A conversation with friends of 30-plus years, Lawrence Wright and Stephen Harrigan
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Matt Conant
To meet writers Stephen Harrigan and Lawrence Wright — Steve and Larry to most — one would imagine they have been pals since their childhood days. The two friends and Tarrytown neighbors have an easy rapport that is equal parts joking and admiring.
Before our interview even officially began, Wright was already ribbing Harrigan about his delicate coffee-drinking (or lack thereof) sensibilities. When Harrigan described his one and only encounter with coffee as scarring — he may have even gone so far as to call it “his worst day” — Wright quips, “We have it pretty easy over here in Tarrytown.”
Both men happen to have been born in the same Oklahoma City hospital and lived in Abilene during the same period, but they didn’t actually meet until 1980, when both were working for Texas Monthly. Friends since the ’80s and around-the-corner neighbors since the’90s, the two have been meeting for breakfast, along with a few other regulars, every Monday for roughly 30 years.
This friendship, which also extends to their wives and kids, is used by Wright as the backdrop for his newest book, “God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State.” The book, which, for the record, was enjoyed equally by this native Texan and her non-native husband, details Texas’ past and present through vignettes focused on oil drilling, Texas’ cities, and presidential history, to name a few.
And while not quite collaborators, since both writers work solo, Wright and Harrigan are certainly as close to colleagues as one could imagine. Harrigan, whose love of history easily shines through in his novels, is in the process of finishing a book on Texas. He says his will be “more of a doorstop than Larry’s … but there are places where they coincide.”
Given that their friendship plays such a pivotal role in “God Save Texas” — the book is even dedicated to Steve — I was thrilled to sit down and talk with these writers, friends, and neighbors.
MARGARET WILLIAMS: Tell me more about this breakfast club. Who’s in it?
LARRY WRIGHT: Bill Brands [H. W. Brands], presidential historian at UT, and Greg Curtis, the former editor of Texas Monthly.
STEVE HARRIGAN: I remember it was your idea, and that was probably 30 years ago.LW: Yeah, Bill Broyles[acclaimed screenwriter] was part of that group at that point, and it’s always been at Sweetish Hill [Bakery].
SH: I mean, we started at Night Hawk.
LW: I thought we always ate at Sweetish Hill? Anyway, for decades we’ve been at Sweetish Hill, and occasionally we have visitors. Denis Johnson used to come. We really miss him.
SH: He wrote “Jesus’ Son.” He’s probably one of the most influential fiction writers of our time, really. He taught at the Michener Center [for Writers] off and on for a long time.
LW: But beyond being a famous writer, he was one of the most original people I ever met. I really loved him. He was a great guy. He passed away not too long ago. Occasionally a woman comes. I’ve invited Mimi [Swartz].
How did y’all end up living around the corner from each other?
LW: He was here first.
SH: Larry broke into the neighborhood.
LW: Yeah, I did. We [Larry has been married to his wife Roberta for 48 years] were living in Travis Heights, in a duplex we owned. I was out of town when we found this house and I had to fly in — you know I’ve always loved this street.
Anyway, one of the appeals was that it was in the same neighborhood with Steve and with some other friends of ours — the Magnusons and Greg Curtis lived in the neighborhood at the time. It was a real writers’ nook.
How has it changed your friendship or working relationship, being in such close proximity to one another?
LW: I don’t think it’s changed it a lot, do you?
SH: Well, we pick each other up to go places more. Every Monday, I’m waiting out there for Larry to ride by on his bike so we can ride our bikes to breakfast and brave the traffic.
LW: We do carpool a lot.
What do you like about Tarrytown?
LW: It’s got a lot of interesting characters. Matthew McConaughey used to live across the street, and we’ve got other notables. But it’s a very friendly neighborhood, and I also love the fact that it’s in a forest. Essentially, Tarrytown is a cedar elm forest, and when you’re flying over Austin, you can scarcely see the houses buried in some of the tallest trees in the whole city, and I really like that.
SH: And it’s in the middle; it’s central. There’s no way we [Steve’s wife of 48 years is Sue Ellen] could afford to live here now. We moved to Cherry Lane in 1981, I think, or ’80. We had a house in East Austin, and we sold it and were able to buy a house here.
It’s a great walkable neighborhood. Two or three times a week I go on a long walk around the neighborhood.
