Connecting Texas books and writers with those who most want to discover them
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.
Novelist Clay Reynolds was born in the small town of Quanah, Texas. Educated at UT–Austin, Trinity University, and the University of Tulsa, he is the author of fourteen books, ranging from novels to short stories to essays to scholarly analysis, as well as more than 1,000 other publications, including book reviews and critical responses to literary efforts, commentary on education and culture, and academic articles. He lives with his wife, Judy, in Lowry Crossing, Texas, and teaches writing and literature at UT Dallas.
Clay Reynolds, academic, scholar, literary critic, essayist, and novelist, has been a key figure on the Texas literary scene for four decades—and has seen a lot. Beyond his own prolific writing, his influence on the state’s literary life is wide-ranging; in 2014, one of his UT Dallas creative writing students won a Pushcart Prize.
Last week we spoke with Reynolds via email for this interview, and he shared his candid take about the evolution of his career and the state of Texas letters.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Clay, you have been winning writing awards since 1986. How did you get started as an author?
CLAY REYNOLDS: I was a fairly well-published author before I started writing fiction. I’d been publishing literary criticism, scholarly essays, and some poetry since 1976, when I was still in graduate school at the University of Tulsa.
I never thought I’d ever become a novelist and short-story writer, though. I got started on that mostly by accident. My wife worked evening shifts, and we had two small children in diapers at home. Reading or really doing much of anything else was nearly impossible during the evening hours, as I had to remain awake and alert for the children. I could, however, sit and type. I couldn’t go to the library to do research, but fiction required very little of me at that juncture in terms of library work. So I started writing stories and they started growing into novels.
I wrote The Vigil in draft in three days; Agatite took longer. I revised quite a bit on both, though. I understood the writing process from experience. I never took a creative writing course or thought much about being a fiction writer. It was just something I was trying on for size. I was trained as a scholar and an academic.
How did you get your first big break as a writer?
I was, at the time, surrounded by a large number of young writers who had never published anything; they talked about their writing all the time, but they never seemed to finish anything. I managed to finish a couple of book-length works in that period, and I sent them off to New York, one to an agent, another to a publisher. This was routine for me, as I was sending out scholarship and essays all the time, anyway. I was lucky enough to score with the publisher right off the bat. This put me in line with my agent, who immediately sold the second one. I became a fiction writer virtually overnight and, really, by pure luck. My first two novels were well received, but I had bad luck with my publisher(s) over the next several years. I’ve had sixteen editors for my twenty books; on one book alone, I had five different editors. That’s not conducive to sustained success, no matter how many awards you win.
You grew up in Quanah, Texas. For our readers who don’t know where that is, will you fill us in, and will you tell us how growing up there influenced your writing?
Quanah is located on Highway 287, roughly halfway between Dallas and Amarillo, in Hardeman County. Anybody from East or North Texas who’s ever been to Colorado skiing has driven through it, although they may not have paid a lot of attention.
It was founded as a railroad town and was a major depot for the Fort Worth and Denver City Railway as well as headquarters for the Quanah, Acme, and Pacific line in the early 1880s, and attracted farmers and ranchers, who moved in when the Indian threat was removed from that part of Texas. It’s geographically characterized by rolling prairie and salty river bottoms (The Pease and the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red) that rarely have water in them, and it’s bracketed between them. My father was a railroad man; he moved to Quanah from Acme, Texas, about five miles to the west, when he returned from World War II and married my mother, who was from Eldorado, Oklahoma (originally Greer County, Texas), just over the Red, about twenty miles to the north.
When I grew up there, Quanah was well regarded as small towns went. It was declared a “Bird Sanctuary” at some point, although about the only birds I ever saw there were crows, sparrows, and buzzards—maybe an occasional roadrunner, bobwhite, or mourning dove. In the earlier part of the century, it was one of the six possible locations for the new university, Texas Technological Institute, which, of course, wound up in Lubbock, which wasn’t much bigger than Quanah at the time. Legend has it that Quanah was knocked out of the running because the city fathers refused to pass a bond issue to pipe in better water (local ground water is full of gypsum—the largest gyp mine in the US is in Acme—and tastes terrible); another story is that the state senator from Quanah’s district was implicated in a murder in nearby Crowell. Depends on who tells the story.
