BOOK FESTIVAL: Soft-Spoken Tough Guys

The Observer at the Texas Book Festival


Soft-Spoken Tough Guys

By David Duhr

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but those who wield it are often soft-spoken. Still, I didn’t expect the quietest panel at the Texas Book Festival to be titled “Tough Guys: new fiction about violence and men.” From my front-row seat, I struggled at times to hear some of the panelists, even though they were speaking into microphones. 

That doesn’t mean their words didn’t carry weight. Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill and the Texas-raised Bruce Machart are all writing powerful—and very loud—books. 

Pollock’s two offerings, the story collection Knockemstiff and his new novel The Devil All the Time, are among the more unsettling and entertaining books I’ve read in recent years. Set in southern Ohio, Pollock’s work is filled with brawlers and drinkers, the vast majority of them down-and-out and unable to escape their go-nowhere lives. Based on his characters, I expected Pollock to be boisterous and energetic. The opposite is true—he sat in his chair, rarely showing expression. When he spoke it was clear that he just wanted the attention to shift elsewhere.

I’m not familiar with Frank Bill or his story collection Crimes in Southern Indiana, but I’m told it’s similar to Pollock’s work—full of depraved, desperate people caught up in lives of drugs and drink, always on the lookout for the next fistfight. Bill said he writes about people caught up in “sufferin’ and survivin’” along the Indiana/Kentucky border because that’s what the real populace is doing.

The writer himself is all “Aww shucks,” his eyes down when he speaks. 

Woodrell and Machart were a little more animated. Woodrell has authored eight novels, and coined the phrase “country noir” in reference to his own work. Outside of the literati, he is best known for Winter’s Bone, which was adapted for the screen in 2010 to critical acclaim. 

Machart, born and raised in Houston, released his debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness late last year, and has a story collection coming out in a matter of days titled Men in the Making. I haven’t read the collection yet, but the novel is full of blood and guts and severed horse testicles. When the subject of being a “tough guy” was raised, Machart quoted his mother, who told him recently “You wouldn’t even stand in the Snow Cone line by yourself.”

But make no mistake, all four of these men are writing tough, gritty fiction that appears to be geared toward male readers. When asked if they write specifically for men, only Bill answered in the affirmative, but all four related feeling somewhat surprised—perhaps even disappointed—when they initially discovered that more women were attending their readings than men. (The crowd at the panel showed supporting evidence of this.)

Machart closed the topic by citing Cormac McCarthy’s reason for not writing many well-rounded female characters. “I don’t understand women,” McCarthy once told Oprah.

“I hope that men and women will both read all kinds of fiction because I think we all have something to gain from it,” Machart said.


The Sisterhood of Letters

By David Duhr 

“Take Two: Women on a New Path” featured four writers so beloved by their fans that I saw—no kidding—three arguments over House Chamber seating before the panel even began. (Though they were certainly tamer than the average argument over seating in that room.) 

The writers were Ruth Pennebaker (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough), Nina Godiwalla (Suits: A Woman on Wall Street), Jacquelyn Mitchard (her new novel is Second Nature: A Love Story) and Ellen Hopkins, who called “The bestselling living poet in the country.” Together these women shared the geneses of their new works, discussed mother/daughter relationships and wondered why female characters are held to a higher standard of “likeability” than males.

Mitchard’s new novel concerns an eighth-grader, Sicily, whose face is severely burned in a church fire. Sicily must wear a prosthetic nose until she undergoes an experimental face transplant years later. “Some people who read the book said ‘I think it’s disturbing that Sicily at times was not very likeable,” Mitchard said. “Well, when you have your face burned off and go through 30 surgeries, you’re not going to be peppy and happy at all times.” 

At which point, Pennebaker, not uncharacteristically, broke in to raise an interesting question: “Would we all say that the bar is higher for female characters to be likeable than for male characters?” I perked up, anticipating a vibrant discussion on this relevant topic—for me, one of the more interesting issues during the panel. Instead, the question was put to a lifeless audience vote, and the session moved on. 

