Joyce Harrington Bahle and Jim Harrison (with Dictaphone) outside his writing studio in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, in the early 1980s.
Jim Harrison, who appears on our masthead as the honorary chair of our Board of Inspiration, was a friend and truly an inspiration. He wrote every day with grace, warmth, and empathy for all his subjects, but especially for his female characters and Native Americans. They were never far from the center of his interest.
He had a habit I have never perfected, or seen equaled. In conversation, he would tell a story about a personal experience, but by the end of the first sentence he was already telling a better story, an act of imagination. The real and the imagined were a seamless narrative for Jim. Once you detected his method of communication, you knew he was telling the greater truth.
For all those years we corresponded and occasionally shared a meal, Jim was protected, encouraged, and helped by Joyce Harrington Bahle. For more than 40 years, she has managed the details of Jim’s real life. The practical stuff. It would be impossible to remember Jim without Joyce—gatekeeper, sage, pal, and trustee of his estate.
Will Hearst: How did you start working with Jim?
Joyce Harrington Bahle: When I moved up here, to Leelanau County, I started working as a waitress. All of us college graduates were working in restaurants like the Bluebird Tavern. Jim used to come into the Bluebird after work and get his beverages and then was home for dinner every night. I met Jim there. I had gone into Horizon Books in Traverse City and bought some of his first-edition poetry before I even really knew him.
This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
I started working for Jim in August of 1979, so that was way before email. Jim and Linda [Jim’s wife] were going to go out to Montana with their daughters. They asked, “Can you come stay in our farmhouse? Take care of the cats, get the mail, check the phone machine,” and all that stuff.
I came and stayed there. When he came back, we met in his writing studio in the granary, and he said to me, “Joyce, it’s strange, but I don’t know how to do life.”
I asked, “What do you mean?”
He said, “I’m a writer. I know how to write, but I don’t know how to do life. My career is really taking off. It appears to me from seeing you around, and parts of your life, that you might know how to do that.”
We went back and forth. “What would you possibly need from me?” Would I really want to do this job? I had no idea.
He said, “I really need you.” I said, “OK. Here’s the deal. Six months. We’ll shake hands. I can walk or you can walk at any time, and we’ll see how it goes.”
A few years in, Jim’s lawyer said to him, “You’re giving Joyce and Linda what?” And he said, “Full power of attorney.” Jim figured I was a good Irish Catholic from a big family. My dad operated a meatpacking plant in New York City. I wasn’t going to do too much damage.
Today it’s 42 years later, and we did pretty well. I think we had a career with friendship, with some boundaries, but mostly what I miss is when Jim and I talked on the phone, he ended our conversations—on the good days—with “I love you.”
Pretty soon Jim’s career started to take off. He went to Hollywood for a while, too. So you’ve always worked remote. In some ways, you were the pioneer remote worker, because Jim would be in Arizona, but you were always in Michigan.
Jim was going to Hollywood, but the first place where Jim traveled to write, away from his farm, was to the UP [Michigan’s Upper Peninsula].
He said to me, “I really need a place to get away to and write. I heard there’s a cabin for sale.” So Linda and I, we drove up to Grand Marais, and we had a hilarious time, and we saw this remote cabin on the Sucker River. And we bought it. I signed the papers, handed over the check, and gave Jim the keys. He had never seen the place.
It became one of Jim’s sacred places, with the river, the solitude, and the bird hunting in the fall. It was Jim’s spot on the Sucker River. I didn’t go up there that much, and frankly, Linda didn’t either.
How did you communicate when he was away?
Phone. Fax. FedEx. When Jim went on his frequent road trips, he traveled with a Dictaphone machine. On the tapes were seeds of ideas, descriptions of landscapes, free-floating thoughts like he would write in his journals. When he got home, my job was to listen to the tapes and take the dictation.
My impression was that Jim wrote most of his novels and poetry by longhand, that he was not a typewriter or computer user.
That’s a fact. Jim wrote in longhand. I would get him yellow legal pads. Then the pen, his favorite pen, a Pilot Razor Point. He would write until he would squish the tip down so much that he didn’t want to use it anymore. When the pen got too squishy, he put a piece of tape on it and gave it to me. I have many of these, and I have gifted some to special people in his life who receive them with glee—they’re meaningful to people.
What did you do with his handwritten drafts?
I’d take a photocopy, type it, and give him back the typescript, which he would edit. Later, when he moved away, he got a fax machine, which he didn’t know how to work, but Linda did. The favorite part of my job, frankly, was when a new poem came through on my fax machine. Jim would send the draft to me, the ink barely dried.
I will tell you something sacred about my career with Jim. The most important thing in my career was Jim’s poetry. When he sent a poem, I typed the poem. He liked to get it back right away. I didn’t say, “You know what, it’s Saturday and I’m going out.” I would say, “Joyce, take five minutes to type and send it back to him,” because that was his thing. It was my thing, too. So that was pretty beautiful. He would then edit the typescript and return drafts until the final copy was ready.
Jim was an enthusiastic eater rather than a gourmet, and—
A drinker of exquisite wines.
So they say. Were there any memorable meals?
Cooking was serious business as what to cook and what not to cook. Jim used to say, “I never want to eat the same thing twice.” Linda was just an incredible chef. Often reading cookbooks and instinctively knowledgeable. She had her beautiful vegetable and flower gardens.
They were always having people over and cooking for them. I wasn’t really looking to be on the party scene—although I had my fair share of fun. One day I said to him, “Jim, I’m going to have to get up and work tomorrow. I’m the one balancing the books, and I don’t have as much brainpower as you, so no, I cannot drink like you’re drinking. I need to go home.”
One part of his life was where he did his writing. He always kept a studio and lived in remote places.
True. His casita in Arizona, the cabin in the UP, and his writing studio in Livingston. Little fishing cabins in Montana. And, of course, his car during road trips.
Before Jim died, I spent a tremendous amount of time caring for him. I was down in Patagonia [Arizona], and I said, “Jim, I’ve got to go home. It’s tax season, and I’ve got to get things together. So I’m leaving you now, and I’ll be back.”
The last time I saw Jim was at the casita in Patagonia. He said, “I want to take you for a walk.” So I had to drive in the car with him down this dirt road that’s by his place. And I’m thinking, “Oh gosh, he’s driving.” So we go along. We get to this cow-fence gate there. And he wants to climb through, and I said, “Jim, are we going far?”
But finally we get all the way to just the right spot on his beloved creek. He plopped himself down, and I found this most beautiful rock in the water. And I said, “I want you to have this for your desk.” And he said, “No, I want you to have it for this time we’re spending.” Jim knew he was dying.
Then he gets sort of a little quiet, and he took my hand and he said, “Joyce, I want to tell you something.
“Without you, I would not have had the life I have had. I wouldn’t have written as many books as I wrote. My family would not have thrived like they have thrived. And I don’t tell you this enough. I want you to know this.”
And you know what? I’ve kept that rock. And when I think about that moment, his gift is literally a touchstone, a reminder of how complex and sensitive he could be.
I hope every time you look at that rock, you’ll be able to recall this wonderful story.
Absolutely. And Linda on her deathbed said a similar thing. I mean, talk about the bookends to your life.•
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.