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.
Some of Lone Star Lit’s readers may know of Mike Blakely, the award-winning singer-songwriter. Some may know Mike Blakely, the award-winning novelist. Yes, he’s one and the same, and he talks with us this week in Lone Star Listens about how he manages to live two very different creative lives.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: What a fascinating life you have led, with life imitating art and vice versa, Mike. I understand that you grew up on the family ranch near Wharton, Texas, northeast of Victoria. What was that like?
MIKE BLAKELY: Except for the fire ants, mosquitoes, and venomous cottonmouths, it wasn’t too bad! Seriously, it was a great way to grow up, living in the country and working on the ranch. At a young age, I learned to ride a horse and work cattle, haul hay, drive a tractor, build fences and barns, and generally work hard using my hands and my brain. For leisure, I learned to hunt and fish and enjoy wildlife and the great outdoors. I was taught to finish everything I started. Most importantly, I learned to earn everything I wanted.
Music was a part of your life when you were young, with your Dad giving you a guitar at age eight and you playing music throughout your school years. When did the interest come for books and writing?
I got interested in fiction writing as a teenager. I would wake up in the middle of the night and write scenes that had come to me in my sleep. I had a fantastic English teacher in high school, Mrs. Lowery, who encouraged me, even after graduation. (Mrs. Lowery later became a lawyer and is now a judge.) My dad had written a number of books, so getting published seemed like a rather normal goal to me. Incidentally, my mom’s first novel will soon be released!
After graduating from high school, you entered the Air Force and then earned your degree in journalism from the University of Texas. What was Austin like in the ’70s?
Fresh out of the military, I felt motivated to earn my journalism degree in three years, and did so. I spent my first year and a half at Wharton County Junior College in the town where I grew up. My dad had once taught agriculture courses at the college, so I was very familiar with the campus and knew some faculty members. Eventually, I transferred to UT Austin and graduated in 1984. Austin was a pleasant little city back then. The live music venues all over town and even on campus (Austin City Limits and the Cactus Café) appealed to me. Traffic there flowed freely, unlike today. I took in all the Austin highlights, from Barton Creek to the capitol and beyond.
When did you get your first break as an author? And when did you get your first break as a songwriter?
I worked as a freelance magazine writer for a couple of years, then tried my hand at fiction. I finished writing my first novel, a western, about the time Louis L’Amour passed away. Publishing houses began looking for the next L’Amour, and I got a boot across the threshold before the door slammed shut. I had landed an agent in New York City with whom I still work. My agent placed my first book with a respectable publisher. I thought I was off to the races, but soon found out I was on a roller-coaster ride instead!
On the songwriting side, I had composed simple little ditties as a kid. In college, my songwriting began to improve. I still perform a couple of tunes I wrote back then, notably “Mira Las Palomas” and “Charlie Siringo.” Those are not exactly household hits, but they have served me well. I’ve been lucky enough to have been recorded by some known talents such as Alan Jackson, Red Steagall, Gary P. Nunn, Flaco Jimenez and Raul Malo, among others. I got a break as a songwriter in 1995 when a song I wrote with John Arthur Martinez and Alex Harvey got recorded by Grammy-winning Tex-Mex accordionist Jimenez. Raul Malo, of the Mavericks, sang the lead vocal, which was written in English and Spanish. The song is called “Seguro Que Hell Yes!” It’s a two-chord song that doesn’t even rhyme! We shot a video in Gruene Hall. Twenty years later, in 2015, Alan Jackson cut the same song.
I think readers who are not familiar with Western literature may not realize how it has changed. In some of your books, you deal with Austin in the mid-seventies with cosmic cowboys as characters. As a former president of Western Writers of America, what would you like to share with Texas readers about Western writing?
My own novels reflect the changes to which you refer. My first few books were genre westerns — shoot-’em-ups, if you prefer. Soon the market changed, and I happily changed with it. Readers began wanting more than black-hat-white-hat gunplay and cowboys vs. Indians. I began writing more important works — full-fledged historical novels that just happened to be set in the American Frontier West. I began to place more emphasis on character development and actual historical incidents. One of my mentors was Elmer Kelton, who I believe led the charge to elevate the western genre and give it more substance. As you point out, I also got to stray out of the western field with two novels that dealt with Texas music in the 1970s. In those books, I got to weave in many of my own music business experiences.
Who are some of the Texas writers that you enjoy reading? I especially enjoy your female characters, so I was wondering if there are any female Texas writers that you particularly enjoy reading?
