Columns > Published on July 20th, 2018

The 85 Best Things About Cormac McCarthy

July 20th is Cormac McCarthy's 85th birthday. In honor of the man and his work, we bring you 85 things you might not know, might want to know, and that you might find useful, especially if you like stumbling around drunk in Tennessee. Which, if you haven't done it, is worth your time. 

1. One of his only taped interviews is the most awkward interview of all time

It was weird. Not Franzen, combative weird, but you could tell this was a person who didn't do this sort of thing often. McCarthy slumps in his chair, scratches his lapel microphone, and spends more time talking about science than his books. 

2. The awkward interview was with Oprah

3. His novel 'The Road' was based almost entirely on a single, real-life image 

I just had this image of what [El Paso] might look like in 50 or 100 years…fires up on the hill and everything being laid to waste, and I thought a lot about my little boy.

4. Or, maybe it was a sound

One claim says the writer's gears started turning when he was with his son in El Paso, at 2 AM, and looked out over the town and heard only a train in the distance, a sound he described as "very lonesome."

5. 'The Road' is about goodness

Or at least, that's how McCarthy thinks of his post-apocalyptic novel of a dying man escorting his son through a world of death, cannibals, and not much else. 

6. McCarthy wrote most of his books on an Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter

By his estimate, more than 5 million words came out of the machine, which he did nothing to maintain other than blowing it out with a shop hose. 

7. McCarthy sold his Lettera for $254,500

McCarthy's Lettera was expected to earn $20,000 at auction, but it did quite a bit better than that. With the original cost being $50, he turned a $254,450 profit, which he donated to the Santa Fe Institute. 

8. McCarthy then replaced his typewriter with another of the same model for $11

9. Glenn Horowitz on the significance of the typewriter:

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

10. McCarthy picked his publisher by chance

When McCarthy sent out the manuscript for The Orchard Keeper, he picked the publisher Random House because it was the only one he'd ever heard of. 

11. Luck worked out for him

Random House editor Albert Erskine ended up with the manuscript. Erskine had edited William Faulkner's stuff, and he'd edit McCarthy for the next 20 years.

12. McCarthy on writers and drinking:

If there’s an occupational hazard to writing, it’s drinking.

13. He doesn’t care for semicolons

As is the case with most of the greats.

14. McCarthy has copy edited several scientific books

Physics professor Lawrence M. Krauss and physicist Lisa Randall both had books edited by McCarthy. Randall:

I got the manuscript back in the mail, and it was marked up on every page...He read everything. He essentially copy-edited it, getting rid of some of my semicolons, which he really didn’t like.

15. McCarthy is more interested in the company of scientists than writers

He spends most of his time hobnobbing and working with scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, which is, " independent, nonprofit theoretical research institute located in Santa Fe (New Mexico, United States) and dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, including physical, computational, biological, and social systems."

16. This preference is 30 years old

When McCarthy won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant he was flown to Chicago to meet other recipients. He avoided the other writers. As he put it:

The artsy crowd was all dressed and drugged and ready to party...I just started hanging out with scientists because they were more interesting.

17. He won a MacArthur "genius" grant, by the way

McCarthy was in the first class of MacArthur Fellows or “Genius Grant” recipients along with Robert Penn Warren, Leslie Marmon Silko, and others.

18. Anyway, back to science

Science is very rigorous...When you hang out with scientists and see how they think, you can’t do so without developing a respect for it. And part of what you respect is their rigor. When you say something, it needs to be right. You can’t just speculate idly about things.

19. And the generosity of scientists at the Santa Fe Institute

People drift in from all over the world—Nobel-winning chemists and biologists—and they’re sitting next to you at lunch. They’re just very generous. You ask them something and they’ll just stop what they’re doing and sit down and tell you all about it. And that’s rather remarkable.

20. One more McCarthy science quote

To me, the most curious thing of all is incuriosity. I just don’t get it.

