McMurtry in Twilight

McMurtry in Twilight_smMcMurtry Opens Up to the Writer’s Workshop

Introduction by Bill Marvel

There was some irony in the occasion. Just months before, this had been the setting in which Larry McMurtry’s big dream, to turn Archer City into a book town, gave way to reality in what amounted to a gigantic going-out-of-business sale. After the final bang of the auctioneer’s gavel, the packing up, the slam of trunk lids and car doors, the town would be down to its last book store, Booked Up #1. That’s where on a hot July afternoon Archer City’s most famous citizen graciously took his place at a table to face a small but eager group of students, writers and would-be writers. “Here I am,” he said, “to address your curiosity.” McMurtry quickly learned that the curiosity of the students in George Getschow’s Archer City Writers Workshop, a graduate class operated under the auspices of the Frank W. and Sue Mayborn School of Journalism, was all over the map. What was he reading these days? What was he writing? What is it like to be the author of best-selling novels, award-winning screenplays? What was it like to come out of a small town where reading and writing took a distant second place to scratching a living out of the begrudging earth, and to become a writer read, beloved by hundreds of thousands?

How, they wanted to know, does one become a Larry McMurtry?

He looked weary. His health had not been good, not good at all. He spoke, almost inaudibly at times, but frankly about how hard it is these days to get published, to entice Hollywood to come knocking at your door. He could have been resting at home in air-conditioned ease. Or in his other home, in Tucson, where his doctors were only a
phone call away. But here he was, on this blistering afternoon in the eye of a Texas drought, in a town clearly in decline, empty streets, empty store fronts, the last café – the Wildcat at which the writer habitually took his breakfast — just shut down, albeit temporarily. “I know a little bit about a lot of stuff relating to the arts, relating to writing, fiction, non-fiction, movies,’ he promised.

And so they began.

>>Listen to an excerpt from McMurtry in Twilight<<

George Getschow: I’m going to start, even though this is for
students. I have to say that this question keeps coming up and
people don’t understand. You’ve produced works of literature about
the West that rivals anything else out there. Why do you call
yourself a “minor regional writer”?

Larry McMurtry: Because there might not be anything out
there that’s not minor. In fact, sub-minor is what a lot of it would be.
Understand that in the silver light of history almost all writers are
minor. A generation just passing might produce five writers that are
not minor, might not produce but two or three. I think when you boil
down the Mailer-Roth-Bellow generation, there’s not much, really,
that I wouldn’t call minor. I think Flanner O’Conner has the clearest
claim to be more than minor. She was a great writer.

Bill Marvel: What about Cormac McCarthy? You didn’t mention
him in the pantheon.

Larry: I think that his early books are not very good. His great
book, if he has a great book, is “Blood Meridian,” but I’m not sure it
alone lifts him out of the category of being a minor regional writer. I
like, for myself, “No Country for Old Men” better than “Blood
Meridian.” I think “Blood Meridian” is a little windy. It loses focus
sometimes, although I admire it. And the great passages in it are
really wonderful.

I think I should say a few more things. Literature moves on from
one generation to another generation because of the work of minor
writers. People like Dickens and Thackeray that looked like major
writers when they were writing, they don’t look so major. They’re
not beyond reach. Literature is fed by minor talents. Mine is,
certainly.

If I had to point to two books that might lift me out of the minor
catalogue it would be “Duane’s Depressed” and “Walter Benjamin at
the Dairy Queen.” I think those are both really good, really, really
good books. A lot of the rest of them are good, but they’re not earthshaking.
It’s OK to be minor. In fact, if you can be minor you’ve made
a considerable achievement, because most people don’t register on
the scale of minor or major at all. So I’m not worried about it.

George: You’re one of the few Texas writers who’s looked at the
state unsentimentally.

Larry: That is true. I’ve tried as hard as I could to demythologize
the West. Can’t do it. It’s impossible. I wrote a book called
“Lonesome Dove,” which I thought was a long critique of western
mythology. It is now the chief source of western mythology. I didn’t
shake it up at all. I actually think of “Lonesome Dove” as the “Gone
With the Wind” of the West.

