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McMurtry's 'Literary Life': Not Simple, But Practical

Dec 23, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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'Literary Life' Cover 'Literary Life: A Second Memoir'

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Since the very start, Larry McMurtry's writing career has been staged — almost simultaneously — in two oddly paired worlds: his hometown of Archer, Texas, and Hollywood. He published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, in 1961. The rights to that book were optioned for the movie that would become Hud, starring Paul Newman, before the book was published. "Almost before the last period [was] put on the book," according to McMurtry.

Later, other books — The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment, most notably — were made into movies or television series. McMurtry adapted E. Annie Proulx's story "Brokeback Mountain" for the screen and won an Academy Award for his work. According to his publisher, McMurtry has written 29 novels and more than 30 screenplays. His newest book is a memoir, his second in a planned trilogy, called Literary Life.

McMurtry has had such success in books and films that maybe it's no surprise when some people get confused as to which role McMurtry played in which production. McMurtry knows just where to draw the line.

"People are always telling me that I had everything to do with Lonesome Dove," McMurtry tells Linda Wertheimer. "The people that had everything to do with it are the producers, the writers, the set designers, all the people that actually worked on it. I was never on the set. I turned the key in the ignition. I didn't drive the car."

Still, McMurtry thinks he does have a particular talent when it comes to writing that makes its way to the screen.

"I can write characters that major actors want to play, and that's how movies get made."

Can it really be that simple?

"It's not simple, but it's practical," McMurtry says, citing Paul Newman's role in Hud. "People want to play my characters. Major actors that you can get money for, from a bank. You've got to finance it, and nobody's come up with a better way to finance it than the star system."

In his new memoir, McMurtry writes that he completed one of his best-known novels, The Last Picture Show, in just three weeks.

"There had been a family crisis, I was angry, and I wrote the book very quickly," he says. But though he revisited the characters in four more novels, he doesn't look back at The Last Picture Show fondly.

"It wasn't a very good book," he says, noting that he prefers its sequel, Duane's Depressed. "I've never liked it much, and I think I've written a dozen novels that are better, maybe more."

McMurtry says he went nine years, starting while he was writing Terms of Endearment in 1975, without liking a single thing he wrote. During that time, he stayed productive — he published two novels, Somebody's Darling and Cadillac Jack — but didn't start to enjoy the process again until he began his 1983 novel, Desert Rose. Such a dry spell might seem crushing to an author — especially one who had known such immediate success. But McMurtry — who says he believes he's written some "pretty good" books, but never a great one — greets this idea with a shrug.

"Life is inconsistent. Art is inconsistent," he says. "You work in the same vein for a lot of years, there are gonna be times when you like it better than other times. I think it's true for any profession."

McMurtry followed Desert Rose with Lonesome Dove, the Western epic set on a cattle drive, which won him the Pulitzer Prize and was made into a television miniseries that is inevitably described using the word "landmark."

"I don't hate it or anything," says McMurtry. "I've said this many times: Lonesome Dove is the Gone with the Wind of the West. Which is both good and bad.

Last year, McMurtry published his first memoir, Books, about his long obsession with the written word and his efforts to consume as much of it as he could. Literary Life examines the flip side of that obsession. Though McMurtry has never stopped writing, he notes in the new memoir that as he's gotten older, he's increasingly turned to nonfiction.

"Creative power doesn't last forever," McMurtry offers, before noting that some "people are criticizing me now because I've started writing short paragraphs."

Once again, his explanation is purely practical.

"Well, I'm old. I don't have the muscle to write long paragraphs," McMurtry says. "Or, I may just have two or three sentences to say about a given topic. And that's it. I don't have as much creative energy as I did, and I parcel it out. And, also, I've written a lot. Forty-two books is a lot. And I don't feel like I have to cover every subject on the face of the Earth. I write just exactly what interests me and not another word."

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