Jim Ainsworth among personal memorabilia in the office he built on his Hunt County ranch.
Staff Photo by Angela Pitt

Jim Ainsworth keeps stories alive

Campbell writer on family, hard licks and a little horse named Scar

By TERRY MATHEWS, News-Telegram Arts Editor

Jan. 11, 2008 - When he was growing up near Cooper, Jim Ainsworth heard family stories from his father and grandfather. He didn't put much stock in the stories until his father died.

"At his funeral, one of my father's friends said that a library burned when my father died," Ainsworth recalled. "It was then that I decided to put our family stories on paper."

"Follow the Rivers" trilogy is based on Ainsworth's youth, from his life on a Delta County dairy farm to time spent on the wide open plains of West Texas. The family was driven off their land in East Texas due to the 1950s drought. The adjustment was difficult on everyone, including the trilogy's main character, Jake Rivers.

Jim Ainsworth's books are 'Rivers Crossing,' (2005), 'In the Rivers Flow' (2003) and 'Rivers Ebb' (2007).

Ainsworth, who now lives near Commerce, took a break from writing to answer questions about his childhood, his parents, his horse and how Mother Nature fits into his stories.

News-Telegram: In your latest book, "Rivers Ebb," the family has moved to West Texas to start anew. Jake was not happy about being uprooted, but how did the move affect his parents, Rance and Mattie?

Jim Ainsworth: It was much tougher on them. Rance had a little experience with West Texas farming, but he was definitely starting all over with a big debt, ten times more land and equipment, different soil, climate, crops, etc. A man known to put down deep roots, he had left behind his family and friends and had almost nobody to mentor him or to talk to outside of family - and they were all in the same dilemma.

Mattie was basically alone on the prairie in unfamiliar country with an unhappy child, an unhappy husband and no social or family network to turn to.

NT: We don't know much about Mattie's family. What is her story?

JA: She had eight sisters and three brothers. Her mother had 18 children and Mattie survived them all.

Her father was a farmer and later was Justice of the Peace in Delta County.

Her mother, of course, took care of him and 12 kids.

NT: Mother Nature is a powerful force in the Rivers' trilogy. A deep drought drives the family from their land in East Texas. The snow, wind and the biting cold of West Texas is something new to Jake. How does nature drive the plot of "Rivers Ebb"?

JA: I like to think of Mother Nature as a character in all of my books. She inspires the writing and her presence is vivid in all of my memories.

In Northeast Texas, it rained 17 inches in 1956, then 71 inches in 1957, so they lost their dairy because of drought, then lost a friend and another crop to floods.

Weather in the Panhandle is drastically different than it is in Northeast Texas. The wind is constant, there is less average rainfall, but the lack of humidity was what really impacted Jake. Even as a boy, sultry weather made Jake irritable. He loved the dry weather of the Panhandle and the snow. Mother Nature drives several pivotal scenes when the basketball team is almost stranded in a snowstorm. Also, cold rain and wind help set the scene for Jake's first real test as a cowboy. Then there is that thing with the pigs.

NT: Talk a little bit about the relationship between Jake and his little horse Scar.

JA: Jake is small for his age and lacks confidence. He does not measure up to either his older brother or his father in terms of mechanical skills, farming skills or any work done manually.

Scar was a Christmas present and the little filly got her name from Dr. Sixgun, a radio program at the time.

He first saw the little filly in the hall of the Rivers family hay barn on a rainy, cold Christmas Eve.

She was scarred, scratched, kicked, skinny and wormy, but Jake saw something as beautiful as Cocoa, Rex Allen's horse, or Champion, the horse that Gene Autry rode.

When Jake learned to ride, the horse gave him confidence and made him think that he might actually be pretty good at something. Jake was a loner, and the horse was his companion.

NT: A tough-talking bully is one of the book's compelling sub-plots. How did you deal with the bullies in your childhood?

