Mary Helen Specht and Nan Cuba
On writing, teaching, and the legacy of Texas literature.
For two writers who are separated by a few decades in age, 36-year-old Mary Helen Specht and 68-year-old Nan Cuba have a surprising amount in common. Both were raised in smallish Texas cities (Specht in Abilene, Cuba in Temple) before settling in considerably larger Texas cities (Austin, San Antonio), where they both teach creative writing at Catholic universities (St. Edward’s, Our Lady of the Lake). Both also released acclaimed Texas-set debut novels in the past couple of years (Specht’s Migratory Animals recently received a rave from the New York Times Book Review; Cuba’s Body and Bread was labeled a “Riveting Read” by O, the Oprah Magazine); both cite the late Texas writer Katherine Anne Porter as a major influence; and both have had the honor of being chosen as Dobie Paisano fellows by the Texas Institute of Letters (Specht resided at the Paisano Ranch in 2008; Cuba begins her fellowship in February).
So it seemed only natural to have the two authors sit down and have a conversation about writing, teaching, and the legacy of Texas literature. And better still, to have them do so at Katherine Anne Porter’s childhood home, in Kyle, which is maintained by the Burdine Johnson Foundation and Texas State University and hosts a prestigious visiting-writers series. Below is an edited excerpt from their conversation, moderated by Texas Monthly senior editor Jeff Salamon.
Mary Helen Specht: Since we’re sitting in Katherine Anne Porter’s house, maybe we should start by talking about Porter, and about how being a Texas writer has influenced you—if you think of yourself as a Texas writer.
Nan Cuba: I do think of myself as a Texas writer, and I’m very proud of that, but it took a while to get there. When I first read Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, as an adult, I felt a deep connection, and she has been extremely influential in my own work. Not on purpose, but as I look at my work now, I can see it. In the first chapter of my book, Body and Bread, there is a very short scene that actually is the genesis of the whole book. I wrote it as a piece of flash fiction, and it became the novel. It’s reminiscent of Porter’s very famous story “The Grave,” but that was unintentional—it wasn’t until I went back and reread “The Grave” that I could see the parallels. But what was most striking was that Porter had based her story on an autobiographical experience with her own brother as a child, as I did in my novel. When I reread “The Grave” I saw that her brother’s name was Paul, and so was mine. And my brother committed suicide, so that was what drew me to write the story. I knew that “The Grave” had stayed in my subconscious very deeply, and at first I was alarmed, very alarmed. Because I didn’t know that that could happen, that you could end up writing something that was so reminiscent of another person’s work. But then I relaxed into it. And I’m fine.
MHS: There is so much about the book that is not like Porter’s work, especially the scenes where the characters are younger. And as they get older it’s about a changing Texas that Porter wasn’t around to see.
NC: At least one bookstore manager outside of Texas labeled Body and Bread as “regional.” And of course we’re resistant to that label: it means you have a limited audience. Which didn’t surprise me: I knew that I would have a limited audience, because I write literary fiction. So, to be literary and also regional, now you have, like, three people who are reading your book. I’m working on another book now, and it’s also set in Texas. I can’t help it. That’s what I do. And I’m fine with that. Has your work ever been called regional?
MHS: Maybe I don’t get that label as much because I write mostly about urban Texas. There certainly are sections of Migratory Animals that are based on the Paisano Ranch, where I lived for a while. When I got the Dobie, I had been living outside of Texas for a number of years, and I didn’t think I would ever come back. But I returned for that fellowship, and seven years later, I’m still here. It was interesting being at the ranch, because even though people think of Abilene as rural, it’s still a town. Most of the people I went to high school with were more likely to be in heavy metal bands than to be roping cows. So the Dobie ranch was a return to Texas but almost a return to this imaginative Texas that I wouldn’t say I’d ever fully lived in.
