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The Once and Future State: A Writer’s Texas IV

            I grew up watching the kind of Westerns that we saw on these film clips, and they may not all have taken place in Texas, but I thought they did. Actually they were not my choice of viewing material. I had an older brother, and in our house, the law of the West was still fairly much intact, which meant, basically, if you were bigger you were in control of the television set.

            With all of the outrageous stereotypes that you see in those old Westerns, the women are actually fairly interesting. They’re better than anything on the Lucille Ball show. They’re better than Ethel. They’re strong, and they’re independent.

            Steve and I were talking earlier and saying it was in the Westerns and in film noir that you had decent women. I certainly wasn’t watching any film noir, but I was watching these Westerns, and I remember this one scene where there was a woman—a peroxide blonde with about an eighteen-inch waist—and she was standing out in front of her cabin looking like a million bucks, and there were all these bad guys out there. And she drew these two pistols, and she said in this sultry voice, “Do you want to try that again, cowboys?”

            This stunned me, because she was so tough. I felt like there was something in this for me. I have come to realize, and probably had some rudimentary sense at the time, that these were not the greatest words ever written in cinematic or literary history. But when you are a three-foot-high kid with a four-foot-high brother who has control of the television set, they can sound like words to live your life by.

            From that point on, the Westerns began to feel very comfortable to me. You can imagine that reading Jane Austen seemed anticlimactic after growing up on Bonanza. And so I began to find my way into these tougher stories. And what has been difficult for me as a writer has been divorcing myself from those old images, which are very powerful images. I have had to think in a fresh way about everything because those stereotypes were often wrong and wrongly done. I am a dutiful writer. I have wanted to achieve an authenticity and resurrect the ghosts of the real people who lived on the frontier rather than these aberrant derivatives that have been made up by bad novelists and Hollywood.

            And so it has been a challenge to try to grope my way back to the authentic and the real and separate myself from the myths. It’s been interesting watching Steve write his book. He hits on things that I missed. I feel like with each new book that comes out, that writer somehow comes a little closer to the bone than I was able to because more information is out or they’re thinking a little more critically. You read these new things with your eyes shut because you did miss things. I think the trend—and we see it in these movies—has been to try to get back to what is real, and in a sentimental way appreciate some of the myths and then divorce ourselves from the ones that don’t help us.