Today we welcome Jim Garrison.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Jim Garrison: Every day’s a Saturday. About fifteen years ago my big oil company employer paid me to go away after a corporate merger, and I decided to stay home for the kids (to my wife’s chagrin) – in case they called from wherever they were. And they did call – from Delaware, from Europe, all kinds of places. And they married and had kids and did other things where they required my sage counsel. Nowadays, I have a leisurely café latte and walk in the morning, and I read and nap in the afternoons, except when there’s a doctor’s appointment or my wife and I are travelling, which we especially like to do in the summer — hiking in the Carolina mountains or Colorado or visiting our grandson in Germany. When confined to Houston, I have a daily exercise regime for an hour or two every day but actual Saturdays (reserved for yardwork) followed by lunch and a bowl of ice cream with nuts and caramel topping. Evenings my wife and I often convene for a quiet candle-lit dinner with music and a nice inexpensive wine, even if dinner is only beans and rice. No television!
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?
QL 4 (TouchPoint Press 2017) is the first novel I’ve had published. While it’s set in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, it is not a war story, but a tale of intrigue, betrayal, and crime among soldiers on the same side in an unpopular war. I consider it literary crime fiction, and it recently won an award for literary fiction from the Military Writers Society of America. I started writing my “Vietnam War novel” in 2002 at the suggestion of my son, a student at The Cooper Union, not long after he interviewed me about “what I did in the war” for his senior art project. Before he permanently decamped from NYC for Europe, he gave me a book on writing a first novel, which I read along with a bunch of other books on writing (Strunk and White, Harbrace College Handbook, and so on). Vietnam had been stuck in my craw for over thirty years; I could still see many of the images and people in my mind; and occasionally I dreamed I was going back for another tour of duty, stepping through the door of the plane and being hit by the heat, the humidity, and the smell. A message? Read the book and maybe you can tell me what it is, beyond what I hope is a good tale. I don’t want the Vietnam War and Vietnam Vets to be forgotten or ignored, as they were for years.
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Jim Garrison: When I decided to become a writer (in addition to staying home for the kids), I made up my mind to write four novels before my mind retired from conscious thought. So while I flogged QL 4 to agents, I wrote three other novels, nine or ten short stories, and forty or so poems. I’m trying to decide whether to pursue a legal thriller (The Safecracker), a noir fiction novel set on the Texas Gulf Coast (What Seems True), or a longer, more epic speculative fiction work (The Salvation of Buster Adams), all of which have been through several, and in one case numerous, drafts.
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Jim Garrison: The most emotionally difficult was a creative nonfiction story titled “Time to Go” because it concerned my mother’s final years in an assisted living facility. The story spans no more than five or six minutes in time and a short walk from the building’s entrance down an inside hallway. It was published by daCunha.global last July.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Jim Garrison: For QL 4 I read all of the letters I had written to my brother and mother from Vietnam, as well as several that a former girlfriend returned to me years later, and listened to a dozen or so tape recordings I had made. I also referred to about three dozen photos I took with a Brownie camera I carried in the side pocket of my fatigues, many while I was on patrol as an MP. Then I read everything I could find on Vietnam: a history of the war, a history of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, a book on the African-American experience in the war, a memoir by a North Vietnamese soldier, and several novels and other nonfiction accounts. In the end, the most important research was staring out the window and dredging up old memories and images that I can still see from my time there.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?
Jim Garrison: My reading list is eclectic. Right after retirement, I read the unabridged version of War and Peace and a lot of philosophy, especially Sartre and Camus. But I always like a good crime or mystery novel: Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald (not John), Tony Hillerman from the American school and P.D. James, Ruth Rendell from the English school. Then there’s Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Atwood, Elizabeth Strout, Cormac McCarthy, Tim O’Brien, Karl Marlantes, Philip K. Dick, Eric Larson. And the Scandinavian authors like Henning Mankel and Jo Nesbo. I generally find the airport newsstands with the popular books to be lacking in good reads, although I try to sample current best sellers to see what worked for them (e.g., The Girl on the Train, The Goldfinch, The War of the Encylopaedists).My first inspiration in writing back in high school had to be Ernest Hemingway. Or maybe it was John Steinbeck.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Jim Garrison: My son, of course, who had heard many tall tales over the years, and especially the interview on the war. I also had a high school teacher and a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina who wanted me to submit poems or stories for publication.
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Jim Garrison: I can do pretty good descriptions and decent dialogue, and I don’t draw characters as one-dimensional or stereotypes. And I can churn out volumes of prose. Weaknesses: I can churn out volumes of prose and I hang on to my darlings.
