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An Interview with Authors Robert Churchill & Steven Lisberger

SouthWest Writers’ member Robert Churchill and writer/director Steven Lisberger (well-known for Tron, 1982) relied on a forty-year friendship and a shared love of story in their collaborative effort to create a novel based on one of Steven’s screenplays. Their debut release, Topeka (October 5, 2023), has been called “a sexy, fast-paced and exciting adventure drawing upon sci-fi, anime, and steam punk genre sensibilities in a hard-boiled noir mystery presentation.” You’ll find Steven at and IMDb. Contact Bob through his dedicated Topeka email address, and look for Topeka at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major booksellers.

What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Topeka?
RC: Ultimately, Topeka is a story about values — how some have been cast aside to society’s detriment, and how some have eternal redemptive value. As every story recounts a journey, Topeka is about how our choices on our individual journeys bestow or deny redemption.

SL: The novel is in part inspired by Japanese anime. It’s a story about how in a world of advanced AI we need our bodies more than ever.

What part did each of you play in putting the book together?
RC: Steven wrote a slightly different version of Topeka — a screenplay — a few years ago. I was blown away by the originality and power of the story, and by the maturity and timeliness of its themes, and just never forgot about it. For one reason and another, it wasn’t made into a movie, and when Steven was casting about for his next project (the man simply can’t NOT be writing something), I lobbied him hard to re-write it as a novel — that it was a story that needed to be told. He was reluctant, having never before written a novel, but the end result of somewhat comical negotiations between us, was that we agreed to proceed as co-authors, with him very much in the lead. After having a front-row seat to his prodigious and powerful creative output for most of my adult life, it was like being asked by John Lennon to re-write a song he’d never finished. An opportunity only the insane would pass up.

SL: Bob has a great deal of patience and is an excellent finisher, he enjoys completion. I prefer getting a project roughed out. It’s conception and rough excitation that gives me the greatest thrill. By the time I complete the mountain of ideas required, and figure out what the hell they mean, I find I have used up a considerable amount of my patience. I guess my imagination has already filled it in, finished it, and my body resents that my mind got so far ahead. My practical mind sulks over the cleanup and organization work still required. I must confess I do enjoy going over Bob’s finished material and looking for edits, additions or things I feel would benefit from more polishing. That part of finish work is fun for me; I enjoy how the smallest change can feel so important. I love drilling down on theme and structure at the end when one knows exactly what the characters are thinking.

Did what-if questions help shape this work?
RC: Steven’s answer to this question couldn’t be more complete or accurate, so I’ll leave it to stand on its own, but one of the great things about our friendship is that I’ve been one of his go-to sounding boards for decades (we’re each the brother the other never had), and even though his ideas are amazing, he’s always been willing to hear my take on them — as I often see what he sees just a little differently. He’s always been generous in his consideration of my perspective, and having these discussions with him for so many years has enriched my life tremendously. Moving into the realm of me actually making creative contributions to Topeka’s world and story upped that experience dramatically; it was very gratifying.

SL: I would say that what-if questions were the basis: What if the mind of my super professional, experienced, and wise attorney-wife was in the body of a young babe? My wife, Peggy, freely admits that 50 years ago when she was my hot babe, she didn’t know a tenth of what she does now. Of course I didn’t either, so that worked out. What if there was an accomplished enlightened and heroic doctor/surgeon who learned about the body, the secrets of life and death, by being a trained killer? What if an AI could merge with and assume the identity of a dead human? What if our leads could hack human minds? What if you fell in love with the ultimate woman in spite of knowing she was too good to be true? What if technology allows us to never grow up?

Tell us about your main protagonists and why readers will connect with them.
RC: Topeka is a near-future sci-fi action/adventure story, but largely follows the genre conventions of hard-boiled noir detective novels and films, so the cast of characters, although moving fluidly in a setting of cutting-edge high tech, AI, climate change, and the pressures these exert on society, remain somewhat familiar. Nora Osborne is the heiress to a high-tech fortune and CEO of the mega-corporation her eccentric genius father founded. Bode, a former military cyber-surgeon, is her employee but finds himself, in the course of being her protector, conflicted between oppositional oaths — to do no harm and to be ready to take a life to save one. These two navigate a lethal landscape among good guys who aren’t as good as they seem, bad guys who are worse than they seem, and assorted henchmen and double-crossers with their own sinister agendas, all while falling in love. In toto, they all keep the noir pot boiling non-stop. It’s a lot of fun laid over some very thoughtful thematic material.

SL: The protagonists are their own characters. Nora has an extreme experimental fantasy adventure. She is a mature successful woman who through a twist of fate and cutting-edge cyber tech, manages to have a young body again. With that young body she joins forces with her young doctor who falls in love with her. Together they accomplish the impossible, including having a love affair and breaking every law in the books, but when it’s all over she gets to return to her original body and rejoin her family and her adventure remains her dark secret. Kind of the perfect midlife crisis. Bode gets to be the ultimate healer for those who need his unique skills, but to save his patient he must also rely on what he knows about how to best destroy some extremely dangerous minds and bodies. Sometimes the cure is a whole lot worse than the disease. Bode is a Shiva, creator and destroyer.

How difficult was switching gears from your past type of writing projects to that of writing a novel?
RC: I’ve always written, but have never called myself a writer. I have a fairly substantial following online, though not under my own name, and have published a few pieces for a local newspaper, like an interview with David Crosby. So that Steven and I could better speak the language of screenwriting between us, I wrote a full-length screenplay — and that may yet find itself re-written as a novel.

