Norman Maclean on Fishing, Fire, and How A River Runs Through It Got Published
The classic story collection A River Runs Through It turns 40 this year, and shows no signs of age, as befits a book by a man who didnt start writing fiction until he was 70.”>
This year, Norman Macleans indelible story collection, A River Runs Through It celebrates its 40th anniversary. Published by the University of Chicago Press after being rejected by the publishing community as unsellable, it remains a masterwork of Strunk & White restraint, economy, and vitality. Its about more than style, of course. It is about fathers, brothers, and the past, about nature, and, yes, fly fishing. I figure this book has got to be the best Fathers Day present you could get any manwhether they have kids or not. I dont even like fly fishing. Its just that much of a pleasure to read.
Maclean was 74 when the book was published, which just goes to show its never too late to make a debut. In the following series of letters to editor and publisher Nick Lyons, Maclean is warm, interested, and generous, and reveals the man behind his terse, clear prose. Reprinted with permission from The Norman Maclean Reader. Please enjoy.
Letters to Nick Lyons, 19761981
by Norman Maclean
Nick Lyons taught English for 28 years, first at the University of Michigan and then at Hunter College in New York City. In New York he also became a book editor and publisher, founding in 1982 what has become the Lyons Press, which has published an impressive list of fly-fishing books as well as works by writers such as Tom McGuane, Edward Hoagland, Verlyn Klinkenborg, and Jon Krakauer. Lyons has himself authored 22 books and hundreds of magazine articles during his long career. He earned a special place in Macleans heart because of his enthusiastic review, in Fly Fisherman magazine (Spring 1976), of A River Runs through It and Other Stories. Lyonss proved to be the first published review of River, and he called it a classic of American literature. In his letters to Lyons after May 1976, Maclean discusses the writing and reception of River, his work on the Mann Gulch fire book, and their common love of fishing. For Lyons, he became a generous friend and trusted sounding board, inquiring about Lyonss teaching and then new publishing career, and always affirming the quality of his fishing essays.
May 26, 1976
Dear Mr. Lyons:
I am deeply touched by your review of my stories in the Fly Fishermans Bookshelf. I should like to think that the story, A River Runs Through It, is somewhere near as good as you say it is, not so much for my sake as for the memory of my brother whom I loved and still do not understand, and could not help.
Since you wrote so beautifully about the story, I feel that I must speak personally of it to you. After my fathers death, there was no onenot even my wifeto whom I could talk about my brother and his death. After my retirement from teaching, I felt that it was imperative I come to some kind of terms with his death as part of trying to do the same with my own. This was the major impulse that started me to write stories at 70, and the first one naturally that I wrote was about him. It was both a moral and artistic failure. It was really not about my brotherit was only about how I and my father and our duck dogs felt about his death [Maclean is referring to Retrievers Good and Bad, published finally in Esquire in 1977]. So I put it aside (and have carefully never tried to publish it). I wrote the other stories to get more confidence in myself as a story-teller and to talk out loud to myself about him. The story, which now stands as the first one in the book, is actually the last one I wrote.
I hope it will be the best one (although not the last one) I ever write, and I thank you again for writing beautifully about it.
Very sincerely yours,
***Thank You!You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason
July 11, 1976
Dear Mr. Lyons:
Your warm-hearted and encouraging letter was waiting for me when I finally arrived here [Seeley Lake, Montana] a week or so ago. As an ex-English teacher, I always have to admire your prose, too. Being an English teacher always leaves its mark. When Im fishing and look upstream and see somebody fishing downstream, I pause and watch for a cast or two, and then say to myself, C minus. 
Your prose should go well with rivers, even with the Madison which at least used to be one hell of a river. The last time I fished it, though, it was covered with bastards from Texas in rubber rafts. I believe, now, however, it cant be fished by raft. The bastards from Texas in rubber rafts have all moved over to the Big Blackfootthey are in danger of capsizing from collision.
I am enclosing a colored photograph of my home. My log cabin, which my father and I built over half a century ago, is right on the Lake at the extreme left side of the postcardthe Big Blackfoot is 17 miles from here. Drop by some time and Ill take you down, but there are so damn many fishermen on it now you have to bring your own rock with you.
Yes, I hope to write another book, if I can ever get out from under the effects of writing the first. If you write one book, is it ever possible to write two?
May you live to write many and may a river run through them all.
6th December 2016 / supportsite321 / 0