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Jim Garrison: I write when I’m inspired to write. Often I will jot down notes about things I might be able to use later. I sometimes do this in the form of prose poems.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Jim Garrison: Alive with two more books published and finishing my epic Civil War novel drawn from my family history.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Jim Garrison: Keep a journal. Write in it as often as possible, not just what you’ve done a certain day but what you’ve observed: descriptions of people, places, and situations. And your thoughts and the images you’ve captured from what you’ve seen and experienced.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Jim Garrison: “I felt like I was in the story. I could see what was happening like I was there.” “The scene in the warehouse was riveting.”
My webpage https://jamesgarrison-author.com/ has more about QL 4, including photographs, letter excerpts, and background information – and a link to Amazon, where it’s available in Kindle and paperback.
You can also find more about QL 4 on my QL 4 Facebook page and on my QL 4 board on Pinterest.
What Seems True
Chapter One—One Ranger
The day they found Billy Graham’s body out behind the old StarLite Drive-in Theater, a Texas Ranger came down to the refinery to investigate. I was there since I had driven over from Houston that morning to meet with Perry Comeau, the HR Manager. Instead of discussing his troubles with the union, we spent my first cup of coffee and two doughnuts rehashing what he had heard about the murder.
From Perry’s office, I could see the stairs leading up from the ground floor of the administration building. It was a hot October day on the Texas Gulf Coast, and his hall door was wide open to let in some fresh air, or as fresh as it gets less than a hundred yards from the refinery’s hydrocracking unit.
Only half listening to Perry, I watched as the head and shoulders of a big man hove into view in the dim stairwell. First came a white Stetson, then a camel-hair sports coat and white shirt with a bolo tie, followed by creased blue jeans tucked into a handsome pair of tan cowboy boots.
We knew he was coming. This being the South in the waning days of Jimmy Carter and the Klan still holding sway in this neck of the woods, a lot of people were interested in why and how the refinery’s first black supervisor had met his end. And who had killed him. The Port Oso police were investigating, as was the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. Even the FBI was nosing around, although they hadn’t offered to send an agent. Derek Frazier, the Port Oso Plant Manager, had demanded that the state police get involved—and not just any run-of-the-mill DPS officer. He wanted the Texas Rangers. And lo, here within hours was a Ranger.
He was unlike any I had ever read about or seen in the movies or in real-life photographs. Gaunt with sunbaked leathery skin, mustachioed cavaliers? Such as this the man was not.
With a wheeze, he came to a halt on the landing and leaned with one hand on the railing. He was built like a bull and wide as a pickup truck. An expanse of white shirt bulged over a finely worked leather belt and a shiny brass buckle big enough to hold up the prodigious belly above it. His coat flapped open, and I caught a glimpse of a long-barrel, silver pistol in a leather holster tied down to his thigh, just like he was John Wayne.
Now, I was an unlearned immigrant to the state, and I wasn’t sure that real Texas Rangers still existed. But here was the living proof—even if that legendary mold formed by years of riding horses through chaparral and arroyos in west Texas in pursuit of Comanches, cattle thieves and train robbers had been shattered and recast by long automobile rides over ranch-to-market roads and platters of chicken-fried steak and mashed potatoes in small town cafes.
Perry and I hurried out to greet him, and a large paw engulfed my stubby hand, accompanied by, “Howdy,” in bass. He took a deep breath.
“Name’s Rogers. Leroy R. Rogers, but everybody calls me Roy.”
“Dan Esperson,” I said, struggling not to cringe at his grip. “I’m a company lawyer.”
Releasing my hand and removing his hat, he wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief that appeared out of nowhere.
“Pretty lady downstairs said you’d be employee relations.” Whisking the handkerchief back into a pocket, he took Perry’s hand and pumped it. Perry’s round head and shoulders bobbed up and down.
“Yes sir, that’s me. Human Resources is what we call it these days. I’m John Comeau, ‘cept they call me Perry, like they call you Roy.”
The Ranger gave him a quizzical look as he dropped Perry’s hand.
“He means Perry Como, the singer,” I said.
“Oh, ho.” The Ranger chuckled and looked truly amused.
”Come on in,” Perry said and started back through the open door of his office, then detoured a little to the right and yelled into another door just down the hall. “Hey, Sheila, bring us a jug of coffee, and another cup. And bring us the rest of them doughnuts.” He twisted back to the Ranger. “You’d like a doughnut, wouldn’t you?”
