INTERVIEW WITH Reavis Wortham

MIKE BARSON: This is the seventh novel in the Red River Mystery series, and it opens in 1968, one of the most interesting years ever. Although you lived through that time as a teen, how did you research the specifics of the period to get it right for the novel?

REAVIS WORTHAM: Part of that may be because a significant portion of the novel is based on the true story of a CIA experiment in California back in 1950. To conduct a simulation of a biological warfare attack, the U.S. Navy sprayed large quantities of a seemingly harmless bacteria over the city of San Francisco during a project called Operation Sea-Spray. A number ofcitizens contracted pneumonia-like illnesses, and at least one person died as a result. It was frightening to find out those tests were continued until at least 1969. I came across this story four or five years ago and thought, “What if?” The story moved on from there and became GOLD DUST when my fictional CIA agents contracted for a substance of the same name to be sprayed on the tiny community of Center Springs, Texas.

As you said, those times are familiar to me, but I also have to do a little research to make sure my memory matches with the facts, such as getting the right songs in the right year, talking to Stock Inspectors about cattle rustling in the 1960s (yep, in addition to the biological experimentation, there’s a secondary plot line about rustling), and driving to the Broken Spoke dance hall in Austin and interviewing the man who still owns it.

I also wanted to check into the Austin music scene at that time, and that took a little doing to find out who was playing then. I remember some of that music from when I was a kid, but it was an interesting mix of traditional country and those new kids like the Country Joe and the Fish, and a raspy gal named Janis Joplin who was changing the face of rock.

MB: The CIA looms large in the plot for this book, eventually drawing two of the key characters right into Washington DC. That’s a major departure from your usual setting of small-town Center Springs, Texas. Did you have to take a different writing approach to allow for the wider scope of the book?

RW: GOLD DUST came about the same way all my books are written. I sit down, put my fingers on the keys with the germ of an idea in mind, and watch the characters and situations come to life on my screen. I’d been thinking of expanding the series beyond the bounds of Lamar County, Texas, once again and when the CIA appeared in the story, I knew I had to follow it to Washington, D.C. At the same time, my editor at Poisoned Pen, Annette Rogers, mentioned to me that she was interested in seeing what the music scene in Austin looked like back in the late 1960s, and thought that would give the story a little extra spice. I learned long ago to listen to those who’ve worked in this industry longer than I’ve been writing.

I’d been to D.C. several times, so I had a good grasp of the city layout, but the Bride and I flew out there last year to do a little more research with my good friend and bestselling author, John Gilstrap. He had some great insight, since he lives in Alexandria, and drove us past CIA headquarters where they answer the phone, “Bureau of Public Roads,” way back then. Ain’t that great?

Then I followed my characters as they left there and went to Missouri, and that came from a conversation with a good friend who lives on a trout stream up there. Little conversations can lead to plot changes, and that’s what happened in one of the later scenes.

I’m glad you brought up the two key characters who go to Washington to settle up with the CIA. One of them is Constable Ned Parker, who watched his grandson, Top, almost die from the Gold Dust. He takes along another character that we left for dead in Mexico way back in THE RIGHT SIDE OF WRONG, Texas Ranger Tom Bell. I can’t remember a single book signing after that novel came out that didn’t get me a royal butt chewin’ because I’d “killed” Tom off.  I think Tom’s fans will love this one, and his return prompted me to consider a spinoff novel set in the 1930s, featuring a much younger Tom Bell. That one’s bubbling in the back of my head right now, waiting for me to get two more manuscripts out of the way before I can start working on that one.

MB: The Red River series moves through the 1960s one year at a time, bringing it up to 1969 for the next entry. Are you preparing to continue the series right on through the Seventies as the years roll on?

RW: I should have moved slower, keeping more the books in the early and mid 60s, because so much was happening in this country that I didn’t address. The last two books are packed into a shorter time period to stay in those “interesting” times, and the next Red River manuscript I’m working on, LAYING BONES, is set in early 1969. But yes, I’ll eventually have to move the characters into the 1970s, and we’ll continue there for as long as the series maintains itself.

To me, the early 70s, up to 1975, were the tail end of the previous decade, because so much of the civil issues, the Vietnam War, and even the music was still feeding off those earlier roots. Now, I’m not sure what’ll happen after ’75, because that’s when disco came in…

MB: Who have some of your major influences been in crime fiction? And whose work in 2018 are you particularly enjoying?

RW: I was heavily influenced by Donald E. Westlake for sure. One of my proudest moments was when a Booklist gave VENGEANCE IS MINE a Starred Review and said “This very entertaining novel, set in 1967, is reminiscent of Donald E. Westlake’s Mob comedies The Fugitive Pigeon (1965) and The Busy Body (1966), which, like this book, feature offbeat characters getting themselves into offbeat situations―although this book also has a more serious side, too.” I could have retired from writing then, happy as a pig in sunshine.

I’ve been a great fan of Elmore Leonard for years, as well as Richard Stark (Westlake’s nom de plume), Mickey Spillane, Donald Hamilton, and folks you might not have ever heard of, such as John Whitlatch, George C. Chesbro, Larry Block, and Tony Kendrick. Other crime writers, some I now call friends have been influential as well, from C.J. Box, James Lee Burke, Craig Johnson, and Robert B. Parker. There’s a new gal coming up named Lisa Preston with a new twist on the modern crime western.

MB: You write another crime series that is contemporary, featuring Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke. How difficult is it for you to shift gears between that one and the historical Red River Mystery series? 

RW: It’s not difficult at all to shift gears between the Red River novels and the Hawke books. They all feature Texans who simply try to do what’s right–though sometimes circumstances force them to work in the gray edges of the law. The Red River books are historical mystery thrillers (my categorization), while the Hawke books are pure adrenaline thrillers. The only thing I had to do was harden the way I write for the contemporary Hawkes, stripping out some of the folksy, slower-paced chapters my readers have come to expect in the RR novels, while keeping that Texas voice that identifies my work as separate from others who write about Texas.

MB: A technique you employ in the Red River books that I find especially interesting is having all of the action written in the third person, with the lone exception being the chapters that revolve around Top, which are written in the first person. How did you come to devise that approach to these novels?

RW: That came from the first book in the series, THE ROCK HOLE. I wrote it in two different voices to experiment with the story. I didn’t get what I wanted writing in first person all the time, so I re-wrote it in third, but that left out the personal heart that I wanted in the stories. It was then I remembered what my high school English teacher once told us, when she said we’d learned all the rules: “Now break them and find your Voice.”

So I looked at the world through Top’s eyes and found that I could put more soul into those chapters by writing his viewpoint in first person. But I wanted to know more. What was Ned doing and thinking? What were the bad guys doing and thinking? Did the world look different from John Washington’s point of view? When I blended those alternating viewpoints, everything came together.

Then the second writers conference I went to had a panel on character viewpoints. The panel featured a famous author that I’ve always loved to read. He announced with authority that it was impossible to switch viewpoints from first to third, and write well enough that Readers could keep up. I’d already written THE ROCK HOLE and BURROWS, and they were both critically acclaimed by reviewers, so I figured Miss Linda Adams was right when she told us all to break the rules. I’ve written in that Voice in every novel, and they’ve all been successful. I think that readers will see that GOLD DUST maintains those standards.

GOLF DUST will be published by Poisoned Pen Press in September.