TOMLINSON HILL               

By Chris Tomlinson

Published in 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books.


Reviewed by Elizabeth A. Schultz

Several years ago, one of my husband’s colleagues told us that his Southern ancestors had owned slaves. A recent transplant from the North, I’d never heard anyone say that before, and wondered what it would be like to know that particular fact about one’s family.  In Tomlinson Hill, Chris Tomlinson grapples with the question, examining American racial history through the prism of two families – one black, one white – families with a common name and past.

Chris Tomlinson is a white Texas native who spent eleven years covering events in Africa and the Middle East for The Associated Press. His father’s family hails from Marlin in Falls County where, before emancipation, their slaves worked their cotton plantations in an area known as Tomlinson Hill. After the Civil War, a number of the newly freed slaves took the Tomlinson surname. Through successive generations, many Tomlinsons – both black and white – stayed in the area, and members of both families maintained an attachment to Tomlinson Hill.

Tomlinson’s interest started as a personal quest.  As a boy, he had “grasped for evidence of Texan aristocracy” in his family tree. But as a man who’d reported on the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa and ethnic genocide in Rwanda and Congo, he wanted to know the truth of his slave-owning family – who they’d been and what they’d done,  “no matter how ugly.” His experiences as a reporter had convinced him that in racially troubled America, as in the countries he’d covered, truth is a necessary precondition to reconciliation.

Letters and scrapbooks provided Tomlinson with an entrée into his own family. Access to the African-American Tomlinsons was facilitated by the discovery that the star football player LaDainian Tomlinson was a descendent of the Tomlinson slaves.  LaDainian Tomlinson spent his early childhood on Tomlinson Hill.

In researching the two families, Tomlinson delved into official records and newspaper accounts as well as personal archives. While a written record of the first African-American Tomlinsons was virtually non-existent, the author was able to draw on personal narratives recorded and preserved by the Depression-era Federal Writers’ Project. Indeed, much of the strength of Tomlinson Hill derives from oral accounts provided by members of both families in what must have totaled hundreds of hours of interviews.

Throughout, the author maintains a dispassionate point of view, something he doubtless learned as a journalist. Judgment he leaves to others. The approach serves him well. What’s more, he grounds personal events in both families in the broader economic, social and political context of their time — whether he’s detailing racial disparities in Marlin’s schools, the financial servitude of Tomlinson sharecroppers, or the not-so-subtle role of the Ku Klux Klan.

“I wanted my family to be above the fray,” Tomlinson writes of ancestors whose sons were invariably named after Robert E. Lee.  “But I was finished with fantasies; I wanted to know the truth…” We’re told that it will set us free. In Tomlinson Hill, he has made an important contribution to the epic work of acknowledging and accepting our country’s racial history, and finding ways to move forward.

Elizabeth A. Schultz is the winner of the 2014 WLT Manuscript Competition in mainstream fiction. Following an early stint at The Writer magazine, she taught high school English and then worked for many years as an advertising copywriter.  Though most of her adult life was spent in Boston, she now lives in Austin. “You Know What She Means,” her first published piece, appeared Bellevue Literary Review.  She’s working on her first novel.




Ron Seybold has been a member of WLT since 1993 and is registered for one of our upcoming fall classes. He lives in Austin, TX.

Ron Seybold

Scribe: In what genres do you write?

Ron Seybold: I’m writing historical fiction for my forthcoming book, Monsignor Dad. My first novel, Viral Times, is near-future sci-fi, a mix of pandemics and computer network virtual reality. I’m also finishing up my memoir, The Road to the Perfect Game, about my dad-and-son solo baseball park road trip with my Little Leaguer. I like telling stories of all flavors.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

RS: I think a lot of us would like to enjoy a tankard of mead with Shakespeare, but he’s going to have to speak with us through his poems and plays. (I loved performing the latter.) Among living authors, I’d say Richard Russo (Empire Falls) with a beer; Steven King with a coffee, of course; and Jeanette Walls with an oversized mocha latte — just imagine the stories I might hear from her, the ones she had to leave out of her memoir, The Glass Castle.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

