When associate editor Katy Vine began compiling an oral history on periodical pioneer Grover Lewis, she knew what she had to do—she called up some of the biggest names in the wordsmith universe, mentioned Grover, and pressed “record.” Now she discusses the hardest part of sifting through the anecdotes, the trick to getting people to talk, and what journalistic techniques she does and doesn’t share with the late great Lewis.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this piece? How did you approach it?
Katy Vine: I had only a few weeks to work on it, so I approached the project by calling everybody I could and leaving frantic messages. Then I stared at the phone every day, all day, until the calls were returned.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of writing this article?
KV: Dealing with the inconsistencies in the various interviews. One person would tell me Grover Lewis’s personality was one way, then someone else would disagree completely. And of course, they’d both be right. The matter is all subjective. That’s a difficulty, but it’s also one of the great, honest aspects of an oral history: The reader can take in the quotes without the interpretation of a second party—me.
texasmonthly.com: You interviewed some of the big names in journalism. Was there anyone who was especially intimidating to talk to? Was there anyone you were especially excited about interviewing?
KV: It is intimidating to talk to people who have more experience conducting interviews than I have, but these folks are all pros. I only needed to turn on the recorder, ask “What can you tell me about Grover?” and then stop the tape thirty minutes or an hour later and transcribe.
texasmonthly.com: Do you find it’s easier for people to open up when they talk about someone else rather than themselves?
KV: Definitely easier. Imagine sitting next to some stranger and answering personal questions—forget it. But ask people about a topic they find interesting and time flies before you realize they’ve imparted some amazing insight. Granted, some people really love talking about themselves, and that’s great too.
texasmonthly.com: Is it hard to write a story about someone without being able to interview the subject himself?
KV: It is, which is why an oral history is such a perfect format. A portrait can be constructed based on the people who knew him his whole life. That’s useful even if one does get an interview, because often a two-hour interview doesn’t tell you squat. It’s just the beginning.
texasmonthly.com: One of the refrains throughout this oral history is Lewis’s dedication to perfection in writing. Do you feel you learned skills for your own writing through researching his?
KV: I love learning how other writers do what they do, but everybody’s process is different. Grover was described as a meticulous “stonecutter”—something I am not. I couldn’t become one even if I wanted to.
texasmonthly.com: Because of Lewis’s ability to put interview subjects at ease, the fruits of his labor often made subjects like the Allman Brothers or director Peter Bogdanovich mad. As a journalist, have you had similar experiences where the most honest interviews stir up the most anger?
KV: We have fact-checkers who go over all the writer’s information with the subject before we go to press. That usually softens the blow for the subjects of an unflattering story. But no, I haven’t written anything that made my subjects angry (that I know of). I’m as honest with them as I can be and tell them what I’m going to write about. I think it is important that they know. I try to get all that out in the beginning. Sometimes they say no, which can be disappointing. But I’d rather confront the issue up front and lose information than change that rule and regret it. The subject is doing me a favor by talking to me, and I feel I owe it to that person to relay my interest.
texasmonthly.com: “Splendor in the Short Grass” is known as a breakthrough piece, pioneering the movie-set story. Did you come across any other articles written by Lewis that you would recommend?
KV: The Sam Peckinpah story is pretty outrageous. And I loved the story he wrote for Texas Monthly, “Farewell to Cracker Eden.”
texasmonthly.com: It sounds like you heard some pretty wild stories about Lewis. Did you have a favorite anecdote? Were there any good ones that didn’t make it into the article?
KV: Oh yeah, there were great quotes that didn’t make it in. Here are a few:
Jon Carroll: He contributed somewhat dyspeptic essays about life in Southern California to New West magazine. He was not a fan of, say, jogging. I think he felt exercise in any form was a terrible idea. If God had meant him to do that, he would have put him in a position that he needed to do it. This is a paraphrase: “We don’t have to run from animals anymore.”
Jack Loftis: Grover was dating this girl. We all thought she was not his type—he was maybe struggling to become establishment at that point. She had the wedding in her family’s home in the Heights [in Houston], and Grover asked me if I’d pick him up and take him to his wedding. I went by his house and he said, “Come in for a drink.” We got into the scotch, and I said, “We’re going to be late.” And he said, “They’re not going to start without us.” We got over there, and all his weird friends were there and he had some guy on harmonica playing wedding songs. What the hell did her parents think about that crowd? I don’t know how long they were together.