The Sage

 

David Courtney, BA ’93, on being The Texanist

Since 1973, Texas Monthly has been an authority on all things Texan. But in 2007, the magazine went one step further with the creation of The Texanist, a tongue-in-cheek advice column penned by assistant editor David Courtney. For the next nine years, Courtney’s monthly entries tackled issues as wide-ranging and at the heart of every true Texan, from black beans in Tex-Mex to wearing skinny jeans on a ranch. With Texanist illustrator Jack Unruh’s death last year, the Texanist has hung up his solicited-advice spurs for the time being. Luckily, this April UT Press released The Texanist: Fine Advice on Living in Texas, a best-of collection of Texanist columns with their original Unruh drawings. The Alcalde recently sat down with Courtney at Scholz Garten over a couple pints of—what else?—ice-cold Texas lager.

How did this book come together?

Jack called and mentioned it to me, but it was around the same time he got his cancer diagnosis. We didn’t really get to work on the book much together. His widow, Judy Whalen, who is just a wonderful person and a female version of the character who Jack was, worked on it with me.

What’s it like being illustrated?

I was thrilled. Jack had a very unique style. He was just working off a reference photo, and I always thought he nailed me. He does add on the jaundiced eyes and the red nose and the blue cheeks, but as far as the shape, he really got me. I’m not a ham really, but it was a thrill to be illustrated.

Were you friends with Unruh?

Not really a friendship, not like I wish we’d had. We only met one time, and it was just a few years ago. Jack illustrated [Bill Wittliff’s book The Devil’s Backbone] and they were doing a signing at BookPeople. It was there that we first laid eyes on each other. I walked in, we caught each other’s eye, we hugged, and he actually kissed me.

He drew you more than 100 times—you were his drawing come to life.

He stepped back and was gazing at me from different angles, going side to side. I think it was to see if he had gotten me right, to see if there was anything he had missed. He was studying me. That was an odd thing.

Did you picture the character that Unruh drew when you wrote?

Completely. It was a great thing to have. It was always done in the third person, which is a ridiculous thing to do, but it also gives you that authoritative voice that allowed me to have so much fun with it. It gives you license to do anything. The Texanist can do things that David Courtney cannot.

When he died, was it clear you were going to step away from the Texanist?

It happened very quickly. He called me and told me that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in late spring of 2016. We sent him the information [for that issue] and he called me and said that he wasn’t going to be able to do it; he was too sick. Amazingly, he bounced back and did one more. It was the last thing he ever touched a pen to, which was a crazy honor. There was no way you were going to immediately try to replicate his work; that didn’t feel right. He was such an integral part of the column. It was a perfect match.

What’s the strangest question anyone wrote in to you?

I don’t remember anything we couldn’t publish. A majority of the email I got was in the same vein of a question they had already read, and so we couldn’t do it. I also got a lot that thought [The Texanist] was “straight advice,” looking for real, legitimate help with things.

What question did you get the most?

Far and away, more than 50 percent of the questions were some variation on, “Am I a Texan?” I wanted to open a passport office. For 15 bucks you can call yourself a Texan.

Can I call myself a Texan?

Of course you can, Chris. You live in Texas.

So if you live in Texas, you’re a Texan?

No. It’s a case-by-case basis. You can call yourself a Texan. Texanist approved.

Do friends look to you for Texas advice?

I get that all the time, [but] not from my wife. My mother-in-law calls me all the time to ask me. The Texanist is part of who I am.

Is there anything you learned from a question that you keep with you?

I learned something from every column. Part of writing that as an—I’m making air quotes—“expert,” I certainly didn’t want to get anything wrong.

You would have gotten killed if you got a Texas fact wrong.

I was never embarrassed by a letter saying something I got wrong. I’m very proud of that.

Credit: Jack Unruh

 

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