Splendors and Miseries of Being an Author/Bookseller
by Larry McMurtry (Booked Up)
Can I be heard? In the farthest reaches of the hall? Edmund Wilson has a famous grumpy essay called "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed"; the source of his grumpiness was the uneasy knowledge that, as a prolific author, he had written some things that were valuable and some things that were trivial: he was not happy to have the bibliographers remind him of the trivia.
A like unhappiness drove H.L. Mencken to destroy every copy of Ventures into Verse that fell into his hand.
I confess to a similar unease about my own long career as an author - bookseller. Where will the collecting part stop? Just yesterday, for example, I had the opportunity to franchise a string of Lonesome Dove steakhouses - if I do it, does this mean that the menus will soon be appearing in catalogues from Serendipity?
My beginnings as a bookseller go back some thirty-five years, to the fall of 1960, when I arrived in San Francisco to take a Stegner fellowship at Stanford. Very soon I fell in with two young bookscouts, one of them the poet David Meltzer, who was at that time working for the Discovery Bookshop, in North Beach. The other was a carpenter named Miles Kaprilow, who had the good fortune to be the son-in-law of Ike Brussel, last of the great scouts. I went around with Miles and David for awhile, learning the rudiments of scouting, at a time when there were workingmen's bookshops, in Oakland and along Market Street where all the books were a dime.
I had written one novel at the time, Horseman, Pass By - it had not occurred to me that I might someday be collected, or that this might complicate my relations with the book trade that I was just beginning to get to know.
There aren't a great many author-booksellers, or bookseller-authors. Arthur Freeman of Quaritch has been and remains a poet as well as a bookseller; he's also written an enjoyable biblio-mystery. The late Arthur Cohen was a good novelist and also a good bookseller; so far, at least, his book catalogues are more heavily collected than his novels. I've been told that several of his catalogues were done by Paul Auster, so Auster collectors will need them, as well as Cohen collectors.
But few working booksellers are collected as heavily as I am, or as I have been for the past several years. In looking around the fair today I saw at least seventy-five copies of my books for sale; I'm probably better represented here than any other author, living or dead.
It wasn't always thus, at bookfairs. Some of you may remember a Texas bookseller named Harry Sivia, who called himself the Texas Bookman. In the 60's, young and penniless, I often had to sell my nascent libraries; at this early stage I still wrote my name in my books in ink. Harry had the misfortune to buy one of my little libraries, about four hundred books as I recall, and spent the next several years sanding my name out of each volume, finishing his task just about the time my name in a book would have begun to mean something.
My own first book catalogue, issued under the imprimatur of Dust Bowl Books, was mailed in the summer of 1962 and consisted of six author collections which I purchased for the absurdly, almost surrealistically low price of $100 apiece: that was Faulkner, Hemingway, Lewis, Cather, E.A. Robinson and one I can't remember. I bought them from the Argonaut Bookshop in San Francisco, sold all six of them, and, from then on, have considered myself in some sense a bookseller. For a time in the sixties I ran Grace David's bookshop in Houston; then, in 1971, with my partner Marcia Carter, opened Booked Up, in Washington, D.C. We came in about the same time Loudermilk's closed, and we're still going.
The first inkling I had that I might be a collected author, and that this might create a certain fission in my relations with the book trade, and even with my bookscout friends, occurred when David Meltzer, who I liked very much and whom I still like very much, sold 120 of my letters to the Gotham Bookmart. I understand that David is a starving poet with a family, who frequently needs to sell everything he owns because, on occasion, I've bought everything he owns; but it didn't occur to him to sell me my own letters - I've never quite forgotten the shock of realizing that I was an author who could be sold. And, not just sold by strangers - sold by friends. From then on, my relations with the book trade, and my friendships within the book trade, have been complicated. I understand that my friends in the trade need to sell books to survive, but that doesn't make the situation any less tricky. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked by booksellers to sign books with the caveat that these were their personal copies that would never be sold. Ninety-nine percent of those copies have since been sold, a fact which induces a certain skepticism.
For many years, however, the fact that I was collected was not a serious problem, though, slowly, it did finally ruin scouting for me. There was a period in 1971, right after the release of The Last Pictureshow as a film, when I could scarcely go into a bookshop across the length and breadth of the land without being asked to sign multiple copies of my books. No longer could I simply wander into a bookstore and see what I could find. In time I started giving some bookstores a pass. I would like to have scouted those bookshops, but I was certain that the minute I walked in there would be two or three boxes of books to be signed; so I started balking.