Generally, the thing that interests me the most is this sort of post-Western Texas, where there are still these myths and masculine stereotypes but the reality is very different. I feel like Larry McMurtry, who wrote that he had to read himself out of the culture before he could read himself back in. As a kid, I was more interested in reading Jane Eyre and the Beats. It wasn’t until I left Texas that I started appreciating, for example, Katherine Anne Porter. And of course I identified with her in the sense that she left Texas. She didn’t want to think of herself as a regional writer. But I would certainly say that her best and most complex work is about Texas. Texas certainly wants to claim her now. And I think she felt ambivalent about that.
NC: Yes, she did.
MHS: And I can relate to that. In my twenties, I felt really ambivalent about that connection. Only later, and now, am I starting to settle into all the things that are great about being a Texas writer.
NC: Larry McMurtry called Porter’s work, if I remember correctly, “powdery,” which is a great word. “Powdery” and inspired by her neuroses. That’s a very gendered description. Very gendered. But she’s one of the writers who inspired me the most.
Texas’s literary legacy is very rich, beginning with Cabeza de Vaca, who published the first Texas book, about his experience of living with the Indian tribes and was very complimentary about them, actually. The writers who have influenced me the most, other than Porter, are William Goyen and Tomas Rivera—wonderful writers whose work is very rich. And we have to mention J. Frank Dobie, who preserved the folk tales of our state. I’m very grateful for that, because I was raised in Temple, which is probably thought of as a rural area, though my family members who are still there will resist that. My friend Donley Watt, who’s also a writer, grew up in East Texas. Once, we were comparing stories about our hometowns, and I said, “Okay, Don, be honest, how would you describe Temple?” And he said, “Temple is a place that wishes it could be Waco.” [Laughs.] Well, okay, it’s a small town.
But it was a wonderful place to grow up. I grew up in a world where story was everywhere. Everyone knew how to do it. When the family got together, that’s what we did. Everybody has family myths, but these were rich.
There was a period of time where much of Texas writing was about the Alamo, or the Texas Rangers. Much of it glorified. McMurtry called it sentimental and thin. And there were a lot of men present.
MHS: Well, I think some of that has changed, or is starting to change. I mean, you know, you go to Barton Springs and you see the philosopher’s rock where there are those statues of J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb. And, you know, I have been there with other Texas-born writers who don’t know who those people are.
And I always have known, in part because my parents are librarians and we’re very connected to Texas history and literature. When I got the Paisano fellowship my grandfather was dead but my mother gave me his copy of Dobie’s The Longhorns, which Dobie had signed with his brand. So I come from a family that does know about that, but I think a lot of people don’t know those writers, and in a sense, they have faded away, whereas people like Katherine Anne Porter and people who were coming from a different perspective are the ones that people are still reading even though at the time Porter may have been dismissed as neurotic. Also I feel like a lot of the hostility against her was based on the fact that they felt like she thought she was better than them, and maybe she did—and maybe she was.
NC: All of that is so true about her. She was hopeful that her collection, The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter, which eventually won the Pulitzer, would be a Texas Institute of Letters selection. Instead, J. Frank Dobie’s book won.
MHS: Again! So it’s no wonder that she didn’t really spend a lot of time in Texas after she was an adult. And I think that that’s maybe another reason I feel connected to her sometimes, like you were saying, I don’t really go into my work with a goal or with a message or with, you know, themes that I’m trying to explore. I follow characters. But certainly I can look after the fact and see that in almost all of my work, what underpins the main characters’ decisions or their challenges is a search for home. That sense of, can you find a home in a person? Or in work? Or can you escape where you come from? Do you want to escape where you come from? And I feel like Porter was also struggling with that.
NC: Some of my family members, who live in Temple, when they were reading my novel, they assumed a lot of it actually happened. All of it was made up. But the reason they’re confused is because the places are real. So they assume that what I’m describing happened.
