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By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Dallas native Harry Hunsicker leads something of a double life. In his day job, he runs his family business as a commercial real estate appraiser. But in his spare time, he writes Texas-centric thrillers.

“My day job has meant that I have been to just about every corner of the city, places most people don’t know exist,” Hunsicker says. “That’s what really colors my writing, the starting point of almost every story, the sense of place that a vibrant town like Dallas has to offer.”

In his newest book, The Devil’s Country (Thomas & Mercer, $15.95), Hunsicker introduces a new protagonist: a former Texas Ranger from Dallas. Arlo Baines gets off the bus in a dusty West Texas town and finds himself in the middle of a mysterious, cult-related murder, with two kids’ lives in the balance.

Hunsicker’s story moves at a relentless pace, with all the twists and surprises his readers have come to expect. Fans will have the chance to meet Hunsicker at the Dallas Book Festival on Saturday, April 29. We asked him to do this Q&A in advance, via email.

Before this, you published your first three-book series, the Lee Henry Oswald Mysteries, and more recently a second three-book series, the Jon Cantrell Thrillers. So, with a new protagonist in The Devil’s Country, have your readers seen the last of Hank and Jon?

Never say never, but the natural rhythm of my characters seems to follow the trilogy format. I never understood authors who stopped writing series books, complaining about where to take their characters next, until I sat down to work on the second Oswald book, The Next Time You Die. On page one, I got it. There are only so many emotional arcs you can put a character through before his/her reactions seem stale and unrealistic.

The Devil’s Country introduces Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger who is a damaged soul with a tragic recent history. Why did you decide to make Arlo a Ranger rather than a PI? 

I wanted to try something new. Also, I have always wanted to write a police procedural, but since I have no law enforcement background and too much research tends to bog down my writing, I figured an ex-cop was the next best thing. In terms of Arlo Baines’ character, I wanted him to be completely cut off from his old world — family, job, even where he lives — so he had to be an ex-something. After thinking about the setting, the badlands of West Texas, I decided it made sense for Arlo to be an ex-Texas Ranger, drummed out of the corps, so to speak.
There are some personal things about Arlo that we still don’t know by the end of this book. Will his loved ones’ names surface with more of his memories and secrets in a future Arlo novel? 

Yes, without a doubt. Arlo is forever scarred by what happened to his family. The events that preceded his appearance in The Devil’s Country have altered him in many ways, his worldview, the way he interacts with others, etc. Put simply, Arlo has more baggage than a luggage store.

The Devil’s Country’s narrative thread weaves back and forth between what’s happening to Arlo in the West Texas town of Piedra Springs and what happened to him in the past, particularly nine months before when tragedy struck. This shows us why Arlo is where he is both physically and emotionally, but how tricky was it to write the dual narratives? 

I like books with multiple points of view, but I am a better writer when I stick to the first person. So it just seemed very natural to write from two different Arlo perspectives — the current-day and nine months before the story began. That was much easier than writing from the point of view of two different people.

Your mother was the late Dallas jewelry designer Foree Hunsicker. How was your creativity encouraged when you were growing up? 

I was blessed to have wonderfully supportive parents, both of whom were interested in the arts and fostering my creativity. From a very early age, I loved to read, and my parents — my mother especially — encouraged me to read anything and everything, no limits. (Note: I’m not sure Mom knew what all happened in Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight when I read it at age 13.) So I devoured all types of fiction all throughout my school years, which is the primary education a novelist needs.

Dallas appears in flashbacks as the place where Arlo, his family and his in-laws lived. You’re a fourth-generation native of Dallas through your mother’s family, so you know that our city has a certain image in pop culture. What do you know about your hometown that you wish more people knew?

 Dallas is more than cowboys and concrete and women with big hair. The city has an incredible mixture of people and outlooks. You can visit completely different worlds without leaving the county. The Korean section in northwest Dallas, Indian neighborhoods in Richardson, Little Vietnam in East Dallas, and the list goes on. And that’s before we get to the arts scene, which is robust and expanding every year.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

 

 

By Joyce Sáenz Harris

Even for fans who are well-acquainted with the work of Dallas native Stephen Tobolowsky, his new book, My Adventures with God, is a bit of a surprise: an exploration of his midlife return to the Jewish faith.