SL: I primarily wrote screenplays, lots of screenplays; this is my first novel. Looking back at my scripts they feel like poetry compared to a novel. Screenplays, it is often said, rely on three things, structure, structure, and structure. It was a lot of fun in writing a novel to embellish in ways one could never do in a script. For starters, what the inner life of a character was, backstory, and filling in the world. And my favorite, writing tons more dialogue.

According to Topeka’s acknowledgment page, you two are lifelong friends. When did you meet, and how have you managed to remain friends for so long?
RC: Steven and I were introduced to one another by a third party who told him he should meet me — that we’d get along. That person was right, and we’ve been pretty much best friends since the day we met, through all of life’s ups and downs. I think it’s helped a lot that I’m not in any aspect of the film business, because that world is very much its own thing and almost impossible to stay grounded in, let alone maintain friendships. All my working years I was a building contractor, and when we’d get together at his place, we always went to the hardware store instead of anywhere “glamorous” even though our second-tier hangouts tend to be art galleries and museums.

SL: We met through Animalympics, a project I did for NBC’s coverage of the 1980 Olympics. Bob and I are children of the sixties, and share a belief that some aspects of the 60s philosophy have never lost their power and are sorely needed now more than ever. We both still believe in the power of the mysterious and believe that not all confusion is to be avoided. Sometimes the only way to get to where you need to go is through seemingly impenetrable confusion. We have always relied on each other for help in taking on the unknown. Bob is my sounding board and the fact that he is an excellent wordsmith was just a bonus. Over the years we have talked enough to fill shelves of books.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
RC: The best part of this project for me has been to make real and valued creative contributions to the work of someone I know to be a genius — and I don’t use that word lightly. In Tron Steven pretty much invented the look the whole world has adopted as “the look of the future.” Not silver-lame body suits with bubble helmets and not the beat up and dented Star Wars look. That neon-highlighted look may never die, and Tron sequels will keep being made long after we’ve all passed. Now it’s also the world’s most popular amusement ride. And there’s SO much more to Steven’s stream of creative output and insight than just Tron. In Japan he’d be revered as a living treasure. And hey, he’s my best friend! As a co-author he was tough — believe it — but I always knew and accepted that we were writing his story, not mine, and that all he wanted was to help me be a better writer. And he damn sure made me one.

SL: The plot is complex as are the characters. And there are a lot of characters. Because of the complexity there were worries about how all this would resolve. To feel all the gears mesh perfectly for the first time at the climax was the big payoff, and made all the work worth it. I have to say the years of preliminary work made all the difference.

Why did you choose Topeka for the title of the book?
SL: After Tron world, I liked the idea of focusing a cutting-edge sci-fi story in America’s heartland. And I always enjoyed that the name Topeka sounded a bit like a combo of Japanese anime titles.

How do your other passions (such as woodworking) intersect with your writing?
RC: Being a builder, I learned long ago that every ounce of every structure has to be transferred one way or another to the earth for the structure to be sound — and the same applies to a work of fiction. It’s all about premise as foundation, and themes as framing. The satisfaction in standing back and seeing how doing it right makes a thing of beauty is the same for either.

SL: Again, I enjoy hunting for the perfect piece of wood, chain sawing it out of the log, mulling and turning it to its shape, but would be happy to have another woodworker sand, finish, and polish the piece. And to my amazement I have heard some woodworkers enjoy that second phase the most because they get to see the beauty of the wood emerge. I have learned to be content with seeing that beauty in my mind’s eye. I should mention I never did find a partner in wood turning.

What do your mature selves bring to the writing table that your younger selves never could have?
RC: Steven’s and my situation is not at all common, but we were fortunate to have decades of solid friendship to get us through the creative process — but that seems to translate to “check your ego at the door” and just do the work. Doing the work with a pro’s pro wasn’t easy, but I never forgot that any number of aspiring writers would have killed to be in my place — tutored by the guy who wrote Tron. It was easily a not-easy graduate course in writing and drama.

SL: I have been writing for over fifty years. I am finally getting to the point where I feel I know what I enjoy the most, and am confident that I have the skills to execute. In the past when I picked the right story and characters and pulled it off there was a certain amount of happenstance and luck involved. I also now enjoy the confidence of knowing I have the tools and weapons to get myself out of any traps I may set for myself. It’s a cliché to say it but now holes are really more opportunities.

What do many beginning writers misunderstand about telling a story?
RC: Thinking a story will write itself from an interesting premise and engaging characters is a fool’s errand. Only a genius doesn’t need to know how a story ends when he or she sits down to write it. Beginning, middle, end — or don’t bother.

SL: I find young writers today are very good at knowing a genre’s conventions. But perhaps are too cautious about breaking those conventions and going off formula. One way to gain that confidence is to think thematically. Early on a hint of theme can be a North Star — and by the end it can make sense of the impossible.

Who are your favorite authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
RC: Owing to the genre template we were working in (noir fiction), Steven had me read a ton of Hammet and Chandler to get a feel for the word flow and (hopefully) develop in me some discipline in saying more with fewer words — I stray too easily into the florid and verbose. He did me (and himself) a great favor.

SL: Shakespeare because he had no prejudices. He never picks sides but finds a way to ridicule and elevate all comers. He treats kings like fools and fools like kings. The beautiful as hideous and the wretched as beautiful.