MHS: I had a friend read an early draft of my novel, and she felt I had gone over the top with the Austin setting. Austin is easy to do that with because it has its own kind of myth happening right now—you know, the mustachioed hipster, and the food trucks, and the live music. And it’s easy—even though I live here—to stereotype, to create a caricature. And I had to start thinking about the other layers, the darker histories of geographic segregation that are part of Austin’s past. And the newer challenges of gentrification. Austin is one of the only major cities in America that’s hemorrhaging African Americans. Two of the characters in my novel are from Abilene, where I’m from, but those are really some of the only scenes that I’ve ever written that are set in Abilene that have gotten published. I’ve actually had a really hard time. I’ve written about lots of other parts of Texas, but Abilene’s really been a struggle for me.
And I think part of it is, is the kind of whole “fish in water” situation—can the fish see the water? Does it even know it’s in water? Even though I lived outside of Texas for a long time, and think I can look at my hometown with outsider eyes, I’ve really struggled to articulate it. And I’m continuing to struggle with how to use Abilene, not creating a caricature, not creating a stereotype of this conservative, small West Texas town.
NC: That’s what keeps us working, right? Those new challenges that constantly pop up. I understand what you’re saying. The reverse is true for me. In my novel, the town is not called Temple. It’s called Nugent. And that’s the name of the street I grew up on.
Jeff Salamon: Both of you teach. I’m curious, are most of your students from Texas?
MHS: I would say that a little over half my students are from Texas.
JS: Are these kids interested in writing about Texas? Do they think of themselves as Texas writers?
MHS: I teach undergraduates, so a lot of them are just kind of coming to this idea of what it is to be a writer, and what their own voice might be. And I often find that they begin with one of two opposite approaches. I have students who come in, and because of what they’ve read, maybe in high school, they think that to be a writer means you have to be writing about, like, New York City, for example. And a lot of them maybe have never been to New York City, and so many of them start writing these stories about places they don’t know anything about, based on their image or their stereotype of what it is to be a writer. And it might have nothing to do with their own experiences and nothing to do with Texas.
And then you have the other side of the coin. People who write so autobiographically they have a really hard time figuring out how to begin opening up their own experiences into the realm of fiction. So whatever end of the spectrum they’re on, I usually try to nudge them a little bit in the other direction. If they’re writing all about Paris, but they’ve never been to Paris, to maybe think about starting with scenes from their childhood. I also have assignments where I ask my students to go, to leave their phone at home and to ride a bus around the city without a friend, and just observe. Because, while they know that writing is about the imagination, they often don’t realize how much of it comes from that kind of reporter’s eye, that sense of taking in what’s around you.
NC: My experience with undergraduates has been very much the same. When they’re just beginning to write, they’re resistant to honoring their own personal experience and to try to mine that, and they’re wanting to impress, even though I tell them that no one will remember what they share in a workshop, that they should be focusing on what they’re learning regarding technique and craft.
Think of this. If you are a brand-new writer and never written anything before and you’re from the West Side of San Antonio, and you think you want to be known as a writer, the temptation is to follow the dictates of what you’ve been told you’re supposed to write about your culture. So your tendency then is to fall prey to those cultural myths and to try to emulate what you’ve been taught you’re supposed to be saying through your stories. So my job is to encourage them to be much more honest and brave about their own particular voices and their own particular experiences.
MHS: Though not everyone is going to get those particular experiences. Even though the publishing industry is shifting, it’s still very New York-centric. A friend of mine recently got her manuscript back from the copy editor at her publishing house in New York, and one passage mentioned breakfast tacos, and the copy editor wrote in the margins, “Tacos are not breakfast food. You need to change this.”
NC: Oh no!
MHS: When so much is filtered through New York or filtered through the Northeast or even the West Coast, I think it’s important for younger writers to realize that it’s okay to push back: “No, no. Actually we do eat breakfast tacos here. And we love them. And you would love them too. You should try one.”
JS: Do either of you have a sense of whether the New York publishing world is more receptive to writing about Texas than it might once have been? Are we no longer considered such a backwater, as we might have been a few decades ago?
