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NOVEMBER 10, 1997: 

Plucked From Obscurity: Writing Biographies of Not-so-Famous People

Moderator: John Taliaferro; with Raye Virginia Allen, Desley Deacon, Nolan Porterfield, and Edward Simmen

Biography almost always provides the thrill of voyeurism, which means that a good discussion about biography has the potential to feel like a juicy gossip session. This, then, was possibly one of the better-moderated panel discussions, with John Taliaferro (author of Charles Russell: The Life and Legend of America's Cowboy Artist) delving into his personal experience to elicit often pithy insights from the four historians. The panelists here did not disappoint, tossing out anecdotes with wry aplomb even as they discussed the burning question: Footnotes or no footnotes?

The panelists began by discussing what attracted them to their subjects. Desley Deacon (Elsie Clews Parsons: Inventing Modern Life), says that anthopologist and feminist Parsons, who "turned herself from a debutante into a major intellectual figure. . . was an identity that I myself very much wanted to put on for a number of years." Nolan Porterfield (Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John Lomax), whose work on the collector and preserver of much of American folk music took eight years to produce, came to his subject from a biography of Texas musician Jimmie Rodgers, "the main difference being," he noted dryly, "that Jimmie Rodgers died in his thirties of tuberculosis and John Lomax lived to be 81."

To be a biographer of the obscure is in an unavoidable sense to also be a promoter, Taliaferro noted. Where, he asked, does a biographer draw the line? Raye Virginia Allen (Gordon Conway: Fashioning a New Woman) said, "I wanted her [flapper designer and artist Conway] to be sleeping with Ernest Hemingway, and with Fitzgerald. But you can't put it in if it's not there." Edward Simmen (With Bold Strokes: Boyer Gonzales) says that a possibly sexual relationship between Gonzales and Winslow Homer can be inferred but not substantiated. "I get letters about that all the time, 'Were they?' And I have no answer."

You begin reading a biography with the expectation that the main character will be dead by book's end. Both Deacon and Allen spoke of feeling as if they had died with their subjects. But all panelists agreed that there was never a moment when they wanted to turn away from their stories. Raye Virginia Allen said that this was a "woman's life that needed to be told." Nolan Porterfield said, of his earlier subject Rodgers, "The worst thing about his life, the tragic brevity of it, was also the thing that created the heroism of it." And Desley Deacon concluded emphatically, "You just gaze with wonder. You really do." -- Barbara Strickland


True Crime: Rape, Murder, & Stolen Art

Moderator: Jack Keever; with William H. Honan and Gary M. Lavergne

The Quedlinburg treasures are a collection of exquisite medieval artwork whose mysterious theft during World War II made them the most lucrative unsolved art theft in history. After decades of silence, the dusty case looked impenetrable.

Enter William H. Honan, writer for The New York Times. The odd Quedlinburg mystery ignited a spark of curiosity in Honan - a spark that rapidly spread, leading the journalist all the way to a showdown in Texas, where after months of fruitless questioning, he finally cracked the case. In this forum, Honan's discussion pertained less to crime per se -- here, the perpetrator was dead, and his family fairly ignorant of the egregious theft -- than it had to do with the process of tracking down a crime. Honan intricately chronicles his labryinthine search, which contained a dead end for every tiny epiphany, a hundred contentious citizens for every informer. And his account is less about true crime as it is a how-to manual for any wannabe investigative reporter.

On the other hand, Gary Lavergne's account of the Charles Whitman mass-murder spree, A Sniper in the Tower, focused on the sociological impact the criminal has on society. According to Lavergne, whose book is his first foray into publishing, Whitman's 1966 killing spree forever altered the way society views public safety. After this unprecedented horror, crowds could no longer be seen as totally innocuous; no longer would open, public spaces be linked to comfort. By shooting 45 people at random, Whitman ripped a veneer of safety from the American public, exposing the discomforting reality that no one is truly safe.

It ushered in a new reality, a reality that leaves us looking over our shoulders, dead-bolting the doors. And to still the foundations that tremble at our feet, we can only ask "Why?" - a question Lavergne attempted to answer for Whitman himself. Hoping to find a cause and effect, the author probed this troubled murderer's past, scrutinizing nuance, searching for instability. And the most chilling aspect may not be the horror of the act, but the sanity of the murderer himself. Howard Swindle, whose Trespasses tells the tale of the Dallas Ski Mask Rapist, was unable to attend the conference. -- Sarah Hepola


Along the Cactus Curtain: The Lure of the Border

Moderator: Bobby Byrd; with Max Martinez, and George Rabasa

Though Bobby Byrd joked that, contrary to the panel's title, he had never really heard of anyone from the U.S. being lured south to the border, clearly he and the other panel writers felt a compelling connection to the mythic land between Mexico and the U.S.

