Larry McMurtry: On Rice, Writing and the Fate of Books
Born in 1936 in Wichita Falls, Texas, and raised outside Archer City, Larry McMurtry began his literary journey when he was 6 years old. He was living on a cattle ranch deprived of books, but one day a cousin, on his way to enlist for the Army, dropped off a box of 19 adventure books. “I picked up one, and I have been reading ever since,” McMurtry said. “I’d play hooky from the first grade to read.”
McMurtry’s slow Texas accent belies his sharp, encyclopedic mind. He can impart obscure information on any number of topics: writers, history, diseases, comics and manners. That knowledge comes from the 28,000 books stored in his personal library and the one million books he has handled as an antiquarian bookseller.
“I have been reading for 66 years,” he explained. “That’s a lot of years.”
During that time, the 72-year-old also has contributed his fair share of writing to the world’s library: 29 novels, two collections of essays, three memoirs and more than 30 screenplays. He won the Pulitzer Prize for “Lonesome Dove” and an Oscar for co-writing “Brokeback Mountain.”
“He’s certainly a productive writer,” said Walter Isle, a Rice professor emeritus of English. Isle has known McMurtry since 1960, when they both attended Stanford University as English students. “I think he is a good storyteller. He’s a very good essayist, and he knows a lot about the American West.”
When it was time for McMurtry to go to college, his mother suggested Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls.
“My father then had the worst idea of all, which was that I go to Texas A&M and become a vet,” McMurtry wrote in his latest tome, “Books: A Memoir,” which talks about his passion for books. “I’m not sure why my father made that suggestion, which, had it been adopted, would have been a mistake of epic proportion.”
McMurtry was saved from this fate by the happy accident of seeing a television program about Rice, then called the Rice Institute.
Like a scribe from the past, McMurtry continues to use a manual typewriter —
a Hermes 3000.
“The campus had what I supposed to be an Oxford-like look,” McMurtry said. “Actually, the architecture was partly Moorish. I, of course, had never been to Oxford at the time, but the program pointed out that the school was organized on a residential college system, like the real Oxford.”
McMurtry arrived at Rice in 1954, and he moved into a garage apartment on South Boulevard near Shadyside. He had three roommates, one of whom was Douglas Milburn, who received a B.A. in 1956, an M.A. in 1961 and a Ph.D. in 1964 in German.
For McMurtry, one of his fondest memories of Rice was Fondren Library, which, at the time, contained 600,000 volumes. “I was, to say the least, thrilled,” McMurtry wrote in “Books,” “and when I went back to Rice as a graduate student and later a professor, I still spent much of my time wandering around Fondren.”
McMurtry said that he romanticized Fondren in his book “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers,” in which the hero, Danny Deck, sleeps on the couches of the library.
When McMurtry arrived at Rice, the university was just beginning to balance humanities and the sciences.
“It was still, however, an old-fashioned, Johns Hopkins-type school with a lot of philology, German, French and Old English,” he said. “It was taught by a generation of people like Alan McKillop, who had studied at Harvard with William James.”
McMurtry also remembered being taught by English professors Jackson Cope and Wilfred Dowden, who died in 1999. Sumarie Dowden said that her husband often talked about the young McMurtry.
“Larry was in Wilfred’s freshman class,” she recalled, “and he said that Larry was very smart and knew a lot more about literature than any student his age.”
Dowden encouraged McMurtry to take a writing class with George Williams ’23. The class was reserved for upperclassmen, but McMurtry didn’t stay at Rice long enough to be eligible for the course.
“I knew I was going to leave Rice almost from the time I arrived,” McMurtry admits.
Like many Rice students of the time, McMurtry fell victim to Math 100. He would, however, be a part of Rice on two other occasions: as a graduate student from 1958 to 1960 and a professor from 1963 to 1969.
Though McMurtry left Rice, he still thinks fondly of the university. “I began reading seriously when I was at Rice,” he explained. “I love Rice and think of it as my intellectual home.”
McMurtry transferred to North Texas State College (now University of North Texas) in Denton, where his interest in writing began after taking a creative writing class with English Professor Jim Brown. McMurtry received his B.A. in 1958 from North Texas and returned to Rice for graduate studies in English, earning an M.A. in 1960.
He originally planned to pursue a doctorate in English but settled for the master’s. By then he had finished drafts of his first two novels, and he used the manuscripts to enter the Wallace Stegner Fellowship creative writing program at Stanford University, where he spent a year.
From California, McMurtry returned to his home state to teach at Texas Christian University for a year before moving back to Rice to teach freshman English and creative writing. “I had the ideal teaching job,” McMurtry said. He had to teach only two classes a semester, while at TCU, he taught five. “If I had wanted to remain in academia,” he said, “I could have stayed at Rice.”
Instead, he decided to write books and become an antiquarian bookseller.
McMurtry developed his method of writing when he was 23. He would get up early every day, including holidays and weekends, and write five pages. As he became more proficient, he increased the number of pages to 10.
“Very quickly I came to realize that I couldn’t write anything short,” he revealed in “Books.” “I was neither a poet nor a short story writer.”
Like a scribe from the past, McMurtry continues to use a manual typewriter — a Hermes 3000. Unabashedly a dinosaur in the world of technology, he has never used a computer, written an e-mail or done research using Google.
“It just takes more time away from reading and writing,” he said. “The only way I have managed to improve anything is by typing it over. I do three drafts, which is usually enough.”
As for research, McMurtry claims he doesn’t do any. “My research has been my lifelong reading.” Reading is, in fact, his source of inspiration. “Mostly the reading fertilizes the writing. Reading is the aquifer that drips, spongelike, into my fiction.”
By plucking away at his typewriter every day, McMurtry has produced a body of work that, by any measure, is extraordinary. Such an outpouring can produce unevenness, as he admits in “Books,” where he offers a humble assessment of his books: “Most were good, three or four were indifferent to bad, and two or three were really good.” If he had to pick his best book, he probably would choose “Duane’s Depressed,” which is part of a series that started with “The Last Picture Show.” He considers “Lonesome Dove” to be the “Gone with the Wind” of the West.
Despite his level of output, McMurtry still hammers away on his Hermes. He is working on the last two books of his memoirs — one about writing and the other about Hollywood — and his new novel, “Rhino Ranch,” will be published this June. He hopes, however, that he doesn’t have to write another book of fiction.
“Eventually all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse,” he said. “Writing great fiction involves some combination of energy and imagination that cannot be energized or realized forever.”
While McMurtry expressed concern that the culture of books is coming to an end, replaced by technology such as Google and the Kindle, his favorite pastime continues to be reading.
“Reading, to me, is the perfect pleasure,” he explained. “It’s stable, inexpensive and gratifying. It’s everything a culture should be.”
If the response to his recent Friends of Fondren Library Distinguished Guest Lecture was any indication, he’s not alone. The overflow crowd was clearly filled with lovers of the written word, both young and old.
One Rice student said the very first paperback book she read was “The Last Picture Show,” and another student told McMurtry, “It’s tremendous to have you here at Rice. I remember the copy of ‘Lonesome Dove’ my grandfather used to read when I was little.” A graduate student dressed in a cowboy hat and boots said, “I spent eight years on the rodeo circuit, and I’ve seen many copies of your books on the dashboards of pickups.”
For a man who left the ranch to herd words and hone his craft at a small Oxford-like university in Houston, coralling whole generations of readers the world over is a pretty good legacy.