Of all the celebrities Tulsa likes to boast about -- models, actresses and musicians who hail from here but have moved on -- some of the most successful and most interesting still live here in the city and its outlying suburbs.
We don't hear much about them, because they're not (for the most part) on television or in the movies. They aren't starring in reality TV shows or landing in rehab every other month. Instead, they live quietly among us. They shop where we shop, frequent our favorite entertainment venues and contribute to the local economy.
They're bestselling authors -- and those who aspire to be bestsellers -- who live and breathe writing, and although they could hang their hats anywhere in the world, they call Tulsa home.
With such a rich plucking ground of talented writers, the daydreaming, closet hiding, poetry and novel-writing students of language can find inspiration on nearly every bookshelf in town.
Why write? Urban Tulsa Weekly wanted to know, so we assembled four of Tulsa's finest published authors and followed a literary leader on her path to perfecting prose.
One Step at a Time
William ("Bill," if you've ever met him in person) Bernhardt received his first rejection letter when he was 11 years old. It came from Highlights magazine in response to a poem he submitted about the Oklahoma Land Run.
Primary Justice was the fi rst book William
Bernhardt sold. The work became a series of
17 (and counting) thrillers about an Oklahoma
defense attorney named Ben Kincaid. Those books
set Bernhardt on a direct path to literary success.
In fact, the series proved so successful that,
following book No. 6, Bernhardt left the large Tulsa
law firm where he was practicing to write full time.
KENNETH M. RUGGIANO
It took Bernhardt 20 years -- and about 300 more rejection letters -- to finally get something published.
Although he wanted to be a writer since he was 7, Bernhardt started his career as a trial defense attorney.
"I went to law school because I needed some way to make a living, and I enjoyed practicing law for the most part," he said. "But all I'd ever wanted to do was write, to be a writer. But I was about to graduate college, and I hadn't sold a thing yet, so it looked like I needed an alternative career path. I thought practicing law was something I could do.
"What I didn't anticipate was that I would end up writing about law, lawyers and legal matters. That was just a happy coincidence that worked out later."
Although it wasn't the first book he wrote, Primary Justice was the first one he sold, and it was the first of what would become a series of 17 (and counting) thrillers about an Oklahoma defense attorney named Ben Kincaid. Those books set Bernhardt on a direct path to literary success. In fact, the series proved so successful that, following book No. 6, Bernhardt left the large Tulsa law firm where he was practicing to write full time.
"I wanted to make sure it looked like a reasonably certain thing and I had enough money tucked away in the bank if something went south," the author, who has three children, ages 19, 16 and 9, said.
Bernhardt said the Ben Kincaid books came out of an opportunity to write what he knew, but mystery novels had never, until then, come naturally to him.
"I'd never really read, until college, perhaps, mysteries at all," he said. "I never really read thrillers. But I liked the puzzle aspect of Golden Age mysteries, the intellectual puzzle to be solved.
"Primary Justice, though, is really more of a character study than anything else. I think the characters are reasonably well-drawn; I think the mystery is not the strongest point. It's really more character-driven than plot-driven."
But the Ben Kincaid series isn't all Bernhardt wrote.
"(Before Primary Justice was published,) I wrote a lot of science fiction short stories that were never published, thank goodness, because they weren't very good," he said. "I wrote a novel called The Code of Buddyhood, my literary great American novel, which has subsequently been published. I couldn't get anyone interested at the time, but after Primary Justice was a hit, things changed. And I'm proud of that work. I haven't read it in 20 years; I don't know how it stands up today. But I'm glad I did it."
Beyond the Ben Kincaid series, Bernhardt has written a historical thriller about America's first serial killer and legendary lawman Eliot Ness, entitled Nemesis, as well as novels, anthologies and two children's books. In addition, in 1999, Bernhardt founded Hawk Publishing, a regional press that has published more than 100 works -- about a third of them first novels by new writers.
"I knew a lot of good writers who still weren't able to get their books published," Bernhardt said. "And I remember what that feels like, having spent about 20 years trying to get something published before I did."
Bernhardt also hosts an annual writing workshop at the University of Tulsa and several seminars every year.
"People talk about writing being a lonely profession; I don't find it particularly lonely," he said. "I've met scores of people I would never have met if I hadn't written books. But it is true that it's something you do by yourself. You don't have a staff and you don't have a secretary; it's kind of you and your word processor. So I like to get out every now and again and interact with people, particularly aspiring writers. I look in their eyes and I can very much see myself 30 years ago, wanting, above all else, to get your name on the spine of a book but not sure how to do it."
