Photo credit: Jerry Lee, Jr.
Celebrating Small Town America
An Interview with Jim Black
by Orrin C. Judd
Often the birth of a novel originates in a self-published gift for family and friends. That is how Jim Black created There's a River Down in Texas back in 1999. As word spread, other wanted copies and over the next two years he made and sold over seven hundred.
After a title change, and the addition of fifty pages, River Season was sold to Penguin Putnam, Inc. The rite of passage novel has also been adapted into a stage play under the original title.
Author Jim Black grew up in Archer City, Texas, with many of the same influences of Larry McMurtry. He lives in Wichita Falls, Texas, with his wife, Lorrie, and their dog, Max.
First off, as one reads a novel about a boy named Jim Black by a man named Jim Black, which thanks two of the novel's characters in the Acknowledgments of the book, it's hard not to wonder what's true and what's fiction. How extensively did you draw upon your own youth for the book?
Like many first novels, River Season is largely autobiographical.
After all, they say to write what you know. The remainder is pure fiction, so there was never any consideration given by me or my editor to it being a memoir. I know novels rarely include the actual names of real persons, especially the author, but those were remnants of the original, self-published version, and neither my agent nor editor voiced any need for me to change them. Rather, both agreed it made the story more personal.
Besides going the fiction route, two other choices seem especially interesting here: (1) that you invoke the racial climate of the times but you don't give the book over entirely to the theme; (2) that there's a sense of magic and mystery lurking in the background, monsters in the river and the woods, but you don't turn it into a supernatural thriller either. How conscious were you of such choices?
The racial environment depicted in the book is accurate to what was going on in my hometown in the 1960's, and for the most part, the magic and mystery are the result of the thirteen-year-old boys’ imaginations.
Bulking up on either simply would not have been true to the story I wanted to tell. It was a conscience decision, but not one I ever considered “courageous”. My editor and I never discussed the prospect of my venturing off the path I'd chosen. And that path was clear. River Season, more than anything, is a love story.
How did you come to write the book? For some obvious reasons the story calls to mind Huckleberry Finn--were you aware of that as you wrote?
I first wrote the story for my wife, mom, sister, and my two best friends. Using only a personal computer, paper cutter, and some glue I fashioned a homemade “trade paperback” which I gave as Christmas gifts in 1999. It was titled, There’s a River Down in Texas. As it was loaned out, others wanted copies, and so I began distributing them. Over the next two years, I made and sold over seven hundred. It took me nearly an hour to make each one, and so I spent many a long night and weekend doing so. Having grown up in Larry McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, Texas, my sister thought I should send him a copy. I'd never met him and wasn't about to bother a Pulitzer Prize wining author with my piddly homemade book, but she was persistent, and I finally relented. To my amazement, just four days later I received a card from him with some very nice comments about the book and permission to use them! I then decided to try and get it professionally published and began sending out queries to agents and publishers. After twenty-nine rejections, an agent in New York finally agreed to take a look at my manuscript. She loved it. At her suggestion, I lengthened it and changed the title, and it was promptly picked up by Penguin Putnam. River Season was released as a Viking hardcover in July 2003 and a Penguin paperback in Sept. 2004. It is also available in large print and audio from Recorded Books.
I'd like to think one could spot the influence of my favorite authors in my work, but suspect you'd have to look hard. In addition to being a Larry McMurtry fan all my life, I greatly admire Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance), Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), and greatly enjoyed Stephen King’s early novels.
Despite the book’s constant comparison to Huck Finn, none was intended.
The fact is, I last read Twain’s classic back in high school and am ashamed to say I don't remember much about it.
Brian Lamb of Booknotes (C-SPAN) always asks a question that I find interesting. How do you go about the physical task of writing?
I am the world’s least disciplined writer, often going weeks or months without working. Simply put, the mood has to hit me. When it does, I'll generally type frantically for two or three days at a time, but something has to trigger it for me. Sometimes, it’s a old song on the radio or a scene in movie that stirs an emotion in me. I've always thought if you're one who cries at movies, you might be a writer and not know it.
I understand you've staged the story as a play too and it seems like it would work well in that medium as well as on film. Has anyone approached you about the possibility of making a movie?
I've received cards, letters, Emails, and phone calls from readers everywhere wanting to share their thoughts and feelings with me upon finishing the book. And one thing they all say is, “This would make a great movie.” And I hope someday it will be. But as we both know, it takes some luck. The book hasn't been marketed very well by Penguin, and for the most part, is hiding among the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Hopefully, someday, the right person will come across it and that will happen. In the meantime, it's great fun to pick who should portray the characters. Morgan Freeman is the overwhelming choice for Sam. However, I recently saw a actor in the movie, The Majestic, named Gerry Black, whom I also think would be terrific.
The play came about when the Royal Theater group in Archer City (this is the same Royal Theater made famous by McMurtry in The Last Picture Show and Texasville) approached me about adapting the story to the stage. I did so and called it by its original name, There’s a River Down in Texas. The highly publicized production premiered in October of 2002 and was a huge success. The original cast members all have full-time jobs or attend school so it’s not possible for them to tour it. Remember, this is small-town community theater. I've not pursued getting the script published, so it’s doubtful it will be presented elsewhere.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about what you're working on now?
I've completed a sequel which I call Tracks. As we speak, it’s floundering about at Viking/Penguin, not scheduled for publication.
That’s sad because I think it’s better than the original. In the meantime, I am at work on a third, unrelated to the others. Now, if the oldies station on the radio will play just the right song...
This interview was contributed by Orrin C. Judd owner of brothersjudd.com, where this interview originally appeared.
© 2005, Orrin C. Judd, All Rights Reserved