Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cormac McCarthy, Oprah, etc.

Only once have I wanted to DVR Oprah's show and -- darn it! -- I forgot to do it. I really wanted to catch her interview with the notoriously press-shy author Cormac McCarthy, whose beautifully written if flawed The Road certainly has to count as one of the best books of the '00s.

Regarding the Oprah interview -- I came across this blog post on the topic, penned by Chicago Tribune reporter Maureen Ryan. In a later post, I'll try to link to video from the interview. It's most likely on YouTube, right?

Originally posted: June 5, 2007
Oprah interviews reclusive author Cormac McCarthy
The long-awaited conversation between reclusive writer Cormac McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey - taped earlier in the library of “his home away from home,” the Santa Fe Institute, the scientific think tank in El Paso - took place Tuesday morning during the middle 20-minute segment on Winfrey’s show.

Winfrey surprised many and shocked some in March when she selected McCarthy’s novel “The Road” (2006), a bleak, brooding look at an ecologically ravaged future world, for her book club.

Tribune television critic Maureen Ryan and staff writer Patrick T. Reardon, who covers publishing and literary issues for the newspaper, exchanged thoughts by e-mail during and after the taped segment:

Mo Ryan: So what do you think, Pat? Would you want “The Road” as a Father’s Day present? I mean, all credit to Oprah for trying to get us to read serious literary fiction and recommending the novel as Father's Day gift, but I think there are lots of dads out there who would rather get power tools.

Patrick T. Reardon: I’ve read it, and it’s a really, really, really grim vision of fatherhood.

MR: For a guy who doesn’t do a lot of press - scratch that, for a guy who has only done two other interviews in his life - McCarthy doesn’t seem all that uncomfortable. He’s certainly not glib, but does he seem fairly relaxed to you?

Patrick T. Reardon: I’m put off by all his mumbling. And I have the sense that Oprah is, too. Did you notice her thrill to announce that she’d made him blush [when she asked if “The Road” was “a love story” to his eight-year-old son]?

MR: She seems really fascinated by the idea that he was poor. Really poor. Too poor to buy toothpaste, even. Why is this such a big deal? I mean, did anyone think that semi-obscure literary authors (which is what McCarthy was for most of his life) are wealthy?

Yeah, she was pretty happy to make him blush. I think overall her energy level is a lot higher than his. I think she’s more used to celebrities who know how to do this - how to be energetic for an interview.

PTR: I felt sorry for Oprah by the end of the segment. She was working hard trying to get him to engage - to give more than a sentence or two in answer to any question, to open up. But he wouldn’t. And when they finished, when he said he really doesn’t care if millions of people read his book or not, Oprah was just astonished.

MR: What do you think of her next book club choice, “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides?

PTR: I’ve heard from people that “Middlesex” is a good book. Although Oprah tiptoed around this, “Middlesex” is about an hermaphrodite. That seems like a much more Oprah-like subject than “The Road.”

I read “The Road” after Oprah selected it, and thought that the reason she did was that, despite the cannibalism and rape and murder and fear throughout the story, there is an emotional upturn at the end, a sort of a happy ending. Certainly a lot happier than all the pages that lead up to it.

I was really surprised, by the way, at how Oprah shoe-horned this into a 20-minute segment of the show, between Michael Moore and Bono. It seemed that she was getting back at McCarthy for being too passive in the interview. I’m sure she didn’t expect him to jump on a couch, but he took understatement to a whole new level.

MR: I was also really surprised that the McCarthy segment was only about 20 minutes long. If she sat down with him for an hour, as she said, why didn’t we see more of that (though I guess there are more clips of the interview online)? I’ve called Oprah’s PR people to double check something - it’s my impression that in the past, Oprah’s book club episodes dealt with the book she’s chosen for the entire hour. That was the case with Elie Wiesel’s “Night” and, I believe, with Sidney Poitier’s memoir. Maybe the McCarthy segment was only 20 minutes long because he wouldn’t sit down with people who’ve read his book to talk about it or come to the studio and film segments there, etc. (UPDATE: A Harpo spokesperson said that the lengths of the book-club segments vary.)

