2004 interview of John Graves with Jeff Guinn

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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(This story was originally published on Feb. 15, 2004)

On a cold, rainy Saturday in late January, the passengers inside a rented van heading down U.S. 377 toward Glen Rose were nervous. They were on their way to spend the morning, maybe longer if he'd allow it, with Texas literary lion John Graves, whose superb, nature-oriented nonfiction is matched in reputation only by his preference for solitude.

A few months before, Graves had reluctantly agreed to accept the 2004 Award of Excellence in Conservation from Fort Worth's Botanical Research Institute of Texas, or BRIT. It's bestowed each year on a person or organization for "deepening our knowledge of the plant world and achieving public understanding of the value plants bring to life."

Graves, the 83-year-old author of the classic Goodbye to a River, a National Book Award finalist in 1961, and several other impeccably crafted titles about man and nature, was an obvious recipient. But he agreed only after a close friend (Fort Worth behind-the-scenes power Ruth Carter Stevenson) talked him into it.

Because BRIT's annual program includes a 5- to 10-minute video of the honoree at or around his home, there was more required of the reclusive Graves than just showing up at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth on April 1 to pick up his award. He grudgingly agreed that a film crew could come visit him at Hard Scrabble, the rugged, 400-acre spread he's written about so lovingly in books and essays. But his reticence was obvious, which is why Si Sohmer, president/director of BRIT; Don Wall, WFAA/Channel 8 TV's environmental reporter and volunteer producer of the BRIT film; a free-lance cameraman; and a few BRIT and Star-Telegram hangers-on felt uneasy as their van passed through Granbury and turned toward Glen Rose.

Wall and Sohmer spent some minutes speculating on whether Graves, who often requires a cane to get around, would be willing to be filmed walking his hilly property.

"If he comes outside to meet us, maybe we can just keep him there," Wall suggested. He was more concerned about his subject's physical ability to cooperate than about what he was going to ask him on-camera. It wasn't until the van neared Hard Scrabble that he briefly perused some background material about Graves.

"I've read some of Graves' writing," Wall said, "but as an interviewer, I'd really rather have less information. Like [talk show host] Larry King says, he doesn't prepare, he just starts talking to somebody."

But this presupposed John Graves would be talkative back.

Just before 10 a.m., the van slid to a halt before a stout metal gate bearing two signs: a small one labeled "Graves" and a larger one declaring "Posted Keep Out." The gate wasn't locked; Sohmer pulled it open, and the visitors drove another half-mile or so along a rutted dirt road until there loomed before them an engagingly misshapen 2-story house, about 100 yards from a battered barn. Within moments, a forbidding figure clad in a shirt, khaki pants and a long, sleeveless sweater vest walked slowly from the house. John Graves is still a tall, thick man. His "hellos" were pleasant enough, but clipped, as he eyed the camera man already maneuvering for good angles.

"We want to shoot some walking shots first," Wall explained to Graves, whose lips remained in a tight line as he was rigged with a small remote microphone. When that was in place, and after Graves cooperatively, if silently, walked stiffly from his house to his barn and back again, leaning a bit on his cane as the camera rolled, Wall positioned his subject against a stone pillar and commenced his interview.

"How do you feel?" Wall inquired.

"I feel 83 years old," Graves responded.

Wall waited for Graves to elaborate. Graves waited for Wall to ask another question. Graves won.

"How do you like this place?" Wall finally continued.

"We've enjoyed it for 40-odd years," Graves answered. There was another long pause before he added, "Been kind of a bad year, it's so dry."

Graves' taciturn demeanor was in direct contrast to his wonderful, detailed descriptions in print of Hard Scrabble and the rainfall there: "You are likely to take occasional sodden rambles during big downpours, studying the branches to see whether you are losing soil, checking terraces and ditches you have built to catch runoff and divert it from land that could erode, perching soaked above the creek itself to watch its manic force . . ." he once wrote, his love for the land he himself "worked" each day shimmering in every sentence.

But on this Saturday, he was still gauging his visitors, measuring them to determine their sincerity of commitment to the same elements of nature that have dominated his own life and writing.

Graves finally began to loosen up when, during a break while the cameraman changed film, somebody asked about snakes on the property.

"Now I only kill the ones by the house," Graves replied, sounding much more engaged. "Our littlest grandson got bitten last year when he tried to pick up a copperhead. He's nearly 3, so I hope he remembers it. We got him down to the hospital in 15-20 minutes, and they fixed him up."

After the subject of snakes was explored off-camera, Graves was a bit more talkative when filming recommenced. Encouraged by Wall, he talked about why he moved out to this ranch ("I just wanted a country place where I could get off by myself and ruminate"); his favorite writing subjects ("Most of my work heretofore's been connected to rural Texas, the land, what happened to it and the people living on it"); his literary inspirations ("Joyce, Faulkner, Mark Twain, the King James Bible"); and even his World War II combat experience ("A grenade hit me up and down my left side; I'm still blind in my left eye. Afterwards I could shoot better, but my depth perception was shot").

