Adios to Richard From Texas

A tribute to “Eat, Pray, Love’s” Richard From Texas

richard&lizBooksAlthough I’ve known a lot of authors and am fortunate enough to count many of them as friends, only one of my friends was famous for being in a huge best-seller: Richard Vogt, better known to fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as Richard from Texas.

Alas, much too soon, the time has come to say adios to Richard. He passed away on March 4 unexpectedly and much too soon for his vast circle of friends and fans.

I first met Richard in November 2006, when a mutual friend introduced us, thinking I could help Richard position himself to take advantage of the EPL effect. At the time, Richard was in between appearances on Oprah –– well, actually, he’d already taped them but only one of the two shows had aired at that point. And you bet I remembered Richard from Texas, and it made perfect sense that he would live in Austin! When my pal Jill handed me EPL, she read me a couple of the choice gems from Richard –– I think it might have been the “Groceries, your problem is you’ve got a wishbone where your backbone should be” bit. And yes, Richard was one of my favorite parts of the book.

Richard had a life that was stranger than fiction. Richard survived a tough childhood and went on to be a juvenile delinquent, a Vietnam vet,  an oil-field worker; a truck driver; the first dealer of Birkenstocks in the Dakotas; a construction worker; hippie farmer on a commune; radio voice-over announcer, etc. But for many years, he was a junkie and an alchoholic.

One night in a small Texas town, as he was casing a pharmacy to break into for drugs, something stopped him; he realized that he was on track to end up in prison or he could just stop and change his life. Richard said, “I ventured into the depths of hell. The hand of what I choose to call God pulled me from this ravage. It was not my own doing. Without a doubt, Divine Intervention interceded.”

With that, he sobered up and started a on the spiritual quest that eventually placed him at an ashram at the same time a wild-haired writer recovering from a divorce showed up. Richard took one look at her shoveling down her food and nicknamed her “Groceries.

And that’s how Richard entered Eat, Pray, Love and ended up on Oprah.

Most of my work with Richard consisted of trying to help him launch his career as a speaker. I immediately loved both his easygoing nature and his spiritual centeredness, not to mention his genuine interest in other people.

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The Best Book Fest in Deep East TX

The 2010 Girlfriend Weekend Author Extravaganza: Tiaras and books — who knew?!

Melissa Conroy and Pat Conroy signing books.
Melissa Conroy and Pat Conroy signing books.

I have this thing about Jefferson, Texas’ own version of Savannah. As I turned onto Broadway from Highway 59, I did my in-car happy dance. And I was even happier to pull up at the Pride House, my home-away-from-home for the weekend of Jan. 15-18. Jefferson is magical. It’s so steeped in leftover Southern Gothic vibe, with house after house dating back to the 1850s and 1860s, that whenever I turn a corner I think I’ll see a horse-drawn carriage –– wait! I saw horse-drawn carriages driving weekend tourists around the tiny town on Sunday!

After an absence of much too long (say, three years), I made a return trip to my favorite small Texas town for the annual Pulpwood Queens’ Girlfriend Weekend, the brainchild of Kathy Patrick, my literary soul sister. Kathy has run Beauty and the Book, the country’s only combination beauty salon and book store, since 2000. With her past as a book sales rep, she’d always been about books and reading. She got the bright idea of starting the Pulpwood Queens of East Texas book club, whose motto is “Where tiaras are mandatory and  reading good books is the rule.” (One might add that leopard print something or other is the perfect complement to the tiara!)

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John Pipkin’s on FIRE!

Austin’s John Pipkin wins the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize for his debut, Woodsburner.

woodbigAfter glowing reviews and wide acclaim, Austin’s John Pipkin won the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize for his debut, Woodsburner, which was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in April. The awards were announced November 9 at the Center for Fiction’s Annual Benefit and Awards Dinner in New York City.

Pipkin backed into writing Woodsburner. While researching another novel, he ran across a “Harper’s Index” reference to an incident in which Henry David Thoreau accidentally set fire to some 300 acres of woods outside of Concord, Massachusetts, in 1844, a little more than a year before moving to Walden Pond. Intrigued by this little-known event despite having taught Thoreau, Pipkin turned his attention to writing Woodsburner.

You’d have thought that Thoreau would be the star of Woodsburner, but it is the aptly named Oddmund Huss who anchors the book. A Norwegian immigrant who keeps to himself while lusting after the wife of the farmer who employs him, Oddmund steps out of himself when he joins the fight against the fire. Then there’s the opium-addicted Reverend Caleb Dowdy, who interprets the fire as his opportunity to finally offend God. Comic relief comes in the form of Elliot Calvert, who gave up his dreams of becoming a playwright to bring in the almighty dollar through his book shop. Yet even in 1844, books weren’t enough to keep him in business; it’s black-market porn that supports Elliot and his growing family.

The heart of the book is the fire itself, which Pipkin whips into a frenzied character of its own. He caps it all off with a masterful, pitch-perfect early-Victorian style and voice that perfectly suits this obscure escapade that perhaps shamed Thoreau into his retreat to Walden Pond and changed American literature forever.

