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.
6.24.2018 Texan transplant to New York Diane DeSanders draws on a long-lost Dallas in her debut novel
After thirty years of working on her novel off and on, Diane DeSanders is suddenly a seemingly overnight sensation. For three decades, the fifth-generation Texan found creative outlets in theater, poetry, singing and gardening, but ultimately kept being drawn back to the story she felt compelled to tell. Now living in Brooklyn, she talked with us via email about how the world she grew up in is gone, and how she wanted to archive it in Hap and Hazard and The End of the World, a tale about misbehaving Texas relatives during and after World War II.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: I understand you are a fifth-generation Texan, Diane. Can you tell us a little bit about your family history?
DIANE DiSANDERS: According to family lore, on my mother's side, my grandmother's grandfather came to Texas from Tennessee with the Confederate Army, but had lost an arm, and so was put to taking care of the horses. His name was Campbell. He liked Texas and stayed, becoming a rancher and veterinarian near Itasca, Texas.
Where did you grow up, and how would you describe those days?
I grew up in Dallas when it was much smaller and it was the 1940s and ’50s, all of which I go into much detail to convey in the book. We were outside all the time, with a great sense of freedom.
Did you always want to be a writer or author? What sort of books did you enjoy reading?
I always read quite a lot, but didn't think of writing until in 6th grade the teacher, Miss Coleman, started us writing poems. I read the usual books of the time: Bambi, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, other Louisa May Alcott books, the Black Stallion books, dog books by Albert Payson Terhune and by Jack London, Alice in Wonderland, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Edgar Allan Poe stories, Caddie Woodlawn, Amos Fortune, Free Man, then dozens of historical novels — many other books — whatever I came across as a child.
Where did you attend college, and what was your first job out of school?
I graduated from SMU — B.A. and M.A. in history. I worked secretarial jobs at SMU during that time. After college, I taught history and English at The Greenhill School in Dallas for a time.
What was your first big break as an author?
My first big break as a writer was having some poems published in The Quarterly, in 1987 — a Random House publication presenting work by new writers and edited by Gordon Lish.
How long was your path to publishing? How long did it take to get your debut book published?
My path to publishing was quite long. For many years I had only occasional poems and short stories published. I worked on the book off and on for about thirty years. I wanted to write about my childhood experiences, about my family, about that period of time in Texas, but had many problems with it. My mother would say, “Don't write about me!” Sometimes I would put it aside and go work in little theater groups, in Texas, in Colorado, and in New York, which would cheer me up for a while. I wrote a few little plays and skits — I took music and voice lessons from the wonderful Renee Manning and Earl McIntyre, and Doug Booth, then I would go back to the book.
Finally I found Bellevue Literary Press, and some people who were willing to work with me to finish this book, and this has saved me from oblivion!
Can you tell our readers about your book? What it is about, and what inspired you to read it?
Hap and Hazard and the End of the World is an autobiographical novel about a child growing up in Texas, during and after World War II, in a family full of vivid, talented, and dysfunctional people, and seemingly full of secrets.
This child becomes obsessively curious, and looks for answers everywhere, going outside in ways that are not always safe. Also, I often have felt sad that that whole world I grew up in is now gone, and I wanted to reproduce it — an impossible task of course, but one that I still feel.
Are you working on something new? Can you tell us about it?
I am working on something else, but I'd rather not say too much about it, as I find that talking it up too much relieves the pressure to write it.
I understand that you live in Brooklyn these days. What’s in like for a Texan to live in the Big Apple vicinity?
I wanted to come to New York from the time I was fourteen years old and yearned to come to The Village, wear black turtlenecks in coffehouses, write poems, play chess, and meet Jack Kerouac!
But, alas, too much real life got in my way — marriage, children, etc. — so I stayed in Dallas and read books about it! Finally the opportunity and the means came to me and so I moved up here to be a “real writer,” as Garp put it, and every day of my life since then has validated the rightness of that impulse and that decision.
Many Texans do well in New York. There’s a similarity in mentality of many Texans to that of many New Yorkers — a pride in a sort of mental toughness, an independence, a kind of specialness, just by virtue of being a Texan, or of being a New Yorker, that the two places have in common. I love the energy of New York, the diversity, the everyday challenges that make you feel that now you can do anything! It's addictive.
What's on your nightstand in your To Be Read pile?
My “To Be Read” pile is embarrassingly huge! I tend to be reading several books at a time, depending on how I feel that day. I just finished Victoria Redel’s Before Everything — lovely book about women’s friendships, and I am re-reading Tinkers, by Paul Harding. I’m still reading The Cost of Courage, by Charles Kaiser — fascinating story and characters in French Resistance times..
My list includes The Unpunished Vice by Edmund White, Empire by Niall Ferguson, about Britain, a recent book of “narrative essays” by Annie Dillard, God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright. There are just too many on my list — and too little time!
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Praise for Hap and Hazard and The End of the World
Big Other “Most Anticipated Small Press Book” selection
“Gorgeously written, fiercely observed. . . . A debut that's clearly the work of a master writer.” ―Big Other
“[A] captivating debut novel. . . . Drawing on her own family letters, diaries, and oral histories, newcomer DeSanders captures the voice and thoughts of a young girl observing her frayed family while questioning the mysterious larger world. A brave and honest work that won't disappoint.” ―Library Journal
“A time capsule of American awakening.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“Replete with all of the joys and sorrows that are part of growing up.” ―Booklist
“Smart and subtle. . . . [A] moving example of a family trying to make life work.”
― Publishers Weekly
“DeSanders achieves a heartbreaking, lyrical, and laser-focused evocation of a child's perception of the mysteries of the adult world; the perfectly rendered setting is 1940s Dallas, just when its harsh rural beauties were becoming sanitized into suburban conformity." ―Historical Novels Review
“A weighty book full of conversations that are still topical.” ―IndiePicks Magazine
"Perfectly captures life near Dallas after World War II, as seen through the eyes of a child. . . . Funny and nostalgic and occasionally unsettling, this child's view of her own small world also provides a picture of the wider world at that time.” ―Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Impressive. . . . This deftly crafted and inherently fascinating book is unreservedly recommended.” ―Midwest Book Review
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