Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Goodbye Dreams, Hello Regrets

In A River of Stories, I wrote about my admiration for songwriters. I guess it has always been there, but writing novels has made me appreciate their talent more. They can paint a word picture and tell a story in one page that may take a novelist a book to tell.  Consider George Jones mournful rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. He tells a man’s life story in a few lines.

Of course, songwriters and singers do have the advantage of voices and instruments, while authors must make their words sing on the printed page. 

In Go Down Looking, I wrote a song for a character to sing. Sure that I knew nothing about the technicalities of songwriting, I sent it to a few friends who did know. One was kind enough to send a couple of suggestions, but I didn’t hear from the others. I assumed they didn’t want to hurt my feelings or that the song required so much work they didn’t know where to start. 

So I published the song on the pages of the book anyway. My justification was that Gray Boy Rivers, the character who wrote the song, was a rank amateur. He had a beautiful voice and could play the guitar a little, but was far from a pro. 

And the song was meant to be his final lament—not a pitiful wail, but a look back at his life and the mistakes he made. He sang it first for a brother he had hurt, and intended to sing it to all the people he loved as an apology for hurting them. 

I knew the song was a little long, but it was the story of his life, after all. He was only thirty-four, but he mistakenly assumed his life was ruined—over. 

When Gray Boy looked in the mirror and saw a man he had never wanted to be, he began to examine where he had gone wrong. Charismatic and handsome, he had the world by the tail for most of his life.  Things came so easily for him that he saw no reason to slow down, to think less of his own needs and more about the people who loved him, to do something meaningful with his many talents. 

He had discovered that momentary pleasures fade fast and sometimes create an urgent need to replace them with more pleasures. He felt it was too late to discover what life is really all about. His dreams had turned to regrets.

I wrote the song almost three years ago. When Brad Davis received his invitation to my book launch party, he asked if I could send him the song again. He made no promises, but he said he saw potential in the lyrics. Brad is up for his second Grammy for his album, A Bluegrass Tribute to George Jones.  

He showed up at the book signing with guitar in hand and went immediately to a back room. Brad is a master guitarist, a songwriter, producer and performer, a husband and dad. He has his own recording studio. He is a busy guy who spends a great deal of time on the road. But he took the time to put the song to music on the fly, came out of that room, and sang it for the first time.

Brad is a perfectionist when it comes to music, so we met a few days later to discuss more needed changes. I appreciate that. But I will never forget that first rendition. I know the story, the real people behind the song, and it brought tears to my eyes.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

A Tale of Three Books

You are invited to a book launch party for three new books on Tuesday, December 9 at the Texas A&M-Commerce Alumni Center from five p. m. to whenever. Hope you can come. Details can be found here.
Books will be discounted for the event and there will be refreshments, prizes, good conversation, maybe a song or two (Brad Davis, Grammy-winner and current finalist for Best Bluegrass Album for his A Bluegrass Tribute to George Jones has said he will make every effort to make the event and maybe sing a song or two). 

Q: Why three books?
A: It just happened that way. Not planned.
Rails to a River is my sixth novel. It was finished more than two years ago at the time of the signing for Go Down Looking.  I remember feeling pretty smug about that. I shouldn’t have. It took two additional years of revision and editing. It has had at least six titles, two different beginnings and three different endings.  
This book introduces Tee Jessup. As is my custom (because I can’t seem to do otherwise), I wrote about things I know—but I am not Tee Jessup. It’s not that I’m afraid of research; it’s just that I like to know a lot about what I’m researching. Little nuances can best be described if I have experienced similar occurrences, been to the places; or known people similar to the characters I write about.
There are some disturbing scenes in the first half of this book and in the climax—scenes that I did not experience, but have read about. There is more fiction here than in any or my prior novels.
Firstborn Son is my seventh novel. It was written online as a serial book—a chapter a week for the better part of a year—and was called Borrowed to the Bone. Many readers expressed frustration with reading a chapter a week and wanted the book in print. So here it is.
I had never written a serial novel before and had to title it before I started writing it. Although I like the original title, it no longer fits the completed novel. This book is different than any previous ones with different characters and a completely new family. Many of you will be curious about the characters. Ask me after you have read it.  

A River of Stories . . . it’s been quite a ride is my first story collection. I guess a more apt description would be stories, thoughts, presentations, eulogies, and more, but that would be too long. I wrote a little about the sea changes of life—what thoughts and feelings come to us as we hit certain age milestones and the changes that happen to us when we lose a close friend or relative.
During one of these sea changes, I wondered aloud, “If I were to write my final book, what would it be?” This is it. (I hope it’s not my final book, but it’s something I am proud to leave behind.
Some of the stories have been published in various mediums before, but this is the first time in print for most and the first time to be seen by readers, even family.