Still, I continued as a bookseller and have had mostly pleasant relations with the book trade, though always with an edge of nervousness. I recall an early bookfair in Los Angeles, when Joseph the Provider offered for sale a group of my letters to the late Jim Roman, the modern first edition dealer from Fort Lauderdale. These were boring letters, lists of books for sale mostly, but they had been skillfully catalogued to exploit a single, brief reference to marital difficulties. My partner, Marcia Carter, was a little ticked by this, so ticked in fact that Joe the Pro eventually threw up their hands and gave me the letters. Oddly enough, that wheel has now come full circle: a few months ago my old friend Grace David offered Joseph the Provider my correspondence with her; forty-three letters written at various times in my life. Joseph the Provider, in this case very considerately, offered the letters to me. I didn't buy them. I had ceased to care by this time and suggested that they sell them to the University of Houston, which they promptly did.
There are few groups of my letters that I would care to buy now, though my letters, like my books, are parts of me; it will always seem slightly weird to see them in trade. I've accepted that I will be traded in, and that fact will remain a ripple, if not a determinative ripple, in my relations with friends in the trade who sell modern first editions. You, as booksellers, can't expect to sell parts of a friend without this fact having some weight in the friendship.
I am myself a bookseller who knows lots of authors - more than a hundred, I imagine, including some very famous ones. I have most of their books in my library, but not one of those books is signed. It would never occur to me to ask a friend who's an author to sign a book. That would put an element into the friendship which would just be odd.
Another complication which came up some years ago affected to some extent my relations with this organization. These difficulties, I hope, are now mended - I'm not a person to hold grudges - and neither, apparently, is the ABAA, else I wouldn't be speaking to you tonight. This complication resulted from the ever increasing traffic in screenplays.
I've been an active screenwriter since 1962, and have authored or co-authored some 37 scripts. I've written scripts for every single existing Hollywood studio, as well as for several, such as the short-lived Hollywood Zoetrope, which no longer exist. I have essentially an employee's orientation toward scripts; that is, the firm conviction that the scripts I write don't belong to me. I once had to wait at Steven Spielberg's front office while a copy of Alice Walker's script for The Color Purple, which I had been asked to rewrite, was stamped on the verso and recto of every page: "Property of Amblin Entertainment." Very clearly, studios consider scripts their physical property, and not the property of anyone else, including the writers who wrote them.
I expect I was influenced in the matter of scripts by the fact that I once bought a lot of books from Larry Edmund's Bookshop in Hollywood. Indeed, around 1965 I bought their entire general stock, since which they have been specialists in film literature. At that time Larry Edmund's Bookshop probably had the greatest archive of movie scripts that any American bookshop has ever had. This fact at some point got reported, and Milt Luboviski, the owner, had to give the whole archive to a university in order to extricate himself from legal difficulties. In today's terms he probably lost a million dollars worth of scripts.
That debacle lingered in my mind and in time led me to caution booksellers about selling movie scripts. I well understand that there's a discrepancy here between law and custom. Of course tens of thousands of scripts are produced in Hollywood every year, most of which are given to the worker bees of the movie industry. They're given to set designers, budget people, composers, casting agents, cameramen, etc. Thousands go into agencies, to be given to actors or directors. Obviously all these scripts do not stay in the hands of the people they are given to. Actors who aren't working and need money take them down to the Collector's Bookshop and sell them. The studios can't possibly police this, though in their minds the scripts remain their property, often for a very long time. Many scripts have a half-life stretching into decades. It took seventeen years to get The Unforgiven made, remember; even Forrest Gump required twelve.
Quite a number of years ago, in Washington, I got a call from a man whose name I thought was Kane, K-A-N-E. Mr. Kane lived in College Park, Maryland, and he had some books to sell. I went and discovered a grouchy old man watching the World Series on what was probably the world's oldest functioning TV set. He sat there in his undershirt, not happy to have been interrupted by a bookseller. There were, I soon discovered, virtually no books in his house, only biographical dictionaries and many, many editions of Who's Who. There was no fiction at all, not a single book. I was about to leave, empty-handed, when I saw some boxes under his dining room table. I asked if I could look through them - they proved to be mostly scripts or manuscripts by a man whose name was not spelled with a K at all. The old man was James M. Cain. Some of the scripts in the boxes went back forty years. I asked him if he would consider selling the archive, and he said he would, but before the deal was struck he went through the scripts carefully. "This one's O.K.," he would say. "This one got made. Can't sell you this one, though - it belongs to Warner Brothers." I bought the archive, which continued to trickle through the capillaries of the book trade for several years; but not before Mr. Cain had pulled out those scripts he felt were not his to sell, though some of them had been done for executives who were long since dead.
