I was born in Paris, Texas, but my dad worked for the Ford Motor Company in Dallas. Because of his job, we had to live in old East Dallas (known known as Pleasant Grove or simply the Grove), but every Friday evening my parents put my brother and I in the car and made the 120-mile drive to Chicota in northeast Texas, where we truly lived at my grandparents’ place in the country until Sunday evening, at which time we came back to the city. My grandparents’ little scratch farm in Lamar County was my true home and continues to hold my roots, no matter where I’ve lived the past for the past 62 years.
The one good thing about Dallas was the educational system where I first discovered books in the Urban Park Elementary School library. The librarian, Miss Rosalie Russell, saw something in me that proved to be an infection I’ve endured since 1960. She called it the Love of Reading and since she introduced me to the Cowboy Sam series, I’ve never been without a book nearby. That malady progressed to a secondary infection called Book Collecting and finally progressed to the advance stage of The Need to Write.
I started my writing career in the fifth grade, and my work didn’t truly progress until nearly 25 years later. In the meantime, I graduated from W.W. Samuel High School, worked in a library as a “Page” (one who shelves books, and that job fed into my Book Needs), spent two years at Eastfield Junior College in Mesquite, TX, and two years later earned a B.S. in Industry Management from East Texas State University (now Texas A&M Commerce), in Commerce, TX. Instead of going into the field of architecture like I’d planned, I realized I had no interest in leaning over a drafting board for the rest of my life. I wound up taking another year’s worth of courses and earned a Teacher’s Degree.
My bank account was down to 26 dollars when I finally landed a teaching position in the Garland Independent School District, a suburb of Dallas. There I taught hormone-driven middle schoolers for eight years, and high school for the next two, all the while trying to write. In that system we were paid one time a month and I received ten times as many rejection notices during that same period from a wide range of state and national magazines. Thinking I wanted to work my way up to a position as a building principal, I earned a M.Ed. from E.T.S.U. and a Superintendent’s Certificate before deciding that wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my career.
My best friend, Steve Knagg, was named Director of Communications in the Garland ISD in 1986 and hired me out of the classroom to be the district’s Communications Specialist, a title I’m sure someone made up off the cuff to satisfy the payroll department. As the years passed, my title changed along with the duties required to keep a fast growing district on track. I read voraciously during that time and discovered author after author who influenced my attempts to write.
It was 1988 when I was reading three authors at the same time, Robert C. Ruark, Donald E. Westlake, and Pat McManus (I’ve always had at least three books going at the same time), and that combination of writing styles distributed across several decades jelled to create something I hadn’t yet discovered... my Voice.
Responding to a bet with my coworker who insisted anyone could write a newspaper column, I penned a 900-word humorous essay on quail hunting. I didn’t know where to send something that appeared to be a newspaper column until I finally decided to mail the copy to The Paris News, a weekly paper only twenty miles from my grandparents’ farm. The sports editor, Mike Condiff, called three days later and offered me a newly created position of Outdoor Sports Columnist. He made that up after reading my submission. Mike left not long after, probably fired for giving me the position, but that little outdoor humor column took root and still runs there each week 28 years later.
That became a springboard that launched even more writing opportunities. My column soon ran in over 50 papers in the state of Texas, and attracted the attention of King Features Syndicate, who said I was in a position to become their outdoor Dave Barry. Then that little thing called the Internet was born and it fed on newspaper columnists. I never heard from King Features again, but not long after an offer came in from Larry Bozka, the editor of Texas Fish and Game Magazine, to be their Outdoor Humor Editor. That break led to more magazine opportunities which helped polish a homespun Voice that was growing in style and strength.
All the while I continued my career in public education. By day I handled school crises, and with 56,000 kids and 7,500 employees in a hundred square mile district, someone somewhere was always having problems. I became proficient on camera and handled interviews on what seemed to be a weekly basis. By night and before work, I continued to write. One night, while on deadline for a newspaper column, something happened I’d only heard of, but had never experienced.
I couldn’t think of anything to write. It wasn’t truly writer’s block, but it was sure close. I recalled something my high school freshman English teacher, Miss Linda Adams, told us way back in 1969. “If you can’t think of anything to write, simply put random words on the paper and others are sure to follow.”
