Does absence make the art grow fonder? These days, some of the best writing about Texas is being done by women who don’t live here.
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EVEN FROM A DISTANCE OF THREE decades and two thousand miles, Sandra Scofield sees the day she left Texas with a photographic crispness. “I had one last exam to take for my B.A. at UT,” the 54-year-old novelist recalls from her home in Ashland, Oregon. “It was at seven-thirty in the morning, and afterward, instead of resting for a day, I jumped on the first train for New York. That’s how suffocated I felt, how badly I wanted out of Texas.”
Born in Wichita Falls, Scofield was raised by a single mother who died when her daughter was fifteen, leaving her in the care of nuns and relatives near Odessa. The combination of Scofield’s own artist’s sensibility and her orphan status gave the teenager an intense feeling of alienation. “The people around me, my aunt, my cousins, seemed completely at home,” Scofield says, “but I always felt like a complete stranger. I remember looking out at the plains around Wichita Falls and Odessa, seeing nothing but mesquite, tumbleweeds, and pump jacks, and wondering how far I would have to go to find a like mind.” While Scofield’s body left the state behind, her writer’s mind did not. Most of her seven novels are set here, and nearly all her protagonists are Texans. “I live in this pretty little town now,” she muses, “and I look out at these beautiful, tree-covered foothills, and I love it, but when I sit down to write, I see plains. I can’t come up with any interest in writing about another part of the country.”
Strangely enough, Scofield’s story is not unique. Some of the leading female novelists writing about Texas today have produced most or all of their books while living somewhere else. In addition to Scofield (who was a finalist for the 1991 National Book Award for Beyond Deserving), a short list would have to include Shelby Hearon, a two-time winner of the Texas Institute of Letters book-of-the-year award for fiction, who has published fourteen novels; Carol Dawson, acclaimed for novels like Body of Knowledge and Meeting the Minotaur; and Janet Peery, whose novel The River Beyond the World, about life in the fictional border town of Rio Paradiso, was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award. Throw in poet and memoirist Mary Karr (from East Texas, gone to Syracuse) and short-story writers like Gail Galloway Adams (from Graham, gone to West Virginia) and Dianne Benedict (from the border, gone to New England), and the Texpatriate colony seems to overshadow those who stayed home.
Katherine Anne Porter may have begun the tradition of bailing out on the state in 1914, when she jumped from a bad marriage to Chicago, Denver, New York, Mexico City, and parts unknown, where she finally found the perspective to mine the rich vein of material in her Texas childhood. “I had to leave Texas,” Porter told a friend years later, “because I didn’t want to be regarded as a freak. That’s what they all thought about women who wanted to write. So I had to revolt and rebel; there was no other way.”
After Waco’s Dorothy Scarborough moved to New York in 1916, she was able to write several books, including the controversial 1925 novel The Wind, a truly hellacious, scathing look at drought-stricken West Texas in the 1880’s that was made into a silent film starring Lillian Gish. Published anonymously, the work outraged Texans, who assumed a Yankee had written it. The resulting uproar forced Scarborough to reveal her identity and her Lone Star roots.
In 1982 writer Kathryn Marshall sent an essay to the Texas Observer from her new home in New Hampshire. The piece was aimed at Larry McMurtry’s seminal essay on the state’s writers in the October 23, 1981, issue of the Observer, “Ever a Bridegroom—Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature,” specifically its infamous put-down of Katherine Anne Porter as a “half-talent” and what Marshall saw as its generally misogynistic crankiness. “I write with less anxiety,” Marshall wrote, “when a fat chunk of the map separates me from a letters that doesn’t really believe women in general, and women writers in particular, exist.”
This peculiar pattern of fugitive women raises interesting questions. Is there something inimical to women in the local literary soil? Is there something, at the same time, fatally compelling about Texas as a setting that survives among its émigrés?
