Interview: Red River Mystery Author Reavis Z. Wortham

reavis-picAs a boy, award-winning writer, Reavis Z. Wortham hunted and fished the river bottoms near Chicota, Texas, the inspiration for the fictional setting for The Red River Mystery Series. He was born in Paris, Texas, but lived in Dallas. “We grew up in the city and went to school there, but every Friday evening my parents put us in the car and made the 120-mile drive to Chicota, where we truly lived at my grandparents’ farm until Sunday evening, when we came back to the city. Our true home was that little plot of land in Lamar County.” Reavis has written a self-syndicated weekly outdoor column since 1988, newspapers across Texas. Hundreds of articles have appeared in magazines ranging from Texas Fish and Game, Texas Sportsman, and Texas Outdoor Journal to American Cowboy. A retired educator of 35 years, he and wife Shana live in Frisco, Texas. They have two daughters, Chelsea and Megan.

An award-winning writer and photographer, Reavis has been recognized for his unique style of outdoor journalism. In 2002, he received First Place in the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) in the Magazine Humor category for “Shooting Squirrels in a Barrel.” He also took second place in that same competition for a magazine article entitled, “Totally Retro: Hunting with the Longbow.” Additionally Reavis is a past president of the Texas Outdoor Writer’s Association (TOWA), and has been recognized numerous times by TOWA for his work in both magazines and newspapers. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and the Writers’ League of Texas.

Dark Places - CoverTell us about your new release.

Dark Places is the 5th book in the Red River mystery series set in rural northeast Texas during the turbulent 1960s. As the Summer of Love draws to a close in 1967, the Parker family deals with the changes wrought by outside events. Constable Ned Parker and his nephew Sheriff Cody Parker work a hit and run murder on a country road, and at the same time look into the disappearance of two Dallas businessmen in nearby Chisum. Fourteen-year-old near twin cousins Pepper and Top are impacted in different ways for the counterculture movement. Pepper runs away to join the river of hippies flowing down Route 66 to California, but she finds that the Mother Road and the free love experience isn’t what she expected. While Ned abandons his job as constable to find his granddaughter, a mysterious man named Crow joins the search and may not be what he seems.

What led you to write this book?

Following The Rock Hole, the first book in the series, the lives of the Parker family have been an adventure for me as well as my readers. Events from that book have sparked psychological issues for the community of Center Springs, and especially the kids who took the brunt of the terror in that story. Dark Places explores those months following 1967’s Summer of Love, and shows us what this family experiences in the midst of cultural change, the civil rights movement, and the connected events they can’t control. In addition, my family traveled Route 66 several times in that decade and the history of that kitschy highway is fascinating to me, and I hope, to my readers.

How important is setting to your story?

I’d say the setting is a character, and there are two settings in Dark Places, so there are two very important characters. One is the rural farming community of Center Springs, and the other is old Route 66, from Texas to California. Both are integral to the plot. I’ve always felt that weather is a character also, and the incessant rain in this novel adds another dimension, dictating the actions of those within the story.

Are any of your characters loosely based on people you know in real life?

Constable Ned Parker and his wife Miss Becky were originally based on my maternal grandparents in the first book. My granddad, Joe Armstrong, was constable of a tiny farming community when I was a kid and he’s the spark of this series. Of course other characters come from people I know or have met. Several are somewhat recognizable in the books, while most are complete fiction. It’s funny though, because I often hear from people who grew up in the area and insist some of the fictional characters are real. For example, in The Right Side of Wrong, a couple leaves their spouses and to run off together. An old aunt called me right after the book came out and gave me a chewing out because I was “telling family tales that shouldn’t be told.” Shocked, I asked what she was talking about and she named an aunt and uncle who married after the same set of circumstances. I was completely surprised, and explained that I’d made my characters up, not knowing the history of those relatives. When I pressed her for details, she snapped, “I’m not going to talk about that,” and hung up on me. You never know what skeletons are in those dusty old closets.

What do you hope readers take away from your work?