Missed opportunity aside, few panels during this weekend’s book festival pulled together a stronger group of writers.


Power and Politics in 20th Century Texas

By Hannah Carney

They don’t make Texas leaders like they used to—and if they did, those leaders wouldn’t survive today. That was one of the takeaways from an engaging panel called “Big Tex: Outsized Lone Star Personalities.” Moderated by Texas Tribune editor Mark Miller, the panel included four authors whose books examine influential Texans.

Steven Fenberg is the author of Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good. Fenberg is community affairs officer at the Houston Endowment, which was founded by Jones. Thomas Hatfield, a former UT dean, wrote Rudder: From Leader to Legend. Kathryn McGarr is the author of The Whole Damn Deal: Robert Strauss and the Art of Politics. McGarr, a journalist, is also Strauss’s great-niece. James Riddlesperger Jr., who teaches political science at Texas Christian University, is co-author of Lone Star Leaders: Power and Personality in the Texas Congressional Delegation.

Each of the four books harkens back to an earlier time when larger-than-life Texas personalities had clout in Washington, as well as in Texas. McGarr’s book explores the political career of Democrat Robert Strauss, whose people skills and ability to cross party lines made him a well-respected political advisor to at least one president, and ambassador to the Soviet Union. Riddlesperger documents the work of almost 30 Texans who represented the state in Congress, with Sam Rayburn, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, as perhaps the most influential.

Hatfield and Fenberg wrote about Texans who, though not politicians, had a profound impact in their communities. James Rudder helped transform Texas A&M University into the research powerhouse that it is today. Jesse Jones was a wealthy Houston entrepreneur who bailed out banks during the Depression, helped create the Houston Ship Channel and brought electricity to rural Texans.

Moderator Miller asked Fenberg if someone like Jesse Jones could exist today and be as influential as he was then. “Unfortunately, I don’t think somebody like Jesse Jones could exist today because of the rampant ideology that seems to infect our political discourse, and also because of the great partisanship that we also have to deal with,” Fenberg replied. McGarr said the same thing about Strauss.

Riddlesperger said he wrote Lone Star Leaders because he wondered, “What happened to Texas?” There are far fewer Texans in power in Washington today. Riddlesperger suspects that’s because there aren’t the same mentor-protégé relationships as before. McGarr, the only woman on the panel, countered that the mentor-protégé relationship is also an Old Boys Club.

At least two panelists argued that faith in government and support of government were key to the success of Texas leaders in the 20th century. Today, they indicated, faith in government is rare.


An Unflinching Look at Warren Jeffs

By Josh Rosenblatt

In his new book Prophet’s Prey, private investigator and one-time bounty hunter Sam Brower recounts the seven years he spent researching the controversial Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and its charismatic leader Warren Jeffs. Brower dragged his audience through the depressing muck and mire of a group that uses pedophilia, terror and religious abuse as tools of control.

Brower’s Q&A session was no dispassionate historian’s retelling. He didn’t withhold his emotions while recounting his experiences with a religious cabal he compares to the Mafia, the Taliban and the Nazis. His descriptions were enough to send several attendees running for the door and the rest of us squirming in our seats. Uncles molesting nephews, parents giving their children to adults to be abused and pre-teen girls being forced to marry far older men, like sex slaves. And this is happening in Utah and Texas, not Afghanistan.

“The Mafia threatens your life,” Brower said. “But Jeffs and the FLDS threaten your eternal salvation and leave you in a place without hope.”

Brower doesn’t spare the U.S. legal system when doling out culpability for the brutality of the FLDS. Even though Jeffs was eventually convicted for sexual assault and aggravated assault of children, and now sits in a Texas prison, Brower says botched police actions and sloppy prosecutorial work conspired to keep Jeffs free and in power for far too long. The author’s anger was palpable when he explained how two federal judges sealed an audiotape of Jeffs and other FLDS leaders gang-raping a 12-year-old girl on the grounds that it was “protected religious material.”

