The varieties of a literary career


Steve, over the course of a long literary career you’ve published with houses of all types. I’d like to ask you more about some of your bestsellers and television projects in a minute, but since we’re focusing this week on the fall lists of university presses, I wonder if you’d tell us a bit about your experience with that segment of publishing.


I’ve published three books—all of them essay collections—with the University of Texas Press, and am working on a fourth book for them, which will be an I-hope-not-too-massive history of Texas. The three previous books were made up of material that had been previously published in magazines, but the Texas book is a “real” book, a major project that will be original work from start to finish. It wasn’t my idea to write this book. David Hamrick, the director of UT Press, called me up one day and asked if I might be interested. I immediately said no, thinking of all the ground I would have to cover—roughly five hundred years of Texas history from Cabeza de Vaca to Ted Cruz. But Dave’s enthusiasm and vision were contagious, and even as I was telling him no there was a busy little part of my brain that kept whispering yes.


What would you say is the value of university press publishing, especially in Texas?


The Texas book I’m working on might be regarded as a bit of an outlier to the typical university press publication. It’s meant to be a big, sweeping, highly readable general interest story. What’s great about UT Press, in particular, is the ambition they have to seek out a mainstream while still honoring the great tradition of publishing books that exist for their own sake, for the worthy knowledge they contain.


I’ve noticed that most of the books I’ve been consulting for research on my Texas project were published by university presses. Many are highly specialized—day-by-day accounts of early Spanish expeditions into Texas, social histories of Tejano life in San Antonio, biographies of relatively obscure historical figures, annotated diaries of the Runaway Scrape or life on a West Texas ranch. Without this crucial source material it would be impossible for me to write this book. So I’d say the value of university press publishing is fundamental not just to my work but to scholarship in general.


In your view, how does the role of university presses differ from that of commercial or mainstream publishers?


They’re not always completely different. There are university press titles that could be published by commercial publishers, and vice versa. But in general it seems to me that university presses have a freer hand when it comes to taking on books in which there is self-evident value but no reasonable hope of significant sales. Also, they’re smaller operations, which can be an advantage for a new writer for whom a faraway New York publisher can seem sort of intimidating. (Although I’m lucky in that both my New York publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and the University of Texas Press have the same sort of family feel.)


You’ve written for broadcast as well as print, and produced works of fiction and nonfiction. Among these, is there one achievement you feel more strongly about—or more proud of?


To me, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding in your hands a book that you’ve written. I’ve written a lot of movies, and seen them projected on big screens in front of packed theaters, or broadcast on television to—in one case—23 million viewers in one night. But I’d give all that excitement up for the quiet moment when a padded envelope arrives from my publisher with the first copy of my new book. That said, I’ve found the genres I’ve worked in—magazine articles and essays, screenplays, novels, nonfiction books—to be mutually reinforcing. I’ve learned a lot about story structure from writing movies that has paid dividends in terms of putting together a novel, and from writing articles on every sort of subject I’ve been able to travel quite a bit and learn more about the world than I ever could have as a stay-at-home novelist.


Like many great Texas writers, you began your career as a journalist. How did your start as a magazine writer and editor inform your later writing life?


I didn’t set out to be a journalist. My ambition was always to be a novelist, but I had no idea how to go about it. I was mowing yards for a living right after college when it occurred to me that maybe I could make a little money and get into print somehow if I tried to write a magazine article. I managed somehow to sell a piece to Rolling Stone for $150, which pretty much covered all my living expenses for a month or so back in the long-gone days of affordable Austin. Fortunately for me, this was in the early 1970s when Texas Monthly was just starting up, so I was able to parlay my exaggerated street cred as a Rolling Stone writer into what has turned out to be a four-decade association with Texas Monthly. Being a magazine writer opened up the world to me, opened up my mind, and changed my image of myself. It flipped a switch in my personality from passive to active. I was no longer a meek literary stylist, I was a hard-charging professional information-getter. And because I was always on a deadline, I learned that writing could be sort of deconsecrated and still remain alive and supple. I learned to cut, to rethink, to reshape, to do more reporting after I thought I was through, to tell the story without imposing myself upon it.


How did your break into book publishing come about?


Well, another benefit about being a magazine writer was the fact that I was always finding myself in the middle of situations that could be the raw material for a novel. One of the early stories I did for Texas Monthly was an account of a marine park in Galveston that was capturing dolphins for use in its trained dolphin show. I went along on the hunt and was deeply unsettled by what I saw. I sat on the deck of the capture boat helplessly trying to comfort a young dolphin had just been wrestled out of the water and was lying there tweeting in panic and bewilderment. That experience went directly into my first novel, Aransas, which is about a dolphin trainer in Port Aransas. (And which was recently reissued, by the way, by none other than the University of Texas Press.)


