They Spoke Volumes

We asked writers around the state a series of bookish questions. Here are a few of their answers.

November 2014By Comments

WHAT IS THE ONE BOOK EVERY TEXAN SHOULD READ?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben FountainSarah Bird, author of Above the East China Sea 

The Son, Philipp MeyerDon Graham, editor of Lone Star Literature and J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at UT-Austin 

Gregory Curtis, former editor of Texas Monthly and author of Disarmed

The Gay Place, Billy Lee BrammerClay Smith, editor in chief of Kirkus Media and former literary director of the Texas Book Festival 

La Relación, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de VacaChristine Granados, author of Brides and Sinners in El Chuco

Goodbye to a River, John GravesRolando Hinojosa-Smith, author of the Klail City Death Trip series

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtrySergio Troncoso, author of From This Wicked Patch of Dust

WHICH TEXAS BOOK DESERVES A GREATER AUDIENCE?

Whompyjawed, Mitch Cullin; Brothers and The Pull, Bobby Jack NelsonJames Donovan, author of The Blood of Heroes 

With His Pistol in His Hand, Américo ParedesChristine Granados 

A Texas Jubilee, James Ward LeeJeff Guinn, author of Glorious

Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria AnzaldúaCecilia Ballí, writer-at-large for Texas Monthly

Blood and Money, Thomas ThompsonMimi Swartz, executive editor at Texas Monthly and co-author of Power Failure

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE COWBOY NOVEL?

Michael Ennis, writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and author of The Malice of Fortune, takes stock here.

WHAT’S YOUR LIST? 
(Or, what books have been most influential in your work and understanding of Texas?) 

Steven L. Davis, curator at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, in San Marcos, and co-author of Dallas 1963: In roughly chronological order, according to the era each book is set in:

  • The Old Order, Katherine Anne Porterthe preindustrial “Old South.”
  • Windfall and Other Stories, Winifred Sanford—the immense changes wrought by the oil boom.
  • George Washington Gómez, Américo Paredes—South Texas in the early twentieth century and the ethnic clashes between Anglos and Mexicanos.
  • The Time It Never Rained, Elmer Kelton—No historian will ever describe the Great Drought better than Elmer does in this novel.
  • Goodbye to a River, John Graves—a timeless portrait of rural Texas.
  • A Fine Dark Line, Joe R. Lansdale—a subtle and extremely well-written portrait of complex race relations in small-town East Texas during the fifties.
  • Strange Peaches, Bud Shrake—the hippest writing ever done about Dallas; Shrake was our Vonnegut/Kesey.
  • All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Larry McMurtry—the Beats and emerging counterculture. 
  • The Magic of Blood, Dagoberto Gilb—authentic, hard-earned stories of the Texas working class, many of whom happen to be Mexican American. 
  • Woman Hollering Creek, Sandra Cisneros—Mexican American women finding their voices, and their strength, in modern Texas.

Christine Granados:

  • The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Dagoberto Gilb—the first book I read that had people I might actually know within its pages. The validation I felt immersed in a story set in El Paso, with characters who spoke in the colloquial English of the border, set me on my own path to writing.
  • The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter—I go back to Porter’s stories over and over, because she wrote about working women, and all their trials and tribulations, when no one else was.
  • Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, Estela Portillo Trambley—Like Porter, Trambley was a woman writing about the working class, yet her stories were from the Mexican American perspective. This book was the first collection of short stories published by a Chicana author in the United States.
  • The Boy Kings of Texas, Domingo Martinez—Martinez doesn’t wax nostalgic or sugarcoat poverty on the border, like so many MFA-trained writers do. 
  • Fast Animal and Hurdy-Gurdy, Tim Seibles—The National Book Award finalist and former SMU tight end offers masculine poems in a genre that, let’s face it, is difficult to sell to boys. I’m grateful to Seibles for getting my youngest son interested in poetry in middle school.

James Donovan:

  • The Evolution of a State, Noah Smithwick—a vivid evocation of the early days of the Texas Revolution and republic, by a participant. Highly readable, amazingly detailed, and wryly humorous.
  • The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan—the best fictional treatment of the seminal event in Texas history and a wonderful historical novel. The author’s exhaustive research (and his own eloquence) yielded a richly imagined portrait of revolutionary Texas.
  • With Santa Anna in Texas, José Enrique de la Peña—The author, a Mexican army officer, was passionate in every sense of the word and an observant writer who distinguished himself in the March 6, 1836, assault on the Alamo. Excellent reportage of the Texas revolution.  
  • Goodbye to a River, John Graves—the best book ever written about a Texas river and one of the best about any river. It’s about a canoe trip like Moby Dick is about a whaling voyage.
  • The Path to Power, Robert Caro—not only one of the great American biographies, it’s also a detailed, vividly rendered depiction of early-twentieth-century Texas.

