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Cormac McCarthy on The Road, fatherly love, the end of the world and lots of other things
November 20, 2009 11:35 AM   Subscribe

In a soft voice, chuckling frequently and gazing intently with gray-green eyes, Mr. McCarthy talked about books vs. films, the apocalypse, fathers and sons, past and future projects, how he writes—and God.

My favorite quote:

WSJ: But is there something compelling about the collaborative process [of filmmaking] compared to the solitary job of writing?

CM: Yes, it would compel you to avoid it at all costs.
posted by jason's_planet (47 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by jason's_planet at 11:38 AM on November 20, 2009


Great interview and a great writer, although not necessarily one whose sentiments I particularly agree with. There's a reactionary pessimism to a lot of his stuff that I don't enjoy at all, but in terms of craft he's brilliant.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:51 AM on November 20, 2009


That was a great read, and McCarthy is a good interview subject, but I can think of about 50,000 questions that I would ask him before I got to any of the ones the WSJ actually used.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:53 AM on November 20, 2009


Thanks! Glad you liked it!

You're spot-on about the pessimism. From an earlier interview:

"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy says philosophically. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."

posted by jason's_planet at 11:55 AM on November 20, 2009


I can think of about 50,000 questions that I would ask him before I got to any of the ones the WSJ actually used.

Such as?
posted by jason's_planet at 11:56 AM on November 20, 2009


It's a little film-centric, isn't it?
posted by Artw at 12:03 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


You've got to love the WSJ. The sidebar says, "'The Road' is part of a long history of films about dads and their boys." And then goes on to highlight (among others) "Finding Nemo," which is exactly what we all think of when pondering "The Road."
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh, and...

So occasionally I get letters from book dealers or whoever that say I have a signed copy of the The Road and I say no you dont.

Fixed that for you.
posted by Artw at 12:05 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Such as?

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck was the personification of Death who lies at the center of all human bloodshed and misery and could chuck wood?
posted by Avenger at 12:07 PM on November 20, 2009 [5 favorites]


really enjoyed that interview.

regarding questions we'd rather have asked, it's always been my understanding that people don't generally sit down to field any question you feel like asking. at least, people at mccarthy's level of prestige. I've always heard that agents and the like outline topics for discussion and time limits. not necessarily out of any fear or shyness on the part of the interviewee, but simply out of convenience since typically people who might want to talk about one thing don't suddenly want their whole lives becoming a topic of conversation at the whim of an interviewer. I'd imagine McCarthy, who has famously avoided interviews, felt fine talking about The Road and related topics, but didn't necessarily want to review everything he's ever done and written.

this is mostly supposition on my part, though.
posted by shmegegge at 12:15 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


The interviewer forgot to ask if quotation marks killed Mr. McCarthy's parents.
posted by dortmunder at 12:19 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


jason's_planet: Such as?

Well, just off the top of my head, I might comment on the way that Chigurh is just as prone to the consequences of the random as everyone else, despite attempting to present himself as the embodiment of a chaotic and evil universe, whereas Judge Holden revels in exploiting the opportunities for cruelty presented by happenstance and seems not to care so much about being feared, and then I might ask McCarthy which of these attitudes more closely typifies what he feels the role of the author is in approaching plot and characterization.

Nah, just shittin' you, I'd ask him why the characters don't say 'I love you' in The Road.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:20 PM on November 20, 2009 [6 favorites]


It's a little film-centric, isn't it?

Gotta do the tour to promote his movie, babe. That's show business.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:24 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


You're spot-on about the pessimism. From an earlier interview:

"There's no such thing as life without bloodshed," McCarthy says philosophically. "I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous."


That's not pessimism, that's reality...
posted by vorfeed at 12:27 PM on November 20, 2009


And then goes on to highlight (among others) "Finding Nemo," which is exactly what we all think of when pondering "The Road."

A long journey, a dead mother, blood, explosions, imprisonment, people trying to eat each other, death around every corner.... I think the films share a lot of common ground. Finding Nemo may have a lot of pretty colors but it is a very dark movie.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:35 PM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


also both movies have an amnesiac ellen degeneres and recidivist vegetarian sharks.
posted by shmegegge at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pessimistic though it may have been, I personally thought The Road was a work of unadulterated glurge. I hated it so much that I'm scared to go back to his other books, lest I suddenly discover that I hate them now, too.

