Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Surprises from Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry has written more memoirs than most people have written letters home. I have just finished reading Hollywood (2010), the third of his literary memoirs, but he has written at least two other books, Paradise and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, that might be termed memoirs, as well. As sketchy as these books are, the 77-year-old writer may still have a few more memoirs left to write.

In Hollywood, his recollections of his many years as a scriptwriter, McMurtry makes the surprising, at least to me, comment that he works "harder at screenwriting than I do at fiction -- fiction comes to me easily, and scripts don't. I have to work at them; they're a craft I've only partly mastered -- the character part." Much of McMurtry's fiction, like his memoirs, has an easy-going style, as if it were just poured onto a page. Even so, I would have thought any serious novel would be more difficult to write than any screenplay. True, scripts are often written by committee, with the director getting the final say about what actually goes into the movie, which must be frustrating for any scriptwriter. But this doesn't appear to be what McMurtry is talking about.

Elsewhere in the book he recalls that after a heart attack in the 1990s, "I could write fiction, which doesn't really require a clear mind: it's a semivisceral experience ... No one can write screenplays in this trancelike state." Fiction doesn't require a clear mind? That seems revealing. I would love to hear other novelists comment on this observation. Is this why so many writers thrive in the party atmosphere of Key West? (See my March 20 post, "Key West literary tour.")

McMurtry says he's grateful to Hollywood because "it's essentially financed my fiction, my rare book business, and, to a huge degree, my adult life." Besides, he confesses, he just loves Hollywood and numbers actress Diane Keaton among his best friends. He hates movie sets, however, and makes a point to avoid them. Speaking of directors, he writes, "the kindest thing an author can do is stay out of the way and not slow them down."

Another surprising thing in McMurtry's memoir is that he believes Loop Group a much better novel than Lonesome Dove. I've read his Hollywood novel Loop Group, and I enjoyed it, but it seemed slight to me, again as if it were written on the run, while I consider Lonesome Dove a masterpiece of western fiction. Most readers and not a few critics seem to feel the same way. It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, while Loop Group went largely ignored. McMurtry could be right, however. I would love to read both of those novels again.

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