Bookman, pass by: Larry McMurtry on aging, books, and America's disappearing 'cultural confidence'
“Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the way they were on Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny has played his last game of football for Thalia High School, but wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.” – Opening lines of The Last Picture Show, a coming of age novel by Larry McMurtry, 1966.
I sat down with Larry McMurtry the day before I left Texas to come west. We were in his bookstore in his hometown of Archer City, a tiny place the New Yorker once noted was home to about 1,800 people and 450,000 secondhand books.
It was a bittersweet interview in that he was in the process of shedding himself of nearly 300,000 books – the bulk of a collection he had spent nearly 60 years building. Sobering too were his reasons for the auction: At 76, he’s been thinking about what happens when he dies, and didn’t like what he saw. A half-million books inherited by his son, the songwriter James McMurtry, quickly started to look like a burden rather than an inheritance.
His memory is fading, too, and his days as a novelist are over, he told me.
Still, he remained sharp, if noticeably weary as well, as we discussed not just the sale but books in general, Hollywood and even – in a nod to my hometown enthusiasms, Louisville, Ky., born Hunter S. Thompson.
I left Texas to head to California but made a stop first in Kentucky, where I am from. I spent the afternoon on the front porch of another greater writer, Wendell Berry of Henry County Kentucky, and it occurred to me as a I wended my way West a few days later that my trip to California was really a story of writers coming into contact with books and with one another. I hope this series of blog posts gives you a sense of what I learned along the way
If my trek began in Archer City with McMurtry, it ended in San Francisco at City Lights Bookstore, that old iconic bookstore where I felt the first sense of homecoming after a long and interesting (and mostly solitary) journey.
This post will focus on my time spent with McMurtry, and I’ll continue the story with interviews with Berry, with a trip spent through the burned cornfields of the Mid West, a stop at the world’s largest family research library at Salt Lake and finally my arrival at Stanford, where like Berry and McMurtry before me I will spend a year as a writing fellow, only in my case the generous arrangements are owed to the Knight Journalism Fellowship, rather the creative writing program begun by Wallace Stegner.
I’ll only add for now that I am here to develop a subscription-based website focused on literary book reviews, and along the way to explore how journalists who work for legacy media companies can negotiate for space to become real entrepreneurs within their existing workplaces – without having to leave their company.
My trip had begun, as I say, in Archer City, about two and a half hours northwest of Dallas. McMurtry was holding what he had dubbed The Last Book Sale, and it had made news all over the world, including in TIME, which had sent me to look in on its final day. Buyers, book people and idlers from around the country had arrived at the town of 1,800 people looking for a chance to bid on book bundles that in the end totaled nearly 300,000 volumes.
McMurtry, author of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize-winning *Lonesome Dove*, *The Last Picture Show* and about 40 other books, has spent just as much of his life collecting quality hardback books, and selling them, as he has writing his own.
I caught up with him in Booked Up No. 1, the one building of four that will remain in business after the auction's results are final. It has about 125,000 books to sell, and he has another 28,000 in his personal library at home.
McMurtry told me has never seen the brilliant mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones adapted by Bill Wittliff from *Lonesome Dove*, and has no plans to. The story of Gus and Woodrow, two aging Ranger captains, had taken on a life of its own, he said, and one that has grown beyond his control or even his interest. "I think of Lonesome Dove as kind of the Gone with the Wind of the West. It has passed beyond me. I am bemused by what’s become of Lonesome Dove but I, I haven’t seen the miniseries. I detach from my books almost immediately after I publish them and I have no regrets."
> **"I think of Lonesome Dove as kind of the Gone with the Wind of the West. It has passed beyond me. I am bemused by what’s become of Lonesome Dove but I, I haven’t seen the miniseries. I detach from my books almost immediately after I publish them and I have no regrets."**
He also noted, and not for the first time, that for all the power of his western-themed books, he’s never really been a cowboy. "I've lived as an urban intellectual most of my life," he said. "I have written an awful lot of books that aren’t westerns."
