Tuesday, June 05, 2007

"You are a different kind of author"

Those were Oprah Winfrey's parting words to Cormac McCarthy in her interview with him, which aired here this afternoon. Them words're the God's honest truth, right there.

Back in March, some of you may recall that I posted about this; I said that though Winfrey's selection of The Road and his agreeing to be interviewed for television were more than a little surprising, I thought that on the whole it at worst would do no harm to him and at best would benefit her audience and other serious American writers.

Well. While no interviewers/interviewees were harmed during the making of the interview, I'm still not sure, despite the montage of images intended to evoke The Road's setting, that Winfrey's repeatedly saying that it would make a wonderful Father's Day gift quite conveyed to her audience what this novel is like. I mean, I don't necessarily disagree with that, but I don't think we're likely to see displays of this book set up by the Hallmark card racks. Nor did McCarthy come across today like the darker-visioned cousin of Melville that he has in the past. I mean, did he really say, "Life is pretty damn good"? Yeah: I wrote it down. But if that's the message of The Road, it's the hardest-won "Life is pretty damn good" that I've ever come across.

So. No mention of cannibals. I anticipate some surprised papas come Father's Day.

But it was less what was said about the book and more about what McCarthy revealed about how he works and what he thinks that I found fascinating. In his first interview (to promote All the Pretty Horses, he said that writing was pretty low on his list of interesting things to talk about; so, about all he revealed was that he writes on a portable Olivetti typewriter (and still does, I learned today). He wasn't much more forthcoming today, but he did say that he doesn't plot before beginning a novel. "Just trust," he says. As he writes, he has in mind an "image of perfection . . . [an] interior image of something absolutely perfect" that, nevertheless, he can never achieve. Spoken like a true Modernist.

Other bits:

He has a strong Tennessee accent and is surprisingly soft-spoken. His voice is a little reminiscent of Truman Capote's--an unfortunate association, because I found I couldn't get rid of it and it would occasionally get in the way of my listening. On the whole, he seemed surprisingly at ease.

Oprah mentioned that she has also read Blood Meridian(!) and No Country for Old Men. Out of her mentioning that, she asked him why he doesn't have many prominent women characters in his novels. "Women are tough. . . . I don't pretend to understand women." He said he thinks most men find them "mysterious."

When she asked him why, back in the days when he truly had little or no money, he would turn down invitations to be paid to give talks at universities, he said, "I was busy." That was probably the most McCarthyesque thing he said--either that, or "You gotta have food and shoes."

He was "busy," by the way, being a writer. He didn't say this, but in a couple of ways he made it clear that talking about writing is not part of the work of being a writer. Talking about writing is a kind of journalism, I think he would say; he said at the beginning of the interview that he doesn't despise reporters, it's just not what he himself engages in: "You work your side of the street, I'll work mine."

"I don't think you have to have a clear idea about who or what God is in order to pray."

So, no, it wasn't horrible. But let me close by relating to you a secret wish of mine as I watched today:

McCarthy wrote the screenplay for a film made in the '70s called The Gardener's Son (no IMDB listing, sorry; let's just say that it's out of print for a reason). One of its characters is a man with a wooden leg up to his hip. There's a scene in the film in which this man is riding in the back of a buckboard wagon with a young boy who doesn't know about the man's leg. The boy is just staring, staring at the man (who is, it must be admitted, a bit scary looking). Anyway, finally the man has had enough of this, so he suddenly pulls out his knife and stabs himself in the thigh of the wooden leg. And smiles. That cures the boy of his desire to stare.

That is the best scene in the film. Spare yourself the search.

Anyway, I hope I'll be excused for secretly wanting a moment like this to have occurred in today's interview, something so evocative of the man and his art as to impress on Oprah and her audience just how "different" this writer is.

For those interested, Clusterflock is home to a bunch of serious McCarthy fans. There's a pretty good discussion of the interview going on there, too.


Camille said...

