ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paula Paul was born Paula Griffith on her grandparents’ cotton farm near Shallowater, Texas, in Lubbock County.
But she grew up on a farm and ranch 30 miles from Muleshoe, Texas, in Bailey County, and 30 miles from Morton, Texas, in Cochran County.
Put another way, Paul, 80, longtime Albuquerque resident, former newspaper reporter and prolific writer of fiction, was born, raised, shaped and fitted out for her future calling in West Texas.
It started, as it usually does for writers, with reading.
“I used to read all the pulp Western novels, short stories in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines,” Paul said during an interview at her home between Tramway and the Sandia Mountains. “I went through a Nancy Drew (girl detective) period. I was going to read all the classics when I was in high school, but, of course, I didn’t get them all read. Up until third grade, I wanted to be a librarian because I thought all a librarian had to do was sit in a library and read books. Once I found out that wasn’t true, I decided to write books.”
And so she has.
In about 35 novels, she has taken readers around the world, from Santa Fe and Albuquerque to Charlottesville, Va., from the eighth-century Europe of Charlemagne to the 18th-century Russia of Catherine the Great, from the Yucatan to frontier Colorado, from 14th-century Italy to Victorian England. She has written gothics, children’s books, young adult novels, historical fiction, cozy mysteries and literary novels, under her own name and pseudonyms such as Catherine Monroe and Paula Carter.
Her most recent book, “The Mind of a Deviant Woman,” published this past summer, is a fictional account of the disturbingly real eugenics movement, which, supported by a 1927 U.S. Supreme Court decision, called for the sterilization of “undesirable” women such as epileptics, prostitutes, criminals or unwed mothers. She got the idea from a book about famous American court cases.
“I thought it was an interesting point in American history,” Paul said of the novel. “I didn’t know much about it and thought others would not have heard about it either.”
But no matter what Paul writes, no matter what time period or in what far-flung place she sets the story, the West Texas in her bones shines through. And that’s a good thing.
“Her writing reflects her down-home Texas roots through the voices she gives each of her characters,” said Albuquerque writer Melody Groves, the author of six Western novels as well as three books of nonfiction. “I find her writing to be real. It is not contrived or made up. It comes from the depths of her soul.”
Groves, 66, a Las Cruces native, said Paul’s writing shows a connection to the earth that many people from the Southwest share.
“The themes and plots vary in each book,” she said. “But they all have a sense of place, purpose and personality.”
Sometimes, Paul actually sets her fiction – such as the novels “Crazy Quilt” (2005) and “Inherited Sins” (2008) – in West Texas. When that happens, her writing makes it seem as if she never left. Take, for example, the following sentence from her short story “Divine Intervention,” which appeared in the 2002 anthology “Hot Biscuits.”
“The wind had given up all its moisture swooping across the Sonoran Desert on its way to the panhandle of Texas where it had come for its mission of drying out the grass and the skin of the women and of turning the blades of the windmill on the Chapman ranch.”
“I like the West Texas books,” Paul said. “It sort of feels like I go home for a while, although I don’t often go back to where I was born and raised – except for high school reunions and funerals.”
A newsroom start
She got her start as a writer working for the Morton Tribune, a weekly newspaper, during the summers between her student years at Eastern New Mexico University in Portales. She also worked for a year and a half at the Portales News Tribune, doing everything from reading copy and reporting to taking photographs and writing editorials.
“Newspaper work helped me learn how to do research,” Paul said. “And it gave me lots of insights into the people of eastern New Mexico and West Texas. I wrote a series of stories about old cowboys from the open-range days. I have always said that if you have to work you should be a newspaper reporter because that’s the most fun job.”
She earned a journalism degree at ENMU and met Kenneth Paul there. After marrying, they settled in Albuquerque in 1961. Kenneth worked 40 years as a computer analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, and Paula worked as a reporter at The Albuquerque Tribune from 1961 to 1963 and again from 1981 to 1987.
“My plan was always that I was going to work for a newspaper and then I was going to quit and write books,” she said.
Her first attempt at fiction was a young adult novel that was never published.
“It was horrible,” she said.
But in the 1970s, she clicked with “Inn of the Clowns” and “The Wail of La Llorona,” gothic suspense novels, both of which are set in New Mexico and were published by Avalon.
Since then she has been published by Random House, HarperCollins and Dutton, among others. In fact, only one of her nearly three dozen novels has been self-published.
Her most successful books have been the five Dr. Alexandra Gladstone novels published by Berkley Books between 2002 and 2016.
Like many of the protagonists in Paul’s fiction, Alexandra Gladstone is a woman of keen intelligence and die-hard persistence who overcomes extreme obstacles to achieve her goals. In Gladstone’s case the goal is practicing medicine in Victorian England, something almost unheard of for women at the time.
The Gladstone books are mysteries in which Alexandra gets involved in and solves murders. In 2015’s “Medium Dead,” Queen Victoria herself is a suspect in a killing. Paul enjoyed writing the series and said she may send Alexandra off into new adventures in the future.
But “When It Rains,” a novel that is with her agent now, is about racial tensions in 1950s West Texas. Paul grew up in the segregation-era and has vivid and unsettling memories of that time. To some degree, the novel is an attempt to deal with that.
“It just feels like there is some unfinished business,” she said. “I was so much in the middle of it.”
Pass the Pulitzer
Paul is the mother of a son and a daughter and the grandmother of six. She lost her husband to cancer in 2013 and has herself battled and beaten back the disease. But she looks much younger than her years and her enthusiasm for writing has not waned. She is pleased with a writing career that has brought her recognition from the likes of the Texas Library Association and New Mexico Press Women. But she is not yet satisfied.
“Because I want to win the Pulitzer Prize,” she said with the kind of determination you would expect of one of her characters. Paul is already thinking about the next novel she intends to write.
“It’s in the embryonic stages,” she said. “It’ll (be based on) a boarding house in Anton, Texas, which was run by my mother’s grandparents in the early 1920s, mostly for railroad employees.”
In case you’re wondering, Anton is in Hockley County. That’s in West Texas.