Quanah’s main claim to fame is a series of four small humps of ground in the southeastern part of Hardeman County known as the Medicine Mounds. They were supposedly sacred to the Comanche, and Quanah Parker in particular revered them. That’s not substantiated. Additionally, when Sul Ross was out with a bunch of Texas Rangers killing Indians one morning along the Pease River, he captured Quanah’s white mother, Cynthia Ann, who had been kidnapped from her family years before. The “battle site” is about twenty miles from Quanah, near the old townsite of Margaret, which is on the Pease, and was the seat of Hardeman County until Quanah made a bid for it and enlisted the railroad workers who were boarding there to vote (the law was that if you’d done your laundry in a place, you were eligible to vote in city or county elections there—not a far cry from voter ID laws, huh?).
Margaret is long gone, now; there’s an historical marker, if anyone can find it. I was born there in 1949. I wrote most of what I have to say about it in an essay that’s published on my website and also included in my volume of essays, Of Snakes and Sex and Playing in the Rain. Although I didn’t think so at the time, it was a good place to grow up. I received a good education in values and human nature, although not much in the way of formal learning. I lived in the public library, for all practical purposes. I think I read every book they had—including those that were kept “under the counter” and restricted from kids—which I was.
Quanah was a very typical small town of the time I grew up there: conservative, strictly segregated, mostly Protestant, full of hard-working, highly self-confident people—mostly farmers when I grew up there—ranching was not a large enterprise in that cotton-dependent land, and oil would come in later, although most of the farmers ranched some on the side. The town was patriotic, religious, dry as a powder house (Quanah sat in the smack middle of five dry counties, although Oklahoma and state-line liquor stores kept the Baptists and Campbellites well oiled enough. We were Baptists, and I can tell you.), where dancing in public was forbidden; by and large it was narrow in its world view. We were 85 miles from anything like a city—Wichita Falls—a hundred from Abilene, and 140 from Amarillo. That’s pretty isolated in an era before four-lane highways.
I was a “city kid,” in the sense that my father worked for the railroad, although I did my time doing farm and ranch work. The climate is horrific. Blistering hot in the summer, frigidly cold in the winter. The chief vegetation is mesquite and goat-head sticker plants, milkweed, and devil’s claw. Pretty much everything that grows naturally there will sting, bite, puncture, or poison you in one way or another. Other than the ubiquitous mesquite, virtually every tree in sight was hand-planted, if not by local residents then by the CCC during the Great Depression. Drought is frequent (and in the fifties, it was a normal state of affairs). I thought grass everywhere naturally turned yellow in July, and I never saw a river I couldn’t walk across until I was in junior high.
It was not a bad place, even so. The people there were no better or worse than people are anywhere else. I was intensely unhappy as a teenager, though, and I wanted nothing more than to leave, which I did when I went to college at age seventeen. I didn’t return for more than a short visit after that. My mother lived there until we moved her to Arlington to live with my brother in 2008. I wasn’t popular in high school, and I didn’t much care. That worked out well, though. Otherwise, I might have married some girl I was going steady with, gotten a job, and never gone to college. My father died young—health and probably residual physical issues from his military service in World War II and years of back-breaking work on the railroad. He was a good man. Honest and strong, if short and hot-tempered, well-liked in the town. My mother was a saint, or she would be if Baptists had saints; she was beloved of thousands in her lifetime. My grandparents and uncles and aunts on my father’s side, most of whom were neither saintly nor beloved, are buried there. I won’t be.
I have written a lot about that place, in my imagination, but it exists more in my imagination than in my memory. Agatite, the name of my fictional small town that is setting for several of my books, is like Quanah, but it’s not Quanah. (Agatite was the name of a long gone town 1.5 miles north of Acme; now a ghost town itself, except for the gyp mill—still a going concern. Agatite was a mill town. It only lasted about a decade and is chiefly noteworthy only because it was the terminus of the shortest railroad in the world, the Acme Tap line—1.5 miles in length.) The people in my books are not “real” people, nor are they based on them. I think growing up there gave me a perspective on people and on the world that is unique. It wasn’t a bad place to be from; on the contrary; it’s a great place to be from. It’s dying now, like all of the towns in that region. By the time my children are my age, it will be all but gone; by the time my grandchildren are my age, there probably won’t even be anything left of it to see. I do think I draw a lot about my sense of people from that experience, and also my sense of history. It was Texas in a microcosm, generally a full demographic representative of the state’s population at that time. There were African Americans, Hispanics, even a few people who could trace their origins to Eastern Europe or the Middle East, and a handful of East Asians. It still may be like that in terms of ethnic or racial distribution, but it’s no longer so distinctively segregated, of course. Once upon a time, tourists could count on a great meal at Dutch’s Café, a place famous enough to travelers that you could mention it to people in Denver or even Beaumont, and they’d know where it was. That is part of the past, now. Today, Quanah is just a place to stop and get some gas and maybe a greasy chicken leg at the Allsup’s store. You can also buy liquor there. Times change.
