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For Word-Herder Larry McMurtry, a Novel Is a Trail Drive

January 29, 1989|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

For a writer whose novels are often set under big Western skies and populated with ranchers and gunslingers, Larry McMurtry is strikingly bookish. Here's a man who, any day, would rather be nosing through dusty volumes than kicking sod on the prairie.

Though he himself is the son of a West Texas rancher, McMurtry, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning epic "Lonesome Dove" will be serialized in four parts on CBS-TV starting Feb. 5, confessed the other night that he never quite got the hang of cowpoking. Early on, he acquired an antipathy to cattle.

'Tremendously Indifferent'

"As a child, I was tremendously indifferent to the comings and goings of these animals," McMurtry told a standing-room-only audience Wednesday in the Donald R. Wright Auditorium of the Pasadena Public Library. "As I got older, this was a puzzlement to my father, who could pick any of our cattle out of a herd, day or night. If I was ever sent out to fetch a steer, I'd return with the wrong animal."

He also acquired, early on, the book-reading habit. When he was 6 years old, he said, a cousin, bound for World War II, dropped him off a box of boys' literature. "I read those 19 books over and over again," said McMurtry, 52. "Essentially, they were my library for the next 10 years."

McMurtry, a big man whose eyes, behind dark-rimmed glasses, sometimes glint with flashes of irascibility, talked in a practiced, low-key style with just a hint of the Panhandle in his voice. He spoke of the colossal differences between novel writing and movie making: "One is private and cheap, and one is collaborative and expensive."

He described his current project, a novel about fathers and daughters.

Finite Resources

"It's about a woman who doesn't meet her father until she's 22 years old," said McMurtry. "By then, she has two children, each by a different criminal."

And he worried openly about his finite resources as a writer.

With 12 novels and two books of essays under his belt, McMurtry has clearly established himself as one of America's most popular and compelling contemporary authors. His novels include "Horseman, Pass By" (adapted for the screen as "Hud"), "Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show," "Texasville" and, most recently, "Anything for Billy," based loosely on the last days of Billy the Kid.

His stories are often mordant, full of violence, plot switchbacks and an uncompromising realism, debunking traditionally overwrought descriptions of the Old West.

For example, the narrator in "Anything for Billy," a writer of pulp Westerns, sums up a particularly bloody Wild West shoot-out as "just a long hot boring day, with a certain amount of fear mixed in. . . ."

McMurtry's books are also full of eccentrically original characters. Three of his women characters have provided Academy Award-winning roles for the actresses who portrayed them on film: Ruth Popper in "The Last Picture Show," played by Cloris Leachman; Alma in "Hud," played by Patricia Neal, and Aurora Greenway in "Terms of Endearment," played by Shirley MacLaine.

McMurtry, who said he will open a rare-books store in Orange County in February or March, joked that he had decided recently that he wasn't a total failure as a trail-driving herdsman, as his father once thought. "In a sense, I herd words into little sentences and sentences into paragraphs. Eventually, I herd them all into books."

"Lonesome Dove," probably McMurtry's most widely praised novel, is the story of a 19th-Century trail drive from the Mexican border to Canada. The television version will star Robert Duvall, Anjelica Huston, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover and Ricky Schroder.

Reading and Writing

The author's comments about the role of books in his life were not just idle autobiographical detail. Reading, more than anything else, leads to writing, McMurtry contended.

"During the '30s, '40s and '50s," he said, "the dust jackets of novels always gave a long list of the professions that the author had practiced--lumberjack, cowboy, merchant seaman, railroad brakeman, etc., etc. The idea was that a wide experience could somehow translate into novels."

On the other hand, fellow novelist Walker Percy ("one of my heroes," said McMurtry) spent 15 years just reading while he recovered from tuberculosis. "All those years, while his contemporaries were having their experiences, Walker Percy read and read," he said. "And out came 'The Moviegoer' (Percy's highly acclaimed first novel)."

Advice to Read

McMurtry's advice to would-be novelists: "If you want to be a writer, you read."

The author also made these points:

Writing fiction is "truly making up stories," not recording real-life gossip or scandals. "There's a kind of Puritan suspicion against fiction," he said. "Many people like to believe that writers (of novels) are, in a sense, journalists."

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