Nov. 10, 2013, Claudia Feldman
By Claudia Feldman
November 10, 2013
Nancy Stancill had written thousands of stories for half a dozen newspapers by the time she quit journalism for good in 2009.
But she wasn’t ready to quit writing. Instead, she dreamed of publishing a book – a thriller featuring a Houston reporter, a community college almost corrupted by its leaders, and in the background, the vast spaces of West Texas.
As usual, the former investigative reporter meant business. Today Stancill is happy to talk about her first novel, “Saving Texas” (Black Rose Writing, $16.95). For all who dream about writing a book later in life, Stancill, 64, explains how to do it.
Houston ChronicleReporting 101: “I think I was 10 when we put out a newspaper on our block called the ’10th Street Tattle Tales.’ It was one of those bored-kids-in-the-summertime things, and it was complete with news of pets and a gossip column.”
Like father, like daughter: “My father was the editor and publisher of some small papers in Virginia. He didn’t have a journalism degree, but he wrote editorials, took pictures at football games and sold ads. And when irate customers called, he went out and delivered their newspapers. It was about feeling a great responsibility to his community.”
In 38 years of newspapering: “It was so satisfying to work on investigative projects that brought about positive change. After a series I did for the Chronicle on bad management practices at a community college in Killeen, the top leaders resigned. And when I worked for the Charlotte Observer, I did stories on unjust divorce laws and practices.
“There was something known as ‘starving the wife,’ where husbands and lawyers teamed up to get judges to delay cases. Now the law is changed, those cases are handled in a timely fashion, and mediation is required.”
Moving on: “A few years ago, my husband, Len, received a temporary assignment in London. Early on I made some friends, and we did a lot of lunches and day trips. I learned to play bridge and mahjongg. But after a while, I needed a project. And I always thought I’d write a book about the experience of being an investigative reporter in Houston. I was always fascinated with the sweep and scope of Texas and the idea that anything is possible here.”
The book: “I went to a little writing seminar in London, which got me going, and I had the first chapter, at least. Then some friends and I organized weekly writing sessions. The four of us would sit around a dining room table with our laptops. We would write for three hours, sometimes more. It was wonderful, really. I couldn’t jump up and do the laundry.
“Along the way, I hired an editor, which was fabulous. Everybody needs an editor. He would tell me, ‘You’re being too nice,’ or ‘Each chapter has to be exciting,’ or ‘Your characters don’t have to be perfect. They have to be human beings who make mistakes.’ ”
Identifying with Annie: “My main character is Annie Price, and there are parts of Annie in me, but she’s her own person, her own character. She’s a free-wheeling single woman. I wanted to make her interesting and to let her have fun as a young person in Houston. She’s 36, so not young-young.”
Experiences shared: “When Annie was interviewing the community college officials and they got angry at her questions and walked out, that really happened to me. And when Annie followed them down the hall, continuing to ask questions, that really happened, too. Also, two sources called and wanted to meet with me. But they wouldn’t go any place where they might be seen, they were so nervous about being followed.”
Secession is a theme: “What spurred me on were comments by (Gov.) Rick Perry in 2009. He said something to the effect of, if Texas doesn’t like what the federal government is doing, secession is an option. I don’t think he was really serious, but I do think conversations like that are dangerous and unpatriotic.”
Things to love about Texas: This is a beautiful state. And West Texas, the setting for the book, is almost mystical, with its wide-open spaces. You can go 50 miles and not see another car, and there’s that big, beautiful sky. I really do see it as a place where people could disappear into the land and live out their lives as fugitives.”
She’s Alicia Perez, one of the villains: “Yes. She’s attractive and deadly. (Laughter.) Men especially love her.”
Still working hard: “I think there’s a lot of joy in working, and writing is creating. I need that creativity in my life to feel alive and productive.”