Gaines, a naïve, newly minted high school graduate in need of college
tuition money ventures out into the world on his own and aboard the
Texas Eagle in St. Louis. There he begins a summer adventure in 1966
working as a switchman in the Texarkana rail yards — an often thrilling
but always dangerous job. He finds companionship with railroaders who
accept him as one of their own and soon he discovers the thrills of
being free to make his own decisions.
Immersed in the racially charged setting of the mid-1960s, Buster
doesn’t seem to understand the intractable code for social behavior
operating in the South and finds himself at odds with it. He tries to
befriend an older black railroad employee, but when warnings against
fraternization are ignored, the stationmaster decides to punish him and
arranges a transfer to the much rougher rail yards of Shreveport,
Louisiana. Preceded by his reputation as a “ @#!*% lover,” Buster finds
he has been sent to a world alien to him. He is confronted by the
contempt of the district railroad superintendent and quickly learns he
has no acceptance among the members of his new crews. Their disdain for
the young outsider soon manifests itself in acts of ostracism and
defamation — and ultimately physical confrontation. Cherishing his job
as a railroader while fearing for his safety and even his life, Buster
must persevere and adapt to the reality of being alone in a hostile
An Interview with Author, Jim Yonker
1.Where were you when the idea for this book came to you?
Actually, I was lying in bed! I had retired after many years in my career with the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole and kept feeling the urge to begin writing. I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about, it was just that itch to create something in writing. I considered writing about my experiences as a parole officer and parole administrator and kicked that topic around for a while. It just wasn’t doing it for me though. I decided I wanted to step outside of that experience and to write about something else instead that was near and dear to me. So, that one night while I couldn’t seem to get to sleep, my rambling thoughts drifted, for some reason, to the summer of my high school graduation and how much it seemed to change my life. The next thing I knew was that I’d landed on my topic for my first book ─ a semiautobiographical novel.
2. What makes your book unique?
Well, I suppose what sets it apart from others is that it’s a coming of age tale told by a white teenager from the North who discovers the adult world, the adult southern world, while working a summer job for college money during the waning Jim Crow era in the South. If there are any stories similar to this, I’d really love to read them. It was a sad, yet historically fascinating facet of our history and I’m always interested in learning about history.
3. Who is your primary audience?
When I was writing the book, I wondered how well it would “play” among southern readers. At the time, I didn’t really know. I wanted it to appeal to that segment of the country because I thought there would be a large market for it down there. After it was released. I contacted various people in the Texarkana area, people who were in positions to publicize the novel and get word of it to many others. They were immediately very taken by the notion of a book being written that prominently featured their community, but after reading the detailed synopsis of it, their interest vanished. I guess it shows that in spite of the fact that the story took place nearly fifty years ago and it generally portrays the people there in a favorable light, they do not wish to be reminded of historical facts and that time in history. No one, though, specifically told me that and it’s entirely possible they had other reasons for not wanting to get behind the book.
I believe the book has an appeal to baby boomers, those who actually were around during the 1960s and who could recall certain events of that time. This group, also, came of age in the 60s and can relate to details of teenage life specific to that era.
Since the story’s background is the railroad, it holds appeal to all those who love all things railroading. I tried to put just as much detail in the novel about this background that railroaders and others with an interest in it would find what they wanted.
4. Why did you choose this particular setting to tell your story?
This setting, the railroad and Texas and Louisiana, were things I had personally experienced and were of course essential to the storylines.
5. What draws you to this genre?
I am a fan of fiction generally, historical fiction, and southern fiction.
6. What kind of research did you have to do?
I did a great deal of fact-checking my memories through online research, visits to Texarkana and Shreveport, interviews of people in both locales, and research (with the generous help of my brother Rich) in historical archives at Texarkana College.
7. What challenged or surprised you about writing this story?
To be honest, the story flowed quite easily on the whole once I began writing it because I was using my own experiences and life as a template to go by. That was the true-to-life part of it! The blending of fiction into it, though, took a bit more effort. I had weave fact and fiction into the main storyline and at times struggled a bit to keep it all interesting and focused in the direction of the conclusion.
8. What did you enjoy most about writing this story?
It allowed me to relive many parts of this three month little segment of my life. Many memories came back to me the further I got into it and the more research I did. I found a joy in recording events, in telling details associated with my time in the South that I couldn’t have felt in simply thinking back on those days or simply telling someone about them.
9. Which character was the easiest to create and why?
Four characters with the railroad were probably the easiest simply because they were the ones I remembered the most about. Dick, the crew foreman, was indeed a kind and welcoming soul; Percy, the engineer, was a funny, engaging, and unique man who gave me fond memories I still carry; Bull, a fellow switchman, was a composite of good people I worked with; and “Toad”, the foul car man encountered one night along the tracks in Shreveport, was an actual maintenance worker I had a serious run in with.
The Rita character developed freely as did the Sylvia character because they were also drawn from actual people in Paris and Texarkana, Texas.
10. Which character would you most like to meet and why?
I believe this would be Bull Tatum. He’s a kind and gentle soul with somewhat of a murky past who is apparently trying to make up for some of the things he did years ago. He’s very fondly regarded by his fellow railroaders. He’d do anything for anyone and he stands up for what he believes in. He’s the kind of guy you’d just like to hang out with on a Friday night in the favorite watering hole. Percy Bates also would be a guy I’d like to reconnect with again. I’d love to sit on the bar stool between Bull and him and listen to all the stories from their rich and sometimes troubled pasts.
11. Did you ever consider having the story told by another character?
No, I never considered it. None of the other characters would have brought the same history to the story. It is, after all, the young man’s conservative, northern life that’s changing over the course of the summer.
12. What do you want your audience to come away with after reading your book?
A very good question. Maybe it’s that the readers learn a little about our country’s history, about the 1960s and the racially turbulent times, and what it was like for a teenager to step into the real, adult world back then.
13. Many debut novelists write from their personal experiences. How much of Southern Passage is based on that?
A: I’ve been asked that more than once and what I’ve answered is “several parts of it…I’ll let you decide which ones!”
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