A Story of Dad: Western Writer’s Conference

A Story of Dad: Western Writer’s Conference

In late June, Dad went off to the Western Writers of America Conference in Las Vegas with pneumonia, 9 books to pitch, and chock-full of determination. When I left him the Sunday prior to his trip, he looked tired and thin, and I worried.

Chet Cunningham, June 2011

Chet Cunningham, June 2011

So it was with some hesitation that I called him (after giving him time to recover from the trip) to see how the conference went.

The phone rings. Gooood evening, he says, sounding sprightly. Hey Daddy. How are you? I say. He sounds good. No, he sounds wonderful. I start to smile into the phone.

Heey, Chrissy, he says. I’m doing grrreat.  Let me tell you about the conference. And he was off and running. He sounded great, better than he has in a very long time.

So, he says, my first day there, I ran into the gal that has been publishing all my big print books. Who’s that, I say. Oh, you know, he says, the big print folks. Oh shoot. Five Star. They’re a part of Five Star Publishing.

I had sent her a couple new books, he says, a few months back and hadn’t heard from her, but she said they might be on a bookcase somewhere, and to re-send. We got to talking and she told me they buy Frontier Fiction, and mysteries. I told her what I have, and she said to send them to her. That’s six books, right there, that they might like.

The closet where dad stores copies of his books. Yes, those are all his.

The closet where dad stores copies of his books. Yes, those are all his. Not all of them are digital – yet.

That’s great, daddy, I say. Your first day. Yep, he says, my first day. So I’ve been working on those, getting them ready to send to her.

And then I saw Kat Martin, he says. You know Kat, I’ve got some photos with her and your mother from previous conferences. Yes, I say. I remember Kat Martin. (She’s only written a ton of romances, lol.)

Well, he says, I was talking to her husband, Larry Jay Martin, also a long-time friend of mine. He’s a western writer, and he’s putting his  up stuff on Amazon. We were talking and he asked if I had anything that hadn’t gone digital yet, and if I did to send it to him.

What did you end up sending? I ask. He laughs. Says, well, what I thought I would send him, I no longer have any computer files for. So I emailed him on Sunday night when I got home, said I didn’t have what I thought I had, but I have these other three that are digital, he says.

By now, I’m so excited for him I can barely stand it.  What did he say? I ask. Well, he says, Monday morning I got an email back from him with a three book contract. And all I have to do is send him the digital files. So I did, and a day later I got a look at three possible covers for the books. I could get used to this, he says.

The jubilation in his voice was music to my ears.

Not only that, he says, but I ran into Dusty Richards, hadn’t seen him in a long time. Oh, and I talked to Cherry, he says. She is passing on my Jesse James novel, but is willing to shop around a partial of mine. Then I met another agent who also said he was intrigued by this partial idea, and he’d be happy to shop it as well.

Two agents shopping the same book? I ask.  Oh no, he says. I’m sticking with Cherry, and if she doesn’t think she can do anything with it, then I’ll talk to this other guy.

It sounds like you had a wonderful time, I say. My cheeks are hurting because I’m smiling so big. And you sound healthy.

I’m doing pretty good, he says. I’m enthused, and working hard, and I made a lot of contacts at the conference so I’m really glad I went. Gotta go get back at it. You still working on that book?

Yes Daddy, still working, I say. After mutual assurances of love and missing the other, we hang up.

I wipe away a few happy tears. As much as I wanted him to stay home and recuperate, obviously going to a conference with pneumonia was the exact right thing for him.  The energy and joy in his voice comes back to me, makes me smile.

I’m really glad I went, he said.

So am I, Daddy. So am I.


A Story of Dad

A Story of Dad

We did our tour of the yard, as we always do. It’s the first thing he says to me usually, after our hello hugs. “Let’s take a garden tour!” And we do. I picked lemons, because that lemon tree has the finest lemons on it anywhere. Meyer lemons, of course. The tree is only a few years younger than I am.

Dad likes to sit in this chair in his garden. But when I asked him to, he wouldn't, lol.

Dad likes to sit in this chair in his garden. But when I asked him to, he wouldn’t, lol. Tomatoes on the far left and far right. Pole beans and sunflowers behind them.

We usually take our time, go from one corner of the small yard to the other, talking about what was growing, what he’d gotten rid of, what he wished he’d planted.

But this time he wears out fast. Pneumonia, he says. On meds. I’m fine, he says. I eye him. He’s thinner than the last time I saw him. Worn. So we retreat to the cool of the house and sit on the couch he and my mother had picked out years ago now. I’ve never liked that couch but I suppose it will live on long after I am gone. Some pieces of furniture are like that.

We sit there, holding hands. The skin on the back of his hand is so soft, loose. His fingers are gnarled by arthritis, and yet he still manages to type on a keyboard. We talk. He mentions a short story he wrote, a companion piece to the one he wrote about his dad, my grandpa. Grandpa sold off the family farm and equipment and livestock for pennies, so he could take his family out of Nebraska, escape the dust bowl of the late 1930s. That was dad’s original short story, about the sale. The new short story is about the journey to Oregon.

You remember it, don’t you? Living on the farm in Nebraska? I stroke his hand. So soft.

Not really, he answers. Just bizarre things, like Dad pouring kerosene down a cow’s throat because she was bloated. The kerosene helped the cow vomit up the bloat. Oh, and one time the neighbors gathered to castrate some of the piglets. Lots of screaming that day. Piglets are noisy.

And Mom, he says. When the time came to thresh the wheat, all the farm families would pitch in and hire the thresher, and everyone would go to a farm and get ‘er done. When our turn came, Mom would be cooking all day and she’d lay out a lunch on a huge table outside under the trees. Chickens and ham and steak, beans and whatever we’d grown in the house garden. Everyone would sit around and eat. Then the next day, they’d go to another farm and thresh their wheat.

But I didn’t do too much, he said. I was too little.

And then he pulls out of the past. I’m going to the Western Writers Association conference on Tuesday, he says. In Las Vegas. Jo will go with me, make sure I’m taking my pills.

I frown at him, but I know he won’t back down.

Chet Cunningham's office.

Chet Cunningham’s office.

I’ve got nine projects to pitch, he says. Twelve or thirteen on the shelf that no one wants. But nine to pitch. I’ll sign up for as many pitch appointments as I can, he says.

Conferences can be really tiring, I say. Make sure you rest.

Oh, I’m on a panel, he says. But I won’t go to many workshops. Want to talk to people mostly.

We fall into a comfortable silence, our hands still holding on. I remember the last time I saw my mother, the day I put my head in her lap and cried because she looked so confused about life. A week later, she had died from an infection that got into her bloodstream.

Dad has pneumonia, and he’s going to a writer’s conference. It is so like him. I hold his hand gently, and engrave this memory, this time, this conversation with him, deep into my heart.