Bill: You’ve dedicated your life both to books and to writing
about the West. There’s not a whole lot about the West going on.
Certainly westerns have died as a genre. What is the fate of writing
about the West and of books? And do you fret about these things
that are disappearing?

Larry: You bet I do. I fret about these things that are
disappearing. I don’t know that the western is. But I’ll tell you what.
If anything has destroyed the western genre it’s “The Legend of the
Lone Ranger,” which I wrote the first script for 26 years ago. $375
million it lost. Who knows when they’ll make another western. But I
don’t think the western as a genre is gone. We are working on a
couple. And I’ve written another novel that’s a western and it will be
published in the spring. It’s still there.

But the big, big, big changes. I’m having a conflicted tussle with
Amazon because what they’ve done to the book business is horrible.
It’s just horrible. It’s destroyed conventional publishing. As much as
I hate them, they came to me the other day with an offer to make a
pilot that Diana Ossana and I wrote five years ago. And it drifted
around. It went to HBO, they got it and paid for it and then they put
it on the shelf. It went to 20th Century Fox and they put it on the
shelf. Amazon wants to do it and they have the moxie to do it. They
have so much money it’s incredible, and they can do whatever they
want to do. They released 14 pilots to the mainstream in a week.

Nobody else can do that.

What I see is everything has become television. Television is
smarter than movies, it’s infinitely cheaper than movies, it’s more
flexible than movies. I think of the major stuff that’s come out on
movies and television, say, in the last decade. Something like
“Everybody Loves Raymond” and “The Sopranos.” They’re great
series, you know? There’s nobody writing novels that good right
now. I like them very much.

I’m not sure about the book. The book is a pretty solid
technology in itself. It’s pretty hard to better it, as Barnes and Noble
has found out to its sorrow. They lost $5 billion. They’re just a
bookstore chain. I don’t think bookstore chains can afford to lose $5
billion and stay viable. And it’s extremely crucial that they do if they
can. I have this book coming out in March or April. If Barnes and
Noble is gone, where are they going to sell it? Where’s it going to be
seen? I’d like to feel that the people who say the book is doomed are
wrong, but I can’t really say that yet.

George: I’m intrigued that your last book was a western about
Custer, and you said you’re coming out with a book in April that is
going to be a Western. It sounds as if you believe Westerns are going
to be around for quite a while.

Larry: Oh, I do. I don’t think you can sink the Western. Well,
“Custer” is a flashpoint with me. It wasn’t at all what I intended. I
intended to write a companion to my “Crazy Horse,” a short
biography or something like that. I never intended for it to be a
coffee table book with hundreds of photographs. There was a
change of executive structure at Simon and Schuster. The new
person didn’t want it, and so they held it a year and a half, they
tarted it up with all those photographs and I’m very disappointed in
it. But that doesn’t mean the end of the Western. There will still be
Westerns.

Bill: So there is room to write about the West for young
writers?

Larry: Sure. The West is an inexhaustible subject, I think. I
don’t see any slackening of interest in the West. I get asked to blurb
or review western books almost every week, two-three a week
sometimes. People are still curious about it. Most people don’t know
much about it. I don’t know much about it for that matter. But I
know enough to be reasonably accurate.

Amy Burgess: You’re one of the few writers who’ve had equal
success in the different genres, with TV and movies and books.
Which ones get you the most excited when you have a new project
that gets picked up?

Larry: They’re so different, it’s very hard to compare them. I’ve
written 32 novels. I can’t say that I get excited when I start to write a
novel. I get to work, but it’s not a daily thrill. And neither is working
in movies. Working in movies has become harder and harder and
harder. I’ve had three or four very successful movies. Average time
on making those movies was 10 years. Ten years to make “Terms of
Endearment,” 10 years to make “Brokeback Mountain.” It doesn’t
come quick. You have to get the money. and to get the money you
have to get the actors that can bring the money. It’s very slow.
We have several projects right now that I don’t understand
why nothing is happening. Two years go past, no checks come in the
mail. It just sits there. We have a project with Ridley Scott right now
that’s set in this part of the country. So, there are stories out there.

