We had some brilliant minds in our Amarillo High School graduating class, young men and women who moved to distant places and made prodigious differences in the world. An astronaut, doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, artists, authors, entrepreneurs, and gifted musicians--all outstanding in their fields. I often think about the kids I went to high school with, and I'm amazed how so many great and successful people came out of that arid windy town where ideas are aborted immediately after conception.
I know no one who lives there now.
Because my novel, Old Buildings in North Texas, has recently been released here in the US, I’m concentrating on publicizing it. This is progressing here in the same way it did when the book was released in the UK, which means a publicist has arranged guest postings on blogs and reviews to go in newspapers and magazines throughout the country.
As my books are published internationally and set in fictional Caprock, which is based on Amarillo, you’d think people in my hometown would be interested or, at the very least, curious. But I contacted the editor of the Amarillo Globe News two weeks ago, attaching a press release to communicate that this is a legitimate book published by an award-winning literary publisher. I haven’t heard back from him. This excerpt from one of the posts I did for a British blog will explain why I’m not at all surprised:
Having lived in seven countries over a thirty-year period, I’m often asked why I place my novels in a stark dry town in Northwest Texas. It’s because it’s the location I know best. Though the ex-pat life is enlightening, I don’t have other cultures in my bones the way I do Amarillo. I’ll point out that I say bones rather than heart. I hardly love the place. But its vernacular is mine and I comprehend on an intrinsic level the mindset of the people, who are stubborn, religious, big-hearted, abhorrent toward change, and suspicious of success.
In Amarillo, liberals are appreciated in the same way children are; they’re expected to keep their voices down and not touch anything. And, while outwardly the city appreciates the arts, it’s understood that any artist will be out of favor if he or she steps too far outside conventional societal boundaries. Also, if some performer or scientist shows outstanding talent or ability, well, Amarillo as a whole wishes they’d take their genius elsewhere.
And though the population makes an effort to move forward, when it comes to cultural trends and economic development, they somehow manage to always be several years behind the rest of the country.
Reading this a year after I wrote it, I realize that it comes off as supercilious, which is not truly the way I feel, though it’s obviously the way I felt at the time. All I can think is that I must have been in a mood. For the most part, Amarillo is composed of good people going about their daily business. Mainly what I remember from my years there is that the hands of the clock never seemed to move and nothing ever changed.
Here’s another disparaging excerpt, this one in the voice of Olivia from OBiNT:
In Dallas I worked as the regulars’ editor for Dallas Flair, a local fashion magazine. It was my dream career, a grand life in the making. Here in Caprock, with my background (and I am impressive—BA in English from Rice, MA in Journalism from Columbia, magna cum laudein both) I should’ve been able to get a job on the newspaper, the Caprock Chronicle, which, as far as I can tell, is none too choosy. And there’s a local magazine here, too, that I’m well-suited for. Called Caprock Comfort, it has more to do with home decorating than fashion, but still, it’s work I could do, a theme I could get behind. I like comfort as much as the next person.
Oddly, the reason I’m not working for one of these publications isn’t because I’m an addict or that I’m unqualified. It’s because I left the area.
“Tech not good enough for you?” asked Stanley Mason, editor of the Caprock Chronicle. “Most of our staff went to Tech. Or Pan UT.” Located two hours to the south, Texas Tech is as far as most people from Caprock go for their higher education. And Pan UT, the panhandle branch of the University of Texas system, is even closer—half an hour to the southwest, in Gorman.
“Columbia? Isn’t that in New York?” asked Susan Riley, editor of Caprock Comfort.“Why’d you go way up there? That must have been horrible.”
As most ex-pats know, family and friends from home don’t want to hear about experiences from the outside world. They’re happy to see you, but they lack curiosity and are caught up in their own lives. This conversation between Olivia and her therapist offers another reason why someone from Amarillo might not appreciate OBiNT:
“Tell me about living in New York.” Jane dons an interested expression.
“It’s busy,” I say, happy to comply. “There’s always something to do. You can take a short subway ride and end up in a completely different neighborhood where they speak Chinese or Russian or Arabic or Portuguese. And the way people dress is fascinating—all the cultures shown in fabrics and designs right there on their backs, and you can see how one style influences another. And everybody walks. People are out and moving, not getting from place to place in their solitary cars.”
Her eyes have glazed over, which makes me stop talking. The prospect of a world beyond Caprock has rendered her catatonic. It takes her a few seconds to realize I’ve gone silent.
My treatment of Amarillo in my novels is hardly kind. I suppose it’s understandable that no one at the Amarillo Globe News would care to read a book that denigrates the town and its people. On the other hand, why wouldn’t they want to read it? If there’s anything folks in Amarillo enjoy, it’s becoming indignant and holding a grudge.
My novels do offer some positive things about my hometown. At times I grow nostalgic when writing of the flat hard land and the shadows cast by the gnarled mesquite, the fierce wind and the blue, blue sky. Also the dialect has always pleased me—the fixin‘ tos and the ya’lls and the gunnawunnas (as in You’re gunnawunna take care of that).
And the people also possess two of my favorite qualities: a sense of humor and a lack of pretention; after all, it looks like they named their new baseball team the Sod Poodles.