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.
6.4.2017 Words of wisdom from Austinite Debra L. Winegarten
Debra L. Winegarten is an author, poet, publisher, marketer, and self-described “subverter from within.” She‘s a third-generation Texan and daughter of one of the state’s most significant advocates of women’s history. She talked with us last week via email about the path she has blazed for herself.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: The name Winegarten is a famous one in Texas publishing and history circles. Your mother, Ruthe, was one of the state’s most significant advocates for Texas women’s history. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
DEBRA L. WINEGARTEN: I grew up in north Dallas in the 1960s, in a Jewish feminist household. We were reform, secular Jews, my parents didn’t attend services except on the Jewish High Holidays, and my mother was known (at least by me) for smuggling a mystery book into the services and only really paying attention during the sermon.
I grew up in a neighborhood where we were the only Jewish family for blocks around, and I was the only Jew in my elementary school classes. Although I attended Hebrew school on the weekends, I keenly felt my “difference” and “otherness” and this shaped who I am today. As you mentioned, I was blessed to have Ruthe Winegarten as my mother, and that afforded me terrific opportunities for early childhood socialization in what we know today as the feminist movement. My mother was good friends with Ann Richards, who later became a Texas governor.
In 1962–64, they were members of the “North Dallas Democratic Dames” and for an annual fundraiser, they wrote and performed in a play called “Political Paranoia.” And they wrote those plays in my living room, with Ann Richards telling the jokes, Carolyn Choate composing the songs, and my mother writing it all down. Years later Ann wrote, “If we made Ruthe laugh, we knew the joke was good.”
There were always political discussions at our dinner table, and talks on current events. I was raised to question authority. I learned from an early age that one of the best ways to make social change was to “subvert from within.” Because I was the youngest child of three, rather than pay for day care, my mother took me with her to all her meetings. So you could say that I was raised from an early age inculcated with Jewish ethics and feminist values.
I’ve read that you were first published in the third grade, with a poem in your temple newsletter, but later, you chose sociology to study in college and hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology. Why that particular discipline?
I was studying physical therapy at Texas Woman’s University and I didn’t pass one of the required classes needed to get into the PT program. They only had a certain number of slots every year, and I missed the cutoff by two points. I had to wait an entire year to retake the class, so that summer I was knocking out electives and took an Intro to Sociology class.
And on the first day of class, this fiery, passionate professor stood up to tell us what sociology was all about, and she started talking about racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia, and a light went off in my head (or was it my heart, or both?) and I said to myself, “Oh my God! They pay people to work on these issues?” And I took a quick left turn and changed my major to sociology. Because I took all these wonderful science classes for pre-PT, chemistry, calculus, physics, neuroanatomy, I’m probably the only person in the world with a bachelor's of science in sociology. That science and math background has stood me in very good stead over the years.
What was your first professional break as an author, and how did it occur?
To date, I’ve authored five books and co-authored two books. I’d say my first professional break, or my “break-out” book, if you will, was actually my first poetry chapbook, There's Jews in Texas? Let me begin answering this question by saying that nobody “breaks out” with a poetry book, and certainly not a chapbook — that’s simply unheard of. But then, I’m known for being unconventional, breaking rules, and following the tune of my own flute playing.
Here’s what happened: my best friend sent me a link to a chapbook contest on contemporary Jewish poetry. “That's what you write,” she said; “you should enter the contest.” So I did.
I spent several weeks going through all my poems. I once took a workshop on “How to win a poetry chapbook contest.” The advice I remembered was: “Put your best poem first, so that when they start the book, they’ll read your best poem. Then, put your best poem at the end, so that when they finish the book, they’ll be left remembering your best poem. Now, in the middle, put in your best poem, so if the book falls open, it will open up to your best poem. Finally, put all your best poems all around to round out the book.” The takeaway was, put in all your best poems.
So I went through all my poems, and came up with seventeen, which, to be honest, isn’t quite enough for a full chapbook, but that’s what I had. I tried to figure out what to call the book. I was stumped. I looked to see where the judges lived. Norfolk, Virginia, of all places. I went to bed. As I was falling asleep, I said to myself, “Norfolk, Virginia? Do they know there’s Jews in Texas?”
“That’s it!” I said to myself, as I leapt out of bed and ran through the pitch-black house to my computer to write it down, the cats lifting up their heads as I dashed, shaking their heads as if to say, “There she goes again.”
Lo and behold, my chapbook won first place! Later, I wrote the judge to ask why the book won. He said, “You know, Jews are noted for their humor. And many of the chapbooks people entered were filled with gloom and doom, stories of the Holocaust, death, depression. And your book was funny.”
To be fair, There's Jews in Texas? also has some themes relating to death, in particular my dealing with my mother’s suicide, but fortunately, the main themes are what it was like growing up Jewish in Texas. Unbeknownst to me, the things I experienced turned out to be universal themes, I’ve received letters from Jews all over the United States telling me of similar stories in their lives. And I apparently also captured the experience of what it means to be “other” or “different” or “outsider” and this, too, is a theme that regardless of a person's race or ethnicity or religion, is also a common human experience.
