How has being a Texan influenced your writing?
It’s hard to say. It’s like being asked, “How does it feel, being a twin?” I wouldn’t have anything to compare it to. I’ve never not been a Texan. But I’ll try. Texas has its own distinct culture, and it comes out in my writing, through the ways that people talk and their qualities of independence and resilience. I find myself describing the sky often, and that’s from living in a place where the sky is big. West Texas is a land of far-off horizons—those appear in my settings. They’re a cliché, but I don’t care. It’s what I see all around me every day. Although I avoid stereotypes, I do have first-hand knowledge of ranchers, oil field workers, and cotton farmers, and they populate my writing.
Where did your love of storytelling and bookish things come from?
My mother was a great storyteller and she read to me a lot. She was offhand about telling her stories, not trying too hard to make an impression, but she had a way of telling me about things she remembered from her long life—the execution of the Rosenbergs, Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, rationing coupons in World War II, and arguments she had with her sisters. She unwittingly made me appreciate narrative.
How long have you been writing?
Always. I wrote awful poetry as a teenager and young adult and sometimes kept a diary. I eventually began trying my hand at memoir about important things—flying with my pilot father, remembering my grandmother. I fell in love with the idea of the short story while I was teaching English to high school students and discovered Edgar Allen Poe’s “rule” that the short story aims at a single effect. So I began trying it, very haltingly. I gained confidence and started churning out short stories in my 40s and 50s. Finally, I realized that a novel was coming out of some of the characters in my short stories, and I finished my first novel, The Lark, at 63. I always enjoyed writing research papers, from elementary school through graduate work. I still enjoy researching and writing about local history.
What kind(s) of writing do you do?
I write both fiction and nonfiction. I’m over half through with a novel that follows up with some of the characters in The Lark, and I have a local history project simmering on the back burner.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
I liked the way the characters took on their own life, especially Charley. After a few chapters, Charley became very real to me, as did Lou, Darla, and April. Wayne came out of a short story, so he was there already. People ask me where these characters came from, and other than some of the minor characters, I’ve never known them before—they came out, landed on the page, and told their stories.
Who are some of your favorite authors you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?
Larry McMurtry’s portrayal of modern Texans in some of his works inspired me, although I don’t imitate him. I think McMurtry showed me that a writer can let Texans be Texans and you can turn it loose from there. Elmer Kelton made a huge impression on me with The Time It Never Rained. I was born in 1951 and grew up during the times of the black sandstorms. I didn’t know it until I read Kelton’s work, but those early experiences jaded my view of nature. I wasn’t in the habit of looking for flowers along the road because there were sand dunes on the road around Monahans, where my father worked as a petroleum engineer in the early ’50s. Once Kelton brought out my memories of the drought of the 1950’s, I started noticing more of the beauty around me, and I woke up to those clichéd sunsets, mesas, and sunflower fields. Who wouldn’t want to write about that?
What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Most useful—reading. I couldn’t be a writer with being a reader first, and I’ve always been a reader. With all the exposure to books, I became a good judge of what made a piece of literature earn the title “good literature.” I read classics, murder mysteries, thrillers, biography, memoir, a little science fiction, and not much romance. I like fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre. It allows for more surprise, and I intentionally avoided letting The Lark fit into a specific area of fiction. Also useful was sharing my work with people who appreciated what I was trying to do. I remember the first time—maybe 15 years ago—I read a short story aloud at a conference in honor of Elmer Kelton, and I could see people’s faces enjoying my story. That was huge.
Least useful was showing my writing to people who I knew would be critical, but I did it anyway, trying to win them over. I’ve learned that some people can’t be won over, that not everyone will like what I write, and I don’t need to pursue them.