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June 2, 2020

For Stephen Harrigan, the writing life goes on in the strange undertow of the coronavirus

The author of the (surprising) pandemic binge-read fave "Big Wonderful Thing" ponders how to feel useful in the face of an event that will divide our lives — and also considers his new fascination with Sanjay Gupta’s resting puzzle face.

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Stephen Harrigan is an Austin treasure. Make that a Texas treasure.

He is the author of numerous books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the novels “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln,” “Remember Ben Clayton,” and “The Gates of the Alamo,” a New York Times bestseller. Harrigan is also an award-winning screenwriter, a longtime writer for Texas Monthly and has penned more than a dozen television movies. For 20 years he taught at University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers.

Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. once said that Harrigan has “a close and clear and unblinking ability to look at human behavior.”

That’s true of the recently published “Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas” (UT Press), Harrigan’s critically praised history of the Lone Star State. It’s less a sweeping survey than a series of finely wrought tales of, well, humans being human.

Harrigan’s heartfelt candor felt like something I wanted to hear now as we are all socially distant from one another and events grow more unfathomable. Luckily, he was up for a little email conversation about our big strange times.

 

How are you doing? What’s your new day-to-day like these days?

My wife and I have been sequestered for about six weeks now.  We haven’t gone out except to pick up curbside food or groceries every now and then and to visit our kids and grandchildren from six feet away. Other than the utter unreality of the life all around us, my routine is pretty much the same. I’ve worked at home for decades, so I’m in my office all day more or less like I was in the former world. Every morning I go for a three or four mile walk around the neighborhood and do a half-hearted session of strength training with some resistance bands I bought off the internet until it’s safe to go to the gym again.

 

Every writer wishes for a certain amount of solitude and a lack of distraction. Is there a little too much time right now? Never mind the distraction of stress and anxiety. Are you getting any writing done?

Time is such an interesting thing to ponder right now. I find that the days pass quickly but that the weeks are caught in some sort of recycling undertow. So there’s the sensation of time speeding up and slowing down at the same time. But yes, I’m getting some writing done. I’m more than halfway through a new novel, I’m writing a screenplay, and I’m having fun being a producer on two other scripts that I’ve written and co-written. That means that like so many of us I’ve been introduced in a big way to Zoom. As for anxiety and stress — well, who doesn’t have that? But because time is so elastic and because the book and film businesses are in some sort of hiatus, the usual deadline pressure I’m used to dealing with has been suspended. So there are pockets of serenity. But as soon as I start to feel serene I start to feel guilty, thinking of all the people in our country and throughout the world for whom these days and weeks are anything but a respite from normal life. And I feel useless. What the world needs now are epidemiologists and front-line medical workers and grocery store stockers and delivery drivers. Sitting in a room all day indulging in my writerly fantasies makes me feel like Marie Antoinette.

 

Since our stay-at-home times, folks are posting on social media about finally having the time to read your masterful, 944-page history of Texas, “Big Wonderful Thing,” published last fall. ( It’s sequester reading at our house, too!)

I’ve been getting a lot of emails from readers (and listeners of the audiobook) thanking me for helping to save their sanity. I don’t know why this particular book would have such a comforting effect on people, but apparently it does. Its length, which might have been forbidding before the pandemic struck, turns out to be an asset. It’s the kind of book you can binge-read. I also think the design has a lot to do with it. It’s a beautifully produced book, for which I take no credit. The font alone is enticing.

 

I find myself re-reading favorites lately, mostly short fiction. And yes, like many others, I re-read Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse Pale Rider,” which you devote some pages to in “Big Wonderful Thing.” Any new thoughts on “Pale Horse Pale Rider”?

Well, it’s essential pandemic literature, but when I was writing my book I was more interested in Katherine Anne Porter herself and the story behind the novel (or I guess novella). Porter was stricken in the 1918 flu epidemic as a young woman and given up for dead. Her temperature spiked to 105 degrees and stayed there for nine days. Her family was notified that she was going to die. Her hair fell out and when it grew back in it was white. She survived because of a last minute shot of strychnine, and later wrote that the illness “divided my life.” I think that’s going to be true of the world at large after we’re past COVID-19. There was the world before the virus, and there’s going to be a different world (maybe not all bad) on the other side of it.

 

What are you reading and watching? The combination of seemingly endless time laced with anxiety has disrupted usual reading and watching habits.

I’ve been watching way too much TV, listening to talking heads on CNN and streaming stuff like “Tiger King” and “Unorthodox” and “Babylon Berlin.” Right now I’m reading “The Mirror and the Light,” Hilary Mantel’s conclusion to her brilliant trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. Also “The Shadow of Vesuvius” by Daisy Dunn, kind of a dual biography of Pliny and his uncle Pliny the Elder, who was killed in the eruption that engulfed Pompeii and left a written record of it.

 

What do you miss now?

Hugging my grandchildren. It’s hard to explain to a two year old who’s running toward you why you have to run in the opposite direction.

 

There’s a lot of talk about this being a time for a big re-set. And some are even making post-pandemic resolutions. Do you have a list of things to reset?

I’d love to think that the human population won’t go back to being stupid after this pandemic, but the historical record of lessons learned is spotty. You can look around you right now and get a sense of what the world could be if we got serious about climate change — clear skies, clear water, no traffic, wild animals warily appearing in the streets, dolphins in the Venetian canals. (Although I read that that last one about the dolphins turned out to be apocryphal, I’m reluctant to let go of the image.). And on the downside we now have the starkest possible view — unmissable — about the divide between the rich and the poor. Maybe that new clarity of vision will help us recalibrate our society. If we don’t, any sort of recovery is going to be an illusion.

 

You posted on Facebook about what you call Sanjay Gupta’s “resting puzzle face.” What’s up with that?

Like I said, way too much CNN. I just got fascinated by the quizzical look Sanjay Gupta has on his face as he’s listening to experts or waiting to express an opinion. Other people are obsessed by other things, like the home decor of commentators and the books on their shelves. But for me, I have a laser focus on Dr. Gupta’s facial expressions.

 

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzinhttps://sightlinesmag.org
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

1 COMMENT

  1. So true! Dr. Gupta’s face is fascinating, sandwiched between Anderson Cooper’s (granite visage) and whatever guest is on at the moment. Gupta is constantly shifting his lips, jaw, etc., as if he knows his face is content. It’s mesmerizing and seductive. I’m torn between listening to the guest and making out with Gupta.

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