by Larry McMurtry (2008)
Someone has to say it: Larry McMurtry was an over-achiever!
ONE successful career is enough for most people, but not for McMurtry, who died in 2021. He’s most widely known for his popular books and other written materials about the American West and Texas. In all, he wrote over 30 novels and collections of essays.
This memoir and a second one, found at https://www.amazon.com/Literary-Life-Second-Larry-McMurtry/dp/1439159939, provide insight into his literary life and the literary world. Anyone who is an aspiring writer would be well-advised to read both memoirs (he wrote 3) from this seasoned, successful, prolific, and obviously gifted writer.
McMurtry spent his early (pre-reading) childhood on a ranch without books. He was too young to read then, but he listened to the stories told orally by the older folks. He was an avid reader as he learned to read and gained access to books when the family moved to Archer City TX. Clearly those stories went to a place in his mind into which he later tapped to do his own writing.
Like Hemingway, McMurtry wrote early in the morning before starting the rest of his busy days. If I remember correctly, Hemingway’s goal was 400 words a day. McMurtry, whose writing seems to easily flow out of him, had a goal of 5 pages per day, later increased to an astounding 10 pages each day.
McMurtry always used a typewriter. He was no fan of more modern forms of communication and technology. Here he zeroes in on what is also one of my personal pet peeves.
“I nowadays have the feeling that not only are most bookmen eccentrics, but even the act they support—reading—is itself an eccentricity now, if a mild one. Interrupted narrative has become a natural thing. One could argue that Dickens and the other popular, serially published nineteenth-century novelists started this, and the television commercial made interruption come to seem normal. But the silicon chip has accelerated the process of interruption beyond all reckoning. iPods, BlackBerrys, laptops all break narrative into shorter and shorter sequences.
Still, it’s at least possible that these toys will someday lose their freshness and an old-fashioned thing, the book, will come to hold some interest for the masses again. Then again, maybe not.” [p. 137]
Besides what seemed to be a non-stop flow of words woven into meaningful stories, McMurtry’s writing was very accessible to almost all readers. There’s no doubt that he was a natural storyteller.
In a SECOND successful career he wrote more than 30 screenplays. He needed a third book of memoirs for that part of his life (https://www.amazon.com/Hollywood-Third-Memoir-Larry-McMurtry/dp/1439159955).
Many of those screenplays became movies that have remained loved by viewers for decades. “Terms of Endearment,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Lonesome Dove,” and “Hud” are examples. “Hud” is my personal favorite, and I only recently discovered that it’s the film version of McMurtry’s first novel titled Horseman, Pass By. How many writers can say their first novel did that well? He also co-wrote the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain” with Diana Ossana.
His books, movies made from his screenplays, and television productions made from both won too many accolades and awards to count. It’s gratifying to see that he was recognized for his work, for all the wonderful stories he passed along to Americans as part of our history, and even to the world. His readers consumed bits of American history often without really realizing it.
McMurtry’s THIRD career was as a bookseller, book trader, and bookshop owner. He had a habit that many of us can relate to:
“I never wanted to be without books I wanted to read, and if I could be reading four or five books at the same time, so much the better.” [p. 147]
This habit in part fueled that career. In Books: A Memoir he goes into detail about that part of his work. Incredible finds that make a book person’s heart leap with joy, meeting different kinds of people whose tastes are strange or expensive or just DIFFERENT, never knowing what any given day will bring…some people may not think so, but it’s exciting!
Some people had built a library only for show, had never read any of the books. He learned that people have books and build libraries of all types and for a multitude of reasons.
Sometimes the eccentrics came to his shop. The anecdote I like best is of the man who measured the height of each book he wanted to buy, discarding those that were too tall for whatever his situation required. McMurtry never solved that mystery. People buy books for all sorts of reasons.
McMurtry opened his bookshop Booked Up in Georgetown in 1971. It was a success thanks to the fact that people in Washington DC tended to read more than in many other places and included diplomats from around the world. He went on to own a number of shops over the years, ending in Archer City, TX.
Anyone who needs to know more about running a bookshop or selling and trading books should read what McMurtry has to say. He has some very good tips.
He also talks about how his reading tastes changed. He reached a point where he was tired of the library he had assembled for himself. It was no longer meeting his needs, which at the time included a desire for re-reading. This is natural for readers—what we read changes us.
McMurtry was obviously an over-achiever, living an over-active lifestyle, not recognizing that there are WEEKENDS when normal people try to relax and have fun, but just working the same every day. His work WAS his fun. He paid for that by needing a quadruple bypass in 1991 after which he experienced a deep depression. He was finally able to pull out of that and resume his work.
He was a strong defender of free speech and freedom of expression and association. He served as President of PEN America from 1989-1991. He was strongly against book banning.
The most recent interesting fact about McMurtry that I just discovered is that he married Ken Kesey’s widow in 2011! Kesey was the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kesey and McMurtry met at Stanford in 1960-61.
This book will be available at the GBCL. There is already a shelf of McMurtry’s books there for your enjoyment. He is truly one of the great American authors.