Tobolowsky 2017My Adventures with God
<<<PHOTO: Jim Britt


Tobolowsky is a graduate of Justin F. Kimball High School and Southern Methodist University. In the past three decades, he has become a beloved character actor who displays both comedy and drama chops in more than 100 films as diverse as Groundhog Day and Mississippi Burning. He’s been on more than 200 TV shows ranging from Deadwood to Glee, most recently Silicon Valley and The Goldbergs. He also tells stories on the popular podcast The Tobolowsky Files.

Tobolowsky, who lives in Los Angeles, will return to his hometown to celebrate the publication of My Adventures With God (Simon & Schuster, $25) on Tuesday, April 18, with an appearance at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. He answered questions by email; here are highlights.

Like your 2012 book The Dangerous Animals Club, My Adventures with God is a memoir with a lot of Dallas and many laugh-out-loud moments. But the spiritual aspect often takes it into a more serious realm. 

Simon and Schuster asked me if I could write a book on faith. When I was grasping for a premise for My Adventures with God, I came up with something that turned out to be truer than I first imagined: Our lives often fit the template of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.

We all have a Genesis. This is usually what we talk about on a first date: who we are, where we came from, our aspirations. Then, like in Exodus, we go into slavery. Instead of building pyramids, we lose ourselves in the desperation of first loves, first jobs. Some are trapped by drugs and alcohol, others by graduate school.

Then we escape and have our Leviticus moment. We stop and say, “This is what I am.” This is when I married Ann. When I became a father. When I returned to Judaism. Then we are shaped by mortality, as in the Book of Numbers, as we lose family and friends. And finally, we get to a place of perspective: Deuteronomy. It is here when we tell our stories to our children and try to make sense of the journey.

You were in seventh grade when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, and you write that “for those few days, history pulled back the curtain and showed us all how close we are to the edge of nothing.” Have you had any other occasions like that, such as 9/11?

Once you are aware of how delicate civilization is, you see its potential downfall everywhere. Usually in lies. They can be big lies from people in power — or the lies we tell ourselves. It doesn’t take anything as cataclysmic as 9/11. As my mother said, “Don’t break your word. You only get one. When you break it, it’s hard to get it back again.”

I was slightly spooked by “A Voice from Another Room,” the chapter in which you tell about being clairvoyant while a student at SMU. Did this psychic vibe vanish with age, or has it reappeared? 

It reappears. Not enough to get rich at the track, but enough to creep Ann out. I was in New York, and she called in a panic that she had lost a necklace. Could I use my ESP to help her find it? I thought for a second and told her the necklace was still in the house. In something soft. Surrounded by gold and purple. She found it in a zippered compartment of an LA Lakers (gold and purple) duffel bag in my son’s closet.

The second section of your book, “Exodus: A Love Story,” is about your long relationship with playwright Beth Henley, whom you met at SMU. In it, you tell how you and Beth worked with the  Talking Heads’ David Byrne on his 1986 film True Stories. What are the connections between you, the film and the British band Radiohead?

David told Beth and me he wanted to make a movie filled with characters whose lives were incredible but true. Beth said: “You should talk to my sweetie. He can hear tones.” David thought this was funny. “You hear tones?” I told him the story of my psychic experiences in college (these are told in detail in My Adventures with God.) I was able to know things about people by hearing their “tones.” (I know. It’s crazy. But it happened.) David hired us to write the screenplay for True Stories; he rewrote it and added a character that heard tones like me and wrote the song “Radio Head” for him to sing. A few years later, the English band On A Friday, who were big Talking Heads fans, changed their name to Radiohead.

You wrote that your mother treasured “the chance to give something life.” Is that what acting does —  give life to something that otherwise exists only on paper and in our heads?

Yes. Absolutely. In fact, we have even seen beloved characters in film and television compete with their actors for existence. Carroll O’Connor battled Archie Bunker. Sean Connery tried to survive James Bond. In dramatic literature, James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night is an actor ruined by the popularity of the character he played on Broadway.

