LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Larry McMurtry's has shaped the way many people see the American West - the Old West through his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Lonesome Dove," the West of his youth, a dying small town in Texas in "The Last Picture Show," and a new kind of West all together in the screenplay he co-wrote for "Brokeback Mountain."
Larry McMurtry's latest book is the second volume of his memoirs, "Literary Life." We spoke to him at member station KUAZ in Tucson. McMurtry is aware many people know his novels through the movies and television.
Mr. LARRY MCMURTRY (Author): People are always telling me that I had everything to do with, say, "Lonesome Dove" or everything to do with "Terms of Endearment." But actually, the people that had everything to do with it were the producers, the writers, the set designers, all the people that actually worked on it. I was never on the set. I turned the key in the ignition. I didn't drive the car. Quite a number of other people drove the car.
WERTHEIMER: Why do you think these books become good movies?
Mr. MCMURTRY: Well, they don't all become good movies. Some become good movies. But I think essentially it's because I can write characters that major actors want to play, and that's how movies get made. Just like I can write the character Hud and it's, you know, it's on the screen almost before the last period is put on the book. A major star, Paul Newman, committed to the project when the book was in manuscript.
WERTHEIMER: And you think it's as simple as that?
Mr. MCMURTRY: Yes, I do.
WERTHEIMER: I mean, I suppose that's not simple, but...
Mr. MCMURTRY: It's not simple, but it's practical. And I think that people want to play my characters - major actors that you can get money for, from a bank. And that would seem to me to be the main - you know, the main thing. You've got to finance it, and you finance it, and nobody's ever come up with anything better than the star system.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that struck me when I was reading your book is that you said that "The Last Picture Show," which was a fairly bleak book about a fairly bleak place, Archer City, Texas, your hometown...
Mr. MCMURTRY: That's right.
WERTHEIMER: ...was written in just a few weeks, that you just - it just came very quickly.
Mr. MCMURTRY: Yep. There had been a family crisis. I was angry and I wrote the book very quickly. Of the five novels that now comprise the quintet, my favorite by a long shot is "Duane's Depressed." I think it's probably my best novel.
WERTHEIMER: Tell me about the idea of sequels. You say at some point that you indulged your passion for sequels, you did it both with "The Last Picture Show" and with "Lonesome Dove."
Mr. MCMURTRY: And also with "Terms of Endearment," therefore.
Mr. MCMURTRY: Well, 'cause it's interesting to, you know, involve yourself with characters at different ages and stages of their life. If you like them when they're young, then you may not like them when they're middle aged, or you may.
WERTHEIMER: Some of the reviews of your books have suggested that, you know, if you'd left it at the one book, which had such a big impact, the first book...
Mr. MCMURTRY: It wasn't a very good book.
WERTHEIMER: "The Last Picture Show"?
Mr. MCMURTRY: No, it's not much of a book. It's a flat little novel. I've never liked it much and I think I've written at least a dozen novels that are better, maybe more.
WERTHEIMER: In your career as a writer, you've had long periods of time where you say that you didn't like what you were writing.
Mr. MCMURTRY: Right, nine years in my case. Life is inconsistent. Art is inconsistent. You work in the same vein for a lot of years. There are going to be times that you like it better than other times. I think that's true in any profession. It all began to go dead for me somewhere in "Terms of Endearment." I finished it. I think it's a pretty good novel, but it went dead and then nothing came in its place. And then I got a little job to make a movie about a showgirl. It became "The Desert Rose." It didn't become a movie, but it became one of my favorite novels, and it brought me back to life as someone who liked what he was writing as he wrote it - "The Desert Rose," then "Lonesome Dove."
WERTHEIMER: "Lonesome Dove" was the Pulitzer Prize winner, much watched mini-series. It was a career-maker for some of the actors that were in the mini-series. You say in this book, when you're writing about writing books, that you didn't much like having written a sort of Western epic.
Mr. MCMURTRY: No, that's not quite true. I don't hate it or anything, but I think - I've said this many times - "Lonesome Dove" is the "Gone With the Wind" of the West. That's what it is, the "Gone With the Wind" of the West, which is both good and bad.
WERTHEIMER: And the fact that it is - it's sort of part of the myth of the cowboy, the myth of the West, the cattle drive.
Mr. MCMURTRY: That's true. And my family, of course, was involved in the cattle trade and I've said over and over again the myth of the cowboy comes out of the trail drives. The trail drives only lasted a little less than a generation, and it's only been a business less than 20 years.
WERTHEIMER: So what do you think about having written a novel that is the "Gone With the Wind" of the West?
Mr. MCMURTRY: I don't have time to think about things like that. I'm too busy trying to make a living. I don't look back very often at my fiction or anything else. I look forward.
WERTHEIMER: When you were looking back for the purposes of this memoir, you wrote: Little of my work in fiction is pedestrian, but on the other hand, none of it is really great. That seems harsh.
Mr. MCMURTRY: Woody Allen said the same thing about himself. He said, I've never made a great movie. I've made some pleasant movies, some good movies. I think, you know, there's no reason - if you don't want to be realistic about your work, fine. If you think that such and such a book is the "War and Peace" of our time, fine and dandy. Nobody's going to stop you from thinking that. I don't happen to think that way. I think I've written some pretty good books, but I don't think I've written a great book.
WERTHEIMER: You say that you find that you're more interested in writing nonfiction as you grow older. Why do you think that is?
Mr. MCMURTRY: Well, actually, I've always written nonfiction, more than I think. If I think I've written something like 12 books of nonfiction, well, you know, creative power doesn't last forever. People are criticizing me now because I started writing short paragraphs. Well, I'm old. I don't have the muscle to write long paragraphs. Or I may just have two or three sentences to say about a given topic and that's it. I don't have as much creative energy as I did, and I parcel it out. And I also - I've written a lot, 42 books is a lot. And I don't feel like I have to cover every subject on the face of the Earth. I write just exactly what interests me and not another word.
WERTHEIMER: The book we've been talking about is the second book in a three-volume memoir. This one is called "Literary Life" by Larry McMurtry, a man of letters. Thank you very much.
Mr. MCMURTRY: Thank you.
WERTHEIMER: You can check out our picks for the best books of 2009 at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.