Featured Thriller Author
Writing Scene by Scene
An Interview with Jack Warner
by Joyce Dixon
Jack Warner has always been a writer. He began his journalism career while still in high school as the sport writer for the El Reno Daily Tribune. Sports writing took him to United Press in Dallas, which became United Press International (UPI). At the age of 21, Warner became the New Orleans bureau manager -- and the youngest bureau manager in UPI history. He also worked for UPI in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, before joining the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.
Warner's interest in book-length writing began several years ago when Donna, his wife of 45-years, started working on her book about "coming of age in the Texas Panhandle," which Jack Warner boasts "will be far better than mine if she ever finishes it." Warner watching Donna write "saw that she was doing it scene by scene, so I decided to try that -- it looked simple enough." In defining their relationship, Jack Warner states, "...everything I've ever done, I've done in hopes of impressing her -- 'look, Donna, no hands!' Thankfully, she is fairly easily impressed."
Donna probably recognizes the quality of writing and remarkable ease of writing that Jack Warner exhibits. He is a natural storyteller. By following a simple instruction of scene by scene, he builds an intensity and pace of adventure in his debut novel Shikar that many veteran authors would envy.
Jack Warner has an "ah, shucks" quality about the elements of his career and lifepath that make him unique. His restless spirit caused him to use this energy in crafts -- pottery and woodcraft. He also has taken up shooting and law enforcement. Warner went through the Atlanta Police Academy and is POST-certified in Georgia; and he's been accepted into the Grant County, New Mexico Sheriff's Department reserves. Warner is a member of Cowboy Action Shooting.
In Shikar, Warner's sense of humor comes out in dark comedy with some of the tiger attacks and natural small town situation comedy. However, the publisher didn't get Warner's humor when in his book biography, he described his New Mexico home as a "small lizard ranch" -- alluding to the variety and number of wildlife -- deer, elk, bear, mountain lions, javelina, hummingbirds, roadrunners, etc. Their four acres also has lots of lizards.
You modeled Col. Graham after a real-life tiger hunter Col. James Corbett. Who was he? How did Corbett touch you?
Jim Corbett was born and raised in the foothills of the Himalayas. He roamed the forests there as a child and learned his woodscraft from a poacher. As an adult he worked for the railway, supervising the transfer of goods across the Ganges by steamboat from one railhead to the other. His hunting skills were unsurpassed; even uncanny. The British government frequently asked him to undertake the killing of a man-eating tiger or leopard. As he grew older, he came to see that the uncontrolled hunting of tigers would eventually lead to their extinction, and he became one of the first tiger conservationists. He stopped hunting them except for man-eaters. He loved tigers and all the animals of the forest. He was a man of astonishing courage and unmatched integrity. He also turned out to be a wonderful writer. His first book,
"Man-eaters of Kumaon," was a Book-of-the-Month best-seller shortly after WWII. Subsequent books were "The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag," "The Temple Tiger and Other Man-eaters of Kumaon," "My India," and "Jungle Lore." In the 1990s, an excellent biography, "Carpet Sahib," was published in England, revealing depths of honor and kindness in Corbett never touched upon in his self-effacing books. I don't think it was ever published in the United States except in a limited edition set of Corbett's books. He left India after the fall of the Raj and died in Kenya in 1953. The Indian people thought so highly of him that they named their first tiger preserve after him, and made a museum of his cottage. He was and, obviously, still is, my hero.
How is Roy a part of your own childhood? There is a mysticism about the nature boy in his dreams of being the tiger that hint of Hindu spiritualism. Was that your intention?
No. I know nothing of Hindu spiritualism. When I began the book, Roy was nowhere in sight. I was raised in rural Oklahoma. I had no friends; no children lived within miles. I was certainly not feral -- I walked a mile to a one-room schoolhouse presided over by a nasty male dwarf named Pearl -- but animals were my entertainment. I would crawl on my belly through the
grass to see how close I could come to rabbits playing in a field. I slept by an open window and wondered what lay in the darkness outside, where coyotes were yipping and howling. I brought Roy in just for this -- the idea of the tiger giving him dreams only came later. As that developed, I realized it would add something to the book besides a simple hunter vs. tiger.
You've have many interesting hobbies to channel your restless spirit. How did you get into guns? Describe the experience of going through the police academy.
I wouldn't call pottery and woodturning hobbies. I worked like hell at them. For most of my career with UPI in Atlanta, I worked nights. Very often it was dull -- nothing much going on. I've always had something on the side -- at first I made very bad paintings, for instance. These things didn't get out of hand until pottery. My routine week for nearly 20 years went like this -- Sunday: fire the 36-cubic foot gas kiln I built in the garage and trim and put together the stuff I threw on Saturday. Monday: finish any work left over from Sunday. Tuesday: bisque fire, mix glaze, etc. Wednesday: unload the kiln, price pieces, clean up the feet and put them up. Thursday: glaze and load kiln. Friday: bisque fire and finish loading kiln. Saturday: throw pots. All the while working 40 hours a week.
Donna and I used to shoot before and in the early years of our marriage. But kids came along, it got harder to find a place to shoot, and we dropped it. When I started hanging around with cops, I got back into it. Was amazed to learn Donna wasn't really interested in shooting. It's fun. I haven't hunted since I was a kid. Haven't any great impetus to do it now.
