On March 4, 2017, the Corpus Christi Literary Reading Series welcomed authors Stephen Harrigan and Bret Anthony Johnston to speak at the Art Museum of South Texas. Don B. Graham, J. Frank Dobie Regents Professor of American and English Literature at The University of Texas at Austin and author and editor of numerous books, served as moderator. Harrigan and Johnston discussed what inspired them to become writers, their creative processes, and how their works relate specifically to Corpus Christi.
Don B. Graham: It is always nice to be in a room full of writers.
First, I would like to thank Jan Williams, Susan Hutchinson, and all the members of the Board of Trustees of the Corpus Chritis Literary Reading Series for putting this program together and inviting us here to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of this organization of book lovers and readers.
Second, I would like personally to dedicate this program to the memory of Alonso Álvarez de Pineda because it was he who, in 1519, performed the creative act of naming Corpus Christi—surely one of the great names in America.
Before turning to Steve [Harrigan] and Bret [Anthony Johnston], I want to say a word or two about other literary moments in Corpus Chriti's history. Most of the early writing was nonfiction, travel narratives and the like, but there is the occasional novel. The Man from Corpus Christi, for example, written by one Arthur Pierce and published in 1894. I have to confess that I haven't read this novel. Closer to our time, Edna Ferber in Giant and Tom Lea in The King Ranch both wrote colorful accounts of the city.
But the greatest early writer with Corpus associations is a bit of a surprise, I'm guessing. That would be Katherine Anne Porter. As a soon-to-be-divorced young wife, Porter lived in Corpus from 1911 to 1914. While here, she frequented the Corpus Christi Book and Stationery Company at 505 Chaparral Street, where, rather astonishingly to me, she bought copies of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons and James Joyce's Dubliners. Who knew that in 1914 in Corpus Christi, Texas, it was possible to walk into a bookstore and buy first editions by two of the great Modernist authors?
Porter's very first appearance in print also occurred in her Corpus Christi years. The January 1912 issue of the Gulf Coast Citrus Fruit Grower and Southern Nurseryman, obviously a trade journal, published a poem by Porter titled "Texas: By the Gulf of Mexico" It made an amateurish appeal to northern businessmen to move to Texas. Two years later, Porter left Corpus and Texas, writing later, "I got out of Texas like a bat out of hell at the earliest possible moment."
Let me end this brief excursion into early Corpus Christi literary history with historian Walter Prescott Webb's observation made in 1957: "We have ignored the Gulf, the Golden Coast, and the strange life of those who live on the edge of the Texas sea. There as yet no literature about it, and scarcely any history."
Tonight we can put aside Webb's assessment. Both Steve Harrigan and Bret Anthony Johnston have together brought Corpus Christi to the forefront in their literary output about the city, the suburbs, and what Webb calls "the Texas sea."
Steve Harrigan was born in Oklahoma but got here as fast as he could. His family moved first to Abilene, then to Corpus Christi, and, in 1980, Steve made his literary debut with his novel Aransas. It is a gritty and quite moving novel, filled with the craziness of the late 1970s and infused with a profound feeling for the complicated interchange between two sets of mammals: human beings and dolphins. Since that first novel, Steve has ranged far and wide in his fiction and nonfiction. He had a national hit with The Gates of the Alamo, and, of late, he has wandered far from Texas in his most recent novel, all the way to Abe Lincoln's Illinois in A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. Over his productive career, he has also pubished frequently in Texas Monthly and produced several valuable collections of essays.
Bret Anthony Johnston's work, thus far, is all Corpus Christi all the time. Bret, as I'm sure many of you know, was born and raised in Corpus, and his first two books bear powerful witness to the city, its sociology, its suburbs, and its people. In both the collection Corpus Christi: Stories and his novel Remember Me Like This, Bret explores the lives of people dealing with all too real issues: families struggling to survive economically and emotionally, teenagers tormented by desires and dreams, husbands and wives trying to hold things together, and all is narrated with a dead-solid command of the topography and atmosphere of the sometimes not-so-Sparkling City by the Sea. Seriously, you could construct a map of Corpus Christi, Portland, and other areas of the city from the details in Bret's two books. Place becomes character in his works. Bret has also written an excellent how-to book on writing fiction called Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, from which any aspiring writer would certainly benefit.
Steve and Bret are each going to give us a brief glimpse of how they write about the city of Corpus Christi. First question: What made you want to become a writer?
Bret Anthony Johnston: This [literary series]. I grew up in a house where my parents were big readers. They were always reading. I knew that you could be a reader, I knew that you could be a teacher, and I knew that I wanted to be those things. I never knew—and this is what always sounds strange—that you could still be a writer. I did not know that that was possible. I didn't understand that books were still being written. Almost everybody that I was reading was dead.
