In honor of a day respecting trout in the arts, we had the privelidge to sit down with legendary author, John Gierach. John can be considered one of the most legendary, award-winning, fly-fishing authors of the 21st century. With over 21 published titles such as iconic staple of fly-fishing literature: “Trout Bum”, and “All Fisherman are Liars”, John has managed to capture the very spirit of fly-fishing and deliver it back to his readers within the casing of two covers. Whether you’re a reader, writer, or you just love the idea of working a small stream with a bamboo fly rod – there’s something for you in the words below…
FL: Who is John Gierach?
John: I’ll keep this quick. A writer, fly fisherman, old guy, traveler.
FL: When did you start fly fishing?
John: Let’s see, I moved to Colorado after college in ’68 (John graduated from Findlay College in Ohio with a degree in philosophy), and it would’ve been soon thereafter. I fished all my life with a break during college. And I got out here and it was the first time I’d actually seen people fly fishing. I think I might’ve seen someone fly fish once in the Midwest. It wasn’t a thing. They’re all over the place now. But, then it was all bait casters and stuff. And I saw people fly fishing and I just thought it was pretty. So, I got a rod; not a good one, but a rod I could afford and went out and figured out how to catch fish. I thought the fish were pretty. I just thought everything about it was pretty. I liked the creeks and I just fell into it.
I liked the looks of it. I thought it was cool. I thought it was what fishing should’ve been, but never was until I figured out you can fly cast, and then it started to make sense, started to feel like that’s the way it should be.
FL: How was it you first got into writing?
John: I think it was just that I had always been a reader. As I said, my mother used to read to me before I could read myself, which doesn’t mean I was a good student, but I just always liked to read. I thought maybe it would be fun to do. The way you put language together just interested me.
By high school and into college, I was trying to be a writer and I stumbled into writing about fly fishing. I was out here. I’d been fly fishing for a while, reading fly fishing magazines. I think at the time I was driving a garbage truck for a living, which is nice because it left the afternoons to fish. I was reading the fishing magazines and one day it just occurred to me, well, they pay for this stuff, and it’s not War and Peace. It can be done. I sold the first fishing story I wrote and for what amounted to a month’s pay [around $75 at the time].
FL: Was that your first published writing work?
John: No. It was the first published work I was paid for in a magazine. I’d published before, mostly not for pay, although I had a book of poetry in print that I actually… I mean, that paid me royalties. I found an old royalty statement for six months and it was $4 or something. It was nothing. But it was the first significant amount of money I made writing.
I remember thinking, “Well, this is great because I can pick up some money on fly fishing writing and pursue my real serious literary career.” [But] that didn’t last long…
FL: What made caused you to make the transition into focusing mainly on fly-fishing literature?
John: That came from reading guys like Jim Harrison and Tom McGuane, and thinking actually: “You can do this just as well as you can do anything else.”
I realized that it doesn’t have to be dumb shit, hook-and-bullet, ‘me and Joe went fishing’ stuff. I mean, this CAN be literary. [Fly-Fishing writing] could be as good as writing gets. And so I owe it to that first bunch of counterculture guys that came up writing about fly fishing and taking huge amounts of drugs.
FL: Do you think that new perspective in fly fishing and literature is what brought you over to the fly fishing side, and kept you there?
John: No, no. It might’ve kept me there. No, what brought me to fly fishing writing was fly fishing itself. I’d see people wading in streams catching trout on a fly rod and I just thought what a cool way to fish. But that’s probably what kept me into writing about fishing. [It] was just the idea that this can be literature. It’s literature when Tom McGuane does it, maybe it can be literature when I do it.
FL: Let talk about your creative process. When you’re out fishing, you carry the notebook. Do you have something that you can sum up as when inspiration usually hits?
John: Not a moment in time that I can put a finger on, but I’ll just get an idea. We were talking about Norman Maclean before, and I’m reading “A River Runs Through It and Other Stories“, and the other stories get short shrift, but they’re wonderful. He says in one, “There’s a moment when you realize you’re part of a story and things aren’t just happening…”, and I think that’s maybe just because I just read it and it was said well, but that’s kind of what it is. There’s a moment when you think, “Yeah, there’s a story in this.”
