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Bill Wittliff has made a career out of telling stories. A seasoned screenplay writer, collector, and founder of The Wittliff Collections, his first novel, “The Devil’s Backbone,” was released this month and published by the University of Texas Press. He will share the book at the 23rd-Annual San Antonio Express-News Book & Author Luncheon this Thursday, Oct. 23, and The Wittliff Collections on Sunday, Dec. 7.
Wittliff is a sought-after screenplay writer best known for the mini-series “Lonesome Dove” and the feature film “The Perfect Storm.” While writing “The Devil’s Backbone,” he indulged in the creative writing process all to himself.
“I’ve spent a number of years writing movies. The problem with movies is you can’t make a movie by yourself – there are too many fingers in the plot,” he said. “If I had written this book as a movie, there would have been executives making decisions, but I’m one of the luckiest people in movies. I’ve never lived in L.A. but I’ve been able to get a number of things made and I’ve done very well.”
Wittliff used free-writing techniques when sitting down to pen “The Devil’s Backbone” and let his characters emerge through the process.
“I try to feel more than I think. If a character hit the paper and was interesting enough, I was willing to go where that character wanted to,” he acknowledged.
“The Devil’s Backbone” follows the unpredictable adventures of a young boy called Papa, who will stop for nothing on his search for his Momma after she fled to escape his ruthless father, Old Karl. Set in central Texas in the 1880s frontier, the story reveals its characters as Papa encounters them along his relentless quest.
Following Papa’s adventures, he and his scrappy dog, Fritz, encounter all sorts of obstacles from hunger to a torrential Texas thunderstorm, criminals, and even murder, yet they are able to survive with the help of friends, strangers, and a wanted cowboy they meet along the way. The dark sides of the story are balanced with humor, folk wisdom, and good-natured people.
“They travel in pairs the Good and Bad together, and depending on what you do with ’em they gonna steer your Life one way or the other,” reads a quote from page 130 of the novel.
The story reads as though you were hearing it told on the back porch. Wittliff writes just like his characters talk, with a Texas twang that natives will read as humorously accurate. The story feels non-traditional – there are no chapters, only pauses in the plot. They are like bite-sized stories you want to keep eating up, making the book easy to devour in a short period. The story is ripe with magical realism. It’s a fresh blend of Texas tall tale and coming-of-age story that leaves the reader feeling warmly nostalgic.
Woven into the story are Wittliff’s personal history, experience, and imagination. One scene at a dance hall was straight from Wittliff’s memory of a venue where his family hosted their annual reunions.
“I didn’t put the dance hall in the story because I thought about it, but simply because that’s where I imagined the characters,” he said.
The book includes 25 full-page illustrations that add indelible richness to the story. Wittliff envisioned the book as having illustrations from the start. “The idea of that was to make it like a novel would have been in the 1880s and 1890s when illustrated books were the norm, to give it a little bit of period feel,” he said.
Jack Unruh is an award-winning illustrator whose art has appeared in numerous publications. “I knew Jack’s work, and I wanted Jack to illustrate parts that he really liked. I didn’t try to jump in Jack’s business. I didn’t want to be an art director,” Wittliff said.
Storytellers influenced him from a young age. “My grandfather was a wonderful storyteller. I was raised in a lot of little Texas towns during the ’40s and ’50s. At that time cowboys and storytellers were the heroes, because not everybody had TV sets.
“After supper, people would sit out on the porch and tell stories, and in my towns, those were people who I admired most,” he remembered. “A storyteller kinda belonged to everybody and I was fortunate in that I was around some pretty good storytellers.”
Wittliff attended college at The University of Texas at Austin and studied journalism. Writer Jay Frank Dobie, who was in his old age at the time, became a mentor and friend to the young Wittliff.
“Dobie was the first Texas writer to get a national reputation. He was real important to me,” he said. Wittliff quoted Dobie to open “The Devil’s Backbone”: “Never let facts get in the way of the truth.”
After college, Wittliff and his wife, Sally, started a publishing house in Austin, Encino Press, that focused on material related to Texas and the Southwest and was active through the early 1980s, receiving more than 100 awards. Wittliff began working in film and television as a screenwriter and producer in 1977 and was one of the first writers in Texas to maintain a successful career “off-site,” sometimes working on location but remaining based in Austin, though he could easily have moved to Los Angeles.
For Wittliff, storytelling and collecting go hand in hand. He’s always collected things to help preserve the past and tell stories about objects, people, and places.
“I collect things I’m interested in. I want to be more surrounded by the things I like and that have meaning for me – to be physically connected to the history of my place and to stories, to have a firmer hold on that past,” he explained. “It’s all part of the same thing – wanting to be a part of things not apart from things.”
Wittliff’s favorite thing he’s ever collected is The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, founded by him and his wife, Sally, in 1986. The Wittliff Collections are devoted to preserving the creative legacy of the Southwest through the acquisition of literature, film, music, and photography, including manuscripts by such renowned authors as Cormac McCarthy.
The University offers year-round programs and exhibitions to the public. “We’re really proud of Texas State archives that will go down through the generations, long after we’re gone,” Wittliff said.
“The collection is hugely inspirational to young writers,” he added. “They can go there and see it doesn’t just pour directly from God – you have to sit there and scratch out words.
“A lot of it is just work and being able to endure. If you have the manuscripts and you can see the moment when John Graves or Cormac McCarthy finds just the right word — that’s the thing I’m most proud of,” he said.
As an accomplished photographer, his work has been included in many publications, including “A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove,” featuring images taken on set of the award-winning mini-series.
Wittliff is already working on the next book in the Papa trilogy and approaches it with the same unrestricted creative process as the first.
“The best thing is just to try to find some part of a true feeling. It works because it comes out of feel, not out of thought. If you can be in touch with that part of you, creativity, you might realize, ‘I didn’t know that I knew that,’” he said. “That’s what’s so fun, simply not knowing, and trusting it to reveal itself. We’re lucky, as creative people, to be bent in a way that we see other aspects of the world. There’s always a sense of discovery.”
RSVP to a fiction reading, book sale, signing, and reception for “The Devil’s Backbone” with Wittliff at The Wittliff Collections at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, at Texas State University.
*Featured/top image: Detail of Jack Unruh’s cover illustration for “The Devil’s Backbone” by Bill Wittliff. Courtesy image.