Striking Out at the Texas Book Festival

I punched in my computer’s access code, and my homepage gave way to my email inbox. A new boldface email from my publisher, as if a black hole, sucked in all my attention. I saw the subject line, “Texas Book Festival,” and spied that the first line of his message included the word “Sorry.” Instinctively, I knew it was bad news. I opened it – the TBF submission committee had rejected my book. The submission deadline wasn’t even two weeks fresh. Through the brain fog that shock creates, it occurred to me that my book didn’t even make it out of the first round of cuts. I was stunned.

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The 2019 TBF will feature upwards of 300 writers and their books. The festival was established in 1995 by Texas First Lady Laura Bush, a librarian and life-long reading advocate, to support libraries and reading programs throughout the state. On its website, the Texas Book Festival thanks individual and corporate supporters “who believe in the power of reading to change lives.” As the festival nears its 25th anniversary, it has gained in prominence and prestige. Now a national event, the competition to gain entry, for most any writer, is cut-throat.

Fool that I am, I thought my book had a great chance for acceptance. There is a Balm in Huntsville tells the fascinating story of the development of a life-changing restorative justice program that started in Texas. Have you ever heard of “Victim-Offender Dialogue”? It’s a high level restorative justice practice by which a crime victim can meet face to face with the incarcerated perpetrator who victimized them. Today, more than twenty-five other states, through their criminal justice systems, offer a replica of the Texas model. (And for those who wonder why some crime victims desire such encounters, my book answers that question definitively.)

Forgive the redundancy: Victim-Offender Dialogue started in Texas. The Texas criminal justice system still leads the way, having conducted more than 2,000 Victim-Offender Dialogues since the program’s inception more than twenty-five years ago. This is a vitally important story of which few Texans are aware.

Balm also focuses on the transformation of one Texas inmate through the VOD program by which he meets with the parents of the seventeen-year-old girl he killed in a drunk-driving wreck. My nonfiction narrative shows the human side of a prisoner who boldly tries to make amends for the wrongs he committed. The book is a well-written page-turner that has moved readers to tears as it shares the heartening stories of crime victims who have reclaimed hope and light after the deep darkness of crime overwhelmed them. The thought, care, and sensitivity that went into telling this story – from both sides of the dialogue table – has been noted by reviewers.

And if all this wasn’t enough, Balm tells the stories of three incredible Texans – Cathy Phillips, Ellen Halbert, and John Sage – pioneers in both the crime victim rights movement and restorative justice. All Texans should have the opportunity to read their inspiring and life-affirming stories of how they wrested good from catastrophic situations.

But, alas, I’m biased. As is my publisher who says, “Balm is a book that will save the lives of some, and change the lives of others.” As are many readers who have raved about the book and describe it: “gripping,” “compelling,” “eye-opening,” “unflinching,” “hard to put down,” “beautifully written.” As are reviewers who have 5-starred Balm on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even though Balm is touted by some as a life-changing read, it’s a book written by a little-known author (who has no agent) published by a small press. Might this have had anything to do with Balm‘s almost immediate rejection from the TBF submission committee? I get it: The publishing industry itself works as a de facto vetting system for the festival. With so many submissions, a book not from a large publisher or UT Press has to be really good (and never use descriptions like “really good”) to achieve entry status.

Even so, I have to ask: Was Balm judged for the content between its covers, or by the little-known names of author and publishing company on its spine? (For the record, Balm‘s publisher Merle Good has produced more restorative justice titles than anyone else in his long career.)

And, I’m compelled to ask another question: Are excellent, timely, and poignant books written by little-known authors published by small presses that tell influential stories of Texas and Texans welcome at the TBF?

And, a final question: Double-fool that I am, how did I not know that my publisher’s inability to print the first run of my book as a hardcover would help merit its almost immediate rejection from the TBF? Damn.

So, there you have it. A little-known author published by a small press has struck out at the Texas Book Festival, now bigger than Texas itself. I guess I’ll try to find an agent.

Not.


More info about There is a Balm in Huntsville is at http://www.tcarlosanderson.com. Share of this post will be appreciated, especially when done by Texans.

