Bill Broyles, as Ever, at War
His screenplays for Apollo 13 and Cast Away have made him hot in Hollywood, but the Austin writer still does battle each day with an array of old demons: his memories of Vietnam, the failures that accompany his successes, and everyone's expectations of him—especially his own.
EARLY IN HIS HIT MOVIE CAST AWAY, screenwriter Bill Broyles has Tom Hanks’s character deliver to his Federal Express employees in Moscow a lecture on the intrinsic value of time. We live or die by the clock, Chuck warns his people. A few scenes later Broyles isolates his protagonist on a remote island in the Pacific, with nothing to his name except a pocket watch, a pager, and whatever he can claim from the rocks and sea. His options: reinvent or perish. Chuck reinvents himself—otherwise there would be no Act III—and eventually gets off the island.
Chuck isn’t all that different from his creator. Bill Broyles is a man alone on an island of his own making, isolated from his peers by an obsession with greatness and the desire to do something new and better whenever he seems to achieve it. Life for the 57-year-old Austin writer has been a spectacular run of conquests, challenges, disappointments, and reinventions, yet he requires more. Not more of the same, understand, but more . . . what? What do you call the affliction when a man has everything but peace of mind? The curse of the clock, perhaps. It’s Chuck again: living or dying by it, never for a moment being unaware of the passage of irretrievable time in his own life. Chuck found himself in a place where time was irrelevant. Broyles never has.
His list of achievements includes student body president at Rice University, Marshall Scholar at Oxford (equal to Rhodes but not as well known), and commander of a platoon of Marines in Vietnam. He went on to become the founding editor of Texas Monthly and later the editor in chief of Newsweek. He wrote a first-rate book about returning to Vietnam, Brothers in Arms; co-created a critically acclaimed television series, China Beach; received an Oscar nomination for co-writing Apollo 13; wrote a late version of the screenplay for Sean Connery’s Entrapment and received the screen credit for last year’s remake of Planet of the Apes; and in his spare time climbed the highest peak in the Americas.
This month he will be inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, which recognizes that he is one of a handful of A-list writers in Hollywood, someone whose mere presence at the table can jump-start a film project. “People want to be in business with him,” said David Friendly, the producer who hired Broyles for the Apollo 13 job. He works on two or three projects simultaneously, starting at his home office before daylight and later going to his West Austin office, where he takes phone calls from Los Angeles. His current projects include a screenplay about the siege at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, that he is writing for Tom Hanks and an original Western for Twentieth-Century Fox. On three occasions he has been hired to “doctor” screenplays by writers with Oscars on their mantel. One is a submarine movie, K-19, the Widowmaker, that stars Harrison Ford and is set for release in July, two months after the debut of another Broyles rewrite, Unfaithful. “Script-doctoring during production is like sliding down a fire pole in the middle of a fire,” he said.
Along with success, though, Broyles has known his share of failure, including three marriages that ended in divorce and enough professional setbacks to cripple most men. Through it all, he continues to grapple with the central question of his life: If you think your destiny is greatness, how do you know when you’ve reached it?
LIKE ALL OF BROYLES’S LONGTIME FRIENDS, I regard him as one of the most complex and interesting men I know. I’ve suspected almost from the moment we met that Broyles is from another galaxy. It was the fall of 1972, and we drank beer at Scholz Garten in Austin and talked about a story on Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas that he had asked me to write for the maiden issue of Texas Monthly the following February. Broyles tilted back in his chair, his intense blue eyes drinking in every word. I wasn’t saying much, but from the depth of his attention I might have been reciting Milton’s Paradise Lost. I remember thinking, “This guy operates on a different level than the rest of us.” He seemed too good to be true—tall, muscular, curly brown hair, movie-star good looks, a smile that would charm a rattlesnake—but he was intelligent, honest, and above game playing. He was 28, about ten years my junior, and had minimal journalism experience—a few pieces written for the Rice student newspaper, The Thresher, three months with the old Houston Post, and freelancing for The Economist. Yet he already had the persona of an editor: He appreciated good writers and good writing, and he had a vision for the magazine.
In an amazingly short time Broyles learned the world of magazines. The early staff was heavily peppered with friends from his Rice days—Griffin Smith, Jr., Gregory Curtis, Paul Burka. The fledgling publication won a National Magazine Award for general excellence following its first year of existence. “The three things in my life I’m proudest of,” Broyles says now, “are Texas Monthly, Brothers in Arms, and Cast Away, in that order.
