Texan Reavis Wortham is an award-winning writer and photographer whose humorous articles on outdoor life, hunting, and fishing have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers such as Texas Sportsman, American Cowboy, and Vintage Trucks. His article “Shooting Squirrels in a Barrel” received an award from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. A retired educator, Reavis continues to reside in Texas with his wife of many years who has been the focus of several of her husband’s tongue in cheek columns, and is obviously a lady of great patience, charm, and a poor aim as she hasn’t hit him yet.
These days, many of us seem to primarily attribute the concept of ‘humorist’ to political commentaries or comedic takes on world events. Dave Barry and Erma Bombeck became household names with their witty observations of life around them. But the visage of a man, his feet propped up on a wood burning stove in a general store, or tying fishing lures on a porch as he spins his yarns, is fading from our culture. Fortunately, we still have a few writers like Patrick McManus and Reavis Wortham to remind us our routines and hobbies can be hilarious. Reavis recently wrote about his experience with a fictional 900 number for fishing enthusiasts who enjoy a little rod play. I was laughing so much I choked on my soft drink, which sent the dog barking for my wife, who gave him a treat and told him to go lie down. I now keep my cell phone within reach at all times.
Reavis’s humor and love of quirky characters resulted in a collection of short stories titled “Doreen’s 24 Hour Eat Gas Now Café.” If you’ve ever hunted or fished, or been abandoned during deer season to enjoy the quiet of home, “Doreen’s” is probably a good laugh you’ll enjoy for hours.
However, Reavis’s storytelling interests extend beyond the comedic. Last year “The Rock Hole” debuted. “The Rock Hole” introduced the Red River Mystery Series featuring Ned Parker, an aging lawman in 1964, and his relatives and friends. The author’s combination of superb prose topping a recipe of mystery and suspense sprinkled with downhome humor quickly garnered much deserved attention. Still, “The Rock Hole” only served notice of things to come.
“Burrows,” the second in the Red River series, was released this year. Reavis’s masterful writing takes us inside a terror-ridden warehouse of trash, booby traps, and murder that keeps the reader turning the pages. Yet, within the story is a childish purity matched with an aging character’s soon-to-come death that results in a tender connection of past and future. Interestingly, more than one reviewer, including Publishers Weekly, has likened this fine and touching balance to Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” What’s next from Reavis Wortham? We can only hope it comes soon.
Q) How did the comparisons of “Burrows” against “To Kill a Mockingbird” change your opinion or attitude of your writing abilities?
A) Comparison to such a great work of literature is embarrassing, to say the least. I am humbled that the reviewer thought BURROWS reminded them of such a famous and successful novel. It made writing much harder, though, because now I find myself overthinking what I’ve done.
You mentioned Pat McManus, who I’ve admired for years, and again, there’s that comparison thing that causes me to need a bigger hat size, but is also a great honor. Frankly, what I’ve produced works until I pause to read for relaxation, and then I feel like a hack. When I’m writing, I’ve learned to never open books by Larry McMurtry, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Tim Dorsey or my friend John Gilstrap (to name only a few), or any of the classics. These guys make it look easy, so I just plow ahead until deadline with a sick feeling of dreaded failure, and then send the manuscript in and hope for the best. I think I’m getting better, though, book by book.
Q) You actually started writing “Burrows” in the 1980s. What was it about this story that wouldn’t go away and caused you to eventually bring it to life?
A) I have a fascination with certain stories I’ve read through the years. Nearly 35 years ago, I read about the Collyer Brothers from New York, who in the 1930s were hoarders to the Nth degree, long before these true life television programs. Those guys filled a New York brownstone with a lifetime of collected junk, which eventually killed them both. So I thought, what if…
The idea was originally a short story that I shelved. Over the years, I’d take it out, dust it off, and try to rewrite it in a variety of ways, using contemporary settings. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. An entire brownstone filled with junk that eventually kills the owners. And then, while I was working on BURROWS the plot led me to The Cotton Exchange, in my fictional town of Chisum. Again, I thought, what if…and the simple idea of hoarding gone wild became the main story line in BURROWS.
