For Word-Herder Larry McMurtry, Novel Is Like a Trail Drive

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

For a writer whose novels are often set under big Western skies and populated with ranchers and gunslingers, Larry McMurtry is strikingly bookish. Here is a man who, any day, would rather be nosing through dusty volumes than kicking sod on the prairie.

Although he is the son of a West Texas rancher, McMurtry, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning epic "Lonesome Dove" was serialized in four parts on CBS-TV starting last Sunday, confessed one night recently that he never quite got the hang of cowpoking. Early on, he acquired an antipathy to cattle.

"As a child, I was tremendously indifferent to the comings and goings of these animals," McMurtry told a standing-room-only audience in the Donald R. Wright Auditorium of the Pasadena Public Library. "As I got older, this was a puzzlement to my father, who could pick any of our cattle out of a herd, day or night. If I was ever sent out to fetch a steer, I'd return with the wrong animal."

Reading Habit Acquired Early

He also acquired, early on, the book-reading habit. When he was 6 years old, he said, a cousin, bound for World War II, gave him a box of boys' literature. "I read those 19 books over and over again," said McMurtry, 52. "Essentially, they were my library for the next 10 years."

McMurtry, a big man whose eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, sometimes glint with flashes of irascibility, talked in a practiced, low-key style with just a hint of the Panhandle in his voice. He spoke of the colossal differences between novel writing and movie making: "One is private and cheap, and one is collaborative and expensive."

He described his current project, a novel about fathers and daughters.

"It's about a woman who doesn't meet her father until she's 22 years old," said McMurtry. "By then, she has two children, each by a different criminal."

And he worried openly about his finite resources as a writer.

With 12 novels and two books of essays under his belt, McMurtry has clearly established himself as one of America's most popular and compelling contemporary authors. His novels include "Horseman, Pass By" (adapted for the screen as "Hud"), "Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show," "Texasville" and, most recently, "Anything for Billy," based loosely on the last days of Billy the Kid.

His stories are often mordant, full of violence, plot switchbacks and an uncompromising realism, debunking traditionally overwrought descriptions of the Old West.

For example, the narrator in "Anything for Billy," a writer of pulp Westerns, sums up a particularly bloody Wild West shoot-out as "just a long hot boring day, with a certain amount of fear mixed in. . . ."

McMurtry's books are also full of eccentrically original characters. Three of his women characters have provided Academy Award-winning roles for the actresses who portrayed them on film: Ruth Popper in "The Last Picture Show," played by Cloris Leachman; Alma in "Hud," played by Patricia Neal, and Aurora Greenway in "Terms of Endearment," played by Shirley MacLaine.

McMurtry, who said he will open a rare-books store in Orange County this month or next, joked that he had decided recently that he was not a total failure as a trail-driving herdsman, as his father once thought. "In a sense, I herd words into little sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Eventually, I herd them all into books."

"Lonesome Dove," probably McMurtry's most widely praised novel, is the story of a 19th-Century trail drive from the Mexican border to Canada. The television version stars Robert Duvall, Anjelica Huston, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover and Ricky Schroder.

The author's comments about the role of books in his life were not just idle autobiographical detail. Reading, more than anything else, leads to writing, McMurtry contended.

"During the '30s, '40s and '50s," he said, "the dust jackets of novels always gave a long list of the professions that the author had practiced--lumberjack, cowboy, merchant seaman, railroad brakeman, etc., etc. The idea was that a wide experience could somehow translate into novels."

On the other hand, fellow novelist Walker Percy ("one of my heroes," said McMurtry) spent 15 years just reading while he recovered from tuberculosis. "All those years, while his contemporaries were having their experiences, Walker Percy read and read," he said. "And out came 'The Moviegoer' (Percy's highly acclaimed first novel)."

Advice to Read

McMurtry's advice to would-be novelists: "If you want to be a writer, you read." The author also made these points:

Writing fiction is "truly making up stories," not recording real-life gossip or scandals. "There's a kind of Puritan suspicion against fiction," he said. "Many people like to believe that writers (of novels) are, in a sense, journalists."

"It's not the life you've lived that excites the fiction writer, it's the life you haven't lived." McMurtry said he finds "attempting to project yourself into the feelings of a 50-year-old woman" more challenging than writing about himself.

"I write very early in the morning. I lead a very Spartan life. My typewriter is about three steps from my bed."

"Lonesome Dove" is full of historical omissions. "I forgot the railroad, for one thing. I even wrote in the margin to put it in--to have the cattle crossing the railroad. But I ignored my own note."

McMurtry rarely gives interviews. "Offer readers a choice between a page of opinions in a newspaper and an 852-page novel like 'Lonesome Dove,' and a great many of them may be satisfied with the newspaper interview."

On the current ascendancy of Texans in the White House: "George Bush isn't a Texan, he's a Yankee. . . . (Secretary of State) James Baker, he's a Texas Princetonian, a strange species. . . . At a time when Washington is most loaded up with professional Texans, I'm glad to be elsewhere."

When he talked about writing, McMurtry showed a fretful, vulnerable side. There's no guarantee that you can't "lose it" in a flash.

McMurtry admitted thinking, after he completed "Terms of Endearment" in 1975, that this had happened to him. He inexplicably lost his conviction as a writer.

Partly, he suggested, it was because of the death in that novel of the cancer-stricken Emma Horton, a character who had appeared in his last three novels. "I was just as involved with her as I could be with a living person."

Inexorably, he said, his writer's edge began to fuzz over. "My writing began to seem leaden. It's like, 'Have I seen this sentence before?' Characters that appear in your new book seem strangely similar to characters in your old books. . . . I didn't get it back for nine years."

The breakthrough came while he wrote the novel "The Desert Rose," based on a Las Vegas showgirl he met while researching a screenplay. "It was a little book," said McMurtry. Although his usual way of writing is plodding and "metronomic," he said, "I wrote it in three weeks."

Without that rush of pent-up creativity, McMurtry said, "Lonesome Dove," with which he had struggled since 1971, "might have remained just a half-written manuscript in a drawer."

The experience rebuilt his confidence, but it also chastened him. "You can't count on being there forever," he said. "You have to keep struggling with it."

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