Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A gathering of Texas literary giants in Dallas

The Authors LIVE! literary series opened its 2017 season last week with a bang – an appearance by four major Texas writers in a single evening. Lawrence Wright, Stephen Harrigan, S.C. Gwynne and H.W. Brands filled the stage on opening night of the series sponsored by Friends of the SMU Libraries, Friends of the Highland Park Libraries, and Highland Park United Methodist Church, and listeners filled the auditorium in Dallas.

And after major publications in 2016, what are they writing now? And how do they do it?

Brands, author of The General vs. The President among other works, acted as moderator for a discussion by the prolific, bestselling and critically-acclaimed group. But often no moderator was needed as the writers warmed to their conversation, beginning with a discussion of their current works.

Harrigan, the lone fiction writer in the group, confided that he’s turning to from historical novels, such as The Gates of the Alamo and 2016’s A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, to nonfiction in his work in progress, “a complete history of Texas from Cabesa de Vaca to Rick Perry on Dancing with the Stars.”

“Have you consulted Sam (Gwynne)?” Brands asked, in a reference to Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon, a biography of Comanche war chief, Quanah Parker, and more recently, Rebel Yell and The Perfect Pass.

Not that everything has to be about Texas, it turned out.

Wright, fresh off 2016’s The Terror Years: From al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, has just submitted an article to The New Yorker. “My editor asked me to explain Texas,” he said. “He couldn’t imagine why I can live here. I reminded him that I get paid by the work, so I turned in 50,000 words.”

He’s also writing a script for HBO based on the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, facilitated by then President Jimmy Carter. Borrowing a page from Harrigan’s techniques, he imagined a fictional tour given by Carter of the nuclear command center of Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland.

“You don’t have foreign leaders in the command center,” Brands objected.

Maybe not now, but one did in fact happen during a term of President Eisenhower, Wright said.

“When you find something is too good a story, how much leeway do you give it,” Brands asked, perhaps not completely convinced.

“We’re trying to tell a story,” Harrigan said. “When you’re writing a fact-based story, you don’t make things up, but you (can) rearrange things to make it more interesting in the telling.”

Gwynne chimed in. For instance, he said, “I can decide when to begin my story, and when to bring my character on stage. I can move backward or forward in time. It’s not making things up, but it is using fictional techniques” to enhance the narrative.

“Talk about rearranging dates,” Harrigan said, “I start with Big Tex catching on fire” at the 2012 State Fair of Texas.

Big Tex? What happened to Cabeza de Vaca? Is Big Tex a prologue?

“Never call anything a prologue, because people will think they can skip it,” Gwynne said.

“I put a lot of weight into my prologues,” Wright said.

“Prologues are OK. I have forewords, introductions. I misspoke,” Gwynne said, possibly feeling a little left out because he’s the only one of the group who doesn’t regularly breakfast together at Austin’s Sweetish Hill bakery. Or maybe concerned because Wright knows so much about terrorism techniques from his work on The Terror Years and 2006’s The Looming Tower, about the 9/11 attacks.

“There are great writers who do it both ways,” Brands said, coming to the rescue, a role probably developed by years as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “But if you put too much stuff in the way of the readers, you lose them.”

(Later: now that they’ve written dozens of books and hundreds of thousands of words, how do they everything straight? The answers may be surprising. . . )

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