Guest Post by Duncan W. Alderson
Author of Magnolia City
This month marks the debut of my historical novel about Houston entitled Magnolia City. One of the first questions people always ask me is, “What inspired you to write this book?”
The truth is close to what Flaubert said: “We do not choose our subjects. They choose us.” A novelist doesn’t have to search for a subject. It already exists. Inside him or her. To be “original” means to go back to your “origins.” What Henry James liked to call the donnée, from the French for “given.” What has life given you to write about? Go there. Find that inner core, that donnée, and work outward from it.
I grew up seeing photographs such as this one of my mother, Dottie May, as a flapper from a remote, more romantic time in Texas history. The exotic woman in the pictures wore furs and long strands of pearls, staring into the camera with a kind of flaming defiance missing in the practical housewife who was raising me. I had to write a book to explain who that other woman was. She sparked my imagination in so many ways as I tried to picture her on a honeymoon in Galveston, sneaking into the Balinese Room for one of the fashionable new bootleg cocktails. “Dottie” shape-shifted into “Hetty” and sprang to vivid life in my mind. I found the thread of my donnée in those old faded photographs of my mother. When I yanked on it, a whole book unspooled.
Of course, I wasn’t alive in the 1920s, so had to do a lot research to bring the period to life. As I delved into the history of my hometown, I discovered many surprises. The biggest one was that Houston’s historic nickname was “the Magnolia City.” This may seem odd until you realize that during the period my novel is set, the 1920’s, Houston was still a gracious bayou town, steaming at the edge of the Old South but awash in the new money of Spindletop oil. The city didn’t get varnished with the Western Myth until the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo kicked off in 1932. Before that, there were no cowboys and Indians in Houston’s history. But there was a Lost Eden. During Edwardian days, Houstonians took the trolley out to Magnolia Park along Buffalo Bayou, an earthly paradise that rivaled Central Park and was planted with 3,750 Southern magnolia trees. It was wiped out by urban sprawl in the 1920’s but lingered in the collective memory of Old Houstonians like the lost scent of the lovely white flowers that gave the city its name.
Copies of Magnolia City are available via bookpeople.com.