Wanderlist: Literary Texas
On Wanderlist, Cecilia Nasti and Louie Bond discuss towns that celebrate their native sons and daughters of the written word. Then, Louie takes us to Kyle, Texas to visit the childhood home of the author Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote the highly acclaimed novel, Ship of Fools.
UTTS S2E19: WANDERLIST – LITERARY TEXAS
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[MUS—FLEA THE CIRCUS]
[NARRATION] Read any good books lately? Texas has a rich literary history. On the podcast, we talk about towns that celebrate their native sons and daughters of the written word. And TPW magazine editor, Louie Bond takes us on a road trip to Kyle, Texas to visit the childhood home of the author Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote the highly acclaimed novel, Ship of Fools.
Stay with us.
[NARRATION] From Texas Parks and Wildlife, this is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist… produced in collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. It’s where we highlight some of the great places to go and things to see in the Lone Star State. I’m Cecilia Nasti.
Editor, Louie Bond joined me in the studio recently to talk about good books that have come from Texas.
[LOUIE & CECILIA]
[LOUIE] You know, our readers and our listeners – they’re so diverse…Some, of course, like to climb mountains. But then there’s those others that…hmmm…maybe they’d rather climb in a hammock and read about that mountain climb.
[CECILIA] You know, if I’m being honest, Louie, I’d have to say that I am more of the reader type than the mountain climbing type. But I do love to be outdoors when I am reading. How about you?
[LOUIE] Oh, I pretty much grew up in a tree in my backyard. And I always had a big stack of books up there with me. And as I got older, I got a lot more interested in Texas books, you know, books ab out Texas by Texas authors.
[CECILIA] I think that some of my ideas about Texas and Texans were vaguely shaped by a couple of books, uhm, from Texas authors about Texas places. One was, uh, Old Yeller, which I read when I was a kid. And then once I moved to Texas as a young adult, I think that Lonesome Dove really captured my imagination.
[LOUIE] Oh, those are two great ones. I cry just thinking about Old Yeller. But then, you know, we started researching those tales and some others and then we discovered there are small towns that really embrace these authors and their characters, and they celebrate them in a variety of special ways.
[CECILIA] That really doesn’t surprise me. So, when you were doing your research on this, what kinds of things did you uncover.
[LOUIE] Well, you were talking about Old Yeller… Well, Mason, Texas is the home of the author Fred Gibson. And every year they host Old Yeller Days. So, they have games, dog parades. And I’ve got to see this, Old Yeller Look alike contests. And then there’s another one, I don’t know if you’ve heard of the story of Conan, it’s been made into a movie…comic books. But it’s actually based on a novel by Robert E. Howard who, uh, was born and raised in Cross Plains. And so, they do the same kind of thing; they have their Conan Days.
[CECILIA] Wha? Cona… Like what? Like C-Conan the Barbarian?
[LOUIE] Yeah. Conan the Barbarian came from Texas. I mean, we have our epic heroes: Davey Crockett, Conan the Barbarian… [shared laughter]
[CECILIA] He’s one I missed in the history books. But we’ve got one a little closer to home, too. Well, home for us, anyway.
[LOUIE] Home for us here in Central Texas. So, yeah, there’s Kyle, just south of Austin. And there they made efforts to restore the home of a famous author who came from Kyle, who is Pulitzer prize winner, Katharine Anne Porter.
[NARRATION] Louie Bond takes us on a field trip to Kyle, Texas and Katherine Anne Porter’s childhood home…that’s ahead. But first…
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This is Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist from Texas Parks and Wildlife…I’m Cecilia Nasti…Wanderlist is a collaboration with Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine. Editor, Louie Bond, and I have been talking about Texas literary history, and we left off talking about Kyle, Texas native, Katherine Anne Porter.
[CECILIA & LOUIE]
[CECILIA] You know, we always speak ahead of time before we do our Wanderlists, and when we spoke about doing this one on Literary Texas, I really…I had to look up Katherine Anne Porter. I-I wasn’t familiar with her. Or her work—or that she had a childhood home in Kyle.
[LOUIE] Same for me. So, prepare to be enlightened. I went ahead and took a little visit there and spoke to the current writer in residence.