But it’s really, really hard to make westerns. The thing that’s so hard
about it is that they involve animals – cattle, buffalo, horses – and
animals are so expensive. The reason it’s more likely to happen on
television – the reason “Lonesome Dove” was on television instead
of film – is that it’s so much cheaper. It’s all about money.
I’m kind of apprehensive. I’ve done this for a long time. I wrote
my first screenplay in 1961. I know the studio world pretty well. I
know the acting world pretty well. I know my way around
Hollywood pretty well. I just think the movies have backed
themselves into a corner. You can’t go on having $375 million
productions. They don’t have that kind of money anymore. They
wish they did, but they really don’t..

What they’re doing now, the last three projects we’ve been
offered as screenwriters, all of them wanted us to write a spec script
first. That means write a script that will enable them to get enough
money to pay for the script. We can’t do that. Other than writing a
good script, we can’t help them get the money. Or at least we’re not
going to.

I’m always grateful that I’ve worked in a cheap art, which is
fiction. Say I do want to write a book about Billy the Kid. It’s not
hard. I don’t have to invest a whole lot into it. I have a book or two
about him and that’s all I need to get started. And enough rent and
grocery money to get three or four months while I write it. That’s
real cheap. In the movies to even get to the first step, which is some
kind of outline of what the story will be, you’re up to half a million
right away.

So, I’m very lucky. I got started just at a time when it was
possible to get a book or two published and it didn’t cost so much.
More and more books are being self published, and being self
published credibly. We had one here in town, Jim Black wrote a
novel called, “There’s a River Down in Texas.” He published it
himself and Viking liked it so much that they published it in New
York. Self publishing is not necessarily the end of the road. It can be
the beginning of the road.

Amy: Would you ever self publish?

Larry: Yeah, I was just about to self publish this weird little
novel, then somebody bought it, strangely enough. To my intense
surprise. Someone bought it and saved me the trouble.

Harry Hall: Why were you going to self publish?

Larry: Because I didn’t think anybody wanted it. It’s a quirky,
very quirky book. It’s a form that you don’t see any more, which I
call a pastiche – which is somewhere between realism and parody.
My own publisher had been so negative about it that I thought,
Maybe they’re right. Maybe it is awful. Then two years passed and I
got it out and read it, and I rather liked it. I told the agents to say
bye-bye to Simon and Schuster and shop it around a little bit. It sold
instantly.

It’s an end-of-the-West western. Most of the westerns that you
read or have read are end-of-the-West westerns. This one is just a
little more clearly an end-of-the-West western. I felt that there were
stories and people like Charles Goodnight, people like Wyatt Earp,
people like Buffalo Bill, that could use a little coda of some kind, one
more pass. So I did it. I think it’s pretty good. I don’t think it’s a
world masterpiece, but it might be. You never know for sure.

Lori Dann: Can you talk about your writing process?

Larry: It’s simple. I write five pages a day in the early morning,
usually through by 9 or 9:30. I’ve done this over my whole career,
and five pages a day adds up. I’ve filled several warehouses with all
the writing I’ve done. Because I’ll do three drafts, seven or eight
drafts of screenplays usually. A lot of paper gets typed on.

Lori: Do you have people who read that for you before you
submit it?

Larry: My writing partner Diana reads most of my books. She’s
a very good movie producer. She reads with an eye to see what’s
going to work and what’s not going to work, and what’s going to be
too expensive and what’s not going to be too expensive. Almost
everything is too expensive.

George: Do your drafts consist of cutting…?

Larry: Yeah, one is cutting out mistakes, repetition, stuff like
that. The other, the last, is for style. I give it a little polish.