Interestingly enough, while in the first few chapters of my next novel in THE RED RIVER mystery series, THE RIGHT SIDE OF WRONG, another distant memory stirred. Back in the 1970s I read about a man who was arrested down in Mexico. The guy went to jail, where he suffered unthinkable brutalities in the hands of both the guards and prisoners. He bribed a guard to let him make one phone call to his best friend who owned a used car lot just across the border, in Texas. The car salesman hung up the phone, crossed the border with enough guns to start a small country, and shot his way into the jail. He found his friend, and together they fought their way back across into Texas. How can you not use that idea when your protagonist in a new novel finds himself in Mexico, needing help?
Q) Your wife is a poet. Have you considered infusing her art form into one of your stories?
A) My bride, who I call The War Department in my newspaper columns and magazine articles, has fun with poetry, but she has never even tried to get published. I don’t have that knack, but maybe one of my characters, twelve-year-old Pepper, can start writing poetry. That might be The War Department’s role in the next book as we watch Pepper grow older. My bride and I have co-written a few newspaper columns that came out surprisingly well, with few resulting injuries to my person.
Q) You truly do create some very funny characters and situations. What or whom do you credit for your style of homespun humor?
A) I have to thank Pat McManus for his inspiration to commit humor, as well as the late writers Corey Ford and Donald Westlake. Those guys spin tales that make me laugh, but at the same time, the stories are real and give a sense of atmosphere and place. There’s always humor in everything we do, even in the worst moments of our lives, so I try to break up the tension to give the readers a break. Other guys who were inspirational to my humor and attempts to write are William C. Anderson, (who I guess truly inspired me to write way back when I was in high school), Jack Douglas, and finally, Jean Shepherd and Max Shulman, all very funny guys, and sadly, all gone.
Q) Western, country, rural…whatever term a person chooses to brand the traditional style of a humorist with is fading. Do you believe it can be saved, and, if so, how?
A) Publishers these days are asking for contemporary situations. That’s what sells, and when you deviate from what’s working, they get nervous. I am the Humor Editor of Texas Fish and Game Magazine, one of the few outdoor magazines that lists a staff humorist. Back in the day, Ed Zern and Corey Ford kept us entertained with their stories that were funny and atmospheric, but made us think. I believe that’s because America was 80% rural, and their small town guys were recognizable to a changing society. Today, we’re 80% urban, and too many folks find western, country or rural humor to be corn pone.
That said, Pat McManus still gives us chuckles in his monthly Outdoor Life columns, so traditional humor is still alive and well. But too many other magazines are a little too snooty to print something as low as humor. Remember the days when The Saturday Evening Post printed funny columns? Today’s mainstream magazines have turned to sex, cooking recipes, sex, fashion, and fifty shades of sex, forgetting how it was when Prudence Macintosh and other humorists brought something different to the publication. We all need to stick with what brung us. The old ways worked then, why not now? The Humorist can be saved, if publishers lighten up and allow writers to produce work that is fun and clean.
Q) Any parting thoughts for fans or folks who have yet to read your work?
A) Well, my novels aren’t full of humor, and don’t expect the same thing from book to book. I have no formula, and although the main characters continue to reappear, each novel is different in some way.
The reviewers have been very kind, so it looks like I’m doing the right thing, only I don’t know what that is. Someone said BURROWS is the child of Harper Lee and Stephen King. Hummm.
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD takes us back to a time that is truly gone, and rapidly disappearing from memory of those who were there. The very foundation of that novel is disappearing as well. Small town life in rural America, specific ways of speaking and phrases that fade into oblivion from disuse are vanishing, so when I started THE ROCK HOLE, I simply wanted to preserve those things and tell a good story about how simple people in their small communities deal with the outside influences of the world.
THE ROCK HOLE was a true, traditional mystery. The much darker BURROWS was a “mystery thriller.” I think the next installment in THE RED RIVER series, THE RIGHT SIDE OF WRONG is a thriller that rubbed up against a mystery, at least until the surprise ending that even shocked me. The books show that even in our darkest days we can find humor or levity, at least for a moment. I thank anyone who reads my newspaper columns, magazine articles, or the novels, and I’m humbled that you’ve selected my work from the many thousands of books out there.
DA Kentner is the author of the acclaimed suspense novel Whistle Pass http://whistlepass.blogspot.com/