21. McCarthy is known for eschewing classic punctuation

Especially quotation marks. This sounds like an obnoxious affectation, but if you read the books, he makes it work.

22. It turns out that McCarthy replaces punctuation with other things

23. He’s a practitioner of what’s called polysyndenton

Polysyndenton is the practice of using conjunctions in place of some punctuation in order to create prose that’s slower and more “solemn.” 

24. Papa Roach totally ripped him off

McCarthy, 1992: Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.

Papa Roach, 2003: Our scars remind us / That the past is real

25. He was luckier than he was rich

I had no money, I mean none. I had run out of toothpaste and I was wondering what to do when I went to the mailbox and there was a free sample.

26. This was consistently true

At one point McCarthy had eaten the last bit of food in the house when a courier knocked and handed him an envelope with a check for $20,000, a gift from a private patron of the arts.

27. But still, the dude was broke

At one point McCarthy was thrown out of a $40 per month hotel for not paying the rent.

28. However, something always came along for him 

McCarthy doesn’t find his toothpaste story or the donor check to be unusual. He says his life is filled with hundreds of stories like this one.

29. His book 'Blood Meridian' inspired a great album

The Last Pale Light In The West by Ben Nichols is a must-listen.

30. This haunting quote from 'Blood Meridian'

War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.

31. 'Blood Meridian' has been called unfilmable a number of times

A claim that may be accurate considering the large number of false starts.

32. McCarthy doesn’t think 'Blood Meridian' is unfilmable

He says it would be...

...very difficult to do and would require someone with a bountiful imagination and a lot of balls. But the payoff could be extraordinary.

33. He lived in a stone house on Coffin Ave in El Paso

That's so metal.

34. McCarthy's grandfather put all his daughters (and sons) through college 

35. McCarthy found his writing talent after a college professor asked him to redo the punctuation for a collection of eighteenth-century essays

36. 'Suttree' is the book he considers most autobiographical

37. You can take a McCarthy vacation

"Searching For Suttree" is a website devoted to cataloguing the real-life locations depicted in Suttree.

38. If you do, don't forget to drink a beer

Suttree’s High Gravity Tavern is a brewery named after a character in McCarthy's book.

39. If you have one beer, why not have two?

Nearby Harrogate Lounge is named after Suttree’s Watermelon-humping character. Appetizing!

40. If you have two beers, why not 15?

The Suttree Stagger is an 8-hour pub crawl through Knoxville which includes stops to do readings from Suttree at appropriate locations. 2019 will be the event's 40th anniversary.

41. While in Knoxville, see the sites

In Knoxville's Market Square, you can find this McCarthy passage etched into the stone: 

Market Street on Monday morning, Knoxville, Tennessee. In this year 1951. Suttree with his parcel of fish going past the rows of derelict trucks piled with produce and flowers, an atmosphere rank with country commerce, a reek of farmgoods in the air tending off into a light surmise of  putrefaction and decay. Pariahs adorned the walk and blind singers and organists and psalmists with mouth harps wandered up and down. Past hardware stores and meatmarkets and little tobacco shops. A strong smell of feed in the hot noon like working mash. Mute and roosting peddlers watching from the wagonbeds and flower ladies in their bonnets like cowled gnomes, driftwood hands composed on their apron laps and their underlip swollen with snuff.

He went among vendors and beggars and wild street preachers haranguing a lost world with a vigor unknown to the sane. Suttree admired them with their hot eyes and dogeared Bibles, God’s barkers gone forth into the world like the prophets of old. He’d often stood along the edges of the crowd for some stray scrap of news from beyond the pale.

He crossed the street, stepping gutters clogged with greenstuff. Coming from behind the trucks, a beggarlady’s splotched and marcid arm barred his way, a palsied claw that gibbered at his chest.

42. And check out some of McCarthy's other work

At one point, McCarthy helped a friend create a mosaic. Just before it was destroyed, a friend and fellow mosaic-builder pointed out McCarthy's signature. It’s now located outside the Blount County Library.

