Thrown into a post-apocalyptic wasteland with little hope in sight, a father and son desperately search for salvation by making their way to the coast in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Along the way, though, they have to combat the elements, starvation, and the remnants of humanity driven mad by society’s collapse after an unknown cataclysm. Here’s what you should know about this brutal masterpiece, taken from Mental Floss’s book The Curious Reader.
It should come as no surprise that a book with such a strong father-son theme as The Road came about while McCarthy was on a trip with his own son in El Paso, Texas. One night, as his son slept, McCarthy gazed out the window of his hotel and thought about what the city might look like in 50 to 100 years—he imagined fires off in the distance and the town in ruins. Immediately, his thoughts went to his son. He began writing these notes down, though he didn’t quite know where the story was going at first. All he had in his mind was a father, a son, and the end of the world.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, McCarthy said he took further inspiration from conversations he had with his brother Dennis about hypothetical post-apocalyptic scenarios—namely the descent into cannibalism. “We talked about if there was a small percentage of the human population left, what would they do?” he said. “They’d probably divide up into little tribes and when everything’s gone, the only thing left to eat is each other. We know that’s true historically.”
McCarthy seems to be transfixed on simplicity—in one interview about his sparse prose style, he said, “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” That bare-bones mindset carries over to his actual typing process, too. For much of his career, McCarthy opted to write his books on a used Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter that he picked up at a Knoxville, Tennessee, pawn shop for $50 in the late 1950s or early ’60s. He would go on to produce titles like All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Menand The Road on the machine, even as computers and laptops were becoming staples for modern writers.
The Olivetti remained McCarthy’s go-to until 2009, when it had become worn out beyond repair and was put up for auction. In the authentication letter, McCarthy stressed that he wrote every book “including three not yet published” on the machine and that “it has never been cleaned other than blowing out the dust with a service station air hose.”
In December 2009, the typewriter brought in $254,500 at auction, with the proceeds going to the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit interdisciplinary scientific research organization, according to The New York Times. McCarthy’s replacement was another Olivetti that a friend bought him for $11.
Many of McCarthy’s books have found critical and commercial success—All the Pretty Horses sold more than 100,000 copies in the year after it was published and took home the National Book Award, and the adaptation of No Country for Old Men won the Academy Award for Best Picture. But The Road earned him perhaps his biggest honor when it received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Fictionbeating After This by Alice McDermott and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. In true McCarthy fashion, the author didn’t attend the ceremony in person; Alfred A. Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta accepted the Pulitzer in his place.
McCarthy’s aversion to publicity has added to his mystique, but it’s also made personal insight into his works nearly impossible to come by. But in June 2007McCarthy ended up sitting across from Oprah Winfrey for his first-ever television interview to promote The Road after she chose it for her Book Club.
During the interview, McCarthy opened up to Winfrey about everything from the inspiration behind the novel to thoughts on his own writing process. Surprisingly, McCarthy admitted his stories aren’t very structured as he works on them. “You can’t plot things out,” McCarthy told Winfrey. “You just have to trust in, you know, wherever it comes from.”
The extra press Oprah brought to the book worked: The Oprah paperback version of The Roadadvertising its place in her book club, wound up selling 1.4 million copies on its own by 2011. That’s in comparison to the pre-Oprah numbers, which came in at under 200,000. Not even news of McCarthy winning the Pulitzer could bump sales of The Road the way Oprah could.
One of the most haunting aspects of The Road is that readers are simply thrown into a nightmarish vision of a world in chaos with no explanation. The exact nature of the world-ending calamity is never revealed—McCarthy, instead, focuses on the horrifying events in the moment as the unnamed father and son walk through barren forests and come into conflict with scattered camps of deranged survivors. So what happened? Was this a natural disaster that wiped out humanity, or did something manmade finally do us in?
“A lot of people ask me,” McCarthy told The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t have an opinion.” He did, however, relay other people’s opinions, saying some of his friends within the scientific community, namely geologists, have settled on a meteor as the trigger. McCarthy, though, stressed that it’s not really important—what’s important is what you do next.
The success of The Road immediately got Hollywood’s attention, and by 2009, a movie adaptation that was in theaters starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the unnamed father and son. To get the post-apocalyptic world just right, director John Hillcoat opted to shoot in a few locations that were touched by a real-life calamity: The production went to New Orleans, where the post-Hurricane Katrina cleanup was still going on when filming took place in 2008.
Shots of Mortensen and Smit-McPhee in an abandoned movie theater were filmed in New Orleans’s Grand Theater, which at that point was still in ruins from the storm. And for one scene A pair of ravaged boats run aground on the freeway, Hillcoat got creative and used existing IMAX documentary footage from Katrina’s aftermath to give the movie’s world a more authentic sense of devastation.
“A crew was making a family film on the bayou when [Katrina] hit,” Hillcoat told The Los Angeles Times. “Two days after, they went out and shot 70-millimeter IMAX footage of those two boats sitting on the freeway. We took the shot straight from the source.” When talking with The Washington PostHillcoat elaborated on the process, saying, “We’ve changed the sky and the grass to incorporate it into our world, and it became non-specific, but it feels familiar.”
During his career, McCarthy typically released just one or two books per decade, but after The Road hit shelves in 2006, that output slowed to a halt. He did write the screenplay for Ridley Scott‘s 2013 movie The Counselor, but there were no new books published throughout the 2010s.
Then, in March 2022, it was announced that McCarthy wasn’t just set to release one new book—he had two ready to go. The Passenger will release first, on October 25, 2022, and Stella Maris will follow soon after on November 22. According to the publisher, The Passenger revolves around a character named Bobby Western, while Stella Maris Focuses on his sister, Alicia, marking the first time that a female character has been the lead in one of McCarthy’s books.