What did it mean to you when your wife, Ann, decided to convert to Judaism?
I had no idea she was planning on doing it. The moment was unforgettable. Heartbreaking. Beautiful. And then she said we should stop eating shrimp.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150424-women-who-beat-long-odds.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor
Published: 24 April 2015 10:49 PM

Three historians at three North Texas universities are responsible for organizing Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives. While one might expect that this book would come from a Texas university press, editors Elizabeth Hayes (University of North Texas), Stephanie Cole (University of Texas at Arlington) and Rebecca Sharpless (Texas Christian University) explain in the preface that the University of Georgia Press already had a history series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times, a natural fit for the book they wanted to write.

Texas Women is written as a clear, concise narrative, starting in colonial times with chapters on the influences of American Indian women who lived in what would become Texas; Mexican women who settled in Texas when it was still part of New Spain; women of the Texas Republic; enslaved women of antebellum times; and Texas women of the late 19th and early 20th century, with emphasis on the struggle for women’s suffrage, legal rights, health care, access to education and professional standing.

Under Spanish law, which carried over to Mexico when it became independent, “Spanish women had rights,” writes Jean A. Stuntz of West Texas A&M University. “Indeed, even a poor servant woman had the right to file suit. Her marital status was not mentioned because it was not important.” One key difference between Spanish and English cultures: “Spanish women did not take their husbands’ names upon marriage. … A woman’s name and her legal identity did not disappear upon marriage, as they did in Anglo America.” Castilian imperial law followed the Spanish conquest into Mexico and thence to colonial Texas.

Dallas readers will be particularly interested in “Latinas in Dallas, 1910-2010,” by Bianca Mercado, a UNT postgraduate and a doctoral candidate at Yale who is completing a dissertation on Mexican communities and urban redevelopment in Dallas. This chapter includes stories of Anita N. Martinez, Adelaida Cuellar, Maria Luna, Faustina Martinez, Lena Levario, Diana Orozco and other women who pushed beyond cultural barriers and helped bring their families to prominence in Dallas business and politics.

Two other Dallasites merit their own chapters in Texas Women: Julia Scott Reed and Hermine Tobolowsky.

Reed was an experienced journalist who in 1967 became the first African-American writer hired full time at a major daily newspaper in Texas. She was a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. W. Marvin Dulaney, history department chair at UTA, tells how Reed brought a new breadth and depth to The News’ coverage of the black community in Dallas. Her column, “The Open Line,” ran three times a week from July 1967 until December 1978, when a stroke ended her career. She wrote “more thorough coverage of people, events and issues in the local African-American community than most of the nation’s newspapers had previously provided,” Dulaney writes. “In short, she presented a view of Dallas’ African-American community of which most whites had no awareness or understanding.”

Tobolowsky, a Dallas lawyer, was a driving force behind the Equal Rights Amendment. According to historian Nancy E. Baker of Sam Houston State University, “Unlike the majority of states that ratified the federal ERA, Texas had a vigorous pro-ERA movement dating back to the late 1950s, thanks in large part to Hermine Tobolowsky” and the Texas Business and Professional Women’s efforts to obtain a state equal rights amendment. While Tobolowsky “avoided the appearance of radicalism at all times,” she emphasized that legal sexual equality would benefit everyone, men as well as women.

Other prominent Texans profiled in Texas Women include politician Barbara Jordan, astronaut Mae Jemison, peace activist Casey Hayden, and the Houston Post’s Oveta Culp Hobby, who led the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps during World War II and was appointed the first secretary of Health, Education and Welfare by President Dwight Eisenhower. It is astonishing to realize, by the way, that there is no full-scale biography of Hobby, who was probably the most influential Texas woman of the mid-20th century. (The only biography of her that is available is one written for younger readers.)

Texas Women is heavily footnoted, but it isn’t ponderous. For anyone interested in the real women who built Texas while struggling against long odds, it is revelatory reading.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives

Edited by Elizabeth Hayes Turner, Stephanie Cole and Rebecca Sharpless

(University of Georgia, $32.95)

Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

Dallas at night, if not from a DC-9.

A conversation today on Facebook reminded of a column I wrote back in 2002, about the classic Jimmie Dale Gilmore tune “Dallas.” It’s probably the most famous song ever recorded by The Flatlanders, a Texas trio of lifelong friends from Lubbock: Jimmie Dale, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock.

I’ve always thought the song nailed the character of Dallas in a number of telling ways. So here’s the column again… and if you want to hear the song sung by Jimmie Dale himself, here’s a YouTube link.

