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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Finding Redemption in Amarillo

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This is Bill Durham, the author of Amarillo. Since Amarillo was published, the greatest compliment I have received from readers is that the characters are very authentic to the Texas Panhandle and that the Panhandle itself is an essential character.

It pleases me because my hometown is Muleshoe, about 100 miles southwest of Amarillo, and I attended Texas Tech in Lubbock. The Panhandle is part of my DNA, and I am happy that other people feel the same way.

This novel began in a film acting class in Austin, Texas. The teacher assigned two of us as partners and told us to write a scene that took place in a car. I volunteered to write it, and due to a lifelong interest in true crime and mystery novels, I wrote something dark. In the scene, a man named Joe and his wife Darlene are driving to Luby’s.

She begins asking her husband what has happened to a man named Freddie Odom. At first Joe refuses to say, and when she eventually presses the issue, he tells her that she’d better not ask again, and if she does “I’ll show you where he is, but we better bring a shovel because you’re never gonna come back.”

A few weeks later, I had a different partner. This woman was the epitome of the former Texas cheerleader who had turned out well. She was beautiful and blonde, and her Texas accent would have required a Bowie knife in order to make a mark on it. She had been playing floozy roles, and I decided that I wanted to write a scene in which she played a professional.

This week’s location was in a grocery store—in fact, the original Whole Foods store—and I decided that she was an Amarillo District Attorney who runs into a long-haired defense lawyer and briefly spars with him about a case. I named the defense attorney Max and the prosecutor Diane, and suddenly I thought—wait. What if she’s prosecuting Joe, the guy from my previous scene for murdering Freddie Odom, and he’s defending Joe? I now had four characters (well, a fifth if you count Freddie), and now I just needed to draw the lines between them.

I initially wrote the story as a screenplay and tried to find an agent. After a few near misses, I felt frustrated. One of my friends said, “Hey, have you ever thought of writing it as a novel?” As I had earned an M.A. in Fiction Writing from New York University, I slapped my forehead, said “D’oh!” in my best Homer Simpson impression, and sat down to begin the story of Max Friedman’s journey to Amarillo.

Because the story had started out as a screenplay, I fashioned the characters not so much after the people in the class as after characters I could see them playing. One red-haired woman named Sandy became Angel, and her dog Bailey became, well, Bailey. A man who was a minister but who was great at playing bad guys fit the clothes of Smith Dixon, a thief yearning for redemption.

As the group of characters increased, I drew on other people in my life. A New York City friend who had passed away, combined with a best buddy from Muleshoe high school, melded into Champ Phillips. Another high school friend, a cowboy who is the greatest storyteller I have ever met, became Danny Gonzales.

The novel is my meditation on the land that raised me as well as a study in redemption—those who have it, those who desire it, and those who refuse it. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.