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.
Award-winning author Reavis Z. Wortham was born in Paris, Texas, but lives in Dallas. He graduated with a B.S in industry and technology from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M, Commerce). Upon graduation, he began a teaching career in Garland. Wortham received a master’s in education from ETSU and after ten years in the classroom, took the job as communications specialist for the Garland ISD, retiring from that department as director of communications in 2011.
Dark Places, fifth in Wortham’s Red River Mysteries (Poisoned Pen Press) came out in 2015.
Wortham is a member of Mystery Writers of America and the Writers' League of Texas.
Praise for Reavis Z. Wortham's work
“Wortham nails the time period, the hardscrabble town, and the people, for whom family loyalties are paramount.” —Publishers Weekly
“Reavis Z. Wortham is the real thing: a literary voice that’s gut-bucket Americana delivered with a warm and knowing Texas twang.” —CJ Box, New York Times bestselling author of Endangered
“Replete with period details and a strong sense of place, this winning fifth series entry (after Vengeance Is Mine) is as much a coming-of-age story as crime fiction. This series is comparable to Rick Riordan’s Tres Navarre or Joe Lansdale’s Hap Collins and Leonard Pine books. —Library Journal
“An accomplished first novel about life and murder in a small Texas town. Not just scary but funny too, as Wortham nails time and place in a sure-handed, captivating way. There's a lot of good stuff in this unpretentious gem.” —Kirkus Reviews
Reavis (pronounce it Revv-iss) Z. Wortham’s Red River Mysteries examine the turbulent sixties through the eyes of a small town in Texas. Wortham grew up in Dallas, but he says, “Every Friday evening my parents put us in the car and made the 120-mile drive to Chicota, where we truly lived at my grandparents’ farm until Sunday evening, when we came back to the city.” His affection and ear for the cadence of a small Texas town of his youth comes through loud and clear in his novels.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You began your career as an author in 2011 after thirty-five years in education, communications, and journalism. Your first book, The Rock Hole, was lauded by Kirkus Reviews as one of the twelve best mystery novels of 2011. That’s a great way to start. But I understand that the book’s manuscript had to be rewritten from memory. Would you describe for our readers how that happened?
REAVIS Z. WORTHAM: The answer is one of the great horror stories that many writers will understand. I wrote the first draft of The Rock Hole on an old 286 computer. I had no training on computers, and didn’t understand the hazards of technology. The initial manuscript was approximately 130,000 words, with thousands of rewrites and corrections. The name of the dinosaur writing program has been mercifully deleted from my memory, but it wasn’t designed as a primary writing tool. The day I finished the project and clicked Save one last time, the screen went blank.
After getting my heart restarted, I called a tech I knew and explained the problem. He was quiet for a long minute. “Did you save it on the hard drive, or on a floppy?”
“What’s a hard drive?”
“So you saved it on the floppy?”
“That five and a half-inch disk? Yes.”
“It’s gone. The file is probably corrupted. Bring it in and let me take a look, but I think you’ve lost it all.”
No one had told me that a floppy disk at that time couldn’t store so much data. My friend recovered two whole pages and explained about hard drives and backups. After a week, I finished a bottle of scotch, bought a new computer, and rewrote The Rock Hole from memory. Backing up data is now second nature.
Your series of books takes place in the sixties in small towns. What inspired you to create those settings?
The 1960s were a dramatic time of change, and I grew up smack in the middle of that exciting decade. My first novel takes place in 1964, the year I turned ten. Small towns and even smaller communities are the bonding molecules of this nation, and most folks love them, or love the idea. Take Mayberry, for instance. Andy Griffith showed us how wonderful life could be where neighbors and family cared for each other, and the show is still popular in reruns even today.
The Beatles took this country by storm that year, and the Vietnam War was heating up. Civil rights were at the forefront of our consciousness, technology was changing, and this country was in the midst of evolving from an agricultural to urban society. While all this was going on, small communities were a microcosm of the United States, simply trying to live life, raise their kids, and get to heaven.
My granddad always said small towns were like ponds, or as we called them in northeast Texas, pools. While they’re calm and unimposing on the surface, there’s a whole world full of life on underneath. That’s why I’m fascinated with them.
How would you describe the moment when you got your first break as an author?
It was a comedy of errors on my part, and pure professionalism on the part of my publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. I was green as grass and didn’t know what I was doing. I’d written a good novel, but didn’t know what to do with it. I sent out dozens of queries to other houses without gaining any attention except for one publisher that wanted to work with me, but I blew the deal when they sent the manuscript back for edits without telling me they were interested. I thought they simply offered suggestions to make it better, so I made the changes and never sent it back.
Poisoned Pen told me they were interested and wanted to meet me. I flew from Texas to Florida and met my editor, Annette Rogers, at Sleuthfest, my first conference. She brought the entire manuscript that looked like my high school English teacher had gotten hold of it. She began to tell me what I needed to do to make it publishable. Unprepared, I didn’t have anything to write on except for a legal envelope. I took notes on both sides, then unsealed the edges to use the inside. She didn’t say a word, and let me off the hook when she told me I could expect an email with her suggestions.
She almost lost me at the end, though, when she finished. “That’s all. We’re going to publish, but I need for you to rewrite the ending.”
