All in being an author

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.”

“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’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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My novels are about pain—pain as an obstacle to love. But here is the paradox: While it is true that pain is an obstacle to love, love is the only true remedy for pain.

My stories include many kinds of pain: physical as well as emotional; grief from loss of loved ones as well as self-hatred for causing grief by killing the loved ones of others; depression from PTSD as well as despair from alcoholism; and more. All of these pains are obstacles to love—obstacles to finding love, to falling in love, to staying in love and to giving love. But in each case, the only true remedy to the obstacle is love, which is paradoxical.

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For the novels in my series, Once Upon a Time in the Texas Panhandle, I invented a town named “Mackenzie,” after Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie. In retrospect, I think a better name would have been “Leetown,” after Gen. Robert E. Lee. Underlying my stories is the idea that in the decades after the American Civil War, bands of ex-Confederate soldiers and their families established new towns across the Texas Panhandle that would continue the values and ideals of the “Old South” and the “Southern Way of Life.”

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            My novels come from my experience growing up in the Texas Panhandle in the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. This was during and after World War II, during and after the Korean War, before the Civil Rights Movement, and before Vietnam.

            When I was growing up, there were two underlying cultural influences in Texas: the Alamo and Appomattox—the memory of the War with Mexico, and the memory of the War Between the States (the American Civil War).

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People often ask me why I write romance novels, rather than some other genre. Well, I didn’t plan it that way. But it seems that no matter what I set out to write about, it ends up a romance of one kind or another. By “romance,” I mean a love relationship between two persons—of whatever ages … or even of the same sex.

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In most of my novels, I bring in interracial relationships. Why? First of all, my marriage is such a relationship. I am a white man who is married to a Latina. For young people today, that’s no big deal. But for the older generations, who are the majority and who politically are in control, it still is a big deal—whether they will admit it or not.

            It is hard for a young person today to grasp the idea of going to jail for marrying a person of another race. But until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, over half of the states—and at one time two-thirds of the states—made what was called “miscegenation” a crime, punishable by imprisonment. (See: Loving v. Virginia.) That is, if a white person married a person who was legally non-white, the two parties were subject to criminal punishment and their marriage was not recognized—similar to the situation today for same-sex relationships in some states.

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The first thing that happens when I begin to write is that one of the characters wakes up in the morning with something in mind to do. I know what that character plans to do, but life is not like that. We all make plans, but we never know what is going to happen—whether we will get to carry out our plans. And my characters—they set out to go somewhere, do something, see somebody. But they don’t really know what is going to happen. They hope it happens the way they have planned, but that’s not life.

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