Montana Books: Jamie Harrison Builds upon a Family Legacy
Livingston author Jamie Harrison admits that literary heredity can be a handful, especially if Jim Harrison, a revered multi-award-winning, down-to-earth poet, novelist and national cultural literary superstar, is your father.
As one of Mr. Harrison’s two daughters, Jamie did follow in her father’s footsteps, crafting her four Montana-set Jules Clement/Blue Deer mysteries (“The Edge of the Crazies,” “Going Local,” “An Unfortunate Prairie Occurrence” and “Blue Deer Thaw”), years before he passed in 2016, at age 78. The following year, her stand-alone debut, the widely-praised “The Widow Nash,” was a High Plains Book Award finalist, for its intriguing tale, set in 1904, of a troubled New York woman who relocates to a small Montana town and reinvents herself as a wealthy young widow.
In her new family saga, “The Center of Everything,” Harrison introduces us to Polly, a Livingston girl whose life is at a crossroads due to a recent head injury that has scattered her perception of the present, just as her many relatives are arriving for a Fourth of July family reunion. When a beloved friend goes missing in the Yellowstone River, Polly’s mental challenge leads to a deeper understanding of herself and her larger-than-life family.
Jamie Harrison grew up in Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan, where at age 19 she met her husband, lawyer Stephen Potenberg. Post-grad, they moved to New York City for five years, where both pursued survival, Jamie as a writer/editor/caterer, Stephen as a question writer for Stanley Kaplan Test Prep. Their ultimate move to Montana involved a friend of the Harrison family whom you may have heard of, Big Sky landscape painter Russell Chatham, who passed in 2019 at age 80. The Potenbergs have raised two sons in their 32 years in Livingston.
Montana Press: What was it like to grow up as a daughter of a modern literary icon?
Jamie Harrison: Weird; we’re all weird. Yeah, I miss him.
MP: Did you move to New York with writing in mind?
Harrison: I didn’t really. I got an honors English degree and I actually wanted to cook. I worked in a place called Dean & DeLuca for the first couple of years and then sort of burned out. It’s not easy. I was catering and working at Dean & DeLuca and decided to try to get a magazine job and ultimately did that for a while, and then worked for a production company too, and then was offered a house on the Forest Service line out here owned by Russell Chatham, who wasn’t using it, and just fled. I wasn’t enjoying my job. I was working for Michael Douglas’ production company and he was nice but I just was tired.
I think I’d sort of thought I would move back at some point, but I never did. New York can grind you down. I left it exactly at the point that I had enough money to enjoy it.
MP: Had you been to Montana before moving to Livingston?
Harrison: Yes, I had been twice when I was in my teens and it made a huge impression on me, but I hadn’t been out here since I was 17, and my husband had never been out here. So that was an adventure; we basically spent our savings, had to get jobs and off we went. It was pretty different back then than it is now in terms of actually finding employment. I mean, there really wasn’t anything.
I remember trying to get a job at the Enterprise and I think they were paying $3.50 an hour to basically write and edit everything. Yeah, that was brutal. I tried catering, but basically you were supposed to do chips and dip. So I ended up working for Russell Chatham. He was trying to start a small press called Clark City Press, so I ran that for four or five years before Russell ran out of money.
MP: He also had a restaurant, right?
Harrison: Yes, after the first life of the Press, he put a tremendous amount of money into something called the Livingston Bar & Grill, which was very upscale. In fact, he sank so much money into it that there was never a chance that he was going to make a profit, but it was certainly fun to eat at while it lasted.
MP: Chatham and your dad were buds?
Harrison: I’d known Russell growing up and he would come out (to Michigan) every fall with a couple of other friends. My first hardcore cooking experience – I mean, my mother was a very good cook – was cooking with Russell. I mean, really extreme attempts. The first time I made anything like tortellini or Szechuan food, stuff like that, was as a teenager with Russell and some of the other friends in the fall with long cooking binges. Everybody had a lot of fun doing that, so that’s really how I started getting into food.
MP: Did you feast together during your New York cooking years?
Harrison: Let’s see, it’s all hazy. Yeah, he would come out occasionally, and with the Press later, we went out together to do conventions and stuff like that. So yeah, Russell and I have shared many bottles of wine and MANY meals! (laughs) And the house that we rented was from Russell. We had to move into town when he needed it back after another divorce, so (deep breath) anyway…
MP: Let’s step further back in time for a moment. As a kid, were you a reader?
Harrison: Oh yeah, of course. I read everything. Books completely filled our life. I guess early on, I think the first real book I read was maybe “The Red Pony.” I read Nancy Drew, a lot of mystery series, “The Black Stallion,” a lot of little girl stuff. By the time I was 11 or 12, I remember reading all of my grandfather’s James Bond novels. I don’t know; everything. I probably read more by the time I was 17 or 18, when I had sense. I went to a great little public high school, I think there were only 18 people in our graduating class, but we had a great, great teacher named Phillip Vance, and he at some point just put me in the high-school cafeteria and I read Russian novels. So I read a lot.
MP: And writing?
