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Before Cormac McCarthy's death, he gave fans 2 new novels after 16 years of waiting

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Cormac McCarthy died this week, and the world of literature lost a great American novelist. Just last year, he published two new novels. The books were interconnected with plots set in motion by a mysterious plane crash at sea. Devoted fans had been waiting 16 years for a new work from McCarthy. Let's revisit the story behind the books, originally aired last fall from NPR's John Burnett.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: By all accounts, Cormac McCarthy has been working on "The Passenger" and its sequel, "Stella Maris," for at least four decades. Jenny Jackson, the executive editor at Knopf, was brought in in 2014 to work with him in secret.

JENNY JACKSON: Eight years ago, it was so cloak and dagger that we were working on these books, just because McCarthy fans are rabid and any whiff of there being new books was going to be huge news. And so we would walk down the hall and hand off manuscripts in person. And, you know, I wasn't telling anyone what we were working on. It was fun.

BURNETT: We're sitting in the Napoleon House drinking Pimm's Cups. It's a venerable watering hole in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where McCarthy lived as a young penurious writer. The protagonist in "The Passenger" is a troubled commercial diver named Bobby Western, who frequents the Napoleon House for rambling discourses with eccentric buddies.

JACKSON: At the beginning, there's this, like, kind of big cast of boisterous characters, and they're all, you know, working as divers and having drinks together and going out to restaurants. And then at the end, they're all each kind of on their own singular journey.

BURNETT: Neither of these two new books contains the savagery and bloodletting McCarthy readers have come to expect. There's less action overall and more dialogue. Readers may wonder if McCarthy has mellowed now that he's 89 years old. A breathless blurb on the back cover of "The Passenger" reads, a sunken jet, nine passengers, a missing body, a salvage diver pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding. But this is not a fast-paced crime thriller like "No Country For Old Men." McCarthy's book became an Oscar-winning screenplay for the Coen brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN")

JAVIER BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) What's the most you ever lost on a coin toss?

GENE JONES: (As character) Sir?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) The most you ever lost on a coin toss?

JONES: (As character) I don't know. I couldn't say.

(SOUNDBITE OF COIN FLIPPING)

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Call it.

JONES: (As character) Call it?

BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yes.

BURNETT: "The Passenger" starts out as a whodunit, but then it veers into Bobby's metaphysical musings. Again, Jenny Jackson.

JACKSON: It's what we keep saying over and over again, is that when you're Cormac McCarthy and you've written "The Road," what on earth can you do next except tackle God and human consciousness?

BURNETT: "The Road" is McCarthy's best-selling last novel, released in 2006, about a father and son's harrowing journey through a post-apocalyptic landscape. It won a Pulitzer. Here is the reclusive author describing the genesis of "The Road" in his only broadcast interview, granted to Oprah Winfrey in 2007.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

CORMAC MCCARTHY: I just had this image of these fires up on the hill and everything being laid waste. And I thought a lot about my little boy. And so I wrote those pages, and that was the end of it. And then about four years later, I was in Ireland, and I woke up one morning, and I realized that it wasn't two pages of another book. It was a book.

BURNETT: The new books are not dark so much as they are dense. Notably, they reflect McCarthy's love and thorough understanding of theoretical physics and mathematics. He has said in his few interviews that he prefers the company of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute near his home in New Mexico. Determined McCarthy fanatics have found advanced copies of the books, and they've provoked strong reactions.

DIANNE LUCE: The novels explore all these aspects of human mental behavior. I think they're just marvelous.

BRYAN GIEMZA: In some ways, you know, they're flawed. They are likely to be inscrutable to a lot of people. Let's just say they're not my favorite novels.

LYDIA COOPER: They are brain teasers, but they're also really compelling. And the characters are really rich and fascinating. And I think people are going to love them or hate them.

BURNETT: That's Dianne Luce, former president of the Cormac McCarthy Society, Bryan Giemza, literature professor at Texas Tech University, and Lydia Cooper, English professor at Creighton University. They were interviewed last month at the Cormac McCarthy Conference in Savannah, Ga. One of the organizers of that conference was Stacey Peebles. She's an English professor who teaches a McCarthy course at Centre College. She's also editor of the Cormac McCarthy Journal.

STACEY PEEBLES: I've had students coming by my office. They say, are you going to teach the new ones? I'm so excited. You know, I'm definitely signing up.

BURNETT: Peebles has read both of the new books.

PEEBLES: You know, we've been waiting for these a long time. I mean, there's always a possibility that you're going to read something new and be disappointed. But I read them once. I read them again, and I'll probably keep reading them. I mean, all of McCarthy's works have sentences that'll just stop you cold. But these have a lot of those.

BURNETT: (Reading) God's own mudlark trudging cloaked and muttering the barren selvage of some nameless desolation where the cold sidereal sea breaks and seethes and the storms howl from out of that black and heaving alkahest.

McCarthy, who still composes on a manual typewriter, is considered one of the greatest and most influential writers in the English language.

STEPHEN HARRIGAN: I began to notice fairly early on that a lot of these students were writing like Cormac McCarthy.

BURNETT: Texas novelist Stephen Harrigan made this observation when he taught a fiction writing course at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

HARRIGAN: They were writing with strange locutions, like he rode isolate into the darkling plain, that kind of language, you know, and this - also this Old Testament archaic usage that creates a kind of spell, particularly for young writers.

BURNETT: The McCarthy spell is about to be cast again, and not just for readers but for researchers. Cormac McCarthy's literary papers are archived in a locked cabinet in the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. Steve Davis, literary curator there, rolls it open for an inquisitive reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS SHUFFLING)

STEVE DAVIS: So it's about a hundred boxes of Cormac material that we have here. His collection begins with his first book, "Outer Dark."

BURNETT: Ninety-eight boxes to be exact. And the 98th box has been restricted for 15 years. McCarthy scholars are already standing in line to delve into it the same day "The Passenger" goes on sale.

DAVIS: This is the box for the new novel, "The Passenger." And we're going to pull out this first big folder which says "The Passenger," old first draft - typescript and photocopy pages, heavily corrected in pencil.

BURNETT: Perhaps the contents of this box will reveal how Cormac McCarthy's challenging new novels evolved and why he wrote them.

John Burnett, NPR News.

GONYEA: And just to note, those novels were published late last year when this story originally aired. Cormac McCarthy died this week at 89. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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