I come from a long line of hillbilly storytellers and grew up listening to parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins tell tales about growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina during the Great Depression, about going overseas during World War II to beat Hitler and Tojo, about coming home to marry and start families and pulling up stakes to chase better jobs during the post-war boom.
I had an older cousin who ran moonshine to pay for the dicey operation to fix his daughter’s heart. He later became a cop. I had a great grandfather who was a circuit-riding preacher serving hamlets so deep in the hollers they had to pipe in the sunshine. I had a grandmother who dipped snuff and drank a nightly dram of fortified wine to settle her stomach till the day she died at 93. And my father’s father, a caretaker for the big timber companies that clear cut the mountains, would tell me stories of hearing panthers scream at night when he was a boy, doodling on the brim and crown of his fedora with a pen as he talked. When he ran out of room to doodle, he’d buy a new hat.
I had two uncles, my mother’s brothers, who were career Army sergeants. I can still remember being fascinated with the Zippos they carried with their unit insignia embossed on one side, the sweet, heady fumes of the lighter fluid, the sharp metallic click when they flipped the top open and snicked the wheel across the flint to light a cigarette. It was a fascination that carried over to my days as a hard-drinking reporter, chasing stories and firing up Lucky Strikes with my own battered Zippo, carrying that lighter through hurricanes and presidential campaigns, plane wrecks and murder trials.
I ate those stories up as a kid. They gave me a keen sense of kinfolk, time and place and taught me about the powerful pull of blood and land. They also gave me an abiding appreciation of a well-told tale and a life-long lust to tell my own stories with the written word.
Those stories of family and place still inform my work and I’m surprised when they pop up in the novels I’m writing now. While writing my way toward the end scene of The Right Wrong Number, my main character, Ed Earl Burch, a cashiered Dallas homicide detective, was gazing at the morning mist from a cold camp just across the Mexican border. He had slipped across the border on horseback, headed for an abandoned mining town, in pursuit of the two main villains of the story, an estranged husband and wife, pure predators intent on carving each other up. The wife was an old flame who hired Burch to protect her after her husband disappeared, leaving a string of ripped-off clients, including some mobsters from New Orleans who wanted their diamonds, drugs and money back. Burch was on their trail to avenge the murder of his best friend in Dallas, snuffed by hired muscle sent by those mobsters. But that’s not who Burch wanted in his gunsights—he was after the two who started it all.
Burch was staring into a mist that brought of memories of loss — his dead friend, his dead partner, his ex-wives. The next thing I knew, I was writing about the death of my own father, his funeral, a day spent walking what was left of the family homestead with my cousin and the delayed reaction of grief and sorrow I had, triggered by a bluegrass song he liked called “Model Church.” I was speeding through mountain switchbacks when the song caused me to start sobbing uncontrollably, not caring whether I made it to the bottom of the grade or took my pickup over the high side.
The words came pouring out of me in a rush and I cried again for my dead daddy when I read what I had written. I let the book sit for a few days, returning to read it again with a cold eye. I started to cut the passage because it was too personal. Instead, I left it in because Burch is a guy driven by loss and guilt and the words about my own father’s death and my own sense of guilt and loss served the story well and were an evocative way of showing my character’s pain.
For more than 30 years, Jim Nesbitt roved the American Outback as a correspondent for newspapers and wire services in Alabama, Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington, D.C. He chased hurricanes, earthquakes, plane wrecks, presidential candidates, wildfires, rodeo cowboys, ranchers, miners, loggers, farmers, migrant field hands, doctors, neo-Nazis and nuns with an eye for the telling detail and an ear for the voice of the people who give life to a story. He is a lapsed horseman, pilot, hunter and saloon sport with a keen appreciation for old guns, vintage cars and trucks, good cigars, aged whiskey and a well-told story. He now lives in Athens, Alabama and writes hard-boiled detective thrillers set in Texas.
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