According to one of my poetry mentors, Scott Wiggerman, if you sell a hundred copies of your poetry book, that’s phenomenal. I’ve sold over 3,000 copies of that little book. The major complaint? It’s too short. So I published the sequel, Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From. People keep clamoring for more, so I’m now working on the third in the series, “Have Torah, Will Travel.”
The best quip (so far) has come from my dear friend, Holly Von Scoy, who claims that when I die, my tombstone will read, “One Less Jew in Texas.”
One of your most recent books is a biography of Oveta Culp Hobby—a fascinating Texas woman. Can you tell our readers why you chose to write about her, and a little about the book?
I write biographies of Texas women for middle-school students. Texas history is taught in the seventh grade. About ten years ago, I was looking online at the seventh grade social studies curriculum to figure out about whom I should write books. At the time, there were seventeen men and three women listed as “key individuals” the students needed to know about. The three women were Barbara Jordan (lots of books about her), Cynthia Ann Parker (tons of books about her and why you’d want kids to know about her, don’t even get me started), and the third woman was Oveta Culp Hobby.
I went to Amazon to find out how books had been written about Oveta and there were zero. Then I went to Google to find out how many middle schools there were in Texas. There were 1,400. My marketing genius light bulb went off. “If there are 1,400 middle schools in Texas, and I write a book on Oveta, then every middle school librarian in Texas has to buy one!” I convinced UT Press that was a true statement and they gave me a contract. Little did I know at the time that every middle-school librarian has their own budget and I was going to have to hand-sell to each librarian. But that’s a story for another day.
Oveta is a native Texan from Killeen, and a national treasure. She was appointed parliamentarian to the Texas legislature at age twenty, before she was old enough to vote. She married former governor William Pettus Hobby, and their son, Bill Hobby, Jr., was lieutenant governor of Texas for twelve years. Oveta was the first woman appointed a colonel in the U.S. Army, and designed and directed the Women's Army Corps for World War II. President Eisenhower was so enamored with her abilities that even though he was a Republican and she a Democrat, when he became president, he appointed her to his cabinet. Oveta Culp Hobby was the first secretary of the newly minted Department of Health, Education and Welfare, what we know today as the Department of Health and Human Services. With her husband, she built a media empire in Houston that included a newspaper, and radio and television stations.
You are a publisher as well as an author. What made you decide to start Sociosights Press, and how would you describe it?
My first book came out in 1998, co-authored with my mother, Strong Family Ties: The Tiny Hawkins Story. I was working with my book designer, Anne Blocker, at Kinko’s in the wee hours one weeknight. Anne turned to me and asked, “What’s the name of your publishing company?” And I said, “Well, Socio-something, because I’m a sociologist. And I want to make a difference with my books and have wonderful insights about society that transform the world. I know, Sociosights!” That's how the name was born, at 2:00 am in Kinko’s.
The mission of my press is “Transforming society: one story at a time.”
I look for books with social change messages embedded in them. I don’t solicit submissions; the universe sends people and stories to me. Because my mission is so specific, it’s easy for me to read a book and immediately know whether or not it fits my mission. There are other criteria I use to decide what to accept, including whether or not I can market the heck out of the book and two other things, which no one knows about but me.
Your faith has been an important part of your writing and your life, but you are not exactly pedantic or formal about it—(“Have Torah, Will Travel”). . .what would you like our readers to know about the juxtaposition of your faith and your writing?
I recently came across that poem Temple Emanuel in Dallas published when I was in the third grade — it’s called “God Is Everywhere.” When I reread it, I realized that at an early age, I understand what I believe to be the central mission of Judaism, that we are all, everything on earth, the people, plants, animals, the earth itself, and the heavens, and the universe, all of us are part of the great “All That Is” and that we are all created by God, and indeed, we all are God. That I think is the central tenet and lesson of Judaism’s most important prayer, the “Shema”: “Hear, O Israel, the lord our God, the lord is One.”
I use my writing as a platform for social change. I’m an extrovert — it’s actually ridiculous for me to be a writer because what I love more than anything is getting out and doing public speaking. The larger the crowd you put me in front of, the happier I am, because I get my energy from other people’s feedback.
My writing gives me a vehicle and avenue to get out into the world. Sometimes, I go to speak in small Texas towns where no one has ever met a Jew before. Can you believe that’s true in the twenty-first century? It is. And so, then I become a role model. I take my Jewish faith seriously and believe it is my sacred obligation to do my part to heal my corner of the world and leave the world a little better than when I found it.
