A Conversation with Stephen Harrigan Telling Ghost Stories

Comanche Midnight is the second terrific collection of Stephen Harrigan's essays published by University of Texas Press (paper, $14.95), with topics ranging from the poisoning of Treaty Oak and the filming of Lonesome Dove, to the 75th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park and gambling in Monte Carlo. For those of us who are always letting our subscriptions to Texas Monthly lapse, we can be grateful for the chance to catch up. But even if you've read all these essays before (you'd have to be crafty because some appeared in places farther afield like Travel Holiday and Audubon), there's an ample and leisurely quality about reading essays gathered together in a book - something you just can't get with a flimsy magazine.

I interviewed Stephen Harrigan in his writing cabin behind the two-story Tarrytown house he shares with his wife, three daughters, two dogs, and two cats. To call it a cabin makes it sound more rustic and backwoodsy than it is with white sheet rock walls, a high sloping ceiling, and twin skylights. Not to mention central air, laptop computer, phone, fax - all the necessary office tools. But his fascination with Texas history is evident. A phalanx of plastic horses and their riders stand guard on top of one book case; a Davy Crockett doll slumps against the books, as if after a particularly exhausting battle; and back behind an ugly lime green easy chair is a box containing the Alamo, a small, plastic, build-it-yourself version.

Austin Chronicle: One of the most impressive things about Comanche Midnightis how the historical research in each essay is so neatly entwined with the present-day story - especially in essays such as the title one which pairs an excellent brief history of the Comanche people with interviews with tribe members on contemporary challenges, and in "Highway One" in which you attempt to follow the Camino Real, the route Mexicans took north into Texas and its northern counterpart that led settlers down into the region. Do you feel a strong connection with the people who were in a place before you or do you search for that connection?

Stephen Harrigan: I guess the easy answer is both. I think in one of these essays - the Camino Real piece - I say... (he flips through the book until he finds the passage and reads:) "It would be impossible to follow the road now, and no point to it unless you were one of those people who feel complete only when face to face with the vestiges and traces of a vanished world they can never know."

I do feel that there is something that motivates me, in a kind of ghostly way. A typical journalist is interested in what's in front of him, what's happening in the world right this minute. Every time I go out on a story I find myself skewed away from that to what was there before. It's certainly a failing I have as a journalist - but it's where my deeper instincts run: to find out what has vanished. What has never quite arrived. What you can't quite see. That sense of mystery is what has always impelled me.

AC: I really loved your essay about Galveston Bay ("The Bay"). I suppose it's because I was raised in Oklahoma and then we moved to Houston, so the first ocean I ever saw was Galveston. You captured the feeling that I've always had about it - that it's ugly and sad and yet so subtly pretty. And Port Aransas was a very strong and compelling setting for your first novel Aransas (1980). What's your relationship with the Texas coastline?

SH: Very much the same as yours because I'm from Oklahoma, too. My first experience with the Texas coast was not particularly endearing. I got stung by a Portuguese Man-o-War and I kept saying I'd been stung by ants but nobody could find ants anywhere on the beach. We had no idea there were such things as Portuguese Man-o-Wars!

I think the Texas coast is so scruffy and corrosive, so funky, that it makes a vivid impression on a young kid. I think it's a very primeval world, unlike the Caribbean or the Mediterranean where there's sparkling, clear water. It's much richer in a lot of ways. The most significant factor is that you can't see what's under there, so your imagination runs wild thinking about the creatures that are inside this huge universe that you can't know. Maybe that's what started me off as a writer, that overpowering sense of mystery and unknowability.

AC:Scuba diving features largely in your second novel Jacob's Well (1984) and your non-fiction book Water and Light: A Diver's Journey to a Coral Reef(1992) was about diving. Were you diving back then?

SH: I took scuba diving lessons and got certified when I was 14 in the pool at the Corpus Christi YMCA. But I didn't really go diving until years later. Once I had a fair amount of experience, I felt a need to communicate the essence of entering a truly alien world. I've been diving at Matagorda Bay when you literally could not see your hand pressed up against your face mask. It's kind of - in a strange way - intoxicating. It's like being in a storm.

AC:Your essay about the Battle at San Jacinto was much more evocative of the battle than actually going to the place ever has been for me. When did your interest in Texas history take root?

SH: I'm 46. The world is filled with 46-year-old males who at a very impressionable age saw the Walt Disney movie Davy Crockett.

AC:I'm married to one! My husband still has his little coonskin cap saved away somewhere in a closet. (laughter)

SH: I think the fascination that a lot of people my age have with the Alamo in Texas begins with that movie because we were watching it at the age of five or six and it was the first time we'd ever seen the hero die in a movie - but he didn't quite die. The last image in the movie is of him swinging his rifle at all these Mexican soldiers who are charging him at the Alamo and then the Davy Crockett theme song starts playing.

So, I think there was inculcated within all of us who saw that movie both a fear and a hope: a fear that death could visit us and take away those we loved, and a hope that death was not exactly a final thing.