With her advice in mind, I wrote one sentence. “We’re from up on the river.” It was something my maternal grandmother used to say, and those six words led to full sentences that eventually became the first draft of a manuscript I titled Center Springs, Texas. I worked on that one for two years, and one night I hit the Enter button to save the completed novel.
My old desktop 286 computer hiccupped, gagged, and went to blue screen, taking all that work with it. No one ever told me that a 5½ floppy disk wouldn’t hold an entire novel written in what I now affectionately call a Dinosaur Writing Program. A month later, even the techs in tight short-sleeve shirts with pocket protectors filling their pockets, could only get back one page of the 140,000 word manuscript.
So I poured a tall scotch, inserted a 3½ inch hard disk into my brand new computer, and rewrote the entire manuscript from memory. The Rock Hole, my first critically acclaimed novel, was published in 2011, and released only a month after my retirement from the GISD after 35 years of service.
The Rock Hole was hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “an unpretentious gem written to the hilt and harrowing in its unpredictability,” and listed it as one of their “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” I met my great friend and mentor John Gilstrap about that same time. We clicked the moment we sat down together at an empty table in a closed hotel bar.
It was one of those times when you meet the right person at the right time. We spent the next three days together at the Sleuthfest Conference in Florida and on the last evening he leaned over that same table filled with dirty glasses. “Do you mind if I offer you some advice?”
“Go ahead on.”
“I don’t know what that means,” he said, “but if it means yes, I need to tell you something. Pardon me for being direct, but you’re doing everything wrong, other than the way you write.”
Never one to turn my back on good advice, I ordered more drinks and spent the next several hours listening to his advice and while asking questions about publishing that I’d carried for years. He ended that night with one final comment. “Oh, and you need to fire your agent and get a new one.”
He was right. My starter agent blew a movie deal for The Rock Hole not long after that conference and I soon cut her adrift. It was John who finally set my boots on the right road with sage advice, introductions, time, suggestions, and liberal applications of scotch and gin. Now we travel together across this great nation and explain to our wives why our bar bills exceed the room charges.
The next year, Burrows, the second Red River Mystery, received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, “Wortham's outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole (2011)... combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.”
More novels followed, gaining a following of readers and critics. Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, to name only a few, all praised the series. Even The New York Times said The Right Side of Wrong is “a sleeper that deserves wider attention.” Suspense Magazine said it had “the most colorful characters in fiction… the writing is first class… Wortham pulls no punches in writing succinctly about the characters: writing succinctly about poverty, bigotry and corruption, but the kindness is always there, showing the tightknit family loyalty that the Lone Star state provides.”
In 2014, Vengeance is Mine received a Starred Review from Booklist that said, “It’s a real corker. This very entertaining novel, set in 1967, is reminiscent of Donald E. Westlake’s Mob comedies The Fugitive Pigeon (1965) and The Busy Body (1966).” True West Magazine listed it as one of their Top 5 Modern Westerns of 2015, and I didn’t even know I wrote westerns.
Dark Places was named one of the 12 Top Books for 2015 by Strand Magazine and one of the Best Small Fictions of 2015 by the Dallas Morning News, while Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine wrote, "Wortham is a masterful and entertaining storyteller... equal parts Joe R. Lansdale and Harper Lee, with a touch of Elmore Leonard." I was listed by MysteryPeople as one of the Top 5 Texas Authors for 2015.
The next novel in the Red River series, Unraveled, is scheduled for release in November, 2016.
To date, more than 2,000 newspaper and magazine articles bear my byline. The Rock Hole was a finalist in the prestigious Benjamin Franklin Award presented by the Independent Book Publishers Association. I’m a member of Mystery Writers of America, the Writers’ League of Texas, International Association of Crime Writers (North American Branch), and International Thriller Writers.
And now I’m honored to be a part of Kensington Publishing. I know great things are coming for us all, with the future Sonny Hawke series beginning in July, 2017, with Hawke’s Prey. Come back here periodically to find updated photos and information. The cover for Hawke’s Prey is at present in the art department and as soon as it is finalized and available to the public, I’ll post it here.
I’m an avid outdoorsman, love to travel, camp, canoe, backpack, hunt, and fish, to name only a few activities. I’m also that rare male human animal that has no use for competitive sports, professional or otherwise.
The love of my life, Shana, and I live in Frisco, Texas.