Monday, November 26, 2012

20 Questions: James R. Babb

James R. Babb
I first read River Music: A Fly Fisher's Four Seasons in hardback shortly after it was published in 2001--I was still something of a fly fishing hack, more enamored by "place" than I was by the trappings that come with the full-on infatuation with the craft. 

At the time, I had a single fly rod, and the tip-top of that rod--an Orvis Clearwater, 9-foot, 5-weight my wife bought me for our fourth wedding anniversary all those years ago--snapped on me on a little creek in the eastern Idaho backcountry a week before I picked up the book. I'd managed to hook a willow with my backcast, and the tip broke as I cast the line toward a tight spot just below a little plunge in the creek. 
I was devastated. And I was frustrated. For a time, I even contemplated abandoning the pursuit in favor of something else... anything else. Then I cracked the cover of River Music, and two chapters in, I found myself at the local fly shop in Pocatello, where I presented the pieces of my trusty stick to the proprietor. He did some minor surgery with a glue stick and a new tip-top, and my 9-foot rod was transformed into an 8-foot, 10-inch rod.

"You'll never notice the difference," the proprietor said. He was right. I didn't.

On the Madison.
I can thank Jim Babb, the author of what remains my favorite fly fishing book to this day, for inspiring me to keep fly fishing. And I have him to thank on a fairly regular basis--frequent readings from the book's tattered pages remind me that fly fishing is a fairly simple pursuit, that a fellow with a 20-year-old fly rod with a glued-on tip-top can get as much out of it as the guy with $800 invested in the graphite he totes to the same damn creek. It is about place ... it is about feel. When I get caught up in the hoopla of the pastime and the hype of "the next big thing," I know I can pick up my old copy of River Music and find the energy I need to rearrange the furniture in the attic.

For those of you who don't know of Jim, he's the editor of Gray's Sporting Journal, perhaps the last great example of truly good long-form outdoor writing left in America. Thankfully, Jim contributes frequently to the publication--it would lose some luster if he didn't. While a subscription to Gray's ought to be atop your letter to Santa this year, you ought to first check out Jim's books, starting with my favorite, River Music.

On with the questions:

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 
Frying the first brace of spring brook trout alongside my favorite, and never-to-be-named, trout brook.

What is your greatest fear? 
That someone will build a combination golf course, shopping center, housing development, and go-cart track on the headwaters of my favorite, never-to-be-named trout brook.

Which living person do you most admire? 
Garry Trudeau.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? 
Snarky leaps to judgment.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? 
Snarky leaps to judgment.

On what occasion do you lie? 
Whenever I write a rejection letter that says I enjoyed the read, but it’s not quite right for our audience.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 
Derivations of a popular and rudely copulative verb/noun/adjective.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? 
What: my great-grandma Bradley’s fried chicken.
Who: Audrey Hepburn (sadly unrequited).

Which talent would you most like to have? 
The ability to express complex thoughts in a few simple words.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
Writing books filled with simple thoughts expressed in way too many complex words.

If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
Hopefully a trout, a reward for tenderly and mercifully releasing so many. But probably a lobster, a judgment for the many thousands I sent to the slaughter.

What is your most treasured possession? 
The 8-foot 5-weight cane fly rod my brother made me.

Where would you like to live? 
I live on the coast of Maine surrounded by fishing of all kinds, and would live nowhere else on earth. Except maybe Devonshire. Or Scotland. Or Labrador, at least in the summer.

Who are your favorite writers? 
Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Arthur Ransome, Herman Melville, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Sarah Orne Jewett, E. B. White, George Orwell, Edna St. Vincent Millay. The usual suspects.

How would you like to die? 
Sitting on a particular flat-iron of granite that sits beneath an ancient red maple in the middle of my favorite trout brook, never to be named.

What’s on your iPod? 
If you don’t mean one of those Day of the Triffids alien plants that take over the world, then my electronic Victrola is loaded with way too much Henry Purcell and not quite enough St. Vincent, with plenty of Bach, Corelli, Mozart, Bob Marley, and Pink Floyd in between.

What’s the favorite of all the cars you’ve ever driven? 
1965 Alfa Romeo GTZ.

Percy Kilbride
Which actor/actress would play you in the movie about your life, and why? 
Percy Kilbride, because he’s economical of movement, word, and thought, and he ain’t nowheres near as dumb as he acts.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure? 
Indicator nymphing.

What’s the closest you’ve ever been to dying? 
At the age of twelve, in a lunatic quest for more and bigger catfish, I snuck beneath the security fence below an immense dam on the Tennessee River, slipped on the bank all greasy with shad, got sucked up inside a turbine hole, and was gaffed an arm’s length underwater by a catfisherman who saw me fall and drove his boat up between the boils after me. I saw the lights, heard the celestial Wurlitzer, and was as close to Going Down the Tunnel as it gets. I made the front page of the local paper. And horrified my poor mother.

BONUS QUESTION: If you could go back in time, what year would you visit first? 
1961, so I could tell my stupid twelve-year-old self that it might be worth risking your life for a trout, but not for a catfish.


  1. I'm happy to report that although I didn't understand many of James' answers, I proudly own and re-read River Music frequently. Thank you sir!

    1. Indeed... it's a like a little hard-bound battery charger. I read it frequently. Now... I just need to get Jim to sign it.

  2. Chris, James and I grew up in the same part of the world. We have fished the same places, have the relative background, and history. Now if I could only write as well as James...

    His brother Walter makes a mean bamboo rod too....

    1. Marc, I thought of you the other day when I saw the book on the shelf... East Tennessee... that explains a lot, actually ;-) And don't be too hard on yourself... when it comes to writing talent, I think Jim is in a class by himself.

    2. Nice to know that a book will bring me to mind. The thing that is so great about Jim is that you never feel like you are reading. His words flow so well that it is as if you are sitting around a campfire listening to him tell a story. Easy to read...hard to write.

  3. I have always found the snarky leaps to judgment to be Babb's most entertaining quality.

    1. Yes, indeed. I also love that he's quick to snarky leaps of judgment in a humorous, introspective kind of way...

  4. [sigh]...I guess I read too much into those rejection letters...

    1. Well... now that we know some of his weaknesses...

  5. Another great interview but have to admit I had to look up who the heck H. Purcell was..and a few others.

  6. River Music! A great read and reread. This book holds a prominent place in my outdoor library.