Aug. 19, 2014
Former reporter takes stab at fiction
Linda C. Brinson in the Greensboro News & Record
Sometimes, in the midst of covering an interesting story for a newspaper, Nancy Stancill would pause for a second and think: One day, I’m going to write a novel about this.
But, like most reporters, she was always too busy meeting the daily deadlines to try her hand at fiction.
Then, a few years ago, she found herself living with her banker husband in London, with no newspaper job and time on her hands. It seemed that “one day” had arrived.
Stancill, who grew up in southwestern Virginia and headed to North Carolina for journalism school at the university in Chapel Hill, had plenty of material gleaned from years in the newspaper business. After graduating from Carolina, she worked at small newspapers in Virginia and California before landing a job at the Houston Chronicle in Texas.
In Houston, Stancill worked her way up to be part of the newspaper’s investigative team.
“I really loved working in Texas because there were so many great stories,” Stancill said in a recent interview.
After 15 years at the Chronicle, Stancill moved with her husband to Charlotte, where she worked for The Charlotte Observer until 2009, when she left the newspaper in “one of the purges” — mass layoffs.
That’s when her husband got a job offer in London.
Stancill said she took it easy the first few months.
“I’d had 38 years as a journalist working nonstop, and I just felt like I needed time off,” she said.
But the novelty of “just playing” wore off after a few months and one of those “one day” thoughts started nagging at her. In Texas, she had covered a story about corruption at a community college — a story that turned dramatic and made an impression on her.
“I kind of started with that original idea,” Stancill said, “but I realized it wasn’t quite enough for a book.”
Then she read about a comment Gov. Rick Perry had made along the lines that if Texans didn’t like the way things were going, the state had the right to secede from the Union. Perry has since said he does not favor secession, but Stancill said that his remark made her think about what might happen if a serious candidate ran for governor of Texas on a secessionist platform.
The result of her fantasizing is her novel, “Saving Texas,” published late last year by a small publishing house in Texas and now gaining attention elsewhere.
Letting her imagination romp, Stancill added a beautiful Peruvian assassin, a rogue ex-CIA agent, a couple of murders and more attempted murders into the mix.
Her heroine, of course, is a beautiful, smart but somewhat troubled reporter for a major Houston newspaper. The action moves in and out of Houston to the vast stretches of West Texas, a region that captured her imagination.
“I love that part of Texas,” Stancill said. “It’s a great place for people to hide out, people who are a little disreputable, not quite in the mainstream. You go there, and it’s just miles and miles of beautiful, rugged landscape.”
Stancill said her decades of newspaper writing marked her prose.
“I’ve always written sort of fast and short, and I think this is a fast-paced plot. … I think when you transition from journalism to fiction, your style starts to change, but you still carry some of the brevity, some of the simplicity, over to your fiction.”
Stancill’s novel also was influenced by what she enjoys reading — mysteries and thrillers, if they include good plotting and “psychological and emotional resonance” without too much graphic blood and gore.
While “Saving Texas” is mostly for entertainment, Stancill said there are some serious points that she hopes will make an impression on her readers.
She wanted to “chronicle the age of newspaper journalism when it was still doing good things,” she said, and to give people outside the industry an idea of “what it is really like to be a reporter.”
“I think people romanticize the hard work that goes on,” she said. “I’ve always thought that investigative reporters are kind of today’s detectives. They work on projects, they find out about corruption and problems, and they try to solve it in one way or another.”
Like her main character’s father, Stancill’s late father was a newspaperman in Virginia.
“He was a huge influence on my journalism career,” she said. Some proceeds from her book will go to a fellowship she’s established in his name with the Investigative Reporters and Editors nonprofit organization.
She said she also wanted to issue a warning against “the dangers of the secessionist movements that are flaring in different parts of the country. Even in the last month, extremist groups in Texas were threatening to secure the border against the influx of Central American immigrant children. The kind of separatist thinking that’s alive and well in this country is dangerous.”
Stancill finished a draft of the novel during her three years in London and worked on getting it published when she got back to North Carolina.
In Charlotte, she’s more distracted from her writing by family and friends than she was in England. Her solution: She’s enrolled in a low-residency graduate writing program at the University of Tampa that involves her regularly turning in chapters from her new novel to her mentor.
She’s writing a sequel to “Saving Texas.” Initially, she envisioned a trilogy, but now she thinks she might be ready for a change of setting. Her years covering news in North Carolina, she said, also have given her plenty of material for novels about intrigue and corruption.
Want to go?
Nancy Stancill will sign copies and read from her novel “Saving Texas” at 7 p.m. Sept. 16 at Scuppernong Books, 304 S. Elm St. in Greensboro.
Book review: ‘Saving Texas’ a page-turner
Aug. 19, 2014
By Linda C. Brinson in the Greensboro News & Record
In the new novel “Saving Texas,” Annie Price is a 36-year-old newspaper reporter battling many of the problems common to that struggling profession. Despite repeated layoffs and budget cuts, she loves her work at the major paper in Houston. She’s eager for that chance for a really big story, the one that could put her in a good position to cover the important things that interest her.
So she jumps at the opportunity to be the first to profile an up-and-coming West Texas politician who’s hoping to run for governor on a secessionist platform. To her surprise, the man, Tom Marr, doesn’t seem to be a “wacko.” He strikes her as an intelligent, educated man who sincerely believes Texas would fare better as a republic, able to defend its borders as it sees fit and not pulled down by the rest of the United States.
But, in more ways than one, Annie gets involved in a lot more than she bargained for.
Marr may be sincere and idealistic, but the secessionist movement — which has turned violent in recent memory — includes people with less pure motives. And then there’s the undeniable attraction Annie feels when she meets Marr, a handsome widower with a charming young daughter.
Before many pages are turned, this book turns into a fast-moving thriller, with plenty of intrigue, action and danger. Annie’s good friend and fellow reporter, Maddy, has been investigating questionable operations at Middle Texas College, an obscure community college that is deeply involved with military contracting around the world.
As Annie learns, Ed Gonzales, the president of that college, is one of Marr’s two closest friends and is taking a leading role in his campaign. Marr’s other old friend and campaign supporter, Dan Riggins, is a longtime CIA agent who’s leaving that career to return to Texas. As we soon learn, Gonzales’ young second wife is the daughter of a Mexican drug lord, and Riggins has a complicated relationship with a beautiful Peruvian woman who specializes in assassinations.
Two shocking murders make it clear just how high the stakes are and propel Annie into danger. She’s pursuing what could be the biggest story of her career, but she’s also trying to stay alive. Besides the physical danger, she’s mindful of threats to her journalistic and personal integrity.
Events build to a dramatic climax that brings some resolution but also leaves the possibility that the story of Texas secession may not be over.
Nancy Stancill has been a reporter in North Carolina as well as in Texas for many years and now lives in Charlotte. She’s obviously done her homework in researching the very real secessionist movement in Texas. She also writes convincingly and knowledgeably about the woes of the newspaper industry. Her character Annie’s father is a veteran journalist himself, having spent years at small newspapers in the South, so she’s able to turn him for advice. One caveat: Annie is a generally likeable and convincing character, but, even though she appears to be aware of the perils, she’s awfully quick to get involved with the men she writes about.
The novel’s main weakness is the dialogue, which too often serves more to give information and advance the plot than to sound like real conversation. Editing could have helped that, as it could have helped avoid some sloppiness, such as the fact that two characters are, in different passages, identified as the president of the community college, and one of them, in yet another passage, is identified as its chancellor.
All in all, though, this is a credible page-turner that paints an interesting picture of life and politics in the Lone Star State.
Linda Carter Brinson writes a books blog, Briar Patch Books and lives in Stokes County near Madison.