RS: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Michael Chabon’s epic has a love story and the ’40s’ passions for a new art form (comics!) in a historical setting, family devotion, and the language is beautiful. Not to mention Nazis and sections set in Antarctica and Levittown. Big, sprawling, Pulitzer Prize book with a vocabulary to teach you every time you read it. A book so good, you’re sorry it’s ending, so you’re glad to read it again.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

RS: There’s so much. A marvelous class on creating novels from bestselling romance novelist Jodi Thomas at the luscious week-long Summer Writing Retreat in Alpine. Marion Winik on writing memoir and personal essay. The technique and experience of pitching a book to agents at the annual conference. Most recently, Margo Rabb’s Saturday class on organizing a novel. I found my first content and development editor at a WLT class — taught by the late, great novelist-in-stories, Karen Stolz — as well as a writing ally and partner in Karen’s class almost 12 years ago. Then there’s the riches of the library, which I wrote about in another edition of Scribe. It’s a great resource, this organization, that helps us writers grow.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

RS: My writing will be leading me into exploring memoir for the first time, and certainly not the last, in The Road to the Perfect Game. I’m enjoying historical fiction, since I come from 30 years of journalism training and practice; that’s what’s helping my latest novel, Monsignor Dad, move through its initial draft. There’s going to be a chance to do a treatment for a TV pilot, too, about vets (since I am one). There’s drama everywhere to share. I will also write nonfiction on creativity coaching practices and techniques, based on my own services in that new field. We’ve got a lot to share, us coaches.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

RS: I’m a creativity coach, author, editor, and actor, and so I lead events like my Creativity Kickstarter Day Retreat. It’s based on my training in the Creativity Coaching Association. Great way to get ready for NaNoWriMo! This day retreat is Oct. 24-26 at the studio of the Writer’s Workshop in Austin. We’re growing stories every day. I also lead weekly creative writing groups at the studio, and I’m forming a second Monthly Memoirs Manuscript Group that starts Nov. 1. Details about it all on my website, Current WLT members can get a discount on the retreat!





By Mary Bryan Stafford

Published in 2014 by High River Ranch Press.

 A Wasp in the Fig Tree

Reviewed by Tony Burnett.

Precocious 13-year-old Isabel Martin flees with her mother from an abusive father to the idyllic “Ranch of the Fig Trees” where her expectations meet with harsh reality. She finds both the climate and society of the South Texas ranching community of the 1950s to be less welcoming than she had hoped, though she worships her uncle Atlee Parr, who is both a gentle soul and the patriarch of a wealthy political family.

This finely crafted novel features multiple intricately woven storylines presented with the intimate authenticity of a well written memoir. Foremost, in A Wasp In the Fig Tree, is the questionable workings of the rural political machinery rampant in the middle of the 20th century in Texas. Isabel is thrust by circumstance into facing the possibility her uncles are involved in corrupt election practices. Other storylines include her single mother’s quest for an advanced degree at a time when this was uncommon, the divisive racial restrictions imposed by 1950s society and a budding romantic relationship with a childhood playmate as they reach puberty.

Stafford’s uncompromising prose is both eloquent and colloquial, sometimes bordering on poetic. She crafts her narrative with an economy of words uncommon in literary fiction. The novel is suitable for anyone from middle grade to someone like me who lived through this time in history. It’s a mystery featuring political intrigue, civil rights issues, and an accurate portrait of the politics that boosted Lyndon B. Johnson towards the presidency. Being set in Texas, the novel also features horses, oil wells, cattle, cowboys and corrals, deftly woven into the story like a deep breath of dry desert air. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say the novel ends with a very satisfying twist putting the questions of who is good and who is evil safely to rest.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who would appreciate a spot on analysis of mid-20th-century politics, anyone who loves a good mystery or anyone who can appreciate a coming-of-age story. Stafford’s novel is as big as the West Texas sky and as intense as the lightning in a summer thunderstorm.