Then I was in a world literature class at Del Mar College. Mike Anzaldua knew that I loved to read and knew that I worked hard on my essays. He came over, and he put a ticket on my desk, and he said, "Go to this." I didn't know what it was, but if Mike Anzaldua had told me to walk into traffic, I would have walked into traffic. So I came [to a reading here]. I walked in that door, and it was a Robert Stone reading. It was the first time that I had ever laid eyes on a living, breathing writer. I came in as someone who loved to read and as somebody who loved to write. An hour later, I left knowing that I wanted to be a writer. It was that transformative. So I went to the Robert Stone reading, and the next reading I went to was Stephen Harrigan's. Thank you.
I guess I always wanted to be a writer because I loved to read. There is the great Henry James quote: "Every writer is a reader moved to emulation." You read something you wanted to emulate. What made me believe that it was possible to be a writer is this room.
Graham: That is going to be hard to top. Steve, how about yourself?
Stephen Harrigan: Like Bret, I didn't know it was possible [to be a writer]. I was the first writer I ever met.
Johnston: You were the second writer I ever met.
Harrigan: I remember in fourth or fifth grade, we were asked to write a Christmas poem. I sat down and wrote one, and then everybody had to go up and read them. I realized that mine was the only one that rhymed. I didn't know the word scan, but mine was the only one that sounded like it was musical in some sense. I knew that I wasn't any good at anything else, and something about that poem stirred some kind of aspiration in me.
[I came from] a Catholic family, and we used to say the family rosary every night. The children would kneel at the foot of the bed, and our parents would lie on the bed, and we'd say the [rosary]. Behind my parents was a bookcase on their bed, filled with Reader's Digest condensed books. It is so boring to kneel there saying the rosary, so I would look at those books and see those titles and wonder what they were and how they got there and who those people were who were writing those books. It got me into this mindset of thinking, "I would like to be in one of those books someday." It was a secret aspiration.
I became an omnivorous reader in high school. We didn't read much in class in terms of novels, which really was what I was interested in. . . . I began to think, not that I could [become a writer], but certainly that I wanted to do it, and I plotted a mental course to somehow try to make my way in that direction.
Graham: Was there any particular book that you read that sort of clenched it? [Any book] that was important to you when you started writing? Did you have any book in your mind?
Johnston: It was pretty much whatever book I'd most recently read. I remember the first contemporary book that really [influenced me], because, again, I was reading mostly people who were dead. . . . I remember reading One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and I was shocked at how good it was, given that it had been written so recently. Then it turns out that Larry McMurtry can write. That was a big shock. He was from Texas, so that was good news.
Harrigan: I think, if I had to choose one book, it would be Oliver Wiswell by Kenneth Roberts, a book that I'm sure nobody here has read. Kenneth Roberts wrote Northwest Passage, and he wrote this series of novels about the American Revolution. There were like seven or eight of them, and I just stumbled upon them somehow in high school. I got a copy of this book, Oliver Wiswell, a big epic story about a Tory in the American Revolution. . . . There was a gap of eight years in the book that took place, and I was so stunned by the idea that a writer could manipulate time like that, could produce the effect of eight years having passed. I was haunted by the possibility that you could manipulate time in a novel. I don't know why, but that book inspired me in that particular way. I wanted to think about writing a book in which time passed somehow and people changed. You began as one person and you started as another kind of person. I don't know the literary merit of Oliver Wiswell, but it had a certain compulsion value for me.
Graham: When you started writing about Corpus Christi, and when you started writing Aransas, were you aware of any literary tradition dealing with Corpus Christi?
Harrigan: No, there wasn't [a literary tradition regarding Corpus Christi]. That was the excitement for me when I was writing Aransas, which is a novel about a dolphin trainer in Port Aransas. When I wrote that book, I thought, "I have this total world all to myself. Nobody has touched it." I mean, that's what I thought until Bret came along. But it was a true sense of excitement to [think] . . . "Oh, I can describe the way things corrode in the salt air. I can describe the smell of the T-Head or the trash on the beach." All this stuff just felt like it was totally mine. I'm sure you felt the same way.
Johnston: Yeah, except for that damn book Aransas. Making my job hard. I agree with Steve and Don, the question is exactly right. There were other Texas writers, but there was no one from this far south. I remember when I was in graduate school I started writing stories set in Corpus Christi, and I would write dialogue where someone would say, "Do what?" Every person in the workshop would cross out do. They'd say, "Just put 'what.'" Everybody thought it was a typo. Then, if I'd say, "I'm fixin' to put up the groceries," they'd say, "Why are you elevating the groceries?" So I understood what kind of vocabulary didn't make it past the Mason-Dixon Line.