What harm can this traffic in scripts do, you might ask, legitimately. Consider it in book trade terms. Suppose you had a copy of Edith Wharton's first book; that great, impossible rarity, and you have two equally powerful collectors, both of whom want it. The one you don't offer it to is almost certain to be alienated.
Some years ago, for example, I wrote with Leslie Silko a script for Goldie Hawn called Honky-Tonk Sue, adapted from Bob Boise Bell's comic strip of the same name. Honky Tonk Sue is a feminist cowgirl who goes around beating up male chauvinist pigs in country and western bars; she also involves herself in politically correct social issues - as does Goldie Hawn. In our story a little tribe of Indians living in the Grand Canyon is about to be wiped out by a dam project. To protest this indignity, Honky Tonk Sue and her supporters occupy Lake Havasu, Arizona. It would have probably made a funny movie, but Goldie Hawn has yet to do it.
Dolly Parton, meanwhile, got wind of the project and wanted it for herself. This was just after Nine to Five, when Dolly Parton briefly had some power as a movie star. It was the dilemma of the two collectors again. I sat on the script, and so did Goldie, but if a stray copy had turned up in a bookseller's catalogue and one of Dolly's minions had noticed it, a lot of trouble would likely have ensued.
It's not, really, that trouble is likely from the sale of scripts - it's that it's big trouble if it does arrive, as the Larry Edmund's Bookshop found out.
In my own career, Lonesome Dove was the watershed, after which things began to get away from me. I think of Lonesome Dove as analogous to the Arthurian legend. It's a work which overflowed its channel. There is now a spurious sequel, "Return to Lonesome Dove", as well as Lonesome Dove: The Series, filmed in Canada and now in its third season. Ahead lie steakhouses, theme parks, and living room sets, I suppose.
At around the time of Lonesome Dove I decided that the best way to deal with the fact that I was collected - heavily collected - was to create bibliographical enigmas, puzzles, and mazes, in which booksellers can wander for the rest of their lives, if they choose. In 1985 I published two things privately, more or less to see how long it would take the book trade to come up with them. Here again, I was confounded: the one I thought would probably never be found has turned up in the trade, in one copy. This is the little essay I did as a memorial to Diane Keaton's grandmother, Grammy Hall. It's called A Walk in Pasadena with Di-Annie and Mary Alice, and was published in an edition of fifty copies, some of which have the photograph of Grammy Hall, and some of which don't.
The other piece of writing I slipped by the book trade in 1985, expecting it would be catalogued within a year or two, since there are hundreds of copies in existence, has yet to turn up in the trade at all.
In early 1985 President Reagan hosted the Prince and Princess of Wales at the White House - the Washington social event of the 1980's. Eighty people were invited, among them me. For years I was puzzled as to how I got that invitation, and I finally found out. I was confused with a colleague, the Texas novelist Max Crawford. One of the President's men gave the President two books, Lonesome Dove and Max Crawford's novel Lords of the Plain. Evidently they couldn't find Max, who lives in a tiny village in western France, so they invited me. I went, and had quite an evening.
My bookshop is only fifteen blocks from the White House - I could easily have walked, but was a little dubious. What if I got mugged in my tux? Washington is not overly safe. So I took a taxi. The embassies in D.C., not knowing what to do with the incoming flood of their nationals, often hand them taxi licenses on the day they arrive. I got in a taxi with an Afghani driver who hadn't the slightest notion of where the White House was; fortunately it was dead ahead, down Pennsylvania Avenue. When we got there there were thousands of people in the street, all hoping to see the Princess of Wales. At that point the taxi driver, realizing that this was an occasion of great significance, got into the spirit of the thing. Unhappily for me the Prince's motorcade swept by just at this point. "There he goes!" my taxi-driver said, trying to fling himself into the motorcade. Fearing an international incident, I jumped out and made my way through the throngs on foot; I soon joined the other seventy-nine celebrities, the most nervous of which was John Travolta, who hid in a restroom throughout much of the dinner. He did emerge to dance magnificently with the Princess, later in the evening. I got sucked into what passed for the art crowd at this occasion, which meant that I was mostly with Carter Brown, Helen Frankenthaler, and Phillipe de Montebello. The art crowd was just the art crowd, but the Prince and the Princess were terrific; both played their roles with flair.
I knew that I was going to have to report on this evening at great length, to all my friends who wanted to know about Charles and Diana, so I went home that night and wrote a little twelve-page summary of highlights, which I called "A Night at the White House." I published this samizdat, xeroxing about thirty copies. In this case samizdat worked extremely well - within ten days the piece had reached Buckingham Palace, prompting a nice note from the Prince's press secretary. Most of the recipients of the thirty initial copies xeroxed ten or fifteen copies; there are probably between 250 and 500 in existence but so far, to my knowledge, not a single copy has turned up in the trade.
