By Morgan Cronin
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2018.
Morgan Cronin, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Lawrence Wright about his book God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (Knopf), which is among the final six selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2019 NBCC Awards.
With wit and the biting insight of a native, God Save Texas is a journey through the most controversial state in America. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower explores the history, culture, and politics of Texas. God Save Texas is an ongoing argument with the state by one who loves it but also worries about the direction in which it is headed. It is a meditation about politics, community, commitment, and legacy. God Save Texas is a profound portrait of a state that not only reflects America as it is, but as it may become.
Morgan Cronin (MC): I want to talk about your book, God Save Texas. I am from Houston, so reading this was very nostalgic. It was cool to go through a lot of what you talk about as far as the political landscape, the culture, and what makes Texas, Texas. I’ve heard you say in other interviews that you spent a lot of time writing about Texas and that you didn’t want to be known as a regional writer. What made you go back to writing about Texas, specifically for this book?
Larry Wright (LW): Well, to begin with, my editor at the New Yorker asked me to explain Texas. It’s puzzling to a lot of my colleagues at the magazine why I live in Texas, and I’ve wondered about it myself.
Larry and Morgan Laugh
LW: Texas is a rich subject and when I left Texas Monthly, I thought, I will never write about Texas again. I didn’t want to be a regional writer and I had reasons since I stopped writing for Texas Monthly, but a lot of things about Texas had changed over that time and I wanted to try and understand it in a way that I hadn’t in the past.
MC: Absolutely, and you explore that in the book, which has been described as a road-trip, a travelogue, a memoir, an apologia, an indictment— how would you describe God Save Texas?
LW: Well, you know all of those things figure into it in some ways. Although it was maybe one of the most fun books I have ever written, it was also one of the most difficult in a technical sense because—as you observe—it moves around through a lot of different venues. It’s a travelogue, it’s a memoir, it’s a history, it’s a critique, and maybe it’s an indictment. All those things are features of it, but in order for it all to come together, the unifying element has to be the voice. So as a writer, I was very cautious about trying to get the voice right. And also, to be able to situate in the mind of the reader who is talking to me? Is it an offender? Is it an attacker? Is it a native? Is it an outsider? The thing is, it’s all of those things, but you have to be able to let the reader know whose voice is speaking, and that was the trickiest part, trying to keep the tone all the way through.
MC: The tone is very consistent throughout the book, how did you technically achieve that?
LW: One thing is, I had to let the reader know that I care, that I really care very deeply about the state. I also had to let the reader know that I get it. I get why people hate Texas. I get why they laugh at us. I understand all of that, because I’ve been as much an outsider, as an insider. I can represent the Texas Native, the defender, and the outsider who thinks that Texas is a dangerous entity that is leading the country in a bad direction.
MC: That is a big theme throughout the book. I wanted to talk to you about that. You mention how a billionaire in New York, who is now sitting in the oval office, has become the personification, or I guess the face of Texas without having direct ties to the state. What do you attribute to that?
LW: Well, he corresponds to the stereotype of Texas. Which is that we’re loud, we’re boastful. We care deeply about money. We’re careless with the truth, and we’re careless with our private lives. All of those things are stereotypes of Texas, but they are so fully embodied by Donald Trump. If he had on a cowboy hat, rather than a trucker hat, we’d never hear the end of it.
LW: Just imagine what it would be like. You know the Texas-hating that would be going down right now would be almost impossible to bear, but who is holding New York responsible? I don’t hear a lot of that.
MC: No. Exactly. And I don’t think he would have gotten elected if he wore a cowboy hat.
LW: Probably not.
MC: Going back to the technical and craft aspect of this book, you are so engrained in the different places. I know that you are from Dallas, and live in Austin now, but the parts about Houston felt so visceral, and then you mention San Antonio. How did you get such a full perspective of these cities without living there yourself?
LW: I have lived in Texas a long time, and I’ve traveled a great deal in Texas, so I had a familiarity, but in order to write about it, I had to go back and visit places that I’d been, and also explore parts of Texas that I’d never really gotten acquainted with, such as the oil business. Texas is of course the primary oil producer in the country and because of fracking—like it or hate it— it has had an amazing effect on world politics. I, for one, am not sorry to see the oil petrolarchies bleed a little bit from the money that would otherwise have gone into terrorism. This has been a difficult period where countries that are intensely anti-American and anti-western have had this lock on a good portion of the oil resources and I think that’s permanently changed. America now exports oil. It’s the world’s leading oil producer and all of that is because of fracking in Texas. It’s a bridge to a cleaner oil future. We also have more wind power than any other state by a considerable margin. It’s fascinating if you drive through the permian basin, which is the repository of all these great oil and gas reserves, you drive by what they call the Christmas trees, which are the gas pumps. You also see windmills all over the place. I think people condemn the use of fracking, and I totally understand that it’s a problem with greenhouse gases, but there is a pipeline that goes from Houston to New Jersey, which is why you have your lights on right now. The economy wouldn’t work very well without all that energy. It has allowed us to create a vibrant economy and we do need to change to become more renewable oriented, but having access to all this energy is a good thing.
