5.1.2016 Leila Meacham: “I sort of crashed into the back door of the party without meaning to and found myself invited to stay”
Leila Meacham has all but defined the historical Texas saga for the twenty-first century, with her 500-plus-page-count novels Roses, Tumbleweeds, Somerset, and her newest, Titans,released recently to huge acclaim. But even more significant may be that the San Antonio author has done this in her seventies, and at seventy-seven is already busy on her next novel. She spoke with Lone Star Lit last week via email.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: You grew up in small-town Wink, Texas. What was that like, and how do you think that background later informed your writing?
LEILA MEACHAM: Despite the sandstorms, desert (and deserted) landscape, and the appearance of hardscrabble living, my West Texas hometown was a magical place to grow up. Life revolved around school, community, and church activities, and oil-tax revenues paid for the best public education money could buy. It was a halcyon time before TV, video games, and smart phones, so we kids had to provide our own entertainments. These were played outside the house in a world beyond the living-room couch and required physical exercise and social interaction and imagination. Girls played games like jacks and pick-up sticks, hopscotch, jump-rope. With the boys, we played marbles, hide-and-seek, cowboys-and-Indians, and Annie-Annie Over, and built forts out of Christmas trees, flew kites, rode bikes, and built scooters out of wooden fruit crates. And of course there was reading, the favorite pastime of summer.
What authors did you read growing up? Did you ever dream of being a writer?
I never paid too much attention to authors’ names unless of the ilk of C. S. Lewis and Mark Twain, but some of the titles I remember to this day. Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, The Wizard of Oz, The Wind in the Willows spring to mind. After the elementary years, I graduated to heavier stuff, and by the time I graduated from high school, I believe I had read every work of fiction in the county library. I especially enjoyed the novels of the likes of Elswyth Thane, Fenimore Cooper, and Storm Jameson, authors you never hear of anymore. No, I never dreamed of becoming a writer, though I enjoyed writing themes and research papers in school.
You were a school teacher, a military wife, and a corporate executive wife. How did these experiences affect your writing?
They didn’t, actually, or at least in no way that I can recall. I’ve never felt inclined to incorporate aspects of the classroom, military life, or business world into a novel, perhaps because my curiosity to research and learn about topics that I know nothing about outweighs a desire to write about personal experiences.
You’ve actually had two “careers” as a published author. Would you tell our readers about your first turn at fiction?
I’m glad you put careers in quotation marks, because my first foray into fiction was a brief interruption of—or intrusion into—my real career, which was teaching. In the mid-1980s I accepted a bet from a colleague that I could not write a romance novel. She maintained I could and “elevate the genre,” as she called it. So one summer, I set out to prove her wrong. Lo and behold, I lost the bet and had to buy her a steak dinner. A local agent, again at the bidding of my colleague, took a look at the book, offered to represent it, and popped it off to a publishing house in New York City. Before I knew it, the book was published as Ryan’s Hand. There followed two more romances, coerced by the terms of my publisher’s contract, but when that obligation was fulfilled, I retired my fiction-writing pen and vowed never to pick it up again.
At age sixty-five, however, you get back into writing. Would you describe how you arrived at the decision? And tell us about your path to publishing with Roses.
I had been retired from teaching for ten years and had run out of everything you wait for retirement to do. I had gardened, traveled, entertained, volunteered, lunched, tried new recipes, redecorated the house. The dog had died. My husband was still involved in his career. We had no children, thus no grandchildren. One morning as I faced another day of un-stimulation, I asked God what he wanted me to do with the rest of my life, and clearly I “heard,” like a fragrance you’re suddenly aware of in a room, that I was to finish a novel I had dabbled at twenty years earlier during a year of debilitating illness when I had to take a sabbatical from teaching. I responded with what all Texans say when they haven’t heard—or don’t want to hear—something clearly. “Say what?!!” I said. That was not what I had in mind at all.
But one does not argue with God, so down came the box from the top shelf of my closet, dust and all, and I plowed into it for over a period of five years, on and off. I intended to put the book right back on the shelf from whence it came with no thought of going through the impossible wickets to get it published. However, the Saturday after I wrote THE END (glorious day!) on the final page of the manuscript, a friend asked me if I’d finished the book. I said yes. Monday, she called to say that her niece was married to David McCormick, a top literary agent in New York City and that she’d instructed her niece to tell David that he was to take a look at my novel. Long story short, he did and accepted it for representation. After several months of making the revisions he suggested, he submitted it to various publishers and Grand Central Publishing made a pre-emptive bid for the book now known as Roses. I was seventy years old when it was released.
Titans is your fourth book since that memorable re-entry into fiction—all of them have been sweeping sagas and bestsellers. Would you tell our readers, in your own words, what it’s about?