In his famous Ever A Bridegroom essay in 1981, Larry McMurtry challenged Texas readers and writers to value the stories beyond small-town Westerns. Thirty-five years later one might argue that Texas’s urban literature has replaced many of the small-town stories. As someone who has experienced decades of Texas letters, how would you characterize Texas literature circa 2016?
Back in 1991, I published an essay titled “Texas Fiction in the Nineties”; this followed another essay I wrote for a volume published by SMU Press called Texas Range Wars, edited by the late Tom Pilkington and Craig Clifford, and both said pretty much the same thing. I was cautiously optimistic about the future of Texas writing, and each essay took off on McMurtry’s essay as a starting place.
At the time, the late 1980s and early 1990s, things were quite rosy for Texas writers. The sesquicentennial and the “outlaw” movement in music, plus the amazing emergence of Austin as an arts center in the state, all converged to create a kind of “Texasmania” that infected the whole country. You couldn’t get a decent chicken fried steak anywhere north of the Red River in those days, and mostly nobody but Texans wore Levi’s. Places like Wimberly and Lockhart, Llano and Marble Falls were still authentic, and San Antonio was still, as Larry indicated in an earlier essay he wrote about Texas cities, “A Handful of Roses” (In a Narrow Grave, 1968), our most cherished city because it was still genuine and had maintained its distinctive character and culture and sense of itself.
That all changed and of a sudden. Many, many Texas writers were being published, and older Texas writers were being rediscovered and reprinted. Texas Monthly was really a Texas magazine—not a bad, imitative clone of big-eastern advertising periodicals that it’s become, and The Texas Observer was competently edited by people who cared and knew what they were doing; it addressed the entire state, not just Austin, and it was prized for its integrity. The book pages of the Dallas Morning News were read nationwide, as were those of the Houston Chronicle and Post and the San Antonio Express-News; there were at least a dozen major review sources for Texas writers flourishing in the state, all competing for interviews and features on Texas writers and writing. All of J. Frank Dobie’s books were reprinted in handsome trade-paperback editions by TCU Press; popular writers such as Elmer Kelton enjoyed the same experience and underwent something of a major renaissance in their careers in this era. Larry won the Pulitzer Prize, of course, for a cattle-drive novel, of all things; the miniseries it was based on was hugely popular, and some few new western movies like Dances With Wolves were major hits. The country discovered jalapeño peppers and Texas-style barbecue, jeans and boots, and country music—Waylon and Willie-style—topped the charts. It was a great time to be a Texas writer; New York couldn’t get enough of Texas in print, it sometimes seemed, and the small-town rural themes that Larry despaired of in that famous and probably ill-conceived essay on the state of Texas writing were in the vanguard of the movement. Numerous films and television programs were devoted to it.
I forecast then, though, that this wouldn’t/couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Rural Texas was in the process of dying; small towns that had been the backbone of Texas culture and politics were drying up, fading back into the prairie. Railroads, the lifeline of the state, were disappearing, and agriculture went corporate, with the family farm or ranch ceasing to exist. Texas became an urban-centric world in the nineties, devoted to shopping malls and big-box discount stores; and by the turn of the century, the demise of rural Texas and the interest it excited was accomplished. A drive across Texas—from Dallas to Lubbock, for example—today is a tour of what once was and will never be again. Thriving communities and crossroads have become little more than a collection of boarded-up buildings and abandoned business districts that find at their center a mere stop sign where once a major intersection functioned. In many where five or six cafés competed for the daily lunch crowd, your only choice of food is a dried-up greasy chicken leg from the only gas station/convenience store in town, usually an Allsup’s. The days of AA and AAA football on Friday nights are long gone; AA and AAA schools have dropped to A, or lower, as populations decrease by more than half; many towns have gone to six-man teams; others have closed their high schools and are busing the few kids that remained to distant schools that still are operating. Folks still go out to the games, of course; what else is there to do? But the emphasis in high school football today is on AAAAA and even AAAAAA levels, all in the suburbs of the metro areas. ; AA and AAA schools have dropped to A, or lower, as populations decrease by more than half; many towns have gone to six-man teams; others have closed their high schools and are busing the few kids that remained to distant schools that still are operating. Folks still go out to the games, of course; what else is there to do? But the emphasis in high school football today is on AAAAA and even AAAAAA levels, all in the suburbs of the metro areas. Also fading away are downtown parades and Fourth of July celebrations and local rodeos. Today, it’s possible to drive for long stretches of empty highway across the state for as long as an hour at a time and see no living creature except maybe a carrion bird or coyote, now and then.