I have found that I can use humor to talk about the messy and complicated issues we find in our world today. I don’t shy away from difficult conversations, and I do my best to model treating people with respect and dignity, love, and delight, regardless of who we are and what we believe. Because for me, we are each that “spark” of God, put here to contribute a certain blessed delightful energy that only we embody. And so, I’m both serious and light-hearted, doing my part to uplift the energies and fulfill the mitzvah of “tikkun olam,” “healing the world.”
The most recent book from Sociosights Press is Almost a Minyan What’s that book about, and what inspired you to publish it?
Almost a Minyan is a gorgeous coming-of-age story of a young Jewish girl who takes her grandfather’s place in their small town minyan (prayer quorum) after his death.
The author came up to me after morning services and told me she had published a Jewish children’s book. She said one of our other “minyan mates” had told her she should talk to me. We made an appointment for her to come to my house a couple of weeks later. Before she came, I researched Jewish children’s book publishers, found the best one in Minnesota, and vowed to send her there.
The morning we were scheduled to meet, I had a firm talk with myself.
“Debster,” I said, “no matter what she brings over, you are NOT to publish it! You have way too much on your plate as it is and you can’t even keep up with what you’ve already promised to do. No. No matter what she brings over, the answer is ‘No.’ You send her to that Minnesota publisher.” I was clear about my course of action when the author arrived.
We sat on my front porch talking because she’s allergic to cats and I have some. She asked if I’d read the manuscript. “No, did you bring it?” I asked. “I emailed it this morning,” she said. As she went inside to the “ladies lounge,” as my grandmother of blessed memory would call it, I read the manuscript. When she came back outside, I was crying. Before I knew what I was doing, I blurted out, “I’m publishing this. Quick, shake my hand. I'll email you a contract today.”
That was over two years ago. The book came out last month. And I love it even more now than when I did the first time I read it.
June is Pride month, and you and your partner — wife? — are both writers in Austin. Two years ago this month the Supreme Court made same sex marriage legal. What advice would you have for young people who are struggling with their sexual identity?
I’ve been with my beloved, Cindy Huyser, for twenty-one years. When we were first dating, we struggled with what to call each other. We would refer to each other as “partner” and people would say, “Really? What business are you in?” So we invented our own term of endearment, “Heart Partner,” and that completely describes who we are for each other.
We actually did get married in Seattle three years ago, before same-sex marriage was legal in every state. And it was really odd. We had this incredible marriage ceremony where everyone from the rabbi, to our family and the wedding guests, and us were all in tears as we signed the ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) and the State of Washington marriage certificate because at the time, we all understood what a huge step forward it was for civil rights, civil liberty, gay rights, and marriage equality.
And then, we came back home to Texas and all of a sudden, because Texas didn’t recognize gay marriage, we turned to each other and asked, “Are we now not married?” It was really the oddest feeling. And the morning when the Supreme Court announced their decision, I called and emailed and texted Cindy to let her know the amazing news.
My advice for young people struggling with their sexuality is, “Find some role models. Go make a friend with an older gay person and/or couple in your community. Let them nurture you. You are not in this struggle alone and there are allies everywhere. If you can’t find one gay person in your community, find an ally. If you can’t find an ally, email me. You are not alone. We are everywhere. And you deserve to be happy and love whoever your heart calls you to be with.”
Who are the Texas writers you enjoy reading, and why?
I’m going to dodge this question because I’m in many writer communities, with many wonderful writer friends. If people really really want to know the answer here, email me off-list. I don't want to offend my friends by not mentioning someone or use my platform here to promote other people. Friend me on Facebook; I am often giving shout-outs there to Texas writers I adore.
What’s next for Debra Winegarten?
Last week a book I’ve co-authored with Zvi Yaniv, The Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology: an adventure through time and very tiny spaces was released. Zvi is an incredible physicist, inventor and entrepreneur with over 300 patents. We worked together to bring this book out into the world.
I’m currently working on a “dual” adult biography about two Texas women and the extraordinary role they played in preserving one of Texas’s most famous landmarks, due out from Globe Pequot in 2019. Hopefully, y’all will feature me again when that book comes out and I’ll tell you more about it then. In the meanwhile, go buy my books! You can find my publishing company, Sociosights Press, www.sociosights.com, and my author website, www.winegarten.com.
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Praise for Debra L. Winegarten’s OVETA CULP HOBBY: COLONEL, CABINET MEMBER, PHILANTHROPIST
“Winegarten . . . has written a guide for women to follow and Oveta Culp Hobby is clearly an example worth emulating. More than a biography, it will encourage the reader to not see obstacles but rather opportunities.”
—Dispatches, Military Writers Society of America 2015-03-08
“Winegarten has done an excellent job of capturing Mother’s spirit.” —William Hobby, lieutenant governor of Texas, 1973–1991
“Oveta Culp Hobby was one of the most successful women in twentieth-century America in business, government, and politics. I am pleased that Debra Winegarten has written her biography for our Texas history students. Oveta is a true Texas trailblazer who left a tremendous legacy. Everyone should know her story.” —former Texas senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
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