Interview With The Author: Reavis Wortham
John Dwaine McKenna
With the help of his nice publicist, Mandy Chahal, we were fortunate to have the following Q & A with Mr. Wortham. What follows is one of the most interesting, comprehensive and down-to-earth interviews we’ve ever done. Pay attention . . . this is a master wordsmith sharing his knowledge and techniques with all of us. It’s better than a whole year’s worth of over-priced MFA classes! Here’s Reavis:
Where do you write?
Anywhere I can get still, and I do that whenever I can find five minutes, or several hours. I’ve written in all rooms of my house, in hotel rooms, in deer blinds while hunting, in the truck at stop lights, or waiting for my Bride who has to “run into the store for a couple of things,” and once in the back of an SUV on my way to participate in a SWAT arrest.
Back when I had a full-time job and was working on my first novel, The Rock Hole, I wrote in meetings when I should have been listening, in my office early in the mornings before the work day began, or on my lunch hour. I can write anywhere I can light.
Do you prefer stand-alone novels or series characters when writing?
That’s a hard question. The first books in a series is difficult, because it’s world-building with characters I don’t know. It takes a while to find out who they are, and what they’re capable of, but after a while, the characters come alive in my mind and after that, I simply follow them through the novel. From there, successive books seem to write themselves after I put the ensemble cast into motion and mentally ask, “what if?”
The Texas Job is technically a prequel, but at the same time it’s a standalone. It’s an examination of young Tom Bell, who appeared in the Red River novel, Vengeance is Mine as a retired Texas Ranger. Because I knew Tom as an elderly man, there wasn’t as much world building, only research into the oilfields of East Texas in 1931.
Why do you write?
Because I have to. My first newspaper column was published in 1988, and to date, there are approximately 2,000 columns and magazine articles under my belt. I think I would have written them even if The Paris News hadn’t picked up that first outdoor humor column back then, because I enjoy the process of watching a story unfold.
Now there are so many ideas floating around in my head I don’t have time to get them all down. I’m afraid it’s become an addiction I’m not willing to kick.
Who inspired you to write?
The answer to that question began when I was in the first grade. Miss Rosalie Russell was the librarian at our school and sparked my interest in reading and turned me on to books. It was my high school English teacher, Miss Linda Adams who took that spark and turned it into the need to write.
But it took several authors to give me that final push to become published. One was Fred Gipson, the Texas author who is best known for writing Old Yeller. He teamed up in my head with Patrick McManus (the funniest writer I ever read), Donald E. Westlake, comedy writer Jack Douglas (who wrote for the ”Laugh-In” hosts, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, as well as for Bob Hope, Woody Allen, Red Skelton, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and Bing Crosby, only to name a few), and finally, my favorite author of all time Robert C. Ruark. With all those talking to me one day during a particularly boring meeting, I was inspired to write my first newspaper column.
How many books do you read in an average year?
At least 52, and one a week seems to be a little shy of how many I think I read.
What makes a character endearing?
You’ll have to ask your readers that question, because I come up with interesting people and describe them as they appear in my imagination. I give them quirks, characteristics, backstories, habits, and personalities, the Readers then decide what’s endearing to them.
Do you plot-outline or wing it?
Thank you for not using the term “pantser,” which I despise. I’ve given many author friends a rigor when they find out that I don’t have an idea in my head when I first put my fingers on the keyboard and face that blank screen. While some author’s outlines are a couple of pages long, to one well known friend whose outlines average 125 typewritten pages, I simply type a couple of words, which in turn leads to whole sentences, which eventually winds up becoming a 95,000 word manuscript.
It’s my subconscious that does all the heavy lifting to the extent that I can write a standalone chapter which doesn’t relate at all to the work in progress, and a week or month later can plug it in just like a jigsaw puzzle piece when I realize that’s where it goes. It’s as if someone else is typing the manuscript, and I watch it come up on the screen. My apologies to those authors whose heads just exploded.
How did your first book get published?
I sold The Rock Hole only months after I finished it, but that leads to the next question…
How long did it take?
I started that manuscript somewhere around 1999 or 2000, and finished it after fits and starts in either 2005-06. But I wrote it on a 5 ¼ floppy disk and no one told me it, and the ancient word program I was using, wouldn’t hold a 140,000-word manuscript (yeah, it was too long), so when I finished the manuscript and his “save,” the screen went blue and the words “File Corrupted” appeared. I lost all my work. In response, I shot a hole in my old 286 computer, bought a new machine and a Zip drive, and re-wrote The Rock Hole from memory, finishing it in 2010. It was published in 2011.
Do you use long, detailed and in-depth descriptions of your characters and their environs?
Lord, no. One of the worst things an author can do is commit the sin of an info dump. I often start new chapters with a one paragraph of the character’s location, but after that, a sentence two scattered here and there give the reader a sense of setting. I never, never, never spend a lot of time describing a character’s personality or clothes. I reveal a little bit here and there to establish a character’s habits, and a mention of what they’re wearing is all I’ll offer. Everything else is scattered throughout the manuscript, like seasoning a rich thick stew that’s already tasty.
Do you use humor in your work?
I’ve been on the masthead of Texas Fish and Game Magazine as their Humor Editor, so I do in both newspaper columns, magazine articles and my novels. Telling someone you are a humor writer almost always results in a request to be funny, or to tell a joke. I don’t tell jokes, and trying to raise a smile is precarious at best. I simply find situations that are easy to exploit, or find just the right term that may make a reader grin. With all that said, the truth is if I can make myself smile, then it might be funny and I hope readers will see it the same way.
What type of scene is most difficult for you to write?
Scenes aren’t hard for me, it’s writing the second act that flows much slower than the first and third. I start out like gangbusters, hammering away at the keys in delight as the story and characters form from nothing. I laugh like a loon to somewhere around page 30,000 words, and then the process becomes glacial. The story develops as the arc rises and my writing slows, and it sometimes seems that the summit of 60,000 might be out of reach. But when I reach the third act, and drive forward to the end, it’s as if all those dominoes I’ve set up start to fall, and then it’s a rollercoaster ride to the end.
Are you more comfortable writing in the first, or third person POV?
Right after my first novel was published and I was still green as grass in this business, I sat in on a panel at a national conference to hear one of my favorite authors speak. He announced that no decent manuscript can switch from first person to third. The moment he spoke those words, John Gilstrap and Marc Cameron (two outstanding authors I’m lucky to call friends) cut glances at me to see how I would respond, since I switch back and forth from first and third with an ease that surprises many reviewers. I now have 13 books in print, with another due out in 2023, and they all switch viewpoints and each are well reviewed. In this business, nothing is absolute.
What’s your next project?
At this writing, my new Tucker Snow series is scheduled for release of Gravel (the working title) in 2023 and 2024. It features a Texas livestock agent who has jurisdiction in both the Lone Star State and Oklahoma. I also broke tradition during the lockdown with an oddball humorous western horror novel that we’re shopping right now. I sincerely hope some publisher would like to walk on the edge with me on this one.
Where could you be reached on the World Wide Web?
Find me at www.reaviszwortham.com. I also have a substantial presence on Facebook at Reavis Wortham, and Reavis Z. Wortham.
Thx again for your insights and expertise, and for taking time to speak with our audience today. Please keep us in your contacts list and let the MBR know about your next literary project. And if you have any suggestions for improvements or other questions we might ask—put them here. God knows, we can always use all the help we can get!
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