Harrigan: I wasn't even sure if I could say "Corpus" instead of Corpus Christi in the book. In the book, it ought to be Corpus Christi, but everybody says Corpus. I didn't know if in this book about a dolphin trainer, I could say porpoise instead of dolphin, because that's the word everybody used here. I had to account for that, too. I didn't give myself enough permission sometimes to use exactly that kind of dialect.
Johnston: I wanted the first book to be called Corpus for exactly that reason. No one from here, anybody who spent time here, no one calls it Corpus Christi, and I wanted to be true to that. The editor at Random House said, "No, you can't call it Corpus. Everybody is going to think it's a mystery novel." I started thinking, "Mystery novels sell so much better than short stories. I think I see a way out."
Graham: Let me ask you this. Did people in New York know where Corpus Christi was?
Harrigan: I can answer that. When my first novel Aransas was published—the publisher sends you a box of your books with the name of the title stamped on it—and the name on the box was Arkansas.
Graham: I have an example. When my book on the King Ranch came out in 2004, [my publisher] asked me, "Where are we going to have the book signing? Austin, Dallas, Houston?" I said in Corpus Christi. They said, "Why Corpus Christi?" I said, "Well, they know where the King Ranch is."
It's interesting to me that, in 2011, Steve wrote a book called Remember Ben Clayton, and, in 2014, Bret wrote a book called Remember Me Like This. So you've got two Remember books.
Harrigan: You stole my title.
Graham: [Johnston's] book is about a boy being captured, and then, in [Harrigan's] book, the old rancher was captured by the Comanches. Both of you are dealing with one of the oldest narratives in American literature: the captivity narrative. You both have two to three pages devoted to Cynthia Ann Parker, the most famous of widows, and then you're also both writing about a male character. So I just wanted [to know], was that all accidental? You weren't emailing each other?
Johnston: Don, it sounds a little bit like you're accusing me of plagiarism. The more I can steal from Stephen Harrigan, the better my life is. In terms of the title of my book, that wasn't the title until two days before it was going to be sent out to reviewers. The book was bought under the title The Unaccompanied, and they had signed off on it all along. Then, two days before it was going to be sent out to reviewers, they said we can't have this title for all these kinds of reasons. So we had to scramble, and we came up with two titles that we would allow, Remember Me Like This, and then another one, and they went with that one.
Graham: Does anybody from the audience have a question?
Audience member: Remember Ben Clayton is one of my all-time favorite books. Unbelievable. How did you find out that story of Ben Clayton?
Harrigan: Remember Ben Clayton is about a sculptor who is creating a memorial statue of this kid who was killed in the First World War. By the way, I couldn't find a title for that book either. It was a last-minute thing as well. Sometimes a title comes, and sometimes it doesn't, and, when it doesn't, you just try really hard to find something that works.
To answer your question about how that story came about, I was writing an article for Texas Monthly. I noticed that practically all the statues in Texas were done by the same guy: Pompeo Coppini. He did the bas-relief of Corpus Christi being crowned by King Neptune, the statues at the Hall of State, the Stephen F. Austin statue in the Texas State Cemetery, the Terry's Texas Ranger statue on the Capitol grounds, the Littlefield Fountain at The University of Texas at Austin. He did everything.
So, I decided I would write an article for Texas Monthly about this guy. In the course of writing this article—this was thirty years ago—I came across this statue that he did in the town of Ballinger. It is the most exquisite of his sculptures. All it is is a young man standing next to a horse, and all it said at the time on the base of the statue was "Charles Noyes." I wondered what the story was, and I read Coppini's autobiography called From Dawn to Sunset, where he talks about getting a telegram from an old rancher in Menard County whose son had died in a ranch accident falling from his horse. He wanted Coppini to come and create a statue to his son and put it on this hilltop on the ranch. Coppini did, and he writes about going out to visit the old man and how sorrowful he was and how he slept in the son's room with the son's saddles against the wall. He made the statue, he had it delivered to the [father], and the guy said, "I don't want it. It's too sad, I can't take it." He sold his ranch and moved to Orlando. So they put the statue in the town square of Ballinger. I just remember writing in my notebook: novel about sculpture and dead son. Twenty-five years later I wrote [that] novel.
Graham: Coppini, by the way, was hated by J. Frank Dobie.
Harrigan: Oh, absolutely. The Alamo Cenotaph.
