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The Mystery Writer

Patricia Sullivan

I first met James Crumley, who died Tuesday, in 1985, shortly after I moved to Missoula, Montana. Missoula was and is a town full of writers, so I decided to create a set of short profiles showing where and how a few of them worked. I did short pieces on Rick DeMarinis, James Welch, Bill Kittredge, William Pitt Root and Jim Crumley, and they all ran with little 2 by 3 inch photos of the writers in situ.

(An aside: Our obit mentioned that Crumley's best-known book had a title taken from the great poet Richard Hugo's fine poem, Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg, a piece to which I return every few years for lines that still ring.)

I called back to my old newspaper yesterday, hoping that they would still have their pre-digital archives but like so many other places, they valued saving physical space over keeping their own history. Luckily, late last night, I unearthed a copy of the now 23-year-old story from the clip-filled filing cabinet that's followed me around the country since then.

Here's it is, from the Aug. 16, 1985 Missoulian:

James Crumley: It's a matter of just working

James Crumley doesn't go in for a lot of mystery when it's time to write.

"When I'm working, I can write anywhere," he said. "In Guadalajara, I wrote a big portion of my first novel standing at the mantle in the living room while two marriages broke up around me and some guy wrote poetry at the top of his lungs."

Things are a little quieter int he backyard shed where Crumley now pens mysteries, short stories and reviews. Rebuilt by graduate English students "with Ph.D's in carpentry," the room overlooks a dog pen and the backyard of his lower Rattlesnake neighbors. The room is cluttered with books, ashtrays, a stereo system and a half-dozen dictionaries, sitting squarely in front of the typewriter. It takes "a pot of coffee and 100,000 cigarettes" to get to work each day, he said.

"For years, I worked at night and it kept getting later and later. At one point, I was writing from 10 o'clock at night to 6 o'clock in the morning," he said, tapping out a cigarette from a crumpled pack, still waking up on an early Saturday afternoon after a 4 a.m. flight from Boston. "But I'm getting too old to stay up that late."

In the best of all possible worlds, Crumley would work standing up in the kitchen.

"I'm from a working-class family, and so for me the kitchen is the center of the house," he said. He's got a cupboard to lean on in his rented house, but he's also got sore feet and a couple of kids. The activity that makes a kitchen such an attractive place, he reluctantly admitted, also tends to destroy a writer's concentration.

Back in the work shed, Crumley's key creative instrument has to be a typewriter.

"(A computer) just feels uncomfortable. It doesn't have that substantial sound of a key hitting the paper. Part of it's cultural -- I mean, we know what's on TV isn't real, and to look at your words on a TV screen...." He shrugged. "I'm not against them. It's just that I don't want one."

By Patricia Sullivan |  September 19, 2008; 10:02 AM ET  | Category:  Patricia Sullivan
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