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.
As winter turns to spring the call of travel whispers in our ear, but what speaks to us most about the journey — the visual feast for the eyes, or the insights we gain within ourselves as we trod through new and familiar places? Shelley Armitage’s Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place, a Kirkus Best Book of 2016 selection, transports the reader to the panhandle plains near Route 66 with its poetic prose and intelligent insights. The author talked with us via email last week about her memoir, her writing, and her own journey.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Shelley, your professional life has taken you through studies of photography, environmental literature, cultural and place studies, and living and working in diverse places—Portugal, Poland, Finland, and Hungary, teaching in the Southwest and Hawai’i, researching in New York, Washington, DC, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut. You’re the author of books, articles, and essays, and you’ve held Fulbright chairs in Warsaw and Budapest, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso as well as three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant. Whew! How does someone get from Vega, Texas, halfway between Amarillo and the New Mexico county line with a population of around 900, to pursuing an international life of letters?
I appreciate this question because it allows me to thank some folks. In some small towns, like Vega, “small” means more opportunities to try things at school, more personal attention from teachers, a chance to dream big. In the seventh grade, we learned how to read the stock market and work a slide rule. Our band director, who taught all the instruments from grade school on (none of us had private lessons), also sponsored a Ham radio club; we had our novice licenses in the seventh grade and made Division I ratings at the band competitions playing selections designated for 5-A bands. If able, you could star in basketball one night and participate in the Interscholastic League science events the next. You get the picture.
And my parents. Though both had only high school diplomas, they believed in education—how it was an equalizer and expanded one’s heart and world. They were curious people. Mother ordered books and records (live concerts and bookstores were a rarity and if available, forty miles away). My brother and I had piano and dance lessons.
From childhood on, my great-aunts, all Southern storytellers, encouraged my writing. One who was an amateur poet sent her books. She also inspired me as an English teacher. She was teaching at Little Rock High School when it was integrated. I went off to college wanting to be “a writer,” but in my time that meant either journalism or English as a degree. I did both but squirmed out of their confines into a PhD in American Studies, which allowed for my own curiosity and interdisciplinary interests. During my first job at a community college in Fort Worth, my parents encouraged me to travel to Ethiopia and perhaps teach there. I was smitten by what one can learn from other cultures. During my mother’s recovery in her hospital room from a knee replacement, I filled out my first Fulbright application. Why not try? After all, my dad, coming from a poor family, was a self-made man, and I remembered napping in the back of our car while he took banking courses after work in order to grow. Yes, why not try?
What was it like growing up in a small town in the Panhandle?
Actually, I think for the l950s and early ’60s, it was a wonderful place to grow up. Vega was a real community with caring among families. I like to say I had several mothers. You could try things—plowing for your dad, competing for Miss Oldham County, editing the yearbook. To this day when people smart off about something, I jokingly say, “But can they drive a tractor?” I remember worrying that small town and supposedly backwater Texas was perhaps a disability. No, there were no honors classes or advanced calculus. But there were plenty of life experiences, chances to mature and learn responsibilities, and really the small town could be a successful launching pad for bigger things.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
In grade school, my dad brought home a blank black leather journal from the bank. This was the same daddy who playfully locked me in the bank vault when I was a child. I would pick up the phone inside the vault and call, “Daddy, let me out.” It was a game, of course after hours. That journal held my first efforts to write some short stories, no doubt inspired by “B” TV westerns. “The Man from Sagebrush,” “Ling Lee’s Magical Kite”—things like that. And one of my childhood friends and I wrote an extensive mystery (I think we started it in the fifth grade) featuring characters from Vega not too cleverly disguised. For inspiration, we would sneak out of her house (supposedly I was sleeping over) to Colonel Owens’s abandoned and dilapidated two-story Southern-style house, where certain macabre deeds supposedly were done. Shortly after I decided I wanted to be a writer for National Geographic (travel, cultural studies). Unfortunately, my query about how to become such a writer was answered like a rejection form without a word of encouragement for an elementary kid. So, much of my passion for writing went into school and university papers, later articles, and finally books.
What was your first break as a writer?
In l976 (yes, I measure my life in decades now!), I took a course at University of Texas at Arlington in popular culture studies. My paper for that course was on the sociology of women athletes and their phenomenon in popular culture, a topic not explored previously. I published this shortly thereafter as “The Lady as Jock,” launching my interest in critical studies, subjects often flying low under the radar. I began to research and write on women and was able to contribute a number of “firsts” on women in the West, women humorists, women photographers, etc. I was a feminist critic. But maybe my real breakthrough piece was “The Mysterious Stranger,” written in the fourth grade about a pet raccoon who was discovered to be the thief of my mother’s missing jewelry found buried in a hole at the base of the elm tree in our front yard.
Your most recent book, Walking the Llano, is a memoir about returning to the land your ancestors ranched. For our readers not familiar with the Llano region, will you describe it for them?