By the time everyone took a long break for coffee and oatmeal cookies in the Graves' comfortably rustic den, the author was clearly enjoying having company. His anecdotes grew detailed, especially regarding his decision in 1957 to take a canoe trip down a long stretch of the Brazos River before it was violated, in his opinion, by a series of proposed dams. The funny thing, Graves told his visitors, was that after all the talk about those dams, engineers decided the Brazos was too salty to re-route into convenient water supplies, and so only one dam of the several originally planned ended up getting built.

Watching Graves, observing the calluses still seared to his palms and fingertips from decades of swinging scythes and ramming posthole diggers into hard-packed dirt, and, most of all, listening to him talk about writing, the necessity of choosing just the right words and rhythms, left his visitors feeling honored that their plain-spoken host was finally willing to share so many thoughts.

Graves' Fort Worth roots were planted deep, they learned. His father owned a men's clothing store on Main Street; young John graduated from Arlington Heights High, and for a while he taught at Texas Christian University. He'll return to Fort Worth on April 1 as a true hometown hero.

Graves' reputation as an author remains somewhat limited to bibliophiles and those lucky enough to be assigned Goodbye to a River in high school or college. Despite critical kvelling, he's never reached national bestseller lists, and since Goodbye to a River's publication in 1960 he's published only a handful of other books. They've all been about the land, working it and walking it and revering it. Goodbye to a River has sold steadily, though, for the past 44 years, and Graves was able to purchase Hard Scrabble with some of the proceeds.

The infrequency of Graves' literary output actually helped cement his legend, Fort Worth author/editor Judy Alter said later.

"He is a giant figure," said Alter, director of TCU Press and past president of the Texas Institute of Letters. "John became sort of the wise old man of Texas letters by being thoughtful about his work and not rushing into print all the time. That made us feel, when we did get new writing from John Graves, that we had received rare gems."

While Jane Graves bustled about refilling cups and providing directions to the bathroom, her husband even ruminated a bit about his latest book, Myself and Strangers, that will be published by Knopf in May.

"It's about my wandering years in the late '40s and early '50s in Europe," he said, slumped comfortably in a battered easy chair. "It's a departure from my usual subjects, so I wonder how people will like it. But this was what I felt like writing about, so I sat down and did it."

The den was littered with books, proof that John Graves loves to read as well as write. Most prominent on tables handy to Graves' chair were Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memoir Living To Tell the Tale, his Christmas gift from Jane, and two well-thumbed copies of Stephen Harrigan's award-winning novel The Gates of the Alamo. A particularly tall pile on a nearby shelf included titles by such disparate authors as Carlos Puente, Jane Austen, Larry McMurtry, A.C. Greene, Sarah Bird and Sandra Cisneros.

Tentatively, Sohmer handed Graves a copy of a book he co-authored, Plants and Flowers of Hawai'i. Graves accepted it graciously, leafing through its pages, pausing at certain illustrations and mentioning how his Marine battalion was briefly stationed in Hawaii ("Of course, we weren't nature-minded at the time," he said).

When Wall began setting up the next scene to be filmed on the porch, Jane Graves told a few interesting stories herself -- about how her husband gradually built their house by hand, "room by room, with this den sort of the last piece," and how, when the Graves family moved to Hard Scrabble, he wouldn't allow their two young daughters to own many toys -- their father wanted them to learn to "make do for entertainment" with what they found on the land.

During round two of the taping, Graves was positively loquacious compared to his earlier, clipped responses. He told Wall that he doesn't work his land anymore -- Hard Scrabble was a cattle and goat ranch, along with some "agriculture" on the side -- because it was a one-man operation "and the one man got old." But he still likes to putter in his workshop, which connects the den to the small room where he writes. And he's going to keep on writing.

"My writing is always an unfinished project," Graves said. "I'm scared to quit. I'm 83. I don't want to end up watching TV falling asleep with my mouth open."

By early afternoon, as filming concluded and the BRIT party packed the van and prepared to leave, Graves was sounding quite mellow about the whole experience.

"In practical terms, awards don't mean anything to me at this point," Graves confided. "But these are decent people; they've told me about their programs and they've got good ideals, so I'm honored because of that."

Graves entered into, for him, a rather extended farewell with Sohmer, promising to be in Fort Worth on April 1 for the awards gala. Then, as his guests clambered into the van, he smiled widely and remarked, "You know, some of these things I don't want to do, don't turn out badly after all."

Classic Graves

"This age, of course, is unlikely to start breeding people who have the organic kinship to nature that the Comanches had. . . . For them every bush, every bird's cheep, every cloud bank had not only utilitarian but mystical meaning; it was all an extension of their sensory systems, an antenna as rawly receptive as a snail's. Even if their natural world still existed, which it doesn't, you'd have to snub the whole world of present men to get into it that way."

-- John Graves in Goodbye to a River, 1960

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