Listening to James Grady is like standing knee-deep in a trout run, holding a tiny handnet as a rainbow of fish slithers around your ankles. He's a storyteller, a scene setter, a wordsmith, and each phrase resonates as if it had been deliberated for years. The words that tumble from him sparkle with depth - but no matter how much you catch, you'll never get it all.
The skills that have won the native Montanan worldwide acclaim in the last 30 years pervade Grady's every conversation - the best-selling Washington author waxes almost as poetic in discussing the music of Bruce Springsteen as when describing how he met his wife.
He takes pride in his accomplishments - eagerly detailing his latest literary award or growing acclaim in Europe - yet the 54-year old father of two still speaks in somber amazement about the gift of family. Fame is a funny thing, he says, sitting at the computer in the refurbished attic of his suburban home.
"One week I'm in People magazine, the next week I'm nobody, and every day I have to take out the garbage."
Like many authors, much of Grady's style is founded on elements of his own history.
Raised on the prairies of Shelby by a movie-theater manager and a librarian, Grady attended journalism school in Missoula, where he also took classes in the English department under poet Richard Hugo. He was a grave digger, farm tractor jockey, rock picker, hay bucker, janitor, motion picture projectionist, city road crew laborer and a juvenile delinquency analyst - all before he arrived in Washington at age 24.
Grady wrote his first best seller, "Six Days of Condor," from a tiny apartment in Helena, where he coincidentally lived above the first house of Maile Meloy, a celebrated young fiction writer. Grady sold Condor in 1973, the same summer he won a fellowship to spend a year on staff with Sen. Lee Metcalf, D-Mont., where as an aide he witnessed the impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon. The book, meanwhile, became a big-screen movie called "Three Days of Condor," directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford.
In the post-Watergate era, Grady worked four years as an investigative journalist for syndicated columnist Jack Anderson and eventually quit journalism to focus on his fiction writing.
Bouncing from publisher to publisher, Grady has written about subjects from political intrigue to detective work to mining in Montana - a range he says has frustrated marketers who want him to capitalize on one genre. But he says his success at telling a variety of stories comes from an ability to find the truth of the situation, no matter where that is.
"When you first start out as a novelist, you have the whiff of arrogance that you can write about the great themes and issues," Grady says, tucking his chin in a humorously booming monotone. Then he grows solemn, frank. "If you're lucky, you get that beat out of you really quickly."
Eventually, he says, all writers learn that the real truth lies in writing about everyday people trying to figure out the great themes and issues.
Fellow best-selling author and friend John Weisman calls Grady a pioneer of the American espionage genre. In a world of urban writers coming out of purely literary backgrounds, the fact that "he's not from here" makes Grady's style stand out, Weisman says.
"I think Jim has never lost his journalist's eye," Weisman says, "Which means that he has a remarkable ability to paint his scenes with almost a pointillist's technique."
"Coming from Montana, I have a real strong sense of place," Grady says. For example, "Every scene, I know what the weather is."
The constant contrast of macro and micro in his home state - the miniscule beauty of a dragonfly under the infinite splendor of the skies - gives Grady perspective, he says; he always knows where he is in relation to everything else, and that helps him navigate the "roar of data" that makes up a city.
And even in what he calls the protective womb of a metropolis, the man who has seen blizzards sweep unexpectedly across the plains is conscious of his own vulnerability. "I'm always aware that there could be a catastrophe at any moment," he says.
While Grady's writing has won him a nomination for the prestigious American Edgar award, his work has gained even greater praise abroad - he won a French Grand Prix Du Roman Noir in 2001 and Italy's Raymond Chandler last year.
The reason behind his international successes doesn't always survive translation. "They explain it to me in six paragraphs, and I look at the translator, and they say something like, 'We like you very much,'" Grady shrugs.
But Weisman suggests it is Grady's tendency to write about the "dark underbelly" of the American world, as well as his journalistic skepticism, that draws international attention. Grady's plots of conspiracy historically appeal to French audiences, Weisman says.
A number of prominent writers attribute their success in part to Grady - many, like John Grisham, cite him as a literary influence, while some, like David Corn, describe him as a mentor. Corn is a well-established journalist who took his first shot at fiction in a compilation of short stories edited by Grady. The story made Corn a finalist in the Edgar competition for mystery writers, and its success encouraged Corn to complete his first novel.
"Jim likes to be part of a literary community and likes to promote, enhance and develop the writing careers of others - not just his own - which speaks to the tremendous generosity of spirit," Corn says. "He really looks at writing as a team sport in that while all writers write on their own, there should be a community of writers who support and push each other to do better."
Grady says the world of Washington and the city girl he married 19 years ago and who he insists is "the more interesting one of us" have hooked him on East Coast life. Although "being from Montana in the East Coast is like being part of your own ethnic group," Grady says he's adapted to the amazement he encounters when people learn of his Western roots - a rare background in the multicultural Washington.
"I don't know quite how to work a cocktail party still - I probably never will," Grady admits. But he says that doesn't stop him from presenting the universality of life and death so that anyone can relate. "Those issues are apparent in Montana as in Manhattan," he says.