In 1989 I met the prolific literary genius, Larry McMurtry. It’s hard for me to believe that now because it’s not entirely true.
That year I was working for an old-style businessman’s club in downtown Houston that had declined in favor. To be sure, what we in Texas call “the good old boy’s club” never, ever falls out of favor or privilege, but its clubrooms do. This one had peaked along with white-gloved waiters and dark wood paneling. My job was to fill it again.
So we asked Larry McMurtry to come and speak. Today you might wonder why a crowd of oilmen would rally for a literary type like McMurtry, and the answer is, not because of a book. It was because of TV. Lonesome Dove, the irresistible miniseries made from McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western, had aired on television for four nights in February 1989 and no one alive had missed it. You can bet no one on the club roster wanted to miss a night with the storyteller, and so the event was sold out.
McMurtry brought some books with him. Unfortunately, they weren’t Lonesome Dove. They were the hardcover editions of Anything for Billy, his new novel about Billy the Kid that was far more resistible. He gave a talk. Perhaps it was about his life or his craft. I don’t recall one word of it, except what he didn’t say about Lonesome Dove. He didn’t say anything about Lonesome Dove, but after awhile he asked for questions. Every question was about the miniseries.
No one in the audience gave one hoot about Larry McMurtry, although they thought they did. They were interested in Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the characters Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Each questioner had an intimate relationship with the story. What did Larry think would happen to these characters next, if, and when? These fans had worked out future plot lines, and they offered them to inspire the writer toward a sequel. At some frustrated point, McMurtry told them that he had written Lonesome Dove a long time ago. It was old and over. He wasn’t thinking about it at all.
I was a PR counselor at the time, and I thought he was in serious need of PR counseling. The most successful night in the revival of the club was a rank failure.
There was a table set up in the foyer with stacks of the new hardcover, and McMurtry sat there after to sign books. I bought one. There were a lot left over. The club members hadn’t much appreciated the change in subject. This McMurtry fellow was kind of rude and full of himself.
I think about this now because of the perils of offering myself online, as I do here, or through my books, and recognizing the rare significance of meeting one another for real. I think about this because of media that disguises writing to oneself as writing to another and the digital repartee that passes for speech. I think about this because I have presented myself on the page as a kind of soul sister but show up in the flesh as a taskmaster. Because I have told three volumes of personal stories but limit my in-person talks to the practice of silence. It can seem kind of rude, like I’m changing the subject.
In researching this post, I’ve learned that Anything for Billy is considered one of McMurtry’s standalone books, meaning that it isn’t part of a thematic series. I surely saw that for myself all those years ago, the author standing by himself in a room of 400, no one seeing, no one hearing, no one caring, that lonesome night I didn’t meet Larry McMurtry.