Byrd has co-edited The Late Great Mexican Border: Reports From a Disappearing Line, a lyrical collection of essays and journalistic records of life along the border. The title suggests that culture does not respect our politico-economic borders: "...the invasion is already over. We are inundated with people, things and ideas Mexicanas." As the co-publisher of Cinco Puntos Press of El Paso, a platform for the vibrant Southwestern voices, Byrd is witness to a thriving community that is born of the border's tension.

Byrd read a new poem he wrote for the occassion that drummed with the even rhythm of the fenceposts lining the Rio Grande River. He described the border as the alley behind a rich man's house, across which poor people would cross to work on his lawn, in his kitchen, and around his house. He would use the alley as his own personal dumping ground, and invite his friends from New York City to dump their trash there, too. Byrd described the rich man becoming very anxious when he realized the poor people were crossing the border and living in his backyard, selling his family drugs. The rich man's doctor told him to hire some soldiers to patrol the alley and calm his nerves. When the soldiers shot an innocent goatherder, the rich man felt very sorry, then went upstairs to bed.

Max Martinez's latest mystery novel, Layover, takes place in the fictional town of Lexington, Texas, based on his hometown of Gonzales (so-named because the first shot of the Mexican Revolution was fired there). Growing up in the Fifties, he was sensitive to the separate social spheres maintained by Anglos and Mexicans. The border he explores in his book is the social one between the Anglo and the Mexican.

George Rabasa discussed three aspects of the border which guided his writing of Floating Kingdom. Since his youth in Mexico City, he has been fascinated with the idea of the U.S. as a promised land. People from his neighborhood worked through networks of friends and family to cross the border and came home heroes. The U.S. promises Mexicans good shopping, education, and jobs, but the Mexican workers always return home to find happiness. Rabasa now lives in Minnesota, one of the most homogenously populated states in the U.S. His political mission for the book was to put a human face on all the negative press Minnesotans hear about the border. Lastly, being raised bicultural, his Mexican and American backgrounds blend when he is near the border -- only there does he feel unified.

Though the individual presentations were engaging, unfortunately the schedule did not allow the authors time to respond to one another and much of the border was left unexplored.

-- Nicole Kleman


Story Swap: Three Columnists Shoot the Breeze

Moderator: A.C. Greene; with Jerry Flemmons, Leon Hale, and Maury Maverick, Jr.

What a surprise, though it should not have been, to walk into this panel. As the capacity crowd waited, the four men on the panel made the way to the front of the room, slowly. Age was something that was certainly on the minds of most in the audience. Here were four men who have spent the majority of their long lives working as columnists for various Texas papers. They were all there to promote new books.

There was Leon Hale, who has written commentaries for the past 45 years in the Houston area. Next to him was Jerry Flemmons, who is now a writer-in-residence for Tarleton State University, recently retired, after 34 years, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Moderator A.C. Greene had more than a few good stories from his many years working for newspapers in Dallas. Maury Maverick, Jr. is a long-time columnist for the San-Antonio Express News, after being involved for many years in state government.

The time allotted for the panel simply was not enough. These men were filled with stories, and each could have covered the hour with reminisces from their remarkable lives -- Maverick might have overdone it a bit with repeated references to his defense of librarians during the early Fifties, but foes of McCarthyism should be granted some leeway. Toward the end of the discussion, A.C. Greene said that he had honed his craft so well that he falsely believed, "You could do the history of the world in 10 column inches." Jim Lehrer, of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, who was seated in the audience and was referred to many times in the course of the discussion, seemed to nod in agreement.

One fault of newspaper writing that the panel seemed to agree on was that it took time away from writing other things. As Flemmons explained, unlike most writers, he "didn't want to write the great American novel, but rather the great sentence." -- Jeremy Reed


Games People Play

Moderator: Bob Buckholtz; with John Eisenberg and Mike Shropshire

Many argue the heart has been removed from today's sports, so it's not surprising that two Texas writers have drawn from past glories to craft recent works. Cotton Bowl Days: Growing Up with Dallas and The Cowboys in the 1960s by John Eisenberg and The Ice Bowl by Mike Shropshire both describe a time when being a football fan -- and a sportswriter -- was a bit less trying. After all, in the Nineties, big-time sports is full of oversized egos and worrying if your favorite player will be with the same team next year -- or if your team will be in the same city -- has become a post-season ritual. Yet, the public's appetite for sports remains insatiable. New magazines and cable networks targeting the armchair quarterback or centerfielder seem to blossom weekly; everyone from Spike Lee to John Madden to Dennis Rodman has written a book promising a behind-the-stats look at the sporting life.

