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A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Stew Magnuson is a Washington, DC–based journalist and the author of The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder (Texas Tech University Press, 2009), named winner of the Nebraska Book Award for 2009.
His latest works include The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83 series.
He also penned Wounded Knee 1973: Still Bleeding, which was released by Now & Then Reader in eBook format and separately as a paperback ahead of the fortieth anniversary of the Wounded Knee Occupation.
Texas boasts more highway mileage than any other state in the nation — and many of those follow historic long-distance routes. While many travelers readily recognize Route 66, which traverses the Texas Panhandle, and some know the coast-to-coast Bankhead Highway from Texarkana to El Paso, fewer, perhaps, are aware of U.S. 83, which runs from the top of the state to its southernmost tip. If author Stew Magnuson has anything to say about it, the highway’s history won’t remain secret for long.
For today’s interview Stew corresponded by email with Lone Star Lit producer Barbara Brannon, who’s familiar with his books from an editorial standpoint an a common interest in American road culture.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Stew, congratulations on completing the third book in this 1,885-mile journey. What persuaded you to undertake the chronicle of U.S. 83 to begin with?
STEW MAGNUSON: Thank you! I have known since an early age that Highway 83 was a “border-to-border” road because it ran alongside my dad’s hometown, Stapleton, Nebraska. My grandmother was a bit of a worrywart, and anytime I said I was venturing out to the highway, she would call out, “Be careful, that highway runs from Canada to Mexico!” I think she imagined Canadian child kidnappers were going to snatch me and take me south of the border beyond the long arm of the law.
After writing The Death of Raymond Yellow Thunder [Texas Tech University Press, 2009], I was thinking long and hard about a new project. I think my grandmother’s spirit was working through me, because one night I woke up with the idea pretty much fully formed in my head. I would write kind of a hybrid history-travel book, with my experiences interspersed with historical vignettes that happened on or near the road, some of them long before the highway existed.
You’ve dubbed this border-to-border route “the Last American Highway.” What inspired the nickname?
Highway 83 was one of the original federal highways designated when the national government created the federal highway system in 1926. Many of these original highways have been converted to interstates. To me, highways and interstates are two very different kinds of roads. Highway 83 is mostly still a two-lane road, with only a few exceptions. And in those cases, like the expressway in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, you can still take the legacy road, in that case Business 83. As far as declaring it the “Last American Highway” is concerned, I thought it might generate some controversy and bring attention to these grand old back roads. So far, no one has come out of the woodwork and challenged my assertion!
The other nickname for Highway 83 is “the Road to Nowhere,” which I have never liked. Don’t believe it. It’s a road leading to many interesting places, beautiful countryside and a lot of history. It’s not a road to nowhere, or the middle of nowhere. It cuts right down the middle of America, and that isn’t “nowhere.”
Can you share an anecdote or two from your Texas trip, to whet readers’ appetites?
One thing the experience traveling the length of Highway 83 showed me was that the adage that “everyone has a story to tell” is true. Of course, some people really have some interesting stories. In Texas, looking around Falcon Lake for an old section of Highway 83 that was inundated and abandoned after the Falcon Dam was built, I encountered Jack Cox Jr., a retiree living in a fishing camp. He had spent most of his life in the oil exploration business and traveled the world. And one point, he managed a hunting lodge on the Jubba River in Somalia. He brought me in to his mobile home and showed me an album full of pictures. He had really lived a Hemmingway-esque life. I have an excerpt of the encounter here (Please link to my blog if you can.) I lost track of him after our encounter. If anyone knows of Cox’s whereabouts these days, please contact me.
As you know, I’m an enthusiast of highway history myself, and I especially enjoy first-person narratives like the U.S. 83 Chronicles. What are some of your own favorites, or authors whose work has influenced you?
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, of course. And while it may not be thought of as a “road trip” book, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Route 66 becomes a character in the book, much the same way as the Mississippi River did in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The fictional characters in both these books crossed Highway 83 on their way west.
You mention in the Texas volume that you carried a mix of Texas music along the road with you. How does music inform and inspire your writing?
I have an extensive CD collection, and I find that long solo roadtrips are a chance to spend quality time with it. Before I left on the trip in 2010, I decided that I would load up some sleeves with Texas music and only listen to those as soon as I crossed the state line. I filed up three sleeves of music easily. There are not many states where I could do that. I rarely listen to the radio when traveling. The CDs provide my soundtrack. As far as the trip, Highway 83 was home to several notable performers: Jeannie C. Riley (Anson), and Freddy Fender and Narcisso Martinez (San Benito). I also got to spend an evening in a real Texas roadhouse in Uvalde, the LoneStar Saloon. I have found a new appreciation for conjunto music since that trip.
What’s your research and writing process like, when you’re on the road — and before and after? How do you prepare to get the most out of a journey, and how do you preserve the material you expect to use?
I try to take a lot of pictures to preserve my memories. I take notes, but I can’t read my own handwriting most of the time. I tried dictating what I saw in a voice recorder, but I found listening to these recording a bit tedious. In the book I kind of come across as a know-it-all, but in fact much of the historical research took place after the trip. I try to spend as much time in small town libraries as possible. My motto is photocopy first, read later, as my time there was often limited.
You chose to self-publish this series, though some of your previous work has been published traditionally. Why did you go that route — and what advice about publishing would you share with other writers?
I could write ten thousand words on this subject. In my day job, I work in journalism, which is a collaborative process. One of several reasons I chose to go this route is control and freedom. I had 100 percent complete control over these book, from the words, to the choice of pictures, the design, the marketing, the sales, and so on. And I take it all very seriously, and enjoy all aspects of the process. Of course, if there is a typo or factual error, it’s on me!
I had a great experience working with Texas Tech University Press. But with the last two publishers I worked with, I had to adhere to a word count, which meant cutting information I didn’t want to leave out. On the business side, I have one author friend whose publisher insisted on listing the book for an outrageous $65. Another friend’s publisher wouldn’t allow any photos because they didn’t have a budget for them. Someone close to me just signed a contract with a well known publisher. Now she has to wait two years before the book comes out. Life is too short to wait two years to see a book in print! I guess this makes me sound like a control freak, but the Highway 83 books are 100 percent my vision for what I wanted them to be.
What is it, in your experience, that fascinates folks with the American road trip?
It’s the thought of leaving your worries and everyday life behind. Notice how often car makers use the word “freedom” in their TV commercials. A car and a road has always symbolized freedom in American culture.
In your travels along U.S. 83, was there a Texas dish or delicacy that became a particular favorite?
Where else do they bring out a basket of chips with salsa for breakfast?
Okay, one last question. Every historic highway needs a great song to help make it a legend. Who do you think ought to write the tune that’ll help travelers get hip to the (U.S. 83) trip? Feel free to get ’em started with a line or two.
Asleep at the Wheel.
“Highway 83/That's the place for me/Traveling the down the road/I’ve never felt so free...” Take it away Ray!
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