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Oprah bags a literary Sasquatch

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Cormac_lAt the end of 2005, I remember wandering around the halls of EW yakking to any co-workers who’d listen that Oprah Winfrey deserved to be the mag’s Entertainer of the Year. She was on a mighty cultural tear back then. It was in 2005 that Oprah used her Oprah powers for greater good — exposing Tom Cruise as a couch-hopper, backing The Color Purple on Broadway, saving publishing (again) by reviving her Book Club, and, most of all, going down to New Orleans after Katrina and Oprah-ing her way through TV’s most gut-wrenching news hour on the hurricane. Also that year, I think she helped catch some child molesters (or was it rapists?), and did a few other things I can’t remember. In 2005, I loved Oprah.

But we didn’t make her our Entertainer of the Year (she lost out to Lost), and in early 2006, I didn’t like it when she filleted A Million Little Pieces‘ author James Frey on national TV, so — since I tend to be relatively busy from 4 to 5 p.m. — I stopped paying so much attention to her. But on Tuesday, she won me back. That’s when she used her Oprah powers to get Cormac McCarthy — the great and reclusive 73-year-old literary lion who’s only been interviewed twice in 40 years, and never anywhere NEAR a television camera — to talk to her about his astonishing novel, The Road, selected by Oprah for her book club a couple of months back. At the top of Tuesday’s show, she related how she called the writer and asked him to be on her show. He said, “No way am I gonna do that!,” and she said — presumably in the same soft but undeniably arm-bending tone that coaxed poor James Frey off the cliff when she nailed him for making up his memoir — that she was gonna give him 48 hours to reconsider, and would call back at EXACTLY ten minutes to 3 in two days’ time. Even though by the sound of it he’s barely talked to anyone even vaguely reeking of media in 40 years, how could McCarthy resist? It was OPRAH. When she called back, he said yes.

Thus, the stage was set for an unmissable moment of television for English majors and other discerning bookworms, affirming (for the first time in — I dunno — probably at least a couple of days) that Oprah is still maybe the biggest single cultural force of our time. After the jump, we’ll quickly break down the chat for anybody interested in the guy who wrote the Pulitzer-Prize winning book that truly was the best novel of 2006.

He was wearing a denim button-down and brown boots, and he was sunkinto a big black leather chair at New Mexico’s Santa Fe Institute, athink tank where he likes to hang out and just talk to all thescientists. (“I don’t know any writers,” he said.) Throughout theinterview, McCarthy kept his elbow cocked on the armrest, fist perchedon his temple — a defensive crouch of sorts that Oprah respected bygoing at him gingerly and with due reverence. He was not nearly soimposing or prickly as you might imagine from the stone glare of hisMarion Ettlinger author photos, practically the only bits ofMcCarthy-iana we fans had to judge him by in the past. Off the bat, we learned that McCarthy doesn’t like to be interviewed because hefeels if you spend a lot of time writing a book, you should probablyspend that time writing and not talking about it. It’s not, heinsisted, because he hates the dirty press. “You work your side of thestreet, I’ll work mine,” he told Oprah, politely.

It was news to me that the 73-year-old McCarthy has an 8-year-old boy, John Francis, and that the kid inspired The Road, which follows afather and son as they cross a decimated apocalyptic landscapeafter an unspecified global calamity. If you’ve read the book, it wasalmost haunting to hear McCarthy explain how he first got the idea forit four years ago, when he was staying in a hotel in El Paso with JohnFrancis. He described looking out the window at three or four in themorning, “and there was nothing moving, but I could hear the traingoing through, with that very lonesome sound. I had this image, of whatthis town might look like in 50 or 100 years. I just had this image offires up on the hill, and everything being laid waste, and I thoughtabout my little boy.”

So Oprah asked  him if the book was a love story for his son, and itwas the kind of question you imagine the stoic novelist has tried toavoid for the past 40 years. You can bet his scientist buddies at theSanta Fe Institute avoid that line of questioning. “In a way, Isuppose it is,” he replied, blanching a little, “although that’s kindof embarrassing.” When Oprah pointed out that he was blushing, McCarthy rubbed his head and gave her a sideways glance, looking peeved for the only time during the 15-minute interview.

Elsewhere McCarthy — affirming that the line between genius and bum issometimes so very thin — talked about trying his hardest not to work aregular job his whole life, refusing to take even big-money speakingengagements, and once getting kicked out of a $40-a-MONTH hotel becausehe just couldn’t afford it. What a guy. It was a good interview — simply nice to see the legend unearthed.

Themost surprising bit came when Oprah noted that the book’s apocalypticvision would’ve seemed futuristic 25 years ago, whereas now it seemsreal. “Yes!” I thought. That’s what I love about The Road. From thefirst page, with the appearance of a beast “with eyes dead white andsightless as the eggs of spiders,” the novel really made me believe theworld could end, and the agony of that vision still follows me aroundmonths and months after I read it. Pick up The Road, Blood Meridian, or NoCountry for Old Men, and you’ll meet an author whose novels gets asdark as novels get, and so I expected him to take Oprah’sobservation and bring his doomsday vision — “fires up on the hill” andeverything else — into the homes of the Oprah-watching millions.

Instead he said, “Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad,and we should appreciate it more.” A writer this bleak on the page feels this okay in real life?Who knew? No wonder he never gives interviews. And Oprah once again delivers us news no one else can get.

Anyway, what did you people think? Anybody else love The Road? Anybody else glad they got to meet Cormac McCarthy? Anybody else eager to read Oprah’s next book club pick, Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides?