Larry McMurtry – A Woman’s Best Friend

Had Larry McMurtry, the novelist who wrote Terms of Endearment, not been drawn inexorably to Jane Austen instead of cowboying on his father’s west Texas ranch only his mother, two sisters, and a few neighbor ladies might have known his generosity of spirit toward women.

In all nine of his novels, McMurtry creates, with extraordinary sensitivity, women who display far more intelligence and strength than his men do — even if the women are trapped by weak, beguiling men the way Emma is in Terms of Endearment. McMurtry has also written about some memorable bitches. The latest, in his recent novel, Desert Rose, is Pepper, a teenage beauty whose mother is a Las Vegas showgirl. To my mind, Pepper is as mean a girl as has ever appeared in American fiction.

But frumpy Emma is far more typical for McMurtry. She adores her children, she is too refined emotionally for her station in life, her husband has not lived up to her expectations. Aurora Greenway, Emma’s vain and willful widowed mother, knew he wouldn’t — but then Aurora doesn’t expect much from men, and has yet to come to terms with her own buried sexuality.

Since it is on the open road that McMurtry dreams up these characters and the tales that become his books, driving is essential for him. He is always on the road — usually in a big, rented Cadillac — getting from his home in Washington, DC, to Memphis, Texas, Tucson, and Hollywood, pursuing his careers. Apart from his novels, McMurtry prolifically turns out essays and screenplays, including the script for The Last Picture Show, another of his books made into a movie. (Screenplays for Hud and Terms of Endearment were written by others.) He is also Washington’s best-known rare book dealer. He is delightfully eccentric, opinionated, and sometimes curmudgeonly on subjects as diverse as other Texas writers and Washington hostesses.

Most important to me, however, is that for the last twelve years — ever since we met by chance in his Georgetown bookshop — Larry McMurtry has been a wonderful friend. He is a man with whom I have never been involved romantically, but a man who completely knows my heart, who gives me lovely presents for no reason, who sends my mother flowers every Christmas, who has written me over a hundred wise and witty letters, who will patiently listen to seven different leads to a story I might write, who told me first that I had finally found the right man to marry.

Just after Terms of Endearment opened last December — with Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger playing his irrepressible heroines — Larry McMurtry came to New York to help celebrate my wedding. We mused about the box-office success of his once-orphaned book; when it appeared in 1976, it sold twenty-six thousand copies.

But many of the most interesting things Larry McMurtry says are not about his writing per se. They’re about the raw material that is his work: relationships between men and women.

Maureen Orth: Do you like women a lot more than you like men?

Larry McMurtry: Yes, I do. I always wondered why women put up with men, to tell you the truth. I can see the obvious reasons, but I don’t know — I think that as their freedoms increase, as they become more confident, fewer and fewer women will want to be anchored to particular men. My experience with women, the bottom line, is that very few start off with much confidence. It’s an acquired characteristic, if they ever acquire it. Many of them acquire it only to a certain depth and beneath that is a bottom-less insecurity.

MO: Do you think women have altered themselves emotionally in the last decade?

LM: I think they have gained several millimeters of self-assertiveness. The conflict I see over and over in women, and the broader thing that’s come out in all my wonderful friends, is a kind of schism — a profound doubt about their basic worthiness, which can often be overlaid with a great deal of competence, ever-increasing layers of professional competence, emotional competence. But, nonetheless, there is a vast legacy of doubt to get rid of, doubt about whether being a woman is a worthy thing.

MO: I think a lot of your women characters really are loyal a long, long time to a lot of terrible men.

LM: They tend to put up with drips and creeps. But that happens very frequently in life. Maybe it’s happening less now — but I don’t really believe that. Most of the women I know are very tenacious in their affections — far more than most men. If men cling to relationships, I think it’s basically out of fear, and if women cling to them, I think it’s because they retain some intrinsic hopefulness longer than men do.

MO: Our first argument was about Patsy in “Moving On. ” I was enraged that you made her so weak that she cried on almost every page. . .

LM: But now that you’re grown up, you see that crying is a part of life! But I swear, women I knew in the ‘fifties –they cried a lot. Because this was just at the point when modern forces were beginning to come into marriages and relationships, even in the hinterlands, and pressures that had been suppressed or unrecognized even ten years earlier were beginning to be recognized. But people still didn’t articulate them well, and they tended to come out in lots of crying. Sort of doubtful, puzzled crying.

MO: Did you know many Emmas?

LM: There was a time in the middle ‘fifties when graduate school was kind of the place to be if you were a certain type of bright young person. I did it myself. I saw a class of people who were going to develop tastes beyond their means. They were educated and they were sensitive and they knew a lot, but they didn’t have a lot. And most of them don’t have a lot to this day.

MO: Why did you want Emma to die?

LM: I didn’t. People get cancer. People die, and Emma did. It’s a slightly paradoxical thing to say, but though there’s a sense in which writers are supposed to control their characters, few writers have a sense of day-to-day control over them. I don’t think I planned for Emma to die. She went up to the doctor’s to get a flu shot and turned out to have cancer.

MO: Why did you choose to write about Emma and Aurora Greenway?

LM: I’ve always been interested in mother-daughter relationships. I’ve noticed the most difficult relationships are between the oldest daughter and the mother. The oldest daughter is usually the one who’s flowering into sexual activity at the time when the mother is most likely to have doubts about her own fading attractiveness, and so there’s a built-in sexual rivalry there. Sometimes, it’s very muted and sometimes it’s very strident.

MO: You always have these brats, or maybe I should say willful little girls, in your books.

LM: I love argumentative, articulate little girls. They’re charming. It’s interesting to see how early in some cases a female will begin to operate with a consciousness of feminine power.

MO: It’s unusual that you have several deep friendships in your life with women you are not sexually involved with.

LM: That’s true, I have a very strange, large complex of female friendships. I suppose in the beginning, I had perfectly conventional sexual expectations. But by the time I had published a couple of books and had written one film, I was meeting more women whom I genuinely liked and was curious about than I could expect to sleep with and still keep in my life. I did not have very much Don Juanism. Though in all those relationships there has been a sexual aura, which I think is in most friendships. Sometimes, it remains an aura forever, and the desire is never consummated. Sometimes, it’s consummated years later.

MO: One of the reasons you and I have been friends for so long is that you have enough time to talk, to listen.

LM: During the time I was raising my son James, I wasn’t married and I wasn’t in a live-in situation with any woman; consequently, I had to be there for him, and that in itself produced a particular kind of availability.

But I think the main point was that I was really curious as a person and as a novelist about how emotions work, so I figured right off that if I was going to to be given any insights that didn’t directly come from my own experience, they would come from women rather than men, because men don’t talk about their emotions. I’m sure you know it’s natural for a novelist to be interested in gossip relating to emotional involvement.

MO: When you meet a woman, do you instantly recognize that she’ll be your friend, or does it take a while?

LM: I respond instantly, but I’m always calculating long-term concerns. I don’t like losing people out of my life. Perhaps it’s a need for security, or curiosity. Every person has a story, and even if I don’t write the story, I’m very interested in how the story — how the person — comes out. You respond to the potential and to the contradictions. Most people are to some degree a mixture of creative and self-destructive impulses; you always like to see how the mix works itself out.

MO: How often do people conform to what you predict in your own mind for them?

LM: People are endlessly surprising. If I meet someone, and I’m attracted to her in a variety of ways — intellectually, sexually, etc, etc. — I immediately try to figure out what’s going to be down the road eight or ten years from now. If I thought a love affair would give me six months of intense pleasure, but that this woman would not be in my life ten years from now — someone I really had an affinity for — I would walk around the love affair if there was one to be walked around. I would go for the long-term friendship.

MO: Have you always felt this way?

LM: It’s something you learn with more maturity. Sometimes, you meet a woman somewhat younger than yourself who has real ambition, She’s reached a stage in her life when she has career potential or is simply independent — she doesn’t really have to do any one thing, but can explore a variety of angles. In that case, it’s hard for me — it’s hard for most males — to get to the point where they don’t make conventional assumptions about women, that you can just grab them, and you can sleep with them, and then they’ll be with you from then on if you want them.

If you do that to a particular woman at a particular time you’re going to lose her. Now, let her go for a few years, let her have a career, let her develop. Let her have boyfriends, and see what she’s like when she’s thirty-five or forty. All women, as far as I’m concerned, are more interesting after thirty-five. You don’t lose a person that way. You’re much more apt to lose a person through excessive possessiveness. I firmly believe that the freest relationships are apt to last the longest. Possessiveness has killed and distorted more relationships than almost any other impulse.

MO: Very few men seem to have a desire to have really strong relationships with women.

LM: I think most men assume that if they’re around a woman a lot they should be sleeping with her; and if they’re not, there’s something either wrong with them or wrong with the woman. That’s ridiculous — I’m in New York a lot, and Los Angeles a lot, in Texas, in Arizona; and women I know are in several different places in the course of a year. I think it’s too much to expect that women and men both can have perfectly balanced relationships as they’re criss-crossing the nation, so that everyone has serial lovers hither and yon. That’s not going to work, partly because it’s a very small world and the same people are apt to show up in the same place at the same time. But it’s perfectly possible to maintain very close, loyal friendships that way.

MO: You have friendships with women on the East and West Coasts, in the South and West. Are there regional differences among women?

LM: Yes. The largest difference is between what I would call high-urban women — women who live in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix or Denver — and between women who live in small towns.

New York, Los Angeles, Houston, or London — these places are so potent, the pace is so fast, and the density of contact and discourse and vocation and experience is so great, that even if a high-urban woman has come from a small town, it kind of seeps out of her consciousness how slack life is in rural and small and middle-sized towns. Career concerns don’t dominate those places. Personal concerns still dominate those places more.

MO: How do you feel women characters are dealt with in contemporary fiction today?

LM: I think they are dealt with well because I think almost all the best writers in fiction today are women. I’m not talking about the Updike-Roth generation. I’m talking about writers under forty or even under thirty-five.

MO: Want to name some?

LM: I like Mary Robison a lot, Mary Gordon a lot. I think I could make a credible list of thirty or forty very substantial, talented women novelists and short-story writers, and I think I’d be hard-put to come up with five or six men from the same generation.

MO: Why have so many sprung up?

LM: I think maybe there was a lot of residual guilt from women in the ‘fifties that they couldn’t divide their time between maternity and domestic and professional concerns and maybe that’s washed away.

MO: You haven’t given many of your female characters careers yet.

LM: Jill in Somebody’s Darling had a career. And Harmony, the protagonist of Desert Rose, my latest novel, had a career.

MO: She’s a showgirl.

LM: That’s a career — entertainment.

MO: Yes, but none of the women you write about is half so involved in her career as are the women who are your best friends.

LM: Some of the women who are my best friends are involved in their careers but not dominated by their careers and some not at all.

MO: But there’s a big gap, Larry.

LM: My writing is always retroactive by at least ten years and more like fifteen years. I think by the time I write about the ‘eighties, if I live until the year 2000, say, that won’t be true. I’ll be writing about women who are more involved in their careers than anything else, probably, I think I’ll get there.