What keeps the notebook in my pocket is the fact that I’ll think of something that I think is brilliant, and if I don’t write it down I’ll forget it. It doesn’t always happen fishing. You could be at the grocery store and see a can of Dinty Moore beef stew and remember Dinty Moore beef stew from camping 30 years ago, and it will set something off. I’ll think, “Yeah, right. I’ll remember that.” But I don’t…
The vast majority of things I write down are useless. You go back and look at them later and you go, “What the hell is that?” But every once in a while there’s something there.
Here, we have a page from one of John’s many hundreds of notebooks he has stacked beside his writing desk.
FL: Can you recall a specific time you’ve been on the river and pulled out your notebook to write something special down?
John: Not really, but it does happen and it’s not terribly rare. A lot of times, also, it isn’t to capture so much the moment of inspiration as I’ll be working on something, and when I’m working on something, it’s always rattling around in my head somehow. Sometimes, I’ll just all of a sudden, out of absolutely nowhere, think; “Okay, I’ve been wrestling with that paragraph and now I know what to do with it. The middle part has to go and the beginning, and then what becomes the middle has to be deleted, and the end is already there.” Editing is almost always a matter of making things shorter, more concise.
FL: Aside from the notebook, can you walk us through what the rest of your writing process generally looks like?
John: When an idea begins, I will usually just kick it around in my head for a while. Might take some notes. If it’s just a brainstorming idea in the course of things, maybe I’ll write down a few notes and think about it. If it’s a trip I’m on… and almost any fishing trip is a story, because it’s got this narrative arc that begins in your driveway and ends in your driveway and what happens in between.
If you go to Alaska, you fly to some podunk little town, you get in a boat, and it’s just step by step from there. I’ll have notes for a trip like that and I’ll usually transcribe the notes, because, you were just fooling around with my notebook, you can see you can’t read it. And that’s true of me after a month, I can’t read what I wrote either, or it’s really hard.
As I’m transcribing it, I’ll think of other things that I’m reminded of, write those down. And then I’ll just live with it for a while. And at some point, the lead is really important, and there’s just a point where I’ll go, “Okay, I’m going to start there.” And it could be the end, it could be the middle, it could be anywhere. But, just someplace where it seems like that’s the door, that’s the way I take in. And just tell it like I was writing a letter. And that was always really helpful. It’s just forgetting the pretense, forgetting that it’s literature. You’re just you’re writing to a friend. “Here’s what happened today.” And so a lot of times it’s just as simple as that.
And then, I don’t know, I just write. I don’t think too much about what I’m saying or why I’m saying it, I just go ahead and write as if I’m telling the story to somebody.
FL: And what does your editing process look like?
John: There’s a huge amount of editing. And a lot of it’s technical. A lot of it’s just making sentences shorter, more concise, finding the right words. A lot of times I won’t so much stop and figure out, “Okay, what’s the right word here?” I’ll just use, “Very big.” This is not good writing because anytime you have to modify a word, you’re using the wrong word. But it’s like shorthand. I know I need to go back and change that to “humongous” or “as big as a house”, or whatever it is.
Sometimes it’s the whole bone structure of the thing. You’ll start in the middle and go to the end and stop and there’s the beginning. So, sometimes I have to totally restructure it, and as I said, every once in a while I’ll wrestle with one for a while and I’ll just go, “This is no good. There’s no story here. I was fooling myself to think there was a story here.”
And I’ll abandon it.
Tying flies can be a great outlet to break through some writers block.
FL: For the ones that get finished: how do you know a story is done?
John: I don’t know. It’s a feeling. It’s almost like you’ll hit a point and it’ll just take that one last breath and it’s done. And it’s one way I know a story isn’t right is I’ll read it all through and I’ll go, “Yeah, this is fine, but I don’t it didn’t land, it didn’t land right.” You ever been on an airplane that lands just right? It’s just all of a sudden you’re on the runway, or on the lake, or whatever it is. That’s how I like stories to end.
It can have that feeling, even if it takes a real angle at the end. But it just has that, “This is exactly what I meant.” And I just keep fooling around with it until I’ve got it.
FL: From your own personal collection, your own repertoire, do you have a piece that you’re the fondest of, in terms of the process that went into it? Perhaps surrounding a meaningful time in your life that it was written?