But writing the novel was only half the battle. Pipkin landed representation with agent Marly Rusoff, who took the manuscript to publisher Janet Silver at Houghton Mifflin. When Harcourt and Houghton Mifflin merged in late 2007, John’s deal seemed to be off. A few months later, Silver landed at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday and John suddenly had a deal. (For more on John’s circuitous route to publishing, see this timeline of the making of Woodsburner from the Austin American-Statesman.)

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‘Tis the Season for the Texas Book Festival

It’s that time of year again: Time for the Texas Book Festival!

Clay Smith
Clay Smith

Ah, it’s that time of year again. Austin City Limits Festival. The State Fair. The Red River Shootout. Post-drought autumn leaves. Halloween displays and — curse them — even the occasional turkey and Christmas tree in stores. Signs of autumn and the Texas Book Festival.

It’s the biggest celebration of books and authors in the state and one of the premier literary festivals in the country. This year’s event is — to borrow an expression from fashionista Rachel Zoe — “Bah-NANAS!!!!” Two hundred twenty authors will descend on the State Capitol in Austin the weekend of Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, to talk about books, writing, and all things literary.

Before I go much further, you need to know this, dear reader: It used to be when orange and black became the predominant retail color scheme, I would be too busy to notice or even care. My annual Halloween costume? Trying not to be a total witch. I would be in full-tilt TBF mode, getting ready to throw that annual literary party for 40,000 people at the Capitol in late October or early November. Having served as the founding director of the Festival from 1996 to 2003 (eight years — or 56 years in dog years, which is what it often felt like), I always looked forward to the Monday after the Texas Book Festival. Still, it was one of the best jobs, ever!

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The Texas-Vermont Connection

Texas has a strong connection with tiny Yankee Vermont — it has one of the largest one of the concentration of graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA programs

Varian Johnson VCFABelieve it or not, big sprawling Texas has a strong connection with tiny Yankee Vermont. No, it has nothing to do with maple syrup or covered bridges or politics (although Sen. Bernie Sanders could pass as a good ol’ yella dawg). It’s this interesting little tidbit: Texas –– and Austin in particular –– has one of the largest concentration of graduates of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA programs.

Texas has long been a hotbed for children’s books, and I’ve known my share of local young-adult authors with credentials from VCFA–– most recently Varian Johnson (right), a rising star in YA literature. But it wasn’t until I had lunch with author Cynthia Leitich Smith (below) last week that it all came together. (Disclaimer: Cyn and I bonded years ago over books and our shared heritage –– we both hail from the great state of Kansas and graduated from the University of Kansas only to end up most happily in Texas!).

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Countdown to Dan Brown’s Next Bazillion

In case your All-Seeing Masonic Eye has been on the fritz, “The Lost Symbol,” Dan Brown’s long-awaited follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code,” drops just after midnight on September 15.

TLS_coverI know I promised I’d write about Texas books and authors, but this is just too big to ignore. In case your All-Seeing Masonic Eye has been on the fritz, Dan Brown’s long-awaited follow-up to The Da Vinci Code drops just after midnight on September 15.

In The Lost Symbol, symbologist Robert Langdon is back in another frenetic hunt, this time racing through our nation’s capital! Chasing after Freemasons and big tattoed eunuchs! Solving some Mensa-type puzzles! Looking at some symbolic art and architecture! And  and who knows what all else, all in the space of 12 hours!!! Whew, that wears me out, just reading about all of that in the preliminary reviews. Maybe Langdon’s angling to replace Jack Bauer? After all “12” would be perfect for people with A.D.D.

If you simply have to know more, here’s the review from the New York Times review — which, by the way, broke the Random House-imposed embargo on the book by publishing the review on Monday. Take THAT, Matt Lauer — scooped by a newspaper! Ha ha ha!

Or go stand in line at your favorite bookstore on Tuesday. And let me know if anyone shows up dressed like their favorite Dan Brown character — Mary Magdelene or albino monks, anyone? Maybe I’ll  run over to BookPeople at midnight to see what’s happening there. Then again, maybe I’d rather just call it a night and get some All-Seeing Shuteye. After all, I’ll be reading all about it later this week.

Lone Star Lit 101

Texas is just that big when it comes to authors and books. What has been going on down here is nothing short of breathtaking for those of us who devour books and literature.

When you think of Texas, certain images pop into mind: Oil wells. Cowboys. Football. The Alamo. Tex-Mex food. Big hair. Honkytonks. For me, I immediately think “writers.” “What the heck?!?!” you may be asking?

Well, remember that vintage postcard map of a Texan’s view of the United States? I’d argue that Texas is just that big when it comes to authors and books. Maybe it’s because I accidentally made Texas writers my business, starting with my stint at Texas Monthly, then as the founding director of the Texas Book Festival, and now as the executive director of the Writers’ League of Texas.

Texas MapTo be sure, Lone Star Literature was in full swing long before I moved to Texas in the –– ahem! –– 1980s. O. Henry did some time (literally and figuratively) right here in Texas, then Katherine Anne Porter escaped her Texas childhood to carve out her own initials on the American literary map. From there, the usual suspects took over: J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb, followed by the likes of John Graves, Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Willie Morris, Bud Shrake, and Dan Jenkins. Continue reading “Lone Star Lit 101”