"Have fun with both your children and your grandchildren. Shared laughter is a great and enduring expression of love, and genuine love overcomes any of your shortcomings as a father."
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: When it was time to find an author to interview for the Lone Star Father’s Day issue, I immediately thought of you. In working with you to help promote your books over the years, one thing that’s always come through loud and clear is how family comes before all else for you.
PRESTON LEWIS: My parents put family first, always including my brother and me in everything they did. So, I had good role models for parenting. I wanted children and found in Harriet a woman who was committed to raising a family in a Christian home. Family came first for both of us. Harriet delayed her career as a physical therapist to stay at home and raise our son and daughter, at least until they started elementary school. I was the sole breadwinner for eight years, and it gave me great satisfaction providing for my wife, son, and daughter. Harriet’s and my collective dream was to raise two responsible children and send them out on their own with a debt-free college education and dependable transportation. One of the unanswered questions in my life was whether or not I could’ve supported my family to the same level simply by writing. While I would have liked to have tried, I didn’t intend to put my family at economic risk pursuing a personal dream. Consequently, I wrote on the side until I retired from higher education.
Your education is in journalism and history, including a Kiplinger Fellowship in Public Affairs Reporting, and you worked for four Texas newspapers during your career. When and how did you realize you wanted to be a journalist? What was your most challenging story to report and do you have a favorite?
I got a B.A. in journalism at Baylor University, where I studied under legendary Texas journalism professor David McHam, who was the greatest influence in my writing career. Then I got an M.A. in journalism from Ohio State. Because I loved to read as a child, I always wanted to write, and journalism was an avenue that could allow me to support myself while writing, but I realized daily journalism work was not always conducive to a good family life. I subsequently left newspapers to get into higher education communications and marketing, where I spent most of my career to the benefit of my family. I don’t know that I wanted to be a journalist as much as to become a novelist. As for the hardest story I ever covered as a journalist, it was the shooting death of a police captain friend in an attempted jailbreak. Probably my favorite newspaper story was an account of riding with a Waco police patrolman on the graveyard shift.
You are perhaps best known for more than thirty Westerns, which have won multiple Spur Awards, Will Rogers Medallions, and Elmer Kelton Awards from the West Texas Historical Association. What sparked your love for the genre?
I always loved American history, especially the period from the beginning of the Civil War to the end of World War II. Growing up in West Texas, I especially enjoyed the stories of cowboys and Indians, which was my television fare growing up in the 1950s. Then when I was about seven years old, my parents took me to Ruidoso, New Mexico, and we made a side trip to Lincoln, where Billy the Kid once roamed. Being able to walk up the same stairs in the Lincoln County Courthouse that Billy the Kid had climbed and seeing a bullet hole in the wall from his last escape made Old West history come alive for me, so I gravitated toward Westerns when I decided to try my hand at novels.
Let’s talk about the rate you are cranking out new books. I am ever thankful that you share so many of your books with Lone Star. I only half-joked that you are writing them faster than I can keep up with marketing them. How many books have you published in the past several years and how many are coming in the next few?
Since I retired in 2014, I’ve written ten manuscripts, and seven of those have been published. The way schedules fell, four have been or will be published this year in addition to a couple of anthologies of previous works. A lot of my productivity gets back to parenting, as my father instilled in my kid brother and me a work ethic, whether we wanted it or not. That instruction has served us both well, contributing to our professional success in our respective fields.
You just published the fifth book in the Memoirs of H.H. Lomax comic Western series. I don’t think most of us think of Westerns as being funny, but these are, and my favorite of your books, The Fleecing of Fort Griffin, is hilarious! Please tell us about Lomax and how you came to incorporate humor into your writing.
It happened by accident. An editor once told me I wrote funny, which isn’t necessarily something you want to hear from an editor. When I asked for an explanation, he said I had an unusual perspective and asked me if I would develop a comic Western series told in the first person. I had full latitude on the character, his name, background, and adventures as long as he crossed paths with the well-known names and legends from the Old West. So, that’s how H. H. Lomax was born. I enjoy writing comic Westerns because they give me a niche where I can develop a distinct writing voice with an unconventional take on the Old West and its characters.
While you write humor, you also seem to enjoy research for your historical novels. How do you go about your research?
Writing Westerns, I cover a lot of well-traveled trails, so I look for obscure facts that I’ve never encountered in fictional accounts of events. For instance, in Bluster’s Last Stand, about the Little Bighorn, one fact that intrigued me was the abundance of rattlesnakes the 7th Cavalry encountered on the way to its destiny. I worked that into my plot. In my trail drive novel, First Herd to Abilene, one thing that I’d never seen in fiction before was the trip home. Trail drivers not only had the challenge of getting cattle to their destination but also getting the profits from the sale back to Texas. I incorporated that into First Herd. In researching the saga that became North to Alaska, I discovered that Susan B. Anthony promoted suffrage in Colorado in 1876, and I just had to work that into my story. North to Alaska may be the only Western ever written with Miss—or should I say Ms.?—Anthony as a character. Basically, I look for interesting events and obscure facts, then try to stitch them together in an entertaining narrative. One reviewer described my Lomax character as the type of fellow that wins the Powerball lottery, then loses the winning ticket. I think that’s an apt description
North to Alaska (Lomax #6) comes out in the fall; Rio Bonito, the second of your Three Rivers Trilogy, is complete and will publish in 2021; you’re working on the third book in that series now. I suspect there’s more that you’re working on. Can you share your plans?
