first met Cormac McCarthy in the middle of a replica Stonehenge,
built by a Sikh property tycoon – only in America of course!
We were there to celebrate the wedding of Dr Roger Payne –
the brilliant whale scientist who had decoded, in the 1960’s,
how whales communicate by singing across oceans. Roger and I had
spent the last two years filming the Emmy award winning documentary
“In the Company of Whales”, and shared many life changing
adventures along the way.
I had arrived late for the weekend celebration in the last available
hire vehicle that Avis had – a Lincoln town car. It was the
kind of lascivious five-meter-long, gas guzzling leviathan, that
drove Detroit to bankruptcy.
Cormac was bemused by the surroundings – an unassuming man
in his late fifties. Despite a certain amount of success in the
States, he was a writer most of us had not heard of at that time.
He told me he preferred the company of scientists to writers –
that they were more rational – usually atheist and more connected
to the realties of America today.
On the Sunday night, with the skies darkening and an imminent storm
approaching, I offered him a lift back to Boston Airport. After
all, I had the space. We wound our way down towards Woodstock, the
Lincoln lurching around with the near 80 mile winds.
Cormac described his life as a writer – he told me that to
date he had never sold more than 5000 copies in hardback, that there
were times when he could not afford the paper for his old Olivetti
typewriter. He survived on foundation money, not critical acclaim
or popular success.
Alcoholism, he thought was part and parcel of that existence –
most writers he said, battled with it. One of his novels had been
a semi-autobiographical account of living on the margins in Tennessee
– drunk and in despair – the experience of many Americans.
We talked about the selfishness of American society and how it seemed
to create such unequal divides. He described “Blood Meridian”
(later to become one of my favourite books of all time) and how
he had tried to mirror the current American loss of community values
and self-interested individualism, with the conquering of the great
lands to the West.
Had that brutal history of murdering the Indians, fostered the egotism
pervading contemporary America?
We drove in the dark looking forward, our conversation intensified
by the lightning strikes and driving rain. There was a poetic cinematography
to his speech – his evocation was sparse. His chiseled face
was lit by the warm glow from the dash and odd flares of sodium.
We stopped at a gas station on the outskirts of Woodstock, its sign
ominously flapping back and forth in the wind. The owner who was
shutting up, warned us not to continue. Had we not heard about it?
Everyone knew. Hurricane Andrew – the biggest storm to ever
to hit the US.
We carried on, battling our way uncertainly down deserted roads.
The odd crazy (like us), still out and about. He was fascinated
by the art of documentary filming – why verite filming was
a hard skill – Did you have to take risks and go for it? Keep
things simple? Was fiction any different?
He talked about his love of the natural world and how it could so
easily be permanently desecrated. Climate Change was surely a reality,
especially on a night like this? For him, there was a Darwinist
brutality to the human existence – one reason he did not favour
the magical surrealism of South American writing.
Before dawn, blocked by a tree in front of us and a land slide behind,
we gave up. There seemed little point trying to carry on.
In the morning the storm was passing. We walked across some fields
– a mile or so to a small diner and shared a survivor’s
breakfast – coffee, bacon, eggs and grits.
Manoeuvering around the wreckage of the hurricane, we finally made
it to Logan airport. Cormac headed to Texas and I to London.
He gave me his number and address (somewhere in El Paso) and said
‘I should look him up’.
I reached London and worked my way through his books and watched
as “All the Pretty Horses” become a sensation.
by Tony Miller