McMurtry on a walk in Tucson, where he lives part-time.
McMurtry on a walk in Tucson, where he lives part-time.Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Here’s a sentence I wish I had been the one to write: “When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake—not a very big one.” Many of our readers will recognize this as the opening line of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. He packs a lot into those nineteen words: the arrival of Gus, the violence happening right outside his door, the exotic nature of the pigs, and the dismissive description of the snake, suggesting that not everything is as it seems. All of these details propel you forward into one of the greatest westerns ever written. Of course, that could just be the English major in me talking.

During my career at Texas Monthly, starting in 1996, I have thought a lot about McMurtry and his contributions to Texas letters. I’ll confess that I was unfamiliar with his work before I arrived at the magazine, and I was particularly disappointed when I learned that he too had studied literature and writing at the University of North Texas, in Denton. It seemed like a terrible oversight that his name was never mentioned by my professors (incidentally, the same goes for Billy Lee Brammer and The Gay Place, another classic Texas novel). Needless to say, as an undergraduate, the snob in me would have immediately rejected a western novel as antiquated and derivative, which simply proves that everyone needs to grow up at some point.

What I finally realized is that McMurtry is unrivaled as a literary and cultural force. Whereas writers like J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb sought to enforce the Texas myth, McMurtry wanted to smash it. His landscapes are often dark, his characters forbidding. Progress is rarely the hero, and there are places on the map where the sun does not shine. And yet, through the sheer power of his works, and through the iconic films and miniseries they inspired, McMurtry established a popular following that remains as loyal as ever. So much so that when you meet a young man named Gus or Call, you already know the reason why.

It was a pleasure then to ask executive editor Skip Hollandsworth, whom I consider one of the most talented magazine writers of his generation, to spend time with McMurtry as the novelist’s career winds down. And though Skip was not able to crack open the secrets behind McMurtry’s success, in this month’s cover story, “The Minor Regional Novelist,” he did reveal an eighty-year-old who remains dedicated to his craft, hoping he has at least one more novel left. “I just write,” he told Skip. “You either do it, or you don’t.”