Graham: He didn't like it. He wanted it to be about Texas subjects. On the UT campus, he hated the Littlefield Fountain because it is a classical reference, and he preferred one of mustangs. He wrote a book called The Mustangs.
Harrigan: He said the Cenotaph in front of the Alamo, the big tall thing, looked like a grain elevator. Which it does.
Audience member: To both of you, thank you for opening South Texas to so many other people's eyes. . . . People say, "I'm going to go to Corpus." Once again, they say they're going to "Corpus Christi," but it's pronounced Corpus. Thank you again.
Harrigan: I don't think we're responsible for that much economic development, but it's really nice to hear that. I think part of what impelled us to write about this place is that we felt that it needed to be written about. We're homegrown, so there's a credibility that we can bring to that that we can't bring to any place else.
Audience member: My favorite of your books, Mr. Harrigan, is Jacob's Well. It scared the hell out of me. I've often wondered to what extent you were involved in cave diving because I never knew that existed before I read this book. That's probably easy enough to answer, but what I would really like to know is your process of discovery because that is a really important part of your fiction process. Tell me first: have you ever been cave diving?
Harrigan: Yes, I have, though not to the degree that these people did. It can be very spooky. He also asked about the process of discovery. I'm sure Bret and Don can both tell you, you put yourself out there, not necessarily in danger, but into the world. You try to learn as much as you can, to meet as many people as you can, to go to as many places as you can. As soon as you find something that gets at you in a way you can't quite figure out for yourself, you know you got a novel.
I once started thinking about writing a book when I was fourteen, and I started writing it probably when I was forty-five. These things that you can't get out of your head. . . . In the case of Jacob's Well, it was the feeling of being underground and underwater at the same time. Those just brew and steep and you finally have to do something about it. Am I right, Bret?
Johnston: Of course, yes.
Audience member: I absolutely love the book Remember Me Like This, particularly the way the characters experience some more difficult emotions, like the mother's reaction when the son is first released and how she felt thankful to the kidnapper. I love that. It's so difficult to explain, but the way you write it made perfect sense. Did you find it difficult going through those darker and less obvious reactions your characters had to what they were experiencing?
Johnston: Thank you for those kind words. I find everything about writing relentlessly difficult. Writing has never come easy to me, and I'm not being modest. Nothing about writing has ever once come easy to me. What you are describing, I think, is a result of the vision of just pushing and pushing and pushing until I'm no longer writing about what I would feel in that situation but what this mother would feel. That's all I'm trying to do. I don't have anything to say at all. I'm completely surrendering to the characters; I'm trying to disappear into them and see how they notice the world. What would I do in that situation? That is of interest to absolutely no one, not least me. But how would she react in that situation? That's very interesting to me, and I just keep working through draft after draft after draft until I get to something that surprises me. Once I get to an emotion or a moment in the plot or something that surprises me, I feel like I've done as good of a job as I can possibly do. Because if it surprises the writer, you hope it's going to surprise the reader.
Audience member: I've taught [your short story] "Waterwalkers." You mentioned the hurricane, and I was wondering how you got to that story.
Johnston: It's the first story in the book Corpus Christi, in which a middle-aged man and woman lost a son many, many years ago. It destroyed their marriage. Then a hurricane is coming, and after many years apart they run into each other at probably McCoy's Lumber where they are buying plywood for their windows. So that's the story.
How did it come about? I have no recollection. I know that it was the second to last story that I wrote for the book. I don't have any recollection. I had an interesting experience a few years ago. I was talking with a film director, and he was reading the book for the first time, and he knows that I love basset hounds. He said, "Oh, you got your basset hound in there," and I said, "No, I didn't. I didn't even have a basset hound when I wrote this. There's no basset hound in that story." He said, "No, there is, dude," and he pointed to the page, and there is a basset hound in there, which just illustrates that I don't remember anything.
Audience member: I have a follow-up to that general saying about how the story can surprise the writer and you hope that the story can actually surprise the readers. My question to both of you is. . . how often [do you think], "Wow, I didn't realize that was going to happen"?
Harrigan: All the time, I think. You have to use the two sides of your brain when writing a novel because it is a big, long chore. You have some kind of road map for yourself, but you also have to be totally open to surprise. Very often a character will appear in the book whom you hadn't even expected to be there, and, because he or she is so interesting, you can just follow that energy. You're still in control; it is not like writers talk about characters running away with the book. You're in charge, but you can sense a vitality in a character or in a situation. When you sense that, if you are experienced enough, you go with it. You don't resist it, because that's where things are happening.
