Famous First Words: The Orchard Keeper
Now an unquestionable and nearly unrivaled household name—reigning figurehead of American letters, perennial Nobel candidate, ritual bestseller hounded by film studios for the rights to adapt his work—Cormac McCarthy spent the first three decades of his career ensuring that he wouldn’t ever reach that stage. This wasn’t his expressed intent, of course; McCarthy was resolute in his determination to eke out a living as an author, toiling through periods of intermittent poverty in order to realize that aspiration. The road to renown (and, by extension, financial security) might have been considerably smoother, though, had he simply been willing to notify his potential audience that his product was available to them. But McCarthy has always been a shitty salesman.
“I never had any doubts about my abilities,” he told Richard Woodward in a profile for the April 1992 issue of The New York Times Book Review. “I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.” The article was published to promote the release of McCarthy’s sixth novel, All the Pretty Horses, which would be the official introduction to his catalog for a deluge of new fans 27 years after the release of his debut. It was the first interview of any substance granted by the author up to that point, one that he finally consented to following extensive negotiations between the newspaper and McCarthy’s agent in New York, in part because he was assured that he wouldn’t have to endure another for several more years. Before the New York Times piece, the entirety of his media personality was built on a handful of exchanges printed in obscure publications in Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up, and through whatever minor biographical details could be verified to fatten up book reviews—enough to earn him an extended tenure as a cult interest in the American South and in England, but not very much beyond that.
Yet McCarthy was entirely uncompromising on the issue; he never seriously contemplated a teaching career, routinely turned down lecturing opportunities whenever they were presented to him, and became well accustomed to a sometimes excessively itinerant existence, living on scraps and exhausting the empathy of his first two wives along the way. (“We were bathing in the lake,” reported his second wife in Woodward’s article. “Someone would call up and offer him $2,000 to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”) For McCarthy, the consequences were almost completely immaterial. Since publishing his first stories in the University of Tennessee’s literary magazine and winning a couple of Ingram Merrill Awards for creative writing during his second stint there in the late 1950s—he had dropped out previously in 1952 and joined the Air Force—McCarthy settled firmly on the idea that there was only one real option open to him.
He left school again and moved to Chicago, supplementing his income at an auto parts warehouse so that he could get started on a novel. After marrying his first wife, with whom he had a son, he moved back to Tennessee. But the marriage didn’t last long, and McCarthy adopted an even more migratory lifestyle, making his way to North Carolina and then to Louisiana while working on the book. Given the relative indigence that he would experience afterward, the publication of his first novel was a comparatively uncomplicated affair: when McCarthy finished the manuscript, he packaged and submitted it to Random House—the only publisher he had heard anything about—and got a bite on the first try. His parable of mistaken identity and unexpected redemption, set against the stark and often brutal backdrop of a quiet Tennessee frontier hamlet, was entrusted to Albert Erskine, who had gained distinction as William Faulkner’s longtime editor. And when The Orchard Keeper was released in June of 1965, it was to Faulkner that McCarthy was immediately compared in reviews, if not always as a compliment.
Nevertheless, that unfettered lyrical relish employed by McCarthy in his unsparingly visceral descriptions of everyday violence came to define his technique every bit as much as his trademark unwillingness to clutter those passages with excessive punctuation (or adequate punctuation, depending on the reader). The polarizing effect of McCarthy’s voice, from that first assured effort to his more pervasive Pulitzer-winning and Coen Brothers–interpreted works, has never dissipated, but the congregation continues to swell with each new generation that discovers it. And although McCarthy still doesn’t go out of his way to assist in the promotional aspects of the operation, he’s become significantly more amenable to the occasional burdens of publicity that come with the job.
It only took him thirteen years, after all, to meet with Woodward for a follow-up interview (this time in Vanity Fair, in conjunction with the release of No Country for Old Men in 2005), and he even agreed to tolerate the inanity of an awkward conversation with Oprah Winfrey when he appeared on her show for his first television interview in 2007, patiently fielding a predictable line of inquiry and responding thoughtfully to each topic. When pressed about his traditional reluctance to participate in such basic media commitments and whether it was an indication of some fundamental rancor toward the industry overall, McCarthy quickly waved aside the notion with a grin. “No, no, no,” he said warmly. “You work your side of the street and I’ll work mine.”