Ultimately Brower’s talk was a fascinating but completely depressing Sunday experience, and not just because these things happened, but because they continue to happen. Even though Jeff may be incarcerated, his power over his community is still secure and his dictates still law.



The Case that Helped Change the Texas Prison System·

By Hannah Carney

Michael Berryhill has written the first book about a remarkable court case that helped transform the Texas prison system and protect the rights of inmates. At a talk moderated by Texas Monthly Senior Editor Nate Blakeslee, Berryhill read from his book, The Trials of Eroy Brown: The Murder Case that Shook the Texas Prison System, which will be excerpted in the November issue of the Observer. Joining Berryhill on the panel were the three attorneys who represented Brown in court and helped bring about both his acquittal and public scrutiny of the state’s prison system.

In 1981, while an inmate at the Ellis Prison near Huntsville, and with just three months left before parole, Brown fatally shot the farm manager, Billy Moore, and drowned the prison warden, Wallace Pack, in a ditch. Most people thought Brown would be executed. As Molly Ivins put it: “If there was ever a dead man walking it was Eroy Brown.”

His fate changed when a couple of lawyers read about the incident and concluded that Brown had acted in self-defense. One of those lawyers was Bill Habern, who ended up organizing the defense.

Habern had worked on the landmark civil rights case, Ruiz v. Estelle, in which federal Judge William Wayne Justice, ruled in favor of Texas inmate David Ruiz and others, ordering major reforms of the Texas Department of Corrections to protect the safety and comfort of inmates. The Brown case confirmed what Judge Justice had determined: Texas corrections officers, at all levels, were guilty of cruel treatment of inmates—from beatings to neglect, racial discrimination to denial of medical treatment.

After reviewing the evidence and Brown’s unwavering testimony, his three defense lawyers argued that he had killed the two men in self-defense, after being threatened at gunpoint and fearing for his life. Brown was acquitted by a jury. Attorney Tim Sloan helped obtain forensic analysis that greatly bolstered the case. And Habern added that “we were able to prove that old Pack [the warden] had been a pretty rugged cowboy” and had a history of mistreating inmates.

Lead attorney Craig Washington told the audience “anybody who’s practiced criminal law for more than a year, unless they’re mighty naive and have their head in the sand” realizes the inhumane treatment of Texas prisoners.·

The sad, unspoken coda of this story is that Eroy Brown is still in prison, though he’s been acquitted of the deaths of the warden and farm manager. He’s serving a 90-year sentence for stealing $12, the crime that landed him in prison in the first place.


Friends Harrigan and Wright Hold Court

By David Duhr

Stephen Harrigan and Lawrence Wright, legendary Texas writers and legendary friends, received the Texas Book Festival’s Texas Writer Award in front of an appreciative audience in the House Chamber at the Capitol. The award is given each year for “outstanding literary achievement,” an umbrella phrase Harrigan and Wright fit under comfortably. Both writers have worked in many genres, producing nonfiction books, novels and screenplays. Harrigan is probably best known for the novel The Gates of the Alamo (2000). His new one is Remember Ben Clayton (which we reviewed in our September issue).

Wright won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker (after turning down a similar job at Rolling Stone shortly after an evening out with an irate Hunter S. Thompson—a story that had the crowd in stitches).

Harrigan and Wright met in 1980 at Texas Monthly—after being born in the same Oklahoma City hospital more than 30 years earlier—and became fast friends. Their easy rapport made for one of the more entertaining writing panels I’ve seen, the back-and-forth so comfortable that moderator Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune had only to sit back and stay out of the way.

Among the more amusing stories was when the authors reflected on the moments they each knew they wanted to become writers. Harrigan’s was in the fifth grade, after writing an assigned poem on Christmas. Listening to his classmates read their work, he discovered that his poem “was the only one that rhymed, the only one that scanned.” Wright’s was in the eighth grade, when he was asked to write a story using three words voted on by the class, one of which was ouch. “I wrote a detective story, a Sam Spade thing,” Wright remembered, “the detective was C.H. Johnson, and at one point his secretary turned to him and said ‘Oh you, C.H.’” (Give it a second look.)

