Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Today it happened. Cormac McCarthy was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. I consider myself lucky to be alive at a moment when this cultural moment was possible.

The interview took place at the Santa Fe Institute, where McCarthy likes to write and converse with scientists. This was a big disappointment. I was hoping it would take place in front of Oprah’s maniacal studio audience. She would have stepped on to the stage and said, “Ladies, for the first time ever on television, please welcome Cormac McCarthyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!!!” And out the taciturn Cormac would have walked, surrounded by shrieking women (he’s in good shape for 73), to sit in a leather chair across from America’s Book Queen. At the end of the confessional chat, Oprah would have advised her devoted guests to look under their seats for a gift, at which point several hundred jubilant, well-groomed forty- and fifty-something women would have reached down and come up holding cattle skulls, the flesh eaten off of them by a particularly ferocious species of South Texas fire ant.

Alas. The interview was taped in Santa Fe, in front of no one, and Oprah made a promise to McCarthy that she wouldn’t take up more than an hour of his time. I work hard to like Winfrey, because let’s be honest -- no matter how vapid, afternoon TV that points people in the direction of Cormac McCarthy is a pretty rare beast. That said, her questions were pretty vapid, but McCarthy being someone who carefully considers his words, his side of things was somewhat nourishing.

For instance, Oprah asked, “Are you passionate about writing?,” which drew a groan from the coworker with whom I was watching.

McCarthy responded, like one of his characters might: “Passion, it sounds like a pretty fancy word. I like what I do. And I suppose some writers have said in print that they hated writing, it was just a chore and a burden. I certainly don’t feel that way about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. You always have this image of the perfect thing, which you can never achieve, but which you never stop trying to achieve.”

When she asked him if he liked spending time with the scientists at the institute, he said: “I don’t know any writers. I would much prefer to hang out with scientists.” (To be 73, as decorated as McCarthy is, and not know any writers is the antithesis of the New York lifestyle, where undecorated 20- and 30-somethings know only other aspiring writers. The beautiful antithesis.)

Oprah later asked him about the lack of female characters in his novels, and McCarthy, echoing Freud, said: “Women are tough. I don’t pretend to understand women. I think men don’t know much about women, and find them very mysterious.”

For those of us with questions about our purpose in life, McCarthy had this to say about his ability to avoid 9-to-5 work in his younger days: “It’s not that I don’t like things. Some things are very nice. ... Life is brief. And to have to spend every day of it doing what somebody else wants you to do is not the way to live it. I don’t have any advice for anybody on how to go about that, except if you’re really dedicated, you can probably do it.”

And lastly, maybe especially relevant for a blog that’s often taken up the question of god:
McCarthy: “Life is pretty damn good, even when it looks bad. We should appreciate it more. We should be grateful. I don’t know who to be grateful to, but you should be thankful for what you have.”

Winfrey: “You haven’t worked out the God thing or not yet?”

McCarthy: “It would depend on what day you ask me. But sometimes it’s good to pray. I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray. You can even be quite doubtful about the whole business.”
I have to admit, that last exchange sent this deeply committed agnostic over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral (it’s only one short block away) for an end-of-the-day moment of silence. It’s true, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was doing or who I was doing it to, but it’s equally true that I found quiet there that wasn’t available in the office, on the street outside, or even inside myself. Not for the first time: Thanks, Cormac.


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