“You killed everyone off and we want this to be a series. Rewrite the ending and then cut off 40,000 words. It’s too long.”
“What!!!???” After nearly hyperventilating, I finally agreed and went to work. She was right. I didn’t miss any of those words or the chapters I deleted. I must have worked. More than one reviewer compared it to Miss Harper Lee’s work.
For our readers who haven’t discovered the Red River Mysteries, how would you answer that very familiar question, ‘What are your books about?’
They’re historical mystery thrillers beginning in 1964. The series follows an ensemble cast as they struggle to live their simple lives in the midst of that rapidly changing decade full of humor, life, and murder. No matter how hard they try, the world intrudes on the tiny community of Center Springs. Constable and farmer Ned Parker serves his people while at the same time trying to raise his ten-year-old grandson, Top. His Choctaw wife, Miss Becky, is the cornerstone of the Parker family. Top’s precocious near-twin girl cousin, Pepper, is immediately caught up in the British Invasion and yearns to live somewhere else. She’s often the spark that gets Top in trouble.
The third point of view comes from Cody Parker, who returns from his one tour in Vietnam and finds that Lamar County is just the same as it was when he left. Cody becomes the twentysomething generation that’s caught between the other two, simply wanting to live his life like everyone else, but unfortunately, the world’s problems gravitate to northeast Texas.
I have to confess my favorite Reavis Wortham character is Pepper, the tween tomboy — but you write very complex female (as well as male) characters. I’ve also read that you’re a voracious reader. Who are some of your favorite female authors? Who are your favorite Texas authors?
Thanks! People either love Pepper, or hate her. One reader sent me an email that said, “I love all your characters, but can’t wait until the day you drown Pepper in the Red River.”
You’re right. I read to excess, sometimes enjoying more than six books at one time. Beverly Cleary started me off in those wonderful sixties, but of course Harper Lee leads the pack. No, I didn’t read the new one bearing her name. Annie Proulx is a fantastic writer and brings her stories to life with excellent stylistic prose. Jamie Freveletti, Gillian Flynn, Taylor Stevens, Sandra Brannan, Jan Karon, and newcomer Annette Dashofy are great writers. Those are only a few that I read.
Boiling it down to Texas writers is exciting. Larry McMurtry is the elder in the game, followed by Joe Lansdale, Jan Reid, Jeff Guinn, Jeff Long, Ben Rehder, Bill Crider, Elizabeth Cook, Elmer Kelton, Elmore Leonard, Cormac McCarthy, poet Carmen Tafolla, Stephen Harrigan, Lon Tinkle…lordy, this is a big state that produces a huge crop of excellent authors. There are many others I didn’t name. You can’t go wrong with any of them.
Publishing is such a dynamic business. In the five years since your debut, how has the business changed?
I’m not a business-oriented guy by any means, but one thing I’ve noticed is how authors have become franchised. Great writers who’ve passed on are still on the bestseller lists as other qualified authors have taken up the mantle to keep their characters alive.
E-books made a startling change to the landscape and the thought was that physical books would soon join the dinosaurs, but folks proved that physical books will be here forever. There has been a resurgence in the sale of books and I think that trend will continue. I hope so.
You write one book a year. I understand that you don’t outline your books. So what’s your process like? Describe the growth cycle of a new Reavis Wortham novel.
My process makes other authors feel faint, or at least queasy. You’re right. I can’t and don’t outline. Sometimes I begin with a vague idea that lurks on the edges of my consciousness. I begin each novel with a sentence that leads to another. I can’t tell you where we’re going with the story until a character takes over.
My second novel, Burrows, begins with one word. Drip.
From there it’s like you’re writing on your computer and the words are coming up on my screen. I’m always astonished at what my characters do or say. They lead me down rabbit holes that are full of surprises. I tend to write about a chapter a day, and by the end, I have no idea what’s gonna happen the next day.
That’s when I sit down with this Infernal Machine and type another word. I never know where the story is headed. There are usually two to three plotlines running through each work, and they always seem to find each other at the end. I’m sure it’s the subconscious at work, and I’ve been lucky things always work out.
I once stopped a hundred pages into a manuscript and jumped forward to write the ending of the novel. I pounded out 10,000 words in a sitting and then went back to write the middle. The two ends met, and The Right Side of Wrong became a favorite, containing one of my favorite minor characters, Tom Bell.
As you talk to your readers, do you find more of them migrating to e-books, or do you find that your readers are paper purists? Has this technology affected the way you reach out to readers?
I hear from some of my readers that they read on electronic devices, but most of them want hard copies as well, especially if they can get the author to sign it. I use Facebook and Twitter to reach my readers, as well as utilizing a website. The FB page is fun, with Old Timey Words and Phrases, and interaction with those who are interested in what I have to say, which ain’t much, by the way, but we always have a good time.
What advice would you give aspiring authors?
Never, ever, ever give up. If you aren’t writing every day, you aren’t trying. Find your voice, find your niche, and find your pace, and then write. Oh, and never, ever, ever give up.
One final matter: Describe the quintessential Texas meal for Reavis Wortham.
That’s easy! Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy, with crispy unseasoned French fries and a salad…Thousand Island dressing please. Throw in a couple of soft rolls and some sweet tea. It’ll stick to your ribs, as well as your arteries and your waistline.
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