By the late seventies, though, it was clear that editing Texas Monthly wasn’t as fulfilling as it had once been. A pattern was beginning to form in his life: If it’s easy, it must be wrong. That’s why he could oppose the Vietnam War and still join the Marines and lead men into battle, and why, to research Cast Away, he marooned himself on a remote Mexican beach on the Sea of Cortez and subsisted on raw stingrays that he speared with a stick he’d sharpened with a stone. When he was in his forties, with his personal and professional life at a low ebb, he took up mountain climbing at the urging of Richard Bangs, who gave Broyles the assignment about conquering the 23,000-foot Aconcagua in Argentina as part of an adventure book he was compiling. Bangs, who subsequently became Broyles’s close friend and river-running companion, theorizes that certain individuals are born with an “adventure gene.” I asked him if he thought Broyles might outgrow the pesky gene. “No, it’s a lifelong quest,” he said. “If you give up, you die.”
All of Broyles’s friends speak of a dual strain in his nature. Actress Lois Chiles (The Great Gatsby, Moonraker), a friend for nearly twenty years, told me, “Bill is always in exploration, constantly trying to balance his wanderlust with his need for hearth and home. He is this great Hemingway-esque character, and yet he’s very gentle, an incredible listener, a mother hen, absolutely devoted to his children.” I immediately thought back to last summer, when he and his wife, Andrea, made an unexpected trip home to Austin from their retreat in Wyoming to be with an old friend of Broyles’s whose son had died suddenly. Broyles’s own son from his second marriage, David, was about the age of the young man who had died, and Broyles was obviously having trouble dealing with his emotions. “I was there when he was born,” he told us, his face grim and exhausted. “I was the third person to hold him in my arms.”
Bill and Andrea live in a historic Victorian home that they bought and restored four years ago—it’s their third home since 1995, and they’ve considered selling it and building a new house on Lake Austin. He works at home on the weekends, seemingly oblivious to the racket of their two preschool children and two dogs. In the afternoon he works out at a gym or runs with his dogs on the greenbelt or swims in the frigid waters of Deep Eddy pool. Andrea, an artist, designed the wings that later became a central metaphor in Cast Away. At a party hosted by the Broyleses during last year’s Academy awards, Bill and a few of us sat in the kitchen, his lake-blue eyes radiating well-being, talking about movies, world affairs, current events, but mostly about his boyhood in Baytown. He remembered a teacher asking how many in the class thought they’d ever get out of this backwater town. Every hand went up except his: He loved Baytown and didn’t want to leave. “Broyles,” the teacher said, “you may be the only one who does get out.”
Broyles is down-to-earth, unobtrusive, and more interested in listening than talking. People who don’t know him might guess that he teaches history at a small private academy. Bill and Andrea belong to a predominantly black Episcopal church, St. James—their son, James, born seven weeks premature, is named for the patron saint—and socialize with members of the congregation as naturally as they would mingle with celebrities at an Academy-awards ceremony. He can tutor a gang of youthful thugs or charm members of a Houston charitable group called the Bluebird Circle (of which his mother is a past president) with equal grace. He hardly ever turns away an aspiring writer or anyone else needing help. He is a mentor to a Wyoming friend, Alexandra Fuller, whose first book, about growing up with white British émigré parents during the black revolution in what was then Rhodesia (Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight), is the talk of the literary world. Broyles took the time to read a screenplay written by his baby-sitter and was sufficiently impressed to write her a letter of recommendation that got her accepted by a graduate film school in Los Angeles.
This is not to say that he is entirely self-effacing or oblivious to image. He has always been careful about how he presents himself, even back in the sixties, when he was the president of the student body at Rice. He organized the university’s first protest march, over a dean’s high-handed firing of The Thresher‘s editor; he saw to it that the students trooped around in coats and ties, and he edited the signs they displayed. “His charm is real, but it’s also directed and choreographed,” said an old friend. “He always knows where the camera is.” In a business full of people who practice self-promotion, however, Broyles doesn’t go to parties or plant stories about himself. He is constantly jetting off to Hollywood or London or Moscow to have dinner with Sean Connery or a script conference with Harrison Ford or Tom Hanks, but only for work, not for schmoozing. Hollywood is his work, but Texas is his home.
