7 Questions with Steven Rinella

Jun 29, 2010
Outside Magazine

Me in Blue Skiff
Outside correspondent Steven Rinella wrote this month's feature Grand Theft Cattle.

1)How did you get your start?
Well, I intended to be a professional fur-trapper. I trapped for 10 years, selling the hides and everything. Muskrats, raccoons, coyote, mink, beaver, otter, fox. When I figured out you couldn’t make an actual living as a professional trapper anymore, I decided to become a professional trapping writer. In fact, the first article I ever wrote and sold was to a magazine called Trapper and Predator Caller. One thing led to another and I began writing about many other things and never wrote about trapping again. But that’s what got me rolling.

2) So trapping leads to writing...How?

My brother had this Volkswagen van and was working for the EPA one summer, counting salmon in the Columbia River. We drove everywhere fishing for trout. During my wanderings, I ended up in Missoula and discovered there was a school there. It seemed like a great town. I went out and got drunk, hit all the bars. I said, ‘Man, this place is fun.’ And the girls were great. They all had skinned-up knees and were coming off the river. I said, ‘Hey, I gotta move here.’

So I went down to the school and saw they had a graduate program, not knowing it was one of the top-rated programs in the country. I think they let me in as an experiment. I got an MFA in creative non-fiction writing at the University of Montana.

Ian Frazier influenced me to an almost embarrassing degree. He was actually instrumental in getting me started in magazine writing. Books I like: John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country, Michael Herr’s Dispatches about the Vietnam War, and Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star—the greatest book about the American West. I also admire Joan Didion, although I don’t write like her in any way, shape, or form or cover the same subject material.

I still like to travel and be on the move. And writing facilitates that. Everyone in the world has something they’d like to go do. You think, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be fun to go and do that?’ But you don’t do it because you can’t justify it. But if you’re writing, then it becomes your work all of a sudden. You’re able to do really stupid things and act like you’re working. I’ve always been able to humor myself by pursuing whimsical shit because I can maybe potentially write about it someday.

3) Did you and Ian Frazier bond over fur trapping?

Wild mushrooms, actually. When I was in grad school, he came and taught a four-day workshop. He’d tell us old writing stories about The New Yorker and stuff like that. All the students submitted writing samples and then he’d have a private critique session with you. I’d written a thing about wild mushrooms—hunting for them and being poisoned by one. He read it and encouraged me along.

I was going on a deer-hunting trip down the Missouri River with Outside correspondent Peter Stark. We were hunting for mule deer in the Missouri Breaks. Ian Frazier said he’d like to come along. He got his first deer on that trip. We had a great time camping and hunting. After that, we kept in touch. I’d show him my stuff and he would help me out with getting published. I’d say I owe my success to 50% school and 50% deer hunting. That’s a pretty good summation of my life, actually.

4)   You’ve eaten maggots, antelope bladder, and even dog meat (Down Boy from the October 2007 issue.) What would you recommend adventurous Outside grill-masters toss across their open flames this summer?

When I’m home, I primarily eat game meat. My meals are dictated by what I have in the freezer. But if I were to go out and buy something, I’d purchase those Argentine-cut beef ribs, man. Americans don’t cut ribs the right way. We like really hot grills, to watch meat sizzle and smoke rise. The Argentinians would never do that. You need to slow cook it. (Watch Rinella's World's Best Steak instruction video from the April 2009 issue to conquer barbecues.)

5) You a propane man?

I use both propane and charcoal. I built a brick charcoal pit. If it’s just me and my wife and I’m not feeling really ambitious, I’ll use the propane. It’s quick and easy. But if I’m in the mood to do something properly, I’ll fire up the charcoal. The Argentine-style stuff gets the charcoal. I built the pit after coming back from there. I try to replicate their style of cooking as much as possible.

6) Buffalo hunting in your 2009 book American Buffalo. Cattle rustling in the current issue (Grand Theft Cattle.) Were you born a century too late?

Yeah, big time. I always think about that. Maybe I’m interested in anachronisms because they aren’t around anymore. If I’d been living 200 years ago, I’d probably be into stuff happening 400 years ago. If I could pull a time machine lever three times, I’d go back once to the Pleistocene Era. See some wooly mammoths and stuff. On my second pull, I’d go with Daniel Boone to see the first time he visited the Cumberland Gap and went down into what is now Kentucky. And for my last trip, I’d go with mountain men like Jim Bridger and Jed Smith into areas like the headwaters of the Missouri River before there was much European contact. I’m more interested in what has happened than what is happening. But I also look at how the past influences the present.

7) Any advice for aspiring writers?

None. I have no idea what to say. I hang out with a lot of writers. None of them have the same story. Nothing I could say of someone could be applicable to another person’s life. I have no idea. Read a lot of books.

--Stayton Bonner

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