John: Yeah, there’s a story. I think it’s in my most recent book. [It took place] up in Michigan, and it’s about my friend Paul who died. It was interesting because he was a really fascinating, truly strange guy. An Unapologetically strange guy – he got cancer and died. He and I fished together the last time he went fishing. I knew I wanted to write about it, but I started it half a dozen times, and I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t figure it out.
However, eventually, I remembered, in fact, this happened while I was fishing on the Frying Pan, but I remember thinking, “That story isn’t about you, it’s about him, so get the fuck out of it and just tell the story. Just tell his story.” And when I got back and sat down, I think I wrote it in, there’s always editing, but I think I wrote a really good first draft in one sitting. And people loved it.
I think Kirk Deeter said it was the best thing I’d ever written. My editor at Simon & Schuster, Bob, said it was the best thing I’d ever written. And then, I got mail about it. When you hear something like that your first thought is, “Thank you.” And your second thought is, “Okay, have I now set the bar so high I’ll never get over it again.”
FL: What do you think is encapsulated in literature that’s unique to literature alone – that can’t be transcribed into film or painting?
John: I think it’s just a version of conversation. You’re one person reading what one other person has to say. And it seems very personal. I’m reading Norman Maclean right now, and he’s dead, but I feel like Norman’s telling you this story. And that’s not true of all writers. I mean, sometimes you read writers, we were talking about philosophers earlier, sometimes you read writers and it feels like they’re talking to an audience of thousands. To me, that isn’t what I think of as good writing.
FL: If somebody has never read any of your work, is there one book that you’d recommend for them to check out?
John: Probably the most recent: “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”. Mainly because, and I don’t know if I’m fooling myself or not, but I just feel like I’m a better writer now than I was when I wrote Trout Bum. I’m 40 years older and I’ve been doing it continuously. I sure hope I’m better.
FL: Who are the writers that you sought inspiration from when first starting out?
John: I think Hemingway. The first story that I can remember that really blew my socks off, was one I read in my early teens, it was: “Big Two-Hearted River”, and I thought, “Okay, that’s it, that’s it. That’s the best thing anyone’s ever written.” And, jeez, I’ve gone back to that now I don’t know how many times. Every couple of years I read that and I haven’t changed my mind. It’s still just fucking brilliant.
[It’s]the best short story ever written, maybe. I mean, it’s not like the Olympics where you ran so far in such a time. It’s totally subjective. And there’s a lot of people now who don’t like Hemingway because he was a macho creep. Which he was.
In terms of my favorite fly-fishing author, it has to be Tom McGuane. He’s not a fly-fishing author, but he wrote the best fly fishing book ever written, which is “The Longest Silence”. [It’s] hands down the best fly fishing book. Followed by Jim Harrison, who actually didn’t write a whole hell of lot about fly fishing. But he wrote a lot about bird hunting. Harrison and Chatham both… Chatham was a surprisingly good writer, considering he was a great painter. And both those guys were influences. I like Chatham slightly better as a painter than a writer, but I liked him a lot as a writer.
John’s ‘Toy Room’, sitting adjacent to his office would certainly make Hemingway proud.
FL: When you sit down to read for fun, what do you usually gravitate towards?
John: I read a lot of short stories. I read a lot of novels. I read a lot of essays. Margaret Atwood is a great short story writer, and I don’t think she’s ever published a book of short stories, but she’s had a couple in the New Yorker in recent years that were just forehead-slapping good.
And I read a lot of John McPhee, who’s a fantastic writer. And I mean, he can write about things that don’t interest me but I can still read them because just the way they’re written. It’s like a short course in writing. And he’s got a book called “Draft No. 4: On Writing”. It’s invaluable. Although you can skip the whole long section about his computer program you can skip. But the rest of it is really excellent.
And he used to do a thing, he does it on a computer now, but way back when, he used to do a thing where I transcribe my notes, he would sit down and he would write every element that he had in his notes, he’d write it on a four by six card, or a three by five card, file card, like one of these. And he would put them in a stack and he’d shuffle through them until he found one and went, “Okay, that’s the beginning.”
FL: When you sit down and you’re writing, is it the same as when you’re on the river trying to find what you’re going to put in the book. How do you separate those? How do you enjoy something that you do for a living?
