How Larry McMurtry went from cowhand to top novelist -- We caught up with ''Lonesome Dove'' author Larry McMurtry, working on his next nonfiction book

By Mary Kaye Schilling
Updated November 23, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Larry McMurtry Photograph by Dan Winters

Larry McMurtry pulls his big boat of a Cadillac into the parking lot of the local Dairy Queen — a guaranteed stop for visitors to the West Texas town of Archer City. Not only is it the only viable restaurant here (and home to a justifiably famous local delicacy, the lime Dr Pepper), it’s a key player in several of McMurtry’s books — most recently in a sort-of autobiography, ”Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.” The title perfectly sums up the author’s split personality: rapacious intellectual (Benjamin was an influential German philosopher who died in 1940) raised in a short-order world.

More than 40 years of McMurtry’s career decorate the DQ’s walls: framed dust jackets of some of his 26 novels (from such early books as ”Horseman, Pass By,” to his Pulitzer Prize-winning ”Lonesome Dove,” to the latest, ”The Wandering Hill,” released in May) and articles about the filming of his third novel, ”The Last Picture Show,” which Peter Bogdanovich shot in Archer City in 1970. The DQ regulars make no particular fuss when the town’s Most Famous Citizen strolls in. This is West Texas, after all, where, as McMurtry puts it, ”anybody who is successful gets some envy and some resentment.” (The fact that his standing breakfast order is taped to the cash register must be considered the height of pretension.) ”It’s a little shaky at the moment,” he says of the staff. ”They can’t find good help since the local teenagers either fail the drug test or can’t work the cash register.”

The 67-year-old author is wearing what he usually wears: white polo shirt (untucked), blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers, with a sweater tied preppy-style around his shoulders. Not necessarily the outfit you’d expect to see on the man credited with single-handedly reviving the Western genre. He famously detests cowboys (at least those he wasn’t related to), cows, poultry, and horses. On the other hand, he once defined the cowboy personality as ”pride, stoicism, directness, restlessness, independence, all expressed with astringent humor.” Not a bad description of the author.

McMurtry speaks in a soft monotone, which only underscores his more caustic remarks; friends say there was more bite to him before his heart attack in 1991, but he’s still cranky enough to keep you on your toes. When I called him to arrange the details of our interview, he sounded about as enthusiastic as he looks in the photograph on this page. ”I don’t remember most of my novels,” he said impatiently. ”I’m just warning you.” He then told me where to stay during my visit — at the Lonesome Dove Inn. I couldn’t help but laugh. ”Susan Sontag says I live in my own theme park,” he conceded. Then he hung up.

”I am really more of an urban person,” McMurtry says later. ”All the things I don’t have in Archer City — food, women, very basic things I’ll never have here — make me wonder if I’ve made a wise choice.” Whether contemporary or turn-of-the-century, McMurtry’s characters generally share a common thread — wanderlust. That he is so firmly rooted in this cultural wasteland seems to surprise the author as much as anyone. But he has an oasis or two.

The first is Booked Up, four storefronts in Archer City that add up to the biggest rare and used bookstore in Texas (as well as the only bustle in this metropolis). McMurtry spends most mornings and a few hours of every afternoon sorting and pricing at the main store; he considers bookselling the perfect balance to writing: ”It’s intellectually challenging but not emotionally demanding. I write fast — 10 pages in draft take me an hour and a half. What am I going to do with the rest of the day?”