Saturday, November 30, 2013

Visiting with a Living Legend

At the Ambassador Hotel in Amarillo, I signed up for a pre-conference workshop for beginning writers.  I checked into my room and barely made it down in time for the first session. The instructors treated us not like beginning writers, but like small children. I was discouraged a little as I heard college professors rattle off rules I had already broken. My left brain that likes to abide by rules battled with my right brain that likes to break them. 

The CEO of Hastings bookstores talked at a banquet that night. I learned a few things.  

On Saturday, my first sessions were almost as bad as the pre-conference, but I did get to spend an hour and a half in an informal conversation with Elmer Kelton and three other writers. Kelton was probably the best living author of westerns at the time, a consummate gentleman who imparted more information in that time than I had received in all my previous sessions combined.

He told us how he corrected and edited each page before going to the next one. It was not a method I adopted, but he was clear that it was not a rule, just a preference for him.  My favorite story was of his by-pass surgery.  As he came back from anesthesia, he hallucinated and imagined himself to be Huey Callaway, one of the characters in The Good Old Boys and The Smiling Country who was hurt while riding a bronc.  He said he was pretty sure the pain he was experiencing was from a bronc, not surgery.

Elmer  Kelton and I crossed paths a few more times before he passed away. One of the nicest people I have ever met. Years later, Sam Brown told me that Kelton agreed to read his first book and advised him on getting published.  I know he did the same for many authors.

Naturally, I was flattered, when seven years later, this review by Dr. Stephen Turner appeared. ''Jim Ainsworth is a master story teller. He is cut from the 'old rock,' the stone of Kelton and Dobie. He is able to weave a story that can transport the reader to a different time and place. Home Light Burning is a well written page-turner with crisp prose and dialogue that flows like a spring from a limestone bluff.'' --Plainview Daily Herald, December 24, 2009.

Then later, George Aubrey penned this review on Amazon for Go Down Looking. "This is one of the best pieces of fiction since Elmer Kelton died.

Okay, I don’t claim to be in the same class as Kelton, but the comparisons are nice.

Even if the first day had been a disaster, I knew I would always cherish that short time with Kelton, even if I never wrote another word. But I still was disappointed that I was not taking something more concrete away from the conference. I found it in the last two sessions.

Jane Kirkpatrick , author of several books, was down to earth, humorous and an all-around excellent speaker. My ears perked up when she said she had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and now lived in a remote part of Oregon called Starvation Point. What was she doing in Amarillo?  

In the final session, I met Jan Epton-Seale from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Like Kirkpatrick, she had traveled far to speak in Amarillo. She spoke about writing memoirs and creative writing. She had also written several volumes of poetry, and also published both fiction and non-fiction. She was later named Texas Poet Laureate in 2012.  But she made a big mistake when she hinted that she also did professional editing.

I approached her at the end of the seminar and asked if she would read my manuscript. She asked how long it was and I said about 425 pages. She frowned at the length but still quoted a price. I went to my car to retrieve the nice manuscript box I had put the draft of Rivers Flow in. When she opened the box, she frowned again. “This is single spaced.”

“I double spaced it when I wrote it, but changed it to single so it would fit in the box.” She smiled and said the price would be a little higher. To her credit, she did not double the fee.

I left the seminar feeling pretty good and had a relaxing trip home. Something had been accomplished, maybe something substantial. I had an experience working roundup and branding on a huge Texas ranch, reconnected to a friend from long ago, visited my old home place and had hired an accomplished, unbiased author to read and critique my first novel.

I mentally charged my batteries all the way home, giving myself pep talks. When I arrived home by one in the morning, I was charged. Jan and I talked till three.

I didn’t hear from Jan Epton-Seale for several weeks. She called the house on a Sunday afternoon and my Jan answered. I was team-roping that day, so I will probably never know exactly what Jan said to Jan. I am sure it was more critical than my wife said. However, when I received her written critique and marked-up manuscript the next week, the first sentence began   . . . First, you can write. Excellent criticism and suggestions followed, but that first sentence was what I needed. Jan Epton-Seale, South Texas editor for Texas Books in Review, knew that. Someday, I’ll write about a surprise meeting with her eleven years later in a Highland Park mansion.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Old Tascosa, The Mother Road, and The Bent Door

I left the Quien Sabe about mid-afternoon and headed south toward my high school stomping grounds, but could not pass Boys Ranch and old Tascosa without stopping. I toured the Tascosa courthouse donated by Julian Bivins.  Tascosa is an aberration of Otascoso (means boggy–for a nearby creek). Western legends abound here and the town has been featured in many books and movies.

