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.
Jan Reid, who lives in Austin and is the author of thirteen books, first won acclaim for his pop culture classic The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock and decades of wide-ranging articles for Texas Monthly. His talent for nonfiction grew in his memoir The Bullet Meant for Me and his biography of the late Texas governor Ann Richards, Let the People In. His love of fiction is also evident in his prize-winning novels Deerinwater and Comanche Sundown and now his third, dramatically different new one, Sins of the Younger Sons.
In 2014 the Texas Institute of Letters honored Jan with its Lon Tinkle Award for lifetime career achievement.
Jan Reid has lived the quintessential life of a Texas writer — born in West Texas, raised in Wichita Falls, and a Dobie Paisano fellow following grad school at UT Austin. He was nurturing a fledging reporter’s career at the New Braunfels newspaper when he pitched a few story ideas to a brand-new magazine called Texas Monthly in 1973. Since then he has had a front row seat to history in the Lone Star State—from the rise of Redneck Rock to the rise — and fall — of Ann Richards and Karl Rove. Reid himself was taken down by a robber’s bullet in Mexico, but came back to walk and work again. Last week, he was in Marfa at an event with Joe Ely promoting his latest novel The Sins of the Younger Sons when he spoke with us via email for this interview.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: For a generation of Texans, Texas Monthly was their Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner all delivered in their mailbox—long-form wordsmithing that spoke truth to power. How did you get the call to join the storied publication?
JAN REID: In early 1973 I was a few months out of graduate school, writing well enough but just learning the craft of reporting at small newspapers. On my way to such a job at the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung, I heard about Texas Monthly and dropped off a couple of unpublished nonfiction pieces. They had formed the staff but not brought out their first issue. To my great surprise some days later I got a short note from Greg Curtis, who had been Bill Broyles’s first hire and later succeeded him as the magazine’s most long-standing editor in chief. Greg said they couldn’t use those pieces but they liked my writing and hoped I would get back to them if I had any ideas. I did, initially for a brief story about a San Antonio “ice house” robbery, a hundred-mile shootout with TV copters trying to follow, and a wild chase that ended with a hundred bullet holes just in the dead driver’s door after a rollover in New Braunfels. The many cops then went to our cop shop for a long night of yarn-spinning and drinking. The breakthrough paid me forty dollars but got my freelance foot in the door of a soon-to-be great young magazine. My third co-authored feature those first months led a year later to my first book, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock.
You grew up in Wichita Falls in the late fifties/early sixties. What was that like?
I was born in Abilene. My parents moved to Wichita Falls when I was five and I didn’t “get out” of there until I was twenty-three. My dad was a refinery worker; Mom had grown up on a tenant cotton farm. For me it was a forced diet of Church of Christ scripturalism; most of what I got out of that was love of gospel music and a little talent for singing it. I lived for playing outfield baseball and reading library books in the summers. But Wichita Falls was a high school football machine in those days, and I was foolish and bullheaded enough to humiliate myself trying unsuccessfully to play it. I went to school with many kids born into great oil wealth, another source of my insecurity. I associated the place with pool halls, street fighters, and rednecks. I flirted with that scene for a short while, then I woke up one day with a bad shiner and told myself to grow up. I made my peace with that decent and pretty fair-minded town many years ago.
What attracted you to journalism and writing stories?
In my last semester at the small college there, now named Midwestern State, I had thought I might go to law school until a close friend graduated a year before I did and I got a close look at that through his efforts at the SMU law school in Dallas. A degree in history and government — I had no idea what I could do with that. Then James Hoggard, a very good and versatile poet, playwright, novelist, and translator, taught the first creative writing class at the college, and encouraged me from the first short story I turned in. In the 1960s, just a few miles down our road from Archer City, if you had any inkling to write you couldn’t overstate the example and success of Larry McMurtry. His first novel was made into a movie starring Paul Newman! And he kept turning them out, my favorite Leaving Cheyenne and then The Last Picture Show. I thought then I was going off to be a fiction writer, a novelist. I had no thought of being a journalist until I got out of UT-Austin with a master’s degree in American studies in 1972 — still no employable skills. I started learning to be a reporter out of paycheck necessity. The first time I walked into a journalism class, I was teaching it.
What was living in New Braunfels/Austin in the seventies like?
New Braunfels is a beautiful and fine town, at least when its population was 10,000. Now I hear it’s grown five-fold and my friends there have gone on from there. I had a popular newspaper column, as sports editor I played softball with the high school coaches, and I liked the descendants of the frontier Germans who settled it in the 1840s. As for Austin, I’ve been rebuked for saying the 1960s didn’t get there until the 1970s, but that’s how it was for me. I had written a failed novel and decided I hadn’t really read enough to be a writer. But looking back I was really just trying to get to Austin — not to launch a career as an academic scholar. I was burned out as a grad student after the first year, but I’d found what I was looking for. Smoking dope, letting my hair grow out as soon as I got out of the marine reserves, haunting the music bars, falling in and out of love.