John: Oh, I don’t separate them. I mean, I do it for a living because I enjoy it. I could’ve actually made money. I mean, I could’ve gotten a real job and made money. I could’ve taught college, or… I don’t know. It’s not an easy way to make a living. But the lifestyle is… Jack Gartside said, “It’s not much of living but it’s a great life.” So I go fishing and I’m working and I work and I’m working and I… Some rock and roll critic years ago said… somebody asked him why people were so crazy about rock and roll and he said, “It’s because musicians work when they play and play when they work.” There’s no difference. It’s all work and it’s all play, and it’s just what they want to do.
FL: What’s some advice that you’d give for aspiring writers in the fly fishing space and in the outdoor space in general that you wish you had had?
John: Yeah. I think the one piece of advice I wished I had was to be aware of my rights. I mean, my copyright, my ownership of the material. And I think that’s especially true on the internet. I mean, you put that stuff out there and it’s just out there. And you’re always reading stuff where it’s all you can do to find an author, and sometimes you can’t find an author. People leave that out when they forward it.
[In terms of techniques…] there are endless techniques. The best technique is to find and read the best writing you can get your hands on, and what that is is up to you, and learn from that. Most people are too wordy. Most people say, rather than say something succinctly once, they’ll say it three times not very clearly. And I still do that, but then I go back and fix it.
If I go back to edit a story and I go, “Well, wait a minute. This paragraph says about the same as this one. And then this third paragraph says roughly the same as the first two. So let’s make it one paragraph and say it really briefly and succinctly.” And I’ve had three paragraphs turn into a sentence. And you just need time and distance to see that.
I mean, there are people, God bless them, there are people who see it right away, and I often don’t because I’ve got the whole shape of the whole thing in my head. But I’ve come to recognize the feeling when I’m just typing along and typing. I actually did it this morning while I was waiting for you guys to come up. I went through this story and I went, “No, I don’t need all that. I don’t need all that at all.”
And things make a much greater impact the fewer words you use, and I don’t know why that is. It’s maybe just that slogan, “I like Ike”.
FL: What’s a specific part of other people’s writing you often take notice of most?
John: I take note of the shape and sound of the language. Actually having tried to be a poet for a while, I’m really sensitive to the shape and sound of the language, because I mean, you can say something that’s really clear, really crystal clear, but isn’t very pretty. It doesn’t scan right. An example I remember from college. We were reading Robert Burns, who wrote: “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose”. And the professor said, “Why did he use a simile instead of a metaphor?” And I remember this, talk about the burst of inspiration, I said, “Because, if he said love is like a red, red, red rose, he’d lose the syllable he needs for the line to scan.” And he said, “You’re right, that’s right.”
FL: What is next for John Gierach?
John: Well. Hopefully, more of the same…
A note from the Interviewer:
It was the summer of 2015 when I first cracked into one of John’s most iconic books: “Trout Bum”. As I sat on the side of an unnamed lake in the middle of Ontario, my legs still quivering from a short portage that had brought me there, I spun through the pages of the novel, fully encapsulated in John’s wordsmithing. His way of describing trout fishing was of such simplicity, yet didn’t miss a beat when capturing the emotions associated with fly-fishing and the sensory stimulation that a cup of camp coffee encites. There, I sat on that lichen covered rock enjoying my conversation with the author, hoping to one day to engage in a true back and forth.
Fast forward to thelast days of August of 2021, and there I sit in the passenger seat of John’s truck – disecting possible redundancies in Tolstoy’s work only to have John smother any points I might make with patiently practiced retort. John is a man who’s words have deeply affected many. For some, his work inspires. However, for many John’s work aids in reigniting a love for the simple aspects of fly-fishing. By painting the details often missed by our actively searching eyes, Gierachs work reminds us of the evening hatches we often drift back to during a long day at work – or more importantly, reminds us of the importance of humility on the water.
Whatever your purpose for reading fly-fishing literature, there’s something to be found inbetween the pages of the works of arguably one of the most accomplished fly-fishing authors, John Gierach.
Thank you to John Gierach for taking the time to sit down with us. Click HERE to check out his newest book, “Dumb Luck and the Kindness of Strangers”. Also, thank you to Trout Unlimited for making this interview possible. Click HERE to learn how you can win an autographed copy of “A Fly Rod of Your Own” as part of TU and Flylords’ Trout Week!