SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH: I remember we stopped on the side of the road when we got close to Wichita Falls and stared at some working oil wells. They made this groaning noise. I thought, “Where in the name of god are we?”
LSLL: What was growing up in Wichita Falls like? How did that inform your writing?
SH: I’ve always said that the reason I went into writing was because Wichita Falls was so full of characters. The city is hot, the landscape barren. The only way to beat such an environment is through the force of personality. And so, every day, I was mesmerized by the people I came across. On top of that, Wichita Falls was home to one of the state lunatic asylums. I used to go out there in high school and volunteer. I got to meet people who had crossed the line into an invisible, baffling world. For a would-be writer, the place was a dream.
LSLL: Your father, uncles, and grandfather all went to seminary, and it sounds like there was a family assumption that you would become a Presbyterian minister—which you did not. Was it difficult charting your own path, starting out as a young man?
SH: Everyone assumed I was going to be a minister because I loved to get in the pulpit of my father’s church when the sanctuary was empty and give pretend sermons. But it soon became clear to everyone that I was, as one of my relatives put it, headed off to do the Lord’s secular work. My sermons were not exactly theological. I spent most of them joyfully talking about the kinds of sins people committed.
LSLL: You attended Texas Christian University—which has produced some of Texas’s best writers. At what point did you know you wanted to write?
SH: I wanted to be the next Larry McMurtry, who happened to grow up in Archer City, twenty-five miles from Wichita Falls. So, in college, I sat down to write a McMurtrian novel about a small town in Texas. I wrote for three hours before I gave up in despair. Then a guy who lived in my dorm asked me to work for the school newspaper, the TCU Skiff. And just like that, I had found my calling: non-fiction.
LSLL: You worked for the Dallas Times-Herald at a time when the newspaper wars in Big D were at their highest frenzy. What was that like?
SH: Tremendous. The newspapers were spending money like crazy trying to boost circulation. Reporters were being sent all over the country to cover stories. At one point, when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, I had a column in which I was assigned to write about city life in Dallas. I had no idea what I was doing but the bosses were willing to give me a shot. I’m not sure that world will ever come back.
LSLL: By the end of the eighties you were working for Texas Monthly. What made you decide to make the move from newspapers to magazines?
SH: I had worshipped Texas Monthly since I was in college. I devoured the stories I was reading in the ’80s. Every time there was a job opening in the editorial department, regardless what it was, I applied for it. The editor of the magazine at the time, Greg Curtis, would just sigh and shake his head whenever I would write him another letter about how wonderful I was. Finally, in one of his weak moments, he hired me. And then I was so nervous about writing for the magazine that it took close to a year before I got a story completed that was worth publishing.
LSLL: At Texas Monthly you soon became involved with award-winning long-form journalism, and one story led to you co-writing, with Richard Linklater, the movie Bernie, based on one of your articles. Will you describe that experience for our readers?
SH: I like writing true crime stories, and I was drawn to this weird tale in East Texas where an assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede, had openly admitted to police that he had shot the town’s grande dame four times in the back and then buried her in her own deep freeze. What made it especially weird was that the townspeople had rallied around Bernie, whom they loved, and were begging the DA not to prosecute him. The DA soon filed for a change of venue so the case could be tried in another county because he didn't think he could find twelve people in Bernie’s home town who would vote to convict him. How could you not be drawn to such a story?
LSLL: Your book which just came out this month, The Midnight Assassin, is based on a story not widely known. Will you tell our readers, in your own words, what the book’s about?
SH: In late December 1884, just as Austin, Texas was transforming itself from an Old West town into a Gilded Age city, complete with electric lights and telephones, the body of a servant woman was found in her employer’s back yard. Someone had hacked her to pieces with an axe and a knife. A few months later, another servant woman was found axed to death, and then another, and another, and another. In December 1885, on Christmas Eve, almost exactly one year after the attacks had begun, two prominent white women were axed to death in separate parts of the city. Austin slid into near chaos, as everyone began to realize they were being terrorized by a “Midnight Assassin,” as one reporter called him — a brilliant, brutal killer who, for reasons of his own, wanted to ritualistically slaughter women.
LSLL: You’ve been called one of the great true-crime writers of our era. What is it about those types of stories that speak to you?
SH: I have long asked myself that question, and I have no idea. Perhaps it’s my fascination with watching seemingly normal, decent people get to a point in their lives where they cross a line that they never thought they would cross. There is always a mystery at the heart of every crime story. Why in the world would someone actually do something so vicious and violent? I’ve never lost interest in that mystery.
LSLL: You are surrounded by wonderful writing all day long working as the editor of Texas Monthly. What do you read for fun?
SH: Trashy true crime books, of course.