West Texas wind, Hawthorne in Puerto Rico, and the Big D literary scene

"All the Wind in the World is a tricky romance set in far West Texas. A young couple — Sarah Jac and James — are forced to flee the ranch they work at, and end up at another that may or may not be cursed. Dust storms, bee swarms, lying, and heartbreak ensue."

It’s only appropriate that, while Lone Star Literary Life is coming to you live today from the State Fair of Texas in Dallas’s Fair Park, we bring you a conversation with Dallas author Samantha Mabry, who’s probably ridden the Star of Texas and munched on a Fletcher’s corny dog or two in her time. She was interviewed this week via email — and our fingers are crossed for her for the upcoming National Book Awards shortlist. Read Michelle Newby’s review of Mabry’s All the Wind in the World elsewhere in this week’s issue.

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Where did you grow up, Samantha, and how do you think it influenced your writing?



SAMANTHA MABRY: I grew up in Dallas, and I don’t really know if Dallas in particular influenced my writing. For sure, Texas does. The main character in my first novel is from Houston, and my second novel is set entirely in West Texas. I'm fiddling with setting a future project in San Antonio. The story that I would set in Dallas hasn’t come to me yet, though.



You majored in English at SMU and attended graduate school in Boston. Did you experience culture shock, living outside of Texas for the first time?


Oh, I was happy to leave Texas for a while. I was born here, grew up here, and never traveled much at all as a young person. I had grand, romantic notions of living as a student on the East Coast and was happy that I was able to indulge those notions. I liked the winters (I only had to live through two). I liked walking around, taking the train, and not having a car (which is virtually impossible in Dallas). It was an adventure, and I grew to sort of love the brusqueness of Bostonians.



When did you know that you wanted to be a writer, and how did this choice evolve?


I was a huge reader before I was a writer, and I feel like being such a huge reader made writing seem very intimidating. I didn’t start writing creatively until after graduate school. I’d taken a class in creative nonfiction and wanted to write personal narratives in the vein of those by Jo Ann Beard and Annie Dillard. Then I started writing ghost stories because I became obsessed with ghost hunting shows, and then I had the kernel of the idea for A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which does have a ghost in it, but is more along the lines of magical realism.



What was your first big break as a writer?


When I first landed my agent back in 2008, that felt like the biggest break, but it totally paled in comparison to when I found out that A Fierce and Subtle Poison was going to be published. That novel took a long time to draft, an even longer time to get right, and I remember breaking out in tears when I received the email saying it was going to be published. That was when it really felt like so much hard work was finally paying off.



Your first book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, was published by Algonquin in spring 2016. Will you describe that book for our readers, and what inspired you to write it?


Sure. I like to tell people that it’s about a boy who falls in love with a girl who’s full of poison. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was inspired in part by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” I wanted to take that story, which already has a sort of magical bent, set it in modern-day San Juan, Puerto Rico, and take it in all kinds of different directions. It’s like a magical realism murder mystery.



Your latest book, All the Wind in the World, was recently selected as a National Book Award for Young People’s Literature long list. Where were you when you heard about this honor, and what was it like?


It’s the most interesting uninteresting story. I had just gotten back from the workroom at the college where I teach. I’d been making copies for class that day, handouts about how to write a thesis statement. I saw I had a voicemail from an unfamiliar 212 number, and also an email from my publicist telling me to check my voicemail. Finally, when I checked it, it was basically everyone at my publisher yelling into the speaker. I was truly stunned, like, didn’t know what to say or think. I kind of wandered around in a daze for a little bit, and then went to teach students about the importance of strong thesis statements. Later that night, my husband took me out for pizza.



Will you describe All the Wind in the World for our readers?


All the Wind in the World is a tricky romance set in far West Texas. A young couple — Sarah Jac and James — are forced to flee the ranch they work at, and end up at another that may or may not be cursed. Dust storms, bee swarms, lying, and heartbreak ensue.



In addition to being an author, you teach writing. I am going to ask you the question that I ask everyone who teaches writing. Can writing be taught? How much of literary talent is inherent like athleticism or musicality?


Well, I think back to when I started writing, and some of what I produced was pretty bad, like both conceptually and on the sentence level. I learned a lot from various sources: teachers and workshop leaders, other writers. I learned from reading broadly and a lot of practice. I think it’s important to have someone (or multiple people) to point out weak spots in your writing, because much of the time writers don’t see those weak spots for themselves. I’ve had students go from barely being able to construct a coherent sentence to crafting lovely and nuanced arguments. It took a ton of work, but it happened. And it’s not all that rare. There might be some writers who are true creative geniuises, but most of the ones I know immerse themselves in their craft and work really, really hard. So yes, I think it can be taught, but I think the student has to be very willing to accept hard criticism and improve.



Are you currently working on a new book? Might you share what’s next for you?


I’m working on a couple of things. One is a ghost story (old habits die hard) involving sisters in San Antonio, and the other is a big epic about bandits. At this point, though, both are mostly just scraps of ideas very loosely held together. They’re a long way from being finished.



As someone who lives in Dallas, how would you describe the Big D literary scene?


We’ve recently — within the last five years — had a small handful of independent bookstores open, and I really feel like they, and a couple of dedicated individuals, are doing great work to unite the scene. There have always been writers here and there, but now we’re getting together more frequently for readings and even a newly established local book festival. It’s an exciting time to be an author here.


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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.