By Alan Liere
Pat McManus was waiting for me in a corner booth when I entered the Ponderosa Steak House in Spokane, Wash. — I knew he would be. Although I was early, he was earlier — an admirable tendency I had noticed about him on fishing and hunting trips.
I met Pat 27 years ago when he was an English professor for Eastern Washington University’s Spokane night school program. I was flopping around in the final throes of a divorce, looking for somewhere to land. All I wanted was to take a class from a man whose stories could make me laugh even during my darkest hour. Before I knew it, however, Pat had talked me into staying for an MFA in nonfiction writing. During the two years it took me to get the degree, he was my instructor, my mentor, my counselor, my friend. Still is.
“You know, Pat,” I said as I slid into the booth across from him, “When Glenn Titus asked me to do this piece on you for OWAA, I looked up some of the other ‘Legends of OWAA’ pieces. Most of those other guys are dead.”
“Well, then, you’d better hurry,” Pat said dryly.
The waitress arrived and took our order. Pat had some kind of Mexican soup. “I have a physical tomorrow,” he said. “I need to lose some weight real fast.”
“Avoid salt,” the waitress said. “It makes your body retain water.”
“Is that right?” Pat said, as if he had never heard that before. “I’ll try it. Thanks. Do your employers know how smart you are?”
The waitress floated away smiling. With such a simple gesture, Pat had made her day; it was vintage McManus — the same technique he had used as a teacher — the same thing I had seen him do at OWAA conferences — show a genuine interest in someone, make them smile, give them confidence. He seemed so ordinary. “If Pat McManus can become a wildly successful author,” his students thought, “so can I.” For the most part, they couldn’t of course, but some, such as I, keep trying.
Patrick F. McManus came by his humility easily — he was born into it. Reams have been written about his austere but exciting childhood in North Idaho and how he failed his first English classes at Washington State University, and how he eventually went from writing short research pieces for magazines like Sunset to writing the back page humor for Field and Stream and then Outdoor Life. Along the way, he picked up Excellence in Craft awards from OWAA, the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Literary Excellence, the Trustees Medal, the Governor’s Award for Literature and many others. He has sold millions of copies of his books, and he has been on the New York Times best-seller list several times. Ask Pat about his accumulation of awards, however, and he will proudly mention only that he is in the Idaho Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. Then he’ll tell you he has no idea why. “Ted Trueblood and a guy named Hemingway are in there, too,” he said. “I worked with Ted Trueblood for 25 years, but I have no idea what that other guy did.”
If you really want to know about Pat’s awards and other such accomplishments, pick up a copy of Who’s Who in America. There’s a lot of reading there. Anyone remotely interested in the outdoors, as well as a lot of folks who think a snelled hook is used for making braided rugs, however, are mostly interested in his 15 published humor collections and two novels. They eagerly anticipate the release of another Bo Tully mystery (Kerplunk) as well as yet another collection of humor. They want to recapture the innocence of their youth and to look again at the generally absurd nature of the human condition; McManus is happy to lead them where they want to go.
Pat McManus is not a “funny writer.” He is a highly intelligent craftsman who milks and molds a situation for the desired effect. Each sentence is carefully crafted to this end. Each word is judged for potential effect. McManus can make anything humorous.
If you sit with Patrick McManus in a steakhouse in Spokane while he tries to lose weight eating Mexican soup, you get a sense of who he really is. As always, on the day I interviewed him, he didn’t want to talk about himself. Mostly, he wanted to talk about little brook trout and old dogs and Charlie Eliot and Clare Conley, and Norm Strung and Jim Bashline.
“The great thing about this business and the OWAA conferences,” he said, “is the people you run into. Everything I know about the outdoors, for example, I stole from Charlie Eliot’s books.”
When pressed for a few tips about his writing success, McManus had this to say: “Writing humor is tough, but ever so often there’s an exhilaration when you know you’ve got it absolutely right. To succeed at humor, you’ve got to make the reader work. You must leave ‘white space’ for him to fill in. He has to put things together. I depend on my readers to ‘see.’ “
I tried to press on, but Pat was done talking about himself. “You really should write a novel,” he said. “The first chapter is a killer, but after that, it’s easy. You could do it, Liere,” he said. “You could do it in a heartbeat.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “You’re still the teacher, aren’t you?” I really doubted that I had what it took to write a novel. Nevertheless, if that white-haired grandfatherly type sitting across from me could do it at age 75 — Well. —Why not?
Two hours later, Pat’s soup was pretty cold, but I had chomped my way through a blue cheese buffalo burger and a stack of fries and we had covered pretty much all topics from bosoms to dog flatulence. Pat was still instructing and encouraging me as we walked out. “Have you tried the Smithsonian magazine?” he asked.
“Twenty-seven years ago,” I said. “You told me to. I think you told all your students to try Playboy.”
“It gave me an excuse to buy it,” he said. “I told Darlene I had students who wrote for Playboy.”
“But you probably didn’t mention none of us ever sold to Playboy, did you?”
“Details,” he smiled. “You need to do a novel, Liere.”
“I will,” I promised. “Thanks for lunch.”
“Did I buy?” He grinned as he climbed in his car. “In that case, you owe me.”
I closed the door and rapped a goodbye on the front fender. “Do I ever,” I thought.
Alan Liere, of Spokane, Wash., is an award-winning back-page columnist for a half dozen outdoor magazines and two newspapers. He is a member of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association, Outdoor Writers Association of America, Safari Club, Ducks Unlimited and the National Rifle Association.