Bill: Do you ever write something and realize within a day or
two that it’s really dead? That it’s not going to come to life and
essentially you’ve wasted two or three days on a trail that plays out?

Larry: No, that doesn’t happen to me much. I usually write
what I think I’m going to write. I don’t start until I have an ending in
mind. It’s much easier to write toward an ending than it is to write
away from a beginning. You see two people in a situation like the
closing of the picture show in a small town, that’s an end to some
story, or a lot of stories maybe. And it’s something you can write
toward.

Bill: So you must spend a long time letting the plot kind of
unroll in your mind.

Larry: It depends on circumstances. I wrote – and I don’t
remember what year this was – I wrote a little novel called “Cadillac
Jack” about an antique scout. The world of scouting has always
interested me. I’ve been a book scout for a long, long time. I thought
that was it. I thought it would pay my income tax. It was the first of
March, or late February. And by golly, it didn’t pay my income taxes.
And I wrote another novel between then and April. It’s called “The
Desert Rose.” It’s one of my very favorite books of mine. It’s a
beautiful story about a great show girl in Las Vegas in an era when
show girls were being phased out. And I wrote it in three weeks.

Amy: Do you ever have writer’s block?

Larry: Never have, fortunately. I wrote it in three weeks. I’ve
written two or three books in very short periods.

Amy: That’s pretty impressive to think, “I’m going to pay my
taxes, so I need to write a book,” and just be able to sit down and do
it.

Larry: I wouldn’t do it every time. You get away with stuff like
that once.

Bill: I’m interested in the internal process of plotting a novel.
You get an idea of maybe a situation, or maybe the ending, and then
as you go through the following days, you stand in front of the
mirror shaving or you’re doing something else, and suddenly an
incident pops into your mind? Or how do you begin to assemble that
plot?

Larry: You know, I don’t think about it at all until the next
morning when I get up and write my five pages. I don’t think about it
all day. If it’s a screenplay I usually get it to Diana by 8:30 and she
works on it as long as she wants to and I don’t have anything more
to do with it until the next day. Same way with fiction. I don’t think
about it. Of course I imagine that I’m thinking about it somewhere in
my subconscious, but I’m not ever aware of thinking about it at all
during the day.

Bill: Is one of you good at dialogue and the other good at plot?
How do you do you divide that up?

Larry: Yes, she’s very good at structuring and I’m very good at
dialogue. For movies, that is.

Bill: So these students are going to be talking about dialogue
later today. What would you tell writers about writing dialogue?

Larry: Well, I would say trust your ear. I trust mine. Maybe
your ear isn’t trustworthy. Then you’re in trouble. I don’t know. I
don’t think there’s any set way to do it. You either have an ear or you
don’t. I don’t know many people who have ever acquired an ear.

Amy: Kind of like music?

Larry: Yeah, kind of like music.

Harry: What authors have you enjoyed reading, or what works
have you really enjoyed reading recently?

Larry: I’ve reached an age in life when I read very differently.
Mostly I’ve read for adventure. Now I read for security. Which
means I re-read almost entirely. If I get sent a book that I have to
decide whether to try to do the script or something like that, I read
it. But for myself I read two authors over and over again. Robert B.
Parker, the mystery writer from Boston, and an English aesthete
named James Lees-Milne. He left a 12-volume diary that is one of the
treasures of 20th century English literature. He was a well-known
person, a minor writer, a minor critic, yet he knew everybody in the
kingdom practically. He worked for the National Trust trying to get
them to give up their stately homes, which most of them couldn’t
afford by then anyway. He rode all over the British Isles on his
bicycle. And the diaries are just charming.

George: One of the things that distinguishes you from any
other Texas writers is courage. You took on the nostalgic writers
like J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb. And even though you
respected their work you also found their work far too sentimental
for the reality that you saw before you. You were skewered in some
circles for doing that, and yet you did it, and I know that, I’m sure
there were costs involved.