Freedom to Write
Lindi Smith spent three years developing the characters of her debut novel, Yerp, before she ever put pen to paper.
Lindi Smith’s novel, Yerp, is named for the
made-up language of 5-year-old character
Rocket Funkenorvoll, which consists entirely
of “yerps.” Smith self-published the book
under the LLC she founded, Britches Press,
because she wanted to ensure it was published.
KENNETH M. RUGGIANO
The book, which is intended for "youthful readers," chronicles the lives of three eccentric siblings, Vera, Herb and Rocket Funkenorvoll.
"I worked, when I was in high school and during the summers on breaks when I would come back to Tulsa from college, at Smoothie King, and while I worked there I met another girl and we became fast friends, and I would always tease her about her future children she was going to have, who were Vera, Herb and Rocket," Smith said.
That was in 2005, and in 2008, when Smith and her husband moved home after a three-year stint in Dallas, Smith was looking for something to do. So she began to write.
"I didn't really know what I was going to do, and I didn't want to get back into sitting at a desk, working for a company," she said. "So I just kind of hung out for a while, and I actually came to Shades of Brown every day from January to the end of March, and I wrote (the book) in this moleskin notebook. So I handwrote the whole thing. And in March, when I was done writing, I was able to take it and put it on the computer and do all the copy editing and everything."
Smith self-published the book under the LLC she founded, Britches Press, because she wanted to ensure it was published.
"I wasn't hoping I could be the next J.K. Rowling or something ridiculous and that it would explode," Smith said. "I didn't want to become famous because I wrote it or something like that. I just wanted to have it out there. It was more for me just something to do, something cathartic and fun."
The novel is named for the made-up language of 5-year-old Rocket Funkenorvoll, Darbarfarubfahr, which consists entirely of "yerps."
"It means everything. It means anything you want it to mean," Smith said of "yerp."
Smith targeted her novel toward young readers because "there's sort of this inherent simplicity with the idea of a children's book," she said.
"And I don't think this book is simple," she said. "I think it's very complex."
In all honesty, Smith likely wrote the book for children like herself.
"When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader," she said. "I still am now. I learned to read really, really young. And when I was in kindergarten, my teacher was teaching the alphabet and basic word associations to the class, and I already knew how to read, so she would send me to the library for the whole day.
"I would just get sent off to the library, and I would hang out with the librarian and read books all day. I felt like Roald Dahl's Matilda. And I loved it. And so I think I kind of wish that for a lot of other kids. I kind of wanted to target this book specifically to those youthful readers, the kids who sort of have this appetite for reading that they just devour books and they want more and they want to learn from what they read."
A Vampire Among Us
"I wrote the book I most wanted to read," said P.C. Cast of her first novel, Goddess by Mistake, now called Divine by Mistake, published in 2001.
P.C. Cast’s fi rst book, Divine by Mistake, was published in
2001, and since then, Cast has written 24 more, including
fi ve in her Goddess Summoning series and eight in the
popular House of Night series, which documents the lives
of students at a Tulsa-based vampire fi nishing school.
KENNETH M. RUGGIANO
"I've always loved fantasy and sci-fi, and I've been reading it since I was -- oh gosh, I think my dad gave me Tolkien when I was 9," she said. "And then Anne McCaffrey, who writes the Pern books, I read her when I was 12 or 13. And that's the first time I realized women could write fantasy and star in it.
"So when I sat down and really got serious about writing my first manuscript, I decided I'm going to write the book I most want to read, which is a fantasy with people in it I recognize and lots of sex," Cast said, laughing.
That book was published in 2001, and since then, Cast has written 24 more, including five in her Goddess Summoning series and eight in the popular House of Night series, which documents the lives of students at a Tulsa-based vampire finishing school.
The first book she ever wrote -- though it hasn't been published "yet," she said -- was Blubby the Blue Whale, about a flying mammal, in the first grade.
"I enjoyed the same thing (about writing) then as I enjoy now," Cast said. "When writing goes right, it feels to me exactly like it feels when you're reading a really good book, and you walk around in the book world. You're so into the book that it's like it seeps over into your reality. That happens to me every time I get going on a book. I walk around in my book world."
Until two years ago, Cast was teaching English full time at South Intermediate High School in Broken Arrow while also writing her books, 18 of which have landed on The New York Times bestseller list.
"I never expected to be able to write and not do something else," Cast said. "It's a lovely, lovely surprise for me."
Much of Cast's success can be attributed to the young adult House of Night series, for which her daughter, Kristin Cast, serves as a "teen voice editor," ensuring her mother's "inner '70s child" doesn't come out through her teenage characters.
