Larry McMurtry can thank crusty old coot Gus McCrae for making him a household name. The Texas novelist’s 1985 Western novel Lonesome Dove — the story of McCrae and partner Woodrow Call — won McMurtry the Pulitzer Prize, has nearly 5 million copies in print, and became the highest-rated miniseries of the last decade. ”Before that I was getting $20,000 a book,” says the author, 59. ”No book sold more than 5,000 copies. They’re all selling much better now.”
McMurtry has long been a name in Hollywood, which has turned a majority of his 18 novels into films or miniseries, from his first, Horseman, Pass By (released as Hud, starring Paul Newman), to his latest, the best-selling Lonesome Dove prequel, Dead Man’s Walk. ”Every time they adapt one of my novels,” he says, ”they say it’s too slow, too talky, too dark. They said it with The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove, and Streets of Laredo. But Hollywood has never grasped what audiences know: Tragedy has always played.”
If there is a king of the tearjerker, it’s McMurtry, who frequently kills off his most lovable creations. ”His characters are rich and emotionally accessible,” says McMurtry’s writing partner of four years, Diana Ossana, 46. ”He likes to take them through their lives from beginning to end.” Adds the soft-spoken McMurtry, ”There’s only one stopping place: the grave.”
In 1991, he had one foot in his own; during quadruple-bypass surgery he was put on a heart-lung machine for four and a half hours. While recuperating, McMurtry devised Lonesome Dove‘s sequel and wrote Streets of Laredo in old pal Ossana’s Tucson, Ariz., kitchen. (McMurtry has homes and bookstores in Washington, D.C., Tucson, and Archer City, Tex.) But that wasn’t fast enough for TV execs impatient to capitalize on Dove‘s success: CBS went ahead with the series’ sequel, Return to Lonesome Dove, without McMurtry.
”I pointed out things that were idiotic in the script,” laughs McMurtry, ”but I’ve never seen the series.” Neither was he involved with the feature films Texasville and Evening Star, sequels to Picture Show and Endearment, respectively, or last year’s four-hour miniseries Buffalo Girls (which managed to crack the Nielsen top 10 without McMurtry’s input). As for ABC’s Dead Man’s Walk, ”Diana and I were involved from the book’s first sentence to the last frame of the movie,” says McMurtry. ”I wouldn’t think of doing it without a partner. It wouldn’t be fun.”
The partners have just begun their second collaborative novel, Zeke and Ned, about two Cherokee warriors. After that McMurtry will write the final novel in the Lonesome Dove tetralogy, Comanche Moon, which closes the gap between Walk and Dove. ”We plow on,” McMurtry says happily. ”We’ll write something else, and they’ll say, ‘It’s too slow, too talky, and too dark.’ ”