The Llano Estacado (pronounced “ya-no”) is a vast tableland in eastern New Mexico and northwest Texas. Some say it is one of the largest plateaus in North America, though driving across it, many people suffer its seemingly endless flatness. Early explorers characterizing it as “a sea of grass” feared it and deemed it inhabitable. The Llano covers some 37,452 miles and is characterized by grasslands and altitudes of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. Grass and sky are profound as you drive areas of the Llano. Away from cities and wind turbine farms you can still imagine Coronado crossing these plains with few distinguishing features to lead him. The northern edge of the Llano, the part I write about, defies the “flat and therefore boring” assumptions, revealing lush canyons, even springs, and wind-shaped mesas near the Canadian River on the north. When I was a kid I used to walk the pasture behind my Vega home. In a small town with not a lot to do this was a kind of entertainment. I was looking for something—doodle bugs, horny toads, ground squirrel holes—and to this day I always find something new.
You literally walked the Llano as a part of the writing. What made you decide to do that, and how did you use it in your writing process?
I decided to walk a thirty-mile portion of the Llano following an intermittent creek, the Middle Alamosa Creek, which heads on our farm. At first I was simply walking it to see what the land looked like, an adventure. But then, in later reviewing topo maps of the area, I realized the creek connected Armitage Farms with Ysabel’s Camp, one of the creeks emptying into the Canadian River. This became my impetus for writing, because my dad when he was sixteen had known the first settler in the Canadian River Valley, Ysabel Gurule, who was then in his ’80s. The two men’s stories, their connected narrative, and the land as a story itself linking the two men and all that was in between—prehistoric sites, Comanche and Kiowa knowledge and artifacts, New Mexico pastores’ plazas—prompted my search, research, and writing.
Lots of books come from that actual act of walking through your thoughts—famously, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. The award-winning Western writer Patrick Dearen talks about the number of words per mile he crafts when he walks. Why do you suppose walking can be such a jump-start to the creative process?
For me walking was a way of taking the land’s own lyric, its own story and voice, into my body. It was also a kind of inside joke, demonstrating that the land was not flat but subtly contoured, complex. This rhythm, then, came out as writing. I write: “In college I started jogging for fitness. I jogged five miles a day for thirty years. I sought out the softer soils for running, and when home I always ran at the farm. It became a local joke. ‘You still running?’ someone would ask at the post office, eyeing my dusty shoes and worn out leggings. But the running taught me something. I began to learn that the land was lyric. I could feel the rhythm of its shape come into my legs, up into my chest and heart, and out my mouth as breath. / Later it came out as writing.” I should add I was reduced to walking after a knee surgery, a rhythm was even more measured and profound.
For our readers not familiar with your memoir, will you describe for them?
Walking the Llano is an eco-memoir, offering witness to the record of wind and water, flora and fauna of a little known area, reminding us that landscape is not “out there” but that we are part of it. I remember reading A Texas Naturalist years ago and realizing that the Panhandle was left out. I seek to recover the lost voices of this place, interweaving the voices of Native and Hispano peoples with my own: a father’s legacy, a mother’s decline, a brother’s love. The beauty (once experienced, once rediscovered) holds ecological surprises and a renewed realization of kinship in a world ever-changing. These changes include human alterations of the land: oil and gas exploration, microwave towers, wind turbines challenging my question: “What does the land say to us?” Through writing, I seek a kind of continuity despite the fragmentation of stories and ecological damage to the land itself. Ultimately this is a journey deeply personal but also far-reaching in its exploration of connections between memory, spirit, and place.
I am going to ask you the question that I ask every author who also teaches. Can writing be taught? And, if so, how?
I wouldn’t say writing can be taught. I would say teachers can expose students to principles and ideas and examples of writing. Writing is learning to read and to listen. It’s about exposing oneself to language in its endless shapes and timbres and valuing one’s own story while seeing one’s story in others’.
Last and most important question: Best place to get a chicken-fried steak between Amarillo and Tucumcari?
Last time I had a chicken fried steak was in Fort Worth, Texas, when I was in my twenties and could get away with eating a chicken fried steak and baked potato and salad and bread and still walk out of the restaurant. It was also the last time I put a quarter into one of those jukebox machines that was on the wall by your table. When I did so, Freddie Fender’s “Baby, Baby, All Night Long” got stuck on the player and played and played and played until the stares from other customers and my red-faced pleas brought the manager from the back to give it a good bang. Nowadays I’m told that the Hickory Inn in Vega, Texas, has a pretty darn good chicken fried steak.
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Praise for Shelley Armitage’s WALKING THE LLANO
“Both an intensely lyrical and intimate scrapbook of familial history and a uniquely sublime travelogue of the American Southwestern landscape.” —Kirkus Reviews, starred review and “Best Books of 2016”
“Advanced poetics are at play in this work that is both a tribute to the land and a moving exploration of family ties. Beautiful language and wide-ranging musings make Walking the Llano a treasure.”
“Armitage discusses imagist poets and then proves to be one herself.” —Lone Star Literary Life
“It’s a perfectly balanced memoir, and a lot of fun to read.” —The Oklahoman
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