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PROFILE : Smile When You Say That, Partner : When million-selling, prizewinning novelist and screenwriter Larry McMurtry announced that he was taking on a co-writer, the literary world raised its collective brow. But Hollywood hasn't had a problem with it.

October 30, 1994|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

TUCSON — They have the couple's habit of finishing each other's sentences, a habit they have now turned into a novel.

"The collaboration, from the point of view of the writing, has always been very easy," says Larry McMurtry, one of America's most celebrated authors, slurping a Dr Pepper. "It's only when we've edged out into the public arena, when something gets published and our names show up in the trades, that it wasn't . . . "

" . . . Easy," adds Diana Ossana, one of America's most celebrated, um, former legal secretaries?

McMurtry and Ossana have done considerably more than edge into public view recently, writing the teleplay for the upcoming CBS production of "Streets of Laredo" (McMurtry's sequel to "Lonesome Dove"), writing the screenplay for the feature film version of the 1950s TV show "Father Knows Best" for Universal, developing a script at Warner Bros. based on the true story of a Wyoming lawman who was tried and acquitted for killing an unarmed suspect he believed was about to kill him and writing a Western, also for Universal, called "The Standoff."

Meanwhile, Paramount has Shirley MacLaine attached to "Evening Star," the sequel to "Terms of Endearment" that McMurtry published as a novel two years ago. McMurtry has also adapted yet another of his own best-selling Western novels, "Buffalo Girls," with co-writers Beth Sullivan and Cynthia Whitcomb for CBS.

That sudden convulsion of film and television work has been joined by Simon & Schuster's publication this fall of their collaborative novel "Pretty Boy Floyd," from which McMurtry and Ossana read excerpts recently at Book Soup in West Hollywood. The appearance was part of the first extended book tour McMurtry has ever done, though it seems to have been to little avail. "Pretty Boy Floyd" has been given prominent display in bookstores and advertised heavily, but it has received mixed reviews and has not yet made it to the New York Times bestseller list.

Given the buzz already surrounding their unusual partnership--the New York Times characterized Ossana recently as "Mr. McMurtry's companion"--"Pretty Boy Floyd" had been among the more eagerly awaited publishing events of the fall season.

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And why shouldn't it have been? McMurtry is part of that small pride of American literary lions whose voice could be mistaken for no other, a writer with an epic sense of scale--as he demonstrated with the cowboy colossus "Lonesome Dove"--and a lapidary precision with dialogue that he has transformed into more than 30 screenplays. McMurtry, from 1989 to 1991, was also the first non-New Yorker to serve as president of the literary organization PEN since the 1920s.

Ossana, on the other hand, "has been writing ever since she learned to read," according to her brief biography on the dust jacket of "Pretty Boy Floyd."

If it is difficult to know what Ossana's contribution was to the rather inert quality of the novel, there is no doubt she has been the driving force behind McMurtry's recent burst of activity in Hollywood.

"She gets his juices going and keeps him wanting to write and keep writing," says Jerry Katzman, the William Morris agent who represents the pair in much of their screen work.

Says McMurtry: "One of the problems I have with screenwriting is that it's an interrupted activity. To write something and then have it reappear in my life seven or eight years later is like a marriage reappearing. Until Diana came along, I was a first-stage-of-the-rocket screenwriter. I do two drafts because I can't do more than two drafts of anything, and I get some characters in there that are good enough to show to a studio. I can get characters on paper that major actors would want to play, but I have no sense of structure. Diana tends to worry the material in a way that's good."

As a form, the collaborative novel has been a literary slough of despond that has rarely risen above its mismatched talent pools, sinking even Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, who separately tried to navigate its murky waters.

If McMurtry's enterprise has about it a suggestive whiff of hubris, it will be scented first in the collectively flared nostrils of the New York lit-crit Establishment, among whom McMurtry's apparently heedless attempt to transform Ossana into his very own literary Eliza Doolittle must have raised a few eyebrows. Assuming snakes have eyebrows.

In Hollywood, where the dream factories have always encouraged an assembly-line approach to writing, last May's announcement that Ossana and McMurtry would collaborate on a screen adaptation of the '50s television series "Father Knows Best" raised a slightly different set of questions. The first of these-- Father Freakin' Knows Best ? with its correlative How much are they getting ?--begs the second question, stated with as much attitude as possible: Didn't McMurtry once win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction?

"I think they see it as somehow beneath him," Ossana says. "But Larry sees screenwriting as being a gun for hire."

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