ARCHER CITY — When Archer City native Jim Black years ago read Horseman, Pass By, the first novel by revered Texas author Larry McMurtry, the writing bug bit him — but good.
“I remember finishing that book for the first time and just sitting there, eyes closed in wonder,” Black said. “It was at that moment I knew — that’s what I wanted to do.”
The first of McMurtry’s 46 books provided the inspiration for Black to author six of his own and nine stage plays, he told an audience of over 100 in a literary tribute to the late McMurtry on Saturday night at the historic Royal Theater on the town square in Archer City.
Black and over a dozen other writers from around the country shared memories of and tributes to McMurtry, who died in March at age 84 in Tucson, Arizona. Like Black, several spoke about how McMurtry’s writings, work ethic and love of books had influenced them.
After the two-hour presentation, attendees went outside to watch The Last Picture Show, the Academy Award-winning 1971 film based on McMurtry’s third novel. Under clear, starry skies with a cool wind, the film was projected on the stucco wall of the theater it features prominently.
Based on Archer City, McMurtry’s hometown of about 1,800 residents 140 miles northwest of Dallas, the film will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its release on Oct. 22.
Black recalled his sister urging him in 2001 to send a copy of the book he’d self-published, There’s a River Down in Texas, to McMurtry, whom Black didn’t know. He did, and four days later, Black received a card from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist and bookseller with words of praise, permission to use them — and encouragement that he get busy on a second book. Black added McMurtry’s words to the back cover of his book and his next letter to a publisher, and it wasn’t long before he had a book deal.
“Larry was quick to tell me blurbs don’t sell manuscripts; they have to stand on their own,” Black said. “Still, his words had opened a door that had previously been slammed shut on me 29 times. I had a jar full of rejection slips to show for it.”
Also in attendance Saturday were Charlie McMurtry, Larry’s younger brother by 13 years; their sister Sue Deen, who worked for years in one of the author’s bookstores in town (only one remains open); and their sister Judy. George Getschow, who taught at the University of North Texas’ Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism and became friends with Larry McMurtry while taking his students to Archer City, read excerpts from several essays Charlie McMurtry wrote — about growing up on his parents’ ranch outside town — while studying for his doctorate at UNT. Larry McMurtry graduated from what was then known as North Texas State College in 1958.
Geoff Dyer, an author and critic who’s a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California, talked about his experience reading Lonesome Dove, McMurtry’s 1985 epic of the Old West that became a TV miniseries. Dyer said he didn’t get around to reading it until last year, just before the pandemic lockdown.
“By the halfway point in my journey through the wonders of Lonesome Dove, something unprecedented was happening,” he said. “The words first faded, and then disappeared. I wasn’t even reading a book. There was no book, and no reader. There was just this world, this huge landscape and its magnificently peopled emptiness.”
A group of students from Midway High School, east of Archer City between Henrietta and Jacksboro, joined their principal to relate how McMurtry’s literature can move all ages. Last spring, their English teacher came to Principal Daniel Hutchins to say her students wanted to read the 843-page Lonesome Dove, so Hutchins bought 20 books.
After the class finished reading it, a handful of rodeo students approached him with a proposal: They wanted to do a cattle drive in honor of McMurtry and the book’s characters.
“We always grew up watching Lonesome Dove, and kind of wanted to be like Call and Gus, so we finally got the chance to read the book,” student J. Davis said. “Our teacher said you’ve got two options, you can write a paper or you can have a project, so I looked at Dawson [Estes] and Hadley [Berend] and said, ‘Let’s do a cattle drive.’”
The students pulled it off in rousing fashion, with period dress, plenty of horses, cattle, a couple of covered wagons, roping exhibitions, a hot dog-eating contest and other activities, as about 300 residents showed up.
“It was so fun to watch these young men turn a dream into something, and it was because they were inspired by what they had read and it meant so much to them,” Hutchins said. “The fact that Larry, who’s generations older than these young men, his writing still resonates inside them and will continue to do that with younger generations.”
Carol Flake Chapman, an author and editor who’s worked for newspapers and magazines, met McMurtry when he was a writer-in-residence in the 1960s at Rice University, where she was a student. She spoke reverently about him as a writer and a love interest who later became a lifelong friend.
“I was too young then to realize that having one of the nation’s greatest storytellers as my first boyfriend would have such a deep and unexpected impact on my life,” she said.
McMurtry was known for writing at his own steady pace, getting up early in the morning and writing five pages of narrative, then later in life increasing that to 10. Even after electric typewriters and computers arrived, he never used anything but a manual typewriter.
Stephen Harrigan, author of 12 books, marveled at McMurtry’s prolific writing abilities, noting that it took him just three weeks to write The Last Picture Show and remembering McMurtry saying, “I just spewed them out and never looked back.”
“Few novelists have ever been able to match Larry McMurtry’s work ethic, let alone his talent, popularity and influence,” Harrigan said. “For many Texas writers, particularly those of my generation, working in the shadow of his achievement, his career, was both intimidating and inspiring. We could never hope to measure up but we could dare to press on, because he showed us how.”
W.K. “Kip” Stratton, an author of numerous books and a frequent magazine contributor, remembers an old newspaper boss in his hometown of Guthrie, Okla., recommending he read McMurtry’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers when Stratton was a teenage reporter. “Larry never wrote a better novel,” said Stratton, and the protagonist further crystallized what was already in his blood.
“From the sixth grade onward, I knew I was going to be a writer,” he said. “So Danny Deck’s adventures spoke to me even as a teenage newspaper reporter because I knew that books were my destiny.”
Getschow is editing a collection of essays — some by authors who spoke Saturday — that will be published next year by the University of Texas Press about McMurtry’s life and legacy. It’s called Larry McMurtry: Reflections on a Minor Regional Novelist, which is how he described himself, often wearing a T-shirt with the phrase.