Saturday, August 3, 2013
What Italy taught me about Texas
by Terry Shames
Author of A Killing at Cotton Hill
Everyone who leaves a comment this weekend will be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Terry’s novel.
Recently someone asked me if the six books I wrote before I wrote A Killing at Cotton Hill honed my skills so that I was prepared to write the book that finally “made it.”
The answer is decidedly yes. But there is another life experience I had that added immeasurably to my arsenal of tools when I sat down to write this particular book.
It took eighteen months of living in Italy for me to appreciate some of the subtleties of small-town Texas. I can hear everyone groaning and saying sotto voce, “She’s kidding, right?” I’m not kidding, and I’ll explain what I mean.
Living in Italy, I grew accustomed to the beauty and grandeur of ancient architecture, the wonder of sculptures and paintings done when Texas was still a wilderness. My taste buds savored Italian cuisine. I loved walking in the streets and hearing the Italian language, so lyrical and lilting. I grew to love the way Italians seemed to embrace life on every level--how they laughed and cried and fought with passion. Italian history glowed from the old buildings.
When I went back to Texas to visit after being away for the longest I’d ever been away, I saw the places I knew so well through fresh eyes. I began to appreciate that the unique culture of Texas reflects its history as fully as Italian culture does. A much shorter history than Italian history, but still one that is unique. In small towns I took a fresh look at houses that I had seen all my life, and had never really understood that they were structures that echoed the hardscrabble life that many settlers of Texas endured. Unlike Italian architecture, these places were simple and unadorned—places to serve as shelter, not because people didn’t want beauty, but that they couldn’t afford the time or the money to build grand structures when they were struggling just to survive.
These dwellings have common features, like a big front porch where people can sit and talk in the evening when it cools down and everyone is home from work. A lot of them have porch swings. Most of them are only as big as need be for the people who lived there. Often there were only two bedrooms: one for the parents, another for the kids. Utilitarian was the word that came to mind. Why had I never noticed the fact that these old houses bore this testament about Texas: We are people who don’t have money to spend on frills. We work hard. We rely on ourselves and don’t live beyond our means. We are proud.
As Texas prospered the architecture and cultural life changed, but just as in Italy you can see the rich culture left by old wealth, in Texas there’s evidence of the culture of austerity left by people barely scraping by. And this heritage is ingrained in many small town residents.
When I decided to write a book set in Texas, these are the people I wanted to present to readers. The common lore is that you should write what you know. And you can’t know a place quite as well as the one where you grew up. I love New York and San Francisco and grand European cities. I love the pulse of them and the opportunity for endless entertainment and cultural novelty. But there’s a certain point at which I get overwhelmed by “city-ness.” Put me in the countryside, and I’m at home.
In Italy we lived in a small town outside of Florence. I went to Florence almost every day, reveling in the delights of that ancient, beautiful city. But I was always happy to get back to my small town haven. By the time I left there, I was acquainted with many of the residents and shopkeepers of the town, and even now when I go back, people still recognize me. That’s small town life.
So writing a novel set in small-town Texas came naturally to me. The opening lines of A Killing at Cotton Hill are these: “I watch Loretta Singletary hurry up the steps to my house. She hasn’t seen me on the porch in my beat-up old rocker where I often sit to catch any early morning breeze.” Samuel Craddock lives in one of those plain houses, drives an old truck and wears a stained old hat. He grew up among people who rely on themselves. It’s those people I celebrate in my novel.
Leave a comment and you’ll be entered in a drawing for a free copy of Terry’s novel.
Terry Shames grew up in Texas. She has an abiding affection for the small town where her grandparents lived, the model for her fictional town of Jarrett Creek. Now a resident of Berkley, California, Terry lives with her husband, two rowdy terriers, and a semi-tolerant cat. Her second Samuel Craddock novel, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, will be out in January 2014. Find out more about Terry and her books at http://www.terryshames.com.