UT Alumnus Stephen Harrigan’s New Book Takes Readers Deep into the Heart of Texas

Since he was 5 years old, Stephen Harrigan, BA ’70, has called Texas home. Through personal experience and years of research, Harrigan has produced many chronicles from around Texas, including New York Times bestseller The Gates of the Alamo. 

As a longtime writer for Texas Monthly and a former adjunct professor at UT’s James A. Michener Center for Writers, he’s covered the state for most of his professional life. But his latest work might be his most  ambitious yet: a comprehensive history  of Texas. 

Big Wonderful Thing, set to publish in October by UT Press, takes readers around the vast landscape to see everything from the first native tribes and colonists to artists and  politicians. Harrigan’s book connects the people and places who’ve made Texas what it was and is. He spoke with the Alcalde about his latest book and his life as a Texan.   

What was the most enjoyable part of working on this book? 

Finishing it. It was a long slog because it’s a long book and a big state with lots of history. At every moment, I was panic-stricken about getting something wrong, or having the right interpretation of an event, so it’s hard to look back on writing a book and find the most enjoyable part. In retrospect it can seem fun, because there’s so much that’s surprising and so much that’s interesting, but there’s just the day-to-day anxiety of getting words on a page that kind of overcomes any moment-by-moment exultation you might want to feel.  

What makes this different from other Texas history books?  

It’s not written by a historian. It’s written by a novelist and magazine writer, and so I tried my rigorous best to be accurate, but also my priority at every moment was to keep the reader interested and make it fun to read.  

 How did you begin a project this large?  

By thinking about what I didn’t want to read. I didn’t want this dry recitation of the formation of Earth and the first bacteria to set foot in Texas. I wanted a human story, and I wanted to signal to the reader that this was a contemporary story, as well as a story about the past. I began sifting through potential ideas about how to begin the book that would engage readers, and somehow the idea of Big Tex burning down at the State Fair entered my mind. I thought that’s an interesting conflagration on its own but also an interesting cultural conflagration. Big Tex is this ridiculous statue that represents Texas and that it burst into flames one day just felt dramatic.   

What made you decide to insert yourself into the story?  

I realized early on that I had lived through a substantial part of Texas history. I had opinions and feelings and acquaintances that played a role in what Texas had become. I’ve always gravitated toward leveling with the reader, saying, “Hey, I’m here. I’m the one telling the story and I’m not trying to hide that fact.” It’s part of a larger scheme: the idea of making it as human and personal a story as I can.    

Did your previous work help you?   

Absolutely. For one thing, my previous work as a journalist made it impossible for me to write about something without wanting to see it. It was not just research but getting in the car and driving and seeing these places where things happened. Throughout my whole career it’s been all about being there, seeing things, and talking to people. For a lot of the history I was writing about I couldn’t talk to the people, but I could stand on the ground where they stood. You can imagine their lives and see the landscape they lived in, and that’s exhilarating. That’s always been the case for my whole life as a writer. If I can be there and see it, I can write about it.    

What was the farthest you traveled to do research for the book?   

I went to places like the Alibates Flint Quarry up in the Panhandle, the site of Texas’ first business, where these ancient people mined flint and traded it all over the country. Where the Rio Grande and the Pecos Rivers meet there are all these rock shelters with phenomenal art. When you think about how old some of these are—4,000 years old—and you realize pharaohs in Egypt were building tombs at the same time, you get a sense of how deep Texas culture and history goes. 

 Were there ever any rival accounts of historical moments?   

Oh, there were plenty. You just have to triangulate. For me the whole story of the Alamo, the myth of the Alamo, hinges on the story of Travis drawing a line in the sand, and I don’t think that happened. But it’s really interesting to trace that story back to see how it began. The myth was about deliberate self-sacrifice, which was not really the case. It was the story of these guys being trapped with no way to get out—but you know there are all these Texas myths that take root. With a book like this, you’ve got to take into account the Texas myth while presenting the Texas reality.   

Why did you choose a Georgia O’Keeffe quote for the title? 

I had a list of about 50 possible titles. I sent a few to my publisher, and they just loved that one. I think because it feels the most unexpected. It feels inviting. Some of the other titles I suggested felt a little stodgier, a little more like standard history book titles, and this one felt open. I had just been reading Georgia O’Keeffe’s letters. She was overwhelmed by this place which seemed majestic but also inscrutable, so it just felt right to me.    

Is there anything you hope readers take away from this?  

People ask me if there’s a theme, and no. It’s a story. I don’t have a thesis-axe to grind here. I’m not trying to propose a theory of Texas. It’s a book about identity in a big way. It’d be wrong to say Texas has a cohesive identity. It’s a very diverse place that’s getting more and more cosmopolitan, and politically volatile, but at the bottom there is this shared history, and people are proud of that history.   

What makes you identify as a Texan?   

I feel at home here. I’ve grown up here. I’ve lived in three different places in Texas—Abilene, Corpus Christi, and Austin—and I feel that the variety of those places in some weird way reinforces the idea of what Texas is, and my identity as a Texan. I’m not sure if that’s as true in other states. 
This interview has been edited and condensed. 

 

 
 
 

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