"We were kind of minding our own business until 1970, when Janis Joplin came back for her high school reunion."
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You’re a longtime writer and an author, Lisa, but The Do-Right is your first novel. What inspired you to make this your first full-length work of fiction?
LISA SANDLIN: I really, really enjoyed letting my imagination loose on Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan. (A paddle ball as a weapon! An alligator fight!) Bobby and Johnny Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press were editors of Lone Star Noir, the Texas volume of Akashic Books’ Noir Series. They invited me to write a dark story with a Texas setting. I picked my hometown, unsurprisingly, and wrote “Phelan’s First Case.” At a reading one night in San Antonio, John Byrd said, “This story has legs.” I listened to John.
LSLL: Your book is set in Beaumont, where you grew up, in the seventies. How would you describe your hometown and that decade?
LS: We were kind of minding our own business until 1970, when Janis Joplin came back for her high school reunion. Then the tie-dyed world showed up at our door. Felt like change accelerated then but maybe that was just being young and myopic. Beaumont had a small town/industrial feel: traditional Cajun music on TV, soul music on our record players, mass employment at the refineries. I recall a Fire and Police benefit concert in Houston in the very early ’70s. Tammy Wynette and George Jones were headlining, but you guessed it, they didn’t show. Willie Nelson took the stage—and not the Willie of his early album covers. He had long hair. The audience experienced a moment of consternation, but then they went for it. Willie!
LSLL: Your work has garnered prestigious prizes and fellowships, including a Dobie Paisano fellowship. What roles do you feel awards play in a writer’s career?
LS: The NEA supported us for a good while in the mid-1990s, for which I was extremely grateful. Awards help you get jobs. In themselves, they put out a warm little spark, and then you go back to the computer and take up the writing dilemmas where you left them.
LSLL: How would you describe your “first big break” as a writer?
LS: Undramatic. Cinco Puntos had anthologized a story of mine, and they asked if I had a book. I did. Send it to us, they said. I did. Eventually they sent word they’d publish it. I went into my writers’ group that night and set a bottle of champagne on the table. However. When I got the letter that said they’d publish my second book, about the integration years in East Texas, I tore it open in the kitchen at Paisano, J. Frank Dobie’s ranch. I felt like I’d been washed from the inside out by a mint-hallelujah ocean.
LSLL: How has publishing changed since you started?
LS: Typewriter to computer; paper to cyber. It’s broken wide open, as your readers know. New York isn’t the only goal, though it’s desirable and probably more competitive than ever. There are wonderful, expert, innovative indie presses. You can self-publish in all sorts of online ways, aided by the blitzkrieg of social media. Jump genres. Incorporate graphics. You still have to do the work and get the material out to readers. And figure out how to get paid.
LSLL: As a professor in a creative writing program, how would you answer the age-old question, “Can writing be taught?”
LS: You can’t tap a wand and bestow huge talent on people’s heads. You can help students find their true and honest voice; recognize original language; point them toward movement, conflict, surprise, honesty. You can encourage them to read everything they can. In four years people accomplish enormous changes in writing style. I remember one young man’s final piece, a leap beyond what he’d written before. Every page, every fearless detail and description, the narrator’s voice, the last dizzying event—I practically passed out, holding my breath. Would he bring this story off? Oh my, did he.
LSLL: You have said, “I wrote The Do-Right because I wanted to reverse the detective story convention.” Would you explain to our readers how you did that?
LS: The convention/stereotype would be the tough, experienced private investigator who’s seen it all and his secretary, an attractive, loyal, peripheral babe who blows on her painted nails. I made my detective, Tom Phelan, a novice. He’s fed up with working oil rigs, he’s just lost a finger out there. He must have thought to himself, in the words of those ’70s geniuses, Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.” Delpha Wade, who applies for the job Phelan advertises, has fourteen years’ experience in prison. She is not a lightweight, she brings her own story, and her nails are plain.
LSLL: You’re a native Texan. Which Texas writers did you read growing up, or do you read now?
LS: Larry McMurtry, the incomparable Molly Ivins, all the great Texas Monthly writers, Katherine Anne Porter. I remember howling at one of Mr. McMurtry’s essays in which he describes buzzard-wrangling on the set. They wired the birds by their feet to a tree so they wouldn’t escape, and the buzzards ended up dangling upside down. Later, James Lee Burke, Mary Karr, Cormac McCarthy, Ben Saenz, Allen Weir. Currently I have a J. Frank Dobie from the library.
LSLL: What advice would you give aspiring writers? Especially writers who may never have the option of attending a creative writing/MFA program?
LS: Respect your characters. Don’t be proud about sacrificing parts for the good of the whole. Trust your subconscious because it’s working for you.
LSLL: 2015 has been a big year for you. Texas Monthly named you one of its Ten Texas Authors to Watch. You were invited to the Texas Book Festival. In fact, TBF literary director Steph Opitz told Garden & Gun magazine that The Do-Right was one of five must-read books set in Texas. Did you have a sense that The Do-Right would open these kinds of doors when you were writing it?
LS: I was writing fast so it was all about the book. The book is the door.
Lisa Sandlin was born in Beaumont, Texas, and lived there before and after a transfer sent her family to Naples, Italy, for three years. She graduated from Rice University in Houston and then raised a son in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She earned an M.F.A. in Writing at Vermont College and then moved to Nebraska, where’s she’s taught for the better part of twenty years. Her work has earned an NEA Fellowship, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the Jesse Jones Award from the Texas Institute of Letters, and story-of-the-year awards from Shenandoah, Southwest Review, and Crazy Horse.