I kept it a secret because I was filled with doubt about whether I should be so revealing. I reached down deep to write about things I feel deeply about, memories I cherish—personal relationships, family, friends, animal companions.
I began this book with a story I wanted to write for years without realizing it. It has never been published anywhere. When I pulled together all the writings that meant the most to me, they inspired me to tell the new stories.  When I put it all together, the book was over six hundred pages. Paring it down sort of hurt, but it had to be done.
This book is written not only for family, but for those readers who have stuck with me from the beginning or came along late and read most of my stuff. I poured it out on the page—even venturing into my personal journey of faith, something I would never have dared to write about when I was younger.
There are also a few stories of cowboys, ranches and horses, checking off the bucket list, even some poetry.

Even though it is very personal, I hope you will enjoy it and be inspired by it. There is an index, a table of contents, (even a few pictures) so you can choose which stories appeal to you most. But I hope you will read them all.

When I saw that the index was thirteen pages long, I knew I had covered a lot of territory, a lot of people. Many of you may find yourselves in that index.
Join us on Tuesday, the 9th  . If you can’t make it, you can order signed copies from me on my website, from Amazon, by e-mail or phone. Thanks.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Knife and a Barn

As I followed the brother-in-law to Rocky’s house, I tried to recall the number of times I had seen Rocky and could only remember once, maybe twice, and he had been a small boy. But he, like his father, was famous in our family because of his cowboy prowess. Rocky had been a rodeo bronc rider and world champion steer roper and his grandmother (my aunt) told stories about his victories on the rodeo circuit often. He had followed a path I dreamed of as a boy.

I didn’t see how I could have passed by Rocky’s place without seeing it, but I had. It could not be seen from the farm road. The only evidence was a gate that looked like it led to a pasture, not a residence. When we entered the gate opening, the road sloped sharply down into a valley or meadow. I saw a barn with a carport on the front sitting on the incline. 

A small pickup and a dualie, both well-used, and a pickup hitched to a horse trailer sat out front. The horse inside the trailer nickered when I walked by. Two young boys about ten or twelve were roping a practice dummy in the yard. After all that glory, all that success, was this where the former world champion lived—in a barn? 

As the brother-in-law opened the front door without knocking, I hesitated. It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was a long-lost relative barging in, uninvited and unannounced. But I did have something to talk about. Henry Bascom Alexander, my great-grandfather, was Rocky’s great-great grandfather. I would begin with the story of finding his tombstone in nearby Antlers. It was a flimsy excuse, but I used it. The inside of the barn was not what I expected.

Rocky sat in an easy chair with his hat in his hand, son Cody sat at a kitchen bar. I was drawn to a beautiful stairway complemented and supported by a huge, finished tree trunk. A pair of Peet’s boots and his hat sat on top of the trunk.

The place was so cowboy I could smell saddle leather and horse sweat—right down to the bathroom mirrors and bunkhouse doors, interrupted only by an incongruent flat screen television that hung on the rock wall by the fireplace. 

The kitchen cabinets were also made of wood that matched the stairway and tall tree trunk. Late in life, Rocky discovered a talent for carpentry and finish work and had done all the work himself.

Upstairs and downstairs made about 4000 square feet of a beautiful, warm and rustic home.

Rocky showed me his trophy saddle and award for the national championship.  

Using photographs from actual competitions, renowned artist Jana Sol had painted images of Rocky riding a bronc and roping a steer on the head and foot boards of the master bedroom bed. 

Rocky’s wife Sharla arrived just as we came back down the stairs. 

We exchanged stories about Peet and Peet’s dad I had not heard before and I told a few of my own family stories. Sharla shared stories of her family. It had been her brother who guided me to their place. Both of her brothers had been rodeo cowboys, too. 

I learned Rocky and Sharla are raising two grandsons. When the boys came inside from roping practice, I noticed one was limping. Seems a horse had fallen on him that morning. His knee was swollen, but he tried to hide the pain because he did not want to miss a trip to Hugo where Cody was entered in a steer roping. His name was Pecos and his brother’s name was Colton. 

When I shook Pecos’s hand, he asked if I liked knives. I said, “Sure. Why?”

“You want one?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I nodded. A few minutes later, he placed two knives in my hand. “Which one you like best?”

I figured it was some sort of prank, but I pointed at the one with images of ducks on the handle. He placed it in my hand.I was not sure how to react. “Are you selling these knives?”

“You said you wanted one. I’m giving you that one.”

I looked to Rocky and Sharla. They signaled for me to accept the knife saying, “He’s a good boy."

The men and boys left a few minutes later for the Hugo roping. I visited with Sharla about Mary Evelyn and Peet, her parents, and hers and Rocky’s history as childhood sweethearts. 

I left for Ada to find another ancestor’s grave and ran into another blind alley. Decided to head home and stop in Hugo to see if I could catch Cody roping. I arrived just as they called his name.

A few weeks later, my grandson Gray Boy was scheduled to have serious surgery on both legs. I took my pictures of Rocky and his family and their home and told the story to him just before the surgery. I told him about his distant cousin Pecos, showed him a family tree so he could connect the dots, and gave him the knife Pecos gave to me. 

So Pecos’s kind and generous gesture, his story, and his knife have traveled to Texas and are in the hands and mind of a boy about his age. Thanks, Pecos. A few weeks later, I sent both boys hoof picks with bone handles.