Texas writing has followed the trend, but for the most part, those who sell themselves as Texas writers aren’t really. They’re more or less recent arriveés, immigrants from other parts of the country, fleeing unemployment and state income taxes, men and women who’ve moved here from elsewhere—California, Colorado, the Northeast—bringing ultra conservative politics and outlander notions with them. As one old Texan I know put it, “They’ve screwed up where they came from. Now, they’ve shown up here to do the same damned thing.”
There aren’t many truly Texas writers around much, anymore, and most of them can’t find publication. People, meaning the general readers of America, aren’t much interested in Texas as a culture or a history; they are interested in it as an image. People march around in jeans and boots and cowboy hats who’ve never been closer to a cow than their last stop at a McDonald’s (and that was likely an Brazilian bovine that provided the beef), who’ve never ridden in, let alone owned a pickup, let alone a horse. They don’t speak or read Spanish and don’t want to, and they have no idea of what quality Mexican food tastes like. They’re as terrified of tornadoes as they are of rattlesnakes, both of which are native to the state and tend to flourish here, and they find it curious that some old-timers want to keep cattle or think that it’s charming when a bobcat shows up in their backyards. They have no relationship with the land or the people who live on it, not even the oil people, who really made Texas rich after cotton and cattle faded as the state’s principal source of wealth. I personally know of some who’ve lived here for years and never left the cities where they reside, except by airplane, of course. But they’ve never been to Jefferson or Marfa, Brownsville or Kerrville, have only the vaguest idea where San Angelo may be and probably couldn’t find Muleshoe or Dumas on a map. Still, they’re now Texans, as are their kids. A whole generation is growing up without knowing much about the state’s history, its culture, its diversity and culture. And they don’t much care.
So what I see in present-day Texas writing is twofold: In part, it’s parody, a kind of imitation of what once was written, now tapped out by people who have no real understanding of it; in part it’s really not much different from fiction written about any other urban environment. Today’s Texas writing, for the most part, could take place almost anywhere. As McMurtry quite rightly said (speaking about Vassar Miller’s poetry and contrasting her excellence with what he saw being produced at the time), “there’s no there there” in much Texas writing—and remember he was writing in the early 1980s. It’s a kind of synthetic, sort of a Lone Star State–sized theme park that puts on a show for the tourists, many of whom have an annoying tendency to come for a visit and never go home (listen to “Welcome to Texas” by Bryan Burns for an amusing complaint about this). Since the rise of political images embodied in folks like George W. Bush, who is only a coincidental and temporary Texan—born and educated elsewhere, for example, or Ted Cruz, ditto—the image has become more laughable than it is sustainable.
Texas was never without its warts and blemishes, God knows, and Texas has produced more than its fair share of fools, buffoons, clowns, and audacious figures of all stripes (I mean how do you beat Pa and Ma Ferguson or LBJ, Billy Sol Estes or John Wesley Hardin?) but it at least was genuine (it also produced Chester Nimitiz and Sam Rayburn). Characters such Elmer Kelton’s Charlie Flagg or Larry McMurtry’s Homer Banon, or those who populate George Sessions Perry’s work or even that of Katherine Ann Porter’s or Dorothy Scarborough’s stories, just aren’t viable and appealing to a larger reading public. People prefer to think John Wayne when they think Texan. And he wasn’t, not by a long sight. He wasn’t a cowboy, either, at least not on the same plane with Tom Mix or Charlie Goodnight or Teddy Blue Abbott, who was actually an émigré and fled to Montana first chance he got.
Today, though, I think Texas literature, if that phrase even applies, has become a part of the generic mass of writing that finds its center in the greater corpus of American writing. Being a stockbroker, real-estate agent, computer engineer, nurse, insurance agent, football coach, or anything else isn’t much different in Texas from being those things anywhere else. Even being a bank robber or a serial killer, the stuff of crime fiction, is no longer significant by region. Dallas, Houston, Austin, even Lubbock and El Paso are just oversized towns that somehow are trying to figure out how to be big eastern or West Coast cities—and they’re not doing terribly well at that. Regardless, we’ve become a part of a general American homogenization; we all shop at Wal-Mart and eat at Wendy’s, drink Starbucks and prefer craft beers and sample local wines; you can get decent Mexican food in New York City, now, and half-decent barbecue in California.