The Red River books were originally intended to preserve a way of life and the particular speech of those who lived in northeast Texas back in the 1960s. That decade was a period of cultural Reavis Z. Wortham (Continued) change for the entire country, and those times manifested themselves in this microcosm that became Center Springs in the series. Before WWII, this country was 80% rural and 20% urban. Today that percentage has reversed, and much of that change came during the 1950s and 60s. The people of this region struggled to preserve their way of life in light of these changes. They still grew and raised their own food and processed all of it on their farms. The women wore virtually the same style clothes through those decades, and clung to the traditions of their ancestors. What I can offer to my readers are the real old sayings and speech patterns, in addition to my fiction. I used them in daily conversation when my daughters were small, and had to explain the meaning of those phrases. That’s when I knew they were fading into history, because as the older folks pass away, their rich heritage of speech goes with them. Many reviewers have noted how accurate the dialogue is to the people and period, and that’s what I wanted to preserve for my own descendants.

What do you do when you are not writing?

I’m a serious outdoorsman who loves to hunt, fish, and camp. I’m drawn to moving water, beaches, and the mountains. My biggest vices are travel and books. I’ve visited every state in this great country, plus Mexico and Canada. Now we’re revisiting every state, seeking adventures that include hiking, skiing, camping, and canoeing. We have an extensive library, and books are in every room in the house. When my bride and I aren’t in the outdoors, I’m a serial house renovator. We built our home in 1998, and since then I’ve remodeled every room in the house. Now I’m back to the master bathroom…if my Bride will agree to a complete gut job. Finally, when I’m not writing and doing all those other things, I’m reading, and I somehow read to excess.

Which book impacted you as a teenager?

I have to point at two books which influenced my life almost at the same time. The first was Recollection Creek by Texas author Fred Gipson. He wrote about a way of life in the late 1800s that was very similar to the way I grew up with in the 1960s. In it, I recognized the people and their environment, and it made me want to write my own stories about that wonderful time in my life. The second book reached my hands not long after I finished Recollection Creek. The Old Man and the Boy, by Robert Ruark, literally defined my life and in many ways made me the man I am today. I still give it as Christmas presents as much as possible, in the hope that Ruark’s work will have the same effect on others.

Do you read the same genre you write?

I write what I call historical mystery thrillers, and read what I find in that genre. I’m a voracious reader as my home library will show. The shelves are loaded with Donald E. Westlake (still another influence), Joe Lansdale, and a Texan named William Humphrey. But there are others as well. I’m a big fan of thriller writers such as John Gilstrap, Lee Child, David Morrell, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Sandra Brannan, Jamie Freveletti, and Jeffery Deaver, to name only a few.

Have you ever written a scene that ‘creeped’ you out?

Yep, that was the opening chapter in Burrows, which was originally written as a short story. Many reviewers have called it the creepiest chapter they’ve ever read. There’s a twist at the end of that left me sitting there with my fingers on the keys, wondering if I needed to be committed. For years I had disturbing dreams about tunnels and openings under the foundations of houses that led to a warren of other tunnels under buildings. I had these dreams so often the tunnels were familiar, and I knew each twist and turn. My wife suggested that I use those dreams in a novel, and the short story became Burrows, a novel about an abandoned cotton exchange building packed full of refuse by hoarders and booby trapped throughout by still another lunatic with a dark background. Those dreams haven’t returned in the three years since the book was finished. Hummmmm.

Do you have a favorite writing place or writing rituals?

Nothing about my writing is conventional. I’ve reached my word limit in moving cars, in the coffee shop of gun ranges, while camping out, on the patio at my home, on a Hawaiian lanai, under a tiki hut shaded by palm trees in Key West (you can see that one on my website), and propped up in bed at home like Mark Twain, using a laptop instead of a typewriter. I don’t have a set time to write, but always strive for five pages, or 1,000 words a day, no matter where I am. I edit hard copy in my easy chair or on the couch.

What are you reading now?

I never have only one book open. There are different reading spots throughout the house and a book in progress is waiting there. Right now I’m reading Make Me by Lee Child, Hosts by F. Paul Wilson, and Signal by Patrick Lee. Craig Johnson’s Dry Bones and Reed Farrel Coleman’s Blind Spot (the new Robert B. Parker) are stacked and waiting to go.

What’s next for you?

I’m on the downhill side of book 6 in the Red River series, titled Unraveled. Poisoned Pen Press is my publisher and have been very supportive, stating they’d publish this series as long as I want to write it. You can’t get better than that. I’m also in final edits for a different kind of novel. Shell Game is my first thriller and a new style of writing that’s dramatically different from the RR books.

LINKS:

Website: http://www.reaviszwortham.com

Facebook: Reavis Wortham and Reavis Z. Wortham author page

Twitter: @reaviszwortham

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