[PORTER HOUSE INTERVIEW WITH JERWEMY GARRETT]
[Knocks on door]
[LOUIE] Hey there!
[JEREMY] Hi, Louie.
[LOUIE] Hi, Jeremy.
[JEREMY] Good to meet you.
[LOUIE] Good to meet you, too.
[JEREMY] Welcome to the Katherine Anne Porter house.
[LOUIE] Really Lovely. It’s so nice. These hardwood floors creak just a little bit as we walk on them.
[JEREMY] Oh, yes.
[LOUIE] I love that sound. I love it. But since we’re not visual, we’ll tell everybody this [the walls] is sort of, uh, a mint green color?
[JEREMY] My boss, Tom Grimes—professor Tom Grimes—at Texas State University, he wrote an essay about, uh, renovating the house. He described it as avocado.
[LOUIE] [laughs] I can see that. I can see that. And there’s beautiful hardwood floors, nice old leaded windows and antiques everywhere, and things…
[JEREMY] Oh yes. Yeah. Lila Knight, she’s…uh…an architectural historian…ah…she helped pull together the period piece furniture for the house. Uh, we wanted this section to look like actual furniture that could have been here when Katherine Anne Porter was.
[LOUIE] And how old was Katherine Anne Porter when she lived here?
[JEREMY] Uh, so…she lived here in 1892 after her mother died in Indian Creek, Texas. Uhm…and she was only two years old; uhm…after her mother died her father moved her and her brother and sister here to live with their grandmother. This was her grandmother’s house. So… Catherine Skaggs Porter [1826-1901].
[LOUIE] Catherine Skaggs Porter… and so, was this house located on this property at that point?
[JEREMY] Uh, yes. Yes.
[LOUIE] Wow. And so, this now is called Center Street. It’s sort of the main street through Kyle these days.
[JEREMY] Yes. And, it was the main street back then. It would have just been just a dirt road. And, uh, this is a railroad town, so, uh, the town sprung up around the railroad. And there was probably only about 500 people in town.
[LOUIE] And now?
[JEREMY] Oh, I think we’re close to over 40,000…
[LOUIE] Oh, my gosh… What a difference. What a difference.
[JEREMY] Yeah, this road in front is packed with traffic all the time, and it used to be just ranchers driving their cattle up to the train station. And, it’s been a big difference.
[LOUIE] And they probably sat with their doors and windows open trying to catch the breeze.
[JEREMY] Oh, yes. Yes.
[LOUIE] Hearing the…the clopping of horses an-and wagon wheels and things. Nothing like what you’re hearing here today…
[JEREMY] Oh, no.
[LOUIE] …going by outside. Kyle is, you might say, just south of Austin and it’s in one of the fastest growing corridors in the United States. So, it’s going through a lot of transformation. But when you step inside this house, you’re taken back to Kyle a hundred years ago.
[LOUIE] So, tell us how you got here, Jeremy.
[JEREMY] Uh, yes, so, I’m the writer in residence here at Katherine Anne Porter House. Um…I went to graduate school at Texas State University for…uh…a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Uh…and this house is tied into the MFA program at Texas State. And every few years they’ll choose a graduate of the program…uh…to come and be the writer in residence.
[LOUIE] So, um…let’s walk around the house a little bit and see…see your home. You actually live here, correct?
[JEREMY] Yes. Yes. So grateful to live here. I’ve always been a sucker for old houses…
[JEREMY] …and it’s been a dream living in this one. Uh…so, this is the original portion of the house. Uh…just a three-room house. Uh…if you’ve read any interviews with Katherine Anne Porter, she kind of romanticizes her childhood and tells people she was raised in like giant houses on a plantation...
[LOUIE] Ah ha.
[JEREMY] …so she was a bit of an exaggerator, uh…
[LOUIE] As any good storyteller is [laughter]…
[JEREMY] …yeah, but in reality, they lived in a…basically a small three-room house. And everything here, aside from the furniture, uh, is original: the walls, the floors, even the paint color that you commented on earlier—the avocado. When the Burdine Johnson Foundation was restoring the house, uh, I believed they peeled back a baseboard along the wall…
[JERMY] …and they found the original color underneath…
[JEREMY] … and decided to match [it].
[LOUIE] And they probably had limited colors…
[JEREMY] Oh yeah.
