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 RanchA Wedding at the Paragraph Ranch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bryan Mealer is the author of Muck City and the New York Times bestseller The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (written with William Kamkwamba), which has been translated into more than a dozen languages and will soon be released as a major motion picture. He’s also the author of All Things Must Fight to Live, which chronicled his time covering the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the Associated Press and Harper’s. His other work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Esquire, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Mealer and his family live in Austin.
3.4.2018 Journalist Bryan Mealer takes on his Texas hometown roots in THE KINGS OF BIG SPRING
It takes real writing skill to tackle the social history of a state, an entire industry, and the Almighty. But it takes real guts to tackle it in the context of your own ancestors. Bryan Mealer weaves together these sweeping elements to craft a powerful memoir, The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream (Flatiron Books, Feb. 6, 2018), which came out last month to high acclaim. As Mealer observes in the book’s early pages, “Only in Texas was there enough space for so many second acts.” We caught up with him via email to discuss Texas’s resurrection stories, and his own family’s part in some of them.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Bryan, you were born in Odessa, Texas, and grew up in there — plus Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Alvin, Big Spring, and San Antonio, Texas. Despite moving around a bit with your family, tell us why Big Spring, Texas, is the locale that defines your family's history?
BRYAN MEALER: Big Spring was where my grandparents lived, where my father and his siblings were born, and where many of my relatives still lived. It was where we’d finally put down roots after years wandering before the Depression. Big Spring was where my family had been the closest, where we’d had our very best years together.
The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family's Search for the American Dream is your fourth book. Up until now, your topics and interests have taken you from Austin to Brooklyn, from Kenya to Congo to Florida. What inspired you to write this book?
I’d always wanted to tell the story of how my dad and his friend, Grady Cunningham, had started an oil company together in the early ’80s and lived the honky-tonk dream: taking chartered jets to Dallas to buy Rolexes and gold-nugget rings, to the Bahamas for impromptu vacations with a huge entourage. The Rolls Royces and Cadillacs and thousand-dollar dinners. And unfortunately, the whiskey and cocaine (that was more Grady than Dad). For several years my parents lived like rappers, and I remember those years very well. But when I sold that book to Flatiron, my editor didn’t think Grady could hold the entire book on his shoulders, so he encouraged me to dig into my family’s history, and I ended up going back a hundred years.
For our readers not familiar with The Kings of Big Spring, how would you describe it in your own words?
It’s Grapes of Wrath meets “Boogie Nights.”
In the book, you tell about fortunes being made and lost as well as the personal foibles within your family. Now that the book has come out, do you have sit at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving? Or did you work through that with family members as you were writing the book?
My family was very forthcoming about our shortcomings and failures, and there were many, so many that my family had a name for it, “the Mealer luck.” But when I came back and presented these dark memories — losing a farm to drought in 1916, the bitter days of the Dust Bowl, the time we went bankrupt in the 1950s, etc. — in the context of history, something changed. For the next generations, they could see that their parents and grandparents weren’t the only ones suffering, that it was more than just hard luck. They could finally see their lives as part of the great American story.
Your book has some fascinating local history — including the history of Cosden Petroleum, Raymond Tollett, Dora Roberts, and the Hotel Settles. I especially enjoyed reading about Raymond Tollett and Cosden Petroleum. He seemed to be like the Steve Jobs of his time for that industry. How long did it take you to research and write the book, and what was the most fascinating part of Big Spring's own history to you?
I spent a solid two years doing the research before I ever started to write. And even after I started writing I would pause for weeks at a time to research something that suddenly emerged in the storytelling — such as the Joshua Cosden story. I thought I could tell that story much later in the book, when Grady was introduced, since Grady was basically the symbolic heir to that legacy. But once I realized how fascinating Josh Cosden’s story actually was, and how important it was to the success of Big Spring (along with Tollett’s story), I went back and inserted that narrative into the earlier chapters. It wound up contrasting nicely with the story of my great-grandfather, John Lewis. Here was Cosden, the kind of Jazz-age millionaire and instant tycoon who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who’d made these enormous fortunes by sheer cunning and tact, up against my family’s seemingly endless toil and poverty. It was the story of America, both then and now.
For people not familiar with Big Spring, in the center of downtown is the Hotel Settles — a grand vision of a farmer who became wealthy overnight when oil was discovered on his land in the 1920s. Unfortunately, when the hotel opened in 1930, it was too late; the Depression was already on and the farmer lost everything, including the Settles, which eventually fell into ruin and disrepair in the heart of the city — for decades. Then, the last week of 2012, the Settles reopened, refurbished and brought back to life at a cost of $30 million–plus by Big Spring native turned Dallas tax consultant G. Brint Ryan. My understanding was that you were there for the hotel’s grand reopening on Dec. 28, 2012. What was that moment like?
That was a special night for me, just because I’d heard so many stories about the hotel while growing up. No one ever thought we’d actually get to see it open again, much less restored, so when those lights flashed on, we all rejoiced. I recommend staying a night there — it won’t disappoint.
Which figures do you consider to be the “kings of Big Spring,” and why?
The title was kind of tongue-in-cheek. The real “kings of Big Spring” were undoubtedly Joshua Cosden and Raymond Tollett. But Grady and my father, along with countless other poor boys who’d chased fortunes during that oil boom, always fancied themselves in that esteemed category of immortal men.
All of your books to date are nonfiction. Have you ever considered writing fiction?
I have. In fact, I’ve had a novel plotted on my cork board in my office for months. I just have to take that bold first step and start writing.
What's your next project?
My work has always focused on issues of poverty, so I’m trying to maintain that lens. Right now I’m focusing on doing journalism and essays and trying to contribute something substantive and worthwhile to this insane and relentless news cycle. There’s never been a better time for good journalism, and lassoing hold of this storm makes me very excited.
Last question. If someone wanted to visit Big Spring, and sort of retrace the footsteps of “the kings,” what three places should be on their itinerary?
Many of the landmarks in my book have been covered by sand and mesquite. But a few are still there: The Hotel Settles, the Wagon Wheel restaurant (a great little car hop), and Big Spring State Park, where you can walk up Scenic Mountain and see the land stretch all the way to New Mexico.
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Praise for Bryan Mealer’s THE KINGS OF BIG SPRING
“The Kings of Big Spring tears like a flaming roller-coaster through four generations of a Texas family that's lived it all, from hardscrabble farms and tarpaper shacks to the crazy-making highs of oil booms and big money, with gobs of love, lust, heartache, and Jesus along the way. Bryan Mealer has given us a brilliant, and brilliantly entertaining, portrayal of family, and a bursting-at-the-seams chunk of America in the bargain.” ― Ben Fountain, New York Times bestselling author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
“Mealer has pulled off something downright remarkable here. On one level, he has penned a sweeping multigenerational family chronicle that can be read as a history of Texas and, by natural extension, of the American experience. But it's more than even that. In the small twists of fate and nature that buffet the extended Lewis-Mealer clan are reminders of the profound capriciousness of life, of how something as simple as a rain that doesn't come — or a weevil that does — can alter a family's fortunes forever. Masterful and deeply thought-provoking.” ―Scott Anderson, author of the New York Times bestselling Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
“The Kings of Big Spring is the kind of epic tale we rarely see, the sprawling, multi-generation story of a single, hardscrabble working-class family, scrapping and clawing its way through dust storms, droughts and oilfields in its quest for a sliver of the American Dream. At a time when the national spotlight is rediscovering the plight of Middle American families, this book will never be more relevant. Think of it as a Texas version of Hillbilly Elegy.” ―Bryan Burrough, New York Times bestselling author of The Big Rich and Barbarians at the Gate
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