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HPPR Arts, Culture & History

Writing What You Know

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Phillip Periman
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This is Bill Durham, author of Amarillo. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started reading mystery novels and true crime books. I graduated from Muleshoe High School and received my B.A. degree in Theatre Arts and English, a double major from Texas Tech University.  After graduating from Tech I moved to New York City, and while I was looking for work I started going to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and reading books that I wanted to read, as opposed to the previous four years reading what I had to for school. That’s when I started to read true crime. A few years later I began frequenting a mystery book store in Greenwich Village. It was then  that I started to read some of the classic writers of the genre—Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Sue Grafton, and others as well as such “regional” writers as the Texas musician and novelist Kinky Friedman. 

However, it was not until I had moved back to Texas that the idea occurred to me to write my own crime novel. I was influenced by those great writers, especially by those who created a strong sense of place in their novels. Because I had spent a decade in New York City, I resonated with the descriptions of that city in Lawrence Block’s books. However, although I had spent little to no time in Louisiana, I felt through James Lee Burke’s novels that I was right there in the humid heart of the South. Later on, Craig Johnson and Stieg Larsson made me feel the same way about Montana and Sweden, neither of which I have ever visited.

So when I started writing my own novel, I knew it belonged to the Texas Panhandle, the place that more than any other has shaped who I am.

I wanted the novel to be a contemporary Western, re-inventing the tropes of that genre—the outlaw seeking redemption; the greenhorn; the tough saloon keeper, the gambler, the town drunk, the righteous sheriff, and the bad man with a gun. What better place to set it than Amarillo, with its storied history of western violence and frontier justice? When I was in high school Amarillo was a place my friends and I went to spend a day going to the movies and riding horses in the spectacular Palo Duro Canyon. After I moved from New York back to Austin, I visited an old high school buddy there and engaged in more adult activities—playing pool and drinking beer at Harvey’s on Duniven Circle. Harvey’s magically became a pool hall named Bailey’s, one of the main locations in the novel.

On various trips while writing the book, I wandered around the Potter County courthouse imagining my characters in those halls and rooms. I saw houses where they could live, and I imagined the two lovers having their first date on horseback at the edge of the Canyon.

To research the courtroom scenes I studied Texas criminal law and, on one very scary day, was present in the courtroom when serial killer Kenneth McDuff was sentenced and tried to fight the guards after he was declared guilty.

The greatest compliments I have received about the book are those who say how real it is—that they know Joe or Angel, have played pool in a place like Bailey’s, have fallen in love under the spell of the Palo Duro Canyon. It’s what a writer yearns for—to touch the reader. Occasionally I receive an email from someone I’ve never met telling me how much they enjoyed the book, or that they read a passage from it to someone who needed to hear what a character was saying in that moment. When it happens, I feel happy that I’ve done.