“Thank you, sir, but no thank you. I’m on a diet.” The Ranger patted his stomach just above the belt on the side away from his six-shooter, or whatever it was. I’m no expert on guns.
Once in his office, Perry motioned toward his conference table, a rectangular piece of solid-maple furniture that projected at a ninety-degree angle out from the front of his desk. Desk, table, and chairs were far older than I was, but in better shape—sturdy and polished to a dark gloss with only a few scratches here and there.
The office wasn’t large, just one window behind Perry’s desk and two doors, one to the hallway and one to the small anteroom where Perry’s secretary and assistant kept watch for him. The office’s white stucco walls were adorned with HR plaques and awards and a single 24-by-12 inch color photograph showing two men in hardhats, one of them Perry pointing down at something on the ground, the refinery cracking towers looming behind them. A pair of endangered shorebirds had taken up residence at a wastewater pond, Perry had told me, and he had found a clutch of eggs in their nest.
The Ranger pulled out a chair and sat, shifting his buttocks to one side to make room for his gun inside the chair arm. Perry and I took the chairs across the table from him. Looking out the window past Perry’s head, I could see a tangle of silver and gray metal piping and spindly towers giving off clouds of steam. Beyond the hot white vapor, the ghostly fabric of the refinery stretched out to the coastal marshland where it met a pastel blue sky.
“So tell me about this boy of yours who got himself kilt the other night,” the Ranger said. “Maybe we can figure out what happened and get this thing wrapped up by lunch.”
“Know just the place,” Perry said. He leaned forward in his chair. Lunch was always a priority for Perry when he had visitors. “Great little Mexican restaurant.” His grin quickly faded at the Ranger’s lack of expression.
“Gotta be downtown by two . . . ” The Ranger’s face brightened. “But we’ll see how it goes.” He reached up to his hat, and I saw why his face had lit up all of a sudden.
Sheila had appeared in the connecting doorway to the outer office. She was carrying a tray with a silver thermos of coffee, an orphan mug from the Texas State Fair, and loose packets of creamer and sugar. The Ranger struggled to his feet and tipped his hat to her.
She was shorter than the Ranger, but tall for a woman, with a limber, athletic build. Observing her deposit the coffee tray on the table, I was wondering if she had been a swimmer or a dancer sometime in her life. She was dressed in light gray slacks that fit snugly across her hips and thighs and a thin pink sweater that stretched tautly across her chest.
“Sheila Mills, my administrative assistant,” said Perry, also rising. “We don’t have secretaries anymore.”
“Pleased to meet you ma’am,” said the Ranger. “Roy Rogers.” He held out his hand to her. Sheila hesitated, then timidly poked her hand forward.
“Are you really a Texas Ranger?” she asked, her eyes wide. They darted over at me and I smiled at her. I always made sure to get to know the secretaries, whatever they were called, and Sheila was one of the more pleasurable ones to know.
“Been a ranger thirty-five years,” said the Ranger. Placing his hat on the table, he pulled his jacket aside to display a round silver badge with a star. He ran a thick index finger along the bottom of the circle and the words “Texas Ranger.”
“Same badge since the beginning of time, ‘cept now we’re part of the Department of Public Safety. Only about a hundert and thirty of us for the whole dang state, but we still handle the tough stuff.”
Smiling broadly at her, he let the jacket fall back into place over his big chest and stomach. “The whole dang state,” he said again. Still smiling and looking around, as if in a room full of people, he settled his bulk and the pistol back into the chair.
Sheila, who seemed as nervous as a star-struck teenager, removed the fresh mug from the tray and began pouring coffee into it. Her hand was shaking, and coffee sloshed over the side as the Ranger reached for the mug. I jumped up, thinking that the poor woman was overawed by this Texas legend.
“Here, let me get a paper towel for that.” I started for the door.
“Oh, thank you, Dan,” Sheila said. She looked at me with wide blue eyes, the palest blue I’d ever seen. I nodded and smiled back, then left for the paper towels.
When I returned, Sheila had gone back to her office. Both the door to it and the hall were closed, and Perry and the Ranger sat across from each other, the Ranger leaning back in his chair with one arm draped over the back and his Stetson resting top down on the table. I quickly wiped up the spill and threw the paper towel in the green metal trashcan by Perry’s desk.
“What I need from you folks,” the Ranger was saying, “is to know all about this fellow. What he was like, who his friends were, his enemies”
“Oh, Billy didn’t have enemies,” Perry said, shaking his head.