So that's the question I would have asked him. "Why is The Road just one long Hallmark card about The Miracle of Parenting And The Redemptive Power of the Innocence of Childhood? And what would Blood Meridian have been like, if you'd had kids earlier in life?"
posted by ErikaB at 12:55 PM on November 20, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Why is The Road just one long Hallmark card about The Miracle of Parenting And The Redemptive Power of the Innocence of Childhood?

Really? Hallmark cards featuring cannibalism, the collapse of civilization, sexual slavery, scorched, rotting corpses and slow-motion starvation?

I must have missed that section.

And what would Blood Meridian have been like, if you'd had kids earlier in life?"

"In 1961 he married Lee Holleman, whom he had met at college; they had a son, Cullen (now an architecture student at Princeton), and quickly divorced . . ."

posted by jason's_planet at 1:06 PM on November 20, 2009


Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

Thanks, I enjoyed that.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:19 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


Mr. McCarthy began the meal with a Bombay Gibson, up.

Is there another way to have a gibson that I'm not aware of? Are there people who have martinis on the rocks?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:30 PM on November 20, 2009


You Should See the Other Guy: Are there people who have martinis on the rocks?

I love me a gin margarita.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:41 PM on November 20, 2009


I'm sure you do, but a margarita is normally served on the rocks. Martinis are not. A gibson is a type of martini (it has an onion instead of an olive or twist).

Doesn't matter, of course. I just thought this a very bizarre way to open an article. I assume he likes root beer in a Root Beer Float as well and I'd find it strange to have it mentioned in an article.
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:52 PM on November 20, 2009


You Should See the Other Guy:
I'm sure you do, but a margarita is normally served on the rocks. Martinis are not. A gibson is a type of martini (it has an onion instead of an olive or twist).


I especially like them with hamburgers.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2009


Hahah fuck yes, I was right!

WSJ: When you discussed making "The Road" into a movie with John, did he press you on what had caused the disaster in the story?

CM: A lot of people ask me. I don't have an opinion. At the Santa Fe Institute I'm with scientists of all disciplines, and some of them in geology said it looked like a meteor to them. But it could be anything—volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do?


Also I love McCarthy because we have the same initials. SWOON.
posted by m0nm0n at 1:56 PM on November 20, 2009


Mr. McCarthy began the meal with a Bombay Gibson, up.

Is there another way to have a gibson that I'm not aware of? Are there people who have martinis on the rocks?
posted by You Should See the Other Guy at 1:30 PM on November 20 [+] [!]


Yep. There are. One tries not to associate oneself with them, of course, as they are mostly raging alcoholics, but yes. I remember this from a loooong-ago stint as a server at a TGIFriday's -- they used to serve a martini on the rocks in a big nearly-fishbowl-sized glass.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 1:58 PM on November 20, 2009


I want to see the Hallmark card which features a headless baby roasted on a spit. What holiday is that for? Or is it more of a "Special Occasion" type of card?
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:26 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


WSJ: People have said "Blood Meridian" is unfilmable because of the sheer darkness and violence of the story.

CM: That's all crap. The fact that's it's a bleak and bloody story has nothing to do with whether or not you can put it on the screen. That's not the issue. The issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.

So basically Jodorowsky?
posted by basicchannel at 2:45 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Are there people who have martinis on the rocks?

Every bar or restaurant I go to asks if I want my martini up or on the rocks. I was a bit taken aback the first time I was asked this, but apparently enough people order it over ice that it is a false assumption to serve it up to everyone who orders one.
posted by hippybear at 2:51 PM on November 20, 2009


basicchannel: So basically Jodorowsky?

Imagine The Holy Mountain only every character is El Topo from the first half of El Topo.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:52 PM on November 20, 2009


ErikaB: For me, The Road was about the horrific responsibility of parenting; of always having to do the right thing, or face the most dire consequences.
posted by No Robots at 2:55 PM on November 20, 2009


“Pessimistic though it may have been, I personally thought The Road was a work of unadulterated glurge.”

Last lines: ‘Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculite patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not to be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.’

Yeah, there’s a guy with no command of the English language.

