It’s mythic. It’s historic. It’s folk wisdom and wit. Best of all, it’s a master storyteller at the top of his game practicing the ancient art he heard as a kid growing up in Edna in the 1940s.
In his magical first novel, "The Devil’s Backbone," screenwriter-producer Bill Wittliff, who took us up the trail with Gus and Call in his beloved teleplay for "Lonesome Dove," takes us on a different kind of journey.
This time it’s a quest that the young hero named Papa undertakes through the rough Hill Country of Texas, circa 1880, when bears still raided corn cribs and panthers still screamed in the night.
For Wittliff, whose forebears were among the Old Three Hundred settlers who received land grants in Stephen F. Austin’s first colony, all life is an adventure. And so is the act of writing — in this case, a wild, rudimentary, intuitive one.
At his office off Sixth Street, a living museum of his many films, TV shows, books, fine art photography and friends like the late John Graves, one of whose "Goodbye to a River" paddles leans against a wall, Wittliff talked about his original, picaresque novel.
"I made a deal with myself," he says. "I was not going to think. I was going to try to do this by feel. Let whatever hit the paper be the first part of the journey. You can always come back and give it shape."
The book is illustrated with 25 dramatic pen-and-ink drawings by award-winning Dallas artist Jack Unruh, who loves the book and used his grandson Jack Whalen, 9, as the model for Papa. "He’s a good-looking kid," Unruh says, "and he was cheap."
Some Unruh art is available for sale online, but his stunning drawings for the book will go into the Wittliff Collections — manuscripts, books, literary memorabilia and Southwestern and Mexican photography — that Bill and his wife, Sally, founded at Texas State University in San Marcos.
With his keen ear for language and knowledge of the era, Wittliff employs a vernacular as rich and colorful as Brer Rabbit’s Southern dialect or Huck Finn’s Mississippi Valley argot that takes some readers a couple of pages to appreciate.
But then the lead character’s rhythm sinks in and readers are rewarded with a lively, almost musical tale that Texas man of letters Larry McMurtry calls "part novel and part yarn … a fine read," screenwriter and "Texas Monthly" founding editor Bill Broyles says is "unforgettable … and fun to read" and veteran author Jim Harrison predicts " is destined to be an American classic."
In this first book of a trilogy, Papa, age 11 or 12, leaves home to search for his missing Momma, who "carried two pistols, smoked her a crooked pipe, and could shoot then skin a Buck Deer fore it ever drawed last breath. But Oh she was tender when it come to Horses," he said.
The last time Papa saw her she was on her mare Precious fleeing his mean, vicious horse-trading tightwad Daddy, Old Karl, who "wadn’t tender bout nothing on this earth. Not one thing, Papa said. For sure not no Horses."
Determined to find her, Papa sets out on swayback Old Molly for New Braunfels, where his brother Herman saw Momma’s horse. And "a’setting up there in front a’me with his chin on the saddle horn," Papa says, was Fritz, the little dog he rescued that could grin and laugh.
On the way to Mexico from Blanco (Wittliff’s home as a teen) by way of New Braunfels, Lockhart, Fayetteville and Kendalia, Papa and his amigos meet saints and sinners, angels and rogues as rough and tumble a bunch as you ever did see.
Some stories in the novel, Wittliff says — like the coyote Mr. Pegleg licking Papa’s face, the hail storm that beats every leaf off the trees and Bird the prescient premature "blue baby" — come from boyhood and family memories.
But other moments in its pages took their author by surprise. Like Papa tasting copper in his mouth when riled up enough to want to murder his dad, little Lalo coming out of a Rio Grande sinkhole chanting the names of dead Mexican ancestors and Momma’s horse Precious walking in the back door of Fischer Hall during the Bird Dance.
As a writer, he says, "all of these things were pleasures for me because I didn’t anticipate some of them. That was what was fun. I didn’t get to make the trip in advance. I made it as the characters made it."
Years ago, Wittliff says, he asked his grandfather, a good storyteller, to write his memoir. "Second grade was as far as he got, but he bought an old typewriter and with one finger of one hand he pecked out 40 some odd pages."
But because his grandfather couldn’t operate the machine, the beginning and end of each sentence was missing. And when Wittliff asked him to fill in the blanks, he says, he got more in person than he ever would have in print.
Then when his remarkable mother Laura was 78, he told her if she’d write her memories, he would publish them in book form. His mother’s story as a young divorcee who supported two sons running the local telephone office in Edna in the last years of World War II inspired his movie "Raggedy Man."
It took Laura Wittliff two years writing longhand, but Bill Wittliff — who with Sally in 1964 founded Encino Press that for 17 years published exquisitely designed books about Texas, including Larry McMurtry’s "In a Narrow Grave" — kept his word and privately published her life story.
"I was inspired by my grandfather’s and mom’s stories," he says, "but if somebody interesting came though the door and hit the paper, they could stay in the story unless they got boring or ran out of gas."
What makes this novel, which is dedicated to his grandkids and Ocho, his late poodle pal and writing companion, so different is the author’s fearlessness, funny bone and soulful empathy for nature, creatures and the spirit world.
In a series of supernatural scenes, Papa visits a black seer in touch with haunts, dreams of his Momma and encounters the spectral Shimmery People, a mystical "lot a’Friends over there on the Other Side a’the Creek."
"I’m a spooky guy," Wittliff says. "I believe in invisible helpers. They’re the friendly people from the other side who help us when we need them. We’re walking in a continuous miracle as it is."
Every evening about the time lightning bugs came out in Edna, Texas, B.T. (before television), the author says, he, his big brother Jim and others would gather to hear Tom Callaway tell stories. Across the railroad tracks, hardware store owner Gus Westoff would give you some scrap boards, a bunch of nails and a good story to boot.
It was when he read one of Westoff’s stories in J. Frank Dobie’s folklore collection "Old-Time Tales of Texas" that Wittliff realized stories from your life could be made into books. "They didn’t have to come from across the ocean, big cities or fancy people," he says.
It was a pivotal moment that lit a spark, which burns in him still. And judging from "The Devil’s Backbone," wondrous, warm, human and sometimes weird stories can come from a grandfather, a mother or a genial Texas legend’s unfettered imagination.