I’ve already mentioned the late, great Elmer Kelton. His books were loved by many. David Marion Wilkinson is among the finest writers in Texas in both fiction and nonfiction. J. Frank Dobie was the first great literary Texan that I discovered in my youth. Larry McMurtry excels at creating both female and male characters. I’ll let you in on a secret. I shy away from reading fiction while I’m writing fiction because I don’t want to absorb someone else’s style — and I’m almost always writing fiction. So, I don’t read as many novels as I’d like to. It’s an occupational hazard. Over 90% of my reading is research-driven nonfiction. I also happen to be a very slow and methodical reader, so I can’t blaze through a lot of books in a short time. My favorite Texas female writers are songwriters — Susan Gibson and Tish Hinojosa, to name just a couple.
What is your creative process like when you are writing a novel?
The process varies depending on the type of project. Generally, it starts with research, including geographical exploration, library visits, and Internet searches. Once I find a starting place, I begin writing. I may have an outline of sorts in my mind, but it is subject to change. Frequently, the characters take over and start doing what they want to do whether I have an outline or not. Sitting down in front of an empty computer screen feels intimidating every morning. I’ll read over what I wrote the day before — generally about four pages — and that tends to kick-start me into the next few pages. I write two to three hours in the morning and then take care of all the other administrative chores that come along with having a literary and music career. That makes for a full day, especially if I have a musical gig to play that night, as I do three to four nights a week. I have enjoyed owning, maintaining, and improving three small ranches since 1990, and that takes time and muscle, too. You’d be amazed at the creative thoughts you can come up with whilst digging post holes!
Tell us about your latest book — which is actually two books, The Snowy Range Gang and Vendetta Gold: Two Complete Novels (Forge, 2017).
Forge Books took two of my former titles and reprinted them as an omnibus under one cover. These were westerns I wrote in the nineties. I’m fond of both stories, one set in the Texas Hill Country (Vendetta Gold) and the other in Wyoming’s Snowy Range. Vendetta Gold was my second novel to publish and my first attempt at writing in first person.
How has publishing changed since you started? How has the music business changed since you started?
Publishing has gone through many changes since I sold my first novel in 1987. Book distributors began buying one another out, creating fewer but bigger wholesale outlets, which has changed the way books are marketed. The Internet and advanced electronic gadgets have created new ways to get books to the readers. But I’m glad to say I can still walk into a bookstore and put my hands on an actual book, just like the good old days.
Music has also changed. When I started performing for audiences forty years ago, not a whole lot of artists were out there playing and recording. Nowadays, technology has made recording and performing much more available and affordable. A tech-savvy musician with a laptop computer, some recording software, and a good microphone can cut a decent record at home.
Some things have not changed, though. The importance of the story plus the talent and hard work of the writer still remain paramount.
What's next for Mike Blakely?
I recently turned in book one of a two-book deal — two historical novels about the Mexican War. Book I — A Sinister Splendor, involves the first, or northern, phase of the war under General Zachary Taylor. I am using all real historical personages as my point-of-view characters, including Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and Jefferson Davis, to name a few. The book required more research than any novel I have written to date. I will begin working on Book II soon.
You mentioned at the top of this interview that I have led a fascinating life. The older I get (I’m now fifty-eight), the more I realize how true that is and how fortunate I’ve been. Because my parents liked to travel, I visited more than ten countries in Central America and Europe by the time I graduated from high school.
In the Air Force I lived for a year in South Korea. Music has taken me back to Europe for some seventeen tours with my band. My dad and I entertained in Australia. The two of us have also played a cowboy music duo called “The Swing Riders” in at least fifteen states for large corporate and association conventions.
Because I possess a modicum of cowboy know-how from my upbringing on the ranch, I’ve been lucky enough to round up cattle on several working ranches over the years with real cowboys far more skilled than me. My favorite was the 275,000-acre 02 Ranch between Alpine and Terlingua, where I worked several spring and fall roundups with friends who ran cattle there.
I got to co-write a western novel with Willie Nelson, which led to another co-write of a music-business novel with Kenny Rogers. My wife, Annie, and I live in one of the most beautiful places in Texas, just outside of Fredericksburg, where we enjoy the solitude of our Hacienda Estrella Vista, along with three horses, five dogs, and a cat. I planned very little of all this.
So, to answer your question: “What’s next for Mike Blakely?” I can only say, “Cock your hammer, hold on tight, and let the wild ponies run!”
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Praise for Mike Blakely’s work
“Blakely's writing is crisp, enticing, and underscored with depth.” —American Cowboy
“An almighty narrative talent.” —Booklist
“A gifted storyteller.” —Texas Books in Review
“Mike Blakely writes with authority and empathy about a people superbly suited to the land they roamed.” —Lucia St. Clair Robson, Spur Award–winning author
“Mike Blakely turns the horses loose in all our souls.” —W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear, New York Times bestselling authors
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