From left, McCarthy’s author photo for Cities of the Plain, by Marion Ettlinger; McCarthy on TV yesterday.Courtesy of Knopf (left), Harpo Productions (right)
When Oprah Winfrey announced a few months ago that the selection of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road for her book club meant that Winfrey would air a televised interview with McCarthy, excitement in the literary community was high. After all, McCarthy’s a genius, the visionary author of such masterworks as Blood Meridian, Suttree, and All the Pretty Horses. And more than that, McCarthy is legendarily reclusive, previously granting only one substantive interview in his career, with the New York Times in 1992. He had certainly never appeared on television before.
On yesterday’s show, McCarthy wasn’t as gnomically apocalyptic as we’d speculated he would be. Slouching in an overstuffed armchair, he seemed more like a nice-enough old man, gamely trying to answer the inane questions posed by the overenthusiastic woman sitting opposite. Winfrey trotted out such chestnuts as “Where did the idea for this novel come from?” and “Do you have a writing routine?” McCarthy, to his credit, treated the questions seriously, though that may be because he’s the only writer on earth who’s never heard them before.
We did learn that McCarthy has an 8-year-old son, to whom The Road is dedicated, and that having a child — surprise! — changes your worldview. But for the most part, Winfrey wasted what could have been one of the five most culturally significant interviews she’ll ever conduct asking Cormac McCarthy how he feels about millions of people reading his books. (“I don’t mind it. There’s nothing wrong with it.”)
Mostly, McCarthy’s interview reminded us of the magic worked every day by professional media coaches. We don’t know that we’ve ever seen a more uncomfortable person on television than McCarthy, slouched in that armchair, chin resting in hand, speaking so quietly that even miked up he could barely be heard. He was stripped, by bad lighting and a seeming refusal to wear makeup, of the stern grandeur he adopts in his book-jacket photos. (The brilliant photographer who helped create McCarthy’s image, Marion Ettlinger, should show video of this interview to potential clients.) Instead, he seemed ungainly and frail and uncertain. We guess we don’t particularly want to see a poised and polished Cormac McCarthy fobbing off anecdotes like a pro, but this sure made for awkward TV.
Given the potentially historical nature of this interview, we had been surprised that it had been so underplayed. Television listings barely mentioned it; it wasn’t even the lead feature on yesterday’s show, playing second fiddle to an interview with documentarian Michael Moore. But upon watching the interview last night, we figured out why Winfrey made so little hay over her unbelievable get: The interview was awful, and she knew it.
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