Larry McMurtry on the Old West and Modern Texas

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David Woo / Dallas Morning News / Corbis

Larry McMurtry is the author of 30 novels, including Lonesome Dove and his most recent, The Last Kind Words Saloon. He also owns a bookstore in Archer, Texas.

What trip changed your life?
There were two: leaving Archer City, Texas, in 1954 for Rice University in Houston, and later, leaving Houston for Washington, D.C., in 1971. In both cases, the move brought me into contact with a deeper, higher culture. Archer City was the town in the film The Last Picture Show, and it hasn’t changed much since. If you’re curious and energetic, life there is pretty miserable. It’s tolerable for me, but only if I have enough to read. And I have enough to read.

Why have you written so much about the old West?
My grandparents lived it. They arrived in Texas in 1880 in a covered wagon. And perhaps it’s an effort to understand the frontier experience, which is critical to many American writers, including me.

What would you tell the 12-year-old you?
“Try not to get hurt working the cattle.” I witnessed a cowboy get two fingers popped off due to carelessness in roping. I worked as a cowboy until I was 22 years old, when I became a writer.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My professor in creative writing at North Texas State advised that if I wanted to be a writer, I should read first, particularly in the genre I was interested in writing. So I read Kerouac. Like On the Road, much of my writing involves moving from one place to another.

What does the rest of America not understand about Texas?
That Texas is five different cultures: the Midwest, the Deep South, the Gulf Coast, the border, and the West.

What have you learned about work?
I’ve learned that it’s necessary to one’s well-being. It goes better if you’re regular, consistent. My routine is usually five pages in the day, no more and no less. I limit myself to exactly five pages so the well doesn’t go dry.

How key is friendship?
Great friendships are critical to a fulfilling life. Almost all of mine have been with women. I wasn’t interested in men; men had little to offer in the way of intellectual or emotional stimulation.

How do you handle regret?
By working through it. My biggest regret is that I don’t know Europe as well as I should. I’ve only been to Italy, England, and Switzerland.

What have you learned working in Hollywood?
That writing novels is cheap and making films is expensive. I’ve been lucky in that three fine films have come out of my novels.

What should a man know about vanity?
I have no opinion about vanity, except that it’s pretty easy to spot in a man.

What should every man understand about women?
If you want to know or learn about emotion, you need to talk to women. Most men are clueless in that regard.

You’ve run an independent bookstore for years. Do you fear the death of print?
No. I love the culture of antiquarian books. I constantly pick up books I’ve never seen, and I always learn something interesting.

What did hanging out with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters teach you?
I didn’t exactly hang with them. They visited me twice, both times for only a night. The first timethey left me with a crazy woman. She ended up in a psychiatric hospital, and I had to get her out and get her back home. I learned that I didn’t want that kind of life for myself.

Should a man ever lie?
It could be argued that writing fiction is a form of lying. In that regard, the truth is overrated.

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