Nearly all the courier texts in the Sub Files were written on a portable Olivetti. I feel so connected with him now.

Gwynne said...

Is it correct to assume that your blog title references the work of Cormac? I've only just picked up No Country for Old Men...wheee, now there's a "good" Father's Day present. 8-}

John B. said...

I like those sorts of connections as well.

You assume correctly. And as for No Country, I think that would indeed be an even less-appropriate Father's Day present.

Winston said...

Chasing the Tennessee connection (there always seems to be a Tennessee connection...) I discovered that Cormac and I walked some of the same hallowed ground, and quite closely in time. He really has that strong individualist streak that is found in so many of the real characters here abouts, especially those who have dedicated their lives to the creative arts. And that includes Oprah herownself, who hails from right here in Nashville.

Excellent post, and for me, quite educational.

John B. said...

Thanks as always for the kind comment. I can't tell from your comment if you've read any McCarthy; if you've not, well, you have a homework assignment, sir. Of his generation who are still living (those who got their start in the late '50s/early '60s)--Roth, Pynchon, Updike would be his peers; Styron before he died--McCarthy and Styron are the truest heirs of that thread that runs from Melville to Faulkner, and The Road shows the man can still write. Based on something I read a while back, McCarthy still has about 4 novels in manuscript that he's working on and he'll be 74 in July. Here's wishing him many more years of good health.

I didn't know Oprah was from Nashville; I thought she was a Mississippi girl. According to the Wikipedia entry, you both can claim her.

emawkc said...

I see what you mean about The Road being a questionable Father's Day gift. But I will say that one of the "feelings" I took away from the novel was a respect for the main character's devotion to his son and a new recognition of my sacred responsibility as a father.

Or whatever...

Pam said...

I've been under the weather this week, so actually caught the interview on Oprah. I was both surprised and compelled by it - and must say I was drawn to the clarity of many of his comments. Simple statements - and what I found really interesting is how he didn't even vaguely get drawn into any of her comments that would often draw a response (regarding women, when she mentioned his previous wives, he just smiled and sat there if I recall). I don't think it was one of her best interviews simply because he didn't reacte - he just was, and she came across as being more awkward than he did. He seemed to me remarkably content (which was the compelling part from one who struggles with contentment and whether it's something that even exists) - and likeable. But I'm not extremely knowledgeable about him - but have admired his writing for some time.

John B. said...

Nice observations, Pam. McCarthy isn't a soul-barer; what Winfrey said about his past and what he confirmed of it were from a previous interview. This is, though, the first time I know of where he's spoken even obliquely about fatherhood, and I was glad to hear that.

He's a very very good writer and he knows it; he has nothing to prove to anyone. I'm not sure that's the reason he agreed to the interview, but I think I can say with some certainty that if he were still feeling insecure, he sure wouldn't have agreed to do it. His work stands or falls on its own terms, apart from anything anyone, including himself, might say about it. If that can't bring a person some contentment, I don't know what would.

Ariel said...

I've been far from the blogosphere lately, but I had to check and see if you had commented on this interview. I wish McCarthy had come across differently...more rough-hewn and prophetic, I guess, but that's a tall order on national TV.

Thanks for the report.

El said...

Huh. Just found you through Hank's blog, and of course first wondered "does this guy know Blood Meridian," which was a question answered forthwith after about a 30-second perusal of your blog.

I'm a McCarthy fan, but hesitated before I picked up the road because a. it was in hardback still and our libraries are worthless here in the hinterlands and b. the two books after the border trilogy bored me. BUT, my husband is a friend of Chip Kidd's and, well, Chip said "El, you have to read it, it's the Feel Bad Book of the Year." This was in December, so he meant 2006.

Cannibals and Father's Day, indeed.

Part of me thinks many Peak Oil types actually wish for The Road to happen.

Anyway, nice to meet you, John. Yours appears to be a rich site and that means I will definitely be back.