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J.R. Helton, a San Antonio-based author who has written for more than 30 years with Texas as his constant backdrop, has forged an American genre all his own, one he dubs “autobiographical fiction.”
A writing teacher at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Helton’s stories and poems have been featured in publications nationwide. He writes with an uncompromising grit and honesty about his life experiences in Texas, from a behind-the-scenes look at the movie business to his experiences running a no-kill animal shelter on a cattle ranch, among other adventures. His prose moves fast and his characters rarely flinch.
On Friday, Feb. 2, Gemini Ink will host a book launch of Helton’s newly released memoir, Bad Jobs and Poor Decisions: Dispatches from the Working Class, from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at its offices, 1111 Navarro St. The event is free and open to the public.
This page-turning, darkly comic, uber-vivid memoir about growing up in 1980s working-class Texas is making no small splash on the national literary scene. The National Book Review lists it as one of Five Hot Books.
“This is Helton at his best, as he recalls trudging through the lower depths working a myriad of menial jobs,” filmmaker Terry Zwigoff wrote. “With an abundance of humor, sharp observation, and a terrific ear for dialogue, he makes the bleak and tragic subject matter something to be savored.”
Helton has published numerous books about movies, drugs, people, and dogs, including the memoir Man and Beast (2001), and the novels Drugs (2012) and The Jugheads (2014).
Alexandra van de Kamp of Gemini Ink recently spoke with Helton about his creative process, no-holds-barred approach to storytelling, and particular brand of American writing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Van de Kamp: Your writing has evolved over an interesting trajectory, including novels like Drugs about growing up in the United States and unrepentantly indulging in drugs. How is the writing of your recent memoir similar or different from your previous books?
J.R. Helton: My writing is always very personal and done in a spartan, stripped down, somewhat minimalist style. It is often driven more by a heavy use of dialogue and less exposition, though I do have a bit more exposition in this book. This is due to working more with an editor – two editors in fact, at [my publisher] Liveright/W.W. Norton – and cooperating more than I have in the past with their suggestions. Liveright was quite respectful of my voice and choices, and I didn’t write one word that I didn’t want to write. Like many of my other books, this one was also written over many years and, thus, is a collection of material scribbled on legal pads and typed on electric and even manual typewriters to computers today. Perhaps it doesn’t look like it with my purposefully casual, conversational style, but I worked on this book off and on for years.
AV: Do you see yourself as a uniquely Texas writer? You plumb your adolescence and adulthood in this state for much of your subject matter. Are there any Texas writers you have especially admired or been influenced by?
JH: I hope I am not a uniquely Texan writer. I have tried to avoid that label of being a “regional” author all my life. Yes, I am from the big, iconic state of Texas, and all of my stories and books, most all of my experience, has been set in Texas, but I have taken pains to try to make my work have what I hope are universal aspects. [But] yes, I am a very distinctly American writer. Though few people still know of my autobiographical novel, The Jugheads, I worked on that book for decades. I tried very hard to make it a book that applied not just to Texas families, but to all American families, especially my white, middle working-class family as we lived in the inner city, the suburbs, and then in rural America.
I was very conscious of Larry McMurtry when I was a young writer first starting out, and my favorite two books of his were his collection of essays In a Narrow Grave and All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, both of which are very Texan, yet they are sometimes critical of the whole country, cowboy and cliché notions of Texas, especially in how Hollywood tried to portray this state. Mainly, though, I like his book All My Friends are Going to be Strangers for its autobiographical elements.
Now, as much as I would like my work to be read in a universal way, and for all my protests of being not “just” a regional or Texas writer, the greatest cosmic literary identity joke is that I am truly about as Texan as any writer could possibly be. I’ve lived all over this state: I was a city boy in downtown Houston, a suburban boy in the rice fields of Katy, a country boy in Wimberley, and a college boy at UT Austin. My great-grandfather was one of 12 boys on a ranch in Llano, and through him my family has been in Texas since the 19th century.
AV: What has been the most challenging writing space you have had to work out of?
JH: My next book is called Sanctuary, and it is a memoir based on the 10 years I spent living in the country on a cattle ranch starting and running one of the largest, nonprofit, no-kill dog and cat shelters in all of the Southwest. Unfortunately, my experiences there turned into a chaotic, Darwinian madhouse. It was one of the most difficult periods of not just writing, but simply surviving in my whole life, as my second wife went from having about three dogs when I first met her in Austin in 1990 to having more than 300 dogs when I began to leave her in 2000.
AV: If you had to offer one piece of writing advice to younger writers, or anyone interested in getting serious about writing, what would it be?
JH: Be persistent. Be thorough. Also, don’t censor yourself as you write and create, but when it comes to editing what you’ve written and then deciding what to publish, be your own worst critic. I also tell my creative writing students always to assume a bored reader who has something better to do. My writing is my own deal, it is very personal, where I only write because I truly want to write, because I have to write in order to try to understand my experience and life. But when it comes to publishing that material, I never assume my reader is particularly interested in anything I have to say. I try to keep a narrative moving quickly with a lot of dialogue and less exposition. I try to just tell a story, or a series of interconnected stories, and if it keeps me honestly interested when I re-read what I’ve written, then I am willing to publish it and push it out into the world.
AV: Which talent would you most like to have?
JH: That’s easy. I wish I could play a musical instrument. I have an uncle who is exactly my same age, he is like my brother and I love him, and he was born with this innate ability to teach himself by ear how to play just about any musical instrument. I always envied him for that. I consider music to be the highest form of art and by definition, it is like a drug to me, the safest and best drug there is.
For more information on Gemini Ink or Helton’s book launch, click here.