What was the first story you wrote with Texas Monthly? When did you know that TM was going to be “a big deal”?
I guess I should say the first was the short piece mentioned above, and that it was the co-authored story that led to the Redneck Rock book, but that was a blur and a fluke to the extent it was successful. I think collectively we knew the magazine was a big deal by the end of the first year, because so many of talent were trying to get in on it, but that didn’t mean that individually we thought we had any bull by the horns.
In 1975 I quit my job in New Braunfels and moved to Austin to sink or swim as a real writer, and just about drowned. Then I got a terrific break, a six-month Paisano fellowship on J. Frank Dobie’s old rural retreat out west of Austin. It was going to be several months before my term began, Bill Broyles knew I wanted to pivot away from writing about music, and he assigned me a difficult story — “Busting Out of Mexico.” That story about some Dallas toughs being paid $2500 apiece to face down a jail in Piedras Negras, across the border from Eagle Pass, and bring back a pot smuggler called Cooter, and in the process emptying the packed place of American dopers to swim across the border river created an international incident. It was competitive, a lot bigger publications than Texas Monthly were in the hunt, but I broke it, and that was the first time I thought I could play with the grown folks. Hunter Thompson was passing through town when it came out and he sent me a fan letter. And after all these years, a few months ago two accomplished screenwriters with strong producing credentials fell out of the sky and were contesting for the movie option of a story I published forty years ago. You never know about Hollywood, but it was quite a yarn.
In the eighties you met and married your wife, Dorothy, and got to know an up-and-coming politician named Ann Richards who was a friend of your wife. You later wrote a powerful book about Richards, Let the People In. How do you think Ann Richards would like to be remembered?
A hell-raiser who conquered her demons, chief among them alcohol, and bridled at being treated as a second-class citizen because she was a woman, a funny and smart-mouthed woman. She got lucky in making a speech at a Democratic National Convention that propelled her onto the national stage, against a Texan who at least by his own admission couldn’t stop shooting himself in the foot when they paired off in the 1990 governor’s race. She wasn’t the same candidate in 1994, and she didn’t have the same opponent in young George W. Bush. She regretted that she hadn’t accomplished all she wanted in those four years, but she didn’t back down from anyone, including macho gun-lovers. I think she he would want to be remembered for putting a lot of cracks in that glass ceiling we keep hearing about — and not just for women who are Democrats.
In the late nineties you and three male colleagues went to Mexico to see a boxing match, and you were shot in a taxicab robbery. You’ve written about that experience and how it changed your life. How did that event change your life?
It made me confront the possibility of being a paraplegic, living my life in a wheelchair. And I thought at the time I was all right with that, considering I was still breathing. But I had a chance to overcome it and walk again and help keep a marriage and career together. I couldn’t turn down the book offer that came my way, but I didn’t know how to write one in what I came to call the “ouch genre.” It’s too long a story of how the connection came my way, but a book by the physician and author Abraham Verghese inspired me to frame it as a parallel challenge involving me and my young friend the boxer Jesus Chavez, whom I thought had been wrongly deported to Mexico. Or at least unfairly and nonsensically. We both had to to face up to how much of this we had brought on ourselves and and our families. Moving on from The Bullet Meant for Me, I could no longer take on the kind of assignments I once enjoyed because of my physical limitations. And in truth, by 1998, when I was fifty-three, I was frustrated that I had been writing all these magazine stories but had published just three books. So I pivoted in not so nearly nimble a way. Some opportunities as an author presented themselves, and others I fought for. Not least of the adversaries was myself.
You’ve written more than a dozen books, and according to your website, you’ve always had a special affinity for fiction—even if it’s not always easy to get published. Tell us about your latest novel, Sins of the Younger Sons.
Again a long story, as in twenty-nine years.
But it’s not like I worried and fretted all that time. Eight of my books, including my other favorite novel, Comanche Sundown, came and went during those years when my 200-odd pages reposed in my mom’s old cedar chest in my office. I just got stuck, knew I didn't have enough story to support the major characters and narrative. I got the pages out after I finished Let the People In and saw enough there to start over.
The protagonist of Sins of the Younger Sons comes from a family of ranchers who were chased across the Rio Grande by the Mexican Revolution. Neighbors think those are just hard-working exiles from that other land who herd and shear sheep and goats and get elected to the Salt Lick school board. But they have been sustained by the history, culture, and language of Basques who came to the New World as whalers, cod fishermen, priests, soldiers, and in time learned to be vaqueros. The father knows which son is to carry on with the ranch, so Luke Burgoa is cut loose with a financial inheritance and becomes a marine captain in off-the-book missions protecting oil companies and their workers in South America. That ends badly for him, as for his commanding officer, and they wind up with one of our U.S. intelligence agencies that Luke calls the Outfit. He’s sent to gain the confidence and entrap the military commander of the Basque separatist group ETA in the Basque provinces of Spain in a gunrunning scheme out of rain-forest Ecuador. Luke knows the Outfit’s interest in ETA is the extent to which they are allied with Muslim jihadists, and they haven’t been reading much Basque-Moorish history if they believe that. But the money is good, Luke is curious about the old country, and the Americans want to be able to capture Peru Madariaga and hand him over to the Spaniards. Luke makes some progress toward that goal, but he falls in love with the estranged wife of Peru, whose name is Ysolina Madariaga. She lives well in Paris but in forced exile as a thwarted doctoral candidate. She wants to write about an ancestor who was caught up in a Spanish Inquisition witchcraft craze in the early 17th century, and the essential archives—and her heart’s longing—are in her homeland ruled by Spain. The plot takes on considerable complications, which include fictionalized takes on the famous American architect Frank Gehry, construction of the Guggenheim Museum in once-squalid Bilbao, and the king of Spain, but to me it’s a love triangle. Ysolina needs a ride.
