Outdoor reporter to go on the record at Mark Twain Center
Paul McHugh missed his appointment.
We had agreed to speak last fall on the telephone about his book “Deadlines” and his Tahoe City appearance at Bookshelf Store. He intended to make a “quick” kayak trip around Bear Island but the tide went out and he was stuck in a slough. There were two options: Trudge through mud and risk making the situation worse or simply wait for the tide to rise. Having previously chosen the first prospect and losing a pair of shoes in the process, McHugh elected to wait for the water to rise, and he called me later.
As a San Francisco Chronicle outdoor writer for 22 years, he’s been in far more dangerous situations, and he will talk about them Thursday at the Mark Twain Center in a presentation, “Quite Risky to be a Bit Risque, Outdoor Stories I Could Never Write.”
“Most of the stories I’m going to tell I’ve never told,” he told me. “My wife will be shocked at some of the descriptions of things that have occurred during my trail-bumping ride over the terrain of the outdoors.”
Here are excerpts of our conversation on a day he did not get stuck in the mud:
Q Your presentation is called “Quite Risky to be a Bit Risque, Outdoor Stories I Could Never Write.” Why couldn’t you write them?
A If I had told those stores in the media, it would have either made me look stupid or crazed or might have ruined the reputations of some businesses or outdoor companions or guides I was traveling with. It’s a lot of power to have. You might make a compelling story, but if you wreck somebody’s life and livelihood, you think about whether it’s worth it to tell a story.
There is another motive. You know the saying, ‘Kids, don’t try this at home?’ I didn’t necessarily think that people should try to follow in my footsteps. But finally I reached the point … A lot of the guides or businesses have moved on or are no longer around. I’m not as concerned about my reputation as I once was. I now see the humorous aspect of a lot of these things that were only marginally evident at the time. When you come down to it, it’s just vivid bursts of life.
Q The Mark Twain Center is certain an appropriate venue.
A For any outdoor writer in the West, Mark Twain is that figure in the white suit just ahead of you down the trail. The guy with the Einstein hair and the Wilford Brimley mustache and the wild gleam in his eye. And the ability to be not only self-deprecating but also deprecate society in its foibles. It’s his ability to tell a tall tale and ability to make audiences laugh, he blazed that trail. We’re fortunate to follow his footsteps, so the invitation to speak at a Mark Twain Cultural Center, I saw as a blessed opportunity for me to follow in the footsteps of the master.
Q You speak as articulately at you write. Has it always been that way?
A I was more inarticulate as a youth because people couldn’t stand to hear me talk that way. I think I’ve always been obsessed with words and I always felt like I was awash in a sea of words in language and yet my ability to get it out of my mouth was pretty sharply constrained. I’m sort of like a Yellowstone geyser, now the constraints have been removed, it just spews forth. I just enjoy doing it. This is something that’s really come home to me on the book tour for “Deadlines.” Any residual shyness I’ve had about getting up in front of an audience and flicking on the talk switch has evaporated. So that makes it fun for me and them at the same time because I’m comfortable in my skin. I’m comfortable talking.
Q I enjoyed reading “Deadlines.” I hear it’s up for an award?
A Foreword Reviews magazine, a national contest that solicited 1,400 entries from 356 independent publishers. In the fiction mystery category, I’m one of nine finalists.
Q What’s next?
A I wrote “Deadlines” in two years and the next I did in one year and I’m already taking notes for the next one. This morning at breakfast table, I was able to connect the key plot points for the next one. It’s a pretty exhilarating process.
Q So you are really in a creative space right now?
A It’s interesting to have things that one has desired for a long, long time come true for you because I actually started out trying to write fiction when I was in my 20s when I wrote and published my first one, “The Search for Goodbye-To-Rains.” But I was pretty stymied after that in writing fiction. We talked earlier about this flow of language. I would put all the work into unsellable manuscripts. I realized what the flaws in those manuscripts were, but it was disheartening. Getting into journalism was my salvation as a writer because that is far more formatted and it turned out that I had a reasonable level of that talent too. So I had 30 years of success in journalism which was both a confidence booster and a craft shaper. You can’t work in journalism and have the luxury of writer’s block, for example. That only applies to dilettantes in journalism. Coming out of journalism has augmented my strengths as a writer. Now I find that I am much better prepared to write fiction than I was before and much happier to do it. It’s coming out more fluidly. It’s coming out with more structure, and a lot of the problems I experienced early in my career have just evaporated.
Q Ernest Hemingway wrote for 36 years for newspapers and magazines. He said “newspaper stuff I have written has nothing to do with the other stuff. Writing against deadlines and to make it timely and not permanent, no one has the right to put that stuff up and use it against the stuff you have written to write the best you can.” However, there are several examples of stuff he reused word for word in books. “Deadlines” was based upon two investigative stories you had written for the Chronicle, right?
A As well as other investigative situations around the state. Other public lands and state park issues and so forth. For example, at Will Rogers State Historic Park in Santa Monica there was a gradual encroachment of the Hollywood crowd who began boarding the horses and the horses of their friends. There was an effort to transform that public land into their own private horse park and it was only a burst of local activism and the uncovering of some scandalous maneuvers in Sacramento that blew that scheme. So that was also one of my models for “Deadlines.” But Hemingway is not an educator. He sometimes pontificates to hear the mighty wind issue from his mouth. I think that working in journalism helped him quite a bit as a writer. For one, as an ambulance driver in World War I, it got him into a pit of adventure. It got him out of the West and into a very dramatic scene. No. 2, it taught him the discipline of writing tight, and he played with writing tight by writing in telegraphese his entire life. The distilled clarity of his prose owes a lot to journalistic tradition. That said, I’m not surprised he would plunder his own writing for bits and pieces. I don’t do that quite so much. I plunder the memories and I plunder the facts. I plunder the issues. I also plunder the characters, because in a 30-year career in journalism, you meet a lot of characters in the newsroom and out. That gives a writer an understanding of who people are, how they act and what they say – that’s invaluable. It’s a treasure box of memory. When a writer goes into what I call a writer’s trance, it’s interesting how much of that stuff becomes accessible and you find little bits and pieces coming together and cohering in characters. And you go, “Huh, I’m using that thing I heard 10 or 15 years ago.” That’s amazing.
Q So are these things you had locked away in your head or you actually had notes?
A Both. There are times that I thought that might be something good that I might publish someday. …
Q Have you always been an adventurer?
A I grew up in Florida Everglades. I was like a moth to flame to hazard and I did a lot of hazardous things. Some thought it was ineptitude, some thought it was a lust for excitement. In terms of being social, I was a pretty shy kid. But in terms of doing things with my body, I was awfully bold. My wife shudders at times when I describe the things I went through.
Q We’ve spoken earlier about the condition of the newspaper industry. What about fiction writing?
A Fiction in American is pretty troubled, and I have the quirky belief that that is due to the fact that we’re not telling the stories that people need to hear. We live by stories. Stories are woven into our consciousness. We interpret reality. We interpret our lives with stories. If fiction is not thriving, it must be because we are not getting the right stories. We’re not hearing stories that are nurturing our hearts, minds and souls in modern times. The great voyage is to set out and to see what are the stories that people really need and to try to write them, bring them back to harbor. In addition to just trying to tell a good story and tell a story that fits a genre because you absolutely have to do that, I’m also trying to tell a necessary story. And I’ll have to get back to you on how that works.
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