Thursday, January 11, 2024

Q&A with Tracy Daugherty




Tracy Daugherty is the author of the new biography Larry McMurtry: A Life. Daugherty's other books include The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion. He is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emeritus at Oregon State University.


Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of author Larry McMurtry (1936-2021)?


A: I grew up in West Texas, not far (by Texas standards) from where McMurtry grew up, and I knew from a young age that I wanted to be a writer.


By the time I was old enough to be a serious reader, McMurtry had already established himself as Texas's most prominent novelist, so, if you were literary-minded in the Lone Star state, he was a figure to be reckoned with, whether you liked his work or not. All my life I've kept my eye on him.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: My life-long interest in McMurtry was, of course, the foundation for my research, even before I knew I would be writing a biography of him.


Once I embarked on the book, I contacted people and conducted a number of interviews. I was working during the pandemic, so most university archives, where McMurtry's papers are kept, were closed. 


I had to make long-distance arrangements with them to access McMurtry's correspondence, rough drafts, and so on. The archivists were wonderfully accommodating. They are the unsung heroes of research.


What has surprised me most about McMurtry did not come from the research. It came after the book's publication. I am stunned by the affection that McMurtry stirs in readers. I have heard from so many people who have warm feelings for him and his work.


I think McMurtry himself, who often expressed doubts about the value of his writing, would have been pleasantly surprised by all the good will he engenders.


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “This is no hagiography—Daugherty contends that McMurtry’s five-pages-a-day writing routine privileged quantity over quality. Still, he takes the bestseller’s oeuvre seriously...” What do you think of that description?


A: I think it's a fair assessment. McMurtry was a compulsive writer. He produced over 40 books, working at a steady pace all his life. The quality of the work is bound to be somewhat hit-and-miss when a writer produces that much material that quickly.


Still, I don't fault McMurtry for working the way he did. We all have our approaches and routines, our metabolic speeds, and we labor however we can.


If McMurtry didn't proceed as he did, he probably wouldn't have produced anything at all, so the very good books are worth a few weaker ones here and there. It's a cliche, but it's true: our successes are born of our failures. 


Q: Do you have a favorite among McMurtry’s books?


A: I tend to be more partial to his novels with contemporary settings than to the more celebrated historical westerns. His ear for every-day American speech is unparalleled.


I very much admire All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers, Terms of Endearment, and a later novel, Duane's Depressed. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Speaking of compulsion: I am fortunate to be in a productive period at the moment. I have two new books coming this spring, a novel set in Houston entitled Tales from the Bayou City, and a cultural history of the 1960s and 1970s called We Shook Up the World: The Spiritual Rebellion ofMuhammad Ali and George Harrison.


And I have just begun writing a biography of Cormac McCarthy. I've been traveling and conducting interviews in McCarthy's old haunts in the Southwest, soaking up that big, beautiful Southwestern sky.   


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Aside from being a writer, McMurtry was a passionate bookseller. His most fervent wish was that people not let book culture die in this country. So, to honor his spirit, let's make 2024 the Year of the Book!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Tracy Daugherty.

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