Cast recently finished the eighth book in that series, and the first, Marked, was optioned two years ago by Empire Pictures. It has been adapted into a screenplay and is being shopped to major film studios.
Cast, though, recently founded her own production company, Goddess Films, to option Goddess of the Rose, one of the Goddess Summoning books, as a film.
"The screenplay for Goddess of the Rose is almost done," she said. "My film agent will be shopping it, and we've had interest from a couple of major studios."
Cast said she hopes to adapt all of the Goddess Summoning books into films, and she's also adapting them into graphic novels. In addition, she's creating a clothing line based on her House of Night series that should launch sometime this year.
Though she's set to capitalize on her success through a variety of vehicles, writing is still her No. 1 job -- and she treats it as such.
"I don't romanticize the job of writing," Cast said. "It's a career and it's my job. There were some mornings I would wake up and I didn't really want to go teach the damn teenagers. There are some days you don't want to wake up and do your job, but it's how you pay your bills and so you just do it. I think people are much more successful professionally as authors when they look at it as a job.
"I wish the stars would all align all the time and everything would be perfect," Cast said of the writing process. "But the truth is, the first 200 pages of a manuscript, I feel like I'm slogging though mud ankle-deep -- no, calf-deep -- and it kills me. I have to force myself to write. And I don't write every day, not for the first part of a book. I can't make myself write every day.
"But once I hit a certain place in every book, I can't stay away from it, and then I do write every day for hours and hours and hours, usually at night. I like to start at 9 o'clock and, by the end of the book, my days and nights are turned around. I'm very weirdly vampiric about it, and I'm usually going to bed as the sun is coming up."
James Patrick Hunt wrote his first novel while attending law school around the age of 26. His writing had just begun to take form and though his original self-examination was nothing short of masterful, that is now not how he would describe his early writings.
James Patrick Hunt wrote his fi rst novel while attending law
school around the age of 26. While Hunt spent his days as a lawyer
and his nights writing, he would attend writer’s conferences in
hopes of meeting the right agent or manager to pick up his works.
Meeting with an editor from Five Star led to Hunt’s big break and
would eventually land him on the doorstep of St. Martin’s Press.
"It was just awful," he said. "It's a difficult art form. There are a handful of people who can write a good novel just out of the bag but those are relatively few and far between. Most writers have to practice and work at it for awhile; even the most successful ones have to go through that process."
While Hunt spent his days as a lawyer and his nights writing, he would attend writer's conferences in hopes of meeting the right agent or manager to pick up his works. Though this process carried on for many years, he continued to write and was eventually discovered.
"Back then if you were an unpublished author, you would get a session with an agent and that was how I tried to get published and eventually I did succeed that way," Hunt said.
During one of the writer's conferences, he met David Morrell, author of First Blood, who asked Hunt why he would write four books with no promises of publication. Hunt himself was a little unsure of the answer but found affirmation in Morrell's response.
"'Well I know, it's because you have to,'" Hunt recalled the author saying. "That's why anybody writes -- they have to do it. "That sounds dramatic but that's more or less true."
Meeting with an editor from Five Star led to Hunt's big break and would eventually land him on the doorstep of St. Martin's Press. While Hunt admitted his first book didn't reach epic sales, he said it was well accepted by critics.
His first published novel was Maitland. The sixth story penned by Hunt follows antique seller and part-time bounty hunter, Evan Maitland, who's on a mission to bring in Barry McDermott, an escaped, frightened lawyer charged with statutory rape. The real trouble arises when Maitland encounters the Raetown Jamaican Posse, the financiers of McDermott's escape.
To look at Hunt, his personal experience with a Jamaican posse is nothing short of questionable. Although his background is in law, he probably doesn't spend much time dodging bullets and hunting down hardened criminals. Hunt's inspiration is much more clean-cut and accessible.
"I come up with a character and then a situation that I hope is interesting and if it requires some setting, then I'll do some research. Sometimes ideas come easily and sometimes they don't," he said. "I called a friend of mine that's a cop and I said I need some bad guys that are interesting. He told me to look into the Jamaican posses. You take a real situation and you fictionalize it."
Hunt still practices law and considers his day job a means to subsidize his writing. Since successful lawyers are not usually afforded ample amounts of free time, Hunt keeps close tabs on the nights he spends snuggled up his word processor.
"I try to keep a quota when I'm writing. I try to do 1,000 words a night, five days a week," he said. "I keep a log on how many pages I did on a certain day. If I have too many zeroes that gets me motivated to get back to work. It's work like anything else, you just have to sit at a desk and make it happen."