He began collecting the books he would later sell when he was a young writer and part-time teacher at Rice University in Houston, mainly to be able to afford his reading habit, which he said was more expensive than he could afford. His first actual store wouldn’t open until 1971.
Now that he’s seeing the end of his life more clearly, he’s scaling back that operation. But he told me he still intends to buy books he finds worth buying, and to keep selling out of his remaining store.
Not everyone who knows McMurtry felt as easy about the sale as the author said he did. Former *Wall Street Journal* editor George Getschow, now writer in residence at the University of North Texas in Denton, about two hours away, had his eye on a couple hundred books himself, he told me, but didn't feel entirely good about it.
He has gotten to know McMurtry over the past eight years as director of the [Mayborn Literary Non-fiction Writers’ Conference], and said the writer will miss these books when the shelves are cleared following the auction. “You can’t spend a lifetime collecting books and dealing with books without feeling melancholy about this,” he told me. “This was his dream, to turn Archer City into a book town. … Now this is the end of the dream. There is just no way around it.”
McMurtry said he isn’t done selling books, or writing them. But he will write no more fiction, he said, having used up all his gifts in that area. His said his memory is failing, and he is simply too old to write a novel. Doing so, he said, is the work of middle-aged writers, not old men and not, he added, usually the province of the very young. Writing a novel takes energy, power and experience, things that usually fall to writers in their middle years, he said. By contrast, poets, he said, sometimes age into more powerful writers in their final years, but he said older novelists don't.
He added: Book dealers get better, cannier, with age. Novelists diminish, he said.
Other books are in the progress, however. He has a sequel to *Books* ready to go to his editors, and a biography is coming out soon.
“I have a little book coming out on Custer. I wish it would come on and come out. … It will be out in November. It’s a biography that has been spruced up with about 160 photographs,” he said.
He said the death of Custer at Little Big Horn marked the real end of the frontier West.
“It’s ironic that it was with a loss that made Custer into more of a hero than he would have been had he managed to live out a normal career. A lot of things about it interest me. … “
I asked him what he had learned about the west in researching the book, and he said his work had mainly reinformed ideas he had discovered previously. The Army lost the battle, he said, but the America's rush to fill the spaces between its coasts did not.
“American expansionism won, it sure did. About two weeks after Little Big Horn, (famed lawman) Wild Bill Hickok was killed in Deadwood. But publicity over the Custer defeat overwhelmed the Hickok obituary. Hickok was just momentarily almost forgotten. Not completely. But Custer, a dying hero however wrong he was in doing what he did, is something that seems to have perennial interest.”
Another book about the passing of the American frontier, in a way, was Empire of the Summer Moon, written by former colleague Sam Gwynne. I asked him about reports that he had bought an option to write that story for Hollywood.
“We scripted it for Warner Brothers and they just kicked it right out, they were very rude about it. It was a good book. It has its problems as a movie, because of the long gap between Cynthia Ann is kidnapped when the Parker raid takes place and … then Quanah and Mackenzie who are the heroes of it don’t really engage with each other until 1871 … what do you do with all this space in the middle?
“But it may come back our way, you never know. It took us nine years to make Brokeback (McMurtry won an Oscar along with his writing partner for the script, Brokeback Mountain) and nine years to make Terms of Endearment. We may see Quanah and Mackenzie again somewhere down the road.”
ML: I am from Louisville and am interested in Hunter S. Thompson. You were involved with the script for what would become the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That interests me, as I always felt the caricature of Hunter Thompson obscured his actual work, which was really first-rate writing.
“I wrote the first screenplay. I was the only one of 23 writers not to arbitrate for credit when it finally got made. I didn’t want credit.”
ML: You didn’t like the movie, I guess?
I never saw it. We were working with Terry Gilliam at the time on something else. And I thought, you know, What in the world is he going to come up? Everyone in Hollywood had scripted it at some point and you just can’t get it made. But he got Johnny Depp and that makes a huge difference when it comes to getting something made.
ML: Was your approach to the script much different than the one that was eventually shot?
