Austin-based writer Lawrence Wright has never been easy to pigeonhole. He’s been a journalist for almost 50 years, but he’s also a screenwriter, playwright and musician. His 11 books include the critically acclaimed “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” and the Pulitzer Prize winning “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” now a limited series on Hulu, starring Jeff Daniels and Tahar Rahim; Wright is a co-creator and an executive producer.
Out next week, his new book, “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State,” is a tribute to the state that in many ways exemplifies America. As a longtime Texan, Wright is perhaps uniquely qualified to write about the state — he knows just about every prominent politician and writer in Texas, and was even neighbors with Matthew McConaughey when the actor was famously arrested for what might be the most Austin crime possible (it involved nudity and bongos). Wright spoke to The Times from Houston, where his play “Cleo,” directed by Bob Balaban, was having its debut run. Our conversation has been edited.
What do you think is the main thing that people across the country who aren't from here get wrong about Texas?
People have monovision. It's like those contact lenses where one lens allows you to see in the distance and one allows you to see up close. People look at Texas through one lens or the other, and they either hate it or love it. It doesn't even matter if they've been to Texas; they have opinions about it. I think it breaks down along political lines. Liberals look at Texas with a kind of dread, because Texas embodies for them this heartless capitalism, these predatory attitudes toward human behavior, and this heartlessness that seems to be very much the dominant trend in our national politics. They see it as emanating from Texas. And conservatives look at Texas and think it's the heartland of entrepreneurism, and it embodies the small-government, low-regulation, low-tax, business-friendly environment that they espouse. Texas has come to represent these things politically, not just in the U.S. but all over the world.
And it's a little more complicated than that. The cities are, for the most part, blue and as progressive, almost, as any city in America. If you look at Austin, for instance, it's probably the most liberal city in the entire southern tier of the United States, from Washington to San Francisco. I was trying to back this claim up, looking at how cities are rated, and based on voting histories and so on, Austin was the most liberal city I could find in the entire southern tier, and Dallas and Houston aren't far behind, either. I looked at the map of Trump's victories, where the votes came from, and the entire country is red except for the coasts, and then there are these polka dots, which are the cities [Austin, Dallas, Houston], and you couldn't tell where Texas started and where the rest of the country began.
In the book you write about the stark political contrast between California and Texas. Is there anything you find that those two states have in common?
I wrote a book about twins once [“Twins: And What They Tell Us About Who We Are”], and there's a kind of identical twin called a mirror image twin. The thing about mirror image twins is that if one is left-handed, the other will be right-handed. One will have a mole on the left cheek, and the other on the right cheek. In other words, they're genetically identical, but they're physically different. And I think there's something like that in the relationship [between] California and Texas. They are each majority-minority, which presages the future of America itself; they're unusual in that regard. They are the No. 1 and No. 2 states in terms of population, and they have almost perfectly opposing political trajectories. California has not a single statewide-elected Republican, and of course Texas hasn't elected a Democrat in more than 20 years. California is seen as a kind of high-tax, big-government model, and Texas is the opposite, and yet they have, in some respects, rather similar outcomes. We both struggle with education, for instance.
We have similar problems, but if you go back to my childhood, for instance, Texas is blue and California is red. Texas produced Lyndon Johnson, who was the father of the Great Society, and California produced Ronald Reagan, who gave birth to the modern conservative movement. California was as reliably red as Texas was blue back in those days. These two states, they intertwine like strands of DNA; they're opposing each other, but they're also related to each other, and they're the poles around which our national politics tend to revolve.
There's an interesting arc which starts with Hollywood glorifying the myth of Texas.... After the Kennedy assassination, that totally changed.
You point out in the book that Hollywood has had a huge influence on how Texas sees itself, and how the rest of the country and the world see Texas. Do you think that the portrayal of Texas in film and TV has changed in any noticeable way over the past years?
