Wordsmiths of Southwest Montana: Keith McCafferty

Sitting down with author Keith McCafferty.

Twenty-five year Bozeman resident Keith McCafferty is a complex man with a contradictory life. A renowned Western outdoor writer, he was raised in a gritty steel mill town in Ohio. Eleven million readers of Field and Stream see him as a Hearty Mountain Man, yet he is slight of build, soft-spoken, and gentle, with a twinkling smile. He’s an expert in primitive skills and survival, and also a devoted Mr. Mom. He says he has A.D.D., yet loves to write in the lodge at Bridger Bowl. Though financially impoverished growing up, he is committed to the insecure life of a freelance writer. “I wake up every morning unemployed,” he says. Lucky for us.

How does living in Montana influence your writing?
It doesn’t. It made me more interesting to editors. It’s where I want to go hunting and fishing; I can work anywhere.

What’s your best piece of work and your worst piece of work?
Something I haven’t done yet. Of the things I’ve done, probably the award winners, How to Raise a Hunter which was a finalist for a National Magazine Award, and Autumn Hope which won the Traver Award for fishing writing. And an early story Across the Deep Part which is about my dad. My best writing is always about people, not about hunting and fishing.

What responsibilities do you have to your readers?
None. I write for myself. I try to avoid hip/slick, condescending writing. It’s easy and common, but I don’t like it.

What is the biggest challenge in your writing career?
Balancing various jobs—cook, chauffer, raising a family—with writing. It’s easy to get caught up in daily things like fixing breakfast or running errands.

What is your daily writing regimen?
It’s variable but I get up early and go to work. I work hard on the book for a couple of weeks, then a magazine deadline looms and I work on that and forget the book. When Jesse went away to Portland to college and we drove back to Bozeman to an empty house, I figured it would take some time to adjust. On my first day… I never heard so much silence. For weeks, I couldn’t write, too quiet. Then I started going to coffee houses. I even go to Bridger Bowl to sit with the skiers—the only thing you can do is get up to go to the bathroom, you can’t leave your computer sitting there—so all you can do is write.

Were you a bookworm as a kid?
Yeah. But not exclusively. I did sports, but I did read a lot.

What are your main hobbies/avocations?
Long spey rods for steelhead. I like to go off by myself (fishing but also backpacking). I meet interesting people and make new friends. If you go with other people, they’re the only ones you pay attention to. It helps me decompress.

What do you do when you’ve got a piece due and you have no idea what to write?
Like Hemingway said, "Write one perfect sentence." People who write for a living can’t afford to wait for inspiration. You just have to plow ahead. Not taking it too seriously helps. I remember I wake up every morning unemployed.

A common theme in your articles seems to be “we got stuck in a jam and here’s what we did.” How do you explain your wealth of experience at getting out of trouble?
It’s the magazines' fault. This is what they want. I started out doing fly fishing articles. Then I did a variety of things, but about 10 years ago, they asked me to do the Health and Safety column, which I did for seven years. That led to the alternating Skills and Survival columns I’m doing now.

What do you think of survival experts and schools?
Some are very good people, like Tom Knoble from Pony. Some are just self-promoters.

What do you think of National Outdoor Leadership School or Outward Bound?
No experience with Outward Bound. I took a NOLS Wilderness First Responder Course and it was good, but you can’t really learn all you need in three days.

In general, which do you prefer as a means of communication from the outside world: Internet, newspapers, or TV?
Newspaper. Also, I look at the front page of The New York Times online every day.

What profession other than writing would you like to participate in and why?
None. Anything else (and I) would feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied.

L.L. Bean Hiking and Backpacking Handbook (2000)
L.L. Bean Family Camping Handbook (1999)