Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
Each week Lone Star Literary profiles a newsmaker in Texas books and letters, including authors, booksellers, publishers.
Kay Ellington has worked in management for a variety of media companies, including Gannett, Cox Communications, Knight-Ridder, and the New York Times Regional Group, from Texas to New York to California to the Southeast and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the Texas novels The Paragraph Ranch and A Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
Anita Bunkley was born in Columbus, Ohio, and earned her degree from Mount Union College.
The Houston-area author was formerly a middle-school a language teacher, adult-education teacher, and director of nonprofit organizations. She has been recognized with an Excellence in Achievement Award by the United Negro College Fund; her Wild Embers was cited by Publishers Weekly as one of the ten best romances of 1995.
Anita Bunkley is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, an NAACP Image Award nominee, and recipient of a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times magazine. The Houston area-writer was voted one of the fifty favorite African American authors of the twentieth century by the online African American Literature Book Club. She took time out of her schedule to talk with us today, as the closing segment in our 2017 Black History Month coverage.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: I see that you were born in Ohio, and received your college degree in Ohio, Anita. What brought you to Texas?
ANITA BUNKLEY: My move to Houston was due to an employment opportunity. I arrived in the mid-1970s and have been here ever since. Moving to the Southwest was a big change for me, but I quickly adopted Texas as my home.
I understand that you have been writing full-time for almost tweny-five years. But how did you get started?
An avid reader all of my life, I was always searching for books with strong African American female characters. I love to read historical fiction with a romantic subplot, and there were not many books in that genre that featured African-American women. When I became aware of the story of Emily West, and learned that music historians referred to her as the possible inspiration for the song “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” I began to look for a book about her. In my search, I found the original lyrics to the song, which indicated that a man of color had written the song to a woman of color, but I could not find much more. Curious, I started my journey to research and write my own version of the legend, which became my first work of historical fiction, Emily the Yellow Rose, published in 1989.
How would you describe your “first big break”?
After receiving good reviews for my first book, and encouragement from fans across the country, I began to think about writing another book. I came across another story that captured my attention; the story of a black woman in 1920s Texas who became wealthy during the oil boom of Mexia, Texas. Intrigued, I began to research that era and turned my research into my second book, Black Gold, the story of an African American widow, a wildcatter, and a fortune in oil. I entered a few chapters of the book in a writing contest held at the University of Texas. It took first place in the fiction category. Denise Marcil, a New York an agent who was one of the judges, approached me and requested the manuscript when it was complete. After many revisions, she sold the book to Penguin/Dutton, for a two-book contract, and it was published in 1994. Denise remained my agent for twenty years, and moved my writing career forward.
You’ve written more than fifteen novels. What is your creative process like?
For me, writing historical fiction always begins with a story concept that absolutely intrigues me. I do extensive research to nail down the historical framework, and always travel to the location of the story. The only exception was the research for my novel Between Goodbyes, which is partially set in Cuba. However, I was able to visit Cuba in 2013 with the Texas Institute of Letters and was happy to see that the locations I had used were correct.
Once I finally get off the research track, I draft a complete outline of the book, about 20–25 pages. Next, I create bios of the main characters, flesh out the major settings, and begin to write the novel. If I veer away from the original outline, that is fine; I just go where the plot and the characters take me, but the outline serves as a frame that keeps me from going too far from the story concept. I prefer to write in the morning, try to finish a decent number of pages, and do not discuss my work or share it with anyone until the first draft is complete.
A number of Texas authors live in Houston. What do you think makes the city fertile ground for writers?
I think Houston, and Texas in particular, provides fertile ground for ideas and inspiration for writers. The rich history of the area, the untold stories, and the vast themes left open to explore provide ample creative motivation for an author.
You are one of the first African American authors to be inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters—an honor for any writer. What’s your feeling about opportunities for an African American author in the Lone Star State? It appears there are not many African American authors living and writing in Texas, but do you find that to be the case, or are these authors just not getting the recognition they deserve?
I believe there are many talented African American writers steadily crafting their stories and working hard to promote their work. I have gotten to know quite a few of them as I provide editorial services for many aspiring and established black authors. Many are publishing independently and using the resources of the Internet to sell and publicize their works. Opportunities abound for them to reach their target audiences.
What authors do you enjoy reading?
I enjoy reading a wide variety of authors across the spectrums of historical fiction, contemporary fiction, romance, and biographies. I particularly enjoy autobiographies. Learning little-known facts about actual people who have lived extraordinary lives often sets the wheels in motion for my next book.
How has publishing changed since you started?
Quite a bit! I wrote my first novel on a typewriter and used white-out for corrections! Today there may be fewer major publishing houses, but publishing opportunities on the Internet abound. I have been published by major houses and small presses, and to me it still boils down to the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to craft a story that meets the expectations of the readers.
What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Write what you love, study the craft of writing; take critical advice only from those who have either written, published, agented, or edited a successful literary work.
What's next for Anita Bunkley?
I am currently working on an historical novel set in the Charleston, South Carolina area, post–Civil War. The story is inspired by my great-grandfather who once owned 4,500 acres of land in Berkeley County. My family still owns a small portion of the land, and I leave next week to continue my research there.
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Praise for Anita Bunkley’s novels
“Fast-moving and realistic. . .” —Kirkus Reviews
“Bunkley has made a reputation for skillfully researched backgrounds and involving stories of African American women.” —Booklist
“(A). . .portrait of a competent career woman balancing multiple demands and expectations.”
“Sharp and absorbing page-turner neatly takes on the tangled issue of corporate environmental abuse and its impact on a small black community.”
“[The] narrative offers a hearty depiction of the struggle of black landowners to survive difficult economic conditions.” —Publishers Weekly
“A story about the quicksilver nature of emotions, memories, and responses of a life evolving.” —Booklist
“Bunkley is best depicting her characters’ refreshing ambivalence about interracial relationships and civil rights protests. . .”
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