As the anecdotes continued—including Wright’s prediction that the authors’ next books [after their current projects] won’t be printed on paper—it was clear that the gallery didn’t want the panel to end. Perhaps it was the pleasure in watching two old friends talk about life and craft on a day they were being mutually honored in front of their home crowd.


‘The Dean of Moderators’ Discusses Presidential Debates

By Josh Rosenblatt

Jim Lehrer, former anchor of the PBS NewsHour, helped open the Texas Book Festival with a talk on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives.

Lehrer cast out any demons lingering from the 82nd legislative session with tales from his new book, Tension City, a history of televised American presidential debates and a first-hand account of his experiences as a moderator. The book also includes interviews with candidates, presidents and fellow journalists. Despite 50 years as an award-winning journalist and his time on The MacNeil/Lehrer Report, Lehrer is probably most famous for moderating 11 presidential debates over the past 20 years.·

The title of Lehrer’s book (his 23rd, by the way) comes from a quote from former President George H.W. Bush. Lehrer told the capacity crowd that the book was supposed to be called Moderator until an editor at Random House convinced Lehrer that even he wouldn’t buy a book with so bland a title. Instead, Lehrer chose the title from a line by Bush, who was describing how brutal televised debates are. It’s a situation of heightened awareness and consequence, Lehrer said, where one wrong word or one misplayed tactic can cost a candidate the presidency, and change the course of history.

Bush and Lehrer should know. Lehrer was among the journalists who participated in the 1988 presidential debate between Bush and Michael Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts. Dukakis badly miscalculated his tone while answering a question about the death penalty. Lehrer told the crowd he’s usually reluctant to point to a single moment as a deciding factor in a presidential campaign but conceded that Dukakis’ debate misstep may have cost him the White House. And to hear Lehrer tell it, Dukakis’ recollection of the experience is just as fascinating as the moment itself.

Even an old debate moderator like Lehrer realizes that by the time the debates roll around, most voters have long since figured out which candidates share their opinions on the issues. Still, he said, the debates are a time to “take the measure of an individual,” to see his/her temperament under extreme stress and to ask ourselves, “Can I really picture this person behind that desk in the Oval Office?”


Kindness and Commas

By Roberto Ontiveros

In a room in the Capitol that looked like a traffic court, Dagoberto Gilb talked about his 2009 stroke and the profound realization that followed: People are actually kind. This from a man who by his own admission never got help from anyone—even his mother. About 30 or so people gathered to hear Gilb discuss his new collection of stories, Before the End, after the Beginning, which includes a marvelous tale inspired by his stroke, “please, thank you.”

Gilb said he would be staggering down the street as his body got used to moving again, and someone, some stranger would ask him if he needed help. For a strong man who had worked hard for everything in his life, including his art and his education, the recognition of human kindness was as life altering as his stroke.

Speaking with Jake Silverstein of Texas Monthly, Gilb explained how he enjoyed writing in a kind of confused narrative style that imitates life and resembles Taoist philosophy rather than “John Kerry speeches.” When asked by a student what he thought literacy was, Gilb gave a graceful and holistic answer, acknowledging the necessity for a reader to be able to decipher text and divine nuance, before stating that a fundamental knowledge of grammar was a must.  “I don’t care who you are or where you’re from or who you sleep with,” said the former carpenter. “If you don’t know what a comma splice is, then screw you.”


Identity and the Border

by David Duhr

While the (not entirely-) invisible line between El Paso and Juarez divides two nations, nobody familiar with the area believes that it divides two cultures. Sergio Troncoso and Richard Yanez are two writers whose work explores a third culture, one comprised of “Mexicanized Anglos and Americanized Mexicans” living together along a blurry border. In their panel “Stories From El Paso,” they discussed self-identity, leaving home to understand home and how the city of El Paso colors their work and their lives.