[LOUIE] …limited pigments that they could choose from. So, once they got a color, they stuck with it, I’m sure.
[JEREMY] And, there would have been a wood-burning stove here. You can see the hole in the ceiling…
[JEREMY] …that’s been patched up. To get historical landmark status we had to keep small details like that. Uh…the historical hole…we’re not allowed to patch it.
[LOUIE] Ha…historical hole in the ceiling…[laughs]
[JEREMY] Yeah…there’s little hooks in the ceiling to, uh…we’re not sure what those were for, but…
[LOUIE] But they were here.
[JEREMY] …historical hooks. I’m thinking it could have been [for] mosquito netting. Ways to hang mosquito netting, even…
[JEREMY] …because they slept with all the doors open just to cool down.
[LOUIE] So, this was a living room or a bedroom? Or a…do you know?
[JEREMY] Uh, we’re not exactly sure. Um…probably ma-main living room. And I’m sure they did cooking in here with the stove. Going back to one of Katherine Anne Porter’s short stories, uh, Old Mortality… It includes on of her characters called Miranda. Any time you see Miranda in a story, it’s basically Katherine Ann Porter.
[JEREMY] And uh, she, has one story, uh, Old Mortality, where she’s in her grandmother’s living room. Uh…
[LOUIE] Right here where we’re standing…
[JEREMY] Yeah, and I imagine it being set right here…and she’s, uh, rummaging through her grandmother’s old chest, finding like old dresses and photographs which inspire the larger story. But when I first read that I was sitting in here thinking…
[LOUIE] Oh, my goodness.
[JEREMY] Yeah, she was thinking of this room when she wrote this story.
[LOUIE] And that’s what’s really special about being in a place like this…
[JEREMY] Oh, yeah. It…it’s a part of literary history. Her history.
[LOUIE] And her sense of place…um…also becomes your sense of place because you’re living here for an extended period of time.
[JEREMY] Oh, yeah.
[LOUIE] So, it will also impact your writing as…as you go forward. Have you written anything that you wouldn’t have written had you not lived here?
[JEREMY] Oh yes. Uh…so after graduate school you’re a little burned out from writing so much. So, it was like a good way to reset. And, uh, start writing new material. The residency really gives you time for that.
[LOUIE] Do you read a lot of her material to prepare you?
[JEREMY] Well, I had read her collected stories in graduate school; kinda didn’t want to read her again right off the bat.
[JEREMY] Uh, but actually over the past year I’ve been rereading her. Went through her collected stories again. Found ones set in Kyle that I hadn’t…didn’t realize the first time reading them were set around this house. And, uh…
[LOUIE] That’s what I would look for.
[JEREMY] Mm…hm. And over the summer I finally read her novel, Ship of Fools. Um…which not a lot of people have read. It’s…it’s huge: like five-hundred, six-hundred pages…. There’s a cast of 60 characters.
[JEREMY] You see the cast of characters on the first page and get a little scared. But, uh, I read that over…
[LOUIE] Enter if you dare [laughs].
[JEREMY] But, uh, I read that over the summer, because I started working on my first novel this summer and was thinking, ‘I can’t write a novel while I’m living in Katherine Anne Porter’s house and I haven’t read her novel.’
[LOUIE] It doesn’t seem right. [laughs]
[JEREMY] I know. So, uh…
[LOUIE] But it’s like you saved it for that moment.
[JEREMY] Yeah, and, uh—it was a great read, and it’s really helped me with my own writing. Uhm…it has this exactness of detail describing characters. And even something so simple as someone placing her hand on a man’s shoulder. Just the way she describes people…uh…and interactions; it’s really helped with my novel. I’m about waist-deep in the novel right now and have Katherine Anne Porter and the residency to thank.
[LOUIE] Well, that’s great. That’s great. I bet that’s very exciting for you. Because once you’re halfway through, seems likely you’ll finish [laughs].
[JEREMY] Oh yeah.
[LOUIE] That first page is blank forever, isn’t it?
[JEREMY] Yeah…it’s a daunting task. But uh…hope to be done with the novel…
[LOUIE] I’m sure they’ll be very proud of you that you’ve accomplished that while you’re here. Let’s see what’s in the next room.
