Doug Moe

A fan remembers meeting Tom McGuane

He's the writer who made a writer out of Doug Moe

Tom McGuane published a big new book last week, “Cloudbursts,” a career-spanning collection of 38 short stories.

McGuane, at 78, is due a victory lap. Novelist, short story writer, essayist, and acclaimed outdoorsman, McGuane has never had a bestseller but his cult following is devout. His best- known book is probably 1973’s “Ninety-Two in the Shade,” a novel nominated for the National Book Award and made into a movie starring Peter Fonda and Warren Oates — directed by McGuane himself.

He had a Hollywood period and was married briefly to Margot Kidder. But for half a century he has been living on a ranch in Montana, writing the kind of prose that makes other writers jealous.

I have a Tom McGuane story.

I first heard his name in a political science class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, probably fall of 1976. A professor had assigned McGuane’s first novel, “The Sporting Club.” I remember nothing about the class, but I remember the novel: Two friends at a northern Michigan old-money hunting lodge decide to wreak havoc on the genteel membership. The writing was electric. The man in the author photo had long hair and a defiant gaze. I was smitten.

I read McGuane’s other two novels, “The Bushwhacked Piano” and “Ninety-Two,” and started writing fiction myself. I had little talent for it — I was trying to imitate the inimitable Tom McGuane — but pressed on. I was accepted into a fiction-writing program at Boston University in the summer of 1977.

By the following school year, I had another hero — I’d discovered the legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko in the Chicago Sun-Times. You could get the Chicago papers at Rennebohm’s then. I started reporting for the UW-Madison student papers.

Yet Tom McGuane was still very much on my radar. Esquire magazine profiled him in June 1978. The article said McGuane had a new novel coming out, his fourth.

That fall, I was drinking a cup of coffee, either in Rennie’s or the Kollege Klub, when I read a short notice in Irv Kupcinet’s Sun-Times column about the guests appearing that week on his TV chat program, “Kup’s Show.” They included the actor Charlton Heston and the author Thomas McGuane.

I’m not sure what possessed me — being 22, I guess — but I called the TV station and somehow was put through to the producer of “Kup’s Show.” I also don’t know what possessed him, but he said it would be OK for me to drive to Chicago and watch the taping that afternoon.

It was a magical. Charlton Heston introduced himself to me twice in the green room. Singer Eartha Kitt and film director John Avildsen were also guests.

McGuane had with him his new wife, Laurie — sister of Jimmy Buffett — along with a publicist who frowned when I introduced myself, saying I’d driven from Madison, and asked McGuane if I could talk to him for a bit after the show. The publicist said crossly, “Are you with a publication?”

McGuane ignored her and said he would by happy to chat. I sat with Laurie in the green room during the taping.

“Did you like ‘Panama?’” she asked, referencing Tom’s new novel. I’d brought my copy for him to sign.

I did, although it was a departure for McGuane, semi-autobiographical about the perils of fame, and written in first person, which he said was like “writing with one hand tied behind my back.”

We spoke for maybe 10 minutes after the taping. I was star struck and he was very kind. Persevere, he said, when I asked for advice. Work hard. Get your butt in the chair. There are no shortcuts.

Back in Madison, I was pinching myself for days. Eventually I wrote a review of “Panama” and submitted it to the Chicago Sun-Times, my new favorite newspaper.

The book editor, Henry Kisor, rejected it, saying he didn’t publish unsolicited reviews. But he included a few lines of praise for my piece. It gave me the confidence to send the review to the Milwaukee Journal.

I will never forget coming home one fall day in 1978 and opening the letter from the Journal’s book editor, Bob Wells, saying he wanted to publish my review of “Panama.”

It was the first piece of writing for which I was ever paid: $30.

I met Tom McGuane one other time. In 1999 I interviewed him in his hotel room at the Concourse. He was in town to read at Canterbury Booksellers, but I don’t recall the book. He was just as before, though: gracious, good-humored, fully engaged.

It’s hard to believe it has been 40 years since I drove to Chicago to meet him. I bought “Cloudbursts” last week with the same excitement I had making the drive. McGuane’s writing does that. No surprise, the book is dedicated to Laurie.  

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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