Today I am proud to introduce you to this interview with W.F. Strong, professor at the University of Texas, and author of the book Stories From Texas, where he tells the folklore, the legend and the myth of the Lone Star State, through the stories that have defined the culture and heritage of this place, known throughout the world.
In this interview we will talk about his life in Texas, what made it so special, and his creative and writing process. Enjoy!
Question: How you became so interested in the stories of Texas? What they have of special and different according to you?
Answer: When I started recording radio stories I was writing a love letter to Texas. I wanted all Texans, and those who wished they were, to learn about what makes our world-renowned culture special by celebrating the origins and unique nature of our foods, our music, our literature, our humor, our style of dress, and our beautiful dialects. Mostly, early on, I wanted to expose my fellow Texans to our magnificent literature that they may have heard about but not read. I thought if I could read the most poignant parts of McMurty’s Lonesome Dove or McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses or The Time it Never Rained by Kelton, that they would be seduced into reading these great authors for the first time and want more. And it has worked.
Q: You talked about a “love letter to Texas” and immediately I thought to myself and my love to Wyoming. I know what means love so much a state and its people, so I would like to ask you what is the thing (or the things) you love most about Texas, and when you really said to yourself “I am a Texan and I am proud of the place to which I belong.”
A: I love the diverse landscapes of Texas. It has mountains and forests and mighty rivers – 600 miles of coast line and delta regions that host most species of birds in North and Central America. I love the vastness of Texas. It takes two days to drive across it north to south and east to west. There is a saying that illustrates this vastness, “The sun has risen and the sun has set, and here I am in Texas yet.”
I love that Texans as a whole have an enormous love for Texas. I just wished Americans loved America as much as Texans love Texas. That is why we think of ourselves as Texans first and Americans second. It is because of this that when we travel abroad we always introduce ourselves as first as Texans. We are close knit and proud like the Bavarians of Germany.
I love that we have a history no other U.S. state can match. We were born at the Alamo and San Jacinto as a people willing to sacrifice everything for a free Texas, and we succeeded. From there, with guts and gusto, over time, we pulled ourselves up by our collective boot straps and created the most prosperous state in the union, with a cultural brand respected and admired around the world.
I love that we are known for rugged things like Longhorn cattle, bucking broncos, rattlesnakes, and guns. I love that the most famous law enforcement organization in Texas history is The Texas Rangers. I also love that the Dallas Cowboys is the world’s most valuable sports franchise, partly made so by world’s love for the Texas mystique. (Just think how valuable they would be if they were the dynasty they were twenty years ago).
I love that we come from a cowboy heritage, a character of rugged individualism that became a metaphor for the can do nature of Texas. I love that we have held on to our Hispanic heritage, too, that our foods have blended into a beautiful cuisine called Tex-Mex. We are as likely to have tortillas for breakfast as we are toast. Ketchup and salsa have equal places at the table. So do brisket and barbacoa. The two languages also coexist. Most Texans are comfortable with Hola and Howdy, with beer or cerveza, with buenas noches or goodnight.
Though we are often loud and proud, some of it is overdone in fun. We are not so ethnocentric that we cannot appreciate the beauty and novelty of other great lands.
Q: According to you, from where the rural and country culture come from? And also, it is present in the daily lives of Texans or is just little more than a heritage of the past?
A: I think the prairie, the rancho grande, is still quite entrenched in the Texas soul. Even though most of our 28 million Texans still live in cities, many long for the countryside. I’d guess that about a fourth of Texans own or have access to weekend land that they call their ranch or ranchito. Urban cowboys are no myth. You see plenty of Houstonians and San Antonians and Dallasites wearing boots and stetson hats. They often go two-steppin’ to George Strait in dance halls on the weekends.
You see plenty of hats on the dash boards in Texas pickups which are about as plentiful as cars. In fact, there are more pickup trucks sold in Texas each year than there are in California, Oklahoma and Florida combined. In the land of pickups, Texas is King. And I think this tendency to drive pickups – big pickups with massive tires and lifted bodies – goes back to our longing for the land. It’s as if we are ready to go work on the ranch whenever needed. To get out there and get on horses, round up the cattle and drive them to Kansas.
This longing for the cowboy life is strong in our cultural DNA. That’s why I think that even in the city, many Texans have fire pits – not to cook food, but just to sit around the fire and talk and listen to music in the warm glow of firelight, just as their ancestors did out on the plains. You can take Texans out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of Texans.
Q: You talked about rugged things like guns. I don’t want enter in this topic because I think how hard is for many Americans, but I would like to ask you one thing. Texas is still considered a conservative state, and in my view is because of their bond with the land. The land defines the man. You think this is true? You have other opinions of why Texans can be Democrats or Republicans but always conservative in their way of life?
A: Yes. The bond with the land is the cornerstone of Texas culture – all values rest on that – fierce independence, unyielding work ethic, fully empowered capitalism, unobtrusive and subservient government, almost unrestricted freedoms, and a pervasive respect for lawfulness that insures them all.
As for guns, it used to be that guns were seen as tools. They provided supper on the table and protection from dangerous wildlife that could hurt you, like wolves, bears and rattlesnakes. And, too, they had them around to protect against raiding Comanches and outlaw gangs, especially out on the Western and Southern frontiers.