43. Knoxville likes burning down the house

Although Cormac’s childhood home in Knoxville burned down, he’s in good company. Apparently Knoxville is earning a reputation for torching author houses, including those of James Agee and poet Nikki Giovanni. 

44. Maybe he cursed himself

Supposedly McCarthy used bricks from Agee’s demolished home to build a fireplace. Or possibly a bathroom. Depends who you ask. 

45. McCarthy says there are four great novels

He likes a number of books, but as greats go, his list is short: Ulysses, Brothers Karamazov, The Sound and the Fury, and Moby Dick.

46. Charley, Chaz, C.J., and Cormac are all names Cormac has gone through

47. His work has been put into concordances

John Sepich has put together concordances for McCarthy’s books. For those of you who aren’t biblically-inclined, a concordance is like an index of all the words used in a book. It tells you where the words were used and how many times. 

48. McCarthy tends to recruit unusual fans

Sepich, who made the concordances, also posted meticulous directions for creating a wooden “utility stool,” which he crafted after he decided a bucket wasn’t the best seat to use when changing shoes. 

49. McCarthy on outlining:

I just sit down and write whatever is interesting. If you’re writing mystery stories or something, you might want to have an outline, because it all has to have a logic and fall into place and have a beginning, a middle and an end. But if you’re writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue. It’s a subconscious process. You don’t really know what you’re doing most of the time.

50. McCarthy has known a handful of drug dealers in his time, and he has this advice for any upstarts:

If you’re in the drug business, you know when you get up that morning that there’s some chance somebody’s going to get killed...Maybe it’ll be you. Maybe by you. People who are not prepared to face that are not going to be in that business. Being a drug dealer is like operating a machine gun in wartime. You’re in a line of work where you’re not going to live long. 

51. This quote from 'The Road':

Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that

52. Or this one from 'The Sunset Limited':

I got what I needed instead of what I wanted and that's just about the best kind of luck you can have.

53. 'The Road' and 'All The Pretty Horses' are McCarthy’s most famous film adaptations, but the adaptation of his play, 'Sunset Limited', might be one of the best

It’s a dialog-driven story starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

54. His least successful move to the big screen was 'The Counselor'

Cormac wrote the screenplay, and Ridley Scott directed. This one was not based on a book.

55. Although the world didn’t love 'The Counselor', Guillermo Del Toro did

Here’s what I love. Cormac McCarthy’s writing is so true to itself. It doesn’t want to comply with the screenplay manuals and it doesn’t try to conform to the conventional breaks of the three-act structure.  

56. It's 2018, so let's get political

McCarthy has never voted, and he's been quoted as saying, “Poets shouldn’t vote” 

57. McCarthy’s take on people from the coasts who’ve moved to the southwest:

If you don’t agree with them politically, you can’t just agree to disagree—they think you’re crazy, 

58. Hold your horses. He seems to be a nice guy:

McCarthy tries to live by a code of civility. He shows up when he says he’ll show up. He inquires about sick parents. After a meal at SFI, he’s the first to clear a visitor’s plate. When a friend refused to see a doctor, McCarthy swore to call every day and bug him until he got the care he needed. After ten days of calls, the friend gave in.

59. 'No Country For Old Men' started life as a screenplay 

It eventually took a turn towards being a novel. This might have something to do with why it made for a good film adaptation.

60. Ethan Coen once described the grueling work of adapting 'No Country For Old Men' with his brother: of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That's why there needs to be two of us - otherwise he's gotta type one-handed. 

61. The best-known adaptation of 'No Country for Old Men' is the movie, but...

...the audiobook narrated by Tom Stechschulte, who also reads The Road, is better.

62. Completionists: There isn’t a boatload of McCarthy short fiction out there, but Here’s a link to a McCarthy story published in 1959: “A Wake for Susan.” 