JA: Not very well. My brother, however, did his part to prepare me by goading me into fistfights regularly. I learned to get in my licks early or to use my head to butt him in the stomach, but I quickly learned that fighting is painful, even when you win.

I also learned that not all big boys are slow.

NT: First love plays a big role in the third book of the trilogy, "Rivers Ebb." So does small town gossip. What advice did you give to your children about these two potential stumbling blocks?

JA: Don't. Seriously, it has been so long, I am not sure. My oldest is 41. I remember having a few talks with them, but am pretty sure I was clumsy. I recall telling my daughter to always remain in control of her relationships with boys.

For my son, I tried to emphasize how irresponsible behavior has consequences and what those consequences might be - including having to deal with me. A small town is best for raising kids. They knew they were being watched by all of their parents' friends as well as by their parents.

NT: Was writing the books a cathartic experience for you?

JA: Absolutely. Calming, inspiring and revealing. Few lives are dull, and almost all of us have moments of clarity - and events that shape who we become. Like most children, I was most focused on what mattered to me during those growing up years. Writing about them allowed me to get inside my parents' heads and recognize how events affected them. I now have a much better understanding and appreciation for why they did some of the things they did. I chose fiction because it allows us to inspire questions and examine ourselves and our characters more closely.

NT: The book ends before Jake graduates from high school. Are there more Rivers family stories on the drawing board?

JA: I have the rough outline for a lot of novels as well as non-fiction books in my files.

Once you start writing, the creative windows are opened and ideas float in. As to the sequel for Jake, I will eventually write it, but it seems so close and personal now that I am afraid that I will not be able to separate Jake from myself.

NT: Take us through a typical day when you're writing.

JA: No such thing. I read many magazines and books about how writers do things. I have found only a few that do as I do. I would like to write every day, but I do not. That said, I do believe that discipline equals freedom, and I am disciplined. My left brain controls a lot of my days, and it makes me do all of my other tasks before I start writing. I am more fulfilled on those days when the creative side of my brain is in charge, but also grateful that the left keeps things organized. When I am writing, I usually answer e-mails from readers and others and do mundane tasks until around 10 or 11 o'clock. Then, I read what was written the previous day (or possibly the whole manuscript), edit it, then try to write about 1,000 words or four pages.

Many writers say they write because they have to, as if they are driven by a force out of their control. Not so with me. I write because I want to. Many writers also say they have been writing since they were eight or nine. Not me. I felt an inkling that writing might be in my future when I was young, but I did not feel that I really had anything significant to say until I had lived at least five decades.

NT: What are you working on now?

JA: Tentative title is "Rivers Before." The manuscript starts at the end of the Civil War. One story always dominated our family's oral history. I never believed that it really happened, or at least not like I heard. A peculiar set of circumstances helped me uncover facts about this happening, and I think it will be a focal point of my next novel.

Basic facts

  • Jim Ainsworth
  • Date of Birth: Aug. 9, 1944 Parents: Richard and Nadelle
  • High school: Cooper High
  • College: East Texas State University (BBA)
  • Favorite teachers: Dr. Fred Tarpley, Dr. Graham Johnson and Dr. Carroll Adams
  • Favorite authors: William Gay and Larry Watson
  • Favorite book: "Provinces of Night"
  • Best advice you've received: Do what you say you are going to do and do it when you said you would, from my father.
  • Best advice you've given: Leave every person, place or organization better because of their contact with you.
  • Best memory of your mother: Stricken with Parkinson's and other infirmities, my mother wasn't always herself toward the end of her life. Her wits magically returned one day as I was playing a joke on her. We laughed until we cried.
  • Best memory of your father: I had been arguing with my parents and had just about backed out on going to college because of the financial burden it would place on them. He took me aside, put a hand on my shoulder, and said, "Nothing else will ever be said about money for college. You go - we will find a way."

To order the "Follow the Rivers" books, or to have the author speak to your book club or organization, see www.jimainsworth.com

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