I have, of course, continued my little game with the book trade. Since I'm going to be collected, I want to make it interesting, and, also, I want to make it expensive. The true first issue dust-wrapper of Streets of Laredo was done by my goddaughter, Sara Ossana, in an edition of forty copies. That rarity has been sighted but not yet catalogued.
Last year my beloved agent, Irving Lazar, died of kidney failure complicated by gangrene. A man of great style, he had his shoes custom made in Europe, and he wouldn't give them up, even though his feet were turning black. I delivered a eulogy at his funeral in Los Angeles, early in 1994. A fragment of it was published in the Los Angeles Times, and I recently published the whole with Leslie Silko's Flood Plain Press, in an edition of 100 copies, at $1000 each. There are a number of intriguing variants; enough, I hope, to present future collectors and future booksellers with a challenge.
Now if you have any questions I will be happy to answer them.
Q: When your scripts are offered for sale, are these hard prints or are they xeroxes? Obviously, there's no way you can tell.
LMC: It's not impossible, but it's hard. Studios have copying offices which churn these things out, fifty here, a hundred there. Some go to the big agencies, some to budget, some to the production people, so they can figure out how many sets they are going to have to build. Then, usually, nothing happens. The financing melts away. Several years may pass before the project reawakens, if it ever does; then the studio may run off a new batch. This cycle is apt to occur several times in the life of a single script. I have had a script produced after an eighteen year wait, involving numerous drafts and who knows how many xeroxings. It is when the money actually is there, and production guaranteed, that scripts really start evolving. They cease to be vague blueprints and become working documents - revisions may be inserted virtually every day. These will be dated and are usually on varying colors of paper. The clue you would have as to what is a late version of a script is that there will be pages in it of differing colors.
That, of course, still won't very closely approximate the film. Take a look at The Citizen Kane Book; it has an essay by Pauline Kael, the script by Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz, and the cutting continuity - that is, the film that was actually shot, with scene timings, etc. Film historians of the future will have an engrossing time, working from the scripts to the cutting continuities of the films they study.
Q: Have you thought of getting your available scripts published: working with a university press or something?
LMC: Not me. In the 60's, when film schools began to flourish, there was a boom in publishing the scripts of classic movies. I bought forty or fifty of these, and tried to learn from them, but it was impossible. Who knows what versions of the scripts these are, or how they relate to the final film? Woody Allen, for example, is one of the few directors who writes his own movies; the scripts he publishes probably bear a close relation to the film he has made. They would be worth reading. But most of my scripts are just journeyman work, the job of the moment. Few would merit publication. Most of them are in my archive at the University of Houston; they can be studied, if anyone cares to. The rarest of them, I believe, is the script I did of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I did it for two New York lawyers - it's elusive.
Q: Which gives you more pleasure, being a bookseller or being a writer?
LMC: It's a close competition. Fiction writing certainly competes with bookselling, and I've always slightly resented it, for that reason. Even more, it competes with reading; often I'd rather be reading than doing anything else. But I can't make a living reading. I could make a living bookselling, though not as good a one as I can make writing. That could always change. For more than half my life I mainly made my living screenwriting. Fiction yielded very little money. Then, that turned around. For awhile I could get ten times as much for a script as I could for a novel; now it's the other way around.
Q: Was Cadillac Jack inspired by anyone in particular?
LMC: Well, it wasn't inspired by Hal Webber - I'd written it before I met him. That book started with a title, as many of my books have. I was standing on the corner of 31st and M, in Georgetown, one morning, next to two black men. A pimp rolled by in a very classy Cadillac and one of the men said, "Ho, ho, ho, Cadillac Jack." I went back upstairs and started writing the book. I made Jack an antique scout rather than a bookscout because I think antiques are considerably more accessible to the reading public.
Q: As a bookseller, how do you feel about selling your own books?
LMC: I don't, myself, sell them. The managers of two of my stores sell them; I leave it to them. I've long since lost track of my own prices. I tend to think they're all worth $30, although I certainly paid Ken Lopez more than $30 for one this afternoon - it was for my grandson's set. Otherwise, I pass on the whole phenomenon. It's weird enough to have your friends trading in you; to start trading in yourself would be a little too weird.
This article was originally printed in an edition of 750 copies for the ABAA, December, 1995, with typography by Will H. Powers, and is Copyright © 1995 Larry McMurtry. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without the express written permission of the author.