Joyrides and Family Feuds: MysteryPeople Q&A with Reavis Wortham

  • Interviewed by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

We’re happy to be hosting Reavis Z. Wortham this Friday, October 21st, at 7 PM, as part of a panel discussion with Rob Hart and Tim Bryant. His latest in his Red River series, Unraveled, has the lawmen of Central Springs, Texas, as well as teen cousins Top and Pepper, contend with the fallout from a car crash. The accident injures two people of the opposite sex and race, who belong to opposite sides of a feuding family. We caught up with him to discuss the book, music, and the book’s 1968 setting.

MysteryPeople Scott: I know Unraveled was inspired by a song. What was it about the tune that sparked the idea for a novel?

Reavis Z. Wortham: I’m a huge country music fan, and by that I mean traditional country and not the bubble-gum rock and roll hick rap crap that’s out there right now. Sorry if I’ve alienated any readers, but good country tells a story, sometimes about the good things in life, but mostly death, cheating, troubles, heartache, misery, and Life that’s wrested from the ground by blood, sweat, and hard work. You know, the fun stuff to sing about…or listen to. It’s played with three chords in 3/4 or 4/4 time, and touches the heart.

A couple of years ago I was on a road trip, listening to an old song about two people who shouldn’t have been in a car together. I’d heard it a hundred times since it first came on in the Old Man’s pickup back in the ‘60s and it continued to resonate through the decades. I must have been in just the right mood when it came on that day and the subject matter inspired me to tinker around with a short story that quickly evolved into an entire novel, Unraveled, because it’s about people’s lives unraveling in more than one way.

MPS: I felt like this was the most you focused on Center Springs, itself, since The Rock Hole. What did you want to explore about the community this time?

RW: I felt it was time for a return to the taproot of this series. The little fictional farming community remained at the core of the other storylines, but the characters moved progressively farther from Center Springs and into other states and even across the Rio Grande into Mexico. The plot of Unraveled refused to move beyond Lamar County, and no matter what I tried, the story remained right there on the Red River, and I soon realized there was a reason for that.

My granddad (who is the real constable Ned Parker) once told me that small towns and communities are like ponds. They’re still and calm on the surface, but full of life and death down below. Knowing the stories of those who grew up and lived in the country gave me the inspiration to explore the secret lives of common people. I think Unraveled brings all that together, but with a backbeat of rock and roll from Pepper’s transistor radio.

At the same time, the characters developed on their own. When the other storylines dictated where the action went, it seemed that I was unable to look into the relationships of the people living in that community, how their lives comingled, and what drove them. This time there’s more family interaction involving the Parkers, and the feuding Clays and Mayfields. It’s all there, for better or worse.

MPS: Was there a particular reason this story fit in the turbulent year of 1968?

RW: We’ve been following Top and Pepper since The Rock Hole, and saw how the family lived in the early 1960s while the world swirled and spun around them. As the kids grew older and stepped into adolescence, that year became important in many ways for both youngsters and adults as well. Lots was going on in 1968 as riots broke out all across the country, the insanity of the Vietnam war accelerated, and the Democratic National Convention spiraled out of control. Folks were marching and struggling for civil rights, the accelerating Apollo Space Program was going strong and looking toward the moon, and the rapidly changing counter-culture had kids marching and organizing sit-ins opposing the war and the U.S. government. There was lots going on, but in small towns folks mostly watched all that drama on television.

I felt it was the perfect time for this story to be told. Now Top and Pepper are finally in their teenage years, driven by hormones and torn between the simple life they love and the siren call of the Love Generation. Adults are resisting the changing culture that threatens their traditional values. With all that going on, folks are still living their lives, some struggling in quiet desperation, while others do their best to break away.

Unfortunately, when I looked beneath the surface of that community in Unraveled, there was a darker side. Despite what was going on outside of their little world in 1968, people encountered problems, sometimes of their own making, other times thrust upon then, and every now and then they were saddled with the actions of their elders. Morals and values are always challenged, but families stick together (or should), no matter what. In Unraveled, people stand up for what they believe in, no matter if it’s right, or wrong.

MPS: How has Top grown over the books?

RW: Through the previous five novels, Top and Pepper have seen a lot and the trauma of everything from shootings to kidnappings have taken a toll on their childhood. Top wants to be tougher than he is, but asthma and a slow growth cycle is holding him back. He’s the direct opposite of his precocious cousin Pepper, who is filling out and lives for adventure and rock and roll. She listens to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. Top stays with the lighter side of music, leaning toward The Archies and the Monkees. Since The Rock Hole, when Top was ten years old, he’s revealed feelings that others don’t see, and their emotions sometimes drives the action, or reveals secrets they carry way down deep inside. Though he’s still immature in his actions and thoughts, you can tell that he’s growing and learning.

MPS: You have said that these books show how the sixties effect this small town. What do you think Center Springs and your main characters have retained through the decade?

RW: The characters in the Red River series maintain the foundation of their lives, the family. Through the books, their moral codes and loyalties have been tested and stretched. This foundation may have small cracks, but it remains remain solid. Despite the outside influences that flow through the community like a river slipping its banks, families pull together in every situation. It’s how life was when I was a kid, people helping each other and I wanted the books to reflect that loyalty.

MPS: You have a new series coming out next year. What can you tell us about it?

RW: I’m excited about the series that will be released by Kensington Publishing. We danced for a couple of years before the Sonny Hawke thrillers solidified, and now I can tell you the first novel, Hawke’s Prey, featuring Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke, will be released on July 1, 2017, in a paperback format that will be distributed across the nation. I’m honored to have Kensington behind me on these thrillers that are dramatically different than the Red River series.

Hawke’s Prey is set in the fictional town of Ballard, Texas, over an hour’s drive from Big Bend National Park. Terrorists take over the local courthouse at the same time a 100-year blizzard shuts down all of West Texas, and Sonny Hawke is the only monkey wrench in the works.

My updated website (www.reaviszwortham.com) will launch in a few weeks, and there you’ll find the cover for Hawke’s Prey, as well as a detailed description of the characters that fill the pages. I think this is going to be a fantastic series, and for those who love thrillers, grab one on July 1, 2017, and hang on for the ride.

You can find copies of Wortham’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com. Wortham comes to speak and sign his latest this Friday, October 21st, at 7 PM. He’ll be joined by Rob Hart and Tim Bryant for a panel discussion to be remembered. 

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