Tell Us 5 Things About Your Book: A Texas Oil Boom Fuels a Family Saga

The company actually drilled some pretty good wells. But for every dollar they earned, Grady would turn around and spend 50, a lot of it on cocaine. We ended up fleeing with our tail between our legs to San Antonio, where my dad had to get another job and basically reinvent himself.


Bryan Mealer

Wyatt McSpadden

I thought of writing it as a novel at one time. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do next. My grandmother died in 2011, and it was a really moving experience for me. I flew down to Big Spring and we all gathered around her bed. She was a wonderful gospel singer, had grown up singing in the church. One of her last requests when we were all around her in the hospice was for us all to sing. And we did. I wanted to find the source of what I felt in the room, call it the Holy Ghost or whatever. It was a power.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?

That poor people don’t leave paper trails, unless they’re criminals. Early in my research I was really hitting a wall. All I had was census records and occasional documents I would pull from county clerks’ offices: property deeds and whatnot; but nothing really firsthand to drive a narrative. Then through, of all places, I found out I had a cousin Frances in Arizona who was in her 90s, and she had a diamond-sharp memory. She basically took me through the Depression. Her dad — my grandfather’s brother — died of dust pneumonia in 1936. Frances’ mother had a nervous breakdown. The family bought food by selling cardboard. They warmed their house by burning tires they found in the road. It was tough living.

Finding her was journalist gold. And now she’s one of my best friends; and a big Trump supporter, so we go back and forth on that.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I had this idea of structuring it like “All the King’s Men,” where Grady was the Willie Stark character and he pulled around this group of pilot fish with him. My editor didn’t think Grady could carry the book. He urged me to dig into my family history, which I’d never done and it turns out no one in my family had ever done. I ended up going back to find my great-grandfather and how he came west from Georgia to find adventure and riches. Like so many others, what he found instead was reality and hardship. He lost his farm to drought in 1916. His wife died of Spanish flu while they were uprooted and living on the road. During the first oil boom, when the Permian field was just opening up, that’s what my family did, worked in oil. I went in to tell the story of Grady and this brief period in Texas, and came out with this multigenerational story about America.

Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?

Johnny Cash. He’s someone I grew up listening to very early. There was so much tied up in him of good and evil, God and the Devil. He was so tied to the church. I grew up knowing and learning Pentecostal hymns, which are so evocatively written and full of these strong words and images. Just like Cash’s music. I grew up hearing testimonies in church, people mired in life’s lowest stations and then being saved. My grandfather, drunk in the gutter, was saved by a Salvation Army preacher. That theme of redemption in Cash’s work, and Merle Haggard’s work — that theme’s at work in my own journalism, and it’s not even conscious. I attach to these redemptive stories.

Persuade someone to read “The Kings of Big Spring” in 50 words or less.

I can do it in six words: “Grapes of Wrath” meets “Boogie Nights.”

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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