An older photo of Charles Portis.
A special guest post from Overlook publisher Peter Mayer, on his trip to Arkansas to meet Charles Portis, author of TRUE GRIT (along with other wonderful novels Norwood, Masters of Atlantis, Gringos and Dog of the South). Portis won't be participating in the media coverage surrounding the upcoming release of the Coen Brothers' film adaptation of his 1968 novel True Grit, he's considered one of the great American writers and a fascinating person. Here's Peter's experience meeting the man himself.
Meeting Charles Portis was an unlikely dream that came true. I had never been to Arkansas before, much less Little Rock, but as I found myself having to be there for another reason a couple of years ago, I just took a shot at calling or writing my author, despite having heard from many that Charles Portis was “reclusive.” He certainly over many years had ignored our various blandishments to take part in one or another author promotions, personal appearances, even some not too far from Little Rock.
As it turned out, Portis was anything but reclusive, simply not interested in being part of the publishing machine in which authors, for better or worse – and sometimes of necessity – play a leading role. He wanted his peace and he wanted it in order to write.
When my plane touched down in Little Rock, I didn’t believe he’d be there to meet me, but there he was with an anything-but-a modern pickup, half-ton I think, and before I’d climbed into the cab, hooked up my seat buckle, he asked me whether I was up for a drink. Indeed I was, I even hoped that Arkansas state laws permitted a thirsty man to drink and smoke at the same time. This not being the case, we went to The Capital Hotel. I’m not sure if this was a regular watering hole of his; I wasn’t sure then and after two days in Little Rock I still didn’t know. He certainly knew the clientele, many of the better known Little Rock grandees and good old boys. I quickly came to see that Charlie Portis was, yes, very regional, but also something much more sophisticated, something certainly not apparent in his novels. There probably are good reasons why readers sometimes mistakenly connect him with regional writers but variant purposes like Mark Twain and Cormac McCarthy. The connections have often more to do with a sense of place than anything else.
Frankly, I found myself – a New Yorker and a sometimes Londoner – not quite at home in The Capital Hotel. Unlike many New York-based publishers, I’d had broad experience in Texas, Indiana and Oklahoma and suspected that there must be a more basic Little Rock than the Capital Hotel. I wondered if my author had taken me to a place he imagined I’d be comfortable in. Happily, that evening, perhaps guessing my drift, he took me to more basic Little Rock haunts where I ate the kind of food I’d been hoping to find, along with many glasses of iced tea.
The discovery that my author was neither a recluse nor someone easily defined by Little Rock emerged when we started to talk about New York editors, agents – in particular his agent Lynn Nesbit – publishing, newspapers and journalism in general, New York itself, and then London, where he had been for some years the London Bureau Chief of The New York Herald Tribune. He asked me quite markedly about various people it turned out we both knew, in particular about Nora Ephron, whose work and gifts in general had never been lost on him. In fact, he talked about everything, everything except what I was greatly interested in – what was he writing now and when I would get to see it. “Eventually,” he said. All I learned was that he was indeed writing, that he didn’t write quickly.
Then we went back to anything he could tell me about the state of Arkansas, his book covers, his pleasure that we had put all his books back into print. Incredibly they had all been out of print when Overlook started what turned out to be a kind of mission: to turn America on to this extraordinarily gifted writer who seemed to us not to be getting his due. But he never asked how his books were selling – increasingly well, in fact. He just said he was glad they were available for anyone who might want to read them. Even in England, he said, as he had received letters from British readers. He was interested in everything I could share with him, but in a very self-contained way. A very good guy, I thought, a straight arrow with a habit and mind for the foibles of mankind. Anyone who reads his books will find, I think, that below the surface of all the extraordinary and extremely humorous details and characters he creates, there’s a very straight American arrow pointing heavenwards.