“The sun this time of year seemed to have bled its yellow, to have drained the West Texas sky and spilled almost without boundary onto the scruffy ocher plains. People dreaded the wind that came up hot and gritty. It obscured the last pale patches of sky. In August, color was forgotten. There was no blue, no green, no true yellow. Sand was a color, heat was a color.” So begins Sandra Scofield’s novel Walking Dunes, the story of David Puckett, an eighteen-year-old West Texas boy on the cusp of manhood. Most of Scofield’s books involve ordinary people with no particular advantages of wealth or genius, grinding out the smallest of personal victories against a hardscrabble backdrop like the sand hills of West Texas, with their “gleaming, sugary whiteness.” In all her novels, someone is looking for his or her true home, or trying to get back to it. From the disaffected Abilene Painter of Gringa, her first novel, who runs off to Mexico and takes up with a bullfighter, to Lucy of Plain Seeing, her latest, who leaves the West Coast to track down her mother’s past in West Texas, the rootless are digging for even the slenderest of roots.
In person the novelist is attractively unadorned, clear-eyed, and unassuming. Once, referring to herself as “an intellectual writer,” she gasps and covers her mouth, saying, “I can’t believe I just said that.” Like her characters, Scofield still feels like a person without a home, a kind of permanent orphan. “Even after twenty-five years, I don’t feel like an Oregonian,” she says. “More like a Texan who couldn’t make a steady life there.” Scofield’s next novel, Love Fever, concerns a maverick film director from West Texas who lives in Mexico, and she’s planning a trip here for fun and research. Her husband has promised to spend more time in Texas with her when he retires from teaching next year. “Not to live,” she quickly adds, “but for part of the winter, go to Big Bend, see all the birds.”
Not that there aren’t birds all over. A sweet Texas drawl on Shelby Hearon’s answering machine tells callers about the bright red cardinals hopping around on the snow outside her window in Burlington, Vermont. When she calls back, the 67-year-old novelist is just as Chatty Cathy in person, with a sassy but motherly tone that’s reminiscent of her good friend Ann Richards. If Hearon is not the most decorated of Texas writers, she is one of the most prolific. Since 1968 she’s written fourteen novels and compiled an oral history of Barbara Jordan.
Kentucky-born but Texas-raised, she married Austin attorney Robert Hearon after graduating from UT. In the late sixties an editor plucked the manuscript of what would be her first novel, Armadillos in the Grass, from the slush pile, and she would eventually publish four more novels as a Texan. In 1981, four years after her marriage ended in divorce, Hearon moved to New York’s Westchester County. She was anxious to put her marriage behind her and to advance her writing career. “I had always heard that you can’t run away from your problems,” she says. “But when I got to Westchester, I thought, ‘That’s not true at all. I was out of there, out of Texas, away from my past.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, you can just get up and go. Yes.’”
Hearon thinks that leaving the state reinvigorated her style; the new idioms and accents she heard up north sharpened her sense of Texas talk. Even more, the move gave her a feeling of homesickness that she believes lies at the heart of novel writing: “All those feelings you have for who you were, for that moment in time when everything came together and it was lovely, or the sense of unfinished business, these provide the emotion for your characters, the longing or fear that drives them.”
Hearon’s novels strike some as multiple restatements of the same premise. Nearly all are first-person narratives by women straining against the bonds of social convention while looking for true love, and usually finding it. One of her best is perhaps the least typical: 1988’s Owning Jolene, in which a nineteen-year-old free spirit is caught between her divorced parents, the famous painter who is her lover, and a new love interest. Set in post-oil-bust San Antonio, where ranchers are learning to grow grapes and carry cell phones, Owning Jolene is witty and endearing, with an accurate ear for the phrases and foibles of the state.
Married to her third husband, Hearon sounds settled and happy in Burlington, where her Texas friends visit her during the winter “to get a taste of the Dr. Zhivago thing.” She’s writing her fifteenth novel, which is set in Austin, her memories of the city sharpened by return visits for the funerals of both her parents in 1995. It’s based on something she overheard when she was living there in the seventies—one woman telling another that she didn’t know a soul north of Thirty-fifth Street. “My story is about one of those longtime Austin women who move out to the northern part of town,” Hearon says, “and all her friends stop at the MoPac overpass there at Thirty-fifth to wave good-bye to her like she’s going to China.”
