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.
5.21.2017 Wernersbach and Tracy head into the great wide open — inviting summer travelers to chill out in Texas’ favorite swimming spots
A writer/photographer duo is making a splash with their latest book. The Swimming Holes of Texas,a collaboration between Julie WernersbachCarolyn Tracy, has released this week—just in time for our readers’ Memorial Day and summertime adventures.
If those names jog a memory, we’ll fill in the details. Wernersbach was for years the marketing director at BookPeople, and now’s she’s literary director of the Texas Book Festival, held each fall in Austin. The guidebook to Texas dive-ins is the second co-authored title from Wernersbach and Tracy, a former BookPeople colleague; their previous volume was Vegan Survival Guide to Austin. The team talked with us last week via email about their latest book and gave us some tips on their favorite cooling-off spots and what to take on a swimming-hole road trip.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Basic first question for you both, Carolyn and Julie — how long have you lived in Austin, and what brought you there?
CAROLYN TRACY: I’ve lived in Austin for about eleven years. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and I think it's a pretty natural trajectory for young people to escape from Houston to Austin. I specifically moved to Austin after applying, on a whim, for a job at BookPeople, which they hired me for. I had a brief two-year stint in Galveston where I opened a juice bar and then returned home to Austin.
JULIE WERNERSBACH: Books brought me to Texas. I moved to Austin six years ago from Long Island, where I was the publicist and events coordinator for an independent bookstore, to work as publicist and then marketing director at BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas. I love Austin. I'm never going back.
The Swimming Holes of Texas is the second book you two have written together. Your first book was the Vegan Survival Guide to Austin. So how long have you two known each other? How did you meet, and what made you decide to write books together?
We met when Julie started working at BookPeople in 2011. We collaborated a lot and worked really well together on bookstore projects. We were at The Liberty on East Sixth Street for a friend’s birthday party when we dreamed up the idea to make a vegan guide to Austin. I think we were motivated to do it because it seemed really fun, but also to try to make sure the history and stories of the vegan scene in Austin were preserved.
Tell us what was the genesis of the idea for The Swimming Holes of Texas, if you will, and describe your process like in creating the book.
Carolyn: Our mutual friend and co-worker Brian Contine is responsible for the idea. He’d recently moved jobs from BookPeople to the University of Texas Press and had seen some of my photos on social media one summer where I was hitting a lot of swimming holes. He pitched the idea to me, and I knew right away this was not a job to do alone, so I asked Julie to join me on the project. I would not have done this project without her help.
Julie: The process was intense. We researched, photographed and wrote the bulk of the book over the course of the summer of 2016. Every weekend, we’d hit the road with a list of destinations and the hope that we’d discover a lot more along the way. We camped, hiked, and drove, drove, drove across Texas to swim in every single spot in this book and document everything from location to cost to temperature of the water, quality of the swim experience, and more. We drank a lot of coffee in the process.
Can each of you tell us your top two favorite swimming holes, and why they rank so high on your lists?
Carolyn: The two spots that really stand out for me are James Kiehl River Bend Park and Daingerfield State Park. James Kiehl is such a gem of a park. It was created to honor the life of Army specialist Kiehl, who was killed during an ambush in Iraq. The park provides over 1,600 feet of Guadalupe River frontage. A lot of love went into building this park, and you can really feel it.
When researching The Swimming Holes of Texas we arrived at Daingerfield State Park after visiting a slew of gorgeous East Texas swimming holes. I remember being a bit oversaturated, the same way you might feel after looking at too much art at a large museum, but there we were at one of the most stunningly picturesque spots you could possibly imagine. We swam out into the cool emerald water, out to the floating dock, and basked in the sun surrounded by the tall pines. This one is really worth the drive.