MHS: Well, I think that there have been several books that have done really well, like Bret Anthony Johnston’s book about Corpus Christi, and Philipp Meyer’s The Son and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. But I don’t think it was that long ago that Ben Moser wrote an article for maybe the Atlantic or Harper’s with this theme of Texas literature still being pretty thin. So I still think there is this kind of reputation of it not being a very serious literary landscape. Hopefully that is starting to change, although again if you look at the books that get a lot of the really big recognition—I mean, the three I mentioned are all by white men. Not that they’re not wonderful books, but maybe there’s still some work to be done in terms of getting the New York publishing industry to be aware of the richness of Texas literature.
NC: My agent and I have talked about this, that it seems like there are preconceived ideas about what Texas literature is about and how it’s going to be written. It’s assumed that it will be white and male—McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy, a hint of violence and some cattle rustling and—
MHS: Something big, something epic, something dramatic.
NC: Epic. That’s exactly right. McMurtry called Katherine Anne Porter’s work a product of her neuroses and you mentioned the fact that these male writers that we’ve mentioned, much of their work seems epic whereas the female writers have produced work that seems more personal, more introspective, and maybe that’s less valued.
JS: I have a sense that over the past ten years, a lot more significant literature about Texas is coming out. It used to be that lots of Texas writers didn’t write about Texas, but a lot more Texas writers are going, “You know what? I can write about this place.” Is that my imagination? And maybe one thing to talk about—and I don’t want to overload you here—is, if people are growing up unaware of Dobie and Webb and Bedichek, is that a terrible loss? Is it a minor loss?
MHS: I do feel like the scene is changing and is getting more vibrant and bigger. I mentioned before that I’d been living abroad and also in the Northeast for a number of years before I came back to Texas for the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and I didn’t plan to stay after the fellowship finished. And one of the reasons I stayed was because of the writing community here. When I started the fellowship, writers would come up to me and be like “I’ve read your work”—which at that time never happened to me—and invited me to events and introduced me to other writers and helped me get jobs teaching at the community college. And not only was it much more vibrant than I had expected, but it was also warmer in the sense of people helping each other out. I think some of that might come with feeling like we’re outsiders here in Texas compared to the literary scene in New York, or even in Boston, where I had been living. And that’s one of the main reasons I stayed after the Dobie Paisano Fellowship: it didn’t feel like a backwater to me anymore. It does seem to be changing, becoming much more diverse and much more exciting.
NC: Yes. I was going to emphasize the diverse part because I do think it’s becoming much more diverse, and that is being celebrated, which was not true in the past. It is a community, and that has not always been true of writers who step up and want to interact with each other and support each other. That was one reason I founded the literary center in San Antonio, Gemini Ink; I wanted very much to be able to create that kind of a community, and I think it’s working.
MHS: I do want to be clear that not everyone in this community is writing about Texas, but I certainly don’t feel like people are eschewing it, maybe like they used to. Did I pronounce that correctly?
NC: Yes, you did, you did a fine job.
MHS: Being from West Texas, when I ended up in college around people much more worldly, I mispronounced a lot of words that I’d only read for many years and I’d never heard spoken, so I had this kind of complex about being up in front of my class and mispronouncing all of the French words. But as to the incendiary question about whether people are still reading Dobie, Bedichek and Webb, I definitely don’t think that people are as much.
NC: No, they’re not.
MHS: Whether or not that’s a bad thing is a tough question. That’s something I struggle with a lot when I create my syllabi. I think it’s very important for my students to be immersed in what’s happening in terms of contemporary fiction, but at the same time, you don’t really want to forget where that fiction comes from. So I wouldn’t say that those writers are not important and they’re not worth looking at, but I don’t know if I would say it’s an enormous tragedy either.
NC: I do think the preservation of the folk tales is important. There’s a celebration each year called Dobie Dichos, it’s an evening around the campfire where writers come and read something that they’ve selected of Dobie’s. And it’s a lot of fun, it really is, I have to say. I didn’t know what to expect, and when I went I enjoyed myself a lot. But at the same time, I think of Americo Peredes, whose novel took, I don’t know, twenty or thirty years to finally be published, and in that book there is a character who’s modeled after J. Frank Dobie, and he’s considered a racist.
