I am pleased to have an interview with Caleb Pirtle this week. He is a former newspaper writer, current novelist, and the founder of Venture Galleries.
Tell us about your journey from the newspaper writing you did to the travel writing you do now.
I began my newspaper career writing for small town Texas newspapers in Gladewater, Mount Pleasant, and Plainview. I learned early from talking to readers that what happened wasn’t nearly as important as the people who made it happen – the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. The news is never about events. It’s always about people. I took that same belief with me when I went to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
I was promptly placed on the police beat and spent a year chasing sirens, days and night, and writing about every suspect death in the city. Again, I discovered that readers wanted to know all about the victims and the perpetrators. You can cover the crime in one sentence. So all of my crime stories became personality sketches and human interest stories from school yards to death row in Huntsville.
After winning the Associated Press and Headliner’s Awards, I was given the job of traveling Texas and writing about fascinating people and places I found. In reality, I began writing travel stories before I knew they were travel stories.
When Governor John Connally established the Texas Tourist Development Agency, he hired me to write about the state, and after three years of filing national stories about every back road town in the state – from Bug Tussle and Wizard Wells to Luckenbach – I was asked to move to Birmingham, Alabama, and become travel editor for Southern Living Magazine. I still maintained the same focus in my writing. I had only expanded my territory. Now I was writing about every back roads town from Pineapple, Alabama, and Ninety-Six, South Carolina, to Plum Nelly, Georgia, so named, with a Southern drawl, because it was “plum out of Tennessee and nelly out of Georgia.”
How has your experience in newspaper writing and travel writing impacted your fiction writing?
Although I have written a lot of nonfiction historical books and novels, they all possess the same thought process I used when writing newspaper stories, travel articles, and travel books.
To me, the heart and soul of any book is Place and characters.
I was fortunate to have seen a lot of wonderful communities and cities and witnessed many trials and tribulations that have befallen people. I’ve seen the smoking guns up close, spent a lot of days in jail cells talking to prisoners, held family member who had just lost a loved one to tragedy. Those feelings and those experiences become a part of you, and most of them find their way to the printed pages.
I also believe that the location of a novel is as important as any character in the story. As a result, my novels have almost all had a Southern or Southwestern feel to them. I know the territory. I understand the people. And I have a profound respect for the culture and the traditions of those regions.
When I wrote Wicked Little Lies and set the novel in Vicksburg, Mississippi, all I had to do was close my eyes, and I recognized every character in the story as he or she walked down the street and into the church. I knew them all, and I knew them well. In another life, in another form, I had already written about them all, mostly in happier times.
Who was the most interesting character you met in your travels?
There were hundreds, but I would have to pare them down to two.
In Mountain View, Arkansas, I spent a lot of time with Jimmy Driftwood. He had been a school teacher in Timbo, Arkansas, and realized that those mountain kids in his class could not remember places or dates in history. So Jimmy would go home at night, pick up his old homemade guitar – he had made it out of a fence post, an ox yoke, and the headboard of his grandmother’s bed – and write songs about his history lessons.
All of the students would bring their guitars, banjos, and mandolins to class – they had been playing mountain music all of their lives – and they would sing Jimmy’s songs. Whether they realized it or not, they were learning history. One of his songs, The Battle of New Orleans sold more than eight million records. Another one, The Ballad of Johnny Reb and Billy Yank, won a Grammy Award. And the classic he wrote for Eddy Arnold, Tennessee Stud, was, in reality a geography lesson because the horse crossed every river and every state from Tennessee to Texas.
The second character would have to be Hondo Crouch, an old Central Texas rancher who bought the little town of Luckenbach – which only had a general store, beer joint, and post office – so, he said, he could get a cold beer any time he wanted one. He turned Luckenbach into a major tourist attraction long before Willie and Waylon ever recorded the song. He had a “Hell Hath No Fury Like A Woman Scorned” Chili Cookoff and the Almost Annual World’s Fair, which featured the Intergalactic Chicken Flyoff. Why did he hold a World’s Fair, I asked.
