If you want to send somebody “back,” you need to ask, “Back to what?” The next volume of my series, Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle, is entitled, Colleen and the Statue. In the first chapter, teenaged Colleen is about to leave Ireland. In the second chapter, she is in Mackenzie, Texas—my invented town. It’s the 1950s, and she’s a young and single Irish Catholic—a religious and ethnic minority. She often hears Protestant “Anglos” whispering, “Why doesn’t she go back? We should send her back. We don’t need her kind here.”

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In recent times, starting in the mid-1920s and the 1930s, white supremacist groups, such as the modern KKK, have claimed the statues as their own—as heroic defenders of the white race. The original meaning has been co-opted, so that now—today—in the first decades of the Twenty-First Century, long after the last Confederate veteran has died, and after almost all the children of Confederate soldiers have passed away, the racists, the white supremacists, Aryan Nation members, neo-Nazis, neo-KKK members, and the like, have made the statues of the Confederate soldier into symbols of the so-called “movement” to defend and preserve the white race.

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Seventy-five years ago—on January 25, 1944—Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Toney W. Gochnauer of Amarillo, Texas, disappeared. At the time twenty-four-years-old, he was co-pilot of a B24J Liberator bomber, which had departed from Kunming, China on a supply mission over the Himalayas to Chabau, India. The aircraft, with its crew of eight and four passengers, failed to arrive. On January 26, 1946, the lieutenant was declared, “Dead while Missing.” On May 13, 2019, his remains, which were found in wreckage near a rural village in eastern India, were identified, and he was declared, “Accounted For.”

It is inconceivable to me that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott would do what California Gov. Gavin Newsom just did: issue by executive order an official apology on behalf of the citizens of California for a history of “violence, maltreatment and neglect” against Native Americans. (Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2019.) It is also inconceivable to me that the Amarillo Globe-News would do what the Los Angeles Times just did: publish an editorial challenging the City Council to likewise issue an apology for its complicity in the genocide to which Gov. Newsom refers in the text of his apology. (Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2019.)

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My novel, Little Alice Brings Solace to a Ghost Town, is about two little Indian girls: Little Alice and her sister, Harriet. They are mixed race: half white and half Native American. And their native half is also mixed: Navajo and Hopi. One theme of my story is the dilemma faced by these two sisters: whether to assimilate into the white culture of their beloved Aunt Julia, who has adopted them, or to remain true to their Indian cultures. Little Alice opts to become Christian, learn English and Spanish, and assimilate into the white culture of her aunt. Harriet opts to keep her native religion and language, and remain part of the Hopi culture of her mother. They are fortunate, in that their aunt does not try to force them to go one way or the other—assimilate or not.

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The first chapter of my latest novel, Nadya: The Restoration of a Flying Tiger, is autobiographical. The little boy, “Jimmy Dade,” is me. The man, “Howie Hill,” is one of the Smyer brothers—embarrassingly I don’t remember his first name … maybe “Paul.” I remember so well the day I met him. It was the first time I realized what war does to a warrior. Like Chennault, he was a hero, but no book has been written about him, and he hasn’t even merited a footnote. As far as I know, no one in Amarillo remembers him or knows anything about him. His mother, his father and his brothers are long deceased. The Air Force undoubtedly didn’t know that he had died and so it furnished no marker for his grave, wherever it might be. Again embarrassingly, I forgot to put “Flying Tiger Smyer” in my novel’s Acknowledgements, even though he was the reason I wrote the book.

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I was surprised when the public librarian in a small town in Virginia rejected the idea of placing my novels in her library, saying, “They’re too regional—they’re all set in the Texas Panhandle. I don’t think my patrons here in Northern Virginia are interested in stories that take place out West. They want stories set in their part of the country.”

I can’t say that she was wrong about her patrons. Maybe they really are that limited in what they will read. But she certainly was wrong in saying that a story can be “too regional,” and for that reason would not be of interest to anyone who is not from wherever the story takes place.

Good stories are timeless and “place-less.”

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“1847 … that’s when it began,” my elderly Irish-born pastor replied, when I told him that my ancestors immigrated to America from Eire because of the potato famine. After Palm Sunday mass, Monsignor had come into the parish hall and sat down where I was having coffee and doughnuts. Somehow, the conversation led to the greatest tragedy in the history of his homeland.

“Genocide,” he then quietly commented. “That year—1847—saw the most abundant wheat harvest ever. But the English exported it—to feed the British army, and they deliberately left the Irish field workers to either starve or emigrate. The only crop the workers had been allowed to grow in their little gardens was potatoes. But that year, the potatoes turned black and the vines died.  Our island’s population went from eight million to one million. … Genocide. … Tragedy.”