You became a sports writer while in high school and after graduation started your career as a journalist. Could someone do that today?
I'm quite certain that no one today could take the route I did. Nobody, probably not even a very small newspaper, would give you a second look without a college education. College educations mean a lot less today than they did 50 years ago -- everyone's got to have one to have any hope of a white-collar job. I never regretted not having one until I retired, and learned that the GBI might have hired me as a field agent had I gotten a degree.
At age 21, you became the youngest bureau manager in UPI history, taking charge of the New Orleans bureau. One of the stories you covered was Gov. Earl Long's insanity commitment. What did you think of Gov. Long and the Long family influence in Louisiana?
Despite the conclusions of people like A.J. Liebling, who came in after the story was over, Earl Long was crazy as a loon. Funny, but crazy. I spent a week with him at the temporary state capitol in a small motel outside Mandeville, La., after he sprang himself from the insane asylum there. Somewhere I have a picture of a news conference he called in his room. He's sitting there in his pajamas, his teeth in a glass in the bathroom. I'm sitting next to him and he's knocking his cigarette ashes in my pants cuff. Those were heady days. As to what I thought of the Long family influence in Louisiana, I'm not now, nor was I then, astute enough to even think about assessing it. I'm just a storyteller, you know.
What was it like to cover the South for the wire service during the era of Civil Rights?
In those days, I ran the night desk in Atlanta. I took calls from reporters in the field and turned those notes into national stories. I rarely went out to cover anything, so I haven't any wonderful first-hand stories to tell. There was certainly a feeling of doing something important, beyond the mere coverage of daily events.
Willie B., Atlanta Zoo's famous gorilla, spent many years in a small room with a tire swing before the current zoo was designed. With your love of animals and nature, how did Willie B. touch you?
The socialization of Willie B. was a wonderful thing to see. The people engineering it, from Terry Maple down to Charles Horton, were fairly apprehensive. These are, after all, powerful creatures. I attended the physical examination of another silverback at the zoo. While he was under anesthetic, I lifted his arm. It took both my hands, like lifting a very large log.
At any rate, there was the potential for disaster at every step of the way. But Willie took every change, every development, with unruffled aplomb, a perfect gentleman. Nothing ever seemed to upset him. I admired him greatly. I was also very fond of Kinyani, who once nearly succeeded in stealing my notebook while I was watching Willie.
You passed on an earlier offer from HarperCollins for "Shikar," because they wanted a rewrite making it a less complex thriller with the tiger more of a villain. In a sense, it would be dumbing down a novel rich in characters and conservation issues. Why did you turn it down?
Basically, I turned it down because I couldn't do it. There were two reasons for that. First, although I have no objection to inserting some mysticism or even touches of the supernatural into a book, I insist on realism. If I write about an elephant, it will act like an elephant. If I write about a tiger, it will behave like a normal tiger. This editor wanted a demonized tiger. Second, this book was in some way my tribute to Corbett, who has always been an inspiration to me. Demonizing a tiger would have flown in the face of everything he stood for. Given these attitudes, I couldn't have written that sort of thing if I'd been starving.
How important is a book editor to get the attention of a publisher in today's competitive market? How did Patrick LoBrutto improve your novel?
As for the first part of the question, I still don't understand the process well enough to answer. As for the second, Pat was a huge help without ever fussing over details. The publisher had two requirements -- Graham had to be flesh and blood (he was a sort of ghost in the original) and it had to be shortened. Pat suggested -- at my request -- sections he felt could be cut, and I cut them. He also helped me figure a way to make Graham whole – by making him the son of the great hunter. If I recall right, he also suggested a certain scene would be better in another place, and that, too, was a fine with me. The most important thing about working with Pat was that he made me feel like what I was doing was not only good, but important, and he was always extremely sensitive about my feelings. We never had a disagreement.
In light of the problems at the New York Times, would you care to comment on journalism ethics?
Journalism ethics are no different now than they ever were. The vast majority of newspeople adhere to a good standard. A few do not. That the few get far enough to cause an uproar is always the fault of management, besotted for whatever reason with the culprit and refusing to listen to those who are blowing the whistle. I did not really come to be a reporter until my final years at the AJC. Only then did I fully realize the power a reporter has to ruin people's lives without a second thought. It made me very, very careful.
Even though you spent your career in the news room, you saw yourself as a storyteller more than a journalist. How is a storyteller important for seeing the whole story/event?
In the eyes of most upper-level newspaper editors, a storyteller is useless. Very few newspapers value really good writing. If a story is reasonably understandable, they're satisfied. There have been times when I got so little reaction from a very good piece of work that I felt I might as well have written it in Sanskrit. So I suppose a storyteller isn't very important -- except to the reader. And this is a major reason, I believe, why newspaper circulation is declining. Newspapers grow more and more boring.
Tell us about your next book.
All I will say about it is that it is set in Atlanta, has a lot more police procedure in it, but it still concerns something out of place. In fact, that's about all I know about it.
Selected Works of Jack Warner for UPI and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
© 2003, Joyce Dixon, All Rights Reserved