Remembering a Nevada writer

A former Nevada Weekly and RN&R staffer recalls his 1994 interview with Robert Laxalt

Mementos of Robert Laxalt’s life are displayed in front of Nightingale Concert Hall during the March 28 memorial service at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Mementos of Robert Laxalt’s life are displayed in front of Nightingale Concert Hall during the March 28 memorial service at the University of Nevada, Reno.

Photo by Deidre Pike

In my library, there rests an autographed copy of The Basque Hotel by Robert Laxalt. Inside is written, “To Bill Martin, My penetrating writer-student and long-time friend.”

Bob Laxalt, who died in March, had lots of students (and I was proud to have been one, for at least one too-brief semester), and half the state of Nevada considered him a friend (and I was blessed to count myself among them).

But as I read the now 12-year-old inscription, I cherish the knowledge that Bob Laxalt also thought of me as a writer.

Can there be anything more precious than to know that someone like Bob Laxalt considered you—someone to whom the adjective “aspiring” applies even in middle age—a fellow of the written word?

Ultimately, Robert Laxalt’s legacy is more than the sizable collection of written works. For any Nevada writer, published or not, Bob Laxalt left a very pretty picture of what a writer should be.

In an interview with the fledgling Nevada Weekly (the predecessor of the Reno News & Review) in May 1994, when his book A Lean Year and Other Stories was published, he was asked about those who thought that the equally legendary Walter Van Tilburg Clark had an influence on him as a writer. Not really, he said, since their styles were vastly different.

But then he noted: “Walter was my role model as to what a writer should act like. I learned so much from him on the lives of writers and what I should be reading.”

A generation of Nevada writers will say the same about Bob Laxalt. He was our role model.

In his interview with Nevada Weekly, in his Washoe Valley home as he sat next to the 1940s-era Royal portable typewriter—a gift from his mother—on which he wrote, Bob talked about writing. His thoughts remain invaluable.

What are your thoughts on Western fiction?

The Western has, to me, taken so many forms and directions. In the early days, it was James Fenimore Cooper and Owen Wister’s The Virginian. That was pretty serious fiction, the noble Indian and the valiant frontiersman and all that. Then came all the dime westerns, with almost identical plots. If it happened in the Northwest, they lived in a log cabin. If it was in New Mexico, they lived in an adobe hut. Otherwise, not much changed. It was escape reading and fun reading. In later years, the Western has turned serious again, and you are getting such wonderful things. … The Western is a strangely versatile art form. It can go in a dozen different directions.

When and where do you do your writing?

During the years that these stories (A Lean Year) were written, I was working for United Press and then up at the [University of Nevada, Reno], and my writing would be done anywhere from four o’clock in the morning on, until work started, and then weekends. This hurt me in the sense that I was a jock. I played everything and boxed, and I had to give up football. First the real game and then television. That just broke my heart. (Now I’ve solved that problem. I have a roll-top desk, and I have a little television sitting on it. I never realized how many time-outs there were when I can write.) … I’m finding more time to write. I still prefer writing in the morning when my mind is fresh, because I do get demands on me. I’m not a goddamn recluse, you know. I like people. That’s the way I’ve become a writer: Because I like people. Sometimes, though, you know, I can come in from chopping wood, say, at four in the afternoon, and I can look at the typewriter and sit down and, boom, work for three hours. Now, I’ve got the beautiful liberty of time to write. That’s a blessing.

That’s a common complaint of young writers, finding the time to do it.

It’s a bitch when you’re just starting to write, because what job do you take that gives you time to write? There aren’t too many. If you’re working for a newspaper, in one sense you’re doing yourself good, because you are polishing the tools of your trade. But if you do it all day, you’re not going to get much done after work.

What do you read?

For serious reading, I always go back to reading all the so-called literary classics. Some are worth it and have become old friends. Others are absolutely dreary. Then, when my mind is punched, I will read something like Forrester’s Hornblower series. I’ve been through it three times, and it’s a delightful escape. I probably know more about the Napoleonic wars than any scholar. I like to read Agatha Christie, too, because she has such a penetrating insight into human condition.

What’s the best way to read a book?

On every book, read it the first time for pleasure, the second time for pleasure, and then, if you want to be a writer, the third time, start looking at what the story is really about and how the author did it. Because any writer will find themselves confronted with the same situations as Hemingway did. Bill Martin was one of the founders of Nevada Weekly and is a former general manager of the Reno News & Review. He now lives in Georgetown, Texas, but Nevada is his home.