I like this quote from McMurtry:
“What my whole body of work says… is that Texans spent so long getting past the frontier experience because that experience is so overwhelmingly powerful. Imagine yourself as a small hopeful immigrant family, alone on the Staked Plains, with the Comanche and the Kiowa still on the loose. The power of such experience will not sift out of the descendants of that venturer in one generation and produce Middletown. Elements of that primal venturing will surely inform several generations.”
Even when I was in high school in the 1970’s, many boys drove their trucks to school with guns in gun racks in the backs window. This was exceptionally common in rural areas where guns were tools – not so much different from axes and shovels. No school shootings back then. Somewhere along the line things changed and it is difficult to say why and how. As you point out, it is a difficult problem and most Americans, even most Texans, are in favor of reasonable gun law reforms (closing gun show loopholes and keeping guns away from those known to be mentally unstable). Even with our liberal gun laws, you don’t see Texans openly carrying guns nearly as much now as I did when I was a boy. True, may have concealed licenses and so we don’t know the extent of those “carrying.”
As for politics, things are changing. It looks like the next Presidential election will be the closest in decades in terms of Conservative/Liberal split. The big cities lean blue and the rural areas are staunchly red. So far the cities are leaning enough left to compensate for the landslides of red in the countryside. Some say this is happening because of the numbers of Californians moving to Texas. They call in the Californication of Texas. There are even bumper stickers that say “Don’t California my Texas.” Some say it is because the young Texans lean left more and more. The youth are far more liberal than the older white population that is vastly more conservative. But it is a truism that “Old people vote and young people protest, but don’t vote.” So we shall see. My guess is that Texas will lean more purple than ever in the 2020, but it will still cast it’s 38 electoral votes for Trump.
Q: I would like to talk about Texas idioms. I have read a few articles written by you and I found them so fascinating. As you told, the young men today seems to be more liberal, and in my view, in every aspect. They seems to be more metropolitan, even in rural areas. Maybe it’s just the 2000s culture, but how you would like to analyze this aspect, especially in Texas?
A: Here is the best I can do with this question. I believe that the younger people in Texas, those under 30, have gravitated more toward a national youth culture than the more provincial Texas culture that dominated my youth. One way we see this is in the death of Westerns. The older generations, the baby boomers as they are called, loved Westerns. John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (Spaghetti Westerns) were our super heroes. And their films were often placed in Texas, even if filmed in Italy and Spain and Arizona. Now a decent Western is produced every ten years or so. They are dying out, except on cable channels devoted to Westerns, which are watched almost exclusively by people over 50.
The Texas language, too, is changing. The younger people are taking on the language of national and international pop culture. To that end I wrote this piece about endangered words and expressions – idioms that I believe are dying out.
Q: Coming back to my first question, when you have decided to collect all the stories in a book? It is been difficult research them?
A: The research was only challenging in the sense that I had to often validate what I already knew. Many of the “stories” I had known for years. I just didn’t have the full story or the source support to back them up. Consequently, in order to find the evidence I needed, I took down old novels and Texas classic works from my shelf and re-read them, which was a delightful task. In some cases I had to chase down rare books, such as the diary of Samuel Walker which he kept during his capture and imprisonment in Mexico, or I had to get assistance from specialized library collections at Texas universities and public agencies. Despite the humorous sub-title, “Some of them are True,” I worked diligently to make sure that the stories were factual, except for the folklore, which is often exaggerated as a standard of the genre. In the end though, I wanted the book to be grounded in good research without being weighed down by it. I wasn’t wanting to write a heavily footnoted book. My first desire was to make it humorous and second was to make the stories page turners that one didn’t have to read in any order.
My greatest disappointment was with the photographs. Texas is a gorgeous state. I wanted to showcase this in mesmerizing photographs and labored long and hard to get the proper permissions to reprint many great pictures in full page splendor. But in the end my publisher decided it was too expensive so things were cut back to smaller photos and black and white at that. Had I known that we would have using black and white photos, I would have chosen differently. However, the ebook is in color so there you will see the final product as I dreamed it, except for the sized of the photos within the printing. Ni modo. There is old saying in publishing. With every book you write there are really three: the one you write, the one you publish and the one you wish you had published. On the whole, I was pleased with the final work. It has sold far better than I expected and the reviews have been overwhelmingly of the five star variety.
Q: As last question I would like to ask you about your writing process (if you have one).
A: I ride around in my truck by myself and talk out loud, constructing narrative and dialog that sounds authentic to me and flows naturally. I’m always concerned with flow and, somewhat like a poet, with sounds that go together – sounds that articulate well. I then go home and write it all out and polish it three or four times, always reading it aloud to test its cultural truth. Since I am a storyteller, I’m concerned with the orality of my work. After all, it is first aired on radio and must fit that medium. Then I sometimes extend it for a reading audience, but my focus seems always to be on the sounds. I want good sound in the story and good sound when I try to animate it on the air.
My approach is likely quite different from a novelist because I am somewhat of a performance artist. I’m focused on the writing and the oral interpretation of that writing when I record it for broadcast. However, I imagine that if and when I write and novel, my method will not alter much.
One last thing: I often lay awake at night when the house is wonderfully quiet and construct paragraphs in my mind – never of a great length, but I do polish it over and over and generally fall asleep. In the morning, I write it down. Sometimes it is beautiful and powerful and sometimes it is disappointing compared to how much I loved it just before I fell asleep.