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