MHS: Of course, I guess that connects to all that’s going on in the news with the Confederate statues at the University of Texas and schools named after Confederate generals and so forth, and that fight between history and the sense of giving these figures a little too much of a hallowed place that maybe they didn’t deserve.
JS: When your students write about Texas, what, if any, clichés do you see coming up that you have to dissuade them from indulging in?
MHS: I don’t really see it. What I do see is that often, when my students are writing things that are about Texas, they don’t think of them that way because their idea of Texas literature is, you know, Lonesome Dove. And so sometimes I have to be like, “Your piece about your neighborhood in East Austin or your story about the suburb in Plano where you grew up is part of this tradition of Texas literature.” In their heads, Texas literature is all cowboys and westerns and wranglers. And I don’t get very many of them wanting to do that kind of Texas writing, so I don’t actually see that on the page.
NC: I guess my experience is with Latino students, and the kind of stories they feel like they’re supposed to be telling; they’re trying to anticipate what the audience wants. If you think about it, tourists come to San Antonio all the time, and they want to experience the Hispanic culture, so what do they get? They get the mariachis, they get flamenco, which is wonderful, I mean it really is, but they don’t see much beyond that. So what I get sometimes from my students is a folksy kind of conversation around the table with the family about expected kinds of topics rather than digging deeper into what’s happening within the family. It’s light, it’s a little of what writers in Texas did for a long time and what McMurtry called sentimental, a romanticizing of what is actually happening. They’re afraid to tell the real story. They’re afraid not only will they be revealing something that’s difficult, that’s harsh, but at the same time it won’t be well received.
Many of my students, a lot of them are the first members of their families to go to school, so they’re very quiet. They are reluctant to even speak in class, and then to share very personal kinds of experiences or their impressions about the world, and to be honest about that and to go to places that are uncomfortable sometimes feels like a betrayal to the culture, and so they have to work on that.
JS: Texas is at this point a largely urban and suburban state, and those landscapes are looking more like cities and suburbs everywhere else in the country. If landscape informs literature so much, is our literature in danger of becoming less distinct?
MHS: I think that’s been going on for decades. Television and movies and this kind of broader American culture have transformed the way people grow up, in a much more kind of American way. They feel less regional, they don’t necessarily think of themselves as Texans the same way that maybe my father’s generation thought of themselves as Texan. And I think that that’s kind of sad, but I don’t know if there’s anything to be done to change that.
NC: Hmm, they don’t think of themselves as Texan. That’s so interesting.
MHS: Or at least as strongly.
NC: Well, I do think the world, is, as they say, getting smaller. I’m trying to think about my students, whether they would identify themselves as Texan. They’re resistant to that history of what it means to be a Texan because they’re working so hard to change that history.
MHS: Well, we live in a time where very few people end up dying in the same place that they were born, and I think that that just changes all literature.
NC: When you look at landscape, we still do have long stretches of open land, and I guess the label for it is hardscrabble. A friend from, say, Vermont would look at it and tell me it was ugly. But to me it’s not ugly at all, it has an astounding beauty to me, I really notice it. And when I’m asked to talk about why I think it’s beautiful, there’s something interesting about being raised in this landscape that sends you messages about being thorny and tough, and at the same time there’s this open sky and optimism and hope. It’s kind of a schmaltzy toughness, you know, it’s the two opposites that are brought together that somehow create the way I at least think about myself and my family and this world and this state.
MHS: I’m going to backtrack a little bit and say that maybe the way to look at this issue of Texans losing their sense of regional identity isn’t to say that we’re just going to become like everywhere else, but that, moving forward, we’re going to be more about that space between myth and expectation and reality. That sense of, even if you grew up in, say, Dallas, you still have this idea of Texas as a place—the hardscrabble landscape of cowboys, the open sky. And even if that’s not your experience, you know in some sense you’re writing your way out of those expectations, you’re writing into that place between the reality that you’ve lived, and the expectations that come with being a Texan, and I think that space is really still pretty interesting and hopefully will be for a while.