“But Father, good came from it,” I told him. “… at least for my family. … Romance: My famine-exiled great-grandparents met on the boat to New York, fell in love and married as soon as they landed. … So for me, tragedy and romance go together. … I’m writing a novel about it.”

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I just finished reading Less, the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Andrew Sean Greer. He was asked in an interview for The Guardian, “You’re an identical twin. How has that shaped your perception of identity?” He answered in part, “I am used to being with another person in the world, so it makes it lonelier when I’m not with him.” This is the theme that struck me most when following the life of Arthur Less, the novel’s protagonist: the theme of loneliness. The novel has been described as a tragic comic story, a same-sex love story, a satire of the American abroad, a bittersweet meditation on love and aging, a romantic comedy, a satirical comedy, and more. I see it as a serious study of the fear of being alone—which here means growing old without someone to love … which is an underlying theme in each of my own novels.

It seems that most people don’t ask themselves, “Who am I?” Most people know who their parents are—and their grandparents and even their eight great-grandparents. So it seems that they’re sure of their ethnicity, religion and nationality. So it seems if you ask most people whether they know who they are, they’ll suppose it’s a trick question, and they’ll answer you unabashedly, “Sure, yes—of course I know who I am!”  But some people are not so sure.

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“[Good-bye] to officers who put ‘duty’ above ‘ethics,’ and to the troops who regularly complained that the Army’s Rules of Engagement were too strict—as if more brutality, bombing and firepower (with less concern for civilians) would have brought victory instead of stalemate.”

Words of Major Danny Sjursen, West Point graduate, who retired in 2018, after 18 years in the Army and 11 deployments, often to war zones. Words very unusual for a multi-medalist soldier who was teaching history at West Point. He had become a disillusioned pacifist after what he saw in his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan—and he gave up his once-promising career, in order to speak out.

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I have determined that one of my coming novels in the series, Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle, will deal with the issue of whether to remove the Confederate statue from the central park of my fictitious city of Mackenzie, which is modeled after Amarillo. At present, there is an absolutely incredible number of such monuments, which are scattered throughout the former Confederate states. The central theme of my novel will be: Is it right to honor a soldier who served in the wrong army? That is, even if the soldiers of the Confederate States of America were heroes and valiant soldiers, were they mistaken in fighting for what became known as the “Lost Cause”?

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I’m different. I don’t want my memories to die with me. When someone I have known dies, part of my sorrow is that most of their memories have died with them. Most people don’t leave behind, when they leave this world, long diaries or extended memoirs or annotated albums of photographs or audio-videos or carefully-crafted CDs of their lives. And after a few years, even what memories they have left behind are stored in a box and stuck in a closet somewhere, and forgotten. Their memories died with them, in effect. I don’t want that to happen in my case.

So I write novels—historical novels, which are really my own history; romantic fantasies, which are the romances I lived or wish I had lived; tragedies, which entail the sad things that have happened to me or to my loved ones during my life.

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My novels all necessarily involve racism as an underlying theme. They take place in Texas—which is part of the South—during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when white folks like me were being forced by the Civil Rights Movement to confront racism head-on, instead of pretending that segregation, discrimination and racial animus either did not exist, or were no big deal.

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Writer’s block?” someone asked me. “Do you ever have writer’s block?” 

What’s that?” I answered.

If I were in my 20’s or 30’s, I’m sure I would have it. But in my 70’s? … I don’t have time. … There’s so little time and I have so many stories to tell! Furthermore, every time I meet a “character,” by which I mean a really interesting person, by which I mean a person who starts telling me his or her life story and it sounds like a novel, I immediately start imagining a new novel, based on that person’s life story.

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            My mother’s stories about the Depression and Dust Bowl era were endless. They struggled to have enough to eat, never bought new clothes, never went anywhere, taped around windows and doors to keep out the dust from the dust storms that turned day into night. She said good-bye to many of her friends and their families, when they gave up and joined the endless procession of Okies going out West. Somehow, her family managed to survive and stay. But there was always fear: the dreaded thought that their time might too come, when they would have to leave and go to California.

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Through the stories I tell in my novels, which are centered in-and-around the fictitious town of Mackenzie, I narrate the history of Amarillo, Texas and the Texas Panhandle, but using the genre of historical novel, rather than using so-called objective history. Each character embodies a different part of the region’s society, culture and history, during the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth.

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In writing my stories, I have to keep in mind that certain themes are forbidden.

I’m not talking about pornographic material or sex scenes that might be too explicit for some readers. And I’m not talking about political correctness in my choice of words for describing different ethnicities and groups of people. I’m talking about certain cultural and historical themes, which in some countries, government censors would not allow, and which in this county, could cause my book to get “black listed” among certain groups of readers.

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