When Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana visit Miami Book Fair International on Thursday, the appearance will be a first for each of them. “We’ve been to lots of book fairs,” McMurtry says. “Just not Miami,” Ossana adds.
The writing partners, responsible for works including two novels and the Academy Award-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, finish each other’s sentences like an old married couple. Except they aren’t.
McMurtry, 78, married Faye Kesey (the widow of the late writer Ken Kesey) in 2011. The couple lives with Ossana, 65, her teenage niece and seven dogs; they split their time between Ossana’s home in Tucson and McMurtry’s home in Archer City, Texas.
The situation is unlikely, but it works for the writers, who met around 1985 at a catfish restaurant in Tucson.
“We were both having dinner with people who were mutual friends, so we all sat together,” Ossana says. The two became friends. Then, in the early ’90s, McMurtry had a serious heart attack followed by quadruple bypass surgery. He spent his recovery at Ossana’s house, suffering from post-surgical depression before getting better. “He kind of just sat on my couch,” she remembers.
“I’m still on her couch,” McMurtry points out.
Their first projects together were two novels of historical fiction: Pretty Boy Floyd in 1994 and Zeke and Ned in 1997. (“We had planned to do three, a trilogy, but we just haven’t gotten around to doing a third one,” Ossana says. “Doesn’t mean we won’t.”)
When they started working together, McMurtry would pound out five pages in the morning and hand them over to Ossana, who would finesse, add and delete and return them. But their system changed about 10 years ago.
“I might start now and he continues, or we may get sort of an outline done, and we go in and flesh it out,” Ossana says. “Now, we pretty much write hand in hand.”
Right now, they’re working on scripts for two television pilots as well as a feature film with Cary Fukunaga, a producer/director on HBO’s crime thriller True Detective, about an Oregon teen who committed suicide after being bullied for being gay. (“It’s a very sad story but an important story,” Ossana says.)
McMurtry is working on a memoir of sorts called 62 Women. And Ossana has just finished the second draft of a screenplay called Hope’s Wish, based on the true story of a terminally ill child whose wish was to make other dying children’s wishes come true.
How do they manage all these different projects?
“We live in different parts of the house,” McMurtry says. “It’s not that hard.”
“Both of us read each other’s writing. Always. We critique each other’s work and give advice, say yea or nay,” Ossana says. “It’s sort of automatic now.”
In 2006, McMurtry and Ossana won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for Brokeback Mountain, based on a short story by Annie Proulx. The movie, which followed a decades-long love story between a pair of cowboys, received enormous critical acclaim, and the Internet is littered with blog posts from film lovers who felt the movie should have been named Best Picture that year instead of Crash.
“Its own producer feels that way. [Crash writer, director and producer] Paul Haggis was actually stunned by it,” McMurtry says.
“It’s kind of interesting, because there are a lot of people who don’t watch the Oscars who think it did win Best Picture,” Ossana says. “The film will always be there. It’s found its way around the world and back again. The film definitely speaks for itself.”
While McMurtry is perhaps best known for Western novels including his Pulitzer Prize-winning opus Lonesome Dove, he has long been lauded for his depiction of women. Two especially memorable characters came to life in the Best Picture-winning screen adaptation of his novel Terms of Endearment. Shirley MacLaine won an Oscar for her role, and Debra Winger was nominated for one.
“I certainly had one or two strong female role models,” McMurtry says. “My grandmother on my father’s side came from Missouri to Texas, having 12 kids along the way. She was a tough lady. Everyone on the ranch was scared of her — the cowboys were, I certainly was.”
Ossana and McMurtry, both grandparents, don’t worry about the future of the printed word.
“You start reading to your children when they’re small,” Ossana says. “Just doing that will steer them toward books. ... They like being told stories.
“I think they’ll find their own way,” says McMurtry, who owns a bookstore in Archer City. “I’ve never been much bothered by competition between digital and hard copy. ... We have a young reader who is growing up in the bookstore. She lines her books up every day and makes her choices. She’s a passionate reader.”
“An Evening with Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, with Robert Weil” begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College. $15; www.miamibookfair.com