I don’t remember. … It was 30 years between (his script and the movie). And 23 writers took a stab at it and didn’t make it. I only met Hunter S. Thompson once.
ML: Was it a positive experience?
“No, it was kind of an odd experience. It was at a dinner party and he was there and it got snowed in and he was very, very nervous.”
ML: Here we are in 2012, and there is an increasing interest in all things digital. You’ve spent your life not only writing books, but buying them and keeping them and selling them. Do you think the impulse to do those things – to have and keep books as physical objects -- is dying?
“No I don’t. I don’t think it’s dying. Look at what happened here. This is a little Midwestern Texas town. It’s got 1,800 people in it. It is not intellectual. Very few townsmen ever come into the shops. Even fewer ever come in to buy anything from these bookshops. But to my surprise I noticed a number of locals signed up to bid. That really surprised me. They don’t come in to buy.
“But we have a continuous flow of customers from around the world, from China from Australia, really good customers from Australia, We have had some of our very best days this week. Of course we created an event so it’s natural that we’d sell more books this week.
“I don’t feel threatened by the digital world at all. I don’t know anything about it. I have never even used a computer. I still work on a manual typewriter. But you know. Life is changed. Things are going to change. I have never felt that the traditional book is threatened by the digital or tech books. I just don’t see it.”
(He added: The weekend auction was proof of the interest in books, and book dealing.)
“The ideal for a sale like this is that young dealers come and get the stock they need to open. That did happen. There is a couple from Magnolia, Ark. … They were prepared to go way up, 700 or 800 boxes if they could get them. That’s what you want (in an auction like this.) The books are being put back into the bloodstream of the American antiquarian trade… and that’s a good thing.”
ML: You’ve owned books all your life. You have 28,000 in your personal library. Why own a book when you can borrow one from the library? What makes that special?
“I just finished a book about this very subject. It’s about my library and how it came to be. It’s called The Books I Have. I haven’t sent it in yet, but I am pretty sure I will, it will be sort of like a sequel to *Books* (his memoir about his life as a book dealer) and it deals with that question, where I talk about us having lost a certain level of cultural confidence.
"I was talking about sets, how you don’t buy sets anymore -- you know 20 volumes of Hemingway of 25 volumes of Faulkner. It’s because a certain level of cultural confidence has dribbled away. In DC we were buying mostly grandpa’s books. Books were had been farmed during a time when people did have cultural confidence and the grandchildren didn’t have any interest. We saw library after library like that. That’s why we have the stock we have now, due to the culture of the past. All good bookstores, all antiquarian bookstores, owe a debt to the culture of the past.”
It's not just bookdealers who owe a debt to the culture of the past, of course. Readers, too, owe significant debts to writers like
McMurtry who have made buying books worthwhile in the first place. I thought of that later on as I sat on the front porch of another aging writer, Wendell Berry. He had known McMurtry at Stanford, where they were both Wallace Stegner fellows in creative writing. I mentioned McMurtry’s thoughts on aging and fiction writing.
Berry told me he has a book of short stories, some written years ago, about to come out. “But I know what Larry is referring to,” he said, and couldn’t disagree with the challenges of writing long fiction as the years tick by.
He said years ago, when his old teacher Wallace Stegner was writing *Crossing to Safety*, his final novel, he told Berry that he despaired of it being any good. Berry told me that Stegner had said he didn’t know of any writer who had written a great novel past 70. He was worried about it. "But then I found *Crossing to Safety *to be a triumphant novel," Berry said.
The good news, I suppose, is that whatever genre McMurtry spends his talents on in the coming years, it’ll be worth reading. We see the latest evidence of that come November. Meanwhile, with 125,000 books still on his shelves, it’ll be good to know he’s not through with buying and selling books, either.
This initial post is part of a multi-part account of my trip from Dallas to Palo Alto in August, 2012. The next installment will deal with my interview with Wendell Berry. In later offerings, I’ll focus on the trip through the west, culminating in a visit to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and on my work as a 2012-13 Knight Journalism Fellow. You can follow me on twitter @lindenberger.