“Must’ve had at least one. A friend wouldn’ta shot him so many times.”
Perry blinked his eyes as he did when he was flummoxed. “Everybody liked Billy. I never heard an unkind word about him.”
“Even from those in the Klan?”
“We don’t have any of them in here.” Perry shifted uneasily in his seat and raised his eyebrows in a surprised look, like, who would ever imagine a thing like that. I knew he knew better. The Ranger leaned farther back in his chair and fixed Perry with hard gimlet eyes, a flinty green. “The Ranger leaned farther back in his chair and fixed Perry with hard gimlet eyes, a flinty green.
“They wouldn’t tell you if they were,” he said. “Not these days.”
“Well, I know the people in this plant. All that Klan stuff’s in the past.”
The Ranger gave a snort and picked up the coffee mug while he kept Perry pinned with his skeptical gaze. Perry was a rotund, amiable man with a fringe of pure white hair on three sides of his baldpate, reminding me of a white marble bust of a garlanded Roman emperor I had seen somewhere.
“Billy was friendly with everybody,” Perry said, darting his eyes over at me, as if seeking help or at least some confirmation. I only shrugged, so Perry charged ahead. “He was easy goin’, bit of a smooth talker maybe, . . . maybe not firm enough with the people who reported to him.” Perry fidgeted and twisted his coffee mug back and forth on the table without lifting it. “Now Eddie Sykes, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if somebody shot that sucker. He was the next black we promoted, and he turned into a regular drill sergeant, drove his men ‘til they sent the union rep up here to complain. But not Billy. No sir. He worked at being one of the boys, er . . . , guys.” Perry raised his hands at the Ranger’s unblinking stare. “You may think that’d cause some problems out there, familiarity and all that, but his people respected him. And he was goin’ back to school at Lamar nights, Port Arthur campus, and —”
“Okay, okay.” The Ranger patted his stomach and sat forward in his chair, moving his hat to one side and resting his elbows on the table. “Was there anybody with a reason to kill him? He diddlin’ somebody’s wife or something like that?”
“Oh, no, not Billy. He was a strong Baptist. Of course, in the black church. Married and kids and all. Even a lay minister. Maybe it was a robbery.”
“Don’t add up. Out there behind that old drive-in theater in the middle of the night and a second set of tire prints almost on top of his’n. Shot five times or more, front and back and one in the face, the coroner tells me. Robber only needs one shot, maybe two.” The Ranger rubbed his cheek with a large hand, and stretched up in the chair. “Wallet was gone, though,” he said, like he was thinking out loud. Settling back, he shook his head and picked up his coffee mug again. “But I don’t reckon it was a robbery. Had to be some hate and meanness in what they done to him. Only thing that’d add up to that kind of killin’, least in my experience, would be a woman.” He drank from his mug. “Or just ‘cause they thought he was a smart-ass nigger.”
He looked over at me, and I nodded. The words might be crude, but that sounded about right. Perry was silent.
The Ranger picked up his hat off the table. “Now let me give you the program,” he said, slowly rotating the hat by the brim in front of him. “First you tell me who all Mr. Graham worked with and who he palled around—”
“Got an org chart right here,” Perry said, pushing back his chair and starting to go behind his desk. “And his pals—”
“Hold on and let me finish.” The Ranger held up one hand and leaned back in his chair with his hat resting on his stomach. “I want your employee files—I’ll tell you which ones—and I plan to interview a few people.”
“Conference room across the hall would be good for that,” Perry said and gestured toward the outer door. By now, he was behind the desk, digging in a drawer for the organization charts.
The Ranger’s mouth bent down at the corners, and he looked around the office, first at the ceiling and the window, last at Perry’s high-backed leather chair. Then he nodded slowly, head and shoulders.
“I’ll be just fine in here. A little more in-ti-mate than a big ol’ conference room. I want to get the feel of the man I’m talking to, how he looks and smells close up. Or she, if it’s a she.” He grinned at me, then at Perry. “Only takes about five minutes with most people, and I can tell if they know somethin’.” He nodded again and spun his hat around. “I’m thinkin’ we’ll be all through here by lunchtime.”
It occurred to me later, much later, that we, especially Perry and I, had been rather cavalier in talking about Billy Graham. And his murder. Maybe even disrespectful. We weren’t considering him as a fellow human being who had suffered a terrible fate, but merely as an object of interest—a cipher, a problem to be solved, or at least dealt with in our little frame of reference. At worst, we were just rubberneckers on the highway of life, gaping at an accident and a covered body in the grass.