Thursday, April 25, 2024

Q&A with Tracy Daugherty




Tracy Daugherty is the author of the new novel Tales from the Bayou City. His other books include the biography Larry McMurtry: A Life. He is Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing, Emeritus at Oregon State University.


Q: What inspired you to write Tales from the Bayou City, and how would you describe your relationship with Houston?


A: I conceived Tales from the Bayou City decades ago, when I was a young man living in Houston. I had migrated to the city from the flatlands of West Texas—oil rigs and tumbleweeds—and I didn’t know what a city was, or what it could be, until I arrived in Houston. 


Houston opened my eyes to the meaning of the word “diversity,” and I immediately wanted to capture on the page the thrill, the energy, the scariness, and the possibilities of diverse populations rubbing against one another in an urban environment. 


I began writing what would become Tales, but I was too young, and too overwhelmed by life, to pull together the narrative back then. Over the years, I wound up publishing parts of the novel as short stories in various places, but I could never realize the full vision of the novel until just recently, after many years of contemplating it, and contemplating Houston from near and far. 


Houston is one of the great loves of my life. My relationship to the city is intimate and profound. I cherish its textures, its air, its smell, and its heat. I returned to it recently and fell under its spell again. To me, it is a living, breathing organism, and it still has much to teach me about life. 


Q: The novel is divided into four time periods, 1985, 1990, 1995, and 2000--how would you describe the relationship among those sections of the book?


A: Anyone who has a long acquaintance with a city—any city—knows how quickly things change. Almost the moment you write about something, it will have altered or disappeared, so, by definition, writing about a city means you are composing elegies: gravestone inscriptions for what used to be.


For that reason, I structured Tales from the Bayou City in five-year increments: to acknowledge, up front, the rapidity and depth of change, the gaps in life that, oftentimes, get covered up or smoothed over in narratives (which, after all, seek to make connections among events, and find meaning in them). 


Without denying connections or meaning, I wanted to convey life’s disorientations, its randomness as well. The four-part structure of Tales allowed me to leave some of the biggest changes in the main character’s life unseen—offstage, as it were. The story continues as each part unfolds, but not without interruptions and gaps. 


This sort of rhythm seems to me truer to life than a smooth, slick narrative would be.      

Q: The writer Rosellen Brown said of the book, “No one has written this well of Houston, ever, catching the run-down, random quality of it, and the nuances, the rough and the smooth, of different neighborhoods, of the diversity of populations.” What do you think of that description?


A: Bless Rosellen.  She has experienced many different cities, including Houston, and she has a keen eye and deep empathy for diverse populations.  She grasped what I was trying to capture in Tales. (And her work has always been an exemplary model for me.) 


Houston is a fine mess, and any book about it has to exhibit messiness to a fine degree. As a school student in Houston, I used to read and write, and dream of the future, while sitting in an old cemetery where many ex-slaves were buried. The cemetery was surrounded and being crowded out by modern, multi-story condos. 


The city is that kind of mess—and trying to express those contradictions is what it means to write about urban America.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope that Tales makes readers laugh and cry—about their own lives.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am fortunate to be in a productive period just now. I have a new book coming out called We Shook Up the World: The Spiritual Rebellion of Muhammad Ali and George Harrison. 


I am working on other fiction—a series of linked stories (or a novel in stories) about an architect in New York City, covering the city’s history from 9/11 to the pandemic; a novel about a Mexican filmmaker, spanning the 1920s through the 1960s; and a novel set in Oklahoma during the Depression, based on an actual murder in a small town that blew the lid off a town’s racial volatility. 


I have also just signed to write a biography of Cormac McCarthy.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: My website is I am always happy to hear from readers. 


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

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