Larry: I think I just am better informed. Look at all these
books. I have 28,000 books in my home. Most of which I’ve read or
at least considered. That’s what I’ve found lacking in Texas
literature, and I said it. They haven’t read enough. They haven’t
traveled enough. They haven’t seen enough of the world. Gary
Cartwright and Larry King and Ronnie Dugger, and a whole gang of
quasi-journalists, quasi-writers around Austin. Bill Brammer
occasionally wrote really pretty good stuff, but few of them really
sustained it. So I was asked to make that speech at a Fort Worth
museum, and it caused a little stir.

Bill: Was there a little bit in it of the young man taking down
the mossy old idols with a little bit of pleasure? Take that, Frank
Dobie!

Larry: It didn’t take ‘em down, for one thing. Mr. Dobie I only
met once and I kind of liked him. I didn’t have anything against him.
The essay on Dobie was written at a time when any criticism written
about Dobie was like a criticism of Jesus. But he wasn’t Jesus. He was
just a writer. And I don’t think he, himself, participated in his own
legend very much. Walter Prescott Webb, no sir, I was able to take a
course under Walter Prescott Webb at Rice. He just went right on
being Walter Prescott Webb. And I never met or saw Roy Bedichek,
another writer that I wrote about in that essay. Never saw him.
Never met him.

So I thought it was a reasonable piece, and I was astonished. It
was a huge thing, called “Range Wars” or something. The case for it
was that thick. It was just one little essay that had long since been
forgotten. I think I published it in the Texas Observer. I like literary
controversy. There’s not enough literary controversy in Texas.
Needs to be more.

Bill: What role does ambition play in a young writer? Did you
burn with ambition?

Larry: Yep. I did. I burned with ambition.

Bill: Can you be a writer without that cooking away inside you
when you’re young?

Larry: I don’t know. Like I say, I grew up in an easy time, easy
to get published. I wrote to three publishers and the third one
accepted it. Because in those days they believed in developing talent.
Giving an author two or three books and then they start earning
money. I was just lucky.

George: I’m going to loop around to the same type of question
because I think it’s important for these students. You never shied
away from taking on the mythology of the West, taking on the
writers who were fostering that mythology, and yet you have a
group of students here who have been listening to you talk about the
chaos in the industry and the difficulty of writing books, the
challenges of becoming a writer. And that’s what they’re here to do.
How can they succeed at a time when everything seems to be
against them?

Larry: Well, you have to be very persistent. Persistence is the
only clue I have. I’ve persisted a lot of years writing five pages a day.
Graham Greene only wrote 500 words a day. This is not true of
poets. Poets can come and go and get a line today and a line next
week or something and have a poem someday, but writers have to
be sort of plough horses. Fiction writers just sort of plug away. And
most of them limit themselves. I limited myself to five pages.

Harry: Did you ever just get on a roll and go past five pages?
Because that happens to me all the time. I’ll be sitting there and
think, “I’m going to write ‘x’ and then your fingers can’t even keep
up with your brain.

Larry: Nope. I don’t do that. I stop. It’ll be there the next day
and it’ll be better for having had a good night’s sleep. I suppose I
must’ve done it sometime, but I can’t remember doing that.

Lori: And what about the publishing aspect of it for young
writers? That’s the big challenge right now.

Larry: It’s a horrible challenge now and it’s complicated by
Amazon and what Amazon has done to publishing. When I started
publishing I suppose there were 35 legitimate mainline publishers
in America, most of them in New York, a few in Chicago, one or two
on the west coast. They’re gone. I think Random House and Penguin
have just merged and that leaves five. Five mainstream oldfashioned
publishing houses are the outlet for a whole nation of
writers. I don’t like it and I don’t know what to do about it.

George: I find it very interesting that you mentioned that you
consider one of your favorite books “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy
Queen” one of your great books. And Walter Benjamin argued that
story telling was a vanishing practice.

Larry: Right. Story telling in the classic sense is pretty well
gone, I think.

