My Friend Willie

Writer Larry L. King talks about his new book, In Search of Willie Morris. It wasn’t long after Evan Smith took over as editor of Texas Monthly in July 2000 that you got the Willie assignment. As I recall, one of Evan’s first moves was to try and get some of the old guard back into the magazine, and yours was one of the bylines he was hottest about running. What do you remember about that evolution of the Willie piece?

Larry L. King: That Evan Smith asked me to write 5,000 words. I couldn’t find a place to stop. I sent Evan an incredible 19,000-plus words. My manuscript must have tilted his desk when it landed on it. As you know, Evan published 6,813 words, and it won the Texas Institute of Letters’ annual O. Henry Award.

David Halberstam, who’d read the long version, said, “You’re on the way to a good book here. You owe it to Willie’s memory to finish it.” So I did, but it was the hardest book to write that I ever took on. It’s tough to write honestly of a friend, though I think I did. I worked on In Search of Willie Morris a full four years—a record for me. You were a big part of the first decade of Texas Monthly. What was writing for Texas Monthly like back then? You were one of the biggest magazine writers in the country at the time. What did Texas Monthly mean for you?

LLK: I was delighted when Texas Monthly was founded. When I was a young hope-to-be writer in Texas, there was no state-wide general magazine—very few magazines, indeed, and no publishing houses besides university presses. So it was a step up for Texas publishing.

Bill Broyles, the founding editor, was a damn good one. I did fuss that, originally, “the other Texas”—poor folks, minorities, the common man, so to speak—was not covered. I’ve always thought that the most interesting character in most of your work was you. Sometimes that was because the stories were in fact about things you’d done, places you’d been, people you’d known. But even when the pieces were ostensibly profiles of people that you had no relationship with outside of that particular assignment, your voice was so strong that you were in the story. That’s not as true of the Willie book. There are, of course, plenty of recollections of your own, of the heady days at Harper’s, the brief rivalry for Barbara Howar’s affection, plus your assessments of key players in Willie’s life, like his mother; his first wife, Celia; his savior JoAnne Prichard. And there are any number of descriptions that could have been written by nobody else, for example, “Capote’s once snazzy 1968 red Mustang convertible was so chronically dented it looked as if he parked it only in hailstorms.” Yet you seem to have made a real effort to keep this Willie’s story. Was that a conscious decision on your part? A function of having been locked out of Willie’s life during those long stretches he spent sunk in deep depression?

LLK: Well, yes. It was to be Willie’s story from the outset, not mine, though because of our Harper’s years together, I obviously was in play. But I had to depend on many others to give me eye-witness reports of events when Willie Morris went into exile on Long Island for a decade after he quit Harper’s under pressure, and for the last twenty years of his life once he’d returned to his native Mississippi.

I saw Willie in Mississippi and Memphis several times, and in Washington a few times, but I wasn’t aware of his day-to-day life or many of his problems. I also had to talk to people who knew him as a kid in Yazoo City and to a few who knew him in his Rhodes Scholar years. All that required ditch-digging reporting rather than poetry. That said, even though you’re not always an active character in the book, your relationship with Willie is. The reader feels your appreciation for all he did for you, your admiration of his talent, and your frustration at the years he opted not to do much with that talent. And early in the book you say that you’re presenting him warts and all because that’s the kind of writer he helped you learn to be. So the relationship is always there in the book.

It seems there are two elements to that relationship, one of lifelong friends, and one of writer and editor. Does either define what you meant to each other more than the other? And can you discuss more generally what the relationship is between an editor and a writer? How important is the right editor to a writer? What does that relationship look like when it works? And when it doesn’t?

LLK: Oscar Wilde said, “Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is always Judas who writes the biography.” And yes, I felt a little like Judas in reporting Willie’s alcoholism and his conduct resulting from it. It colored his life in many dark hues. But I kept reminding myself what Willie told me and others when we wrote for him: “Get it all, and get it right.” And if a writer isn’t going to do that, why is he or she writing?

Willie was a great editor. Halberstam said Willie at half-speed was better than 98 percent of editors, or some such. Willie was great at matching the writer with a subject he’d write well about. There wasn’t any magic to it, it was just that Willie engaged writers in many topics, conversationally, and when the writer’s eyes began to glow, and his hands swooped and darted like eagles circling their prey, Willie knew the writer cared about whatever he was talking about. Then he would say, “You must write that for me!” and that worked out well almost always.

I never had another editor engage in as many subjects as Willie did, so they knew less about me and what I might bring to the page

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