Sonny Lamb, the hero of Lawrence Wright’s new novel, Mr. Texas (Knopf, September 19), is a good-natured young rancher from the Big Bend region of West Texas. Sonny played football at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, fought in the Iraq War, and then had a brief career as a country singer. He was good enough, almost, to get a recording contract.
Sonny is not exactly the smartest rancher in Texas. As the novel opens, he puts a bull up for sale at a livestock auction, suddenly changes his mind, and buys it back for $10,000. But a few days later, when he becomes a minor celebrity after saving a ten-year-old girl from a barn fire, a political consultant persuades him to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives. To everyone’s surprise, Sonny wins and heads to the Capitol, where he discovers a den of corruption.
Wright, a New Yorker staff writer and Texas Monthly alum who lives in Austin, is best known for his serious journalism. His book The Looming Tower, about the rise of al-Qaeda, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. But he also writes movie scripts, plays, and novels. Mr. Texas is his fourteenth book.
Texas Monthly: How did you come up with the idea for Mr. Texas?
Lawrence Wright: The novel had its roots back in the nineties, when Ann Richards was governor and Bob Bullock was lieutenant governor. I was dazzled by these Brobdingnagian characters stomping across the Texas political landscape. And at the same time, you had such characters as Mike Martin, the state representative from Longview who apparently had himself shot to capture the sympathy vote. When the Texas Rangers went looking for him, they found him hiding in his mother’s stereo cabinet.
TM: And you decided to write a novel portraying that world?
LW: Well, first I wrote a movie script about Sonny, but it never got made. I then rewrote it as a play, which we staged in 2003 at an Austin theater. It wasn’t initially a huge success. One night we had nine paying customers. But a Broadway producer suggested I turn the play into a musical. Then she changed her mind and said, “Actually, it should be a television series.” So I wrote a pilot for HBO. But our HBO executive got fired, and all of his projects were dumped. Finally, I decided to turn the story into a novel. The whole process took twenty-five years.
TM: Did people outside of Texas read drafts of the novel and think there was no way any of this could be true—like that scene where a group of legislators go out to a ranch to shoot wild pigs?
LW: There was an air of disbelief. When I started this project, I talked to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Pete Laney. And he said, “It’s been the dream of my life to have a television series set in the Texas House of Representatives” [laughs]. So I knew I had an ally.
I had this idea for a scene where the legislators go on a hunt, and Pete said, “I don’t hunt myself, but I’ve got a friend who does.” I said, “What do they hunt?” And he said “pigs,” and he punches the telephone button and says, “Honey, get Sharp on the phone.”
This was John Sharp, the state comptroller at the time. Pete says, “Sharp, I’ve got a young man in my office who wants to know about hunting pigs.” And Sharp goes, “Well, we go out at night in our cutoff jeans with our pistols, and we set the dogs after them. And the dogs will go after a pig’s nuts, so the pig will back up against the tree to protect his nuts, and you just walk up with your pistol and pop them in the eye.” And I’m like, “My God, these are the Democrats.”
TM: There’s another scene where people from special-interest groups line up in a room to hand Sonny checks. While researching the book, did you see that happen?
LW: No, but I talked to a prominent lobbyist at the beginning of the legislative session who told me how he was already exhausted from what he called “the fund-raising experience,” in which he lined up at the Austin Club with hundreds of lobbyists to hand off these checks.
TM: In 2017 you wrote an article about Texas in which you said that the Texas Legislature included “a recurrent crop of crackpots and ideologues [that] has fed the state’s reputation for aggressive know-nothingism and proudly retrograde politics.”
LW: Actually, some politicians I liked and admired enormously, like Joe Straus when he was Speaker of the state House of Representatives, because I saw what he had to deal with. But there were a lot of people in the Legislature who shouldn’t have been there.
I hesitate to talk about this, but I thought about running for governor in 2018. As I recall, December  was approaching and the Democrats still didn’t have a candidate. So I called the Democratic Party and I said, “Consider me.” But what I didn’t consider was my wife. She was not exactly encouraging. I quickly learned I couldn’t even carry my own household.
TM: What made you think you could be governor?
LW: It was right after Joe Straus essentially got expelled from the Republican Party. That was a trigger for me. I don’t consider myself a Democrat or a Republican; I’m a pragmatist. I don’t believe in wasting time on culture wars. Texas has got so much going for it, but just the other day one study said that we have dropped out of being one of the best states for business. That’s the only metric that these political leaders care about, and they’re spoiling it by their lack of compassion for the citizens of their state.
I’ve had a kind of messianic belief that Texas is the future of America. By 2050 our population will be double what it was in 2015, nearly the size of California and New York combined. We have to ask ourselves, “Are we building the infrastructure that we need to be the leader of America and therefore of the rest of the world? Are we educating our children to take on that leadership responsibility?” I don’t see it. We haven’t recognized how important our state is.
TM: In Mr. Texas, you wrote some moving paragraphs about Sonny worrying that he should have accomplished more in his life. Have you ever felt that way?
LW: Decades ago, I made a resolution that I would devote myself entirely to matters that were either important or fun. So much of a writer’s life, as he is getting established, is about making a living and supporting a family. I was learning the craft, so it wasn’t a waste of time, but I was writing pieces that weren’t memorable or significant.
As soon as I had enough money to get through the month, and our kids were more or less taken care of, I cut the money strings, believing that enough would come if I followed my heart. So far that’s proved true, but I still feel as if I’m making up for the time I spent writing stories that I wouldn’t have bothered to read. I suppose that accounts for the rapidity of my output as the days that remain for me as a creative artist diminish.
TM: You just turned 76. I assume you haven’t slowed down.
LW: I’m trying to squeeze everything from the tube before the lights go out. I just finished the first draft of a murder mystery set in Israel and Palestine. And I still haven’t given up on the idea of turning the story of Sonny into a musical—or maybe a musical podcast. [Wright is writing songs for the musical version of Mr. Texas, working with such figures as Matthew McConaughey and Carrie Rodriguez.] A few years ago I decided that I would write songs when I was old. Then I realized I am already old. So I’ve got to get to it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “What Lawrence Wright Found Beneath the Capitol Dome.” Subscribe today.