George: It’s fascinating to me that what you consider one of
your greatest books was written here at the Dairy Queen.

Larry: Well he makes the point that places where stories are
told feed the growth of more stories. And I argued in the book that
Dairy Queens sort of became community centers in these little Texas
towns. I was trying to figure out the other day when we got our first
drive-in. It was called the Wildcatter. It was on highway 29 going
out. And I think that was maybe 1948, 9, 1950, somewhere in there.
There was a scene set at it in “The Last Picture Show” and I don’t
think it was operating and I think they rented it and opened it up
just for that scene. But there’s been a Dairy Queen here for a long
time.

You know we’re all crushed here and we’ve had a social
catastrophe. The restaurant right across the street from The Spur
hotel closed and we’ve had all sorts of gossip about it. Now that it’s
closed people have no place to go for breakfast. The Dairy Queen
used to be a good place to go for breakfast, because they opened for
the oil field workers at 5:30 in the morning. This little café did the
same thing. The Dairy Queen now opens at about 11 or so. I think
that’s because they can’t get the kids to pass the drug tests. I do. But
they’re kind of community centers and they’re places where stories
are exchanged.

Bill: How much do you worry about the fate of Archer City? Is
it going to be a ruin on the prairie in 50 years?

Larry: Archer City floats on a sea of oil. It’s been an oil town
since 1905 when the first gusher hit. It’s been an oil town all
through the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and it has always been a very, very
rich land. Eighty-eight million barrels a day comes out of the ground.
The mythology of the cowboy has overshadowed oil because
it’s so much more poetic. More poetic to see men on horses
galloping around roping cattle or something. People in dozer caps
don’t really get much respect, but they’ve been the ones who’ve run
the county as long as I’ve been here.
Eric Nishimoto: I was here with the last writers’ group that
you spoke to. And when I asked you about Archer City then, the only
thing that you wanted to say was your quote that you requoted, “a
small town full of small-minded people.” But you’ve done so much,
you’ve tried to do so much for this town

Larry: Haven’t changed

Eric: And you have chosen to live here.

Larry: Well, both of those statements are ambivalent. I haven’t
done much for it and I don’t live here. I come in now and then. I live
mainly in Tucson. Not entirely, but Tucson is closer to my work, if I
have any, in Hollywood. We get over there and get our notes and
reach an agreement, or we think we’ve reached an agreement, then
we get back home and get to sleep in our own beds. Of course I have
a wonderful house [here]. If I didn’t have that house I don’t know if
I’d be here much at all.

Bill: What would you tell young aspiring writers about reading
— the importance of reading, and what to read?

Larry: I’d tell them that the most important preparation for
writing is reading. Certainly for me and most people I know. Trying
to imitate the writers that we love to read. That’s what got us all
started.

Bill: But you have to read a lot before you find those writers
that want to imitate, I would think.

Larry: That’s fine. It doesn’t hurt you to read a lot. In fact, it’s
better that you read a lot. You’ll find the right ones.
Matthew Jones: I wondered if you could expand on that a little
bit. Earlier you were saying that television writing is booming. I’ve
noticed that there are shows like you mentioned, “Everybody Loves
Raymond,” “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad,” and “The Wire,” that are
essentially visual novels.

Larry: They’re like the 19th century novels. They satisfy the
same appetite for narrative and family life. The backbone of the 19th
century realistic novel is the family life. And Tony Soprano is family
life in the gangster world. “Everybody Loves Raymond” is set in the
same place, Long Island. Mostly writers don’t write realistic novels
about family life anymore.

Matthew: Are there certain television shows that you would
recommend?

Larry: I thought “Six Feet Under” was a brilliant series, but I
think “The Sopranos” right now is my favorite. Wonderful,
wonderful series. “Everybody Loves Raymond” is just about as good.

George: You said in your memoir, A Literary Life, that even
though the bookstores didn’t quite live up to your vision for the
town that it’s become kind of a seminar town, is the way you
described it.