It happened all the time to me in the Gates of the Alamo, which was about nine hundred manuscript pages of book. The book starts in 1919, I think, with an old man who had been in the Alamo during the siege. He's in this Battle of Flowers parade in San Antonio, and he sees this man in a jaguar-skin suit standing on the side of the road, and it freaks him out. He has a fall and hurts himself, and the scene sets up the entire book. Nine hundred pages later, I'm back to the old guy, and I don't know who that guy in the jaguar-skin suit is. Why in the world is he standing there in the corner in a jaguar-skin suit? It is like this big high-wire act. You have to believe that those answers are in there somewhere, and there had to be a reason why I wanted that guy in the suit standing there, so I just took a flyer on it.
Johnston: I agree with every word. One of the few things I know to be true about writing fiction is, if you succeed in writing what you intend to write, you failed. You've absolutely failed. The story has to be smarter than you. If whatever I am writing doesn't surprise me, you will never read it. That's just the truth, because that's the price of admission. It has to surprise me before I'll let everybody else read it.
Audience member: Bret, you mention your teachers and that you are also a teacher. I was wondering if you can tell us a bit about yourself as a teacher and how it influences your writing and vice versa.
Johnston: I'm a horrible teacher. When it comes to teaching, all I try to do is think about what would have helped me at the time. When I first started taking creative writing classes, I was in graduate school. I went to a writer's workshop in graduate school. The idea I had in my head was my father's garage, where there were all these tools and scraps, and you went out there and worked and built things. I get to the workshop in school, and they were like hippies. They were just talking about their feelings and what things mean. That has never worked for me at all. I wanted someone to tell me how use flashbacks and how to use point of view, and so I'm a very practical teacher. I'm only concerned with what's on the page. I don't care what a student's intentions were. I don't care what you're trying to say. I only care about how can we use these tools and techniques to surrender to the characters. Students always have these big ideas they want to get across, and they want to put in all these symbols and things like that. I think it's a bad idea.
Speaking of Texas authors, there a wonderful poet from Texas named Vicki Hearne. She has one of the shortest, most powerful poems I have ever come across in my life. I recite it on the first day of every writing workshop that I teach, because I don't want people to think your goal is to come up with themes and symbols and everything like that. The Vicki Hearne poem is called "Interview," and so it is:
Q. What are all those horses doing in your poems?
I mean, what do they stand for?
A. Horses. They stand for horses. The way I stand for you.
That is what you have to be able to do in a story. I'm just trying to find ways to get students to do that. I'm trying to create an environment where they feel comfortable taking risks with their work because, when they start taking risks, when they start not writing what they know, but writing what they are afraid to know, that's where there's going to be the vitality that Steve's talking about. That's where you're going to be surprised.
Graham: What are you working on now? What's going to come out next under the brand name of Stephen Harrigan?
Harrigan: I'm hard at work on something completely different for me, which is the history of Texas. Yeah, the whole thing. I joke that it starts with Cabeza de Vaca in 1528 and ends with Rick Perry on Dancing with the Stars. I'm not sure that's a joke; I think that is where it is going to end. It is a massive, strange undertaking for me. The idea is to make it fun to read, and the challenge is to make it fun for me to write so that it can be fun for people to read. It's really interesting.
Graham: What decade is it going to appear in?
Harrigan: It's supposed to appear this century. I mean, the longer I take, the more I have to write, so I'm trying to pick up speed.
Johnston: In terms of what's coming out next, the novel Remember Me Like This is being turned into a movie. I'm working on a novel about what happened in 1993 in Waco, Texas, with David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. I'm basically going to use what happened in Waco in '93, with the siege and the government, as a way to retell Romeo and Juliet. Then, there'll be a collection of stories after that.
Graham: Well, we have got a lot to look forward to.
Harrigan: And what's your next book, Don?
Graham: The book, still in the editing process, is about the making of Giant. And the book after that, I'm not sure yet. I'd like to do another sort of big canvas.
Audience member: Tell us about the making of Giant.
Graham: It's probably the book I've enjoyed writing the most because I'm dealing with these fantastic personalities and actors. What I'm doing is describing the clash, both creative and personal, among Rock Hudson and James Dean, who hated each other, and Elizabeth Taylor. She loved both of them. Anyway, it's kind of about the 1950s, as well, and what was going on out in Marfa. A lot of fun to write and a lot of fun to research.
I did want to say one thing about something related to what we're doing tonight. TCU Press has had a series over the last few years of which they published five [anthologies]: Literary Fort Worth, Literary Austin, Literary Houston, Literary El Paso. They have one coming out called Literary San Antonio. I got in touch with the director, and I floated the idea of a Literary Corpus Christi. I don't know where that would go, but it might be possible to pull together enough stuff to do it.