THE EXPERIENCE THAT HAS SET BROYLES apart from most of his peers, first at Texas Monthly and Newsweek and now in Hollywood, is his service in Vietnam, which he uses as a private touchstone. He had taken part in anti-war teach-ins, and in 1968, he returned from the University of Oxford and was preparing for graduate school at Princeton University when he joined the Peace Corps. But he resigned a short time later, feeling guilty that friends back in Baytown were going off to war. The draft notice that soon followed allowed him thirty days to enlist in the service of his choice. He picked the Marine Corps because a recruiter had promised that after basic training he would be sent to language school in Monterey, California, then assigned to a desk job in Washington, D.C. Broyles barely made it through basic training. By his own description more nerdy than cool in high school, he was haunted by memories of a cross-country coach shouting through a bullhorn, “Broyles, you’ll always be a quitter!” Motivated by this long-remembered humiliation, he performed far better at the officer’s course, leading his class in several categories. Instead of language school, he was sent to Vietnam. His sole objective, he told me, was to get his platoon out alive.
He reveals little about his feelings about the war. One night in 1975, as several of us were driving back to Austin from Dallas, I asked Bill about the transition from combat in Vietnam to editing a magazine in Austin. He considered the question, then told me in his mild, semi-detached fashion, “When I was in Vietnam, I got up in the morning and went to war. Now I get up and go to the office.” (He did say later that the awkward homecoming scene in Cast Away was based upon his own homecoming from the war.) Most of his stories are funny or self-deprecating or both. One of his jobs was to follow a general around as he pinned medals on the wounded. “We’d come to some guy bandaged from head to foot like the Soldier in White in Catch 22,” Broyles recalled. “I would bend down and whisper in his ear that the general was here to give him a medal. He’d whisper back, ‘Tell the general to go f— himself and the horse he rode in on.’ And I’d look up at the general and say, ‘He says he’s very proud to be a Marine.'” Harry Hurt III, a Texas Monthly writer during the Broyles years, remembered Broyles relating his initial experience in Vietnam: “He jumped out of a helicopter and landed facedown in the mud. A sergeant ran up to him and shouted, ‘Hey, jerk-off, don’t you know our new lieutenant is coming today?'” The new lieutenant was Broyles. Years later, in the often-hostile atmosphere of Newsweek, Broyles kept a grenade on his desk.
In the early seventies Broyles was considered a comer in Houston political circles and a possible successor to conservative Democratic congressman Bob Casey. He was the assistant to the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District and the point man for the reform-minded school board’s huge bond issue. Al Reinert, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle at the time and later a Texas Monthly writer, said, “The bond issue lost big and that was the end of Bill’s political career.” Broyles now says, “Thank God I failed at that.” But John Sacret Young, the co-creator of China Beach, remembered seeing Broyles at a Houston motel in the early nineties when he was at his lowest. “Clinton had just been elected president,” Young said. “Two Bills. Both went to Oxford. And Broyles was comparing their two careers and wondering why Clinton had made it to the top while he was broke and sitting alone in a motel room.” Reinert was with Broyles on election night and recalled, “Bill couldn’t get over the fact that he was older than the president.”
Broyles often speaks to groups on the subject of failure, telling them, “It’s important to face up to failure, to know it’s not the end of life.” He entered Rice as a math major. When he scored a 4 on his first test, he wisely switched to history. When he failed as the editor of Newsweek, it was a signal to change careers. Two of his big film successes, Apollo 13 and Cast Away, deal with overcoming failure. In the last, autobiographical scene of Cast Away, Chuck stands at a rural crossroads in Texas, and we understand that it no longer matters which direction he chooses: He will find a way to reinvent himself.
BY THE END OF THE SEVENTIES Broyles was beginning to feel the need to get off the Texas Monthly island. Publisher Mike Levy and other magazine executives, Broyles included, decided to buy Los Angeles-based New West magazine (soon to be renamed California) from Rupert Murdoch. The move was probably doomed from the outset. Broyles realized quickly that he knew nothing about California, and later came a second realization: that if Murdoch wanted to sell, the magazine had to be a dog. “California was a steep learning curve,” Broyles told me. “You had no cohesive feel of culture and pride as you had in Texas. Texas Monthly let people recognize a common culture—from barbecue to summer camp to bluebonnets to the Alamo to our special brand of politics. You could look at it and recognize it.” Another reason Broyles might have been unhappy in California is that he was in the wrong branch of the media for the Left Coast. As a magazine editor, there was no way he could achieve greatness. After a year and a half, Broyles jumped ship. He met Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post Company, at a dinner party in Los Angeles, and turned on his famous charm, and she later offered him the job of editor at Newsweek. Broyles had zero experience running either a newsweekly or a large organization—especially one in New York. In the back of his mind was the thought of getting out of the magazine business entirely, but Newsweek was a challenge he couldn’t resist.