Texans are even losing their accents. When was the last time anybody asked, “Hows yer mominym? They still livin ouchonder, or y’all fixin to move?” It’s actually become something of an insult for somebody to day, “You talk like a Texan.” Bill Moyers’ charming East Texas drawl has long ago given way to the generic and more cultivated tones of Wendy Davis or Kay Bailey Hutchison. Whatever happened to A. C. Greene’s “Highland Park Woman?” They’ve all become “Claire Underwood,” fashionable, identical, and ice-cold and ruthless. Or they’re grotesquely overweight, tattooed and body-pierced mobile home–park queens with bad dental work and frowsy hair. The male version is either wearing Brooks Brothers and Rolexes and sometimes seems to be a cheap imitation of J. R., or appears on the TV news spilling out of overalls or gym shorts and wearing a gimme cap with a Dallas Cowboys logo. Where is Ralph Yarboro when you need him? Where is Ben Johnson? Where is Slim Pickens? Where, for that matter, are Larry McMurtry, William Goyen, Billy Lee Brammer, Benjamin Capps, Jim Corder, Winston Estes, William Owen? Writers tend to mine their background and culture for material; when it’s all the same, the most valuable ore is all on the surface, and these days, its confined to the concrete environs of the city, walled in as they are with McMansions, and strip centers anchored by Best Buys, Super Targets, and Lowe’s. And you now can’t get a decent chicken fried steak anywhere.
So I don’t think that being a Texas writer has the same high distinction it did when I wrote that essay twenty-five years ago. There are still a few genuine Texas writers around—and some of them, Shelby Hearon (who actually lives in Connecticut or some damned place), David L. Lindsey, the late Bill Gray, are urban-centered, as they always were, as are the rather excellent Texas historians like Bob Utley, Mike Cox, S. C. Gwynne, and others. But then being a Texas writer was unique; today, anybody can claim to be a Texan by virtue of zip code. They don’t have to know much about Texas to make the claim. I saw Sandra Bullock in an interview not long ago; she was asked how she liked living in Austin, and she proclaimed that she loved it. When she was asked if she’d had a chance to have a hamburger at Dirty’s, though, she had no idea what the question meant. I think that about sums it up.
How has publishing changed since you started?
When I started publishing fiction, pretty much anyone with some talent and a good book had a fair shot. Editors were still part of an old-school experience. The notion was that they would find a writer, issue a book, then two, then slowly and gradually develop an audience and eventually “break out.” If the first or second book “took off,” that was all to the good; but if it didn’t, they were patient and willing to cultivate the writer and his work for years, keep it all in print, even for decades.
There were, when I started out, around thirty or forty major publishing houses in the country, mostly located in New York. Many were owned by larger companies, but they were wholly independent with their own publishers and editorial management. That all began to change in the mid-eighties. The first major change was because of a tax law that Ronald Reagan pushed through Congress that made inventory taxable assets. This meant that publishers could no longer afford to stockpile and warehouse unsold inventory of books, waiting for a writer to break out and find his audience; those books were now taxable assets and had to be remaindered—pulped or sold off to second-hand or used book houses—for pennies per copy, meaning that a book now only stayed “in print” for about a year, unless it “took off” in some fashion. Further, authors who did not “pay out,” meaning that they earned back advances against royalties, might not get a second or third contract, since they had not earned back the investment originally placed in them. This reduced both the number and kind of books that were wanted by major publishing houses.
Small presses and university presses took up the slack to some extent, but their budgets and marketing abilities were unable to sustain a working model that was competitive. In 1989, on Halloween night, as it happened, as a result of the financial crisis that emanated from the savings and loan crisis that took place in the George H. W. Bush administration, publishers fell victim to the same corporate merging, hostile take-overs, and leveraged buyouts that assaulted a great deal of American commerce. The result was that virtually (really, virtually) overnight, smaller publishers owned by larger publishers were closed down; whole staffs were laid off or fired outright, and many publishing firms simply ceased to exist. (This happened to me, as a matter of fact. E. P. Dutton, which had my third novel, Franklin’s Crossing, in editorial at the time, was utterly shut down by its parent company, Viking Penguin; everyone was fired, including my editor, who was president and publisher of Dutton. I was without an editor for eight months until Penguin got its act together and assigned me to another one. Dutton was reopened but only as an imprint, when someone realized that it was the second oldest publishing firm in the U.S.) This started a long process of reduction in the industry that has, today, resulted in corporate monopoly in publishing. There are now only about six independent publishers left, and they own all the others outright and manage them from centralized corporate headquarters. Three of these companies are owned by overseas corporations; they control about 90 percent of the book publishing in the U.S., with the rest being handled by university presses and small independent literary presses and Christian presses, and the like.