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His poetry and short fiction have been published in national literary journals. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Instructor Spotlight

Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College. Her first novel, By Way of Water, was chosen by Jayne Anne Phillips as the Grand Prize winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Program, and a special author’s edition was reissued by the Santa Fe Writers Project in November of 2013. Charlotte’s other awards include a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship for Fiction, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, a MacDowell Colony Residency, Faculty of Year from College of the Redwoods as well as the Evergreen State College 2012 Teacher Excellence Award. To learn more about Charlotte and her work, visit her website.

Next month, Charlotte will be teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Complex Characters to Drive Your Fiction” as part of our Novel Writing Class Series. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

 gullickcolorScribe: How do you fully embody or get into the mind of a character?

Charlotte Gullick: To get into a character, I think about the five senses and how these senses inform the character’s specific lens on the world. Sometimes, I might walk down the street, thinking about how a given character might see that street, smell that street, feel threatened or at ease while on that street. I believe that it is through the senses and through a thorough thinking about how a character sees and experiences their environment, we come to know their specific experience of the world.

Scribe: Your writing incorporates much from landscape and various regions; do you write outside to get inspiration?

CG: I often do write outside – and I also write to live music – I’m the geek in the corner, scribbling away as the music flows over the crowd. And if it’s music outside! Well, then I’m almost manic with “flow.” One of the reasons I write (or try to) write with a strong sense of landscape is that I’m interested in the intersection of internal and external landscape. Where we have our formative experiences creates an interior landscape that can help us understand the intersection of character and setting.

Scribe: Who’s one author that you consider a favorite? 

CG: Louise Erdrich: I admire so much of her work: story arc, character development/evolution, landscape, the dynamic interplay of Catholicism and Ojibwe mythologies, gender identity, sacred numbers, lyrical prose, and a pulsing sense of how history beats alongside each of her characters. She’s a boss when it comes to storytelling.

Scribe: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 

CG: It came from a writer’s conference where I presented this fall, and it is attributed to Ron Carlson: “It only takes twenty minutes to write a novel. Twenty minutes of avoiding distractions, of pushing through the difficulties of not knowing what one is doing, of getting yourself to commit to twenty minutes a day.”

–Thanks, Charlotte!

Click here to read about and register for Charlotte’s class or other classes in this series.


Mary Riley has been a member of WLT for 8 years and is registered for one of our upcoming fall classes. She lives in Austin, TX.

 Mary Riley Photo

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Mary Riley: Poetry and Memoir Writing.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

MR: Marcus Borg, liberal theologian. Not much into beer or coffee. I would prefer a wine cooler or screwdriver.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

MR: Bible with concordance, Robert Frost’s poetry, Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” and my father’s memoir. I would go nuts not being able to read or hear the news. Maybe old newspapers.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

MR: I took a poetry class at one point taught by Scott Wiggerman about what venue to submit poetry, as well as Mindy Reed’s  “It’s Not Your Mother’s Grammar”  about grammar and style. These workshops were years ago. I still use some of Scott Wiggerman’s suggestions.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

MR: I want to write on what I am passionate about with a bias for clarity.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

MR: I see myself as a poetic rebel. I view poetry pretty much like Ted Badger-I have a bias for lucidity and clarity so a larger demographic will like poetry. I see myself as writing prose poetry for the most part.




By Sam Hawken

Published in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail.

Tequila Sunset

Reviewed by Kirsche Romo.

We’ve all seen the scary stories in the news about horrific violence taking place in towns along the Texas-Mexico border. In Tequila Sunset, Sam Hawken brings these tales to life, convincingly capturing the perils of living at the El Paso, Texas–Juarez Mexico border. Mr. Hawken successfully paints a portrait of fear and danger caused by the Mexican drug cartels in Ciudad Juarez and the Mexican-American gangs in El Paso.

Felipe “Flip” Morales, a young man from El Paso, returns to his hometown after having served a four-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he’d joined the deadly Azteca gang—a lifetime commitment. However, Flip was also an informant for the prison warden, relaying details of Azteca’s dealings, both inside and outside the prison walls.