Illustration: Bearded man in filthy stinking robes and blankets looking east for light but there is none. Across the water is a creature with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders swinging its head low over the water, crouching pale, naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. Swinging its head from side to side and then it gives out a low moan terrifying the small filthy boy next to the man.
Boy:“Can I ask you something? Are we going to die?”
*inside * Man (grinning):Sometime. Not now.

Tippi Town Bears tearing flesh from a catamite - Tag: Congratulations! You’re not going to die immediately!

I like McCarthy's work, but I don't know any other writers I'd like to sit down and just talk to. Just the fact he knows who Paul Dirac is, much less can comment on his perspective (et.al), guy worth getting to know.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:04 PM on November 20, 2009


There was a lot that I loved about All the Pretty Horses - the young man going on a quest, the kindness of the poor people he met on the way, and, especially, the poetic descrition of the relationships and unspoken language among rider, horse and cattle. The end wasn't pleasant, but I could accept that sometimes the hero doesn't win. i got the other books in the Border Trilogy, hoping for more poetry and less gloom, only to have to force myself to read on. McCarthy's vision of "reality" rings no bells of recognition based on my experiences.I'm not surprised that he's gone on to mor apocalyptic settings, but I have no inclination to read is later works or see the movies based them.
posted by path at 3:27 PM on November 20, 2009


Pessimistic though it may have been, I personally thought The Road was a work of unadulterated glurge.

I enjoyed it much more when I figured out that the dad is delusional and that the "post-apocalyptic" world they live in is actually far safer that he is making it. NO SPOILER.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:51 PM on November 20, 2009 [2 favorites]


I like McCarthy's work, but I don't know any other writers I'd like to sit down and just talk to.

I think Pynchon and Salinger would rate pretty high, if only for the exclusivity. But I can probably think of hundreds of writers I'd love to sit down and talk with ... Atwood, Lethem, DeLillo, Denis Johnson, T.C. Boyle, Mary Karr, Munro, Saramago, Ishiguro, Erickson, Franzen, Powers, Antrim, Bausch, Amis, Self, Wolfe, Hiassen, Robbins, Palahniuk, Welsh ...
posted by mrgrimm at 4:06 PM on November 20, 2009


"Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing."

Put that quote on your fridge door, grandma!
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 4:29 PM on November 20, 2009


mrgrimm - well, yeah. But their work & celebrity aside. (Maybe Palahniuk since he was a member of the Cacophony Society.) Most of them seem pretty - well, literary. Sit at their desks (or wherever) writing a lot. DeLillo f'rinstance was a copywriter and wrote ads.
I don't know what we would talk about, outside his work, which is great, yeah. But the work, related themes, etc. aside, doesn't look like I'd get on with them any more than, say, anyone of reasonable breadth of intelligence doing some other sort of cerebral work. Or folks here, who often have interesting things to say, have good stories, etc.

I've interacted with some celebs. Mostly they're pretty focused. You'd think Joe Actor might be an interesting guy, and he is, but he's pretty much all about acting and whatever cause rather than the give and take in a good b.s.ing.
Conversation, real conversation, isn't something high on a lot of people's priorities really.
(Comics seem really good at it. And regular actor type folks. Probably because they've got all kinds of time on their hands sitting back stage, or in restaurants, etc. with a lot of nothing to do and other people to do it with.)
I guess I'm saying - no reason why an author more than any other guy with the givens. But McCarthy seems like he's interested in talking rather than making points or converting anyone and he's interested in ideas beyond his sphere(s).
Pretty rare in most folks really. (Seems fairly common here, but then, if we weren't mostly interested in the smorgasboard type of concept presentation and interaction we'd be on a one trick pony weblog.)
posted by Smedleyman at 5:53 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Finding Nemo may have a lot of pretty colors but it is a very dark movie.

It's a finely tuned child traumatising machine!
posted by Artw at 6:52 PM on November 20, 2009


Ooh yeah, you guys really put me in my place by pointing out The Road has cannibalism in it.

I submit to you that a work can be both melodramatically, almost cartoonishly violent (I kept waiting for Mel Gibson to saunter through, leather pants a'squeakin') and suffused with glurge.

Go ahead, read it again, you'll see it now, too. Or wait for the movie, which I expect shall be brimming with "the essential goodness of childhood" glurge that made the book so indigestible for me.