I’m formulating some additional novels in the Lomax series, though these will be less epic in nature than the last three and focused more on single historical events instead of multiple ones. Additionally, I’m looking at writing another caper using some of the characters from The Fleecing of Fort Griffin in another comic Western. I’m also researching a possible Western detective based in Texas in the 1880s.
Recently, you published The Gulag P-Pa Diaries, coming to Lone Star Lit Book Blog Tours in August, which is described as a “bittersweet memoir of grandparenting” in the subtitle. Please tell us about your new book.
In 2013 we decided we wanted to host our grandchildren, or “The Grands” as I call them, for a week or ten days each summer, us against them, for what we called “Camp Mema/Gulag P-Pa.” To keep their parents up to date on the activities, I did daily tongue-in-cheek posts on Facebook. The comic posts caught the fancy of our children’s friends, and eventually they started suggesting that I publish them in a book. Fearing that a simple recap of the Facebook posts would not attract a publisher, I added alternating chapters on Harriet’s and my journey to grandparenthood, including the loss of our first grandson and our effort to deal with the greatest tragedy of our married life. Fortunately, the book resonated with CKN Christian Publishing and impressed The Grands.
How and why did you decide to write about such a personal and painful time? Has it been cathartic for you? Are your grandchildren aware of the book, and if so, what do they think of it?
I wrote The Gulag P-Pa Diaries to articulate my feelings and to memorialize little Benjamin so his brief time on earth would not be forgotten. Writing the book was a cathartic experience for sure and helped me understand how faith helped get us through the loss, something that was less obvious at the time. Yes, The Grands were aware of the book and before it was published were excited that it would make them famous. Now that they’ve had a chance to read it, three love it, one’s undecided, and the other one has hired an attorney to take P-Pa to court. (LOL)
Do you have any parenting and/or grandparenting advice for other men facing trying times? How about for writers trying to achieve that daily word count with kids underfoot?
The difference between parenting and grandparenting is that as a father you are a parent instead of a friend, and as a grandfather you are a friend rather than a parent. As far as advice, I’d recommend three things. First, have fun with both your children and your grandchildren. Shared laughter is a great and enduring expression of love, and genuine love overcomes any of your shortcomings as a father. Second, learn to value their individuality, both the good and the bad of their personalities. Help them build on their strengths and understand their shortcomings to prepare them for life. And third, take opportunities to teach them about life, truth, and values, all of which require discipline, both in the parents and in the children. Self-restraint is easier learned in childhood than in adolescence or adulthood, so it is important to instill those values when they are young.
I’ve always been a good manager of time, which helps when your side hustle is writing. Even so, I spent a lot of late nights and weekends writing when everyone else was in bed. I’ve always found the time when I was truly committed to a writing project.
I didn’t realize this until very recently, but you are also a playwright with three productions under your belt— Beloved Companion, Sermons Sung, and Marching On, staged in 2013, 2016 and 2019, respectively. Please tell us about writing plays. How is it different from writing novels? What is the production process like?
Beloved Companion was produced at Angelo State University, while Sermons Sung and Marching On were produced at our church, Southland Baptist in San Angelo. Beloved Companion was based on some Civil War correspondence between my wife’s great-great grandparents. What was fun was the collaborative nature of a stage production, working with the director and actors on interpreting my words. Novel writing is a solitary experience, and you don’t get to share your readers’ reactions to your words. With a stage production, though, you can watch and hear the audience’s reaction to your words, which is a delightful experience.
How has being a Texan influenced your writing and stories? Which Texas writers do you admire?
Texas instills in you a sense of place and heritage that I haven’t always found in residents of other states. Too, Texas has such a deep western heritage that it certainly played into my decision to write Westerns. Even so, I can take a joke about my Texan heritage and even made H. H. Lomax, the protagonist of my comic Western series, hate Texas and Texans for the humor value. As for Texas writers, J. Frank Dobie was my favorite as a child, his 1941 classic The Longhorns greatly influencing my interest in Westerns. Fred Gipson was another favorite writer when I was younger, as he was a delightful storyteller and his works made great movies about frontier Texas. Walter Prescott Webb’s The Great Plains was an eye-opener to me in putting the West in a broader historical and environmental perspective. Elmer Kelton was the most influential Western writer and a fine friend. I also enjoy the nonfiction works of Mike Cox, another friend, on Texas and the Texas Rangers. Though she wasn’t born in Texas, I first met Jeanne Williams in San Antonio and consider her not only a fine writer, but a great mentor and friend who encouraged me greatly when I was just beginning my fictional career. I have one of her personal letters to me framed on the wall in my office for inspiration.
Favorite book? (tie, fiction) The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara; The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer by Douglas C. Jones; and A Separate Peace by John Knowles; (tie, nonfiction) The Great Plains by Walter Prescott Webb and The Americans: The Democratic Experience by Daniel Boorstin.
eReader or print? Both, though I prefer print.
Number of books on your nightstand? Generally, four to eight
Strange habit? I eat the crusts of sandwiches first.
Interesting writing ritual? When I finish a chapter, I don’t reread it until I complete the first draft of the manuscript.
Funniest flaw? No sense of humor!
Favorite quote? Words Is My Life! (my personal motto)
Something interesting/funny/unique that few people know about you? I am president of the Dull Man’s Club of America.
Pet peeve? Tardiness
Most underappreciated author/hidden gem author? Douglas C. Jones
Team Oxford comma? Nope, prefer AP style
Preston Lewis is the Spur Award-winning author of more than 30 western, juvenile and historical novels on the Old West as well as numerous articles, short stories and book reviews on the American frontier. He is best known for his comic westerns, including the well received Memoirs of H.H. Lomax series.