What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
RC: With Topeka, I got to be the set decorator — so not really hard. Shakespeare’s settings are brutally austere — “a castle” or “an apartment” — and that’s it. I’m a very visual guy. I see the blank page as a movie screen. I describe what I’d like to see on the screen, so I moved Steven’s characters across my sets. Steven gave me a lot of leeway, and I sprung things on him that weren’t in the original version. The first time or two there were some tense moments between us. “You could have asked,” he’d say, but as we went on, it started to flow, and frankly, by me feeling free to throw stuff against the wall, I think he was inspired to go even further in his imagination than he had (which was already breathtaking) and we wound up really stoked by the process. We love what we got.

SL: Everyday stuff.

What writing projects are you working on now? Do you have plans for future collaborations?
RC: Well, Steven is still my best friend, and the man simply has no idea how to slow down his imagination. So, who knows?

SL: Still basking in the afterglow of completing Topeka. My story file is a few hundred pages of concepts and characters, I have a love hate relationship with it.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
RC: In my view, there are few popular entertainments that are both just plain fun and edifying. Topeka delivers both in spades.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

Author Update 2024: Larada Horner-Miller

Retired teacher Larada Horner-Miller writes historical fiction, memoir and biography, and poetry. Her newest release, Hair on Fire: A Heartwarming & Humorous Christmas Memoir (September 2023), is an uplifting collection of poetry and prose centered around family. You’ll find Larada on her website LaradasBooks, her Etsy shop LaradasReadingLoft, and her Amazon author page. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter. Read more about her work in SWW’s 2017 and 2018 interviews.

Why did you write Hair on Fire? Who is the audience for the book?
I love Christmas! Originally some of the material in Hair on Fire I shared in my weekly blog, then it hit me that I could collect it, add to it and it would be a fun and heartfelt Christmas book. The audience of this book is for Christian families, women, and children who feel connected to Christmas and would enjoy a nostalgic look back.

What prompted the push to begin the project, and how did the book come together after that?
After writing several blog posts over the years for Christmas, I realized how much I loved sharing my Christmas experiences with my readers, and how much they enjoyed them—a perfect reason to collect them, add new ones and publish this book. So, I started working on it in the beginning of 2022, then I sent it off to my editor July 14, 2022. (I have such a wonderful editor who has edited my last four books!) Because I self-publish, when I received her final edit August 14, I set up the interior in Vellum. I released it September 6, 2023 while my husband and I were traveling in Germany. That was an amazing experience to keep track of the book launch long distance.

How did you organize this collection of prose and poetry?
There are thirty-one chapters with some being poetry, others prose. In some I invite the reader to go inside the Christmas story and experience with the main characters—Mary and Joseph—what happened so many years ago. Also, I sprinkled some of my favorite Scriptures throughout. I use a lot of graphics and pictures for the visual learner. (I’m a retired middle school literature, language arts, Spanish and computer teacher, so I still think about learning styles!) At the end of the book, I provide a couple of lists of my favorite Christmas readings and movies.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I wanted to balance the poetry and prose and invite the reader into how I experienced Christmas during a time very different from today: in a small ranching community in southeastern Colorado where we cut our tree down off our ranch. Also, I had to include a sorrowful experience noting the last Christmas with my brother-in-law who showed us all the true meaning of Christmas. (I wrote that story for my sister and she cried.)

Do you have a favorite chapter, story, or poem in the book?
As an adult, I am an Episcopalian and I take the reader from Advent (liturgical season before Christmas) all the way to Epiphany (liturgical season after Christmas) in this book. January 6, 2021 was Epiphany—it was also the day insurrectionists stormed our nation’s Capital. I had to dedicate a chapter to that unbelievable day even though it made this a political statement. My favorite poem is “Christmas at the Horners’” where I share my childhood Christmas Eve experience with a multitude of cousins, and my paternal granddad takes center stage.

How did you choose the book’s title?
One of the humorous poems in the book, “My Hair on Fire,” is where the title of the book originated. It tells of my childhood memory of being in a Christmas pageant at our small community church, and the angel behind me got too close and caught my hair on fire. To this day, I chuckle at the matter-of-fact manner our Sunday School teacher handled it and the show went on!

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
Vellum offered a new feature: adding a heading background and I jumped on it. It appears on the first page of every chapter, so I added a pine cone and branch and I loved how it dressed up the paperback copy.

Of the seven books you’ve published, which one was the most challenging and which was the easiest or most enjoyable to write?
The most challenging was Just Another Square Dance Caller: Authorized Biography of Marshall Flippo because I had to be sure of the accuracy of it. I had forty hours of recorded interviews I transcribed. So, I ended up with 258,000 words and had to cut it back to about 70,000. But what a privilege it was to tell this amazing man’s life story.

The easiest and most enjoyable book was the first one, This Tumbleweed Landed, because I didn’t know better—it was my introduction into the self-publishing world—and being the first made it a true delight! I have a masters in computers, so I not only enjoy the writing of the book, but the actual layout too.

What do you want to be known for as an author?
I tell authentic stories and write poetry about a life that exists no more. All of my books deal with a positivity in life even if there are trials and tribulations along the way.

What are your strengths as a writer?
I love to write and never have experienced writer’s block. In fact, I have about ten books in the queue. Being an English major, I have a strong background in the classics and I love to read. Also, I fell in love with Natalie Goldberg’s free writing and used that in my classroom and still use it today. Poetry has become my genre of choice and I feel my soul leaks out in my writing, and I discover new truths in every poem.

Why do you think people like reading memoirs and biographies?
Readers can put themselves into the stories easier than any other genres. They read about an experience, an emotion, and connect with the writer. Memoirs/biographies are truly an escape from this world into the real world of someone else who has conquered or mastered some trial or tribulation. That winning becomes the readers as they devour the page.