What's fascinating is that there's this huge to-do right now over whether Davy Crockett died fighting at the Alamo or was executed after surrendering. It's a tremendous academic tussle that has a lot to do with the need to believe in the childhood hero that Walt Disney presented.

AC: Another essay in Comanche Midnightthat caught my eye was the one called "The Tiger Is God," about a Houston zoo keeper who was killed by a tiger. What struck me was that though the piece was a pretty voyeuristic account of the accident, it ended with a compelling and poetic paragraph about an 18th-century Indian leader whose symbol was the tiger and whose motto was "The Tiger is God." That theme of negotiating space and power with animals is quite prominent in your body of work - tell me about it.

SH: I think it's a huge thing in my imaginative life - I don't know why. A lot of my thoughts about animals have come from reading and observing, but basically I think that very early on I just lost patience with the idea that humans are the highest pinnacle of creation, that we're worth more when somebody dies than a June bug is. We're worth more in our own eyes and that's absolutely valid for us, but in a cosmic sense it's a worthless notion. I feel like a fictional world is not complete unless a writer takes stock of all those other forms of awareness out there and acknowledges them somehow.

In both of my novels the characters were incomplete and were searching for completeness. In Aransas that quest was represented by the dolphins. In Jacob's Well animals don't figure into it so much, but geology does. The earth is a kind of being that's waiting to be discovered, its interior life is waiting to be deciphered.

AC:Since your second novel came out in 1984, besides writing articles for Texas Monthlyand other magazines, you've been pretty involved with screen writing. What sort of writing do you enjoy the most?

SH: I would rather write novels than anything else. Of the things I can write - screenplays, magazine articles, non-fiction books, and novels - novels pay the least. But that's what I want to do more than anything.

AC: I had a vague memory that you were the Austin writer who wrote the O.J. StoryTV movie. When I rediscovered it, in light of your essays, your novels, I was very surprised. Tell me about that project, how it came into your life, how you accomplished it, how you feel about it.

SH: I had written an HBO movie called The Last of His Tribe and one of the producers, Robert Lovenheim, is a highly regarded, first-rate television producer. During the famous Bronco chase, Fox TV called him and said "We'd like to make a movie about O.J. Simpson and have it on the air in two months." And he said, "Sure." He called me and I was sort of amazed. I mean, I had just written a book about fish! I didn't know anything about football. I said "no" for reasons of practicality - they wanted a script in three weeks and I didn't think I could do that.

But from the minute I said no, I became the only person they wanted. They kept calling and I kept thinking about it. I had another movie, another deal about to close, so it wasn't really a question of money - I got about the same amount I would have gotten for the other one. But there was something about the O.J. project that really interested me. It was a nervy thing to do, risky in a logistical way and in a legal way, and in an ethical way. Though you could take those as negatives, I looked at them as real interesting challenges. Also, I've been a journalist for 20 years and here's the biggest story in the country, and they say "Would you like to be in the middle of it?" And it seemed perverse to not want to be in the middle of it, frankly.

I knew that this movie, the concept of it, would be subjected to a huge degree of criticism, but I wanted to examine my own conscience and make up my own mind about it. I believe in drama, in story-telling. I don't think it's an inferior or unseemly form of expression. And here was an opportunity, in an absurdly short period of time, to take these events that were happening right in front of our eyes and put them into this instant context and fill it with some degree of artistic and moral integrity.

My goal was to surprise people with it. It's not a perfect movie - it was made in two months! But I'm not in the least ashamed of it and would do it again in a minute... And I do I think it's one of the most restrained pieces of programming on the O.J. Simpson case there's been! (laughter)

AC: What are you working on now?

SH: I just finished a movie for the Disney Channel, a true story about a Vietnamese girl who lost her family during the evacuation of South Vietnam in 1975 and found them 17 years later. And I wrote a script for a movie about Rin-Tin-Tin which may finally develop into something. But I'm trying to concentrate on the novel as much as I can.

AC: That's what I wanted to hear about next ... How long have you been working on it?

SH: Five years. Most of that time has been research, working around other projects. It's a historical novel about the Alamo, a huge panoramic novel. The main character is a botanist working for Santa Anna; other characters are Mexican soldiers, slaves, Tejanos...With a historical novel you have to know what clothes they were wearing, what turns of phrase they used. What the political situation in the Coahuila y Tejas state government was in the spring of 1835, what kind of money they used, how to fire a musket. It never ends. Stuff you know right off the top of your head when you're writing contemporary novels takes years to research.

AC: Most of your work has had a contemporary setting. What drew you back to the Alamo?

SH: I've wanted to write a novel about the Alamo since I was a teenager. We went on family trips to San Antonio all the time. You know, Texas doesn't have old buildings. The Alamo looked ancient. It's a remarkable building and it had this tremendous power to me. And then you know what happened there; that a terrible human tragedy took place. It's a haunted house. It's one of the great ghost stories of American history.

AC: I can't wait to hear you tell it! n
Stephen Harrigan expects his novel about the Alamo to be published in two years.

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