Two for the Road
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texasmonthly.com: Were you nervous about writing a story on one of your heroes? How did you feel going into your road trip with Larry L. King?
John Spong: It’s funny. Going into the story I wasn’t worried at all—I only thought in terms of how much fun that car trip would be. As long as an eight-day car trip can seem, listening to Larry—his lectures on how to report a story and how to write a story and how to deal with editors once it was written—made the miles fly by. He littered his stories with such heavy-duty names: Willie Morris, David Halberstam, Kurt Vonnegut, Sonny Jurgenson, George Plimpton, Hunter S. Thompson, Frederick Exley, John Riggins, Don Meredith, William Westmoreland, Sam Rayburn, David Rockefeller, Norman Mailer. These were writers, athletes, and politicos I’d read about, but Larry took them from the realm of untouchable historical figures and made them friends-of-a-friend. And the stories had the additional appeal of centering on Larry, this larger-than-life figure from the late sixties, an era when it seemed all writers did was drink whiskey, get in bar fights, and—oh, yeah—type. But once I got to actually writing the piece, things got tough, especially knowing that much of what Larry talked about were experiences that he had already written about in some of the best magazine pieces I’ve ever read. Covering the same ground was more than a little daunting.
texasmonthly.com: What was your goal when you started work on this piece? What motivated you to write an in-depth profile of King?
JS: The real goal was to make people who may have only known Larry through The Best Little Whorehouse find the rest of his work. I really think “The Old Man” may be the finest magazine story I’ve ever read. So I figured if I could get readers to read it, I’d really accomplish something.
texasmonthly.com: Your story makes several poignant connections to the past—when did you know you wanted to include the concept of “The Old Man” and relate it to your recent road trip?
JS: Since the idea of the car trip with Larry came before the idea for the story, it only made sense to draw a parallel to “The Old Man.” But there was a balancing that had to occur; Larry’s desire not to come off as “an old geezer,” as he put it, was real and valid. He is not only very much alive, but also very much still writing and, in fact, writing circles around people like me. In the story we talk briefly about Larry’s two current projects. One is his Willie Morris book. He decided to write the book when he was working on a Texas Monthly story a few years ago. He’d been assigned a 5,000-word story, but ended up writing something like 20,000 words. At the time, I read his initial, longer draft and was floored. His other project is something he’s been working on for years. The working title is “Safe at Home,” and it’s about what it was like to grow up in West Texas during World War II. I’ve not read any of it, but Larry grabs you with that outrageous Texas twang and then teaches you something about the whole world. I figure this book will provide insight not only into 1942-era West Texas, but also into what America is like when the country is fighting a war that everyone agrees on. Somewhat topical, no? In my mind there was no question about Larry’s vitality and relevance. I hope that came out in the story.
texasmonthly.com: Did it take you a while to get used to King’s tall tales and one-liners, or were they a part of his personality that you had expected from the outset?
JS: Actually, those were the stories that made me fall in love with him in the first place. He is a fantastic storyteller. David Halberstam told me the reason he was initially drawn to Larry when he first met him in the early sixties was to hear him tell stories—just to hear him talk. Halberstam added that the first gift he ever gave Larry was a copy of his [Halberstam’s] first book, with the inscription, “To Larry L. King, who, if he will write like he talks, will be a great writer.”
texasmonthly.com: King appears rather hard to shock, but apparently enjoys saying and doing outlandish things that catch his company off guard. Was there any other thing he said or did on your trip that really surprised you?
JS: My only speechless moment was after Larry sang his death march in the hotel room, which was itself a surprise. One of his lifelong stunts is to sing a song called “Jesus on the Five Yard Line” whenever he’s asked. It was a favorite of Willie Morris, and Larry has never refused to sing it for anyone who asked. So I was used to hearing him sing that one, also at the top of his lungs, and typically in a room full of people. I heard it about three times on our road trip. But this funeral march was something else altogether, and it came from out of the blue. It was a perfect moment. There were other moments like that on the trip, I guess, but for the most part, they were a little too blue to make it into the magazine.
texasmonthly.com: Can you talk a little more about the atmosphere during the ceremony for King at the Texas Book Festival? Was there a general sense of admiration, even among the many other distinguished writers who were there?
JS: It was impressive. Most of the people there were friends or fans—people who were supposed to clap and who did clap. But Larry’s peers were also there. There were people like Bud Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Jan Reid—guys who’ve always known how talented Larry is and who didn’t need this award to validate Larry’s reputation. Onstage with Larry at the awards ceremony was John Graves, who was introducing Walt McDonald, a poet and the co-honoree of this year’s Bookend Award with Larry. Graves was the first recipient of the award in 2000, and his quiet memoir Goodbye to a River is probably many Texans’ favorite book about Texas. He has been acquainted with Larry for years. After the ceremony was over, they sat and visited while the rest of the crowd milled about them. Later, I asked Larry what they talked about, and he said that he had asked Graves if he liked public speaking. Graves replied, predictably, “No.” And Larry, even more predictably, replied that he loved it. Even if you’ve never read anything by either one of them, you’d know a whole lot about them just by that exchange.
texasmonthly.com: Was it difficult for you to profile another writer? Were you nervous about what King—and others who know him and his work well—would think of your final story?
JS: Absolutely. I don’t call people like Larry King and Gary Cartwright “heroes” simply in hopes that they’ll pick up the tab on those rare occasions we wind up at dinner or in a bar together. They’ve both written stories that have so thrilled me that I keep photocopies of them with me at all times so that if I run into one of the unconverted, I can spread a little of the gospel. Knowing that writers and colleagues like Gary Cartwright and Jan Reid would be reading this was always in the back of my head.
texasmonthly.com: Have you kept in touch with King since you ended your road trip back in D.C.?
JS: We’ve talked a little bit, mostly just to go over moments from the trip that I wanted to make sure I had remembered correctly. That was mostly business. What was cooler was the token of thanks Larry sent for the chauffeuring job: a collection of photographs of William Faulkner. This didn’t make it into the story, but one of the stops we made on the trip was in Oxford, Mississippi, where we hung out with William Faulkner’s niece, Dean Faulkner Wells. I got to check out Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak. Then I spent the evening listening to Larry, Dean, and her husband, Larry Wells, talk about Willie Morris and William Faulkner, and about politics and literature and baseball—all the things that really matter. It was a great night. And the book Larry sent me contains photos of many of the places and people we saw in Oxford. It means a lot to me.