Writing a history of Texas may seem too big a subject for a writer to grasp, but Texas author Stephen Harrigan drew on his past experience writing novels about the Alamo and Abraham Lincoln.
Both subjects have had small libraries written about them with passionate followers quick to challenge any straying from what they see as the accepted truth. When Harrigan focused on the people and the story, however, writing about them fell into place, the Austin-based author said in an in interview in advance of his appearance in Waco on Thursday.
“Writing about the Alamo and writing about Lincoln helped demystify the subject matter,” Harrigan said. “It helped bring it down to a human level to me. I had learned not to be intimated by how big the thing I was writing about.”
Harrigan’s new book, “Big Wonderful Thing: A History Of Texas,” is a big wonderful thing itself, clocking in at 944 pages. Published this month by University of Texas Press, the book takes its title from a quote by painter Georgia O’Keeffe about her encounter with the state.
Harrigan, 71, will come to Waco for a discussion about his new book at 7 p.m. Thursday at Fabled Bookshop and Cafe, 215 S. Fourth St. Admission is free, and copies of his books will be available for purchase. Attendees also can bring their copies of his books for signing.
The writer, author of novels including the best-selling “The Gates of the Alamo,” “Remember Ben Clayton” and “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln,” also is a longtime contributor to Texas Monthly magazine. Harrigan has written more than a dozen screenplays and is halfway through a new novel set in 1950s Oklahoma City. He has won lifetime achievement awards from the Texas Book Festival and the Texas Institute of Letters.
After years of writing on subjects in the state and researching the history behind his Texas-based novels, Harrigan felt the time was right to tackle a readable, big-picture story of the state and its people.
“It’s a human story, a ground-level story,” he said.
And one, for all its sprawling size, organized in reader-friendly chapters. In fact, that is how Harrigan wrote it.
“I’m too literal minded,” he said. “I have to start at the beginning and end at the end. Every chapter is like a different magazine story, with a beginning, middle and end. I never really got tired, but I did get anxious. … As soon as I stopped writing, I felt calm.”
Harrigan’s history took him six years to complete and draws on new sources and perspectives published in recent years. While he profiles many of the state’s famous characters and leaders, he shines a light on lesser-known ones and cultures as well, with music and food among his cultural subjects.
“There’s a tremendous amount of new work by historians,” Harrigan said. “It had a tremendous effect on me when I was writing it. There’s complexity in Texas history from every angle, and I tried to keep my ear to the ground when writing. It was very difficult to hold all that in your head. You feel the burden to account for that, but the story of Texas is interesting all the way to the end.”
The end, in the case of “Big Wonderful Thing,” is President George W. Bush’s speech from the ruins of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It seemed as fitting a place as any to wind up his story.
“I didn’t want to be chasing the news,” Harrigan said. “I’d never finish if I did.”
The October issue of Texas Monthly features excerpts from Harrigan’s book on three sometimes contentious points of Lone Star history: fighting between Texans and Comanches in the mid-1800s, including the Council House slaughter of Comanche chiefs and the 1840 Battle of Plum Creek; the ambush of German Union sympathizers at the Nueces River near Comfort and the Great Hanging of some 40 Unionists by Texas Confederates during the Civil War; and the Border War in the lower Rio Grande Valley between Texas Rangers, Mexican revolutionaries and Mexican-American citizens in 1915 and 1916.
The magazine excerpt had just come out at the time of the interview, and although initial reactions to the book have been favorable, Harrigan knows criticism is part of the territory.
“I’m braced for impact,” he said. “There’s no pretending that people will want to take issue on this or that interpretation. The good thing about that is it’s a story that people care about.”