With nine down and two new releases on the horizon, Hunt shows no sign of slowing down. His newest publication set to hit shelves in April or May is Get Maitland, the fourth in the series, which follows the main character in his travels to London where he tangles with European gangsters.
Hunt's successes have not tainted his constant drive to produce even better work. Once a struggling author who was met with publication success, Hunt admits each new book is a different journey supplying different hurdles.
"I've had at least 10 years of rejection, maybe 15 years. Even once you get published, it doesn't solve everything," Hunt said. "Once you get published, then you worry about, 'Gee, why am I not selling better? Why is so-and-so selling better than me, I don't think he's as talented as I am.' The neuroses that goes with writing and rejection still continues after you've been published. All the insecurities never really go away."
Like his college years, Hunt is likely to write regardless of his publication success. The "cathartic feeling" Hunt expresses when he puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) keeps the characters moving and plots unfolding.
Should you ever happen upon the local crime fiction writer, no need to stumble through the James Patrick Hunt formalities, a simple, Pat will do nicely.
Pursuit of Prose
She may not have an Oprah's Book Club novel to show off, but Fran Ringold is one of the most influential and longest standing writers in Tulsa. As the editor-in-chief of Nimrod: International Journal of Prose and Poetry, Ringold has left her mark on local literature and helped hundreds of local writers do the same.
Ringold is not shy when offering advice to wouldbe
authors. “I say, ‘Great, you’ve got to do it.’ I
can’t tell you anything about your writing if I
can’t see it and you’re not going to do it unless
you really have the urge to write. You have to
have the courage and the ‘you cannot not write.’”
Nimrod began in 1956 at the University of Tulsa. It was formed as a mission of discovery but organizers soon realized the value of stimulating the local community and publishing local writers alongside more well known artists like William Carlos Williams and William Stafford.
The international journal publishes poetry, fiction and short essays in two annual issues. Nimrod has served as the jumping off point for some of poetry and fiction's biggest names.
Some boastful entries include Linda Pastan and a portion of Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, for which she won Nimrod's second place prize in 1993.
Ringold uses her long history in the writer's community to mentor and spur great writers of the future to perfect their prose. Each year, workshops are offered to aspiring writers, allowing them to learn from the best and bounce ideas off one another.
Even local literary sensation S.E. Hinton turned to Ringold's workshops after the stellar success of The Outsiders and her subsequent writers block. After "Susie," as Ringold affectionately refers to her, spent some time working with Nimrod, she wrote Rumble Fish and published the short story in an issue of the journal.
What began as a small class of interested students has grown exponentially. The most recent workshop, held in October 2010, hosted 230 aspiring artists.
"People are coming from the four-state area. These are not casual attendees, they're people who really are interested in making their writing better and getting professional insights from professional writers," Ringold said.
In recent workshops aspiring writers have travelled to T-Town from around the country, including California, New York, New Jersey and Tennessee. Tulsa writers have this broad-reaching asset at their fingertips.
"That's been the fun thing; to have a local emphasis but yet an international emphasis," Ringold said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, bachelor's degrees in English, literature and letters have decreased in recent years. As of 2008, only 3.5 percent of all degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions were bachelors in English or literature. In 1998, that percentage was 4.2.
Though the numbers may not show a growing interest in writing, Ringold assures Tulsa's literary growth is on an upturn.
"It seems to be very promising; there are all kinds of new literary groups that have formed like Book Smart Tulsa, which brings authors to town," Ringold said. "All of that is encouraging because more is in the air."
Ringold is realistic about aspiring local authors who often approach her with personal daydreams about writing and pursuing publication. Ringold is not shy when offering advice.
"I say, 'Great, you've got to do it.' I can't tell you anything about your writing if I can't see it and you're not going to do it unless you really have the urge to write," Ringold said. "You have to have the courage and the 'you cannot not write.'"
For Ringold's personal writing, she makes sure to write down every inspirational thought or phrase that comes to mind. She has, at times, carried small books filled with thoughts in her purse, but is just as quick to scribble on a napkin to preserve the fleeting muse.
Many writers write for the sake of writing and most would be more than happy to scrawl story after story and never make a dime but publication is an important part of getting the story to the public.
"It's more important to me to write the work than to get it published; I hate to say that being the editor of a publication," Ringold said. "People who are really eager to get published should send them out all the time. Winston Weathers, who was on the faculty, used to say 'you should have your envelope ready when the rejection comes in and don't spend any time sweating over it.'"
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