My Final, Unexpected Conversation with Cormac McCarthy

Written by David Kushner, Insider

Sunday June 18th, 2023

When the Pulitzer-winning author Cormac McCarthy called me a few months back, I heard something in his voice I hadn't heard before — age.

My last conversation with Cormac McCarthy, the acclaimed and elusive novelist who died last week at 89, came as unexpectedly as the first.

Over six decades of winning every major literary award, including the Pulitzer Prize, McCarthy gave notoriously few interviews. But beginning in 2005, much to my amazement, he had several with me — initially for Wired, and later for Rolling Stone. Belying his hermitic and ornery reputation, Cormac proved a spry talker, deeply knowledgeable, acidly funny, and infinitely curious. Especially about his favorite subject, science.

It was a scientist, in fact, who introduced me to McCarthy. I was interviewing Lisa Randall, a theoretical physicist at Harvard, when she mentioned that the world-famous author of the best-selling Western “All the Pretty Horses” and the brutal masterpiece “Blood Meridian” had edited a draft of her book. I heard a needle scratch in my head.

“Sorry,” I told her. “I thought you said Cormac McCarthy edited your book on theoretical physics?”

“I got the manuscript back in the mail, and it was marked up on every page,” Randall told me. “He essentially copyedited it, getting rid of some of my semicolons, which he really didn’t like.”

From “No Country for Old Men” to particle physics — I didn’t know what to make of the disconnect. I’d been reading McCarthy since college, when my father, Gil, had urged me to pick up “The Orchard Keeper,” his first novel. The dark, taut Southern saga of murder, revenge, and fathers and sons had a deep relevance to both my dad and me. When I was 4 and living in backwoods Florida, my 11-year-old brother, Jon, left for the convenience store to get candy, and was kidnapped and murdered by two drifters, the sort of story that could have sprung from Cormac’s pages. I admired how he could look so unsparingly into the darkness, and sear it on the page.

By the time I interviewed Randall, Cormac was spending his days at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research institute in the piñon foothills of New Mexico. After receiving a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1981 and meeting Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and cofounder of SFI, McCarthy had moved from Texas just to be close to the place. He preferred the company of scientists because they were exploring the fundamental questions of nature and complexity. “If it doesn’t concern life or death,” as he later told me, “it’s not interesting.”

I knew the risks of approaching McCarthy. My dad had told me a story he’d heard about a journalist who had supposedly shown up at McCarthy’s house in hopes of doing an interview. “Don’t do this to yourself,” McCarthy told the guy, before shutting the door in his face. Nevertheless, I figured it was worth asking Randall whether McCarthy might speak with me for the story I was doing about her. A little later, she called me back to say — to her shock and mine — that he was happy to do her the favor. Then she gave me his number, and said to call him in fifteen.

While I waited, I called my dad, who was duly floored to hear the news. Cormac and I ended up speaking for hours. Wry and engaged, he had plenty to say about cosmology, violent video games, and how a vole’s trail can lead to its own demise. “Their trails are mostly composed of urine, but there are other substances as well,” he told me in his Tennessee drawl. “One absorbs ultraviolet light, which is invisible to us. But guess who can see it? The raptors flying overhead. They have ultraviolet vision. You think about these birds — they’re not looking for voles, they’re looking for ultraviolet trails through the weeds.”

The more I spoke with McCarthy, the more he sounded like a scientist rather than a novelist. Whenever the subject of writing came up, he’d often turn it back to physics, his major before he dropped out of college. “In physics,” he said, “to figure out how things are, you really have to think about how things might be. You have to have a childlike mind, like Einstein thinking about: What would happen if I was suddenly projected at the speed of light — what would I see?” He seemed like a little boy turning over rocks in a stream, just to see what was underneath. When I asked what fascinated him about science, he said simply, “It’s interesting to know how the world works.”

Cormac invited me to visit him at SFI to help promote the work of the institute. SFI researchers were pioneering the cross-disciplinary study of the complex and hidden systems that underlie everything from terrorist cells to climate change. Cormac considered them intellectual “outlaws,” as he put it. “They’re not academics, they’re not trying to cover their ass.”

I spent several days milling around SFI’s hilltop adobe retreat with McCarthy and an ensemble of ecologists, biologists, and anthropologists like my dad. One afternoon, while Cormac and I were in SFI’s small kitchen loading up on enchiladas and beans, he started talking about extinction. A friend of his there, the paleobiologist Doug Erwin, had written a book about it, and McCarthy had grown fascinated by the Cretaceous-Tertiary meteorite that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. On a trip to El Paso to visit his son, he imagined fires engulfing the horizon. He decided to turn the image into his next book, which he described to me as a “post-apocalyptic story of a father and son.”

“What’s it called?” I asked.

He took a forkful of rice. “The Road,” he replied.

After my story came out in Rolling Stone, McCarthy and I continued to talk from time to time. He became a mentor to me, offering up advice on writing and publishing. “You know what writing is?” he asked once. “Writing is rewriting.” Another time, when I asked whether he worked from outlines, he demurred. “If you’re writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue,” he said. “It’s pretty much a subconscious process — you don’t really know what you’re doing most of the time.” When I got up the nerve to send him a draft of a story I was working on, he proved a gracious but exacting editor, stripping my work of the commas he used so economically in his own writing.

Eventually, we fell out of touch. Which was why, a few months ago, it was such a pleasant surprise to hear from him. At first he seemed confused, even though he was the one who had called me. “Maybe it’s my phone,” he said, “but you sound different.” We soon sorted out that he hadn’t meant to call me. He’d meant to dial David Krakauer, the director of SFI, but had hit my name instead. “You got the next David in the alphabet,” I joked.

Then we spent a few minutes catching up. I congratulated him on his two new novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris,” which teem with his wonder for science. I reminded him that when we first met, he told me he was working on five novels at once. (Which, according to my math, means there are still another three in the vault.) He told me he was looking forward to a visit with his family, and that he still hung out at SFI when he could.

As he spoke, I heard something in his voice I hadn’t heard before — age. I’d lost my father by then, and wanted to thank Cormac for the both of us. I told him what a personal and professional thrill it had been to meet him and get to know him and write about him. He’d helped inspire me to write my family’s own story of life and death, “Alligator Candy,” and for that, I was grateful. I didn’t realize it would be our goodbye.

One night long ago, during my visit at SFI, the writer known for confronting mortality so bluntly in his fiction spoke of his own. We were attending a lecture on climate change, and Cormac was sitting down front in blue jeans and cowboy boots alongside the biologists, physicists, and other brainiac outlaws he considered his close friends. “Eventually, you start to realize that you aren’t going to be around for very long,” he told me as we prepared to listen to the latest research on how the world might end. “Find work you like and find someone to live with you like. Very few people get both.”