What is the best compliment you’ve received as an author?
“When I read your books, I feel like I’m sitting across the kitchen table from you, talking!” I love that!

Do you have writing projects you’re working on now?
I am working on book one of a three-book poetry series entitled Was It a Dream: Navigating Life’s Journey Through Poetry. The first book of this series starts with a poem written in 1986, my first poem about a trek into the jungle of Mexico to the Mayan Indian ruin of Coba. That volume ends with a poem about 9/11/2001, a day we all will never forget.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

An Interview with Author Stephen McIlwain

Stephen McIlwain is a practicing attorney who discovered writing fiction is good for his soul. Decades of experience in criminal defense lends insight and authenticity to his debut legal thriller, A Snitch in Time (August 2023), set in Albuquerque, New Mexico and based on a true case. Look for Steve on Facebook and his Amazon author page.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I am an almost retired lawyer who has been practicing law for more than 50 years. When I started practicing law, Richard Nixon was in the White House, and his first term at that. The last 20 years of my practice have been almost exclusively criminal law working for the Public Defender Department for eight years and as a contractor lawyer for the Public Defender for the past 12 or so years. I am married (55+ years) and we have three children with five grandchildren.

Please give us a little background regarding A Snitch in Time.
The book has as its main component a homicide in Albuquerque with appendages from various other cases and an addition of fiction.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I have enjoyed writing for quite some time. When I was in high school, I wrote a humor column for the school newspaper that I enjoyed immensely. I have liked all the writing courses I have taken. I have done a great deal of legal writing (briefs, motions, memoranda and the like), but discovered a few decades ago that fiction writing could be cathartic and therapeutic and was good for my soul.

Life experience can pepper our writing. Did you find this happening when you wrote A Snitch in Time?
Nearly all the legal material in the book is from my life experiences, so the “peppering” of my writing is extensive, and occasionally some situations practically wrote themselves.

Do you share any traits with your characters?
Ted Griego and I are close to being indistinguishable except that he is a better lawyer than I.

What is your elevator pitch for A Snitch in Time?
The book is about a double homicide committed during a home invasion. In the course of the police investigation, two innocent but clueless young door-to-door magazine salesmen are swept up in the investigation by two inept detectives and charged with the murders after the detectives extract a false confession from one of them. A separate detective works with a defense lawyer to uncover facts that eventually solve the case. Sometimes I need a slower elevator.

Is there a scene in your book you’d like to see play out in a movie?
The seemingly unrelated murder committed at the beginning of the book is a good scene as well as the detectives’ interrogations that result in the false confession.

Have any of your ideas stemmed from actual cases?
All my ideas for legal fiction have their genesis from actual cases.

How did you feel the day you held the copy of your first book in your hands?
When I held the book for the first time, I was speechless—too many instantaneous emotions to isolate just one. I still pause when the word author precedes my name such as it does at the top of your list of questions.

Is there an underlying structure that guides your writing process or is this something you discover as you work?
I have certain points that I want to include in the story, but I just let the story proceed and those points find their way into the writing without much help from me. The closest thing I do as an outline is create a timeline to keep track of what’s going on. If you would permit a digression, I’ll add that I have an unpublished book about growing up in Indiana that I have been rewriting for 30 years. There is one character who insists that he must write his part of the story and that my job is only to be his scrivener. I read an article about this happening to authors and remember one in particular: That writer had a character at a cocktail party and was having a challenging time getting the character to leave. The character finally convinced the author that he didn’t want to be at the damned party in the first place.

Do you have another legal thriller in the works?
I am nearly finished with a book that is a thriller but not a legal thriller. I have a few ideas swimming around in my head about more legal thrillers.

Su Lierz writes dark fiction, short story fiction, and personal essays. Her short story “Twelve Days in April,” written under the pen name Laney Payne, appeared in the 2018 SouthWest Writers Sage Anthology. Su was a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Albuquerque Museum Authors Festival Writing Contest. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, with her husband Dennis.

An Interview with Author Jeff Otis

Jeff Otis is an award-winning author and humorist whose short stories have been published in several anthologies. He branched into novel-length work with a science fiction debut, Raptor Lands: The Story of the Harrowing Return of the Dinosaurs (March 2024), that reviewers call “a captivating read” and “a thrilling adventure filled with dinosaurs, intricate plot twists, and a mix of compelling characters.” You’ll find Jeff on his website at and on Facebook.

What would you like readers to know about the story you tell in Raptor Lands?
Cantor, a paleontologist, and Kumiko, a geneticist, team up with a brilliant computer scientist named Arthur at Los Alamos. Together they determine which dormant genes in chickens and eagles were once active in dinosaurs and what those genes did. Then they activate them inside bird embryos. No mosquitos in amber. Cantor and Kumiko want to study dinosaur behavior and have no interest in making money. They move from Berkeley to New Mexico, where they set up a ranch with different areas allocated separately to the five big dinosaurs they brought with them (hence the name Raptor Lands). All the dinosaurs are of a type that lived 125 million years ago. But something went wrong. The dinosaurs were meant to be small. They aren’t.

What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
I had to balance the sub-plots around the main plot. When a sub-plot changed, it was like removing a specific thread from a rug and replacing it. That’s what I get for being a pantser. But the action and dialogue are fresh, gripping, and sometimes humorous. The book took two years to write, but it was spread over six years. Since this is my debut novel, there were challenges inside challenges.

