KW– I grew up in a rural farming community, Fentress, Texas, on the San Marcos River, about fifteen miles south of San Marcos. I believe I’m the fifth generation of my father’s family to live in the area. The town was settled just before the turn of the century–that’s the 20th century–around a cotton gin and a Presbyterian church, and soon became a resort town, with a skating rink, an aerodrome theater where silent movies were shown and Chautauquas were held. (Note from VP- Chautauquas were an adult education movement in the U.S. that were popular until the mid-1920s. They brought entertainment and culture with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. More at Wikipedia.) A dam generated power, and there was a natural swimming pool with slide, diving board, and bath houses, and a large campground. There were boarding houses, a bank, a cafe, an ice cream parlor, grocery stories, a filling station, a drug store, a doctor’s office, and in 1929, a population of about 500.
When I was growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s, however, things were different. The gin, the skating rink, the grocery stores, and the doctor were still there, but a slight change in the river’s course had taken the swimming pool and resort, and post-World War II urbanization had reduced the population to about 125. By the time I started school, most of the residents were over the age of forty.
So I grew up surrounded by older people, most of whom I was related to by blood or by marriage. It could have been a boring existence, but parents there could turn children loose without fear of anything worse than skinned knees or wasp stings, so I had a lot of freedom. Except, of course, with all those aunts and uncles and great-aunts and -uncles, I knew I’d never get away with doing anything particularly interesting.
Still, I got to hang around the post office and listen to the old men sitting on benches outside, and help my postmaster-uncle put up mail (my mother was sure a postal inspector would find me doing that and haul my uncle off to jail), tag along with my grandfather and my farmer-uncle wherever they went, sit under a tree on the river reading American Girl magazine to my horse…. That kind of thing. And to sit on front porches watching old ladies play forty-two and listening to them gossip.
I think the reason many people my age love To Kill a Mockingbird is that we see in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama, the little towns we knew when we were kids twenty and thirty years later—slow, hot, dusty summers, old people sitting on front porches, the feeling that the past is still with us.
VPC– It sounds Idyllic. 🙂 You certainly can paint a picture with words. How did growing up there affect your writing?
KW– Eudora Welty said, “Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.” I was a listening child. I think I was sometimes quiet enough people forgot I was around. And it was evident early on that I recognized which parts of conversations should not be repeated elsewhere. But for whatever reason, adults didn’t seem to censor their conversations around me. And I’ve always had a tape recorder in my head. Hearing so much about the past, both from my parents and from my grandfather and his brothers and sisters, I grew up grounded in local history. I’m really more at home in the past than in the present—sometimes I feel as if I’ve never made it past 1965. Although I don’t remember the busy resort town, the stories I heard were so vivid, I feel as if I‘d been there watching Tom Mix at the aerodrome theater on Saturday nights.
As to my settings, there’s nearly always a river, and usually a cow. The less I see of cows in life, the more I have to see them in my fiction.
KW– I first met Karen MacInerney in a writing practice group the late 1990s. She founded AMW. When I moved to Austin in 2003, I visited one meeting, but the timing wasn’t right, so I declined. A few years later, Gale Albright and I met at a Writers’ League of Texas meeting and became critique partners; we called ourselves Just for the Hell of It Writers. That was good, but for the best critiques, more than two pairs of eyes are needed. Then I met Kaye George through the Sisters in Crime Guppies online chapter. She’d taken over Austin Mystery Writers from Karen and invited me to join. This time I jumped at the chance, and then Gale joined as well. That marked the demise of Just for the Hell of It Writers, but joining AMW is the best move I’ve made toward a writing career. Receiving thoughtful critical evaluation of my work is invaluable, and receiving it from writers who are supportive while telling the truth—I couldn’t ask for a better situation.
KW– When I was eight, my grandmother gave me copies of The Secret of the Old Clock and The Clue of the Tapping Heels, so my first favorite was Nancy Drew. From there I jumped to Agatha Christie; I’ve read most of her books two or three times. When I’m sick, I want Campbell’s tomato soup, saltine crackers, and a Christie. Of the contemporaries, P.D. James and Ruth Rendell–I love Rendell’s tight plotting, where even on the last page, one more thread unravels; it feels like one final bolt falling into place. I like Robert Barnard, Ngaio Marsh… My absolute favorite is probably Josephine Tey. Her books are definitely mysteries, but they’re also more than that. I can’t say just why—later editions have a foreword in which Robert Barnard analyzes what makes Tey’s books special. She can write a satisfying murder mystery without a murder, and an even more satisfying mystery without a hint of murder at all. And I can’t leave out Austin’s Mark Pryor, whose Hollow Man is a devastatingly devastating read—think Ruth Rendell; and Texas native Terry Shames’ Samuel Craddock mysteries, where the low-key police chief keeps twenty head of white-faced Herefords in the pasture back of his house, which is about as authentic small-town Texas as you can get.