Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Wordcraft – What's the state of book culture in Dallas?

It’s the best of times for books in Dallas, agreed panelists at the recent reunion for the Dallas Noir anthology. And the worst of times. But then, it always is.

Dallas Noir is the brain child of local literary agent David Hale Smith, published appropriately shortly before Halloween in 2013 as part of Akashic Books’ series of noir anthologies based on cities around the world. Smith solicited short stories from 16 North Texas authors from a variety of literary backgrounds. Some of them were people whose names have appeared in this blog before: Ben Fountain, Daniel J. Hale, Clay Reynolds, Kathleen Kent, David Haynes, Harry Hunsicker, Suzanne Frank and more.

And then there was Smith’s former English teacher from Episcopal School of Dallas, Fran Hillyer. (I wonder: did Smith dare correct his former teacher’s word usage? Her grammar? Amazingly, they remain friends. Fellow contributor and noir novelist Hunsicker also says he was one of Hillyer’s students, but she disclaims any remembrance – or perhaps that should be, responsibility – for him.)

Smith wrangled nine of his contributors – Fountain, Frank, Hale, Hillyer, Hunsicker and Kent, as well as Catherine Cuellar and Merritt Tierce – back together last Saturday night for a discussion and book signing at what The Wild Detectives bookstore in the Oak Cliff neighborhood billed as Oak Cliff Wild Literary Festival #1. (Cuellar is the executive director of the Dallas Arts District. Tierce’s Dallas Noir contribution was a chapter from what would become her highly-regarded debut novel, Love Me Back.)

So, is there good news or bad news for books, book lovers and writers of books in Dallas?

The good news includes The Wild Detectives, the brain child of Spanish engineers and longtime friends Paco Vique and Javier García del Moral. The pair turned a rundown bungalow on Oak Cliff’s Eighth Street into a bookstore, cum coffee and wine bar, cum event center last year. The Wild Detectives is currently Dallas’ only independent bookstore specializing in current books, and is among those indies nationwide reporting sales for inclusion in The New York Times bestseller lists.

“First I’d like to say thank you to The Wild Detectives,” said Fountain, author of one of those NYT bestsellers, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (whose movie version by Ang Lee is scheduled for release Veterans Day 2016). “Living in Dallas is like living in the belly of the beast. It’s a hard culture for a writer. . . where people will pay $60,000 for a car but God forbid we should pay full retail for a book, but it’s also a very fertile climate for a writer.”

“I want to honor the groups like Wordspace and the Writer’s Garret that have been fighting the good fight for years,” Cuellar said. It’s such organization, she said, that make the “organic connections between naturally-occurring communities” such as the emerging Bishop Arts district in Oak Cliff near The Wild Detectives' location.

But really, what chance do most writers in Dallas have of getting the kind of attention, for instance, that Fountain has. Or that Boudrant has garnered. (Matt Boudrant claims to have caught Hale’s eye for inclusion in Dallas Noir when his novel The Wettest County in the World became the basis for the movie Lawless.

“You’ve got to write the best possible story,” Boudrant said. “The literary world is still operating in New York City, but once you break out, the attention is really out of your hands.”

Hale agreed. “If Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse books that inspired the series True Blood) could do what she did from Magnolia, Arkansas, you can do anything you want in Dallas.”

“You can’t try and follow the market if you’re going to be authentic,” Fountain said. “Do the genuine thing.”

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