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Jodi Thomas' Ransom Canyon

Jodi Thomas has written page-turners for decades. Now her work is poised to gain a new audience on Netflix.

Over the course of her long and storied career as a novelist, Amarillo resident Jodi Thomas has earned countless accolades. She’s published more than 60 novels, with millions of books in print, and has been a New York Times bestseller. She was the 11th writer to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America Hall of Fame. Now, Jodi’s career is about to reach another milestone: Her novel Ransom Canyon is being adapted as a 10-episode Netflix series starring Josh Duhamel (Transformers) and Minka Kelly (Friday Night Lights).

With the series about to launch her work further into the cultural conversation, Brick & Elm asked Canyon native Jonathan Baker—a publishing professional who has worked with authors ranging from Richard Powers to Neil deGrasse Tyson—to interview Jodi, his aunt, to learn the secret behind her continued success .

Jonathan Baker: I’m so excited to talk to you about this! This Netflix movie represents the culmination of a very long and successful career. How have your books changed over the past 40 years?

Jodi Thomas: I don’t know if they’ve changed that much. To me, it has always been about telling the story of connection. Sometimes that connection is a romantic one, but other times I focus on the connections in a family, or in a small town. I’ve always thought that the most interesting stories come from examining those connections and seeing how people play off each other. I think my readers enjoy seeing my characters interact with one another. It doesn’t need to be more complicated than that. 

JB: All of your books, as far as I know, have been set in West Texas. What is it about this land and these people that has provided so much material for so many books? 

JT: I think people all over the world enjoy reading about Texas. It’s that spirit of independence and individualism, [and the] idea of a clear-cut right and wrong that can give a real pulse and power to a story. The people of Texas—and specifically West Texas—are raised with the idea that if a problem arises, you need to take care of it yourself. That was definitely true for my historical fiction. I enjoy writing about early Texas, and West Texas during that time was a wide open and often dangerous place. It was also a place full of possibilities. It’s fun to let my characters dream big in a place like that. 

JB: I remember, when I was a kid, you were a special ed and homemaking teacher at Amarillo High. What made you want to start writing books?

JT: I absolutely loved being a teacher. I made lifelong friends, and I cherished seeing the students grow and change. But I think I’ve always considered myself a writer first. It’s just that, back then, I was a writer who paid the bills by teaching. I’ve told stories for as long as I can remember. I struggled with dyslexia as a child, [so] reading and writing were difficult for me. I would memorize stories and tell them again and again to my little twin sisters and my friends. I remember loving seeing the power that the stories I created out of nothing could have on people around me. My sisters would ask me to retell stories night after night, so I’d have to remember the details exactly. They’d let me know if I messed up the smallest detail, so I worked hard to make the story exactly the same. They were really my first editors, if I think about it. 

 JB: I love that. One of those little twins was my mother. So why did you choose to write romance, of all the available genres?

JT: Who doesn’t love being in love? I guess I write romance because romance novels can have it all. They have action, adventure, heroes and villains. I think that’s why romance novels are consistently the best-selling genre of books around the world. Readers get pulled into stories with passionate characters. They want to read about people who, no matter what else is going on in their lives, can’t help but fall in love and fight for that love—no matter what. Other genres can have love stories, but when love is the driving force behind the character’s motivation, it can really pull a reader in.

JB: Makes sense to me. I’ve always loved editing romance novels, and I think that’s why. On that note I’ve been wondering, when you finished Ransom Canyon, did you have a feeling that you’d written something special? Or was it just another book until it started to gain traction with people?

JT: That’s a tough one. Picking a favorite book or series is like picking your favorite child. I love different things about every book I write, but people have told me that the Ransom Canyon series was their favorite. I think it goes back to the concept of connections we were talking about before. Ransom is full of “larger than life” stories—characters that my readers form a real connection with. I’ll still get the occasional piece of fan mail asking why Staten did something or what Quinn is up to these days. Readers form a bond [with these characters] that can feel like a real relationship. 

JB: Your stories seem perfectly positioned to transition to film in the current market, after the success of Yellowstone and similar shows. Your books also seem to lend themselves nicely to visual storytelling. Did you do that on purpose, or were you just doing your thing?

JT: I’ve always dreamed of seeing my work on the big or little screen. I imagine most writers do. But I didn’t write the books with that in mind. I was mainly interested in writing the best novel I could. I think they lend themselves well to film because they take place in visually powerful settings. The area around Ransom Canyon is beautiful. [Note: The real-life Ransom Canyon is southwest of Lubbock, though Jodi’s series depicts a fictionalized West Texas location.] The small-town setting is stunning. I got a chance recently to visit the set. It’s amazing to see what the set designers and producers have done to make the world of Ransom Canyon come alive. I think readers are going to love how the world translates from the page to the screen. I was truly blown away by how real and beautiful the sets were.

JB: You’re getting me excited! I think a lot of people in the Panhandle are excited, which brings up a subject I know has always been important to you. The Texas Panhandle has a really solid writing community, and many of those writers have been members of your own writing group. Can you think of anything that would help the local writing community grow and flourish?

JT: Writers have to be willing to help other writers, and the Amarillo writing community has been incredible in that aspect. I would not be where I am without this supportive community. I think we have so many writers in our area because this is still a place of big dreams and big imaginations. All you need to do is drive 10 minutes in any direction, and you’re out of the city and back on the prairie. You’re seeing the land much like it looked hundreds of years ago. There is power in that. It opens your mind to all kinds of possibilities. I still like to drive out in a direction I’ve never been before and take in a new view. Stories are everywhere out here.

JB: Definitely. OK, tell us a couple of important lessons you’ve learned during your long career—ideas that helped your books become more popular.

JT: I remember when I was first trying to get published. I got so many rejection letters that I stopped keeping count. I was feeling pretty down on myself, and I wondered if I had what it takes to ever get published. I needed to clear my head, so I drove out to Llano Cemetery. I know it sounds strange, but Llano has always been a calming place for me to think. I was sitting on one of the small stone benches and I looked down at a small square rock at my feet. Grass had long ago grown over it, but I could tell that it had a word carved on it. I pushed the grass away with my foot and I could read the word Through. I thought that was strange, so I started looking for other similar stones. I found three others, each with a different word. When I put them all together they read, “Triumph Comes Through Perseverance.” Talk about giving me the boost I needed at that time! I’ve known so many writers that I would say were so much more talented than I could ever dream of being. But I think perseverance is what makes successful writers successful. You have to be willing to keep going when all hope is lost. Just keep writing, keep working. 

JB: I’ve never heard that story. That’s amazing. So, if there are any aspiring novelists among the Brick & Elm readership, what advice would you give them on how to get started with an eye toward success?

JT: Most beginning writers, about the time they learn to write, they quit. They don’t hang in there. So when you learn to write, work harder. There are no long vacations for anybody as a writer.

JB: OK, I know you said you couldn’t do it … but if you absolutely had to pick, what would you say is your favorite of your books?

JT: I really do love Ransom Canyon. I love the characters and their struggles. I can’t wait for more people to see this world and be drawn into this amazing story. 

Author

  • Jonathan Baker

    Jonathan’s work has appeared in The Daily Beast, and he has been featured on The Other Stories podcast. Originally from Canyon, Texas, he now lives on the coast of Maine, where he writes crime novels set on the High Plains.

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