‘Mr. Texas’ by Lawrence Wright highlights Texas Legislature


'Mr. Texas' by Lawrence Wright.

‘Mr. Texas’ by Lawrence Wright.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House

It’s the same thing longtime Texan and Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright is aiming to do in his latest novel Mr. Texas. Wright, who has covered everything from 9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic, now follows Sonny Lamb, a non-political West Texas farmer who ends up running for the Texas House of Representatives as the only way to save his struggling farm.

“ I liked the idea of exploring a cowboy in the modern era, who’s facing real problems such as the drought and what would be the solution to that and only a political solution would work,” Wright said.


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Wright will be giving a book reading at Nowhere Bookshop at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, September 26. MySA sat down with him to discuss Mr. Texas, the Texas Legislature, and his favorite memory about the Alamo City.

Lawrence Wright.

Lawrence Wright.

Kenny Braun

Was there a certain recent moment in Texas politics that inspired ‘Mr. Texas?’

Well, there were a lot of things going on. Texas politics has been a real cauldron for the last several years. I’ve always been enchanted by Texas politics and the big characters that get drawn to that stage. But at the same time, anxious about where people are steering our state, and there were a lot of moments like that.


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One, I had spent some time writing about the Texas House for the New Yorker, and that became a part of my book, God Save Texas. I saw then, the field of play, just spread out in front of me, and one, I thought very honorable, man standing there trying to keep disaster from befalling the state and that was Joe Straus. I admired his integrity and when he got booted out of the party, that was a dismal moment, I think, and an indication of where we were going.

You’ve written about everything from 9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic. How does writing about Texas differ from those other topics?

Honestly, I had sworn off writing about Texas when I left Texas Monthly. This would have been in like 1990, 1991. I’d done enough writing about Texas. I didn’t want to be seen as a regional writer. I wrote very little about Texas during that time and it wasn’t until my editor at The New Yorker, David Remnick, asked if I could explain Texas. He, like all of my colleagues at that magazine, could not understand, couldn’t fathom, why I would live in such a benighted environment.

I took a little umbrage at that, because I love Texas with all of its faults. And I thought, well, it’s been 30 years since I wrote substantially about Texas and I’d lived half my life in the state at that point. I grew up here, but then I came back to Texas. I thought it was time for me to address why I’m still here. If I have such conflicted feelings about it, there must be as much positive as negative feelings. And so that book [God Save Texas] was an exploration of that ambiguity.


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Do you hope ‘Mr. Texas’ explains the Texas Legislature to the rest of the world and how it runs things?

Well, it’s my best shot. We’ll see if Texas politics can be made comprehensible. I guess one of the things that I want for readers to experience, through all the fog and dismay, I cherish Texas and our traditions. I’m proud of the state for providing so many jobs. You know, I think that, in that sense, we’ve done a wonderful job.

We’ve accomplished something wonderful in Texas, but I see, you know, why do we have cities and states and nations at all, and I think that there are two main reasons. One is to provide opportunity and in that regard, Texas has just been splended. I’m so impressed by the fact that so many people come to Texas and yet our unemployment rate never goes up. We’re always providing enough jobs for the people streaming here to get them. That’s amazing.

But at the same time, you have the other obligation that a political entity, like a state or a city, is required to provide a sense of community. And in that regard, Texas is doing the opposite. It’s spewing off a sense of disunity that’s affecting the entire country. And if we can get our political leaders and our voters focused on trying to do more to create that sense of community, then I think Texas will become a far better entity than it is at the present.


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My first thought when reading the book was Jimmy Stewart in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ Is there a bit of Mr. Smith Goes to Austin in this book?

No, no, of course it’s a paradigm and it’s been used many times. But it’s still fresh because it happens every two years. New people get elected to the Texas Legislature and they experience the Mr. Smith or Miss Smith going to Austin and I just find that really fascinating. I just love seeing this in the Texas House of Representatives, which is my favorite political body, see all these people that represent every part of Texas crammed together in this one beautiful room trying to sort out where to steer the state.