Janet Peery’s relationship with the state is less ambivalent than Scofield’s or Hearon’s. “I’d have to say I’m more of a Texaholic than a Texpatriate,” she says with a laugh. “I just can’t seem to get enough of Texas. It’s a place like no other. You can go from Kansas to Colorado and the borders just blur, but when I see ‘Entering Texas,’ I feel my soul expand.”
Peery, who teaches writing at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, comes by her enthusiasm like a religious convert, from the outside looking in. A Kansan by birth, she has never lived here. All her experience of Texas stems from family trips with her former husband, who grew up in South Texas and to whom, it seems, she has conceded the state. Even so, Peery is producing some of the best current fiction about Texas—witness her superb collection, Alligator Dance (in which five of the ten stories are Texas-based), and The River Beyond the World.
It all started, Peery says, with a trip to her husband’s family’s ranch in the Valley. There, she came upon a house in a nearby town that caught her eye. Made of brick, it looked “as if it could be in New England,” she remembers, but was overgrown with bougainvillea, palmetto, and yucca, nearly surrounded by its own private jungle. What really got to Peery, though, was the large graffito on the side of the house—the f-word in Spanish. “I thought, ‘Wow, what’s going on there?’” she says. “I just had to know who lived there, why the house looked that way. I don’t pretend to understand the border or the people there, but what I’ve written comes from a desire to at least encounter what was there, all the incredible contradictions of the place.” This memorable house would later appear in The River Beyond the World.
A stunning brunette in her late forties, Peery came to writing a bit late, working a string of truly odd jobs—cocktail waitress at a supper club for seniors, undercover agent for a fast-food chain, lifeguard—before being discovered in 1988 by novelist Bob Shacochis in a class he was teaching at Wichita State University. She has a wonderful, bubbling-up-from-the-ground laugh, an earthy giggle that may be a legacy of all those jobs in the service sector. Her Texas stories have an authenticity that belies her never having lived here, whether it’s her sharp ear for border talk or her haunting descriptions, like the tattered Christmas star bobbing in the winds of a blue norther over Rio Paradiso’s trashy streets.
Peery’s new novel is set in Oklahoma but involves something, she says mysteriously, that is “coming up from Texas.” “When I was growing up in Kansas,” Peery explains, “Texas was the origin of everything bad, dangerous, powerful, or passionate. If a bunch of Hell’s Angels rode through town, people would say, ‘They’re comin’ up from Texas.’ One time there was a cougar scare, and everybody muttered, ‘Must be comin’ up from Texas.’ So mythically I have a sense of Texas being the source of the wild.”
Perhaps the mystery of the Texpatriate writers, the countering tidal pulls of homesickness and escape, longing and avoidance, that drive these women and their work, can best be explained by a returned native. In 1997, after 23 years in California, New Mexico, Washington State, New Zealand, England, and Italy, novelist Carol Dawson came back to Texas and now lives in Austin on Dawson Street, which is named for her family. Like Porter, she had felt like a “freak” here (as she told this magazine four years ago); like Scofield, she left right after college; like Hearon, she was also leaving a failed marriage—“from the courtroom to the highway,” as she puts it. “I felt that compulsion to get out of Texas,” the 47-year-old writer says over tacos at Güero’s restaurant in Austin. “Maybe I had to get some distance to see the place clearly.”
Why come back now? Perhaps Dawson, who is currently writing a novel about a young woman who inherits a ranch near Alpine (and whose novel The Mothers-in-Law Diary will be published next fall), has simply let her own accomplishments bring her full circle. “I’ve come to think the world is what you make it,” she says. “That what you create for yourself is what you’re gonna get. Which is a very Texas thing, don’t you think?”