If California was a mistake, Newsweek was a disaster. Broyles calls his tenure there “two of the worst years of my life.” His mandate from Graham was to shake up the stodgy old magazine, which he did. Back in 1982 most newsweekly articles followed a long-established format, in which writers did not report, reporters did not write, and all stories were edited by corporate pea brains cultured in a bratty, backward-went-the-sentence form of prose. Broyles’s idea was to hire good writers who were also good reporters and encourage them to be as original and creative as possible—the same formula that he had instituted at Texas Monthly.
Broyles also wanted to nudge the magazine toward more “soft” news about lifestyles and popular culture. Old-line editors openly resented being shoved aside by an outsider, especially one who dared to suggest change. “It was a complete culture clash,” Howard Fineman, Newsweek‘s political writer, said. “Bill knew nothing of the bizarre folkways of New York or the inbred world of newsmagazines, and he didn’t care to. He even looked out of place, this tall, rangy, hip, glamour guy from Texas with his Hollywood connections.” Broyles’s first serious clash with the old guard came early in his tenure when he decided that the death of Princess Grace made a better cover story than a massacre at a refugee camp in Lebanon. “Grace Kelly meant a lot to her generation, and she turned out to be a great-selling cover,” Broyles said. “But the reaction of my staff was very negative.” Late in his tenure, Newsweek dodged a catastrophe when Broyles nixed the purchase of the purported (and, as it turned out, fake) Hitler diaries that others on the staff supported. Instead, Newsweek ran a thirteen-page news story about the diaries.
After ten years at the helm of three magazines, Broyles, in one of his periodic self-examinations, realized that he hated running institutions, that he wanted personal achievement, not power. At a meeting with Katharine Graham to discuss the upcoming year’s plans for Newsweek, Broyles suddenly blurted out, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” Broyles’s vision of a magazine that considered soft news as important as hard news survived his resignation and is now the model used by all newsweeklies.
NOW JOBLESS WITH RELATIONS strained between him and his second wife, Sybil (the mother of his two older children), Broyles decided that he wanted to write a play. He rented a separate $650-a-month apartment as his studio and spent his days reading and thinking, mostly about Vietnam. At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington he ran into his old radioman and remembered his first time in combat, when his mouth was so dry with fear he couldn’t speak. Like so many of his generation, the war had changed his life, but he still kept wondering what it meant. He accepted an assignment from Atlantic Monthly to return to Vietnam and write about it, something no American veteran had been allowed to do. In the fall of 1983 Broyles went to the United Nations and talked to the foreign minister of Vietnam, Nguyen Co Thach: “I told him I wanted to return and write about the people we had fought against. For me the war had never really ended. If I could meet my enemy in peace, perhaps it would finally be over.” The call that his visa had been approved came a year later, in September 1984. For five weeks Broyles revisited the battlegrounds and cities, interviewing former MiG pilots, anti-aircraft gunners, ammunition haulers, a driver on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a woman whose husband had been away fighting for nine years. He saw a former prison for American POWs and a hospital bombed by a B-52. He went again to China Beach, south of Da Nang, where, he would write, “once Red Cross Donut Dollies and Army nurses in bathing suits had drawn the hungry stares of thousands of lonely men.” Fifteen years later all he found was an old woman gathering seaweed.
The magazine article grew into a book, Brothers in Arms. Though well reviewed, it sold under 10,000 copies, far fewer than Broyles had counted on. He had dipped into his savings while writing the book and was running out of money. While trying to decide his next move, he took his dad on a fishing-and-rafting trip on Colorado’s Gunnison River. Broyles was extremely close to both of his parents, who had always doted on him and encouraged him to think big. He had just turned forty and his father, whose name was also Bill, had just turned sixty: Big Bill and Little Bill, people called them. “I grew up to be a man in motion—restless, changing, always uprooting whenever I got too settled,” Broyles wrote later in an article for Texas Monthly. “[My father] was completed, defined, fixed, and, above all, there.” Broyles’s parents had lived in the same house most of their lives, he realized. He’d moved seven times in the previous four years. Walking alone in the woods one night, he heard the sound of hooves thundering in his direction. He froze in place and watched as a large buck and a doe leaped majestically and sailed past, so close that “I felt the air shudder and saw the vapor puffing from their nostrils . . . the buck’s eyes glinting in the moonlight.” Back in camp, he told his dad about the magical moment. Big Bill was quiet for a while, then he said, “Son, I wanted to tell you something before I forgot it. Except for those two grandchildren, this trip is the best thing you ever did for me.” At that moment, Broyles wrote, “I knew with absolute clarity that I had to leave New York.”