Tell us a little about your main protagonists. Who (or what) are the antagonists in the story?
The main protagonists are Cantor, Kumiko, and their son, George. George is a special kid and his parents worry about him. He starts off as a bit of a bumbler with emotional problems. Later he shines. Without giving too much away, the antagonist (a powerful and dangerous oligarch) uses fear and money to cause errant genes to be placed in some of the dinosaurs, making them extraordinarily vicious. The meaner and bigger the dinosaur, the more money billionaires will pay. It’s a status thing. The dinosaurs were characters with their own personalities. One dinosaur named Mako was definitely an antagonist and some of the most intense actions centers around him.

Why did you choose New Mexico as a setting for the book?
I write what I know. I know a lot about dinosaurs, evolutionary biology, some genetics, humor, and New Mexico. The best place for a dinosaur ranch is away from people and cities. It had to be New Mexico.

Is there a scene in Raptor Lands that you’d love to see play out in a movie?
There is a chapter where two hapless and uniformed guys break into the ranch to steal a male and a female offspring that are about the size of a turkey. They are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Moms don’t like it when you steal their children. It would be chilling to see this on the big screen.

What makes this novel unique in the speculative fiction market?
It isn’t another Jurassic Park, but the genre is similar. The characters are unique, and I don’t know of another dinosaur novel that lets the reader get to know the dinosaurs like this one except Raptor Red by Robert T. Bakker.

What was the most rewarding aspect of putting this project together?
When I’m writing, I’m in my own world. My characters become real. Their adventures, fears, loves, anger are all real to me. I never have writer’s block. Every day I couldn’t wait to find out what would happen to Cantor, Kumiko, George, and other characters.

What lessons did you learn in writing/publishing your first novel that you can apply to future projects?
Agents are difficult to get and trying to find one involves an incredible amount of work. Never bore your audience. Keep them on the edge of their seats. Be sure readers are invested in your characters. Show don’t tell. Edit. Edit. Edit.

Besides being an author, you’re also an oil painter. Does painting affect your writing creativity?
No, but I did use 25 of my own drawings in the book. I’m also illustrating my second book.

What advice do you have for writers who are still striving for publication?
Hang in there. Keep trying. Expect rejection and don’t take it personally.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m almost finished with a book involving love, loss, technological breakthroughs, and the tragic paths people take. In addition, I have completed two books in a YA series.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

Author Update 2024: Sue Houser

Award-winning author Sue Houser reveals elements of her home state of New Mexico in every fiction and nonfiction book she writes. Her newest release is Walter Steps Up to the Plate (Kinkajou Press, October 2023), a middle-grade historical novel in which baseball, 1920s Albuquerque, and Al Capone play major roles. You’ll find Sue on her website at and on Facebook. Read more about her writing in SWW’s 2017, 2020, and 2023 interviews, and visit Amazon for all of her books.

What was your intent in writing Walter Steps Up to the Plate, and who did you write the book for?
During COVID, I read an article about Albuquerque in the early 1900s and how many people came to Albuquerque seeking a cure from tuberculosis. I wanted to convey to middle-grade readers that another pandemic years ago had interrupted children’s lives.

How did you develop your main character, Walter, from an ordinary twelve-year-old boy to a hero?
I modeled Walter after two grandsons who live near Chicago. Like other children, the boys attended school online, and their after-school activities, including orchestra and baseball, were suspended. My older grandson actually took a job delivering newspapers, as did Walter. Fortunately, no one in their family became seriously ill. In the story, I tried to show early Albuquerque through Walter’s eyes when he arrived from Chicago.

What decisions did you make about portraying historical figures or events in your story?
Al Capone was rumored to have visited friends at an exclusive resort in Jemez Springs in the 1920s. I tried to accurately describe Capone’s personality, mannerisms, and character. Capone was a Chicago Cubs fan, so I used baseball to develop his relationship with Walter.

Tell us how the book came together.
In my research of the tuberculosis pandemic, the year 1927 aligned with descriptions of the Chicago Cubs’ stadium, players, and games; the AT&SF Santa Fe Chief’s schedule and stops; and Al Capone’s reported visit to New Mexico. I drove up and down the streets of Albuquerque, studying historical buildings and street locations. I spent about two years researching, writing, and editing the book with my online critique group. I was fortunate that Artemesia Publishing (through its Kinkajou Press imprint) readily agreed to publish it, which was released in October 2023.

What makes this book unique in the chapter book market?
The story places “Scarface,” the Chicago crime boss, in Albuquerque and Jemez Springs, which is quite plausible.

Any “Oh, wow!” moments while doing research for Walter Steps Up to the Plate?
I was struck by downtown Albuquerque being so vibrant and thriving during the 1920s. I could feel the energy of optimistic entrepreneurs, railroad workers, and streetcar passengers.

I had not realized the economic impact that tuberculosis patients brought to the state with towns competing for the healthcare industry. I also learned of unconventional medical procedures, such as plombage surgery, where a portion of the lung is removed and replaced with Ping-Pong balls.

What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
I enjoyed developing Walter’s character. Although his family supported him, he felt responsible to care for his mother, making him seem older than twelve. But conflicts with his cousin and their eventual friendship allowed him to just be a kid.

Of all the fiction and nonfiction books you’ve written, which one was the most challenging, and which was the easiest (or most enjoyable) to write?
I can’t say any book was easy to write, but Walter Steps Up to the Plate was the most enjoyable. It required a lot of research to be historically factual but also allowed me creative freedom. The most challenging book for me was La Conquistadora: The Story of the Oldest Statue in the United States, a subject I wasn’t familiar with.