Julie: I second the love for Daingerfield Park. I was also quite taken by Lake Amistad out by Del Rio. This 89,000-acre lake straddles the Mexico–U.S. border and is a vast, sweeping sight to behold when you’ve been driving south and west through Texas desert. It feels not unlike standing on the edge of an ocean. There are some great views from bluffs within the enormous national park, which offers more than 58,000 acres to explore, and there's easy walk-in access to the water from Governor’s Landing. I could post up and spend a solid week discovering Amistad and still not see everything.
I’d also really like to get back to the Quince in Camp Wood. This undeveloped spot is a nice, easy place to jump into the gorgeous blue-green Nueces River. The undeveloped spots are often my favorite. Kick off your shoes, get in, and enjoy!
What is your process like in creating a book together? Do you split chapters/scenes—one focuses on photography, one on writing; how does it work? What’s the best part of working together? The biggest challenge?
Carolyn: Julie does all of the writing and I take the photographs. I mapped out a lot of our trips, and Julie would research as we went along. We had editing parties toward the end. Only the best of friends will help you edit your book. It works because we know each other really well. I know when it’s time for Julie to pull over and eat some hummus, and she knows when I get quiet that I probably have seen enough for one day. We both really like Tom Petty.
You’ve both been booksellers in Texas. How would you say the publishing scene has changed in the Lone Star State of late?
Julie: It’s great to see bookstores and literary communities continue to grow and thrive in the Texas cities. A new indie is about to open in Dallas to add to a burgeoning literary landscape there; Houston is home to two strong and dynamic stores; Austin, of course, is home to several independent bookstores now. It’s great to see these communities support writers and the bookstores who sell their books. In Austin, it feels as if there’s a literary event happening just about every day; it’s wonderful.
Julie, after years with the state’s largest bookstore, BookPeople, you’re now with the Texas Book Festival, the third largest book festival in the nation. What surprised you most when you became a part of TBF?
What surprised me most was discovering just how big the Texas Book Festival family is and how much the organization accomplishes year-round. We’re a staff of six at TBF, which seemed small, at first, but I soon learned of the many committees, volunteers, and, of course, our amazing and active board of directors who work alongside us, volunteering their time and talents to help us inspire Texans of all ages to love reading.
Also surprising was coming to understand that the organization is so much more than just the Festival weekend. It’s been amazing to see how libraries across the state, especially in rural communities, put Texas Book Festival grant money to work to improve their collections and offer more to their communities. And our Reading Rock Stars program continues to knock my socks off. We bring authors and illustrators into low-income schools in Houston, Austin, Dallas, and the Rio Grande Valley to present to students and send the kids home with copies of their books. Watching kids treat authors like rock stars never gets old.
Both: What are your favorite Texas books, and why?
Carolyn: Horseman, Pass By (Larry McMurtry) — his first novel, written in ’61 and the inspiration for the classic film starring Paul Newman. I love this slim novel because it’s full of contradictions! Set in a claustrophobically small Texas town surrounded by endless sprawling ranch land, the characters are excruciatingly bored, so they wreak havoc wherever they go, and they prop up their masculinity with over-the-top bravado to hide their very fragile need for genuine love.
Crazy from the Heat (James Evans) — another UT Press masterpiece! The design is so fantastic and the photos are the best you’ll see of the Big Bend region.
Julie: Cherry (Mary Karr). Karr is one of my favorite writers. This memoir, which followed The Liars’ Club, traces Karr’s adolescence in east Texas, where the landscapes read both bleak and mythic, wide open and wild.
Anything by Stephen Harrigan. I’m looking forward to the new history of Texas he’s writing for the University of Texas Press. (You can find a preview of the work on shelves now: They Came From the Sky.)
What’s next for you two? Will you write another book together?
Carolyn: Next is swimming all summer to escape the heat, then I’m up for another adventure.
Julie: I’m finishing a novel. Once that’s done — yes, another adventure!
Most important question: What should everyone pack for a trip to their favorite Texas swimming hole?
A trash receptacle and a big jug of water.
A good book!
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