“My life was a mess,” he told me. “My marriage was ending, and I was nearly broke. I had worked so long for success, had come to expect it and the trappings that go with it. Success was killing me.”
He moved to Los Angeles, hoping that a fresh start and a change of scenery might alter his luck. That’s when Richard Bangs called and suggested that Broyles join a team of climbers and take on Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Bangs, now the president of Outward Bound, was compiling an adventure book and thought Broyles might enjoy a daunting challenge. Six people had died on the mountain the previous month. The climb almost killed Broyles too, but he made it to the summit. “This wasn’t like Vietnam,” he wrote. “I could go home any time I wanted. Then I became angry with myself. I wasn’t a quitter.” In the bitter cold, at a brain-numbing altitude, he noticed how focused he had become. Back in the real world he had waged a losing battle against distractions, but on the mountain there was no choice. Weak and bent, his lungs gasping for breath, his mind senile, Broyles made it back safely. He wrote, “I had thought to recover my youth; instead I became an old man. I had climbed not toward life but death . . .” His essay, “Pushing the Mid-Life Envelope,”published in Esquire in 1987, may be his best piece of work.
Few who knew him anticipated Broyles’s dramatic rise to power in Hollywood, but once it registered, his friends slapped their forehead and exclaimed, “But of course!” Hollywood had been his destiny all along. Nicholas Lemann, whom Broyles recruited to write for Texas Monthly and who is now the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, told me, “In the early days at Texas Monthly, it was like we were making a movie. Texas didn’t have a lot of celebrities or events at the time, so Bill skillfully made Texas itself the hero. He extracted this heroic, dramatic ongoing story as if he was writing a movie about Texas.” Equally important, writing for the screen played to his personal needs—his contemplative nature, his need to create, his internal rhythm.
Broyles had no specific plan when he returned to L.A. after his climb, but he had friends and he was an optimist again: He believed something good would happen. At a party to welcome him back, Broyles met John Sacret Young, an established television and film writer with connections at Warner Bros. and ABC. Young was intrigued by Broyles’s idea for a half-hour comedy series set in Vietnam, except Young thought it should be a one-hour drama set on China Beach. They agreed to form a partnership, with Young in charge. ABC liked the idea and guaranteed them two full seasons of 22 episodes. The show lasted four seasons, from 1988 to 1992. Though it never attracted great ratings, China Beach was intelligent and original, and it won numerous acting and writing awards.
“China Beach was my film school,” Broyles said. “I didn’t know a crab dolly from a lobster, but in a TV series you do it all—writing, filming, post-production, all at once.” Broyles was a quick study and grateful to work in Young’s shadow. “A lot of guys would have lifted the idea and pushed me out the back door,” Broyles said. Young recalled, “We worked well together. Bill was day; I was night. He was a positive force; I was always going for the throat. He brought humor to the show. He told me, ‘In Vietnam there was boredom, fear, and terror, but when things were funny, they were never funnier.'”
He was enjoying success—and not just professionally. “It was his time to chase and be chased by beautiful women,” Young said. “They were all over him.” Morgan Fairchild was mentioned. So was Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis. Nicholas Lemann remembered reviewing a novel written by Davis in which a woman living alone on an isolated beach has a torrid affair with a handsome but haunted Vietnam veteran. “My God!” Lemann said to himself. “That’s Bill!” He asked Broyles later if there was anything to the gossip about him and a certain president’s daughter. “Bill didn’t miss a beat,” Lemann told me. “He said, ‘Oh, you must be talking about the time I took Lynda Bird Johnson to a football game when I was in college.'”
He began dating Linda Purl, an actress who had been in two hit TV series, as Fonzie’s girlfriend in Happy Days and Andy Griffith’s girl Friday in Matlock. After a whirlwind romance, they married and bought a home in Pacific Palisades. But the marriage didn’t last, and neither did the money. Once again he found himself depressed and single. Another outdoor adventure, skiing the backcountry of Yosemite, resulted in a torn rotator cuff. An accident during surgery damaged nerves, and he lost the use of his right arm for months. He drifted back to Texas, living for nearly a year with old friends in Austin and with his parents in Houston. “He was drowning in California,” Lois Chiles recalled. “He needed the touch, the smell, the big sky of Texas to get his power back.”
