The New Mexico-based novelist Cormac McCarthy is one of the most respected and accomplished writers working today, and this afternoon Oprah Winfrey aired her interview with him, which she taped at the Santa Fe Institute. McCarthy has only given two print interviews during the forty-year span of his career, and so literature buffs were anxious to see what he had to say. I thought I would offer a service to those who might have missed the interview, perhaps due to the misfortune of being employed, and recap the interview in a play-by-play format. To make this feat more death-defying, I decided to watch the interview, take notes, and wrangle my one-year-old at the same time. Tivo is for sissies.
I learned that McCarthy is as pure an artist as there is, and has likely avoided pandering to the media in part so he wouldn’t be subjected to the frivolous judgments of unqualified hacks. Today, I will be that hack. Let’s get this out of the way first: He wore a neatly-pressed blue–possibly denim–collared shirt with some tan pants. As Oprah said, “You look like your book jacket!”
4 p.m. Oprah runs her show preview. The Cormac McCarthy interview is to be sandwiched between a segment on Michael Moore’s movie Sicko and a chat with Bono. This makes perfect sense, as the extremely private writer seems to fit right in among these other two shrinking violets.
4:10 p.m.: I read my baby two books, I Love My Family and Discover the Colors with T’choupi, in an attempt to pacify her before the Cormac portion of the show. T’choupi is a mole-like creature who is apparently popular in Belgium.
4:20 p.m. Oprah wraps up her interview with Michael Moore. There’s a teaser of her strolling outside with Cormac McCarthy. “They said he would never do a television interview,” Oprah’s voiceover intones, with perhaps a hint of smugness in the word “said.” And who are “they”?
4:23 p.m. “This man is notoriously private,” Oprah says. “After I read The Road, I said, “I’ll give him a call.” Oprah called him, asked him if she could interview him. Cormac demurred, saying he needed to think about it. She gave him a 48-hour ultimatum for a response–something that I’m certain only Oprah could do–and when she called him again precisely two days later, he agreed. She said she would come to meet him and that she’d “get in and get out in an hour.” “Once he said yes,” she said, “I went straight to New Mexico before he could change his mind.”
4:26 p.m. Oprah meets Cormac in the library of the Santa Fe Institute, which she calls “his home away from home.” She asks him why he doesn’t do interviews, and McCarthy responds, “Well, I don’t think it’s good for your head. You probably shouldn’t be talking about [writing], you should be doing it.”
My baby tries to steal the remote control. I hide it behind some pillows and point across the room at one of her toys.
4:27 p.m. Oprah asks, “Are you passionate about writing?” and explains how she advises students to follow their passion. It sounds like she has a head cold.
“I don’t know,” McCarthy said, “Passionate sounds like a pretty fancy word. I like what I do.…You always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve.”
McCarthy seems like a shy, humble man, totally dedicated to his art, just the sort of guy who deserves a MacArthur “genius” grant. Oh wait, he’s already got one of those.
4:30 p.m.: Oprah asks about the novel The Road, “Where did this apocalyptic dream come from?”
McCarthy replies, “Usually you don’t know where a book comes from,” but then explains that he and his eight-year-old son John (to whom the book is dedicated) were staying in a hotel in El Paso. “I went and stood at a window, and I could hear the trains coming through, a very lonesome sound.” He said he had a vision of what the place would be like in fifty years, with an image of fires burning on a hill.
Oprah asks, as she must, “Is this a love story to your son?”
McCarthy looks uncomfortable. “In a way,” he says, “I suppose so. It’s embarrassing.”
“I just saw you blush,” Oprah says.
4:32 p.m. My daughter runs up to me and starts loudly talking about ducks, which she calls “Qua-quas.” I manage to make out Oprah’s next question, “What is it like to be a father at this time in life?”
“I think you appreciate it more,” the 73-year-old Cormac says. “If you have a child when you’re older…it makes you look at things afresh.”
4:34 p.m. My daughter is very angry that I will not give her the remote control. She stomps around and rams herself into the couch. I throw some crackers on the floor. She pounces on them. Please don’t tell my mother.
Oprah asks McCarthy to tell her about the Santa Fe Institute. “Well, it’s just full of bright interesting people,” he says, “and that’s fun.” He goes onto say, “I don’t know any writers. I would much prefer to hang out with scientists.”
4:36 p.m. Oprah decides to bring out her journalistic big guns with a somewhat-less softball question. “There’s not a lot of engagement with women in your books,” she says.
“Women are tough,” Cormac concedes. “I don’t pretend to understand women.”
Really young women aren’t that tough, I think. Just throw some crackers out on the floor for them and they’ll be quiet for five minutes.
Oprah says, “Three wives later they’re still mysterious?” That’s why they pay her the big bucks. Oprah says that she read that his second wife said they were so poor at one time, with “absolutely no money,” and people would call and invite him to come speak for $2000, and he would turn down the offer. She asks him if material things are totally insignificant to him.
“It’s not that I don’t care about things,” McCarthy says, “but it would take a distant second place to doing what you want to do. I always knew that I didn’t want to work.”
4:38 p.m. Oprah gets into the “you were so poor” litany. “I read that you were so poor that you got put out of a 40 dollar a month hotel in New Orleans…So poor that you didn’t even have toothpaste.” Maybe she should break out the yo’ mama jokes next.
Cormac replies, “I was living in a shack in Tennessee and had run out of toothpaste. And I went down the hill to see if there would be anything in the mail and there was a tube of toothpaste.”
“A free sample?” Oprah asks.
“A free sample,” Cormac confirms. He goes on to remark that his life has been full of things like that, that “just when things are really bleak something happens.” So, could McCarthy be practicing The Secret? I can almost see that question springing to Oprah’s lips.
4:43 p.m. Oprah asks what McCarthy wants readers to get out of the book.
He replies that people should “simply care about things and people and be appreciative…life is pretty damn good. You should be grateful.”
Oprah asks him if he believes in God, and he replies, “It depends on what day you ask me. Sometimes it’s good to pray. I don’t think you need to have a good idea who God is to pray.”
4:44 p.m. I throw more crackers onto the ground. Oprah asks him if he cares that millions of people are now reading his books.
Cormac replies, “In all honesty I really don’t…There’s nothing wrong with it.”
“You are a different kind of author,” Oprah concludes, “Read it if you want to, if you don’t it’s okay.”
4:45 p.m. I turn off the TV and take my daughter outside, thinking about all the questions I would’ve asked McCarthy.