Competing with Favre or Jordan on the bookshelves is a challenge for today's writers, said Eisenberg and Shropshire. The public wants big-name authors and sexy storylines. Both authors admit that fact influences their writing, but added that the romance of Texas sports is often a hook big enough to dangle to New York publishers. "Texas doesn't hurt at all," said Shropshire. "If you can think of a new twist that glorifies the sociopathic nature of how we Texans are regarded by the general public, publishers love it."

As a sports fan in the Eighties and Nineties, I've often felt there is no team less deserving of the rabid loyalty of their supporters than the Dallas Cowboys. But Einsenberg and Shropshire described the team before the days of Jerry Jones and Michael Irvin, a team of colorful characters who began as a pitiful expansion team in the Sixties and became legends. Could tomorrow's writers ever be so inspired by today's athletes? -- Lisa Tozzi


You Should Write a Book -- I Did!

Moderator: Jim Magnuson; with Roger Boylan, Margaret Moseley, Patricia Page, and D. Marion Wilkinson

It was called "You Should Write a Book - I Did," but "You Should Publish a Book -- I Did" would have been a better title.

Patricia Page opened the discussion with the perception that writing is a solemn thing, done alone, for long hours, while "everyone is out playing." And as she said, the hardest part is getting down that first sentence. For her, "Hope loved Houston" was the beginning of her first novel, Hope's Cadillac.

To her right was D. Marion Wilkinson who, in the last year, has published his first novel -- the historical Not Between Brothers: An Epic Novel of Texas. Wilkinson has produced a number of manuscripts, but this is his first book-length publication. A charismatic speaker -- a taller, younger Texas-version of John Grisham -- Wilkinson overshadowed Roger Boylan, who was seated next to him on the panel. Boylan could only say a few, quiet words before audience member Liz Carpenter's distinct voice was heard, telling Boylan how to speak into a microphone. Boylan never completely learned the lesson, and that is unfortunate considering his Killoyle: An Irish Farce was one of the most interesting novels put out by a local author this year. On the end of the table, the quick-tongued Margaret Moseley introduced herself and her title character, Bonita Faye, with whom she now lives and travels, so to speak.

But from there the questions began to take a misguided turn as discussions about agents, editors, and book publishers became the topic of conversation. A panel that had such an appeal as a title lost much in execution. Most of the panelists seem on their way to, and most concerned with, commercial success (which explains the interest in the business side), except one -- Mr. Boylan. When asked why he writes, Boylan responded, "It is the only way I can make sense of my life." -- Jeremy Reed


Panel: Yellow Dogs: Do They Still Hunt?

Moderator: Paul Burka; with Jim Hightower, Garry Mauro, and Joe Holley

They came from far and wide, the promise of some good old-fashioned yellow dog liberalism too great to resist. And if the faithful were disappointed when it was announced that Larry King and Molly Ivins had canceled (what with King being a delightfully raunchy raconteur and Ivins bound to take the "moderate" out of moderator), they were certainly assuaged by Jim Hightower's howler of an opening statement, a classic sound bite of the radioman's thorny populism. Resplendent in a lavender shirt and fruity tie (with the trademark 10-gallon hat laying just to the side), Hightower declared that a class war is being waged in America from the top down, blasting Newt Gingrich as a "corporate wet dream" and urging progressives to get aggressive once again. The rant drew cheers from the dyed-in-the-wools, and I'll admit to feeling a little giddy myself. The next panelist was a sincere (and fresh from the tanning booth?) Garry Mauro, who smiled often and all but announced his still unofficial candidacy fro the governor's seat. Freelance journalist Joe Holley rounded out the cast. Topics ranged from the dearth of good political fiction to the vanishing concept of the common good, and all three participants got their two cents in at least some of the time. The focus was clearly on Mauro and Hightower, however, with Mauro's careful political statements paling next to Hightower's rather looser talk (the Nike symbol as a corporate "swooshtika;" Ross Perot as an important voice of protest but "flakier than mama's pie crust). A good discussion, but as we filed out with complimentary copies of The Texas Observer, it was clear the panelists had been preaching to the choir. Governor Bush, although invited, did not attend. -- Jay Hardwig


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