“It was manifest destiny,” Hondo said. “I took one of them school globes of the world, cut a piece of string the exact circumference of the globe, put one end of the string on Luckenbach, wrapped the string around the globe, and damn if the other end didn’t land on Luckenbach, too.” You can’t argue with those kinds of calculations.
What is Venture Galleries? How did it start? Where is it going?
Venture Galleries was launched a little more than a year ago by myself, my wife, Linda, who has just finished her first novel, a cozy mystery titled The Mah Jongg Murders, and my partner, Stephen Woodfin, an attorney in Kilgore who is also one of the finest writers of legal thrillers around. His Last One Chosen was a Top 5 Finalist for indie book of the year.
Our goal was to provide the country’s top independent authors with a high-quality, first-class visual forum where they could produce blogs and help build their names and their brands in this new digital world of publishing. We wanted to publish eBooks for authors, as well as serve as a marketing and promotional vehicle to showcase their work. A great number of indie writers produce books far better than those being turned out by traditional publishers in New York, and they need a break. We hope to give them one.
Within the next two weeks, our Website – http://venturegalleries.com – will launch a new design that, we believe, will be an even more effective venue to writers. We now have more than twenty bloggers, and we give them an open forum to write about anything they want to say. We don’t restrict them. Some of the blogs are inspirational. Some are controversial. Some are short stories. Some deal with the ins and outs of indie writing and publishing. Personally, Stephen and I try to blog about material on a regular basis that, we hope, will assist authors as they make their journey through the unpredictable maze of the publishing world. One of our bloggers, Robert B. Lowe, has won a Pulitzer Prize and another, Jory Sherman, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
One of the many interesting elements of Venture Galleries is the inclusion of serial. What made you decide to include those?
Stephen, Linda, and I have long been concerned that the rush to produce blogs – long regarded as the foundation or any promotion and marketing efforts – did not allow an author to really highlight his or her talent as a writer of fine fiction. Blogs can provide invaluable information, but they tend to be very conversational in tone and seldom have any significant literary quality. Serials, however, show potential book buyers that an author really knows how to develop characters, twist a plot, and build suspense, tension, and conflict, even in romantic stories. And that makes a difference.
In October we began developing serials. Those of us who remember have long regretted the demise of such great magazines like Colliers and Saturday Evening Post, which provided readers with brilliant short story and serialized fiction in every issue. Magazines just don’t focus on fiction any more. And there was a time when kids didn’t miss a movie on Saturday because they couldn’t wait to catch another episode of a serial, which always ended with a genuine, hold-your-breath cliffhanger. That was the kind of feeling and ambiance we wanted to bring to Venture Galleries. What we didn’t realize was that serials have become some of the greatest traffic grabbers I have ever seen. Venture Galleries presently has more than a dozen serials running each week, and the genre runs the gamut from mysteries and thrillers to romance and horror and historical fiction. Some authors produce one chapter a week, and others have new chapters every day. We have a goodly number of writers from Texas and throughout the South, but we are also featuring authors from coast to coast.
At present, Venture Galleries is averaging 55,000 unique visitors a month, and the analytics indicate that each visitor who enters the site because of a serial stays on our serial and blog pages an average of 15 to 25 minutes, which is amazing. That means they are reading almost everything we publish each day.
At Venture Galleries, we strongly believe in the importance of promotion and marketing, especially through blogs and regular serial chapters, but Stephen and I are presently working on the missing link, a plan that will allow authors a real opportunity to actually sell a lot of books. The testing is in place, and if all goes well, we should be able to roll out the program within the next two months.
That’s where we have been, and that’s where we’re headed.
Caleb Pirtle, Venture Galleries
Many thanks to Caleb for being my guest today on Southern Creatives!
If you would like to find out more about Venture Galleries, you can find that information here.
Connect with Caleb on Twitter
And, if you would like to see a serial in action, the first installment of Nelson and Cora – The Beginning is on Venture Galleries: She didn’t mention the son who died or the sons who lived