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Oprah Interviews Cormac McCarthy: A Play-by-Play

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.

About Jenny Shank

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25 comments

  1. Jonathan Weber

    Jenny, terrific piece. I just read The Road and was floored by it. In a way I’m glad I didn’t see the interview, when you find out too much about a person you greatly admire from afar it’s usually disappointing. Your play-by-play is just perfect.

  2. I think Mr. McCarthy is an amazing writer; he can create entire worlds using the sparest language. Many people pooh-pooh Oprah’s book club (and I’m looking at you, Mr. Jonathan Franzen Snooty-Pants), but I think she’s really doing the American public a service by introducing them to authors outside the Grisham/Higgins-Clark/Steel/Clancy bestseller stranglehold.

    I’m one of those unfortunates who has to work for a living, so I totally missed this interview yesterday. Thanks, Jenny!

  3. When I first head about Oprah choosing The Road for her little book club I thought it was a joke. Seriously, it sounded like a headline from The Onion. When I learned that she would be interviewing one of the greatest American authors ever, I cringed in horror briefly. Then I curled up in the fetal position and cried for three days. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw yesterday. McCarthy seemed much more human than I had imagined, more affable, almost grandfatherly.
    Blood Meridian is the pinnacle of American fiction in the 20th century. Period. And though The Trilogy and The Road are well written, it seems like they come from another author altogether, an imitator fostering in his soul a chimera immaculate. A voice more matured and at ease that perhaps being married and having a kid, or even prozac, can bring to a man.

  4. Thanks Mike–your comment makes me think of the question I would ask Cormac McCarthy if I could. There seems to be a big shift in the middle of his career–he started out writing Southern gothic novels, then switched to Southwestern settings, beginning with “Blood Meridian.” I’d like to ask him what prompted this shift. I suspect, based on his answers in yesterday’s interview, that he’d say that it wasn’t a conscious decision (he seemed to indicate that he was a very intuitive writer) and that the setting change just came about because of where he was living at the time.

    But of course, that’s just speculation, and according to Oprah, he won’t be doing any other interviews.

  5. Your piece is great fun, Ms. Shank. I’ve used crackers to divert my dogs, but will now try them on my wife.

    A few years ago I wrote a spoof of dystopic fiction called Gift With Purchase, which you can read for free at darkacres.com. I wrongly figured the genre had run its course. But after finishing first Oryx and Crake and then The Road I realized that until the end of days this kind of story-telling will probably become more and more popular. Including drug-resistant TB, there are just so many promising new dooms to consider.

  6. Jenny;

    Your schedule sounds a lot like mine. And that’s why I missed the interview. My 10 month old does not like crackers.

  7. Were they Ritz crackers, or Saltines? or some other “third-way” cracker?

  8. I read in January the last book of Cormac McCarthy being issued in France: No country for Old Men
    Well, for me, such a pleasure, a Masterpiece
    Desperate, Human, just beautiful..
    If I’ve had the chance to met him, I’d like to ask him if he’s feeling comfortable with the movie of the Cohen brothers
    I’ts amazing, because I’ve send a post about this topic ten days ago on my Blog:Between Pyrenees and Montana (Sorry about that, I swear I’m not advertising)
    Anyway, we are lucky to have such an author published in France too, as Wallace Stegner, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass and any others
    Jenny,as Sherman Alexie said, go on being an arrogant person, publishing Top articles

  9. Thank you for this, for this picture of motherhood and literature.

  10. I thought the interview was excellent. I learned a great deal about the man and was impressed by how honestly he answered the questions, especially when he said he couldn’t care less about money or mass appeal. Given that attitude, it was kind of ironic that he gave his one and only TV interview to Oprah of all people. A pretty cool way to end a brilliant career.

  11. I loved this play-by-play. For some reason the very idea of Oprah interviewing Cormac McCarthy made me think of that final scene in Star Wars. Oprah’s Vadar-esque questions baiting McCarthy to reveal his dark side. But in the end the Force prevails, or does it? Though I’ve never understood Oprah’s appeal, I do love they way she kind of f**ks with McCarthy at the end with that statement about being a different kind of author. Maybe it’s just me but this last quote is dripping with cyncism.

