Steve Yarbrough is the author of eleven books, most recently the novel The Unmade World, due out in January 2018. His other books are the nonfiction title Bookmarked: Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, the novels The Realm of Last Chances, Safe from the Neighbors, The End of California, Prisoners of War, Visible Spirits and The Oxygen Man, and the short story collections Veneer, Mississippi History and Family Men. His work has been published in several foreign languages, including Dutch, Japanese and Polish, and it has also appeared in Ireland, Canada, and the U.K. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction, the California Book Award, the Richard Wright Award and the Robert Penn Warren Award. He has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
The son of Mississippi Delta cotton farmers, Steve is currently a professor in the Department of Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. He has two daughters—Lena Yarbrough and Antonina Parris—and is married to the Polish writer Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough. They live in the greater Boston area.
Steve is an aficionado of jazz and bluegrass music, which he plays on guitar, mandolin and banjo, often after midnight.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on your entry for Ig’s Bookmarked Series. Was The Last Picture Show the first title that came to mind when you were approached about writing for the series or were there some days of anguish in the decision process? If so, what other titles did you consider—and what ultimately drew you to The Last Picture Show?
Steve Yarbrough: Truly, it was the only one I considered, and if Ig hadn’t wanted me to write about it, I would have declined the opportunity to contribute to the series. I wrote a very short piece around ten or twelve years ago for Post Road Magazine about The Last Picture Show, and I had to hold it to something like two thousand words. I realized I had a lot more to say, and this offered me the chance to do it.
CS: My first experience (as I imagine was the case for many of our generation) with The Last Picture Show was Bogdanovich’s wonderful 1971 film. How did the film fit into your experience of reading the book—and how did it later fit in when you set out to write your take?
SY: There are some significant differences between the novel and the film. I first read the novel, and when I saw the film sometime later, I was initially disappointed. Over time I came to see them as two separate works. In many ways, I now prefer the film to the novel, but that early experience of falling in love with the book meant more to me than the film ever could, despite my admiration for it. In my Bookmarked volume, I addressed the differences and talked about how my own reactions to the book and the film have changed over time.
CS: I’ve interviewed a few other authors in the Bookmarked series—and they each have had different views on the process—especially in terms of how they first tackled the project and its structure. May I ask how it went for you? Was it a steady slog—or did you write in bursts? Or did you wrestle with its form for a while and then go to work once you were comfortable with that?
SY: I was finishing a novel when I agreed to do the Bookmarked project and the novel took longer than I expected. But during that time, I thought a lot about how I planned to approach the nonfiction book, and once I got started, the writing actually took me only a couple of months. It went fairly smoothly. I knew that I was going to write much of the book as a memoir, while never losing sight of The Last Picture Show and its importance to me.
CS: This is your first nonfiction book. I had already put out some novels and story collections before my first nonfiction title—and I found (and continue to find) that while my fiction writer’s toolbox was helpful, the process itself was quite different. How did you find the experience?
SY: Well, as you say, it’s my first nonfiction book. But I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, mostly back in the mid to late ‘90s, with the occasional brief foray in the meantime. I’ve always written nonfiction fairly easily. I don’t seem to face the same structural concerns that I do when I’m working on a novel or a story. I speak in my own voice, and that’s always come easily for me. Sometimes I wonder if I was not really meant to be a nonfiction writer.
CS: And to follow up in the same area—just as your fiction background no doubt influenced your nonfiction voice, do you think you’ll take anything from the experience of writing this book and bring it back to your fiction? Would you like to write more nonfiction?
SY: I would like to write more nonfiction. I had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed doing it. I had quit writing fiction about the South, and I really don’t see myself going back to doing that. But I may have caught the memoir bug here. I’m still pondering my own reaction to the writing.
CS: Are you a fan of McMurty’s other work? If so, what about his writing appeals to you? Have you hooked him up with a copy of your book? If he read it, what would you hope he’d have to say?
SY: I am a fan of McMurtry’s other work—he’s one of the writers who made me want to do what I do—but some of his novels are a lot better than others, and though as I said in my book, I don’t know him personally, I doubt he would dispute my assessment since he has essentially said the same thing himself. I loved Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers; all of the Lonesome Dove novels; Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen; and In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. I wrote to his Facebook author site, asking if he would talk to me, and I never heard back. We have friends in common, so I probably could have gotten to him through them, but I decided not to bother him any further. He’s more than earned the right to be left alone, which I suspect is what he prefers. Anyhow, he’s a book person through and through, so I’m sure if he wants a copy of my book, he’ll get it. If that happens, I hope he’ll see what his work, especially The Last Picture Show, has meant to me.
CS: What’s next?
SY: I’ve got a novel coming out in January, and I plan to start another one in a month or so. I don’t know much about it yet at all.