do so, you won’t regret it!