After 30 years, novel in print - The Explorer: El Sol

After 30 years, novel in print

Book recalls ranch life, carries a message

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Posted: Tuesday, August 10, 2010 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:20 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

For 20 years, the manuscript written by siblings Tom and Mary Walker sat in a desk drawer.

The 1,000-page novel, a tribute to their ranching childhood, became as desolate as the cowboy life it attempted to portray.

Now, 30 years after the project began, the Walkers have published "Contrary Creek."

Tom and Mary grew up on ranches in rural Arizona, roping cattle alongside their parents Ira and Bunny Walker. They lived in poverty, but didn't go hungry.

As children, they would sometimes ask their father why he didn't do something that paid more than cowboy work.

"He'd just shrug. 'It's all I know how to do,' he said. And truly, it was all he wanted to do," Tom and Mary say.

Their ranch was sold in 1961 and has not been active since.

Mary and Tom attended Arizona State University and went on to build their separate careers. Mary works as a social worker in Los Angeles and Tom worked for many years as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star.

But the memory of ranch life never faded. "Mary and I have always had a sense of loss for that way of life, we didn't want to be ranchers, but the sense of loss drove us to write a book," said Tom, a Northwest resident.

In 1981, the brother and sister duo sat down and wrote an outline for a fictional narrative, highlighting experiences and recapturing the simplicity of the ranching life they knew as young people.

For a year in the days before e-mail, the manuscript traveled between them, one writing a chapter, then sending it off for the other to "springboard" off of and add their own chapter.

"It should probably be noted that during that time, the nation experienced no increase in postage rates because the two of us were underwriting the United States Postal Service," Mary said.

The resulting novel was the product of Mary's and Tom's idea — nostalgia for a lost lifestyle.

"It was like a monster, about 1,000 pages long, completely un-publishable, and so it got stuck in our desk drawers for about 20 years," said Tom.

It was only after Mary began to write her own book several years ago that Tom decided to open the drawer and dust off the cobwebs of what is now "Contrary Creek," a 311-page mystery taking place in the 1960s in the fictional town of Faraway, Ariz.

"It kept gnawing on me," Tom said, who rewrote the novel from beginning to end after retiring from the Star. He still relied on input and ideas from Mary throughout the process.

"Contrary Creek" is the story of 16-year-old Danny Cloud, who lives on a ranch with his younger sister and parents. The book covers a year span in which Danny witnesses the odd events of nearby town Faraway, where the high school principal goes on a book-banning crusade, the science teacher announces herself as a witch and a mysterious series of deaths result in raised eyebrows from the population of 250.

Meanwhile, Danny gives insight to the ranching way of life and undergoes the rite-of-passage all must sometime encounter as youth. His lesson sparked when a different kind of witch-hunt of prejudices and intolerance unfurls in the town of Faraway.

"(The book) draws on our experience of growing up on a ranch, but the characters and most experiences are fiction. There's a shootout in the book, I've never been in one of those before," Tom said.

According to the book's website, the novel is about, "love, loss, and the power of hope," but according to Tom it's about "sex, violence, harsh language, and a terrific recipe for pinto bean sandwiches." The recipe is on page 115. Tom gives a word of caution that once you try it you can't go back.

There is an encompassing message, "which is timely right now," said Tom, "the danger of fear and intolerance and hatred, an awful combination of attitudes."

He finished "Contrary Creek" about a year ago, only to face a daunting truth for writers hoping to get published.

"A publishing company won't publish your book unless you have an agent, and an agent won't represent you unless you've been published," said Tom of the Catch 22 of the publishing world.

Tom decided to self-publish his work at Wheatmark, located in Tucson.

"This way I got to do the book the way I wanted," he said. The book was published on May 10.

The novel is offered through Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and ContraryCreeknovel.com.

"I'm not worried about how many books we sell, my goal was to get it written and published, it's not on my back anymore," he said.

"It's great to have it off my back," he said. "For 30 years it's been part of my life and I had basically given up on it because it was such a big project. It is every bit the book I wanted it to be."

Tom said he couldn't have done it alone. The book, like its writers, is founded on support from family.

"He says I inspire him," said Mary. "He can't imagine how much he inspires me."

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