Is there another novel—along the lines of 2011’s Remembering Ben Clayton—in the works right now?


There’s one already done, a novel called A Friend of Mr. Lincoln that will be published in February. It’s about Abraham Lincoln’s early life as a lawyer and state legislator in Springfield, Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s.


Are there other Texas subjects you’ve always wanted to write about?


Almost every day, as I’m writing this Texas history book, I come across stuff that I’d love to turn into a novel. I think, for instance, that there’s a great potential novel about the Talon family, who sailed to Texas with La Salle and endured unbelievable hardships on the Texas coast. I’d love to write novels about the war between the Lipan Apaches and the Comanches, or about the pecan shellers’ strike in San Antonio, or about Santa Anna, or about the early days of oil exploration in boom towns like Ranger. Fortunately I get to write about all that stuff in a non-fiction way, but that doesn’t quite shut down my novelist’s instinct.


Someone who’s researched and described as much of the Lone Star State as you have surely has a favorite Texas meal. Can you clue us in what that might be?


Besides the LuAnn Platter at Luby’s, you mean? Hmmm, let me think. Okay, I’ve got it: fried shrimp, dockside at Port Aransas.


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Praise for Stephen Harrigan’s The Eye of the Mammoth

“This exquisite book will make you see the world anew. It is a delight to wander the world with Stephen Harrigan, experiencing through him the vastness of Big Bend, the mysteries of the mummified Ice Man, the absurdities (and successes!) of his Hollywood career. Harrigan is a man of meticulous observation and wit, and The Eye of the Mammoth abundantly provides readers with those pops of pleasure one gets from the perfectly turned phrase. This book amply illustrates that Stephen Harrigan is a national treasure.” —Emily Yoffe, Slate columnist and author of What the Dog Did


The Eye of the Mammoth is Stephen Harrigan at his best, and Harrigan at his best is one of the great pleasures available to readers of the contemporary essay. Relaxed and conversational in tone, yet always substantive and enlightening, he demonstrates absolute mastery of both the essay form and his fascinating subject matter.” —Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition


Praise for Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo

"Following the examples of novelists like Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry . . . a genuinely moving epic and, paradoxically, yet another unforgettable Alamo.”


“A time and a place, a vanished world in which gallant death and honor still held tangible appeal, while merciless slaughter was more likely the rule, are evoked with great skill.” —New York Times Book Review


“Riveting . . . The strength of Harrigan's extraordinarily authentic novel is in its superior storytelling.” —Washington Post


“In a large, lush book [Harrigan] eloquently and dramatically recasts the myth that was born on March 6th 1836. . . . [His] gift to us is an artful, intelligent novel that makes the hard work of memory terrifically worthwhile." —Boston Globe


“Harrigan retells the story of the Alamo with consummate skill, weaving a wealth of historical detail into a tight, moving human drama. . . .[He] has crafted a compulsively readable historical drama on a grand scale, peopled with highly believable frontier personalities--Mexican as well as American--and suffused with period authenticity.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)


“Harrigan builds slowly and surely toward the story's inevitable, impressive climax, examining in thrilling detail his several protagonists' quests for both freedom and fulfillment. . . . An original work of high distinction indeed: as fine a historical novel as any within recent memory, and far and away Harrigan's best book yet.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred)


Stephen Harrigan was born in Oklahoma City in 1948 and has lived in Texas since the age of five, growing up in Abilene and Corpus Christi. For many years he was a staff writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly, and his articles and essays have appeared in a wide range of other publications as well, including The Atlantic, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, Conde Nast Traveler, Audubon, Travel Holiday, Life, American History, National Geographic, and Slate. Many of his magazine pieces have been collected in the essay collections A Natural State (1988) and Comanche Midnight (1995). Another non-fiction book, Water and Light: A Diver's Journey to a Coral Reef, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1992.


Harrigan is the author of four novels. His first, Aransas, published by Knopf, was listed by the New York Times as a notable book of 1980. Jacob's Well was published by Simon & Schuster in 1984 and cited as one of the year's best books by the Washington Post and the Dallas Morning News. In 2000, Knopf published his novel The Gates of the Alamo, which became a New York Times bestseller and notable book, and which received a number of awards, including the TCU Texas Book Award, the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, and the Spur Award for the Best Novel of the West. In 2006, Knopf published Challenger Park, a novel about a woman astronaut torn between her responsibilities as a mother and her dreams of flying in space. His latest novel, Remember Ben Clayton, was published by Knopf in 2011. Remember Ben Clayton also won the Spur Award, as well as the Jesse H. Jones from the Texas Institute of Letters for the year's best work of fiction. It was one of five audiobook titles nominated for a 2013 Audie award in the literary fiction category.


In 2013, the University of Texas Press published his career-spanning essay collection The Eye of the Mammoth.