The Eye of Stephen Harrigan
The longtime Texas Monthly writer—and novelist and screenwriter and UT professor—discusses his new collection of essays.
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If you’re a longtime reader of Texas Monthly, you’ve probably come across a fair number of pieces by Stephen Harrigan. The Austin writer has been a fixture at the magazine since 1973, “right around the fourth or fifth issue,” he says. His latest book, The Eye of the Mammoth: Selected Essays, just published by UT Press, brings together 32 of his pieces, some from two earlier collections, some uncollected, and many from Texas Monthly.
“As a writer, I am often accustomed to the great distance between the thing envisioned and the thing produced,” writes Harrigan in “The Eyesore,” one of the pieces in the book. But putting together an edition of “selected essays” implies a different task: looking backwards upon a body of work made up of pieces that were produced at a great distance from each other, and finding the connective tissue.
Texas Monthly: You work as a novelist, a screenwriter, and a writing teacher. Where does magazine journalism rate among your various careers?
Stephen Harrigan: Well, the one thing in common is that they are all career paths I’ve been trying to parlay into a living. Honestly, though, for me the magazine writing has been enriching as a person and a writer because it lifted me out of my own preoccupations and introduced me to the world. As a magazine writer you have an excuse to pick up the phone and call anyone you want. You can meet them, visit places, and see things. You never tire of that and it had a profound effect on my fiction. Without the experiences I’ve had as a journalist, I wouldn’t have had anything to write about. It forced me to go out and replenish my knowledge of the world.
TM: That’s true even for pieces like those that focus on places that many of us are familiar with, like Galveston Bay or Padre Island?
SH: I wrote about Texas mostly because those are the opportunities that came to me. When I started thinking about the connective tissue between all these pieces, I realized it was some kind of search for something that is not visible or tangible, but feels important. At the bottom of these essays—I use that word advisedly—there is some kind of quest for something that is a little bit elusive, or in many cases a lot elusive.
TM: What do you hope readers will get out of the pieces now, in book form, that they might not have gotten when they first appeared in magazines?
SH: Almost every assignment I took or pitched, in the back of my mind I wondered—would this fit into a book? I wanted to think it would be collected. I am constitutionally a book kind of guy. A book has an illusion of permanence and it is very satisfying.
To whatever degree they can, I want readers to get a sense of what it was like to be in those places and talk to those people. And to whatever degree I experienced an epiphany, they can experience it too.
TM: Can you give me an example?
SH: There is a piece in the book, called “What Texas Means To Me”—I remember vividly writing it and being excited about it. When I read that again, the words I wrote, they evoke very clearly the feeling I had of looking for my home.
Once, This Old House magazine asked me to write something for them and I said I’d like to build an igloo. So they sent me to the arctic and I watched a man build an igloo and I slept in it that night. It was a very moving and eerie experience. Rereading that piece, which is called “My Igloo,” I was vividly transported to that strange morning waking up in an igloo, the sled dogs outside eating whale meat, the sun hanging like a moth overhead…
TM: Does the title The Eye of the Mammoth have a particular resonance for you?
SH: I’m interested in history and the weird echoes it sets off in people’s present lives. Things that are mysterious more than flat out informative. I would be a poor academic historian, but I’m a good magazine historian.
When it came time to title the book, I remembered a passage in my piece about the mammoth, where an eye that feels so timeless is connecting and seeing you. There’s something I was trying to put forth with this book: maybe there is another dimension, or maybe something behind the reality you see? It’s not mystical, but difficult to reach. It’s about the sense of wanting to break through the restrictions around you, of connecting your own present history and that history that existed before you.
TM: Do you have favorites in the collection?
SH: Every writer will tell you that their favorite pieces are their most recent. “Where Is My Home?”—which is actually the lyrics of the Czech national anthem—in that one I went to the Czech Republic in search of the ultimate kolache, as well as my own family origins and identity. There is one that is a lot of fun about my screenwriting career—“Fade In, Fade Out,” which was recently published in Slate. There is another one about where I live, “The Golden Age of Austin,” which makes the case for Austin as a place.
TM: What influence did Texas Monthly have on your career?
SH: When I started out, you felt so isolated in Texas. It wasn’t possible as a young writer to go to New York—I couldn’t afford the long distance phone calls, let alone move there. There were so many things in my way to becoming a writer, but Texas Monthly was encouraging. And it has always been a constant in my life.
I suppose I left some fingerprints on the magazine over the years. No one person has ever defined it, certainly not me. But what’s interesting to me is that the magazine has been wrestling with the identity of what is a Texan for a long time. And not only that, the state has cared enough to have that discussion for almost 40 years. It’s a vastly different place than what it was when I began, vastly different demographics, a vastly different culture.
Like the state it reflects, Texas Monthly is an ever evolving entity. And as with any fluid thing, there’s always hope.