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