This week I'm pleased to feature a three-part interview with my friends Chadd VanZanten and Russ Beck, authors of On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies: Essays and Dubious Advice (The History Press, 2015). Chadd is a professional editor in Logan, Utah. His essays appear in the online journal Eat Sleep Fish, the anthology Utah Reflections, and the anthology Between Places. Russ teaches writing at Utah State University. He received the Western Literature Association Frederick Mannford Award for his creative writing and edits both braidedbook.com and howsmallatrout.wordpress.com. Chadd and Russ's collection of essays is an introspective and humorous look at the rules of fly fishing and includes over seventy beautiful photographs. In the photograph below, Russ is pictured centered and Chadd is pictured on the right. Tune back in tomorrow for Part Two!
An Interview with Chadd VanZanten & Russ Beck
Part One: Fly Fishing, "Groop," & Reading for Plunder
I kind of feel like Chuck Woolery on Love Connection asking these questions, but play along. How did you two first meet? When was it that you first started fly-fishing and writing together?
Chadd: We met at Helicon West. We saw each other there a few times and talked about writing and music a bit, and then Beck invited me to that reading group with you and Sarah Stoekl and Kacy and E-beth. I think we called it the Groop.
Russ: We met first at an open mic (Helicon West)--then we were just so enamored with each other that we started meeting up in a writing group (you were there too!). I kept telling Chadd that I wanted to learn how to fly fish and he would politely nod. Five-ish years later, we started fishing together/Chadd started teaching me to fish.
Chadd: When Beck and I met, I’d been fly fishing for only a couple years, but I was getting into it pretty heavily. I would go to Groop and tell Beck that I’d just been fly fishing or that I was going the next day, and he would say, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to try that,” and I’d think, “Right. Whatever.” One day he said, “When are you going to take me fishing with you?” and I said, “Okay, fine. Let’s go this weekend.” And he actually showed up.
Is it a chicken-and-the-egg situation in that you are not sure which came first or did one mutual interest lead to the other?
Chadd: There is a steep learning curve in fly fishing—a lot of people try it a few times and then quit. But Beck fell hard for it and pretty soon he was fishing as much or more than me. This was in the fall, during a time when the fishing is always really good, and so we fished a lot. It was also the year before Beck’s daughter was born, and in fact it was shortly before Kacy found out she was expecting. So, for nine months—through that winter, spring, and summer—we fished incessantly, because we thought once the baby came, he’d have a lot less time to fish. And we were right.
Chadd: I wrote an essay about how Beck got off to a rough start and how he couldn’t catch many fish at first. It’s in the book. And he did have some discouraging days, but he actually picked up the basics quite quickly, and he was eager to better, so we fished and fished. Of course, we talked while we fished and eventually we talked about fishing and writing together. Beck repaid me for anything I might have taught him about fishing, because he taught me how to write about fishing. Or, he tried. I was writing almost exclusively fiction at that time. I’d dabbled in essays, but I could never get them to sound right. Beck had already figured out that to write about something like fly fishing, you have to write about everything around it, rather than approaching it straight on. There is a sideways aspect to it, or a sleight of hand—when you want to write about the fishing you actually write about your life, and when you write about your life, you write about fishing. It’s maybe not that simple, but it’s something like that.
Chadd: I actually don’t consider myself one of those people who loves reading. I try to read as much as I can, and I like to think that I appreciate good books, but I also feel like I’m kind of a jerk to the books I read. I have a very one-sided relationship with books. I read because I want something out of them. I did read a lot when I was in high school, mostly fantasy and sci-fi. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings over and over again. All my friends did, too. And we read a lot of Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft. That’s why I got along so well with Danny Nyikos in the Groop. But I read pretty slowly, and I definitely don’t read because I’m brainy or because reading is sublime—I read books because I want to tell exciting stories, like my favorite authors did. I read The Shining several times to try to unlock why it was so riveting. I read a lot of comic books, too, and for a long time I wanted to write graphic novels. I was searching these sci-fi and fantasy books for the secrets to telling really fabulous adventure stories. I never did follow through with the graphic novels, and the stories I write now are not fabulously exciting, but I still read for the same purpose. I’m not a bookworm. I read for plunder. I want algorithms I can use in my own writing.
Russ: In the fourth grade I convinced my best friend to illustrate a book I was going to write. He ended up writing and illustrating it--but I put my name on the cover with him. (I've always been lucky to find people who are kind and good workers to collaborate with). I think I liked the idea of writing something more than actually doing it.
Chadd: I learned to fly fish as an adult, but I began fishing with bait and spinning gear when I was very young. I don’t even remember the first times I went fishing—my grandpa started taking me fishing when I was three or four years old, I think. And as a kid, I considered fishing the greatest thing there was to do. Other activities could be lots of fun, but fishing was the best thing. So, you could go camping, and have a campfire, and go on hikes, and swim, but those were just the things you did while you were waiting to fish. Years later, when I got out of college and had a family, I guess I got busy with life and fell out of the habit of fishing. I had a long break from it, until my kids got old enough to take an interest in it. So, I fished with them, and some of them liked it and some of them liked it less, but it definitely got me back into it. I don’t plan to take any more breaks.