Harrison: I never wanted to be a writer. It didn’t seem like a good way to make a living. Obviously my father… (laughs) It was a long, long struggle for him and he always completely felt the calling. I mean, he was primarily a poet in a lot of ways, but he was also writing screenplays the whole time I was in high school, and it was a struggle. And so I didn’t think of it as a good way to make a living; I just loved it. But I do think that you learn. Good writers read a lot. If I’m a good writer, it’s because I’ve read so much and you just… it’s a language you kind of take in by ear.
MP: You burst on the scene with the four-book Blue Deer mysteries, then suddenly disappeared for 20 years. What happened?
Harrison: Then I stopped (deep sigh). I should have kept going but I didn’t. Dad and I worked on screenplays together; it was meant to be a way for him to do less work and me to make more money, but it did not really pan out. We came close to doing well with a few things, and I did a lot of screenplays based on the mysteries, and in the interim went through many versions of that, but basically, I didn’t put out a book for 15 years, maybe more. So I can’t say it was an ideal career at all. I did write a couple of things in between that I didn’t publish, so it was a bit of a slog. I made a living on screenplays but nothing saw the light of day.
MP: And coincidentally, you were raising a young’un or two.
Harrison: (Laughs) Where do the years go? I’m not sure. But yeah, I have two sons. At the time that I gave up the mysteries, the ideal thing if you’re doing a series is to do one a year and I couldn’t keep up with that. And my younger son had some health problems. You know, I don’t know; I can’t really pull apart why I stopped but I stopped, and it was hard to get back into it again.
I’m writing a mystery now and I thought for some reason it was going to be fun and easy after writing “The Widow Nash” and “The Center of Everything.” In fact right now it’s neither fun nor easy. (laughs) It’s hard to do mystery plots; they are not easy. It will be a Blue Deer, the fifth in that series. So I’m back to it now, and Counterpoint, my publisher, is going to reissue the mysteries, so that’s good. I’m just covered with sticky notes and charts right now. I tend to overplot and then have to pull things out later.
MP: “The Center of Everything” shares with “The Widow Nash” an appreciation that we form our personal realities out of conscious and subconscious amalgamations that, depending on how aware we are, create their own mysteries in our everyday lives. How did you manage to explore that premise?
Harrison: It started as probably three separate things. The big part of it is actually a childhood memory. The bit about Polly thinking that she could find her dead people, her grandfather and aunt, is really completely autobiographical. When I was three, I thought we were moving to Boston, and it was after this accident that had killed my grandfather (it was a car accident in real life) and my aunt, and I actually thought that they were going to be hiding in Boston, or else why would we be going there? And I thought that I could find them. And afterwards – and I did sort of argue with my own mother about that memory – the thing is, I could remember remembering. I remember looking for them. So there’s that.
MP: How did you bring such clarity to Polly’s brain damage?
Harrison: Well, obviously there’s all sorts of damage; people have all sorts of things. My brother-in-law had a closed-head injury and I’ve had other friends who have had injuries and I’ve had my own injury, and it’s interesting what happens to people. The insecurity if you have a problem like that is part of what takes you down, the self-doubt. And I’ve kind of tried to explore that, too, with Polly.
MP: What was your brain injury, if you don’t mind my asking?
Harrison: I went without oxygen for some period of time, and you know, I’m fine. And while people come up with ways of compensating, it shakes you up. In the case of my brother-in-law, it was an accident and it was hard. He was very talented, he actually made artificial limbs and things like that and he was incredibly talented, the family had always done that and it was second nature, and it was just no longer second nature. Anyway, I ended up combining a bunch of those things into one story, sort of smashing it all together and then pulling out a few other things. In fact, it’s linked to the characters in “The Widow Nash,” too. I combined many things.
MP: Your father lived life as if there were no tomorrow. What don’t we know about Jim Harrison?
Harrison: Well, jeez, I don’t know. See, I don’t know how other people… I can’t adjust my point of view about him. A lot of what people assume he was is complete bullshit, the kind of Hemingway blah-blah-blah. I think people don’t understand that a) he was primarily a poet and b) how well-read he was, how sophisticated of a reader he was, how much time he put in. He read virtually everything and he read widely until the end. He was incredibly supportive of other writers, too; other poets. He was pretty open-minded that way. I wish he’d gotten more recognition as a poet, I guess. He wore his reading very lightly but he certainly could have taught any literary-theory course in a university. He knew his stuff.
MP: Where do you plan to take your writing after the 20-year gap?
Harrison: I probably will try to do two mysteries, and then I kind of want to go back to the world of Polly’s family for a third book. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with the ‘30s and ‘40s out here and I might do something with that, but I don’t really know. I just want enough time to keep writing. I’m 60. We don’t know what we’re going to get out of life. So I just would love to keep writing, I would love to get to travel, I would love to do a lot of things. I had a kind of long twenty years there financially, too, so who knows.
MP: Have either or both of your sons inherited the family writing gene?
Harrison: My older one has, and I don’t know about my younger one. My older son works in L.A.; he’s working production on the TV show “Bosch,” and I know that he would like to write and he does write. My younger son right now is considering graduate school, working in a wine store and spending the pandemic really reading a lot. They both read, and I’m glad.
MP: Think that may be in their DNA?
Harrison: Probably, but it’s still good to see.