There’s a new Panhandle author who appears to have taken the publishing world by storm. If you’ve been into a local bookstore this month, odds are you’ve come across Taylor Moore’s thriller, Down Range, the first in a series featuring DEA agent and Panhandle resident Garrett Kohl. Taylor grew up on a farm and ranch northwest of Houston but now lives in the Texas Panhandle with his wife and two children, where he’s a full-time author, screenwriter and speaker. He spoke with B&E’s Jonathan Baker about his sudden fame—and about the importance of local writing groups in the Panhandle.
Jonathan Baker: First, let’s start with the thing that everybody’s going to want to know about, which is your background in the CIA.
Taylor Moore: I had a little bit more experience than your average person who works there because I worked in both analysis and in operations. I was hired right out of graduate school, brought in to be just an analyst. I did that for a couple of years and liked it, went through all the training programs, and then I had this neat opportunity to work in the CIA’s operation center, which is on the seventh floor [of the George Bush Center for Intelligence], up there with the director, helping to support the president’s briefer. It’s a 24/7, 365 day a year [job]. You’re at the pulse of everything. It might be in the middle of the night, weekend, and something happened, and you’re the one that’s there. [After that], I ended up moving over to operations. They were looking for people to be what they call targeters—if you think of the Jessica Chastain character in Zero Dark Thirty, who’s on the hunt for Bin Laden, that’s an operational person. In some ways, you’re an analyst, putting those puzzle pieces together, but you’re [also] out in the field, meeting with assets, meeting with detainees. It gave me a really good insight as a writer because I saw both sides of the house. [I got to] brief executive-level leadership—but I also got to sneak around and meet assets.
You’re a sixth generation Texan, but you’re not from the Panhandle. How does a CIA agent end up in the Texas Panhandle?
My wife was originally from Hereford, and once we started having kids, we made this family decision that we’re going to get closer to her family. Obviously, there’s not a whole lot of jobs involving intelligence up here, other than Pantex, but I’d grown up in Central Texas on a farm and ranch, and we had oil and gas, and so I knew that world pretty well. I’d been on the other end of a table with a land man. And I thought, “Well, I can do that job. I know it from the landowner side, the mineral-owner side. So let me see if I can do this on the oil-company side.” So that’s what I did.
The first time we met was at the Long Wooden Spoon Brewery, at a monthly writers’ group they used to host over there. The brewery is gone now; sad to see it go.
But there were so many good writers at that group, so many connections made there. I feel like your career maybe was launched from the community that was built around that group.
I would say absolutely it was, and it was all pure happenstance. I was at Palace one day having coffee, and I met a guy named J.J. Scott. He was sitting at a table across from me, and I just happened to comment on the book [he was reading]. He invited me to that writer’s group at the Long Wooden Spoon. J.J. ended up moving to Lubbock, but I stayed as part of that group. Through that group, I met a guy named Bruce Edwards. And Bruce read such crazy stuff, I was like, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” So I went and introduced myself, and we became friends. And lo and behold, he introduced me to Jodi Thomas and Linda Broday, who really have taken me under their wing and mentored me and helped me along the way. I mean, I owe them everything for where I am now, but it was that writer’s group at Long Wooden Spoon that really connected me.
I think we should talk a little about the importance of groups like that, and how hard they are to keep going in the Texas Panhandle. There has been a major national—and probably international—push by your publisher, William Morrow, for your long-term success. Your books will bring a lot of attention to this area. And all of that success will stem from you going to a local writing group in Amarillo. I think it’s important to note that, the more we can keep that sort of thing going, the more the region benefits.
I say this all the time, when people ask what you need to do as a writer to get published: “Writing, despite what you may hear, is a team sport.”
There are so few books set in the Texas Panhandle, I think we all get really excited when we see our home depicted in any kind of art. What do you think is special about the Texas Panhandle? Are the future books going to be set in the Panhandle?
Every book throughout this series will be set in the Texas Panhandle. The High Plains wasn’t always a magical place for me because I wasn’t from here. To me, it was a place you pass through on I-40, on your church ski trip as a kid. But once I moved here, I found out how magical it was. To me, it was stepping back in time, back into the Wild West. As a person with an imagination, there was just no place better to be because the Texas High Plains was, to me, a time machine. I could go back and imagine what it was like 150, 200 years ago, and think about the settlers that came here, the indigenous people that were here before us. It was as frightening as it was beautiful, because of the remoteness and how far you can see. It’s a wonderful place to set a novel.
I totally agree. I’m surprised there aren’t more novels set in the Texas Panhandle. And we’re all grateful to you for doing something about that. How long did it take you to write Down Range?
The process was a strange one because I started out with a completely different novel. Garrett Kohl, the main character, was a secondary character in the novel that I got my agent with. I was writing more of a traditional, Brad Thor, Vince Flynn kind of spy novel, and Garrett stole the show. My agent said, “That’s your protagonist right there.” Then he said, “What about bringing this guy back to the Texas High Plains?” At first I was resistant. The idea of starting from scratch wasn’t very appealing. But it was the right call. I think it was about four years from that to get to this point of publishing [the novel]. There were multiple, multiple rewrites, multiple books that ultimately became Down Range. It’s a long process, that’s for sure. It’s an exercise in patience and bullheadedness.
How’s the next book coming?
Book two is with the editor! I haven’t heard back from him yet. I just submitted it in July, but my agent’s read it and he really enjoyed it. I feel really good about it. I’m getting ready to start on book three.
How many books do you think will be in this series?
I’ll write them as long as they can go.
Do you have ideas for other series or side projects you’re going to do?
Somebody said the other day, “You should go back and do the backstory to Garrett Kohl, because he has an interesting backstory where he was a Green Beret. He was over in Afghanistan. He was one of these horse soldiers that was riding over the Hindu Kush, and of course, he has an interest in ranching and horse background. It’s a consideration for sure.
And this book starts in Afghanistan. So—
That’s exactly right. Yeah.
I loved how much Texas there is in this book. There’s just so much stuff that people in Texas love, but people outside of Texas may not recognize. You’re dog whistling to Texans.
Absolutely! It’s just things that I’m passionate about. If I love Robert Earl Keen, and Still Austin Whiskey, and Shiner Bock beer, and Lone Star, other people have to too. I’m proud of the state, I’m proud of what we have. I think others will be proud of it, too.
Well, we’re proud of you, man. Thanks for bringing us into the rare spotlight.
It’s my pleasure to do it. I’m proud of West Texas. Hopefully it’ll be a hit, and everybody will know about us.