And for somebody like Sonny Lamb, who is not at all cosmopolitan, wasn’t even political before he got elected, to be thrown into this assortment — it’s like a costume party. You have your NFL quarterbacks or your billionaires or your mayors and you know they’re all there representing their communities. Naturally, someone like Sonny would feel overshadowed and intimidated and would struggle to find his place and that’s what the novel’s about.

What was your reaction to following the Ken Paxton impeachment trial?


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Historically, Texas has never been really corrupt. Not like for instance, Illinois, where you had four governors out of seven in prison. Now, we only impeached one statewide figure in our long history and that was Pa Ferguson back in 1917. And did it make a difference? No, the voters elected his wife, Ma. So, that’s a pretty clean record. We’ve had our scandals, but they haven’t been earth shaking. That’s different from the Paxton episode.

I think, and even the Wall Street Journal said that the fix was in, and the more we learn about the backstage manipulations by the lieutenant governor, the more clear it becomes that that’s the case. But there’s a lot to learn from this. Paxton was impeached by an overwhelming majority in the House, an overwhelming majority of Republicans. And he has been indicted for securities fraud for eight years and for some reason that has never come to trial, that in itself, by itself, that is an alarming indication of something going on.

In my opinion — I wasn’t a state senator so I wasn’t a juror — but it was pretty clear to me that Paxton had overstepped and crossed the line into criminal behavior. And it was right out in front of us. It wasn’t a hidden scandal. It also plays right in front of our eyes. So, I’m worried about the precedent it sets. It’s also like a mini Trump drama. You know, it’s like a prelude, it’s the opening act on a larger national catastrophe. And I find it very, very upsetting.

The Texas Book Festival is in Austin in November. What’s it going to be like talking about ‘Mr. Texas’ at the base of the Texas Capitol?


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Well, I think it’s totally appropriate. To talk about Texas politics and this novel about Texas politics in the shadow of the Capitol. There’s no place else I’d rather do it. It’s gonna be a lot of fun. And, you know, there’ll be people that feel one way or another, but basically, one of the goals of this book is for readers to come to cherish the state in the way that I do with all of its differences and variety.

I mean, it’s amazing, given all the dynamics of the state of Texas, that it’s still a coherent community, and that people care about it. They care about different things, but everybody cares about the state. And that’s not true of every other place in America or around the world.

Texans have a sense of identity with the place that they live in and that’s a really valuable quality, but it can be lost. We’ve drifted away from the politics of compassion and pragmatism and that’s what we need to inject into our political system in order to preserve the fondness that Texans feel about their state.

You’re giving a reading at Nowhere Bookshop. Do you have a favorite memory about San Antonio?


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Yeah, I have several. But the first time I visited San Antonio as an adult, we went with the Harrigans, Steven and Sue Ellen Harrigan. Steve was not yet in the business of writing The Gates of the Alamo, which is the I think, maybe the finest Texas novel, but we we went to the Alamo and then we went down to the River Walk.

We sat at a table at a patio and ordered a great Tex-Mex dinner. And just as it arrives a storm came down. It was almost like pouring buckets of water and it was too late to get dry.

We just sat there for a while. The absurdity of it, watching our food float off of our plates. I’ll never forget that moment.

Lastly, what do you hope people take away from reading ‘Mr. Texas?’


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Basically, I want people to understand Texas from my perspective. I grew up in Abilene and Dallas and I’ve lived now in Austin since 1980. So, you know, I’m a longtime Texan. I’ve paid close attention to it. And I remember when I wrote about the Kennedy assassination, and I grew up in Dallas during the Kennedy assassination. What struck me then was there was so little written about the Texas as I knew it.

There was only one book I knew about Dallas and it was written by a public relations person. And you know, when you live in a place that has an impoverished literature, it’s hard to define who you are. I thought if I lived in Brooklyn or Paris, you know, someplace like that, there’d be this whole library about the experience of living there and that just wasn’t true.

Now, Texas has grown a literary culture, and I’m proud to be a part of it. But, I think what we’re doing is learning about who we are through our literature. And I just like to say, I hope that Mr. Texas contributes to that.

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