About the same time as the corporate blood-bath of 1989, a new way of marketing books on the retail market emerged. This took the form of three major chains, eventually—Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million. These concerns were national chains that used free-standing bookstores, for the most part, to retail books in the same manner that chain grocery stores, drug stores, and the like were marketing food and other mass-consumption products. The result was that by the mid-nineties, these corporations not only dictated what books were being sold in the country, but they also were now dictating what books would be bought for publication. Borders and B&N representatives would sit in on “pitch sessions” at publishing houses and let the editors know which books they would stock and which they wouldn’t. They technically made all titles in print available through ordering, but they didn’t stock but about 5% of all published books in their stores; moreover, they demanded money for placement of certain titles in their stores, selling space on endcaps and in free-standing displays or kiosks within the store, even determining where on the shelf (high or low) a book would be displayed and deciding on the book’s jacket covers and blurbs. (In one case I know of they demanded revisions in a novel because they feared offending a segment of the population.) The result of all of this was an end to small bookstore chains such as B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, mall stores for the most part, and to the locally owned, mom-and-pop bookstores in most cities and towns. They just could not compete for price point with the big box bookstores, as they could order in bulk at wholesale discounts that no small bookstore could afford. It also meant that established writers’ ability to obtain and sustain contracts for books were largely dependent on sales figures of previous titles.
Ultimately, amazon.com would come onto the scene and wreak further havoc. Borders and Books-A-Million would all but close their shops entirely—and a few smaller regional chains, such as Hastings, would barely hang on, largely through music and video sales—and even Barnes & Noble is in trouble, hanging on mostly by selling book paraphernalia and Starbucks coffee and pastries. Today, Amazon is the unquestioned dominating book retailer in the country; predictably, they have now started to influence what books are bought for publication. They technically sell everything, but their search engines are designed to direct customers toward the books they favor. As was the case before with Borders and the like, their decisions are based on marketing research and demographic algorithms that determine what people seem to want. Or so they think. At the same time, public libraries have been forced to withdraw their services and offerings because of a lack of funding or, really, of interest, since it’s now so cheap to download an electronic edition of a book and read it on a computer. E-readers have diminished book sales so much that most writers earn no royalties on their sales. Half-price book stores are more devastating. Almost nobody buys a new book at suggested retail price, anymore. So authors make very little money on their work.
While all this was changing on the business end, writing itself changed. Whereas when I started, a writer had to send in a typed manuscript that required enormous labor or money to complete, or they had to pay a typist, and then there were matters of postage, and the inevitable waiting game while an editor or agent or both determined whether or not a book was wanted. By the year 2000 virtually all writing was being done on personal computers. This essentially created a flood of manuscripts coming into publishing houses, far too many submissions than could practically be opened, let alone read and taken seriously. As a result, literary agents now have become virtual clearinghouses for submitting writers. The agencies could not, of course, keep up with it, either; so many have either farmed out the reading to subcontracted readers, usually college students looking to make a few bucks—or they’ve specialized the areas of writing they want to represent so strictly as to discourage anyone from submitting to them who does not write in a specific category.
As a result of all of this, it’s become much, much, much harder for any writer to be published today. New and unproven writers face almost insurmountable odds. They have to approach the problem innovatively, either by attending workshops and conventions where agents and editors may be present to meet them in person, or they have to market their fiction through literary reviews and literary magazines, which almost no one reads, in order to build a “track record” that might attract the eye of a prospective agent or editor, who do sometimes skim “best of” anthologies or peek into the Pushcart Prize winners. There are also contests and other venues for exposure. Many frustrated writers now seek the avenues of self-publishing, always the kiss of death for any serious writer hoping to find a legitimate publisher—there are always exceptions, but there are also people who go to Vegas with ten bucks and drive away millionaires in a new Porsche, too—something that such entities as amazon.com is selling like suburban real estate to frustrated writers hoping to find an audience. They probably won’t. Amazon and other electronic-only publishers are relying on the hopelessness of a writer who cannot find a legitimate publisher to pay them to put a book into e-print. This is costly and time-consuming and virtually worthless, as almost no one reads such books, and even fewer people buy them, knowing as they do that they have not been professionally edited and have not gone through some kind of editorial adjudication process before being accepted for publication. They’re also almost never reviewed, which kills them for sales right out of the gate. Some small presses are also using publish-on-demand and direct mail ordering as other gambits. But even established writers, some with best sellers behind them, can’t find new contracts if a recent title hasn’t sold well. Everything is now about sales and money and prospects for the same, and the Internet and advanced tracking software allows publishers to know how well any book does, right up to the minute.