Christina Salas and Bob Robinson, detectives in the El Paso PD’s gang unit, are building evidence against the Azteca’s El Paso leader, Jose Martinez, in hopes to secure his conviction, and end his rise in the underworld’s echelon.

On the other side of the Mexican border, in the neighboring town of Juarez, police detective Matias Segura is an expert on Azteca gang activity, and has become numbed to the constant army presence in the city, and the frequent shootings which erupt at any given time on any given street.

After arriving in El Paso, Flip is approached by local Azteca leader Jose Martinez, who gradually lures him into the Azteca fold.  Flip must consistently walk a thin line between honesty and honor, and being an Azteca. But at what price?

Hawken effectively captures Flip’s constant anxiety and fear from trying to keep his family safe while also pacifying the Aztecas.  He entwines each character’s story with their home lives and families, depicting how the threat of harm, both overt and subtle, touches everyone.

Hawken’s straightforward writing style keeps the action moving. Having a very personal knowledge of the Texas Hispanic community, I found the dialogue to be very convincing. I looked forward to opening the book every night to see what would happen next, and how the story would end.

I enjoyed reading Tequila Sunset, and recommend it.

K.L. Romo is a writer who lives with her family in Duncanville, Texas. She is currently querying agents to represent her newly completed novel – FROM GRACE I FALL – about a middle-aged empty-nester who’s suddenly transported back to 1907 Dallas, seeing the world through the eyes of a reformed prostitute.

Instructor Spotlight

Greg Garrett teaches creative writing, literature, film and theology at Baylor University.  He is the author of the novels Free Bird, Cycling, and Shame as well as several books about religion. You can find out more about Greg’s work by visiting his website.

Greg will be teaching “Beginning at the Beginning” and “Ending at the Beginning” as part of WLT’s Novel Writing Class Series next month. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Greg GScribe: What motivated you to be a writer?

Greg Garrett: I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to tell stories. My grandmother has a file of stories I wrote and illustrated when I was four, all about firemen and clowns. I guess I’ve always wanted to tell stories about people who rescued other people–and who made them laugh.

Scribe: Who is your ideal audience?

GG: I write first and foremost for myself. I feel as though if I don’t delight myself, there’s little or no chance I’ll touch anyone else with the stories I want to tell. But once I’ve delighted myself, I can honestly say that I am writing for every person willing to open her or himself up to the possibility of wonder. I hope that people from various places, people with various beliefs, and people from all classes will find something powerful and universal in the stories I write.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with WLT?

GG: Over the years, I’ve discovered that the desire to tell stories seems to be, if not universal, at least so widespread as to boggle the mind. I’ve taught and interacted with hundreds of writers at WLT events, and their passion to write inspires me. It also reminds me of all the more established writers who saw some spark of ability in me and encouraged me–my favorite thing about working with the WLT is giving something back in honor of all those who helped me.

Scribe: What author would you want to have a beer/ cup of coffee with?

GG: I loved Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris because it felt like I was having a beer with all those folks–Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso. I’ve been lucky enough to actually interact with some great writers, but I think if given the chance, I’d want to sit down with that most reclusive author of all, Cormac McCarthy, and talk with him about life, writing, and everything else. In my fantasy, we’d talk late into the night, and a considerable amount of alcohol would be consumed. And I’d wake the next morning with a pounding hangover from the whiskey, and from the searching intelligence that I imagine Cormac McCarthy must be.

Scribe: What do you prefer to write; Novels or screenplays? Why?

GG: I’ve written some screenplays, and teach screenplay writing, but I learned long ago that I’m most interested in the human heart, and I think that to explore it properly, one must be a novelist. Film shows you exteriors–the novel can take you into a person’s mind, and into her or his past. Maybe some day I’ll produce a screenplay worthy of production, but my heart will always be in novel-writing.

–Thanks, Greg!

You can learn more and register for the Novel Writing Class Series here.