Evan Smith: Here we are in Tucson, Arizona, where you’ve been living since late last year. Let me ask the obvious: Have you left Archer City for good? That’s the rumor.
Larry McMurtry: I should probably start by explaining why I moved back to Archer City in 1997. I’d been living in Santa Monica—we’d produced two miniseries, The Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk—and a terrible crisis came up at my bookstore, Booked Up. It was a problem with the manager, though it turned out to be not as bad as I thought it was. I had, by that time, nearly 400,000 books in Archer City, and they were not well organized. The business was not set up the way it should have been. I decided that if I was going to stay in the book business and be serious about it, I had to devote a few years to shaping up this bookstore and this book town. That process took six years. We worked and worked and worked—400,000 books is a lot of books. Booked Up is now as well organized as any major secondhand bookshop in America or the world.
ES: During that time I wrote, I believe, six nonfiction books. Another reason for being in Archer City was that it was useful to have access to my personal library of 26,000 books. I could write the biography of Crazy Horse; I could write Walter Benjamin ; I could write whatever the six books were without having to go to libraries.
LM: For those two reasons I needed to be in Archer City. Both of those tasks were completed. So I don’t need to be there. Well, I don’t need to be there very much. I need to be there some. And I am there some, about three nights a month.
ES: You haven’t sold your house? That’s another rumor.
LM: Oh, Lord, no. Though a lot of the time I don’t even stay there. I have a wonderful house, but in the windy months I don’t sleep as well. The wind whistles under the door; you feel like you’re in a windstorm. So I stay with my friend Mary down at the Lonesome Dove Inn.
ES: And you have no plans to get out of the book business?
LM: In January I bought the largest library I’ve ever bought: 57,000 books in Pasadena, California. If there had been a moment when I was to leave the book trade, that would have been it. It was a horrible move. It belonged to a lady who had been a dealer but was mainly a collector. She had 27 sheds full of books! And I was not in the greatest of health at the time. I had come to Tucson because there was a freak outbreak of cedar fever. I got very allergic in October, and I had never been allergic before. I had such a powerful reaction to cedar and juniper that I just had to leave. A few weeks later this library came up. It took me maybe a month to get the allergy out of my system. I was not nearly in shape to move 57,000 books. It was such an interesting library that I decided if I didn’t buy it, it meant I’d given up. But I didn’t give up. I bought it. I got friends from Washington, D.C., to come and help me pack it. So I’m very much in the book business.
ES: Okay—how’s business?
LM: The book business is in such terrible shape. It’s paradoxical. Hundred-thousand-dollar books are selling like hotcakes. If you have a $100,000 book, you can sell it tomorrow. A $20 book? Not so easy to sell. A $35 book? Almost impossible to sell.
ES: I guess it’s like the housing market: Million-dollar houses sell better than—
LM: Hundred-thousand-dollar houses. It’s just that way. There are still some high rollers, mostly dot-commers, who are buying expensive books. They had two or three sales this year at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in which stupendous records were set. Books that when I started out as a bookseller forty years ago were standard $200 books—some of Hemingway’s not particularly common ones—now go for $75,000.
ES: And you have a number of those?
LM: I don’t have any of them anymore, because they’ve all been bought. My end of the business is $500 down to about $50. And that’s the problem.
ES: Let’s talk about Archer City. Leaving aside the issues of the bookstore’s management and your nonfiction book projects, your relationship with the town has been famously up-and-down over the years. I wonder if the conclusion of those tasks allowed you to leave a place where you’re not entirely comfortable even in the best of circumstances.
LM: Well, it’s not complicated. You can say it’s because of food. I’ve lived most of my life in Houston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York. I’m an urban person. I’m not a natural small-town person. Even if you discount the fact that I have to deal with my family and have to deal with being the focus of too much local attention, there’s nothing to eat. It’s one hundred miles to a good restaurant. There’s one in Fort Worth, the Chop House, right across the street from the Renaissance Worthington. I’d go down, have a good meal, spend the night at the hotel, and go back. That got to seem weird. There was nothing wrong with it, but I wanted to live in a place where I could eat a really good meal every night by myself if I wanted to. A $100 dollar meal. I don’t eat a $100 dollar meal every night, but I’d like the option.
One reason it’s particularly pleasant in Tucson is because I’ve adopted a little Italian restaurant. It’s the best place to eat in the city, and it’s three minutes from my house. I eat there every night—I’m very much a creature of habit. I sit at the same