On the Road with with Cormac McCarthy

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 11.18.42I 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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 15.01.04In 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.

 

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