Have either of you thought about moving, as things have changed, to somewhere else in Austin?
LW: Roberta and Sue Ellen have both threatened to downsize. I said, ‘You go find me a place that has an office, a music room, a garden, and a pool, and then I’ll consider it. So far, that hasn’t come to anything, but it’s a constant theme.
SH: We thought about moving, because all our kids and grandkids are up north. Which is not much to complain about, but it’s a long commute to get together at kids-eat-free night at Luby’s.
So I’m curious, Steve, if you knew that your friendship was the backdrop for Larry’s new book. Did y’all compare notes?
SH: Well, Larry and I’d done some research together. Because I was writing a Texas book too. And so I called you up and said, ‘You have any interest in going to ride our bikes along the Mission Trail in San Antonio?’ And so we did, and I told Larry we needed to stop at Bucee’s, ’cause that’s what Texas is all about.
LW: Bucee’s really became a key. Yeah, you unlocked the whole book for me.
SH: And I didn’t know that I was actually going to be in the book, or that it was going to be dedicated to me, which was very touching. It’s weird to read about yourself.
LW: I told you pretty early on that you were in it. [Larry interrupts himself to grab a pair of binoculars and look at a bird in his backyard.] I think that’s a — what is that poor guy? We’ve been getting a lot of goldfinches.
Steve, I’d love to know more about the book you’re working on, or finishing, because it sounds like a different type of Texas book from Larry’s.
SH: They’re very different. Larry’s, I think — its motor is really contemporary text, where we are now and where we’re going. Whereas mine is the history of Texas from the beginning to maybe now. It covers some degree of politics and everything else — culture, history, music, arts, sports. Whatever is part of Texas history will find its way into my book, I think. But also it’s gonna be a lot longer than Larry’s.
LW: Well, you’ve got so much to cover.SH: One of the things I’ve learned in my life as a writer — a lesson I’ve never been able to put into practice — is, keep it short [laughs]. And I’m trying to decide now, for instance, should I write about the bike ride on the Mission Trail?
LW: I think it’s kind of a cool idea. Mine would start with it, and yours would end with it.
What was that day in San Antonio like? Steve, you said it was your idea to go on the mission bike ride?
SH: Well, I’ve always wanted to do it, and Larry and I found a way to do it together, and it was great. It was, for one thing, a trip through time, because you start way down south at one of the earliest missions and you end up in downtown San Antonio at the Alamo.
LW: Of course, it was helpful for me to go with Steve because he’s such a historian. So I was getting a tutorial as well as a workout.
I know what you mean. I’ve been rediscovering the history of those places as an adult. As a kid, you’re kind of dragged there, and now we are taking our kids to all the other missions, besides the Alamo, and they’re amazing places.
LW: They’re wonderful spots. It’s where Texas history really began, and there’s not much that gives you that sense of permanence.
So why do y’all get along so well? Because you’re similar or different?
SH: Well, we’re pretty different in a lot of ways. I remember the first time I met Larry was — what year did you come here?
LW: Well, it would’ve been ’80, because when I came in ’79 — the article that took me to Texas was for Look magazine and was about the 12 men who walked on the moon, and it would’ve been in July or August of ’79, ’cause that was the tenth anniversary of the first moon walk.
SH: I remember we had lunch —
LW: At the Pit.
SH: Was that where we had lunch?
LW: Yeah, that’s where everybody walked to.
SH: Right, yeah. And we talked — we were comparing gripes about being freelancers.
LW: There was a sense of parallelism. Even though our personalities are different, we’re engaged in the same enterprise, and a lot of the things that arrest me intellectually are also preoccupations of Steve’s.
SH: I read in Larry’s book that my personality is inflexible.
LW: There’s that. I’m much more flexible. One thing I think it’s important to note about our friendship — it’s generations deep. Our children are close friends.
And they sometimes have something equivalent to our breakfast thing. Roberta and Sue Ellen meet for breakfast at the same time, and our daughters Caroline and Dorothy have started — well, it’s more of a cocktail version.
That’s really delightful that they have that continuing connection.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lawrence Wright’s “God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State” was published by Knopf in April of this year.
Stephen Harrigan’s “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln: A novel” was published by Knopf in 2016. His as yet untitled work on Texas’ history will be released in 2019.