A Q&A With Bill Wittliff
Photographer, screenwriter, collector, Bill Wittliff—one of this year’s Bookend honorees—is a man of many talents. Amid his busy schedule, he saves time to look out for and dole out advice to future generations of photographers, screenwriters, and collectors.
texasmonthly.com: Will you tell us how you gathered the photographs for Boystown?
Bill Wittliff: I was down there in there in the mid-seventies looking at Boystown for a possible screenplay, and I fell in with the photographers that go from whorehouse to whorehouse photographing patrons for $2. They took me to their little studio, which was hardly larger than a closet, just to show me their process and I noticed their throw-away negatives, a little stack of them, and made an arrangement with them. I was just astonished because it was a virtual portrait of a sub-world that had never been seen by the public. These were essentially party pictures, I mean drunk gringos getting their picture made with a prostitute or with a pal. I made an arrangement with them to collect their negatives and did collect them over a year and a month. I wound up with virtually thousands of negatives and then twenty-some-odd years later finally made the book.
texasmonthly.com: When you go to a new place and meet new people who obviously have a different background than your own, how do you find ways to connect with them and get them to trust you?
BW: I’ve found that people are the same whether it’s a new place, an old place, whether their skin is the same color as mine or not. I think if you’re a trustworthy person, you’re a trustworthy person wherever you are and whoever you’re with. And I’ve never had trouble communicating even though for example I don’t Spanish, but I could speak just enough words and they could speak just enough English that we could communicate. I think they sensed that I had a good purpose for their work and they trusted it. And I think my purpose was good.
texasmonthly.com: I’ve read a bit about how you collected over the years—personal items and obviously the Wittliff Gallery and the Southwestern Writers Collection. Why do you think it’s important to collect and preserve?
BW: My hope and my wife Sally’s hope, for both collections, is that they be places of inspiration. Say young writers with the itch to write but not yet the courage, come in there and they see how Gary Cartwright or Bud Shrake or John Graves or Steve Harrigan or J. Frank Dobie or any writers you could name have struggled and labored to find just the right word, just the right sentence to express the idea. Then that gives them courage to try, and they realize that it doesn’t just pour directly from God, that everybody struggles and works and so much of writing is exactly that. It’s just being able to endure through the really hard work it takes.
texasmonthly.com: I read an interview you gave this magazine in 2001—you said that you kept all these things because it was your way of telling yourself you mattered. Do you still have to convince yourself of that?
BW: I probably don’t have that feeling as much as maybe I once did. In a funny way I would think I have moved on to thinking that the collections matter. I think I’m pretty much out of the equation now.
texasmonthly.com: What brought about that change?
BW: It’s just age and the patterns of life. And also I’m a very strong believer—and this is actually on the face of a library somewhere and I can never remember where—that whatever a culture honors, it’s artists will strive to create or to provide. And I believe that. In honoring art and writing and song, it does serve to inspire our artists to create more.
texasmonthly.com: Do you have any advice to give young writers and photographers?
BW: Young writers I tell them two things: One, I tell them writers write. And when it’s good they’re glad and they keep writing, and when it’s bad they wad it up and throw it away and keep writing, but writers write. And I also say if you take care of the work, the work will eventually turn around and take care of you. And the other thing I tell them is you don’t necessarily have to write what you know or what you think you know. Try to write those things that you don’t know because you’ll find that part of you does know and in that sense, writing and photography and art becomes self-illumination, which is very important.
texasmonthly.com: How do you go about writing what you don’t know?
BW: You just start writing and find you do know. You may not know all of it, but you’ll find that some part of you absolutely does know. And I think that’s why great art, great literature, great whatever, transcends all boundaries because it’s not so much telling us something we don’t know. It’s telling us something we do know—we just forgot we knew it.
texasmonthly.com: Has there been a secret to your success?
BW: You know, when you say my success, most of my work is short of what I’d hoped for it. I think this is true of almost everybody in the creative arts is that you always reach for more than probably you grasp, and that’s what keeps you reaching the next time. You’re hoping that next time you can catch more of it. And I wouldn’t say that I’m disappointed in all my stuff, but I can say that I don’t think I’ve ever totally grasped what I was reaching for. But you keep trying.
texasmonthly.com: Does that make it scarier to put work out there if it’s not exactly how you’d want it to be?
BW: You just come to the realization that this is the best you can do at this particular time in your life. And you know when you cheat—you know if you didn’t put out that much. All you can do is give it the best you got at the time you’re doing it and then go to the next thing and try it again. I think it’s very important never to be satisfied.
texasmonthly.com: Does success change anything—your drive or things along those lines?
BW: I think success is often more dangerous than failure. But I don’t really know how to answer that question. People change just because they’re moving through time. It’s different with everybody.
texasmonthly.com: How does it feel to be a Bookend honoree?
BW: A little disturbing in one way in that “bookend” seems to be putting boundaries or ends on things. I’m not ready to do that. But I’m hugely pleased of course that somebody out there thinks that I deserve it, and I’m hugely, hugely pleased that I’m getting it with my friend Bud Shrake.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think you’ll ever reach a point where you may be ready to put a bookend to things, so to speak; to stop writing?
BW: I hope not.