 

 

 

 

Restorative Justice, Face-to-Face

I’m committing the bulk of my attention this calendar year to the fascinating field of restorative justice. I’m writing a new book (available April 1, 2019) that tells the story of a young man who killed two people in a 1996 drunk driving wreck and subsequently received a forty-year prison sentence. He experienced transformation not because he decided to rehab his life, as if it was a do-it-yourself solo job. His reformation came via a gradual process that was greatly enhanced by encounters he had with surviving victim family members, and other victims of crime. His healing was the direct result of face-to-face encounters with those deeply and innocently wounded by the ravages of his crime and other crimes.

State-sponsored retributive justice is a bedrock of modern Western society as understood in the colloquial phrase “You do the crime, you do the time.” Societal order and expectations are positively shaped by laws and corresponding punishments of their violations. In retributive justice theory, the state is the principal victim and consequent administrator of punishment.

Restorative justice—distinct from retributive justice—goes back to traditions that pre-date modern Western societies. Its goal is to restore the relationships damaged by crime and sustain the community where both victim and offender reside (usually the case). In restorative justice theory, the person violated is the principal victim, not the state. Face-to-face encounters between victim and offender aim to match victim needs and offender responsibilities as concerns confession, apology, information, restitution, reconciliation, and future security. In restorative justice practice, offenders take responsibility for their crimes by acknowledging their debt to their victims and by paying them back, if possible, in concrete ways. A grade school teacher, for example, practices restorative justice when she has two of her students, previously fighting, sit down face-to-face to work out their differences instead of sending them to the principal’s office for mandatory discipline.

A restorative approach is not applicable to all situations of crime victimization. Situations of sexual abuse, especially, are not suited to face-to-face encounters. Surrogate meetings, where victims encounter offenders—offenders of similar crimes but not the offender(s) in their particular case—are effective vehicles to positively impact both parties.

Texas’s was the first state criminal justice system to offer a restorative approach for victims of violent crime—its program starting via profoundly unique circumstances in 1993. A woman by the name of Cathy Phillips wanted to meet with the imprisoned killer of her daughter. She didn’t know the man but wanted to tell him face-to-face what her daughter meant to her and what his actions did her family. Anthony Yanez was sentenced to life without possibility of parole for the brutal kidnapping, rape, and murder of Brenda Phillips. Most of Phillips’s friends told her she was crazy, but she was undeterred. As there was no official means by which to pursue her desire, Phillips eventually appealed directly to Texas governor Ann Richards. Richards had previously appointed the first crime victim, Ellen Halbert, to the powerful Texas Department of Criminal Justice Board—and Halbert’s advocacy led to Phillips having her day across the table from Yanez. The meeting, with a trained mediator present, allowed Phillips to unburden a part of her soul. It wasn’t about forgiveness or reconciliation—it was about honesty and disclosure: This is what you did to my family and you need to hear me out. The meeting occurred in 1991. Yanez offered an apology and Cathy Phillips said she felt better after the meeting, with some of her questions answered. She no longer had to play the “What you don’t know will drive you crazy” game.

Ellen Halbert and John Sage receiving TDCJ Board special recognition for prison ministry work in April 2017. Sage’s “Bridges To Life” prison ministry uses restorative justice practices to bring together offenders and surrogate crime victims.

After Phillips’s encounter with Yanez, Halbert helped direct funding to the victim services unit of Texas’s criminal justice system and a victim-offender dialogue program was created and made available to victims of violent crime in 1993, the first of its kind in the nation. To date, more than thirty other state criminal justice systems have followed suit.

My book tells its story in narrative fashion, the specific story of the 1996 wreck fitting into the larger story of Texas’s foray into state-sponsored restorative justice practices. My goal is to reveal the life-changing and -enhancing practices of restorative justice. Before I delved into this project, like many, I was only vaguely aware of restorative justice practices. This book aims to expose many to its healing ways.

A number of friends and acquaintances have asked if this book project has anything in common with my first book, Just a Little Bit More, which exposes economic and social inequalities and offers a better way forward. This new book will be very different in form and message, but, yes, it will lift up, as does Just a Little Bit More, face-to-face meetings as a powerful balm to cure some of what ails us in our current day. The sharing of and listening to a genuine story, told with humility and honesty, holds within it the ability to help us see our shared common humanity. We need more of that today.


Tim/T. Carlos Anderson – I’m a Protestant minister and Director of Community Development for Austin City Lutherans (ACL), an organization of fourteen ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) congregations in Austin. I’m also the author of Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good (Blue Ocotillo/ACTA, 2014) and There is a Balm in Huntsville: A True Story of Tragedy and Restoration from the Heart of the Texas Prison System (Walnut Street Books, April 2019).