- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
For the last last several years, Reavis Wortham has been delivering tales of the men and women who uphold the law in 1960’s Central Springs Texas. Hawke’s Prey, his first thriller to feature contemporary Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke, reads like a cross between The Last Picture Show and Die Hard. Reavis will be joining us this Tuesday, August 1st at 7 PM here at BookPeople. We caught up ahead of time to talk about the new book and the different tract he took in writing.
MysteryPeople Scott: You said with Hawke’s Prey you were asked to write a thriller, something you hadn’t done before. How did you take on the challenge?
Reavis Wortham: It was my agent’s idea, along with a strong suggestion from my friend and mentor, John Gilstrap. My next step after getting the first book published, getting a series, gaining positive reviews, traveling with writers, and winning an award or two, is to now hit the bestseller lists. It’s harder than you think, and both Ann and John said the best way was through thrillers. John says the Red River books are borderline thrillers anyway. Historical mystery thrillers. Thought the Red River books are well-received, and Unraveled, the newest RR novel, is up for an award this summer, the publisher simply isn’t big enough to put me in the running with the big dogs.
I like thrillers, too. Writing mysteries was an accident, and though I love them, I want action, but writing them is dramatically different from the RR books. My historical mystery thrillers move much slower than a thriller, and the setup is paced much differently than today’s thrillers. When I wrote the first draft of Hawke’s Prey and sent it to John as my Beta Reader, he came back with one dramatic suggestion.
“Cut the first four chapters. Your thriller begins in Chapter 5.”
He was right. Chapter 5 is now Chapter 1, and all that setup and information is now scattered throughout Hawke’s Prey. Then there’s the pacing. Thrillers have to maintain a fast pace, all the time building up pressure toward the end. It took a couple of months to get that idea into my head, but after it locked in this first novel in the Sonny Hawke thriller series is a rollercoaster ride to the end.
MPS: Since Hawke’s Prey moves at a faster pace than most of the books in your Red River series, did the tempo effect the story telling at all?
RW: The tempo of this thriller didn’t change things at all in terms of the story arc, but it didn’t lend itself to those lazy curves where the Red River books slow down. In those you see the slower pace of life in small town northeast Texas, and the humor comes in the form of stories or anecdotes. In Hawke’s Prey, the humor is there, but in a completely different form one of frustration, fear, and in the way we think.
We’ve all been involved in situations where we either couldn’t think of what to say at that critical moment, but after the event is over and we turn it over in our minds, the perfect sentence, comeback or word pops up. Sonny Hawke doesn’t have a lot of time for has a lot of time for conversation, so we see his actions and are privy to the thoughts that go through his mind. That’s where you see who he is and what this Texas Ranger is made of.
MPS: One thing of your previous work that carried over into this and made it fresher was the ensemble feeling and your cast of characters. Sonny is the hero, but others do heroic things and we see them from their point of view. How does having these other strong characters help you tell the story you want?
RW: You’ll be glad to know there’s an ensemble cast in these thrillers as well. Of course my fictional Texas Ranger is Sonny Hawke, but he’s married to Kelly, a school teacher who shows her strength when her class is taken hostage by terrorists in the county courthouse. Herman’s dad, a retired Texas Ranger is the family touchstone who, along with his hired ranch hand Gabe Nakai, help coordinate Sheriff Ethan Hawke’s plan to rescue the hostages. Then you have Sonny’s high school twins, Mary and Jerry, the half-cocked ranching Mayo Brothers, and a dozen of the town’s quirky characters.
This series contains the same DNA as the Red River books, only on steroids.
MPS: Was there a particular reason you chose a Texas Ranger as your series character?
RW: That was nothing but a thought that popped into my head in the heat of desperation. I was on the phone to my agent, pitching a series idea that I loved, and so did Craig Johnson, John Gilstrap, and half a dozen other authors who heard it one snowy night in a Colorado Springs Hotel. They pronounced it brilliant, but my agent had reservations about the subject matter at the time. So I pitched her a second idea, which she shot down like a clay pigeon. My third suggestion didn’t far any better, and I was out of time on that conference call.
Grabbing at straws by then, because I sure didn’t have a third idea in mind, I glanced down to the cover of a book I was reading titled, One Ranger. “How about a contemporary series featuring a Texas Ranger?”
“What part of the state? We don’t need another series set in east Texas.”
I was in my office and we’d been planning a trip to the Big Bend region. The map was open on my desk. “How about west Texas…in Marfa.”
Though Ann is in New York City, she’s spent time in Texas. “I love it! That’s your series! Keep going. What happens there?”
“Well, it sure won’t be about the Marfa lights. How about the snowstorm of the century shutting the town completely down? I’ll rename it, and have terrorists take over the county courthouse at the same time.”
And a series was born.
MPS: Like Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton, I think we would know we were in Texas even if you never stated it. What does the state provide for your writing?
RW: For a fourth-generation Texan, it’s everything I need. This first Sonny Hawke, and the next, are set in the Big Bend region of Texas, the last frontier in the Lone Star State. It’s still pretty western out there, but after Hawke’s War (2018), my Texas Ranger will move across the state dispensing the old-fashioned justice that people are longing for. The bad guys go down so they can no longer hurt or kill any longer.
I hope this new contemporary series shows the true spirit of Texas and Texans. We live in a state with sweeping landscapes, five geographical regions, mountains, prairies, deep canyons, beautiful rolling hills, and 367 miles of coastline. It’s rich in history and opportunities for my Texas Ranger to range, as Mr. McMurtry said in his Lonesome Dove saga.