JS: Even though both of you live in big cities, you came from smaller towns, so I suspect that you’re a bit closer to these myths than a writer who grew up in Austin or San Antonio or Dallas or Houston?
MHS: Yeah, definitely. My parents were really a part of that. My dad wanted to name me Scooter Bill, which was the nickname of Ernest Tubb’s daughter. My mother put the kibosh on that. So I listened to a lot of old Texas music growing up. My parents were really steeped in that culture, so even though I may have rejected it for a lot of the time I lived there and only kind of later appreciated it, like many people, it was certainly the air I breathed growing up. And that’s not necessarily the case for a lot more urban people of my generation.
NC: I grew up listening to jazz, my parents were into jazz. But when you talk about listening to the radio, well, this is embarrassing to admit, I married my high school sweetheart, and we are still married. And his grandparents emigrated from the Czech Republic, and in Temple, which is a small town, his family lived on the other side of the railroad tracks, and our mothers had met twice—in a small town, they had met each other twice. When I would go to my husband’s—my boyfriend’s, then—home, it was as though I was in a foreign country. The whole culture was vivid there: Czech was the first language, he and his two brothers played multiple musical instruments, they all painted, they listened to opera on the radio, they listened to the Czech Melody Hour, this is what he grew up amid, and I did too. So when you think about what has affected you and made you a Texan, that is a big part of it for me, a big part of it.
MHS: Whereas when my dad tried to put me to bed at night, he couldn’t remember any of the good lullabies, so he would sing “There’s a Tear in My Beer” or “Walking the Floor Over You.”
NC: We used to visit my grandmother and we would sit on a swing outside her house and she would sing every Texas song she could think of: “Texas, Our Texas,” “Deep in the Heart of Texas” [Specht claps the distinctive four-beat rhythm to the latter song]—we went through all of them, absolutely. “This is who you are, Nan,” she was telling me. And that was the message over and over, you bet.
JS: As writers, do you think that small-town Texas and smaller cities like Abilene are still a rich resource that haven’t been fully tapped yet?
MHS: I keep trying to write about Abilene, because I think it’s fascinating, for a couple of different reasons. Though a lot of the smaller towns around it have started to fade, Abilene itself is big enough that it’s not really a dying town. And there was something interesting in going to school with some kids who would come in their boots and jeans, and other kids that were dressed like goth. The fact that all of that is coexisting in an unexpected way, I really haven’t seen a lot of that in literature. So I think that there are those kind of things to mine, the ways those places are changing.
NC: My answer to that is yes. I mean, I tried to do that in my book, which is set in Temple. I don’t know in small towns how much the idea of writing about your personal experience is taught or encouraged. We just need to have more writers who come from that world, from that environment, who are taught that their voices and their perspectives are valued and then expose them to ways to acquire the skills necessary to produce great writing.
MHS: I grew up in a place that everyone used to say had the most churches per capita of any place in the state, although I’m not sure if that actually was ever true. So there was a teacher at my school who had a partner who was going to come with us on a class trip, and everyone would refer to her partner as her husband even though she was obviously a woman. And a lot of that I think is starting to change, even in those small towns, and it’s really interesting to see them grapple with what’s happening socially, politically.
NC: And that has a heritage. I mean, I can think of two writers, William Goyen, whom I’ve mentioned, his book House of Breath is about feeling alienated in a small East Texas town and his sexual orientation, once you think about it, is omnipresent in that story. And John Rechy, who was of Mexican and Scottish descent, grew up in El Paso, and his work is about the disenfranchised, but primarily those who are gay. And these were published decades ago. So we do have a history of that in this state.