What writing projects are you working on now?
I am working on a picture book titled Goat for Rent about a little goat named Alfalfa who becomes a Yoga Goat for Rent. I am also researching a mining story to add to my middle-grade historical fiction books.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?
Thank you for this opportunity to share Walter Steps Up to the Plate. It is available from the publisher, Treasure House Books in Old Town, and Amazon.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

2024 Call for Submissions: SWW Annual Writing Contest

The SouthWest Writers (SWW) annual writing competition is now open for submissions.

All writers, new and experienced, are welcome to enter the contest. Contestants don’t have to be members of SWW or live in the Southwest to participate. First-, second-, and third-place winners will be awarded monetary prizes and a publication opportunity in our annual contest anthology.

This year’s contest offers five main categories divided into a total of twenty-five subcategories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as well as interior and cover art for the anthology.

Fiction categories include:

  • Opening Pages of published and unpublished novels
  • Stories for Young Reader/Middle Grade and Young Adult
  • Short Stories and Flash Fiction

Nonfiction categories include:

  • Opening Pages of published and unpublished memoirs
  • Essays and Articles

Poetry categories include:

  • Free Verse
  • Haiku
  • Limericks

The Contest Submission Period is June 1 – July 7, 2024. Fees vary depending on submission date.

Go to the Annual Contest page for more details and to enter the contest.

Good luck!

Author Update: Victoria Murata

Victoria Murata is a retired teacher turned author with two series in progress, one historical fiction and the other fantasy. The Ranger (September 2023) is book two of her Magicians of the Beyond fantasy series where readers will find new and returning characters, unexpected magical creatures, and a forest and a monster that don’t play by the rules. Look for Vicky on Facebook and her Amazon author page. Read about The Acolyte, the first of her fantasy novels, in her 2021 interview for SouthWest Writers.

Victoria, The Ranger is the second book in your series Magicians of the Beyond. Tell us a little about The Ranger and how long it took you to write it?
It took me two years to write The Ranger. This second book in the series introduces a new character who lives in the Beyond. Rafe isn’t a Covert, but he has special skills that are needed on a mission to a troubled world. He’s a ranger who has amazing knowledge of the forest and the creatures who live there. What he doesn’t know is the danger that awaits him in a foreign forest. Far from home and everything familiar, Rafe comes face to face with his fears and limitations. And the monster inhabiting this forest is intent on his destruction.

What elements of fantasy drew you to the genre?
The fantasy genre has always appealed to me. As a child, the stories of Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz were favorites, along with Alice in Wonderland. It was easy to suspend disbelief and allow myself to be carried away by imagination. Fantasy is such a huge genre with many sub-categories. Epic stories that take place in plausible worlds with people who have incredible powers appeal to me. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss is one of my favorite fantasy series.

Did you experience any challenges while writing this series?
As a writer of fantasy, I have to remember that the story in my head must be translated to readers who cannot only follow it but become immersed in it. The challenges in writing fantasy are different from writing other genres in that not only are the stories fiction, but they’re fantastical with characters and creatures and worlds that have never been encountered anywhere before. I think the writer of fantasy must have well-developed and relatable characters who will move the plot along through fantastical worlds filled with incredible creatures. The story must culminate in a satisfactory and believable conclusion.

Please tell us about your inspiration for The Ranger.
My stories are character driven. I’m a people-watcher, inspired by individuals and interested in what motivates them. The main character in The Ranger, Rafe, is a troubled young man who has exceptional gifts. He’s a loner and an introvert, and past trauma has caused him to withdraw into himself. At the beginning of the story, he’s asked to accompany the Coverts on a mission where his skills as a ranger are needed. This invitation both intrigues him and causes him extreme anxiety.

Is there a book three?
Yes. I have another book of the series percolating. It will focus on one of the Coverts—magicians who have special powers and who travel to distant worlds to save them.

How much research goes into writing a fantasy novel and what is that like?
The research required in writing fantasy often depends on the world-building. My first fantasy novel, The Acolyte, had a Medieval setting so there was some research required. The Ranger is set in an other-worldly “modern” city and the forest nearby. Previous to writing my fantasy novels, I’d written two YA historical fiction novels. Those took a lot of research into life on a wagon train in 1852, and then about the overlanders settling in Oregon City.

What was the most difficult aspect of creating Rafe’s world?
The difficulty in creating Rafe’s world was getting into his head to figure out his motivations. He’s complicated and withdrawn in the beginning. I needed to consider how an introvert like Rafe can step outside his comfort level and take the leap to work with others. Danica, the main character from the first novel in the series, helps him with this. When he meets her, Rafe finds a kindred spirit.

Was there a defining moment that prompted your writing journey?
I joined a writing group in 2008. We were retired teachers who met once a month and shared our writings with each other. When I was teaching Humanities to 6th graders, I was aware of the power of story. My students and I would read YA historical fiction novels pertaining to the time period we were studying. I loved these stories as much as my students, and that’s why I decided to write a novel based on the history of the Oregon Trail. A friend’s daughter who teaches middle school in northern New Mexico has used this novel, Journey of Hope, for years to teach her students about the trials and tribulations of crossing the country in a wagon train in 1852. I wrote this novel as a catalyst for further research into the people, conditions, and events of that distinctive time.