Russ: I always fished. Sort of. My dad would take me and we'd sit on the lip of lakes and try to catch fish. I liked it, but didn't love it. Then in high school I had a friend who taught me to stream fish--and that's what I still love (I talk about this in "A Good Place to Make Saints.") Then I didn't do much of it at all until Chadd taught me again in my late twenties.
Chadd: Writer vs. angler—I don’t know. Beck and I wrote a book, but I have had a lot of trouble thinking of myself as a writer. I write. I have written. But I’ve gone snow skiing a few times, too, but I’m not a skier. If I can manage to write another book or two, I may presume to adopt the title of writer. I do consider myself an angler, but my rank within that pursuit is also very green. My experience limited to small streams and rivers in the west—I’ve never fished for steelhead in Alaska or for tarpon in Florida.
Russ: I think I started out as a writer first, but I've certainly become an angler first now.
On Fly-Fishing the Northern Rockies, is quite picturesque and idyllic. I think most anyone can sometimes be guilty of romanticizing the things we love, ignoring the rough spots, and speaking highly of things that sometimes drive us batty. What are the truly annoying, awful, or frustrating moments of fly-fishing? What about in writing?
Russ: Preparing lines and tying knots (but even those aren't that bad). Untangling gummed-up lines. Maybe not catching fish when you think you should be? (Again--not that bad, because it just makes it when you do catch fish that much better.) Honestly, minus major/expensive breaks and expensive equipment or injuries, fishing doesn't really have too many bad things about it.
Chadd: I don’t want to answer questions you didn’t ask, but romanticization is a topic Beck and I specialize in, which is to say that Beck was an expert and he taught me. Romaticization is the enemy. Romanicization kills narrative, poisons characters, and invalidates conceit and thesis. This one of the main things Beck taught me about writing. We’ve spent hours and hours discussing this—on road trips, while fishing—how to avoid romanticizing. How to avoid even thinking about it. Because it’s so easy to fall into. If you drop your guard for even a line or two, everything turns to rubbish. This is especially true when it comes to fly fishing. Romanticization turns good trips into great trips and great trips into implausible legends. But you can also romanticize the rough trips, too. They turn into slapstick comedy or trite self-deprecation. If we do nothing else right, Beck and I avoid hyperbole, cliché, and romance. We refuse to romanticize this sport. I think we love it too much to do that.
Russ: Writing on the other hand--well, everything about it is horrible. It's nearly always painful. The only thing that makes it worth it is the final product. Everything else is the absolute worst.
You have both been writing for a long time. Is creative nonfiction your genre of choice? Do you write fiction, poetry, or other forms? What are the benefits of writing in one genre versus the other?
Russ: Nonfiction is my genre of choice. The others I've dabbled in--but I don't really like doing them (but I like reading anything).
Chadd: I write fiction and essays. That’s all, pretty much. I don’t know which one I like better, but ten years ago I definitely did not picture myself ever writing a book of essays. In fact, someone in the Groop once suggested that I write some essays to see if I liked it. My response was: “I would rather write something that is 90 percent true and call it fiction than write something that is 10 percent true and call it nonfiction.” I was a pretentious ass in that group— it was so fun! If there are benefits to writing nonfiction, one would be that you may not have to try as hard to connect yourself emotionally—there are fewer contrivances between the story and your real emotions. Fiction can of course be very emotionally connected, but if it is, that means the author had to work harder to make those emotional connections.
Which writers do you particularly admire? Which books—whether from childhood or adulthood—have been the most influential to you in how you think about the craft of writing?
Russ: If A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius didn't exist I probably wouldn't have ever really written anything. Eggers taught me that young people have something to say. And it can be serious and it can be sad and everything else. My three favorite fictionists are probably Vonnegut, Steinbeck and Morrison.
Chadd: I have two places from which to draw inspiration when it comes to writing—first there are the great authors of literature, and I’m sorry to say that my tastes are a bit predictable and pretentious. The writers I admire most are the old gods—William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, James Joyce, J.D. Salinger, and yeah, also Herman Melville. I really do enjoy their writing and I really do want to write as well as they write. I think I aspire to write like them because deep down I know that anything I write will be a pale facsimile, and if that’s how it’s going to be, I might as well start with something vivid and heavy. The second source of inspiration would be the writers of fish lit, the authors that both Beck and I would like to measure up to with our own fish lit. As far as I’m concerned, with respect to outdoor writing, the sun could rise and set solely on the works of Norman McClean, but there are others, such as Thomas McGuane and Roderick Haig-Brown. And Beck and I both recently discovered Richard Brautigan, who is sort of a tragic angler-warrior-poet from the 1960s who wrote just one piece of what anyone might consider fish lit, and that is an absolutely legendary book called Trout Fishing in America.