The Voice of the Writer

Readings From the Texas Book Festival

Larry McMurtry
photograph byJana Birchum

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana

Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana opened the 1997 Texas Book Festival with a session in the Capitol's House Chamber -- august environs indeed for a book reading, and hardly big enough for the crowd on hand. It was a packed House -- five hundred by my estimate -- and those who arrived early enough to get a highbacked State of Texas Representative's chair were the envy of the hall. They seemed a smug and self-satisfied lot indeed as they leaned back in those storied chairs.

The session began with McMurtry collaborator Diana Ossana's reading from Zeke and Ned. Bad acoustics didn't help Ossana's wooden delivery, but the crowd was happy just to be there. Standing austerely behind was McMurtry, who in his grey suit and accountant's glasses looked like nothing so much as a three-term representative from Plano set to debate a minor appropriations bill. As it turned out, McMurtry's reading was a little more lively: After thanking the crowd for coming out on the first day of quail season, he read a passage from his latest, Comanche Moon, about two speculative bank robbers watching a local baseball game -- a passage exemplifying his ear for dialogue that is both witty and real.

The question-and-answer session that followed was serviceable, if a little preachy, as McMurtry and Ossana held forth on the virtues of reading, the "ruins of realism," and the legacy of Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb. McMurtry related how Oklahoma historian Angie Debo became his first literary heroine based on one of her books he found in the parking lot of a livestock auction; he later confessed to a second parking lot epiphany, admitting that he cribbed the name for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove from the side of a church bus. North of Dallas, hard by the DFW airport, lies the Lonesome Dove Baptist Church. Inspiration has never been so prosaic.

-- Jay Hardwig

James Hoggard and Arturo Longoria

"For many people now, four years of anything (except house payments and maybe matrimony) seems excessive or impossible." This is one of the barbed observations of contemporary life James Hoggard offered in his reading of "Before She Went Home," an essay from his recent collection Riding the Wind and Other Tales. The essay, along with a reading of his "Playing with Illusion," provided a fine, if brief, glimpse of Hoggard's style -- wistful reminiscence combined with a certain curmudgeonly wit (an effect heightened by Hoggard's deadpan delivery of his punchlines). An English professor in Wichita Falls and the acting president of the Texas Institute of Letters, Hoggard proved in two short readings that he is a hell of a writer, with a deft touch with words and no small share of insight.

The other author on the bill, Hoggard's Texas A&M University Press colleague Arturo Longoria, was equally passionate in reading from his new release, Adios to the Brushlands. Longoria is an environmental essayist in the vein of John Graves, and Adios is a serious book that is both personal and political. He is a man who is clearly in love with the vanishing wilderness of South Texas, a brushland that he describes as "thick, briary, and still." Yet, for all its feeling, Longoria's reading was less than riveting: a figure of brushy-mustachioed sincerity, Longoria was perhaps too sincere, his prose too laden with overwrought emotion, and he would have done well to take a cue from Hoggard and insert a little humor, or at least a sprightliness of form, into his impassioned prose. -- Jay Hardwig

Lisa Sandlin

The panel discussion "Women's Voices in Fiction" turned into a one-woman presentation when it was announced that Sandra Scofield would be unable to attend. The audience didn't seem to mind, however, as many of the 50 people in attendance seemed specifically interested in Lisa Sandlin and her new collection of short stories, Message to the Nurse of Dreams. Throughout, she interacted easily with supporters who posed familiar questions about her review in that day's New York Times and her life's new setting in Nebraska.

Sandlin's stories take place under the skin of East Texas families in the fictional town of Port Sabine, modeled on her own hometown of Beaumont. They unfold in the late Sixties as the first generation of Americans are feeling their way towards racial integration. Sandlin remembers being a young teenager in the Sixties thinking, "This is it! We're on the verge of understanding!" and wanted her stories to capture the same ephemeral, optimistic mood.

The piece she chose to read, "Cold in the Bone," reveals the intimate cogs of a white, middle-class family stressed by the escalating care required by their 97-year-old, live-in grandma. The strain on the narrator's mother coalesces on her 44th birthday. A couple of members of the family have forgotten the mother's birthday altogether, and when her husband presents her with an aquarium, she breaks out in tears, dumbfounded that he would give her yet another thing to take care of. Sarah, the teenaged narrator, tries to help out her mother by caring for the grandmother; she also serves as the family's emotional thermostat, constantly monitoring and sometimes applying warmth where needed.

Sandlin describes herself as an "observer-writer," as opposed to a "hero-writer," and passes her observational gifts onto the narrator. "[Grandma] wanted water so I used the toothpaste cup from the sink. She wouldn't notice the white smears down its side because she couldn't see that well and she liked water that tasted vaguely sweet and minty." Sandlin read with the intonation of a sensitive teenager and used her Southern timing to emphasize the subtle humor present throughout her collection.

-- Nicole Kleman

Willie Morris

Wearing a suit of the sort Southern politicians used to sweat through during the first half of the century, Willie Morris took the dais in the House Chamber and preached to a crowd of true believers, handing down insights in that wonderful, thick-jowled Mississippi accent of his and generally giving off the appearance of a softer-spoken Huey Long. He spoke about Texas for a while before reading from his latest book, My Dog Skip, a nostalgic volume about his boyhood pup, a dog who could find his owner anywhere, who broke the fox terrier 100-meter record with a time of 7.3 seconds, who could drive a car with a little help. "He was not my dog," Morris declared. "He was my friend." And while, at about a hundred strong, the session was criminally underattended, those who came were well-satisfied. They learned, among other things, that the UT and Texas Observer alum still bleeds orange and white ("I heard they were losing to Baylor 14-0," he groaned. "Is that true?"), that the spot where the South ends and the West begins just might be Scholz Bier Garten, and that, yes, there is Dr Pepper in heaven. Morris also previewed his next book (about Hollywood and Medgar Evers, two subjects he's well acquainted with), admitted to the continuing relevance of his North Towards Home, and revealed that he had inscribed copies of Skip to dogs both past and present: To Rex. To the memory of the noble Taffy. Throughout, he carried himself with good humor and quiet authority, a combination fitting for one of America's leading men of letters. -- Jay Hardwig

Naomi Shihab Nye

Although best known for her graceful poems and essays, San Antonio's Naomi Shihab Nye is a respected children's author as well, with Benito's Dream and the new Lullaby Raft to her credit. After a lyrical performance at the fest's black-tie gala Saturday night, Nye took to the children's tent for a more laid-back affair Sunday afternoon. (While there were a good number of kiddos in attendance, more than a few appreciative adults snuck in as well. Most hid in back, but you could tell 'em by both height and whiskers.) With her sense of whimsy, her poet's feel for language, and of course her love of lizards and chickens, Nye proved as adept at children's lit as at the grown-up stuff. She opened by praising the lullaby -- even coaxing a shy-faced kid up to sing his own bedtime tune -- before singing the song that was the inspiration for Lullaby Raft (not a bad set of pipes on that one, either). "Books are like a raft that you float on," she explained, "through the night, through the day, through the life." She then read Lullaby Raft in its entirety -- an event that took about four minutes, even with interruptions -- holding up the beautifully illustrated volume and turning pages as she went. The moon will float like a little rowboat on the river of the sky. She urged the crowd not to ignore the little ideas that come in the night, suggesting implicitly that waking up is not cause to quit dreaming. When the day falls short and the night feels wide/ Little stars go run and hide/ I'll make me a lullaby raft to ride/ To the other side. I'll make me a lullaby raft to ride/ To the other side.

-- Jay Hardwig

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