What are you currently reading?
Currently I’m reading a novel called The Physician by Noah Gordon. It’s about a young man in the Middle Ages who learns to be a healer. He realizes he can learn so much more from practitioners in the Orient, so he embarks on a perilous journey to Persia, posing as a Jew who wants to apprentice himself to the world’s most renowned physician, Avicenna. Interestingly, Rob, the main character, has a special power, but the novel isn’t classified as fantasy. I do love it when genres overlap.

What writing projects do you have on the horizon?
I have two books to write: the third of my historical fiction novels, and the third of the fantasy series. I’m not in a rush and I know the stories will be written when they’re ready. But they’re always percolating.

Su Lierz writes dark fiction, short story fiction, and personal essays. Her short story “Twelve Days in April,” written under the pen name Laney Payne, appeared in the 2018 SouthWest Writers Sage Anthology. Su was a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Albuquerque Museum Authors Festival Writing Contest. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, with her husband Dennis.

Author Update 2024: Robert D. Kidera

Robert D. Kidera is a podcaster, a baseball nerd, and the author of the award-winning Gabe McKenna Mystery Series. Book six of the series, BURN SCARS (Black Range Publishing, May 2024), finds Gabe “caught in the crossfire between two cartels warring for control of fentanyl trafficking in New Mexico.” Look for Bob on his website and on Facebook. Read more about him and the Gabe McKenna books in his 2015, 2017, 2019, and 2021 interviews.

When readers turn the last page of BURN SCARS, what do you hope they take away from it?
I hope my readers feel it has been time well spent and that they have enjoyed reuniting with Gabe McKenna and his friends (and enemies). The story has a serious purpose, as it asks how much one should be willing to risk righting the wrongs of this world. I want that question to resonate with my readers and perhaps spur them to examine that challenge for themselves.

The fifth book of the Gabe McKenna mysteries, A LONG TIME TO DIE, concluded the series in 2021 with a wrap up of the story arcs. What made you come back to the series and give readers another look at your main character’s life?
Writers can only write the stories they have. Last year, I took a respite from the Gabe McKenna series to write a standalone novella, CHANDLER IS DEAD, and have been working on a historical fiction novel, HELL SHIP, for the past three years. But this new Gabe story popped into my head, and I developed it because I enjoy telling stories about Gabe McKenna and had many requests from my readers for a new novel in the series.

Tell us about the journey from inspiration to completed book for this sixth in the series.
BURN SCARS took me sixteen months from concept to realization. Raymond Chandler once said that stories must marinate before they can be written well, so when the story idea occurred to me, I gave it a good think before going to the keyboard. In each of the Gabe McKenna books, I feature a different one of Gabe’s friends as his main “sidekick.” This time, I chose his personal lawyer, Erskine Pelfrey III, an unassuming man who could walk into an empty room and get lost in the crowd. I had a lot of fun developing their relationship and bringing Erskine into the story as one of the heroes.

You’ve described Gabe McKenna as a guy to be counted on, one who has a basic honor and decency to him, even if he does tend to go off recklessly from time to time. And as a former boxer, he can be knocked down, but not out. Who are some of your other returning characters?
Gabe is at a different stage of his life in this story. He’s pushing sixty, a bit unsettled and ready for a rest. But his previous deeds have left him with enemies unwilling to forgive and forget. He also needs his friends much more in this adventure, and it takes the cooperative effort of Gabe, Erskine, Onion, Sam, C.J., and even a couple of federal agents to carry the day.

New Mexico is the main setting of the series. What areas of the state do you take readers to this time?
Aside from Laguna Pueblo, where Gabe is living when the story begins, the action centers around a small settlement town of Marquez in Sandoval County and at a remote mesa that straddles Guadalupe and Quay Counties and, of course, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There’s a brief detour north to Colorado. Gabe travels in this story by horse, SUV, private aircraft, and even a jazzed-up motor home.

What are some of the more interesting facts you discovered while doing research for the book?
I delved into more of the mining history of New Mexico, but most of the research I had to do dealt with the current scourge of foreign drug cartels operating in our state. It’s a far more complicated and deep-rooted problem than people generally realize and not much of it gets into the news.

Amazon categorizes BURN SCARS as Vigilante Justice, Noir Crime, and Organized Crime. If you didn’t have the limitations of Amazon categories, how would you characterize the book?
I don’t like the Amazon categories because they suggest your story and characters can be pigeonholed or understood simplistically. BURN SCARS is my longest book to date, and as the sixth entry in an ongoing series, the characters, their actions, and motivations have become more nuanced and complex. I advise disregarding categories and letting the story and its characters unfold for you in surprising ways.

What’s on your to-read pile? Who is your favorite fictional character?
Atop my read pile right now are books by New Mexico authors: The Wide, Wide Sea, which just came out, by Hampton Sides; Joe Badal’s Everything to Lose, the only one of his books I have yet to read; and Anne Hillerman’s Lost Birds. My favorite fictional character? Philip Marlowe, like Gabe McKenna, a hero neither tarnished nor afraid.

Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
Audio. Now that I am producing two podcasts, I am exploring sound as a persuasive medium. Audible has turned several of my novels into audiobooks, but I am excited at the chance to produce audio versions of all my novels on my own. I’ll start that project later this year and into 2025.

What writing projects are you working on now?
Once BURN SCARS is out the door, I’m returning to HELL SHIP, the historical fiction novel I started a few years ago. In MIDNIGHT BLUES, I killed off an elderly World War II vet named Phil Friganza. I miss the guy. So, I’m making him the hero of this story and bringing him back to life, so to speak. I’m also going to be working on the audiobooks I mentioned and transitioning my podcasts from audio to audio with video and posting them on YouTube. I’ve been asked if there will be any more Gabe McKenna novels. Well, you never say never again.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kat has a speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

SWW’s 2024 Writing Contest Opens June 1

The annual SouthWest Writers (SWW) writing competition opens for submissions on June 1, 2024.