Let’s shift direction for a moment. How has publishing changed since you began in the business four decades ago?
The Internet has all but eliminated magazine writing as a freelance way to make a living. Why? Because the magazines that have hung on generally pay half as much for stories as they did back in the Golden Age of Willie Morris at Harper’s and Tom Wolfe proclaiming the death of the novel in favor of the New Journalism. (I've been delighted that Wolfe changed his tune and became a big-time novelist.) Real decisions at the big trade publishing houses are made now not by brilliant career editors but by sales divisions. So getting published at all is much harder. And few presses, small or large, can lavish much money on promotion. The onus is on the author to shed what light he or she can provide in the ninety days, más o menos, that most books have before the returns come tumbling in. A few years ago, in the middle of what was otherwise a terrific review of Comanche Sundown, I was lectured about being so damn passive about whatever comes of my work. Self-promotion is not in my nature, but I’m making an effort to learn. I’d rather get back to another novel.
What advice do you have for the next generation of writers?
Read compulsively and don’t be afraid to learn from what you’re reading — the influences that may seem glaring to you will get filtered out in the revision and editing processes if the work sticks with you. And if it does stick with you, don’t get too discouraged — stay with it. And when you’ve done the best you can with it, take a trip with one person or people you love, then come back and start another one.
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“Only the best writers (Elliott Arnold in Blood Brothers, Larry McMurttry in Lonesome Dove series) can convincingly [make readers believe things might have happened in ways that exist only in a writer’s imagination], and with Comanche Sundown Austin’s Jan Reid demonstrates he belongs among the elite.” —Jeff Guinn, Dallas Morning News
“Jan Reid has been pondering masculinity, violence and Texas most of his life…Reid leaves himself so exposed and has such a clear, inviting style that when the fists emerge, you almost feel sorry that Reid has to introduce them.” —Clay Smith, Texas Observer
The Bullet Meant for Me
“Simultaneously haunting and heartwarming, this memoir brings the horror of random (or almost random) violence fully to life and demonstrates how one man used that experience as a stepping-stone toward his own intellectual enlightenment” —Washington Post
“Reid has written a striking, intensely personal, and emotionally honest record of his life.” —Publishers Weekly
“There's a wealth of strong imagery in this memoir, but what truly generates its power is the magnetism of decency that allows the writer, and vicariously the reader, to rise beyond fear and the chaos of rage.” —Denver Post
“How rare they seem in the world, these too-few stories of redemption and dignity. The Bullet Meant for Me is alternately nightmarish and light-filled, and impossible to turn away from.” —Rick Bass
“Jan Reid’s memoir is a powerful story of love, loss, and one kind of redemption. Living to tell such a tale is an accomplishment in itself, but it takes an even greater talent to write it so beautifully.” —Abraham Verghese
“This is an honest, enthralling memoir that hits with the impact of a bullet in the gut. Reading it will force you to reevaluate many things you take for granted.” —Bud Shrake
Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards
“This book, which maintains a brisk pace and is filled with characters found only deep in the heart of Texas politics, is an indispensable addition to any collection specializing in Texas or state politics and feminist political figures. Both scholarly and accessible, it will appeal to almost any reader interested in the lives of American politicians.” —Brett Rohlwing, Milwaukee Public Library, Library Journal
“Required reading for political junkies―and for women considering a life in politics.” —Mary Carroll, Booklist
“Reid is a clever stylist and a terrific storyteller. He has a fine grasp of Texas politics and no ideological ax to grind. As an account of Richards the politician in Lone Star surroundings, Let the People In is about as good as it gets.” —David Oshinsky, Texas Monthly
“Hers is a darned good story, and Reid, a veteran of Austin literary and political circles, tells it with sympathy, insight and a deep knowledge of contemporary Texas politics.” —Bryan Burrough, Washington Post
“Illuminates the challenge of being a woman in Texas politics during the late twentieth century. . . . Credit for the changing times belongs in large measure to the fortitude of Richards and others like her.” —Economist
“There’s something interesting on almost every page of Let the People In. This is a terrific book about a fascinating woman.” —Houston Chronicle
“Thoroughly researched and deftly written. . . . It should stand as the definitive biography of the forty-fifth governor of Texas for a long while.” —The Historian
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