BROYLES DIDN’T KNOW IT AT the time but a brief meeting with actor Tom Hanks in the last days of China Beach eventually catapulted him to the big time. Hanks had read Brothers in Arms and wanted to do a movie about the siege at Khe Sanh. “The siege was emblematic of the entire war,” Hanks told me recently, “but it was difficult to adapt it into the narrative of a two-hour motion picture. I talked to Bill about it, but then I moved on.” Hanks still had the idea in the back of his mind when he met Broyles again, on the Apollo 13 project.
David Friendly, an old friend of Broyles’s from the Newsweek days who was now a producer, approached him about writing the screenplay on behalf of director Ron Howard, whose company had purchased the film rights to Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell’s yet-to-be-written memoirs. Broyles telephoned another old friend, Al Reinert, who had produced an award-winning documentary about the Apollo missions, For All Mankind. Reinert had hours of taped interviews and had become good friends with Lovell and other astronauts. The Broyles family had been closely involved in the documentary, which was ten years in the making: Bill Broyles, Sr., was the vice president of the production company, and Bill’s sister, Betsy, was a co-producer. Reinert was like a member of the family.
Broyles and Reinert signed on, and over the next year, they wrote three drafts, drawing mostly on their own interviews and on Reinert’s store of knowledge. Kevin Costner was originally considered for the role of Lovell, but the producers grabbed Hanks, who had just finished Philadelphia, for which he would win an Oscar. Reinert and Broyles were asked to write a new draft for Hanks. Reinert remembered their story conference: “On the way, Bill said, ‘Let’s do a good cop, bad cop routine. You be the bad cop.’ Hanks, a serious reader of scripts, came in with thirty pages of notes. We went over it line by line. Hanks had an actor’s gift for making a line he hated sound like the sorriest words ever assembled in the English language. It was my job to defend the line, while Broyles played Mr. Reason, siding with Hanks.”
Apollo 13 won an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay for the two Texas writers—they lost to Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility—and it got Broyles a three-picture deal with Twentieth-Century Fox: Cast Away was the first, and the second will be the Khe Sanh film he and Hanks had talked about a few years before. Over the next six years Broyles wrote four major versions of Cast Away; the fourth went through sixty drafts, and he wrote a crucial new scene two weeks before the film was scheduled to open. “What’s interesting about Bill,” Hanks said, “is his reference point is what he’s seen and done, not what he’s seen on the screen or read in a book. He gets an original idea, then he works it over and over and over. He worked with me for three years doing rewrites, then he worked two years rewriting it with [director] Bob Zemeckis, then another two years with the two of us. Any other writer would have walked away long ago, but Bill doesn’t let his ego get in the way, and he doesn’t quit until he’s got it right.”
WHEN I VISITED BILL AND ANDREA at their getaway in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, last August, he was working on Khe Sanh and two other screenplays and writing the third draft of a novel he began six years ago, a tale of the life of Billy the Kid as related by a contemporary. Their home is a wood-and-glass two-story contemporary, facing the majestic spiral of the Grand Teton. Growing up in Baytown, Broyles kept an Ansel Adams photograph of this same mountain tacked on his bedroom wall. Andrea works in a studio inside an unpainted barn, and Bill writes in a tiny tack room, bare except for a desk and a laptop. Broyles seemed at peace in this setting. His smile was unforced, his hair dusted with gray, his husky voice soft and relaxed. Yet, inevitably, there is always a new challenge. This time it was his novel. He knows now that he can write a good screenplay. A novel is something else. One afternoon, as we strolled beside a creek, with two-year-old James riding on his shoulders and five-year-old Katie walking alongside, Broyles said, “Writing a novel has restored my creative humility.”
I saw him again in mid-January, back in Austin from skiing in Wyoming and a quick trip to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where David, his 24-year-old son, had graduated from boot camp before heading for the much tougher training of the pararescue service. “Like those guys in The Perfect Storm,” Broyles said, adding that daughter Susannah, now twenty, is attending Austin Community College. I asked him how his novel was doing, and he said he had finally finished it. Now it was making the rounds of publishing houses. Nothing scares a writer more than waiting. Nothing makes him feel so vulnerable, helpless, and totally alone.
“What will you do if the novel gets rejected?” I asked.
“Write another one” was his immediate answer, and I knew it could have been nothing else.