I first met Jim Etter signing his most recent books, What a Dirty Shame: 100 Unforgettable Place Names of Oklahoma and Ghost Town Tales of Oklahoma: Unforgettable Stories of Nearly Forgotten Places at the Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc.’s Centennial Celebration Conference: Write On! 2007. Etter masterfully spins his unforgettable tales of Oklahoma history that brings alive the precious memories of others and takes the reader on a humorous and thought provoking ride with each story. This author is published by New Forums Press, Inc. Stillwater, OK.
I caught up with Jim the other day and this is what he had to say about his roaming writer journey, which is more than Western themes and well worth the read!
* How did you get started in writing?
"I wrote stories as a kid in grade school (I was a poor student and daydreamed in class) and thought about becoming either an author or cartoonist. However, I didn’t seriously decide on my career until four years after I had dropped out of high school at 17 to join the Navy. So after my discharge, at 21, I enrolled in college and began studying journalism -- with a burning ambition to become a novelist.
My first “published” writing was a small feature story in the college newspaper. My first writing in a real newspaper was a year or so later when I voluntarily did a feature (without pay) for The Muskogee Phoenix & Times-Democrat, where I worked in the classified department, selling want ads.
My first writing job came about four years later when I became the editor of a very, very small weekly newspaper in Laredo, Texas. Following that, I wrote both news and commercials for both television and radio in Laredo and Corpus Christi, Texas.
In 1960, while living in Corpus Christi, I won 9th place in a Writer’s Digest short fiction contest (with a Western story), my award being a $90 typewriter.
Soon afterward, I returned to Oklahoma and became a full-time newspaper reporter and feature writer, first at Muskogee, and I eventually retired after some 20 years with The Daily Oklahoman.
My first magazine article, about the outlaw Cherokee Bill, which I wrote while with the Muskogee paper, was published in Frontier Times."
* You mentioned that you started writing in grade school. Do you have a favorite children’s story?
"I don’t write them, and I guess my most memorable children’s story that I’ve read is Little Red Riding Hood."
* Tell us what your typical writing day is like.
"My typical writing day begins at about 5 a.m. with a pot of black coffee, and occasionally taking time to play with our cat, Roscoe. I usually write on my computer until 10, then run errands, etc., and return to writing off and on all day."
* What inspires or motivates you to set your fingers to the computer board and write?
"For newspaper and other nonfiction stories: People and offbeat, often humorous, situations in small, rural communities. For fiction: nostalgia, especially personal memories involving my small hometown of Oktaha, and Western themes."
* How long does it take you to complete a book?
"My first book, “Oktaha, A Track in the Sand,” while I was still working: nearly one year. My second major book, “Ghost-Town Tales of Oklahoma,” while still working: about 15 years. My third major book, “WHAT A DIRTY SHAME! 100 Unforgettable Place Names of Oklahoma,” while working only a little: three years."
* What advice do you have for new writers?
"Write from your heart, and if you get published, feel lucky (remember that many writers never do). Be available for talks and book-signings. And during the talks, let your hair down -- be yourself."
* Can you tell us a funny story about your writing?
When I wrote the “Oktaha” book, which was meant to be a complete history of the community, I told both the good and the bad and pulled some skeletons out of closets. Some residents were enraged and expressed their scorn for the book in fiery letters to the editor in the Muskogee newspaper. And the book sold like hotcakes."
* What do you like to do when you are not writing?
"Whenever I can, I fish and hunt, ride horses or drive around the state looking for interesting things to write about. At other times, I watch TV, read, or sit and reminisce – relishing my good memories or brooding over my bad ones -- or worry about the bills."
* Would you like to share anything about yourself or your family with our readers?
"I tell myself I’m fortunate regarding the overall well-being of myself, my wife and our six grown children and our grandchildren. However, I’m selfish, thinking more of my own interests, and preferring time alone to family gatherings.
Also, I consider myself a failure, both professionally and personally. At 74, I haven’t become a novelist, and I see my writing career as mediocre at best. And I’ve made more than my share of mistakes -- my life epitomized by some lines from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier:
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: 'It might have been.'"
* Family is important and so is time alone, do you have a favorite place to meditate, relax and write?
"Yes, my small office, crowded with my desk, computer, books and numerous pictures (most of them reminders of my career of a “roaming writer” and boyhood memories)."
* Do you have a favorite “roaming writer” story or anything else you would like to share?
"My favorite stories to do are those, true or untrue, dealing with both funny and sad subjects.
Some of my stories I consider humorous include those based upon Chester Gould of Pawnee, creator of the Dick Tracy comic strip; radio and movie personality Bob Burns of Arkansas; the annual Sucker Day celebration at Wetumka; and fiction stories about horse traders, a “town liar” and other characters based on memories of my hometown.
Probably the saddest story I’ve written is a fiction piece based on the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. However, others that were sad to me were those about a white woman captive of the Kiowa Indians, the death of a kindly old saloon owner in the lonely Panhandle of Oklahoma Territory, and several depicting rural life in the 1930s.
Over the years, besides the above-mentioned books, I’ve written “Thunder in the Heartland – Parables from Oklahoma”; “Between Me & You & The Gatepost – Rural Expressions of Oklahoma”; and “The Grains of Time.” And I’m among the authors in the anthologies of “Black Hats”; “New Trails – 23 Original Stories of the West”; “Daughters of the Land”; “Western Horse Tales”; and “The Salt of the Earth.”
In addition to Frontier Times, I have written for magazines including Persimmon Hill, American Cowboy, Western Horseman, True West, Desert Exposure, Route 66, Oklahoma Today and ByLine; as well as additional newspapers such as The St. Petersburg Times (in Florida) and the Spanish newspaper, El Nacional, in Oklahoma City.
The writing that I’ve enjoyed most, and the writing effort that I’m most proud of – and which I consider the nearest thing to my goal of authoring a novel -- is represented in “Thunder in the Heartland,” which is a book of short stories.
Ironically, that book was pretty much a failure, and is now out of print.
*Thanks so much Jim for sharing your endearing writing journey. May you have many more successes too!
Jim Etter is a journalist, freelance writer, author, and gifted storyteller who infuses his love for Oklahoma that truly communicates wit, wisdom, and humor. Jim Etter can be reached at http://www.jimetter.com/