Bivins also donated land to form Boys Ranch. Cal Farley and his wife then established a home for wayward boys and orphans. They ran the place for many years and are buried in front.  Cal was a semi-pro baseball player and a professional wrestler before he came to Amarillo to open a tire shop. Mr. and Mrs. Farley were there when I played high school sports there many years ago.

I left the town and the homes where boys stay with foster parents and drove up to Old Tascosa Boot Hill. It was serene to sit on top of the hill with so much history laid out before me. I always feel a deep connection to the place–as if I have lived there in another life. 

I drove south to Adrian and roamed around the town full of high school memories. Route 66, what Steinbeck called the Mother Road, ran straight through the town when I attended school there as a boy. The Mother Road was lined with service stations and cafes, a grain elevator and one of the best general, hardware, mercantile and clothing stores I have ever seen. It was two-story and had once been the Giles hotel. But traffic has been rerouted to Interstate 40 and it bypasses the tiny town.

Adrian has almost become a ghost town, but my old school was still there. I drove across the cattle guard and onto the Matador Ranch. I drove out to find the old abandoned corral that used to be the southern loading pen when this land was part of the XIT. The ranch is said to have done spring works here, then shipping in the fall. The Matador reached all the way to South Dakota. Not connected, of course.

From Rivers Ebb: Something about the place stirred him. Maybe his great-grandfather or even his grandfather had worked cattle here. Maybe he had been a ranch cowboy in another life.

I drove back to Adrian and rode around reading caution signs that had been painted with all sorts of weird proclamations that I can’t recall. It looked like an artists’ colony of sorts. I stopped in at Mid-Point Café (Adrian is the halfway point between Chicago and Los Angeles (1139 miles).  Inside, I found copies of Sam Brown’s (the high school friend who became a cowboy poet and author) books and I learned that the post office had cancelled a commemorative stamp with Sam’s image a few months earlier.

As I headed out toward our old home place, I saw the Bent Door Café and stopped to look through its abandoned windows. What a waste of a unique old building with bent doors and windows. Looking at the booth where I sat so many times inspired me somehow. I wanted to take a few notes. I had left this country unwillingly, my cowboy dreams abandoned. Now, I had come back with dreams of becoming a writer.  Suddenly tired, I realized I wanted to stay in Adrian a while longer.

The Fabulous Forty motel seemed my only choice. The old woman who had me sign the register was really gruff and unwelcoming. The room was clean enough, but austere. I pulled a metal chair outside, leaned against the building and listened to traffic going by on I-40.  Still inspired, I wrote about my time on the Quien Sabe and the visit with Calvin on a tablet.

I had brought along a copy of Hold Autumn in Your Hand, a book Dr. Fred Tarpley had suggested was similar to my manuscript. I finished it before bedtime.

On Fri. Morning, I put a copy of Biscuits Across the Brazos on the table beside Sam Brown’s books in the Midpoint Cafe and drove out toward our old house and farm. We leased the place back then and cousin Arliss farmed it for another forty years after we left. But Arliss had died the previous Christmas and the place seemed doubly sad. His old farm truck was in the shop garage with a lot more dings and dents.  The shop building seemed in better shape than when we left, but the house we had lived in was falling down.

I shoved open the back door and walked in. The place was hardly recognizable because it had been used as storage for farm castoffs. I could see through the ceiling, the roof and holes in the sides. The place was falling in. I worried a little about rattlers because Arliss said they liked the place.

I spooked a little when a white owl fluttered its feathers and flew out through a hole in the side wall. I have returned to this old place about three times in forty years, and a white owl has flown each time. I wondered if it was a sign I am not perceptive enough to decipher.

I was dressed for conference registration later in the day, so I decided not to climb over the junk blocking the doorways. I stood still for a while, trying to reconnect to the three people who had lived here for only a brief period in our lives. I always felt the presence of my parents here, though we spent most of our lives five hundred miles southeast. Maybe it’s because it was just the three of us then, alone in new country. Looking back, I now realize how frightened my parents must have been in this unfamiliar life. I grew to love it, but they never did.

Next—A Memorable Visit with a Famous Writer