Don't come crying to me when you start wondering why this kid, who has no memories of a world without rampant starvation, falling ash, and violence as a way of life, isn't a batarang-wielding psychopath like he ought to be.

My apologies for having overlooked McCarthy's first son. But I guess he didn't have much of an impact on his dad, since McCarthy basically wrote The Road for the newer one, John Francis.
posted by ErikaB at 8:16 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


I always thought the Eli Cash character in The Royal Tenenbaums was there to, among other things, poke fun at McCarthy's descriptive style.
The crickets and the rust-beetles scuttled among the nettles of the sage thicket. 'Vámonos, amigos,' he whispered, and threw the busted leather flintcraw over the loose weave of the saddlecock. And they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.
posted by Ritchie at 9:19 PM on November 20, 2009


WSJ: People have said "Blood Meridian" is unfilmable because of the sheer darkness and violence of the story.

CM: That's all crap. The fact that's it's a bleak and bloody story has nothing to do with whether or not you can put it on the screen. That's not the issue. The issue is it would be very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.


I've always felt that The Proposition owes quite a bit to Blood Meridian in its style and pacing. Which is interesting as Hillcoat directed The Road. I'm not sure I ever want to see Blood Meridian on the big screen, but if it had to be done I'd like Hillcoat to be the one to direct it.

A great interview all in all, thanks for sharing.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:38 AM on November 21, 2009


"Go ahead, read it again, you'll see it now, too."
Yes, my favorite band sucks. It's all so clear now.
posted by Smedleyman at 4:04 AM on November 21, 2009


And then goes on to highlight (among others) "Finding Nemo," which is exactly what we all think of when pondering "The Road."

Can you imagine Pixar's The Road? Man, that would have one hell of a Randy Newman montage sequence!
posted by biddeford at 7:36 AM on November 21, 2009


It's a little film-centric, isn't it?

Yes, but McCarthy proves himself articulate on the subject, so the WSJ gets a rare pass. I've seen enough writers disparage film as a lesser medium; it's nice to see one—let alone a wordsmith like McCarthy—able to talk meaningfully and at length about cinema.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 10:30 AM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, film generally is. He's been pretty well served by it so far though.
posted by Artw at 11:51 AM on November 21, 2009


I submit to you that a work can be both melodramatically, almost cartoonishly violent (I kept waiting for Mel Gibson to saunter through, leather pants a'squeakin') and suffused with glurge.

The first thing that came to your mind while reading The Road was a campy Hollywood thriller? I think that says a whole lot more about the background and life experience you brought to your reading than it does about the book itself.

Go ahead, read it again, you'll see it now, too.


A more persuasive argument would be to cite passages from the book itself that support your thesis.

Or wait for the movie, which I expect shall be brimming with "the essential goodness of childhood" glurge that made the book so indigestible for me.

Funny, that's not the message I drew from the book. I didn't put it down believing that all kids are just inherently luvvable and sweet and innocent. Whatever decency exists in the boy is the result of his father's efforts, the near-constant refrain that we are the good guys, we don't indulge in cannibalism, we are the keepers of the flame.

Don't come crying to me when you start wondering why this kid, who has no memories of a world without rampant starvation, falling ash, and violence as a way of life, isn't a batarang-wielding psychopath like he ought to be.

I don't have to wonder. It's obvious to me that he boy has not sunk to the level of the bloodcults because his father does everything in his power, even when he (the father) is sick and filthy and starving, to make sure that his son has civilized values. That's a key point of the book: you don't have to allow brutal circumstances to brutalize you. Human beings can be more than just passive reflections of their environment; they have the freedom to determine how they will view the world and behave towards each other.

My apologies for having overlooked McCarthy's first son. But I guess he didn't have much of an impact on his dad, since McCarthy basically wrote The Road for the newer one, John Francis.

Non sequitur.
posted by jason's_planet at 2:32 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


I order martinis in restaurants regularly, and I often get asked "straight up or on the rocks". Even though the idea of ice cubes in a martini is bizarre and nerve-wracking to me, there must be some people who like it, or I wouldn't keep getting asked such a crazy-ass question.

Also: First Umberto, now Cormac. Great job, metafilter!
posted by the bricabrac man at 5:55 PM on November 21, 2009


Cormac McCarthy to auction off typewriter that produced his entire oeuvre.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:50 AM on December 1, 2009


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