I think there's an interesting arc, which starts with Hollywood glorifying the myth of Texas. These were John Wayne movies shot in Arizona, which is supposed to stand in for Texas, and which celebrated the myth of the individualistic cowboy on this existential plane. After the Kennedy assassination, that totally changed, and everything Texas was evil. [You had] the mad bombers, the motorcycle gangs, the chainsaw massacres, all of those were Texas stereotypes manufactured in Hollywood. And it wasn't until the novels of Larry McMurtry began to be made into movies that I began to recognize the state that I lived in. "The Last Picture Show" was the first movie that looked like Texas, even though it was very dismal-looking, it was very familiar to me. Then for a while, Texas seized control of its story in the movie business. People like Bill Wittliff and Rick Linklater and Robert Rodriguez and other filmmakers began to make pictures that told stories about who we are. I'm concerned that we're going to lose some of that because the legislature has been so unreasonable on support for the [Texas] Film Commission. Once you start trying to make stories about Texas that are [filmed] in Canada, then you're going to lose the reality that we struggled so hard to obtain.
The final episodes of "The Looming Tower" are coming up. Have you seen all the episodes so far, and what's your reaction to the show?
I've seen all the episodes many times in different edits, and yet I haven't seen the last five episodes in their final form because I've been caught up in this theater world. But I'm very pleased with the way it turned out. We were well treated by Hulu. They spent a lot of money on the series. Dan Futterman, who is the showrunner, hired some terrific writers. We've got a cast that I'm thrilled by. They shot in eight countries. For me, all this is interesting, because when "The Looming Tower" first came out, I had mixed feelings about trying to make it as a movie or a television show, because I wasn't sure it would be able to honor the hallowed nature of 9/11.
But television's changed. When you have 10 episodes to tell a story, and you have the kind of talent that we've been able to attract in this series, it's a far more interesting medium for a storyteller. For young people, kids that are going into college [who] weren't even born on 9/11, that tragedy is not a part of their lived experience. They don't know why they're living in a world in which there's a war on terror, and endless wars in the Middle East, the security measures that we built up to protect ourselves. They don't understand why America is the country it is now, and they don't know the America that existed before 9/11, and I wanted to present this story to them in a new form that will help this new generation understand why America became the country it is.
There's another factor that has always been concerning me. Having researched 9/11 very carefully, I think the plot could have been stopped. If the intelligence agencies had worked together, especially if the CIA had given the FBI information that it knew that al-Qaeda was in America, then I think that it's very likely that 9/11 would not have happened. And just think if you could roll back the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the torture, the deaths of 3,000 Americans; if you could roll all that back, then imagine where we might be if 9/11 hadn't happened. The fact that nobody has been held to account for those failures seems so stark to me.
You've lived in Texas for a long time. Was there something in particular that made you decide to write this book now?
My editor, David Remnick at the New Yorker, asked me to explain Texas, because he can't understand why I live here. And I wondered that myself. Why do I stay in Texas when my life, my career is really outside of Texas and has been for decades? I work in New York and Washington and L.A. I hadn't written about Texas since I left Texas Monthly [magazine], and that was in 1980. I lasted only six months on the staff because I wasn't a very good employee, but I've continued to write for Texas Monthly for a long time. When I stopped writing for Texas Monthly, I pretty much vowed that I wasn't going to write about Texas anymore because I didn't want to be seen as a regional writer. And it turned out I am. [Laughs]
“God Save Texas” is very honest about the problems facing the state, especially the political ones. When people from outside criticize Texas, do you ever find yourself getting defensive about it?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it's always annoying when people criticize the place you live, even justly. [Laughs] There's a universal human tendency to want to blame everybody else for the problems that beset them, and Texas has gotten more than its share of blame, much of which is deserved, but not all of it. And so I find myself bridling at the smears that people cast in our direction. If you're going to accuse us, at least get your facts right, and try to understand the culture that we're a part of and also the good parts of it. That's the thing I find most meddlesome, is that there's a black-and-white view of Texas, and it doesn't entertain all the wonderful parts of the state.
Austin is known for live music, and you’re a musician. Has the city’s music scene changed, do you find, with the influx of people moving here from other parts of the country?
Austin is kind of a puzzling town. For years, it had this unbelievably great reputation, even among people who never visited the city, of being hip and cool and a great music town, a high-tech town, a university town. And it became a beacon for a certain kind of people who wanted to affiliate with that. So they moved to Austin, and made it more like its reputation. Austin had the reputation of being a kind of city that it really wasn't, but it's more like that reputation now because of the new people. They came expecting the music, and clubs and bands formed, and it became much more like they imagined Austin would be.
Schaub is a writer in Texas.
Lawrence Wright will appear at 12 p.m. April 21 at the Festival of Books in conversation with L.A. Times deputy managing editor Scott Kraft.