  12. Heather Sharfeddin

    Perfect recap, Jenny. For all he means to readers, McCarthy is an especially heroic figure to authors. In this day of promote, promote, promote, authors everywhere are under the misguided direction from New York that they will never make it if they aren’t out there pushing their work, talking about their books, and speaking at every opportunity. It just goes to show that in the end it is about the writing. We should all take a page from McCarthy’s book.

  13. ben@resource-media.org

    I once named a dog Cormac McCarthy (big male Lab/Chesepeke mix) but he had a mean streak and I had to put him down because he attacked puppies and tried to bite my wife. Beautiful dog, though. My questions for the real Cormac:
    Ӣ Have you always thought life was pretty damn good, or only once the royalty checks started stacking up?
    Ӣ Why were your early books so intricate and obscure, but your later prose is much more accessible?
    Ӣ How is it to watch your prime literature turned into medicre film?
    ”¢ What’s the deal with pronghorn?
    ”¢ How did the Chigurh corner the hit man? I mean, I’ve read that 100 times and I can’t figure it out.
    Ӣ Does your diction just come out that way or is it the result of re-writing?
    ”¢ What’s next?

  14. Jenny: I saw a pediatrician throw cookies on the floor for his child. The message was that kids need to have some imune challenges to strengthen their resistance to disease. You did nothing wrong.

  15. Pierrino Mascarino

    What a disarming precis of the Oprah interview — you keep injecting this very human element that brings me back to earth, to a kind of appreicative viewer’s perspective. Good idea, I’ll steal it. I’ve given dozens of interviews promoting my movie Uncle Nino and have carefully studied the art of being an interviewee: don’t ever let them ask the questions, you talk about what you want, ask yourself the important questions and answer them as brilliantly as you can.

  16. Jenny, This was one of the most enjoyable articles I’ve read on NewWest. I laughed out loud several times. I hope that was o.k. It was a real pleasure. I am also pleasantly surprised hat so many men seemed to enjoy a piece by a working mother that clearly meshed her familial responsibilities with a book review. But then again, these ARE new west men!

  17. Jenny,
    So the secret is out, my grandchild is not the thrower. Thanks for the Oprah recap, which was more entertaining than the show.

  18. Next up: Oprah chooses ‘Against the Day,’ interviews Pynchon!

  19. hi jenny
    we want to thank you for your crumb-strewn commments.
    mary sheldon
    bookshop owner
    and
    ali
    shopgirl

  20. Thank you for doing this. Normally I’m not one to care about the opinions or lives of celebrity but McCarthy is a rare case. His books are so intelligent and wonderfully written, and he himself is so notoriously private that I was really looking forward to seeing what he had to say. I wish someone HAD tevo’s this so that I might be able to watch it now. Anyways, thanks.

  21. I’m with Jonathan on this one. I stumbled across this in an attempt to read a transcript of an interview with a man who turns a blind eye to the self-obsessed bloggers of the world only to read about a self-obsessed blogger blabbering about her offspring in between a questionable transcript of an interview I’m not even sure you absorbed.

  22. Great interview, but leave the personal crap at home!

    Plus:
    Yep, that’s pretty typical of billioniare oprah. She can
    be so smug it makes you yeht!

  23. I’m very much with Jonathan as well. I was looking forward to a synopsis of the McCarthy interview that I sadly missed. What I found was incredibly self-indulgent and in poor taste. This is horrible writing.

  24. I hate most blogs but disagree with Jonathan and the cranks. I found Jenny Shank’s personal account of the interview to be funny & enjoyable. I mean, come on, McCarthy + Oprah is an absurdity and if you wanted to find a serious, academic account, well, you lose. PS “No Country for Old Men” was not my favorite of his novels, by far, but I love the Coen’s film. Only on very rare occasions is a film better than a novel. In this one, the faces and places are even more effective than McCarthy’s words, and bring his story vividly to life (and death).

  25. Thank you for the interview. I never watch Oprah so I would have missed it completely. Whenever I throw crackers on the floor, my dogs would keep quiet and pick them up to eat them. For those who want to know more about Cormac McCarthy’s writing, read some of his earlier works, but be prepared to invest some time to do so. They are a bit difficult because they are so dark. I disagree with Oprah’s comment about The Road being a love story in any form. I wouldn’t want to imagine my son ever having to go through the journey like what “boy” had to go through.