So the answer to the question is that publishing has mostly changed because it’s gotten so much harder and far more complicated than it was. My experience of submitting directly to an editor (“over the transom”) is absolutely impossible to do today. Virtually no legitimate publishing house will read any manuscript that’s not submitted by an agent. Moreover, many agents and some publishers now only want submissions to come in digital format. The argument is that this makes material easier to handle and quicker to get into print. The truth is that it makes it easier reject—they don’t have to deal with mailing back a rejected book. Editors today very seldom have very much experience in literature, or any other field they might be editing. Most have backgrounds in business, marketing, and management, and most of them aren’t very good at those things, which anyone who has dealt with a New York publisher in the past twenty years knows to be largely true. Money is the bottom line, and retailers like Amazon and other online bookstores run the shop.
The good news, though, is that if one is persistent, dogged, and works hard and writes well, one will more than likely succeed sooner or later. Contradictory as that may sound, it’s still true, and, to be honest, it’s pretty much as it’s always been at the core. Agents are still looking for writers to represent, since that’s how they make their money, and they want writers with potential and who they think will be productive for a long period. Publishers want something “good” as much as they want something marketable. They’re looking for “best sellers,” sure; they’re also looking for audience and appeal, and in spite of all, they’re looking for quality writing. The real trick is to write something that is all these things. Do that, and you’re in. But it takes a lot of work, patience, time, and a thick skin. Rejection these days comes fast and frequent; it’s always painful and discouraging, but it’s not the end of anything for a determined and talented writer. But the way things are structured, writing won’t make hardly anyone rich or famous. It will, though, satisfy this most ancient of urges to share what one knows and has experienced with the world. The wounds of rejection heal quickly when one is holding one’s own published book.
Baen Books recently reissued your most recent novel, Vox Populi, which was recognized with a Pushcart Prize honorable mention. For our readers not familiar with this book, will you tell them about it—in your own words?
The genesis of the idea for this novel came from my wife, Judy’s, suggestion. I was always coming home or getting off the telephone and telling her about strange, sometimes amusing, and sometimes discouraging encounters with everyday people. Not salespeople so much, or telephone cranks, or even tech support or customer service people one might call from time to time. Rather, I was telling her about chance encounters in common places such as the supermarket or gardening center, car wash or dentist’s office, hospital waiting rooms and barbershops. All of these had some strange and profound effects on me at the time. I started considering the plight of a hapless narrator who becomes an unwilling and unwitting bystander to the exhibition of personal and individual problems, thoughts, even confessions that people often offer to total strangers. The effects on the narrator were deep, and as time goes forward, they evolve into a deeper empathy and understanding of the human condition. The encounters in this volume all involve the same anonymous and sometimes, it seems, almost invisible narrator, who is suddenly confronted with a sometimes embarrassing, sometimes frustrating, sometimes irritating situation that puts him into a small cauldron of human emotion. He is a victim of circumstance, in a sense, but he is also an active part of the human comedy as it plays out. The individual encounters are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, and sometimes aggravating, but they all lead him to a gradually deepening understanding of the foibles and foolishness of the everyday person, the common man. The title is a reflection on the Latin epigraph, Vox populi, vox dei, or “The voice of the people is the voice of God.” I think this book, which I hope people find both amusing and provocative, illustrates the truth behind that saying.
Many of our readers are new to Texas, or haven’t had Texas literature curated for them. Can you recommend some Texas authors and titles?
There are a number of writers that I think open up Texas to people who’ve moved here and made Texas their home. In spite of my comments above, which are mostly jesting, I recognize that Texas has always been a destination for people fleeing something unpleasant or untenable where they come from. We are as much a state of immigrants as any in the Union. Texas is truly polyglot, a heady mixture of “types,” a kind of campfire stew made up of many disparate ingredients. At the top of my list of readings would be Lone Star, by T. R. Ferhenbach, a history of the state that reads like a novel. I’d also recommend Passionate Nation, by James Haley, as an updated supplement to that book, along with Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne; these last two are among the best histories of Texas recently published. In terms of fiction, I think Larry McMurtry’s early work, particularly Horseman, Pass By, The Last Picture Show, and Terms of Endearment, would be excellent. Then the rest of the list in no particular order would be Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry (arguably the best Texas novel ever written), The Time It Never Rained and The Wolf and the Buffalo, by Elmer Kelton, Wanderer Springs and Seasonal Rain by Robert Flynn, Walking on Borrowed Land by William Owen, Goodbye to a River, by John Graves, The Gay Place, by Billy Lee Brammer, anything by David Lindsey, Five Hundred Scorpions and Owning Jolene by Shelby Hearon, A Woman of the People, by Benjamin Capps, Strange Peaches, by Bud Shrake, Blood and Money, by Thomas Thompson, and The Gates of the Alamo, by Stephen Harrigan. Those would make a good start. One might add older works by such writers as Katherine Ann Porter, Eddy Weems, and a few others.