[JEREMY] Oh yeah. So, this right now is the bedroom. If you see these doors mirrored on each side of the wall, this was antique air conditioning. If you opened both doors at once, you’d catch the cross-draft. And it’s a continuous breeze blowing. So…
[LOUIE] In this part of the country where summer lasts forever, uh, that would come in very handy.
[JEREMY] I couldn’t imagine living here without air conditioning. But they sure did.
[LOUIE] And no refrigeration, either. You know, I guess maybe an ice man would come around. Maybe? I don’t know…
[JEREMY] Who knows? [laughs]
[LOUIE] Uh…cutting wood and getting wood for heat was probably a big chore. It was hard to live back then.
[JEREMY] Yeah. [walking/creaking floors] … It’s uh…it’s the bathroom now.
[LOUIE] Ah…luckily, they updated that for you, right? [laughs]
[JEREMY] Oh yeah. There wouldn’t have been a toilet here.
[LOUIE] Right; it would have been outside in the outhouse, I bet.
[JEREMY] But, uh, the bathroom is humongous. But, uh…
[LOUIE] It is.
[JEREMY] … this was, we think, the old bedroom. And since there were six people living in the house…uh…
[LOUIE] Right. People probably slept in each of these three rooms.
[JEREMY] Oh yeah, and uh…I believe there were bunkbeds in here, too, for the children. And, uh, so the three children, father and the grandmother, an old...the grandmother’s old servant; so, six people living on top of each other in three small rooms.
[LOUIE] Right. So, tell us a little bit about the process of restoring this house. I know you weren’t here at that point, but I guess it was about 20 years ago…anniversary.
[JEREMY] Yeah. I believe Preservation Associates of Texas purchased the house in 1998. I think it took a year or two to renovate the house. And they opened the house…uh…for the visiting author series. Would have been September 2000.
[LOUIE] And I think this place really is a landmark now, uh…
[JEREMY] Oh yeah.
[LOUIE] … in a short amount of time, it’s really become sort of a historical hub in, in a town that’s becoming very new.
[JERREMY] Oh yeah. And, uh, it’s an actual literary historical landmark. Laura Bush came here in 2002 to designate it as a landmark. We lease the house to Texas State University, and uh, we’re tied into their creative writing program. Uh, so, we host really about six to 10 authors a year here in our event space. Uh, we have Pulitzer prize winners, National Book Award winners. A real diverse slate of, uh, up and coming and established authors. And, uh, when they come here, they give a reading on campus, a reading here, and they also teach a Master Class for the MFA students at Texas State. So, students can come here and learn from the famous author teaching on any subject of their choice. And, uh, and all of our events are open to the public, too. A lot of local community members from Kyle come around. And, uh, one of my favorite people who come to our events—it’s a local mother—and she’s been coming here for probably over ten years. Even before I was here, coming to readings. And she’s been bringing her daughters ever since they were kids. One of her children finally went to college at Texas State University and decided to study English…
[LOUIE] Uh oh.
[JEREMY] …and she wanted to be a poet…
[LOUIE] Oh wow.
[JEREMY] …just because of all of the visiting author stuff her mother had been bringing her to here.
[LOUIE] That gives you a small sense of the ripple you can start…
[LOUIE] … just with your quiet presence in this hundred-and-whatever-year-old house. So, where are you from originally?
[JEREMY] Uh, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky.
[LOUOE] Oh, great.
[JEREMY] Uh, which is interesting, because, uh…this was Katherine Anne Porter’s grandmother’s house…
[JEREMY] …uh, her grandmother was actually from Kentucky, too.
[LOUIE] That’s a big coincidence.
[JEREMY] So, a Kentuckian built this house, and I was super happy when I heard that.
[walking across wooden floor, opens screen door, walks outdoors]
[LOUIE] So, you have a nice porch out here?
[JEREMY] This would have been, uh…probably used as a sleeping porch as well.
[LOUIE] Oh, yeah. Texas is big on these sleeping porches. And then now you have uh, an event that’s been built back here so you can have larger gatherings for the readings and things.
[JEREMY] Yeah. Usually a visiting author once a month, uh twice a month. Goodness, we’ve been running for 20 years, we’ve probably had about 150 authors here.
[LOUIE] Man, you’ve learned a lot.
