This week, Larry McMurtry received the Los Angeles Public Library Award for his extensive contribution to literature, joining other great American writers such as Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Louise Erdrich, and August Wilson, who have received the award in the past. Today, he's speaking at the library's important ALOUD series (full disclosure: I'll be speaking there myself in June). In a difficult time of funding cutbacks for all things cultural, including libraries, his talk draws attention to the crucial role that the LAPL plays in our lives as citizens - as a literary and educational town square, as well as a palace of history and connection. On the occasion of his award, I posed a few online questions to McMurtry; here are some of his thoughts on the modern West, great books, and his favorite librarian.
1. Perhaps more than any other American writer, you've explored the nooks and crannies of the cowboy's nature. Do you agree that America is a cowboy nation, in terms of the way we see ourselves, and if so, what aspects of the cowboy character have helped us in the world? Which ones are destroying us?
No, I don't consider us a cowboy culture. We're a suburban culture. The cowboy survives as an image because it's an image of independence. In reality, that independence only survived for about twenty years. The cowboy myth comes out of the trail drives. Once the railroads came into existence, there was no need for cowboys to do cattle drives. Since then, they've been workmen--hired hands in a rural trade, and have become more and more marginal.
2. In your memoir, "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," you mention that the frontier experience produced a silence in women - at least in two of the ones you knew, the "skunk woman" as well as your paternal grandmother. In your work you have shown a deep affinity for women and have written memorable and complicated female characters, unlike other writers who have chronicled the West. Have you ever thought that in some way, you are speaking for these silent women of the West?
No. I don't think that way. I'm speaking for whatever character is speaking on the page at any given time. It's about the story and the characters I'm writing.
3. You've written that the media supplies memories. Are you saying that one's personal memory of something isn't real unless it is broadcast on TV or the internet? Do you think that the mania for taking pictures with cellphones and standing in public talking loudly on the phone is a way to take our memories back - create our own - star in our own stories, as obnoxious as that is for people standing behind the person on the phone? What are the consequences of all of this when it comes to the written word?
What I meant by the media supplying memories is that we watch movies, or television, and those things become part of our memory bank. We'll have to wait and see what consequences these things will bring. I don't know. Maybe no consequences. Maybe these things will eliminate the written word, but it's unlikely. I don't use a computer, nor go near the internet. In fact, Diana Ossana, my writing partner, is typing my spoken responses to your questions into her computer.
4. You once wrote that "Texas is where the real West begins." To what degree is George Bush representative of the whole cowboy thing? Is he a total fake or does his invocation of the West go beyond "clearing brush"? And what about Laura Bush? I've had a hard time figuring out how a lifelong book lover and librarian has connected with a man who seemingly does not brake for the written word. Is it a case of "oh you big ole loveable brute"? Do you have any thoughts about what connects those citizens of the Lone Star State?
George Bush is from Greenwich, Connecticut. He likely thinks he's a Texan, but he is not. I don't really know either George or Laura Bush well enough to comprehend or understand what connects them.
5. In your memoir you wrote that the American West has not yielded up a great book. You talked about some books that were really good - Little Big Man and Son of the Morning Star. Now, ten years later, do you still feel the same way? What new books about the West, if any, do you recommend? Which ones have you gone back to, if any?
I do feel the same way about books and the American West; however, No Country For Old Men by Cormac McCarthy is a very good book. I went back to Son of the Morning Star because I was reviewing a book on Custer--and it is still an excellent book.
6. When you were starting your career, you wrote that publishers were eager for new fiction. Nowadays, there is a mania for memoirs, and in fact there are so many of them that they have come to be called in some quarters "mis lit" (misery literature). Obviously certain novelists, including yourself, have a large following and continue to be published. But has the truth trumped its recast version - fiction? Why are publishers encouraging writers to write memoirs instead of fiction? And what does this bode for the novelist?
I don't think that's widespread. There have always been young writers who have written memoirs, for example, Frank Conroy's Stop Time. I think it's just another fad, which will pass. There are far more first novels published in a given year than memoirs.
7. You have noted that the most iconic image of the West is the running horse. The country has nearly purged itself of mustangs, and some say that our four-legged partner is on its way out. Texas, which once had hundreds of thousands of them, now has none. The cowboy scribe J. Frank Dobie saw it coming and today, he would be devastated. You write about cowboys, including your father, who often cite the "two or three good horses" they once had as a highlight of their lives. Apart from the King Ranch, which is privately owned, why couldn't all the cowboys in the Lone Star State manage to keep a few thousand wild horses on the range?
I wasn't aware that all the wild horses have disappeared from Texas; I thought there were still a few out near Fort Davis somewhere. The large concentrations have been in Nevada and Idaho, and maybe eastern Oregon. I know there are sanctuary movements trying to capture them and find homes for them.
8. I'm sure you've heard the Hollywood convention that westerns never work. Of course, your movies have disproved that notion. But others have too, and good ones inevitably win awards and attract large audiences. What accounts for this attitude towards westerns, other than the fact that they don't have special effects and can't be turned into brands, etc?
The attitude that Westerns never work came from the financial debacle of "Heaven's Gate." Now "Heaven's Gate" is considered a masterpiece, but it destroyed a studio because Michael Cimino was uncontrollable budget-wise. A good Western is like any other good film--it tells a compelling story with convincing characters. The ones that succeed are because they tell an interesting story, just like any other film that succeeds. The ones that fail do so because they're not good films and don't tell good stories.
9. For some time small bookstores have been falling by the wayside and places such as your antiquarian bookstore in Archer City must now compete with amazon, alibris, and so on. Do you have any thoughts about the fate of stores such as yours in this strange era of ours? Do you ever buy used books online?
I only purchase books online if I need it overnight in order to write a screenplay. Small bookstores are doomed, unless the people who own and run them have deep pockets.
10. Do you read reviews of your books? If not, how do you reconcile this with being a book critic yourself? If so, have you ever contacted a reviewer with whom you disagreed?
I don't read reviews of my books because I don't learn anything by reading reviews of my books. The book is already written and has left my consciousness. So much time has passed that I feel little or no connection to the book anymore. I don't see any contradiction in reviewing books and not reading reviews of my own books. Reading other people's works in order to review them is simply a writing job.
11. As you wrote in your memoir, books came into your life when your cousin dropped off a box of them as he was leaving for World War II. Is it accurate to say that this was your first library experience? Later, the world became your library as you began to collect books and assemble them in your store in Archer City. But what about official libraries? What role have they played in your life and are there any in particular that were key to you at any given time? Do you have any favorite librarians and is it ok to talk in the library?
Actually, my cousin's dropping off those books was my first READING experience. The Rice University Library—the Fondren Library—was the library I used when I went away to school, and so it was integral to my introduction into the vast world of books. My favorite living librarian is Nina Matheson. Nina ran the medical library at Johns Hopkins as her last librarian job, but is now herself a bookseller.
12. Finally, in California, the big question is "paper or plastic?" In Texas, I hear that it's "Willie or Waylon?" Any preference on this front?
No. I don't listen to music, except the music of my son, James McMurtry.