The contest is open to new and experienced writers. Contestants don’t have to be members of SWW or live in the Southwest to enter. Winners have the opportunity to publish their entries in this year’s contest anthology.

The 2024 competition offers five main contest categories divided into a total of twenty-five subcategories of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as well as interior and cover art for the anthology. New this year are categories for Young Readers and Young Adult. Subcategories include opening pages of a novel or memoir (published or unpublished), essay/article, flash fiction, and short story.

All entries that meet the rules for submission will be judged by a panel of experienced writers and/or experts in the specific genre. First, second, and third monetary prizes will be awarded in each category that receives enough entries for judging.

For details about the categories and a complete list of rules, please see the Contest Page.

SouthWest Writers is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization devoted to helping both published and unpublished writers improve their craft and further their careers. In 2024, SWW will celebrate forty years dedicated to this goal.

The Writing Life: Rejection

by Sherri L. Burr

To write and seek publication is to risk rejection. The Los Angeles Review of Books published a story on March 26, 2024, about the rejection letters Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison wrote when she was an editor at Random House.[i] “I found it extremely honest, forthright, and moving in ways I had not expected it to be, but it is a shuddering book and one that offers no escape for any reader whatsoever,” Morrison said to one author. Her letter concluded, “You don’t want to escape, and I don’t want to escape, but perhaps the public does and perhaps we are in the business of helping them do that.” In other words, a story can be too miserable.

I received my first rejection letter at age 16. I had pitched a story to Guidepost Magazine about an encounter with my minister. The editor found the event less inspiring than I did. Many more rejection letters and emails would follow. Rejection can be hard on the ego, but never sending anything out risks never getting published. That can create a deeper blow to our internal psyche.

When I wrote my first co-authored book, Art Law: Cases and Materials, my co-authors and I were rejected by every major legal book publisher. After a smaller publisher offered us a contract, my male co-authors insisted on going back to every major legal book publisher to let them know we had an offer and ask if they would like to match it. That attempt to leverage a small offer into a bigger one failed. All the major legal book publishers rejected us a second time.

The reception was different for my next co-authored book, Entertainment Law: Cases and Materials in Film, Television, and Music. One small publisher accepted the book based on an oral pitch from my co-author and me. I insisted we first complete a book proposal to shop to all the major legal book publishers. The biggest publisher in the genre not only accepted our book but wanted a complete manuscript within a month. I was glad that we were almost finished with the book when we shopped the proposal.

As writers who help others, we also risk rejection in our charity work. Barbara Kerr Page, who I would later work with at the Albuquerque Tribune, wrote a letter to Tony Hillerman on November 2, 1975, asking him to be a judge in the New Mexico Press Women’s annual communications contest. Five days later, Hillerman wrote the following response:

While I’m complimented by your invitation (and the flattering way you phrased it), I’m going to have to beg off this fall. Last summer (when it seemed autumn would never come) I made a whole bunch of to-do things, and I’m now facing the fact that those speeches aren’t written and the deadlines aren’t met. Therefore, I made a pledge that I wouldn’t take on anything new until I keep the old promises.

I’ve enjoyed judging for the NMPW in the past and I hope you’ll give me the opportunity in future years when I’ve better learned how to plan ahead.

Three cheers to Tony Hillerman for knowing when his plate was full and to kindly say no. This is the kind of rejection letter that we can all learn from.

Like many authors, I consider the worst kind of rejection to be silence. I would rather receive a form letter or the return of my letter with the word “NO” in big letters than silence. With silence, you are left to assume your project has been rejected or lost.

With some of Toni Morrison’s letters, she gave helpful suggestions. According to the Los Angeles Review of Book’s article mentioned earlier, in rejecting a modern Western in 1978, Morrison wrote, “It simply wasn’t interesting enough—the excitement, the ‘guts,’ just weren’t there. I am returning it to you herewith.” What a masterful way to say the book was boring.

In another rejection letter, Morrison wrote that the manuscript was “put together in a way that made it difficult to enjoy. The scenes are too short and packed too tightly. Motives were lacking.” With rejection advice like that, the author knows it’s time to return to work.

Whatever is stopping you from sharing your work for publication, do not fear rejection. You just might receive helpful advice.

Equally important, rejection letters can help prove that you are in the business of writing. From a tax perspective, even if you have little or no income, you may still be able to deduct your expenses related to your writing business. Consult your accountant on the value of rejection letters to demonstrate you sought to sell your work.

Rejection letters also call on you to have faith in your work. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected twelve times. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s first Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 140 times. Tony Hillerman’s first book was rejected by one New York publisher who advised him to “get rid of the Indian stuff.” At the time of his death in 2008, more than 20 million Hillerman books were in print.

Once, I received a rejection letter from an academic publisher after my book had been published. It gave me great pleasure to inform the publisher that during the year delay, my book had been published and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. I did not receive a response.

[i] See There Is No Point in My Being Other Than Honest with You: On Toni Morrison’s Rejection Letters | Los Angeles Review of Books (

Sherri Burr’s 27th book, Complicated Lives: Free Blacks in Virginia: 1619-1865 (Carolina Academic Press, 2019), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in History. West Academic published Wills & Trusts in a Nutshell 6th Ed., her 31st book, on October 31, 2022. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has been a member of SouthWest Writers for over 30 years.

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