Larry: Yeah. Here we are.

George: I was wondering, in the seminar town we now have
these writers who have come here thirsty and hungry to become
good writers. And they have. Many of them have gone on to produce
books and they’re writing for magazines and so on, and I was just
wondering how much – what – consolation you take in that?

Larry: I just don’t think about it. I come down here and talk to
them for an hour. I’m glad you’re here and I’m glad you at least get
to see a bookstore, which these days is not a guaranteed experience.
But otherwise I don’t think about it.

Harry: Why did you invite us down here? Why did you agree to
have us here?

Larry: Well, because I feel I owe it to literature, to give a little
bit back to books. That’s why I have a bookstore.

Kathy: I wanted to ask about James McMurtry. James has taken
his storytelling ability and picked up a guitar. Did you think, “Oh I
wish I’d picked up a guitar”?

Larry: Both James and Curtis. Curtis is James’ son, my
grandson. Both of them have bands and they’ve been very
successful. I’m very happy. Myself, I’m not musical, but I think James
is an extraordinary song writer and Curtis is going to be just as good.
So I’m lucky in having two successful descendants. It’s tricky being
the child of someone famous. Yet I’ve been lucky. Both my son and
my grandson are doing fine.

Bill: Did you watch this talent emerge in your son with interest
and amazement, or was it very suddenly you realized? How did it
happen?

Larry: It happened because I was writing a script for John
Mellencamp and James came to visit me and took his guitar and was
plinking around. John Mellencamp came out and asked him who he
was. I think John considers that he discovered James. I don’t know.
Maybe he did. But anyway, James played him a couple of songs and
Mellencamp decided to produce his first album. It was just an
accident. It was a wonderful album.

George: So how does the minor regional writer view his
legacy? What is going to be your legacy. Will you talk about that?

Larry: I hope I’m not going to have my legacy just yet.

George: Many years from now.

Bill: No hurry.

Larry: I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t really think about it.
Most writers sink in reputation right after they die, then maybe they
come back 20 years later. I think that may happen to me. I hope I’ll
come back. I’m pretty sure I’ll sink.

George: Over the years, I know book selling, book dealing, the
book business has been every bit as important to you as your
writing. Do you see your bookstores and the book business, the
work you devoted so much of your life and attention to, becoming an
important part of your legacy.

Larry: I don’t think it will. We just talked about my son and his
talent, and my grandson and his talent – they’re in music. My
grandson is faintly curious about the book – he’s not a book man –
and James is even less a book man, although James reads a whole lot
more than he wants people to think. He’s a very well read young
man.

The book gene, the rare book gene, the book trade gene is a
rare gene. Not many people have it. Not many people have it as
intensely as I’ve had it. And I think I’d be crazy to think that
somebody’s going to pick it up and do what I’ve done. It’s not going
to happen.

OK, folks, I’ve got to go to my next job.

3 thoughts on “McMurtry in Twilight

  1. While reading McMurtry in Twilight, I was tickled to death at Larry’s mention of There’s a River Down in Texas. My first novel was printed on my old, worn out HP inkjet printer, the pages cut and glued to a cover made from card stock. Self-publishing in its truest form! Was I embarrassed at the time? A little. But I sold over seven hundred of those homemade editions proving it’s the story that counts, not the book.

    Despite the stigma often associated with self-publishing, I’ve always felt admirable reasons exist for doing so. My lone experience in being published by “the big boys” was not a good one. My editor, a young Vassar grad, simply could not relate to either the 1960s or life in a small Texas town and seemed intent on leaving her mark on the book. Our contract allowed Putnam eighteen months to produce it, and it was indeed a little over seventeen months before the Viking hardcover edition arrived on my door step. I’d been warned by my agent that the wheels turn slowly in the publishing industry and she wasn’t kidding. A paperback version was eventually released under Penguin’s imprint and all contractual obligations had been fulfilled.