Moderator Marcia Hatfield Daudistel welcomed the sparse but lively crowd by saying, “For those of you who are unfamiliar with El Paso, let me assure you that we are in the state of Texas, and we are part of y’all—we’re just in a different time zone.” Much of what the panelists chatted about, though, can apply to all cities and towns along the border.

Speaking about his childhood in El Paso, Troncoso shared a question that thousands of people can relate to: “Did I belong in the U.S., or did I belong in Mexico?”

“I now feel I belong in this in-between culture,” said Troncoso, whose most recent work is From This Wicked Patch of Dust.

“I self-identify as a Chicano,” added Yanez, whose new novel is Cross Over Water, “but I write about characters who are hopelessly stuck in the middle. Some days they wake up feeling very Mexicano, very brown; other days they’re thinking about “The Brady Bunch.””

Yanez said that he was unable to successfully capture El Paso in his writing until he left. For eight years, he bounced around the country from teaching job to teaching job. “I’m the writer I am,” he said, “because I moved away from the place I write about. It’s about loyalty to the memory of a place.”

Yanez has since returned to El Paso, where he grew up (in fact, Yanez and Troncoso attended the same high school, although at different times). Troncoso also moved around quite a bit—Mexico City, Connecticut, Boston—before returning to his hometown. “The family culture is very strong in El Paso,” he said. “That’s why it’s so difficult to leave.”

“But you have to get out of there and at least try it,” said Yanez.

These two writers did, and their work is the better for it.


Politics and Literature

You would have been safe in assuming that of the dozens of panels at this year’s Texas Book Festival among the least politically-charged would be one titled “Wrestling With the Classics.” In the session, three writers discussed how authors such as  Edgar Allen Poe, Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne influenced their current novels.

Moderator Carol Dawson threw that assumption out the window before she even got through her introductions, presenting panelist Hillary Jordan’s novel, When She Woke, as “a view of what this state and country would look like under certain dire influences that are bubbling up through the strata right now and capturing our political attention.”

Jordan’s book is a futuristic dystopian take on The Scarlet Letter. Criminals are no longer incarcerated, instead their skin is “chromed” in accordance with their crime. The book’s protagonist, Hannah Payne (versus Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne) is turned red when she is caught having an abortion in Texas. (The novel begins, “When she woke, she was red.”)

Jordan, who spoke first on the panel, took up where Dawson left off, stating that When She Woke is “set in a futuristic society where, among other terrible things, the country has hewed right.” Hers is a cautionary tale, Jordan told the crowd. About Hester Prynne’s Puritans, Jordan said, “It was a very repressive society, a very judgmental society … and we’re going through a phase like that now.”

Mat Johnson used Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, as the jumping-off point for his own Pym. (Read the Observer’s review of the book.) A devoted fan of Poe, Johnson calls the macabre writer “beautiful and brilliant,” but someone whose racism bubbles up through his work. Poe, the flawed human, Johnson said, “is like the uncle who molested you but then put you through college.”

When asked if he recommends reading Poe’s novel, the biracial Johnson laughed and shook his head no. He said the flaw in Poe’s Narrative is the author’s belief that “racial whiteness equals perfection. And perfection means no conflict, and no conflict equals not a good novel.”

San Antonio writer David Liss, whose The Twelfth Enchantment was released earlier this year, often explores issues of economics in his work. “My books tend to be fairly critical of unregulated capitalism,” Liss said.

With shades of Byron, Blake, and Austen, his new book is set in England during the Industrial Revolution, where, he told the audience, “Modern capitalism and the modern way of life were born.”

In part, he said, his book explores the devastation the Industrial Revolution wreaked on the countryside and on thousands of laborers who worked under “unambiguously awful” conditions, and what that means for us today. “The Industrial Revolution paved the way for how we live today,” Liss said. “Do you want to live in a world in which the Industrial Revolution never happened? Probably not. Could this thing have been mitigated? That’s what my work explores.”

Even more than exploring the influences of earlier works, “Wrestling With the Classics” was about wrestling with socioeconomic issues through contemporary literature. I get the sense that someday, books by Johnson, Jordan and Liss will be the classics with which future writers grapple.

David Duhr