JS: Let me ask a 180-degree version of that last question. Are Texas writers today doing justice to the Texas urban experience? Houston is about to become the third-biggest city in the country, but there just aren’t that many worthwhile novels about Houston. There are books about Dallas—I think Dallas has this certain mystique because of the assassination, because of the Cowboys, because of the TV show, people are sort of fascinated by Dallas. And then there’s Austin, which is one of the biggest, fastest-growing cities in the country, but there aren’t that many great books about Austin either. Is an opportunity being missed?
MHS: Antonya Nelson has a few stories set in Houston, but I think you’re right, there’s not really the great, popular Houston novel in that sense, and it’s a fascinating place. It’s funny, because I actually thought about setting Migratory Animals in Houston, and I found it too complicated. It was hard, in part because Houston doesn’t have a really strong literary history in terms of latching on and then expanding on that. And I thought maybe it was just too big, there are so many different things going on there, it’s kind of like five cities in one. I felt like Austin would be basically easier for me to do, and so I moved the university where my characters met to Austin.
Sarah Bird has done a lot of satire in terms of parts of West Lake and those sorts of areas, and Bret Anthony Johnston has written about Corpus Christi, which is not really a huge town, but beyond that I think you’re right. I wonder if it even goes back to that worry that the cities are too much like other cities in other states, and feeling like it can be a little harder to bring to life.
But it’s definitely the part of Texas I feel more drawn to write about, and I’m guessing there will be more people of my generation who feel drawn to write those stories. So maybe that’s the future.
JS: So Nan begins her Dobie Paisano Fellowship in February. Mary, do you have any advice for her?
MHS: My first piece of advice would just be that you should probably invite me out to stay with you. The Dobie is a bittersweet gift, I found. Unlike almost every writing fellowship I’ve ever known, you’re by yourself, so it’s like 250 acres and you, which gives you this false sense of ownership. So then when they ask you to leave, you’re like, “What? This is my ranch!” Since I left, I feel like all the Paisano fellows after me are interlopers. That’s the downside. I was there at the same time you’re gonna be there, in the spring and summer, and so my second piece of advice is, definitely take advantage of the creek in the spring because it dried up a lot in the summer, but it was wonderful in the spring to swim. And watch out for the water moccasins. It was really a magical time for me; I’d just come back from being abroad and had a lot going on in my head that I needed to work through, and getting up really early and taking walks in the hopes of seeing a coyote or deer or wild turkeys was great. And there are all these books in the house that try to teach you how to look at the different scat on the grounds and decipher them. So I would attempt that, like, “Hmmm. I think this is . . .” I’m not sure I ever got really great about it, but scat—we definitely need to get that into a story. It would be titled “Scat.”
The other thing I found really helpful when I was there was I kept a notebook with all the little details of what I saw, and I’m really glad I did because later, when I decided to set parts of my novel there, I could go back through this notebook and I could see okay, it was May and here was the bird, and feeder, and so . . .
NC: So a piece of advice is to keep the notes of what I see. I will do that, I will do that.
MHS: They’ve also made it a little nicer than when I was there. There’s fancier leather couches. It’s funny, when I showed up there, they were like, “We’re so sorry that there’s a scratch here or whatever,” and I’d been living in these tiny apartments in the Northeast and living abroad, and so I was like, “This is the nicest place I’ve ever lived!” There was even a television, though it only had, like, three channels. Apparently a fellow before me buried the television in the yard because it was too distracting. I didn’t find the three channels that distracting because there weren’t a lot of good things on them. And there’s a big table that was built by A. C. Greene, who was one of the Paisano fellows, and he was also from Abilene, so I really loved working at that big table overlooking the porch and feeling like I was connected to my own literary tradition of Abilene.
NC: When I was growing up in Temple, we didn’t, of course, have all of the social media and all of the technology that we have now. We had two small movie theaters, that was it, one library. So there was not a lot of exposure to theater or museums and that kind of thing. And as a result, the children spent a lot of time using their own imagination to come up with things. There are very creative people who have come out of Temple, musicians and artists and writers. And I think that maybe one reason is because using your imagination was encouraged. Telling stories was encouraged. We were taught that it was a necessary part of living your life.