Books Not a navel-gazer in sight 

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A team of skillful interviewers extracts wisdom from Texas writers

I have a confession to make: Although I call San Antonio home, I'm not a native Texan. Until I moved here as part of a reverse Chicano migration southward (my mother's familia comes from the Valley) a little less than nine years ago, I had never even visited the Lone Star State. For some, this brief biographical sketch would disqualify me from writing about South Texas and the borderlands or considering myself a Texas writer, for nowhere on my birth certificate does the state seal appear.

Such purists will cringe to find that Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley, the editors of Conversations with Texas Writers, don't share their sentiments. To them, "Texas writers" includes those born within the state, even if they've since moved elsewhere, as well as authors who moved to Texas and found inspiration while here. Thankfully, that means that the 50 writers featured in Conversations represent a broad, comprehensive, and contemporary sampling of poets, fiction writers, essayists, screenwriters, and journalists, regardless of birthright.

Curiously enough, you won't find Sandra Cisneros here - a glaring absence, if you're a fan - but you will find other San Antonio writers, including poets Wendy Barker, Angela de Hoyos, and Naomi Shihab Nye. A few icons are included, such as Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment scribe Larry McMurtry - the larger-than-life authors who have, for better or worse, defined Texas to the rest of the nation - but they're balanced by writers' writers: connoisseur favorites and critics' darlings whose words shape, challenge, question, and expand the limits of Texas the state and the state of Texas.

Conversations with Texas Writers
Frances Leonard and Ramona Cearley, Editors
University of Texas Press
$19.95, 422 pages
ISBN: 0292706413
McMurtry downplays his relationship to the region, saying "I don't think about being a writer in Texas at all ... Texas itself doesn't have anything to do with why I write. It never did." In contrast, nature reporter Arturo Longoria, of Adios to the Brushlands, connects the geography of the South Texas and northern Mexico wilderness with a certain ethics of place, calling it a "metaphor for the way we treat the earth." Similarly, in their interviews, white liberals such as Jim Hightower and Molly Ivins explain how growing up in the state when it was legally segregated shaped the social awareness and spirited discourse for which they are known. "What I think fueled the Civil Rights movement for whites of my ilk and my generation," Hightower says, "was the realization that essentially we had been lied to about who made up the world and why."

Insights like this pepper the book and elevate it beyond the navel-gazing that plagues so much writing about writing. The gifted interviewers, culled from the Writers' League of Texas and like groups, deserve credit for the critical and informed questioning that shapes these conversations. Taken separately, they make for interesting reading about favorite or famous authors; together, all 50 portray a craft in dialogue with itself, over its origins, identity, and direction. For these writers - and for McMurtry, much as he may deny it - Texas' influence strikes to the core of their passion. Their conversations are worth reading and worth sharing, no matter where your origins may lie.

By Alejandro Pérez



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