[walking on wooden floor, opens screen door, walks onto porch]
[JEREMY] This porch would have looked on that old dirt road, way back when. Katherine Anne Porter when she was a kid, she was very theatrical. S-she wanted to be an actress. And, neighbors recounted stories of her staging plays in the front yard here as a little kid. She would take her grandmother’s quilts, use them as curtains to hide the porch, and she wouldn’t use the porch as a stage. It would be like her dressing room.
[LOUIE] Oh, and then she would perform in front…
[JEREMY] And then she would emerge and perform in front in the flower beds there. The grandmother who lived here, she was a horse rider. And, when they were renovating the house they found underneath the house, this giant stone, which they think was the steppingstone for the women to get onto their horses. [walking on gravel] Would you all like to see the seminar space?
[LOUIE] Yes, thank you. Thank you.
[walking on gravel]
[JEREMY] So, this reading room was built to coincide with the renovation of the house.
[JEREMY] Yes. And this is where all of our visiting authors, uh, come and read and work with the students of Texas State.
[LOUIE] And we’re surrounded by books and these posters are of…
[JEREMY] Uh, past visiting authors…
[LOUIE] Past visiting authors. What a beautiful series of black and white posters. And then some old historical photos of Katherine Anne Porter. Look at her. Here she is—this looks like the Hollywood headshot here. Oh, my goodness. She’s really very beautiful.
[JEREMY] Oh yeah. She actually, I think in her 20s, she caught the Spanish Influenza…
[JEREMY] …and, uh, all of her hair fell out while she was recovering. Then it grew back all white. Solid white. The…yeah…that’s her with her brother and sister and, uh, yeah…so that’s what she would have looked like while she lived here.
[LOUIE] You know, for…for having a modest childhood like this, she’s a very refined woman. She’s very graceful and gracious and lovely.
[walking on wooden floor]
[JEREMY] One big thing for us is, uh, September of next year we’re having our…
[JEREMY] …twentieth anniversary celebration. We’re super excited about it; twenty years of bringing authors to Kyle and honoring the legacy of Katherine Anne Porter.
[LOUIE] This ought to be very special then.
[JEREMY] Yeah, we’re very for it.
[JEREMY] Louie! Thank you for coming over.
[LOUIE] Thank you.
[walking on gravel, background street traffic]
[CECILIA & LOUIE]
[CECILIA] Wow. Um, I’m going to have to go and dig into the Katherine Anne Porter…ah… oeuvre to…to learn a little bit more about her. That was really great; thanks for doing that. And, by the way, while I was doing my own little research on her to find out who she was, I found a quote about her, is attributed to her, I should say. And it says: “I shall try to tell the truth, but the result will be fiction.”
[LOUIE] You know, I feel like I got to know Katherine Anne Porter so…so personally by standing in her childhood home and thinking about her writing. Now I’m ready to visit some of the other literary stops on this Wanderlist to find out about these other authors.
[CECILIA] Well, maybe I’ll join you, or maybe I’ll just grab the magazine and the book and head outside for a good read. Catch you later, Louie.
[LOUIE] Catch you later, Cecilia.
[MUS—GOT THAT HAY FEVER]
[NARRATION] We’re done wandering for this podcast…but Louie Bond and I—or our colleague, Randall Maxwell—will be back with more fascinating things to see and places to explore in the Lone Star State.
Before heading to any state park, historic site or natural area call ahead.
Also, keep an eye on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Instagram account, which is @TexasParksWildlife. We’ll use it to notify you of some of the Wanderlist subjects we plan to cover in the weeks ahead and give you a chance to ask questions, some of which we’ll answer on the podcast.
Under the Texas Sky is a production of Texas Parks and Wildlife. We produce our Wanderlist series in partnership with Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine in the Media Production Studios in Austin, Texas.
Randall Maxwell does our sound design. And we get distribution and web help from Susan Griswold and Benjamin Kailing. Whitney Bishop does our social media.
Stream to or download Under the Texas Sky and Under the Texas Sky’s Wanderlist wherever you get your podcasts. And please leave a review while you’re there and let us know how we’re doing and what you’d like to hear.
Until next time…keep on wandering Under the Texas Sky. I’m Cecilia Nasti.