Golly, that’s difficult to do. The story comprises numerous conflicts layered against a background of cattle ranching and oil exploration in North Central Texas. Readers may be happy to learn that this go-round, the narrative is told over a period of nine months (rather than decades, as featured in my other novels). Titans begins in 1900, a year of new beginnings in Texas, and explores the relationship between parent and child, husband and wife, oil exploration and preservation of the environment, Dallas and Fort Worth, rural and city life. Recently, one literary critic proclaimed it was my best work. I’ll leave it to my readers to decide that for themselves.
How has publishing changed since your first time as an author?
I’m not sure I am qualified to speak to that question. I’ve been with the same agent, publisher, and editor (she’s the editor-in-chief of Grand Central Publishing) throughout, and they have remained constant in their roles. I do understand that the industry is in a continual state of flux, but I prefer to remain uninformed of the changes in the business since at this point, they do not affect me. Also, because I do not consider what I do as a career or a means to make a living, I spare myself the anxiety of wondering if they will. I sort of crashed into the back door of the party without meaning to and found myself invited to stay. Should the change in the tenor of the merriment not be to my liking, I’ll thank my host for his hospitality and leave.
What is your creative process like? How often do you write, for instance? How much time do you spend on research? Do you have beta readers?
I wake at five and begin writing shortly thereafter until eight o’clock. I take a thirty-minute walk, come home and eat breakfast, then go back to the computer around nine. I write until 11:30, break for lunch and a nap, then return to the novel until six o’clock. I keep to this schedule five days a week unless interrupted by appointments or errands or phone calls or the pleasure of social meetings or the occasional lunch with friends. In addition, I usually get in a couple of hours of writing on weekends. I do general research on a topic I’m curious about but have no knowledge before I begin a novel and out of it emerges the “inciting incident” that will drive the plot and shape the characters. Specific research I do as the narrative takes shape. I have only one reader, a friend who is a fictionaholic and a very astute one at that. I read the week’s output to her over the telephone. I have found her ear and my voice invaluable editing tools. Her ear picks up any jangling note, and my voice catches a glitch in the rhythm and flow of the sentence.
You’ve been publishing best-sellers for five years. What’s been the key takeaway for you?
The wonderfulness of people who love to read books. The news media would have us believe that the human race is going to hell in a handbasket, but my writing journey has led me to places and people that dispute that reporting. When I am old and gray and full of sleep, as William Butler Yeats expressed it in his immortal poem, I hope I’m fortunate to remember most of all the marvelous encounters with the good people I met along the way.
What Texas authors do you enjoy reading?
Larry McMurtry, Sarah Bird, and Steven Harrigan, among numerous others who claim Texas their home.
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Praise for Leila Meacham's TITANS
“The finest historical fiction not only entertains but teaches readers something about an era not their own, and this novel offers a stellar crash course in Texas history....The novel has it all: a wide cast of characters, pitch-perfect period detail, romance, plenty of drama, and skeletons in the closet (literally). Saga fans will be swooning.” ―Booklist (starred review)
“Equals and perhaps surpasses Roses...It has everything any reader could want in a book...epic storytelling that plunges the reader headfirst into the plot...[Meacham] is a titan herself.” ―Jackie K Cooper, Book Critic, The Huffington Post
“Emotionally resounding...Texas has never seemed grander...as a mammoth human filled with longing and ambition... Meacham’s easy-to-read prose helps to maintain a pace that you won’t be able to quit, pushing through from chapter to chapter to find the next important nugget of this dramatic family tale. It is best savored over a great steak with a glass of wine and evenings to yourself.” ―BookReporter
Praise for Leila Meacham's ROSES
“Roses heralded as the new Gone with the Wind.” ―USA Today
“Reads like a high-end Thorn Birds.” ―Sara Nelson, The Daily Beast
“As large, romantic, and American a tale as Texas itself.” ―Booklist
“An enthralling stunner....A compelling saga with echoes of Gone with the Wind.” ―Publishers Weekly
“It’s been almost 30 years since the heyday of giant epics...but Meacham’s
debut might bring them back. Readers who like an old-fashioned saga will
devour this sprawling novel of passion and revenge.” ―Library Journal
Leila Meacham graduated from North Texas State University with a bachelor or arts degree. She married a pilot in the US Air Force during the war years of Vietnam and served in numerous capacities of volunteer work as a military wife before resuming her teaching career in San Antonio. She taught high school English until her retirement from that profession, developing the gifted and talented program still used in the tenth grade curriculum of Converse Judson. She was twice elected by her peers as Teacher of the Year. Upon retirement from teaching she turned her talents to writing fiction.