Cecilia Ballí:

  • Borderlands/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa
  • George Washington Gómez and 
  • Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border, Américo Paredes
  • Caballero, Jovita González and Eve Raleigh
  • Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836–1986, David Montejano
  • Tejanos and Texas Under the Mexican Flag, 1821–1836, Andrés Tijerina

Gregory Curtis:

  • In a Narrow Grave, Larry McMurtry
  • The Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb
  • Paul Burka’s political writing in Texas Monthly
  • Lone Star Literature, edited by Don Graham
  • Lone Star, T. R. Fehrenbach
  • A Natural State, Stephen Harrigan
  • Goodbye to a River, John Graves
  • Moving On, Larry McMurtry
  • The Trail Drivers of Texas, edited by J. Marvin Hunter

Jeff Guinn:

  • Goodbye to a River, John Graves 
  • The Time It Never Rained, Elmer Kelton
  • In the New World, Lawrence Wright
  • Various sections of The Path to Power, Robert Caro
  • 13 Days to Glory, Lon Tinkle—loved it as a kid, still enjoy it as an adult.
  • The Texas section of Travels With Charley, John Steinbeck 
  • The Gates of the Alamo, Stephen Harrigan

Don Graham

  • The Son, Philipp Meyer
  • Duane’s Depressed, Larry McMurtry
  • No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy
  • Mariposa’s Song, Peter LaSalle
  • The many works I collected in Lone Star Literature 

Scott Blackwood, author of the forthcoming See How Small:

  • All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy—wrestling with the mythic past. And the language, of course, is otherworldly.
  • Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain—still wrestling with the mythic past and violence and betrayal, but now war has become an epic modern halftime show. Brilliant. 
  • The Old Order, Katherine Anne Porter—best of her work; beautiful line by line and mostly shaped by her experiences around Kyle.  
  • All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Larry McMurtry—the first of a new kind of Texas novel about an urban, educated Texas and youth and the passage of time; Austin and UT are part of its landscape. “Oh, this is how you write strong female characters,” I said when I read it. 
  • The House of Breath, William Goyen—a nearly forgotten book about the surreal East Texas of the Piney Woods and its people, a house as a character. 

WHAT SHOULD TEXAS WRITERS BE WRITING ABOUT RIGHT NOW? 

Sarah Bird: Zadie Smith–style look at life in a globalized Texas, that fracking epic we’ve all been waiting for, and a doomed love story set in the fuel-starved near-future of a Road Warrior–esque Houston exurb.

Christine Granados: Working-class Texans, which is to say, Mexican Americans. Their stories need to be told, and not just the “crossing the border story,” because a majority have never experienced the crossing but have lived in Texas for generations and speak English, even.

Steven L. Davis: The Eagle Ford Shale! Or perhaps the great demographic transformations taking place. Or what it’s like to be a single poor woman in Texas with a conservative state government. Are we really a booming economy or a colonial one?

Chitra Divakaruni, professor of creative writing at the University of Houston and author of Oleander Girl: More multicultural books: books about the Hispanic, Vietnamese, and Indian communities in Texas and how they are transforming the cultural and physical landscape.

Gregory Curtis: Houston.

Sergio Troncoso: How the state’s schoolchildren are now majority Latino and how that is playing out in culture, politics, education. 

ARE THE WORKS OF DOBIE, WEBB, AND BEDICHEK STILL IMPORTANT TO READ?

Christine Granados: This fraternity of writers must be read by anyone who wants to understand the history of Texas and the colonialist attitudes that have been passed down through generations. These men and their works show how racism and altruism can coexist within a person. We must especially appreciate the fact that through their grit and arrogance, these men put Texas on the literary map, when our literary map was being defined by people from the East. For that I am, and will always be, grateful.

Scott Blackwood: Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek were the first to shape the literature, not an easy thing to do in a place that valued experience far above writing about it. They also gave writers who came after them something to push back against, and that’s an important thing.

Cecilia Ballí: Yes, but side-by-side with other perspectives.

Gregory Curtis: Webb, yes. Bedichek, okay, if you like that sort of thing, i.e., nature writing. Dobie, no. As I once wrote in Texas Monthly, he writes bedtime stories for ten-year-olds.

Steven L. Davis: Not for literature but for history. Dobie in particular will always be important to read for the social history contained in his books—stories and attitudes not found elsewhere because they came from the oral tradition. If Dobie hadn’t captured those stories, peoples, and mores from nineteenth-century Texas, they would have been lost forever.

Prudence Mackintosh, writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and author of Just as We Were: Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek have to be read as “homage to the pieties” now. Having grown up in East Texas, I couldn’t appreciate them until I came to Austin as a student. 

Don Graham: Dobie, Webb, and Bedichek, in small portions, are still relevant, but more relevant are the works of Katherine Anne Porter (The Old Order), Gertrude Beasley (My First Thirty Years), and Dorothy Scarborough (The Wind). These are more important for the creation of significant Texas fiction than the nonfiction works of the statue guys.

Rolando Hinojosa-Smith: Bedichek is almost forgotten, and Webb produced at least two major books, though our fellow Texans keep harping on his work on the old, old Texas Rangers. A major work for its time, but that’s about it. Dobie was a scholar and put Texas on the literary map.

Elizabeth Crook, author of Monday, Monday: I’ve read a lot of Dobie for research—The Mustangs was especially helpful to me with my second novel—but I haven’t read a lot of Webb or Bedichek. It might or might not mean something that when I looked up “Dobie” on Amazon, the entire first page of listings was for various package sizes of Scotch-Brite Dobie All-Purpose Cleaning Pads. I presume this is less a commentary on Dobie’s writing than on his status as a legend.

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