    A few years later, I decided to publish a sequel through a reputable self-publishing firm and haven’t looked back. I’ve since self-published my original novel (once it went out-of-print) and a third book as well. Self-publishing provides me a stress-free and timely manner of telling stories I want to tell. It doesn’t offer (without cost) the exposure mainstream publishing can provide; most major reviewers won’t accept self-published works, so the chances of hitting it big are slim. But then, it’s not really about the money, is it? I’m proud of all my books, especially that little homemade one whose pages kept falling out because I never could find the right glue.

  2. Archer City: A brief film clip

    Our subject sits at a long table surrounded by shelves of books that he has collected over the years and brought to this struggling Texas town in an effort, maybe Quixotic, to ignite some kind of cottage industry. Like one of those villages in France that specialize in lacemaking, or a Mexican mountain town known for its silvercraft, or the monastery in Spain whose fabulous marzipan draws connoisseurs from far and near. Archer City would be a book town. Collectors would come, ordinary readers would come. By and by a few townspeople might themselves take up books, though books have never been much of a local enthusiasm—a circumstance our subject has complained of eloquently.

    The book thing budded briefly but never really blossomed. Recently, our subject sold off most of the books, keeping about a third of the stock for his last remaining store. The camera does not capture this backstory well. Leave it running long enough and it might pick up a scene here or there: the arrival of crates of books, the sorting tables, the occasional appearance of a Susan Sontag or some other celebrity. And finally the day of reckoning, the great sell-off, Main Street full of eager collectors, the auctioneers, the departure of the laden vans and pickups. A good film or video editor might cobble together the footage into a narrative that any competent writer could unreel in a couple hundred words.

    We see our subject’s face, clearly weary. He talks slowly, almost inaudibly so the mic has trouble picking him up. The camera pulls back on our scene, close-up to long shot. We see others seated around the table. They are mostly young, a few older, one the subject’s age, give or take a year. They lean forward listening, taking notes. The camera’s taking in the wiggling pens, the finger muscles and scribbled notes around the table. In response to a question, he tells them his novel-writing days are over. Just doesn’t have it any more. He can still write screenplays. But nobody’s knocking on his door these days. He’s even stopped reading novels.

    Another question. He starts his answer, leaning back a bit. And his eyelids begin a long, languid descent. His voice trails off. Eyes are closed. Three…four…five seconds tick by. Around the table pens wait, fingers hover over keypads. Then his eyes pop open and he finishes his sentence, his answer to what was asked. The pens and fingers resume their work of recording.

    The camera perhaps has caught what those pens and fingers missed: that slow-motion lowering of the eyelids, those long silent seconds in which time seemed stuck. It takes longer to write it than to watch it. Advantage, camera.

    But just writing it will not do. The writer must fill in those five seconds for us, must somehow follow the subject into his silence. Must interpret. Where did the subject’s mind go during the 120 frames or so the camera was recording? Was it shaping an answer? Was it elsewhere, maybe at home napping on the couch? Sitting on the roof of a barn watching the last of the great trail drives drift north? Or was it just…gone? Blank?

    One of those around the table, a writer only a few years junior to our subject, is already struggling with those questions. Vaguely alarmed, he has been wondering: What can it mean that a writer long thought to be one’s better in every way, can just give up—the books, the reading, the craft itself? The ambition to be more than a pretty good regional writer. Now, in five seconds that seem to stretch out into eternity, the questions themselves swell until they fill the silence.

    There is an old argument about narrative nonfiction. That it should show, not tell. That it should never interpret, never tell us what a subject is thinking. That it should not tread those silent spaces where our subjects do not or choose not to speak.

    All this is nonsense, of course. Unlike the camera, the human imagination is not so easily restrained. The camera sees everything but is not plagued with understanding. The imagination, on the other hand, understands quite well, or well enough. We do it all the time, fill with our imagination what our vision lacks, not just writers but all humans. Film, video could not exist without this human impulse. We are always interpreting. In our imaginations we can follow the subject into almost any silence. The imagination has silences of its own.

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