You have taught creative writing at UT Dallas for awhile. How would you describe the next generation of writers?
I’ve been teaching creative writing for about thirty years, now, give or take, and I can say that the next generation of writers are more attuned to the contemporary world than any writers before them. They lack a sense of history, which is sad, and they haven’t read much of the canon, which is sadder, but they are exciting in that they are forward thinking and involved in the problems of the present time. Fiction is always about problems, tragedies that are either devastating or that are overcome by protagonists who struggle against powerful forces, sometimes within themselves. Great fiction is based on emotions and a sense of the positive in human nature. I would say that today’s young writers are very much in tune with those traits and priorities, perhaps more so than writers of older vintage. They are not as good in terms of craft, in some ways, but they are more provocative and are more deeply steeped in philosophy. My present students who succeed tend to rise above the political correctness that limits creativity and credibility in portrayal, and to engage their world more directly. One of my best, LaToya Watkins, a Lubbock native who writes candidly about the racial issues that face that part of Texas and always have, is a typical example of that kind of writing. Her Pushcart Prize win was one of my proudest moments as a teacher.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers in general?
The best advice I have for any writer starting out is “Don’t quit your day job.” Writing is hard, and success is elusive, so no one who goes into this with the attitude that they’re going to achieve fame and fortune is going to avoid disappointment. Even a book or two or three won’t guarantee celebrity, and only the celebrity writers really enjoy the full fruits of the profession; even then, their success can be temporary and fleeting. But on a practical level, I have two sets of advice: One is to educate yourself, not just in writing—that is important, to know your language (including grammar and rhetorical principles) and how to use it to the best effect—or just in the business of writing, which is essential to know—but in everything. Study literature, of course, which means knowing the Western canon and having read the great works from Homer forward. Also study history, all of it. Know the intimate details of any period, about the impact of the past on the present, whenever the “present” may be in a given work. After that, study economics, mathematics, science, psychology, philosophy, religion, and politics. (I find it astonishing how many young writers haven’t read such works as The Bible, the Quran, and other major works that shape society and often dictate peoples’ actions and history’s direction.) Don’t just take writing courses. Writers don’t write about writing—at least the good ones don’t. They write about everything else, and it’s important to know as much as you can to write about everything else with confidence. Two is to write directly, from the heart, and honestly, without fear of being criticized or castigated for penetrating the depth of human emotions and relationships. Don’t write to offend or outrage, or to preach; but don’t worry about writing something that is diluted or masked by civility and political sensitivity. Be direct, be honest, be accurate and unvarnished. In sum, write what you know, not about facts and experience you’ve actually had, but rather about the emotional depths you’ve been to and felt. Fiction is about love, fear, jealousy, envy, joy, triumph, grief, relief, apprehension, lust, hate, and personal recognition. It’s about outrage and satisfaction, courage and cowardice, achievement and failure. Those are your main subjects. In sum, write fairly, correctly, and with a sensitivity to the characters you create. The rest will take care of itself.
What can you tell us about your next writing project?
I’m working on two projects at the moment. One has to do with the border war that has been a part of Texas history from the inception. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 fascinates me, and I’m hoping to use it as a setting for my next novel. I am also working on a long memoir about 1968, a remarkable summer in my life and in the life of the whole nation. Few years are as important in the development of present-day America.
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(The text of this interview has been expanded since first publication.)
Praise for Clay Reynolds's recent work
Reynold's hard-edged prose is well calculated to captivate the reader right up to the final trigger squeeze.”
“In this masterful epic tale of embattled white settlers trying to cross hostile Indian territory ten years after the end of the Civil War, led by a black scout they neither like nor trust, Texas novelist Reynolds (The Vigil, Agatite—both 1986) captures all the complexities of a nation still torn by racial hatred and driven to conquer its final frontier.
From cover to cover, it is entertaining and disconcerting reading. —Dallas Morning News
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