A Time to Remember
Articles editor Brian D. Sweany on spending an afternoon with John Graves.
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texasmonthly.com: What were your first thoughts about the unsolicited article about guns written by John Graves?
Brian D. Sweany: My first thought was how lucky we were. I had recently suggested on my monthly story ideas list that he write about the drought. It’s one thing for one of our staff writers to do that story; it’s another thing entirely if you can get someone like Mr. Graves or Elmer Kelton or Larry McMurtry. Those names elevate the piece.
After I read the story, I thought two things. People are either going to love it, or they’re not going to finish reading it. It all depends on their interests. I thought it was wonderful, but it is a different kind of piece for us. It’s certainly unexpected.
texasmonthly.com: How did it come to pass that you edit this piece?
BS: Our editor, Evan Smith, knows how much I admire Mr. Graves’s work. I’m sure that was the most important factor. Years ago I had worked with another respected writer, Larry L. King, and that story was well received.
I don’t know a great deal about guns—I’m not a hunter—but I do own a .22 and have shot various shotguns and handguns at our family’s ranch near the Red River. That helped too.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like working with this longtime Texas author?
BS: I’ve said before that in this job, I feel like I have a checklist in my head of things I’ve done that I can’t believe I’ve done. I’ve sat down with Lady Bird Johnson at the LBJ Library. I had David Robinson drive me around San Antonio. I’ve played catch with Troy Aikman. Well, this certainly ranks at the top. I can’t tell you what a thrill it is to have the phone ring and Mr. Graves is on the other end. And, yes, I call him, “Mr. Graves.”
texasmonthly.com: You went to his ranch to talk to him about the story face-to-face. Was he what you were expecting? Why or why not?
BS: To be honest, I wanted to be extremely sensitive to his schedule. He just turned 86, and I know that his health is good but not great. I didn’t want to intrude. But he was extremely gracious—we sat and drank tea in the living room—and had a great conversation. He had a clear idea for what he wanted the story to be, right down to the placement of specific commas, and my job as the editor is to make that happen. That sometimes means taking a very active role in the story, and that sometimes means getting out of the way of the writer.
Then we spent a long time just talking—the drought, the land, the Brazos, other Texas writers. It was thrilling. He told me that he doesn’t think Cormac McCarthy is capable of writing a bad sentence. He told me he was embarrassed by all the attention people show him. He told me that he wasn’t able to accomplish everything he set out to do. I was completely mesmerized.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like most about this story? Why?
BS: I think it’s a special thing to have a story told by the one writer who is a perfect fit for that story. Other folks could have written about their guns, but I can’t think of anyone who would be more interesting than Mr. Graves.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think there is a big audience for this story? Why or why not?
BS: As I said earlier, I know that some folks won’t care for this piece, but that’s true with any story. I think this will have a huge audience because it speaks to such a core part of the Texas spirit. As Mr. Graves says in his intro, he’s not a member of the NRA, but he did grow up in a time when guns were a necessity. And he uses each weapon to tell a story that reminds us of the people we once were. It’s a window on the state—and how the state has changed. Our readers will respond to that.