In 2017, the year I began writing Blue Running, the headlines in Texas news were lively. In spite of Donald Trump’s shocking election to the presidency, the recurring headlines in Texas were predictable: women, immigrants, gays, and guns. With several anti-abortion bills floating around the State House, congresswomen were striking back with satirical proposals — among other bills — that would make masturbation illegal. That summer, after Dallas, Houston, and other cities declared themselves “sanctuaries” (to protect undocumented immigrants), the conservative Texas legislature outlawed and threatened sanctuary cities. There were curses and threats on the Chamber floor, which prompted a physical scuffle between the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans. Fisticuffs between Texas gentlemen? The newspapers were delighted. Then the Texas legislature passed a bill that allowed adoption agencies to invoke Religious Heebie Jeebies to prevent gays and lesbians from adopting children. The threat of gun control hung in the air like a bogeyman, but mass shootings at local stores and schools were no match for the powerful NRA (National Rifle Association). And then, 2017 slammed us with the devastating Hurricane Harvey. How could a writer produce anything when the news was filled with such dysfunction and gloom? (This was more than two years before the current pandemic, which set a new bar for nightmares unimaginable.)
In a state of emotional and intellectual fatigue, I sat down at my writing desk trying to make sense of Texas, my beautiful, frightening, opinionated, friendly, maddening home state. I knew that I wanted to write something that interrogated and investigated the myths about Texas. What I ended up writing was the beginning of Blue Running, a coming-of-age (and darkly satirical) story of a girl who grows up in a state eerily obsessed with women, immigrants, gays, and guns.
I grew up having a radically different view of Texas. The Texas state motto was “The Friendly State,” where cashiers always smile and compliment your choice of groceries, waitresses call you Sweetie, and strangers hold doors open for you, even if you’re ten steps behind them. (This is all still true.) I was a child of a Dallas suburb that ended literally at our back fence line, where the sprawling horse stables and countryside began. Straddling two worlds, I went to museums and played in the school orchestra, but worked the weekend concession stand at the rodeo, where my brother rode wild broncos, and guns were so common, I don’t remember ever noticing them.
Forgive the cowboy analogy, but I think all writers have their feet firmly in the stirrups of two worlds: their past and the present. Or they’re straddled between their private and their public personas. Their angels and their demons. I also think these are strengths, and where well-developed fictional characters are born. We know what it feels like to act within those worlds — what internal and external expectations drive us — and it’s the blind spots and moments of clarity that intrigue me. In creating characters, I’m essentially navigating dual worlds, creating that tension wherever I can.
So, back to 2017, with the election of Trump still an open wound, and so many of us still in shock at the betrayal of our friendly neighbors who quietly voted for Trump, I knew I needed to untangle my feelings through writing. I was a grown adult experiencing a weird coming-of-age dysphoria, so I took my own journey down the river — Huckleberry Finn style — to examine my home through a satiric, and at times deeply personal, lens.
Author Stephen King likes to put characters in situations and let the “what if” stir up the story. I tend to start with a setting and treat it as the first character.
First I wondered what would happen if a non-Christian, liberal woman of color were elected President and Texas decided that it would deliver on its previous threats to secede from the United States. It had happened in the past. In 1836, it declared its independence from Mexico to become The Republic of Texas. And later, in 1861, it seceded from the U.S. to join the Confederacy. (Texas has a long and proud history of doing things its own way.)
Then I wondered, “What if we walled off not only Mexico, but the liberal U.S.A, too? What else would it take to build the right-wing dystopia? Banning all abortions and making them punishable by death?” Yes. Proudly independent even when as public service infrastructure fell apart, they’d enact compulsory gun ownership and as everyone to protect their own property. They might block information from their airwaves and internet. Citizens would witness drug and human trafficking and motorcycle gangs that were only slightly less terrifying than the corrupted Texas Rangers. All this in the name of independence and evangelical religion. So I had my setting-character.
My next step was to drop a young girl into this Republic of Texas without a pillow to soften her landing.
Bluebonnet came to me as version of my own self, a child who believed her family was blessed by God, despite the demons that chased her. (Actually, I had the profound luck of a having a mother who was loving and fun and creative and extraordinarily kind. A loving mother can soothe a host of demons.) What if Bluebonnet — or Blue, as she’s called — didn’t have a mother? I decided to withhold the thing she thought she needed most in order to force her to discover her authentic self. To allow her to create her own terms of love and acceptance. These two elements of the story — a setting and a character with a choice — were the keys to my writing process. They unlocked a coming-of-age story that was thrilling and sad and heartwarming to write. I hope the story also shows the complexity of human desire, regret, growth, and love.
(c) Lori Ann Stephens
About Blue Running:
In the new Republic of Texas, guns are the law and nothing is forgiven.
Bluebonnet Andrews is on the run across the Republic of Texas. An accident with a gun killed her best friend but everyone in the town of Blessing thinks it was murder. Even her father – the town’s drunken deputy – believes she did it. Now, she has no choice but to run. In Texas, murder is punishable by death.
There’s no one to help her. Her father is incapable and her mother left the state on the last flight to America before the secession. Blue doesn’t know where she is now but she’s determined to track her down. First though, she has to get across the lawless Republic and over the Wall that keeps everyone in.
On the road she meets Jet, a pregnant young woman of Latin American heritage. Jet is secretive about her past but she’s just as determined as Blue to get out of Texas before she’s caught and arrested.
Together, the two form an unlikely kinship as they make their way past marauding motorcycle gangs, the untrustworthy Texas Rangers, and armed strangers intent on abducting them – or worse.
Even if Blue and Jet reach the Wall, they face armed vigilantes who guard the border with murderous intensity. No one is allowed in or out of the Republic alive.
But some things are worth dying for.
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