One of my favorite novelists, Richard Price, observed that when you circle around a killing long enough, “you get to know a city.” Another of my favorite writers, Texas Monthly executive editor Skip Hollandsworth, agrees and cites as a prime example the cover story he wrote for this issue. “Tom Brown’s Body” is set in the Panhandle town of Canadian. When a popular high school student disappeared in 2016, many residents joined the search on foot and horseback. But four years on, with the case still unsolved, Skip notes, much of the town has devolved into “finger-pointing and baseless accusations, setting neighbor against neighbor.”
This story is so full of twists that we’re publishing it in installments across three consecutive print issues, in smaller bites on our website, and as a weekly eight-episode podcast available at texasmonthly.com starting on September 29. Skip has been working on the piece for nine months and says he’s had to “develop new muscles” to translate it into a podcast.
Skip, a 31-year veteran of TM, tells stories the way many Texans do when they’re catching up with friends over coffee. His writing is restrained yet vivid. He doesn’t do a lot of explaining. He instead hews closely to the facts turned up by his prodigious reporting. Skip casts a wide net with his interviews and pores over police and court records. He observes body language and the smell of a place. He has empathy for everyone from politicians to murderers. “I’m just curious about why they are the way they are,” he says. “Especially those who seem much like the rest of us but then one day walk up to the line of accepted behavior—and step across it.”
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The son of a Presbyterian minister and a homemaker who said being a minister’s wife was her life’s calling, Skip was born in North Carolina and moved to Wichita Falls when he was eleven. Women in the congregation often sought counsel from his mother, Peggy, and Skip learned to interview from her. He would eavesdrop as Peggy asked visitors direct, concise questions about their lives. Peggy knew the best answers often came after a pause. “She knew,” Skip says, “to just wait and not interrupt.”
After graduating from Texas Christian University, Skip worked as a metro reporter, as a sportswriter, and, briefly, as a TV producer. “That taught me that the way to keep people interested in a story was to write as visually as possible, through scenes.” Unsurprisingly, four of Skip’s TM stories have been made into movies—including 2011’s Bernie, directed by Texan Richard Linklater.
Whenever you’re in the mood for a great read, do yourself a favor and go to this page on our website where we’ve archived most of Skip’s work. Just pick a story at random. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy “Tom Brown’s Body.” Please let me know what you think of it and the rest of this issue.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Learning to Listen.” Subscribe today.