                                                                            ***
JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS, Staff Writer  
Published: May 19, 2002
(c) The Dallas Morning News

The topic at lunch (and don’t ask me why) was: What kind of a beautiful woman would Dallas be?

Dallas is like a beautiful woman … with a hangover?

With a Bible?

With Manolo Blahniks in a Neiman Marcus bag?

We never quite decided. The conversation moved on to what the members of the Algonquin Round Table would talk about if they were around today.

After lunch, however, I realized that one Texan has already described the kind of beautiful woman Dallas would be. He did it 30 years ago, in fact. I heard him sing about it just last autumn.

Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s song “Dallas” never made it to the top of any charts in 1972. It was the lead-off tune and lone single from an album by a Lubbock trio called Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Flatlanders. The project got a dismal, half-hearted release in eight-track format and promptly vanished from all commercial view.

But Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his fellow Flatlanders, Joe Ely and Butch Hancock, did not vanish. They went on to become three of Texas’ favorite singer-songwriters, each with his own cultlike following.

Meanwhile, fans in England rediscovered the trio, and the word spread back home. Eventually the Flatlanders album, a neglected stepchild of corporate Nashville, became the darling of music collectors.

Years later, the album – aptly retitled More a Legend Than a Band — was re-released on CD, in slightly reconfigured form, by Rounder Records. (Sun Records, which had produced the original release, also released the album on CD but called it Jimmie Dale Gilmore and The Flatlanders “Unplugged.”) Jimmie’s song “Dallas” probably got its widest exposure when he sang it as a duet with Natalie Merchant on Jay Leno’s Tonight show.

Today, the Flatlanders’ music is widely recognized for the traditional jewel it always was.

The band began performing together again in 2000 and at last has another CD, Now Again, being released Tuesday.

The trio is scheduled to play the Granada Theater on June 26 and will also be part of the “Down From the Mountain” tour at Smirnoff Music Center on July 20.

I saw the Flatlanders play at the Texas Book Festival last year in Austin. The literary crowd loved them; historian David McCullough, among dozens of others, two-stepped up a storm.

But a clear favorite among the Flatlanders’ tunes was “Dallas,” for the fans hummed and sang along with that one. This is how the opening chorus goes:

Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
Dallas is a jewel,
Yeah, Dallas is a beautiful sight;
Dallas is a jungle,
But Dallas gives a beautiful light.
Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night?
 

A careless listener might mistake this song as a hymn to our fair city. In a way it is, for if anything, Dallas is even more spectacular by night now than it was 30 years ago.

But the reference to “a jungle” should tip you off that something darker is coming. And sure enough, it does.

 
Now Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down,
 
 But when you are up, she’s the kind you want to take around.

Now Dallas ain’t a woman to help you get your feet on the ground,

And Dallas is a woman who will walk on you when you’re down.

That’s the kind of a beautiful woman Dallas is, according to Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Any number of local heroes and has-beens would likely agree with him that Dallas dearly loves winners and is mighty tough on losers.

The “middle eight” verse of the song could be sung by many Dallas newcomers, legal or otherwise:

Oh, I came into Dallas with the bright lights on my mind;
I came into Dallas with a dollar and a dime.
 
Then the song gets really dark:
 
Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes,
 
A steel concrete soul with a warm-hearted love in disguise;
A rich man who tends to believe his own lies.
I say, Dallas is a rich man with a death wish in his eyes.
 
And all this, mind you, was written years before anybody invented J.R. Ewing or the savings-and-loan scandal.
Ever since I first heard “Dallas,” I’ve thought it really should be our unofficial city anthem.
 
Of course, it never will be. It is much too dark, too subversive, for a city that habitually directs its feet to the sunny side of the street.
 

 

 

If we do have an unofficial anthem, it’s probably Frank Loesser’s 1956 Broadway hit, “Big D,” from The Most Happy Fella.

You’re from Big D,
My, oh yes,
I mean Big D, little a, double L, A-S.
And that spells Dallas,
my darlin’, darlin’ Dallas;
Don’t it give you pleasure to confess
That you’re from Big D,
My, oh yes!
 
 Of course, the talented Mr. Loesser caught the way we Dallasites like to think of ourselves — my, oh yes.

 

But I suspect our fellow Texan, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, may have caught more of the way we really are.