DALLAS — Not quite five years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry greeted the arrival of his novel Rhino Ranch by saying it would be his last, his fiction-writing finale. But McMurtry released his 46th book this month. It, too, is a novel, titled The Last Kind Words Saloon.
So what changed?
"Oh, I don't know," the 77-year-old icon said by phone from his bookstore in his native Archer City, Texas. "You never know about these things.
"The title is ripped off from a very legendary blues song called the Last Kind Words Blues. There was just a piece in The New York Times Magazine about that record, that song" on April 13, he said. "It's just legendary. There were only two copies of it for a long time. It was recorded in Wisconsin. I liked the title. So, I decided to see if I could make something with it, and I did. It was just an accident. That's what inspired it."
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The son and grandson of cattlemen, McMurtry returns in The Last Kind Words Saloon to familiar turf — the Old West, in a story about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral. Kirkus Reviews describes it as "a place full of tough outlaws and tougher Comanches and, refreshingly, a place where the women are just as strong as the men and just as involved in the story."
The late Jay Milner, a fellow Texas author who, like McMurtry, published his debut novel in 1961, often told his students at Southern Methodist University that McMurtry wrote better about women than any contemporary male writer he knew. McMurtry's books sizzle with compelling female characters, from Patsy Carpenter in Moving On to Jill Peel in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers to Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment.
McMurtry has heard the praise before but says, "I don't think it's that hard to do. I mean, look at Anna Karenina. (Leo) Tolstoy was not a woman, but he wrote some of the best books involving women. You just have to have a little imagination."
As it turns out, McMurtry says he soon will write a book about his life with females, titled 62 Women.
He lives with three at his primary home in Tucson, Ariz.: his wife of three years, the former Norma Faye Kesey, widow of celebrated author Ken Kesey; his writing partner Diana Ossana — with whom he won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain — and Ossana's niece. "I have a lot of women in my life at the bookstore," he says. "And mostly, I have women closely in my life, not as lovers necessarily but as friends and companions, like Susan."
That would be journalist Susan Freudenheim, "a cherished friend" to whom he dedicates The Last Kind Words Saloon.
"Before I first met Larry," Freudenheim said, "I had often heard that he was a curmudgeon. Now, after 30-plus years of friendship, I've seen that side of him only when he gets impatient, and Larry is not a patient man. But even the curmudgeon has a twinkle in his eye. ... I wish I had half his independent spirit, intelligence and drive."
McMurtry says he and Ossana still "do a lot of screenwriting, and it's very useful to be in the same place." Despite winning an Oscar, the two also share frustrations with Hollywood. "We're still working on maybe five or six. You kind of have to weave your way through the obstacle course of Hollywood."
It's not good news on the screenplay they hoped to adapt of Empire of the Summer Moon, the story of Quanah Parker and "the rise and fall of the Comanches," by S.C. Gwynne. "We did a script, but it was not wanted," McMurtry said.
The best news is that McMurtry is feeling better. He had a heart attack "a little more than a year ago, a pretty severe one, and it's taken me about a year to recover. But I think I have. I'm pretty active." He sold half of his 400,000 books and all but one of the storefronts in Archer City that once housed them.
When he looks back on the lasting moments, the sweetest highs in a career that has lasted more than half a century, he concludes, "I've had a good life. I still have a very good life in the writing world and the Hollywood world and the book-selling world. I've been lucky, and that's all I've got to say."