Retired teacher Leila Meacham hits mark with Texas novels

Back in 1984, Leila Meacham met some people from East Texas who showed her a carefully compiled book of newspaper clippings documenting milestones in their family’s life. In their small town, they were prominent folks whose comings and goings were considered newsworthy. Leafing through the pages, Meacham noticed the name of a newborn girl.

“I think her name was Camellia or Camilla. As I read through that book, I ran into her name over and over in connection with birthdays, graduation, her wedding and so on, all the way to her death. That just intrigued me,” says Meacham, in explaining the inspiration for her hugely popular novel Roses. “It triggered my interest in imagining a character who might have lived that life in that small town. On the drive back home, I started thinking about this child, and immediately called her Mary. That was the nucleus that eventually became Roses.” But she did not write Mary’s story until years later. Though she started it in 1985 while convalescing from a nasty case of pneumonia, upon recovery, Meacham put the manuscript on a shelf and happily resumed her life as an English teacher. Her interest in writing was tentative at best. More than 20 years later, retired and bored, the reluctant novelist remembered her notes. “One day I asked the good Lord, ‘What do you want me to do for the rest of my life?’ and I got a clear answer: ‘Finish that book and I’ll take care of the rest,’” she recalls. “So that’s what happened.” That, and a lot more. Not only did she finish the novel, but its easy path to publication was practically a miracle. Many writers struggle for years to find either an agent or a publisher. Not Meacham. It so happened that her friend Louise Scherr had a niece who was married to prominent New York literary agent David McCormick. All it took was a phone call. McCormick read seven chapters, liked them, requested the rest of the manuscript and eventually sold it to Grand Central Publishing.

Released in 2010, the sprawling family saga revolves around Mary’s uncompromising devotion to her cotton plantation and the far-reaching consequences of that obsession. Compared to Gone With the Wind by more than one reviewer, it became a New York Times best-seller and was translated into 22 languages, including Serbian, Russian, Dutch, Finnish and Hebrew. “I was stunned for almost a year,” admits the author. “I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.” Two more novels followed in short order — Tumbleweeds, a story of love, friendship and misguided decisions, set in a contemporary Panhandle town; and Somerset, a prequel to Roses. It took Tumbleweeds only four days to claim a spot on the best-seller list, and Meacham’s fans are likely to snap up Somerset as well. At 75, the author is philosophical about her meteoric success: “At this stage of life what you really treasure is your health and your marriage and your friends. Those are the riches of life. This (the success) is a nice gift.”

While her characters are not modeled on people she knows, real life moments stimulate her imagination. One of the protagonists in Tumbleweeds, for instance, was inspired by a young man she met decades ago who, despite having been a quarterback and a hell-raiser in college, opted to go into the priesthood shortly after graduation. His choice baffled her, and she never forgot him. He was eventually transformed into the fictional John Caldwell, who becomes a priest to expiate for a youthful transgression. The novel follows John and his friends Trey and Cathy through their growing-up years and beyond, as poor judgment, tragedy and misunderstandings tear them apart. The characters drive the plot, not the other way around, explains Meacham. “I just go along for the ride.”
Not surprisingly, there are fundamental similarities between the novels. “My books are about people who do the wrong thing for what they think are the right reasons and suffer the consequences,” she notes. “There are lessons to be learned in my books.” The reviews have been mostly positive. Texas Monthly said that Roses “delivers epic feeling and unadulterated entertainment,” and Publishers Weekly described it as an “enthralling stunner, a good old-fashioned read.” Tumbleweeds and Somerset have also garnered complimentary comments. Though she, too, grew up in a small town — Wink in West Texas — Meacham’s early experiences were nothing like those of her characters. In Wink, life revolved around family, school and church, and kids were expected to mind their manners and get an education, period. “Every adult was your parent,” she remembers. She learned to read by herself and never stopped devouring books. Among her favorite authors are Saul Bellow, Willa Cather, John Steinbeck and Leon Uris. Contemporary writers are not her cup of tea, however.

As a young English teacher in New Mexico, the future novelist attended a party at a military base where she met Air Force officer Arthur Richard Meacham III whom she remembers as “this big, tall, golden guy.” They married 18 months later before he was sent to Vietnam. No children came, but Meacham has no regrets about it. Life as a military wife was enjoyable, and when Dick retired, the couple settled in San Antonio, where she taught school in the Converse-Judson ISD.
Though she doesn’t speak much about it, Meacham had an earlier brush with literary success, though a more modest one. Back in the 1980s, a colleague challenged her to write a romance “to elevate the genre.” Harlequin and Silhouette romances were widely read back then, so despite misgivings, she penned a novella called Ryan’s Hand and followed that up with two others, all published by Walker & Co. Though the publisher urged her to continue, she wasn’t crazy about the genre and didn’t see herself as a career writer. “I loved teaching, and I thought that was my calling,” she explains. Things have not changed dramatically for her and Dick even now that she’s made it big in mainstream fiction. When Roses hit the best-seller list, there was no special celebration or spending spree. In fact, Meacham donated her income from the book to the charitable fund the spouses created through the Presbyterian Foundation. She has no website, nor is she on Facebook or other social media.

What she does enjoy about her new celebrity is visiting with people who have read her books, including two former first ladies, Barbara and Laura Bush. She was signing books (Roses) at a Houston bookstore on a rainy day when the elder Mrs. Bush showed up “with her pearls.” After complimenting Meacham on “the magnificent novel about Texas,” the former first lady invited her to take part in the Celebration of Reading event in Bethesda, Md., a fundraiser for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. While in Dallas for another appearance, the author ended up having lunch with George and Laura Bush. This February, she will be embarking on a huge tour of Texas to promote Somerset. “I am always going somewhere,” she says matter-of-factly.

The petite novelist, who speaks with a charming Texas drawl, relates these developments with satisfaction but no excessive excitement. “I thought I had a pretty good life before all this happened,” she says. “Now when I go somewhere, people may recognize me so I have to keep my hair looking nice all the time.” At the dry cleaner’s, she recently overheard another customer discuss her book over the phone with someone. Then when Meacham gave her name to the service person, the other lady jumped in excitement, explaining to the employee who Meacham was. “I ended up autographing her dry cleaning receipt,” chuckles the author.
But she is not one to rest on her laurels. In fact, she’s already hard at work on her next tome, tentatively titled Titans, which will be her last book about Texas. “When you start a book, you don’t know how it’s going to unfold,” she comments. “The characters tell you what course their lives are going to take. The idea of sitting down to write not knowing what your characters are going to do today is what makes writing such a joy for me.”

By Jasmina Wellinghoff
Photography by Janet Rogers