I admire Oprah for trying to take on such a serious novelist, but in the end, I think it was a mismatch. McCarthy cares nothing for fame, money or knowing bold-face names. And though she talks about other topics on her show as well, those things are Oprah’s stock in trade. Fame, glamor, wealth, beauty - many of her guests are living examples of how dominant those attributes are in our society. McCarthy couldn’t care less about such things.

I agree “Middlesex” might go over better with her audience. Possibly. Maybe this is crass of me, but a story on the life of a hermaphrodite seems far more appealing to me than a book about a bleak, lifeless landscape, even if the McCarthy novel has semi-happy ending.

PTR: I don’t want to give you the wrong impression about “The Road.” I really liked it although I thought that it’s somewhat hopeful ending didn’t match the tone and spirit of the rest of the book. Even better to my mind is McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” which, on the surface, is about a serial killer and the sheriff whose path he crosses but which, really, is about how flawed and small even a decent man (or woman) is.

Those two books, with their emphasis on how decency and good intentions are tiny things in comparison to the heavy weight of evil and greed, are the antithesis of the message that Oprah is known for - a message of resurrection, self-help and fulfillment.

MR: And I don’t want to give the wrong impression about what I like to read - I do read “serious” novels, even ones with dark themes. But I agree with you - Oprah’s known for her messages of self-empowerment. That doesn’t seem to be a concept that McCarthy is particularly interested in.

She really responded to the idea that this book came from his love for his son - that’s definitely Oprah territory. But so much of what McCarthy ended up saying was sort of banal - we should appreciate what we have, having children “wrenches you out of your nap,” and so forth. And she was so astonished that he didn’t care about money or book sales. “You are a different kind of author!” she said. Yeah, possibly too different for Oprah to really connect with.

PTR: Can you imagine this guy, sitting there in Santa Fe, watching the Oprah road show appear at the door of this library where he hangs out? He knew they were coming, of course, but the clash of cultures must have been jarring. All the equipment, all the busy-ness, all the hoo-hah.

Here’s Oprah who has certainly worked hard and long to make a very lot of money and connect with a very lot of people, and here’s McCarthy who tells her his “number one priority” was to avoid having a 9-to-5 job and who tells her he doesn’t care if a million people read his books - and know him as a celebrity.

She must have seemed to McCarthy as a visitor from Mars, and he must have seemed to her like some exotic species of one of those reptiles that take on the coloration of what’s ever around them.

MR: Yeah, it seemed like Oprah was waiting for McCarthy to be excited that she was there. He seemed the opposite of excited - he seemed as though he couldn’t wait for the interview to be over.

And, truth be told, what did we learn about him? Not much. In that regard, the interview was just like most of Oprah’s chats with celebrities promoting their latest vehicle. Nothing much of substance was said, unless you count McCarthy’s ruminations on how not to work for a living. (Ever get the impression that his three wives must have done a lot of the heavy lifting around the McCarthy household?)

PTR: I wonder why McCarthy agreed to do the show. Of course, there are the hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties that he’ll be getting from the sales of the book to the Oprah faithful. And maybe that’s the answer. He hasn’t minded living a live of poverty, but, now at age 73 with a young son and his latest wife, he may be thinking that he could soon go off on that final road himself and maybe he wants to leave them with some dough.

Or maybe the answer is that he wanted to see this other world of celebrity, luxury, money, pizazz close up. Maybe he was just curious.

Or maybe - this is a feeling I can’t shake - he wanted to pit himself against that celebrity culture by entering the ring with the Mother of All Celebrity. If so, my sense is he won the match - hands down.

MR: Yeah, in a sense, you’re right, he did win this round. He stayed himself, unswayed by celebrity and glamor. You get the sense that if he was invited to be on the cover of Vanity Fair with Oprah or whoever, he’d go fishing with his son instead, or perhaps go chat about particle physics with one of his scientist friends.

Good for him that he’s getting a big chunk of dough out of this. I’m sure his family can use it, and it’ll also buy a LOT of toothpaste.,

No comments: