Writing in Stone

Bill Wittliff, © 1977, from the Wittliff Collections, Texas State University–San Marcos
by Rick Bass - Texas - Feb/March 2011

Now ninety years old, John Graves has slowly built a reputation as  one of the best writers in Texas. It’s time the rest of the world caught on

We’ve come kind of but not really against his wishes. Our primary goal is to celebrate his ninetieth birthday, but a close second goal is to avoid overwhelming him with the praise that flows so easily from those of us who revere him, the best-loved writer in Texas and one of the least-known beyond the state lines.

It’s not that he’s delicate, but he really just doesn’t like to be around people. We’ve come a long way to find him, way out in the hill country southwest of Fort Worth. About a hundred of us have convened in a land where dinosaur tracks stipple the limestone creek bottoms that wander through this scraggly—some would say desolate—heat-shimmering hilly land of juniper and sky.

I haven’t seen John and his wife, Jane, in a few years, and this time when I darken the doorway at their ranch outside of the small town of Glen Rose, the elegant and beautiful Jane—formerly a designer back when she was Jane Cole—greets me with a hug and the query “Do you remember that awful time you interviewed John at the Texas Book Festival, in the rotunda at the state capitol? The two least talkative people in the world, expected to have a conversation!”

A thousand or more spectators had been out there in their plush seats, eagerly watching the hermit of Glen Rose, awaiting whatever sage comments the clever questioner—I—could elicit from him.
Jane is happy to see me, but something about the crowd has brought this unfortunate memory back to the surface. She jogs my memory, and repeats, in case I’ve forgotten it, my first question to him: “So, John, you live in the country?”

The audience—who had read everything he’s written, most of which has concerned his life in rural Texas—waited. After some deliberation, John said, “Yes,” and then both of us turned to look at the clock on the wall.

Obviously, Jane is still mischievous, though I also worry that it’s not all teasing. It was ten years ago! They both have high standards in people, in art, in the written word. Jane is still an active reader, plowing through a great depth and breadth of literature each week, year after year. I think that for each of them there is some kind of invisible and unable-to-be-articulated code of being, a kind of ethos of personal craft that feels olden and in some peculiar way densely Texan.

The party is being held out beyond John and Jane’s remote four hundred acres, named Hard Scrabble, where they live in a stone house that John built himself, back in the ’60s. Their home is spare, appointed with a few select antiques, but the ranch where the party is being held is anything but spare. It, too, is hidden back in the juniper hills outside of Glen Rose, but it’s a palace of Texas opulence—not a little stone house, but a mansion. Children swim in the large pool, and the testimonials circulate all night. The day was brutally hot, but tonight there is a dry breeze stirring, sliding down over the limestone cliffs and drying-out creek beds. There’s a sweetness of introductions, in the bewitching dusk—everyone who knows one another is introducing their friends to those of us who do not: as if, drawn by the power of Old John, we seek somehow to unify before darkness falls. A hundred is not too many.