Two minutes away by Cadillac sits a three-story, prairie-style mansion McMurtry bought in 1986. He admits he couldn't survive the town without the house, which, much like its owner, stands out rather conspicuously from the surrounding streets of mostly undistinguished tract houses. Airy and spacious and unaggressively masculine, the house is filled with his life's passions -- books (roughly 25,000), art, family mementos, and women. McMurtry is a collector of smart, attractive, idiosyncratic female friends, and their framed photos clutter a big wooden table on the back porch: actresses Diane Keaton and Cybill Shepherd (who starred in ''Picture Show'' and its sequel, ''Texasville''), Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, journalist Maureen Orth, and sometime collaborator Diana Ossana, among others. ''I've had a lot of not-quite relationships,'' says McMurtry. ''I've always had interesting women in my life, and ultimately I was more interested in keeping all of them rather than having one totally rapturous love.
''I think good novelists, or most of them, realize that if you want to learn anything about emotion, you have to talk to women,'' he says. ''You won't find out from men.... All through the history of the novel, you know, women have been the emotional articulators. And I've always had very deep women friends -- everything I learned, I learned from women.''
Which translates into some of fiction's most memorable heroines -- women like ''Dove'''s Clara Allen and ''Terms of Endearment'''s Emma Horton who frequently possess a nobility and nerve their men lack. ''You could count on the fingers of one hand -- and probably have four fingers left over -- the number of male American writers who can create serious women characters,'' says Michael Korda, McMurtry's longtime editor at Simon & Schuster. ''Larry has had, from the beginning, an unbelievable talent to create women who are strong and interesting. Which is partly, I suspect, because Larry comes from frontier society, which was filled with women who worked as hard as men. They were often more resolute than the men they married or the children they bore.''
''I don't really have any male characters I like a lot,'' says McMurtry. ''I've just never been close to men -- I almost never start a book thinking about a man.... Emma is probably my favorite character. I envied her generosity and courage -- things I always look for in women. ['The Desert Rose''s] Harmony is a close second. They are the two characters I miss the most.''
Given his strong feelings for Emma Horton, could any actress adequately embody her? In fact, he thought Debra Winger did just that in ''Terms of Endearment.'' ''The movie had such a long history,'' says McMurtry. ''[Director James L.] Brooks had talked to me about it eight years before he got it made.... It started off with Diane Keaton as the mom. And then there was an effort made by Jennifer Jones to use the book as a comeback vehicle. She wanted Cary Grant to play the male suitor, and he didn't want to come out of retirement. So she gave it to Brooks. He did the sensible thing and got a bankable male [Jack Nicholson] to do it.''
McMurtry had nothing to do with the TV adaptation of ''Lonesome Dove,'' starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, and Anjelica Huston -- one of the most successful miniseries ever made. To this day, he's caught only bits and pieces and has no fondness for what he saw, particularly Anjelica Huston as Clara. ''I tend to have a visual image of characters as I write them, because I've written so many movies. Clara wasn't anything like Anjelica -- probably more like Diane [Keaton].''
It's news to Keaton that she is the inspiration for one of McMurtry's most beloved characters. She was also, more famously, a muse to Woody Allen, and the actress sees similarities between the two men. ''People always used to say how terrified Woody seemed. Meanwhile, he's so terrified he writes, directs, produces, and stars in films. He's in control. This is Larry as well. You have to be so disciplined and strong-willed to do what he's done. But underneath that is enormous sensitivity. It's profoundly touching what Larry knows and feels and has felt.''
McMurtry reckons he's written 71 screenplays or treatments. And so far, six of his books have been made into feature films (''Hud'' -- the film version of ''Horseman, Pass By''; ''Lovin' Molly'' -- based on his second book, ''Leaving Cheyenne''; ''Terms of Endearment''; its follow-up, ''The Evening Star''; ''The Last Picture Show''; and its sequel, ''Texasville''); another three have been made into TV movies (''Dove,'' ''Laredo,'' ''Buffalo Girls''). For the record, the author thinks ''Terms'' is the best of the lot. Brooks met McMurtry only once, in the early '80s, at McMurtry's first bookstore in Washington, D.C. It was while Brooks was writing the script: ''I went to Larry for guidance, and it was at the end of the day -- he was behind the cash register, and it sort of throws you, this great American writer selling books. I was ready to take a million notes. He tossed me out and said, 'I wrote the book, you go do the movie.''' Brooks pauses to laugh. ''There's no froufrou with McMurtry. He's blunt. He doesn't waste time. But there's something very noble behind the impatience.''
The long wooden table in McMurtry's dining room -- where he writes every morning for two hours -- is currently covered with small piles of books on American massacres, the subject of his next work of nonfiction, ''Oh What a Slaughter'' (tentatively slated for January '05). ''I'm trying to get a handle on body counts,'' he says. ''About the only thing I can tell you for sure is that no one counts correctly after a massacre.''
Though most famous for his fiction, McMurtry is a prolific producer of nonfiction, including criticism. ''I'm really not happy unless I'm writing,'' he says -- though admittedly happier when not writing fiction. ''I would love to not write any more novels. I would love not to have written the last five or six. I can't afford not to, unfortunately.'' (Additional reporting by Allison Hope Weiner)