MC: In your book you mention the three levels of culture. Do you want to describe what those are a little bit, and would you consider this book to be your own third level?
LW: Laughing—Well that’s very flattering of you.I don’t know how this paradigm works for other states and other entities, but it seems to work for me, and Texas, that there are these three levels of culture. Everybody knows level one Texas culture, which is BBQ, boots, hats, big belt buckles, blue bonnet paintings, the accent, the swagger; all of these things, everybody the world over knows that that’s Texas, and we can say that’s what level one is.
Level two is when money arrives and people start to look around at other cultures to see what they have, and what did they do with their money? I came on the scene in Texas about the time that level two started. Stanley Marcus opened Neiman Marcus in Dallas and started showing people what to do with money. Along with that: education, culture, the arts, vacationing in Europe, buying paintings, starting art museums, ballet companies, and operas. All of those arose, for the most part, in my lifetime in Texas. The cities began building; they were using, mainly, notable architects from somewhere else. They achieved, to my way of thinking, a kind of high level of sameness all over the country. It’s like a franchise city, and I prefer to have more of a native touch to it. But that’s level two, it’s a denial of level one. Ross Perot used to call it “world class,” we want something “world class.” That’s a real level two phrase. We have these great cities that could be substituted, in many respects, for great cities elsewhere.
Level three is when you’ve gone through all of that. You’ve been educated, you’ve traveled, and you understand how the world works. You’ve seen what other cultures have to offer, and then you return to Texas with an eye toward what is unique and valuable about our own culture. Then you apply all that knowledge, and learning, and artistry to making Texas more Texan. I think there are a lot of Texas artists who are working at that level three: Richard Linklater when he did Boyhood, that’s a classic example to me of a real Texas piece of art. It’s pure Texas, but it’s also adventurist and artistic on a high, high level. I thought the Beyoncé Lemonade album was another thing where she goes back and examines her roots and pulls it up into her sphere. She declares her own Texaness in there. I think Alvin Ailey’s Revelations dance is one of the greatest ballets ever, and it came from this little fly-spec town called Rogers; and the Baptist church and that choreography is all about growing up in that little church in central Texas. Each of these artists comes back to what they understand about the place that they grew up in, and they make a contribution to the state that it is now.
MC: You don’t think your book is doing that?
LW: Well, I aspire to. I don’t come to think of it that way.
MC: I would say so!
LW: Well, thank you! I did think when I was a young writer, there wasn’t much in the way of Texas literature, and I wrote a memoir called In The New World. It was about growing up in Dallas during the Kennedy assassination. When I wrote that book, there was scarcely any books about Dallas at all, and you could say pretty much the same thing about Houston. Houston was really notable for its murders. That was about the extent of literature about Houston and Texas itself.
MC: It is interesting to examine Texas literature and how it’s viewed, even in Hollywood, and you mention that in your book. I really enjoy the movie Reality Bites that takes place in Houston. It changed the perception of what it looks like to be Texan. You mention culture a lot: Beyoncé, Richard Linklater, but more than that what I think gives this book a whole overview is the mentioning of the pickup trucks: how one in four cars is a pickup truck. These silly things add to Texas culture. It’s so true and campy, but it is taking that and getting away from it to understand when you return.
LW: You can’t see it clearly until you’ve gone away. When you’re from Texas, everybody has a perception about what Texas is like.
MC: I remember people asking if I rode horses to school when I would tell them I’m from Texas. I was like absolutely not. That’s ridiculous.
LW: It is, but you know the mythology is still in people’s minds. Even though those movies aren’t being made anymore.
MC: So now that this book has been published, do you think your editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, has an understanding of Texas?
LW: Oh, I think so! He loves Austin, so I think he was very pleased. They’ve excerpted two parts of it.
MC: Closing out, I love that quip about Texas politicians using Dancing with the Stars as a redemption tour, and then pondering if Ted Cruz can dance. I thought that was fantastic. We’ll see. They have another season that they are looking to cast.
LW: Laughing—Well that would be perfect.
Lawrence Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of nine previous books of nonfiction, including In the New World, The Looming Tower, Going Clear, Thirteen Days in September, and The Terror Years, and one novel God’s Favorite. His books have received many prizes and honors, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower (now a series on Hulu). He is also a playwright and screenwriter. He is a longtime resident of Austin, Texas.
Morgan Cronin is an MFA creative writing candidate at The New School, studying creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in Houston Press, The Culture Trip, ArtHouston Magazine and elsewhere. She lives in New York City.