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Cormac McCarthy and Thomas McGuane Write Stories Set in the American West


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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Barbara Klein. And I'm Steve Ember. This week on our program, we tell about two skillful writers who tell stories about people living in the American West. Cormac McCarthy has been writing intense stories about love, life and death for over forty years.

Many of Thomas McGuane’s intelligent and often funny novels take place in the western state of Montana. Join us as we tell about both writers and their books. We will also have a chance to talk with Mr. McGuane.

Cormac McCarthy is considered one of the most important American writers alive today. Critics often compare his writing to the works of the American writers William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Mr. McCarthy writes dark and intense stories that are often set in the southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico. Some stories takes place in Mexico, or in his home state of Tennessee. Mr. McCarthy’s language is very simple and direct. But each carefully chosen word is powerful and sometimes even heartbreaking in its effect on the reader.

Mr. McCarthy is also known for being a very private person who does not talk to the media very often. He has said that a writer should spend his or her time writing books rather than talking about them.

Charles McCarthy, Junior was born in nineteen thirty-three in the state of Rhode Island. His Irish aunts gave him his nickname, Cormac, which is “Charles” in Gaelic. Cormac studied at the University of Tennessee before joining the United States Air Force. While he was stationed in the state of Alaska he discovered literature and began reading seriously. Later, he began working on his first novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” in Chicago, Illinois while working part-time in a car repair shop. The book was published in nineteen sixty-five.

Cormac McCarthy traveled through Europe with grant money from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Rockefeller Foundation.  In nineteen sixty-seven he returned to the United States. The next year, he published “Outer Dark,” followed by “Child of God” five years later.

One of Cormac McCarthy’s most popular novels, “All the Pretty Horses,” was published in nineteen ninety-two. It is a story about John Grady Cole, a young cowboy who travels with his friends from Texas to Mexico. The story is set in the late nineteen forties.  Yet Mr. McCarthy’s descriptions of the landscapes of Texas and Mexico give the story a timeless quality.

It is an unforgettable story about loyalty, bravery and love. This novel received a National Book Award as well as a National Book Critics Circle Award. It was later made into a movie.

“All the Pretty Horses” was the first story in a three-part series called “The Border Trilogy.” The two other books in the series are “The Crossing” and “Cities of the Plain.”  Another Cormac McCarthy book, “No Country For Old Men,” was published in two thousand five. It was made into a popular movie last year.

Cormac McCarthy won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his most recent novel, “The Road.” It is about a father and a son who struggle to survive in a destroyed America. They travel under grey skies and burnt landscapes in an attempt to find safety. The story describes a horrible world as it might be after a nuclear war. But the most emotional part of the story is the father’s fierce and deep love for his son.

Mr. McCarthy says the idea for the book came to him several years ago when his son was four years old. Mr. McCarthy and his son were in the town of El Paso, Texas staying at a hotel. Late at night while his son was sleeping, the writer looked out his window and imagined what the town might look like in a hundred years.

He thought about his son and imagined the town with fires in the distance and everything destroyed. He wrote down these thoughts. Then, several years later he realized there was a novel to be written from this idea.

When Cormac McCarthy is not writing, he likes to spend time at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico. This organization gathers researchers and scientists from around the world to work on important issues such as economics, technology and the environment. Cormac McCarthy says he has always been interested in the way things work. And, he says talking with researchers at the Institute helps him to think.

“Before they reached the edge of the stream the sun was upon them. There was no bank as such, just the end of the wild roses and an uplifted ridge of thorn trees where magpies squawked at the intrusion. But they could hear the stream, which emanated not far away from a series of blue spring holes at a water temperature that stayed constant, winter and summer. Frank loved to arrive at a stream he knew as well as this one. You could strike it at any point and know where you were, like opening a favorite book at a random page.”

That was Thomas McGuane reading from his book “Nothing But Blue Skies” published in nineteen ninety-two. The story tells about Frank Copenhaver, a man whose life starts to fall apart after his wife leaves him. In the passage you just heard, Frank is out fishing with his daughter in the beautiful countryside of Montana where they live. In the book, Frank has many unusual adventures and gets into some trouble as he works on understanding what he wants from life.

Thomas McGuane lives in Montana. Many of his characters and stories take place in this state, which is known for its expansive skies and beautiful environment.

Mr. McGuane says he likes to explore the conflicts between his main characters and the world in which they live. Critics praise his books for their rich language, technical skill and often very funny situations.

Thomas McGuane was born in nineteen thirty-nine. He attended Michigan State University then later continued his studies at Yale University in Connecticut. He has written nine novels including “Panama”, “Ninety-Two in the Shade” and “The Cadence of Grass.” He has also written two non-fiction books on subjects that are important to him. These include “The Longest Silence” which is a collection of essays on fishing. In “Some Horses” he explores the relationship between people and horses. Mr. McGuane has also written screenplays for several movies.

We asked Thomas McGuane what influenced him to become a writer:

“I wish I knew. I think maybe it was that my parents were readers. My father read a lot of adventurous, natural history books. And I think I associated writing with a sort of an adventurous life. That went away eventually. But I know for a boy that was a great attraction.  And I come from an Irish family. My parents and my grandparents are all Irish and my great grandparents are all Irish immigrants. And that’s sort of a linguistic tradition, especially comical linguistic tradition, but it’s a very verbal household culture. And all of those things kind of turned me toward writing.”

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Mr. McGuane’s latest book is a collection of ten short stories called “Gallatin Canyon.” The stories are all about the good, and sometimes bad, behavior of people going about their daily lives. Mr. McGuane skillfully describes interesting details about human behavior and the natural world.

For example, in the short story “Ice”, a young boy observes the behavior of a popular classmate in order to learn about bravery. Later, he decides to go ice-skating on a large lake. When night falls he gets very lost. But, he faces his fears and finds a way to get home. And, on the way back to safety, he makes a surprising discovery.

In the short story “Cowboy” Mr. McGuane captures the local language and expressions of a man who works with cows and horses. As the cowboy spends years working for a ranching family, you understand his love of nature and hard work. And, you understand the difficult situation of being a cowboy who spends his life working on land he can never own.

Thomas McGuane recently spoke at a literature event held by the Pen Faulkner organization in Washington, D.C. He praised the group for inviting writers to speak from all areas of the United States. Then he read two short stories. He also talked about what it was like to make movies. He talked about working with the actors Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson for a movie he wrote called “Missouri Breaks.” He said that when he worked on movies in the nineteen seventies, the industry was very different from what it is today.

Thomas McGuane is currently working on a new novel about a doctor who works in a hospital emergency room. And, it might not surprise you that the story takes place in Montana.

Our program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Steve Ember.

And I’m Barbara Klein. Our programs are online with transcripts and MP3 files at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.


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