63. Another shorty, “A Drowning Incident” from 1960.

64. And “The Dark Waters” from 1965. 

65. He wrote a short science piece, too

The Kekulé Problem, which asks the question of where language came from. And if that's not strange and interesting enough, he wrote a follow-up. 

66. For $43 annually you can join The Cormac McCarthy Society

Add $13 if you want a hard copy of the newsletter. 

67. Before you join, you should know they respect McCarthy's privacy

The society focuses on the work rather than the man out of respect for McCarthy's desire to live a private life. 

68. McCarthy is somewhat of a recluse

From a New York Times article:

McCarthy has lots of friends who know that he likes to be left alone. A few years ago The El Paso Herald-Post held a dinner in his honor. He politely warned them that he wouldn't attend, and didn't. The plaque now hangs in the office of his lawyer.

69. You can still get an idea of what the man is like

For example, you can check out nearly 40 years of correspondence between McCarthy and a friend.

70. If you're in San Marcos, TX, you can check out his papers, too

Including an unpublished early novel, screenplays, and correspondence.

71. McCarthy on what makes for bad fiction:

If it doesn’t concern life and’s not interesting.

72. This little story about the beginnings of 'The Road':

One day a few years ago, after checking his mail and pouring his coffee, McCarthy gingerly made his way down the hall at the Institute...and into the corner office of his friend Doug Erwin. Then he started asking about the apocalypse. In particular, he wanted to know about extinction—the Cretaceous-Tertiary meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago...Erwin told McCarthy about the likely aftermath of the deadly meteorite: the magnitude of the desolation, the collapse of ecosystems, the fallout of debris and gases. Then, one day [years later], Erwin sat down to read a galley of The Road, which depicts the harrowing, post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son. Erwin smiled—so this is what McCarthy was up to, he figured.

73. McCarthy's work has distinct eras

His early works focused on Appalachia, and his later works focused on the American Southwest. 

74. He did sit for another interview after Oprah 

He appears onscreen in the film Unbelievers, a 2013 documentary about the roles of science and reason in the modern world.

75. McCarthy wrote an episode for 'Visions', a PBS sort-of anthology show that aired screenplays by different writers.

McCarthy’s episode was called "Gardener’s Son" and focuses on a small handful of characters interacting around the backdrop of a cotton mill 1870’s South Carolina.

76. "Gardener’s Son" was adapted into a book.

77. On being a dad:

When you’re young and single, you hang out in bars and don’t think about what’s going to happen...But in the next fifty years when you have kids, you start thinking of their life and the world they have to live in. And that’s a sobering thought these days. I’m not one of those conspiracy guys, but the world is in a very unstable situation. If you were to take thoughtful people on, say, January 1st, 1900, and tell them what the twentieth century was going to look like, they’d say, Are you shitting me?’ 

78. On why he won't be teaching any classes anytime soon:

...teaching writing is a hustle.

79. He got along with Edward Abbey

The two of them were supposedly hatching a scheme to reintroduce wolves to southern Arizona in the late 80's. 

80. He has worked on up to five novels at a time

81. Switching between novels is easy for him

He takes a walk, then sits down and works on a completely different book.

82. His mysterious past spawned lots of speculation

Esquire once published a short article consisting of Cormac McCarthy rumors. 

83. Cormac McCarthy appears in the show Mike Tyson Mysteries

Well, sort of. He appears as a centaur.

84. His best writing advice:

You spend a lot of time thinking about how to write a book, you probably shouldn't be talking about it, you probably should be doing it.

85. His best life advice:

There is for a man two things in life that are very important, head and shoulders above everything else...Find work you like, and find someone to live with you like. Very few people get both.

Get The Gardener's Son at Bookshop or Amazon

Get The Stonemason at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

Reedsy Marketplace UI

1 million authors trust the professionals on Reedsy. Come meet them.

Enter your email or get started with a social account: