STRONG ROOTS: on messy nostalgia & going back home without living in the past

by Damon Suede

First, I want to thank All About Romance for letting me come knock around in their neck of the genre woods as part of the Lickety Split release tour. Holla! Today I came by to talk about homecoming stories, as a creative trope and a personal challenge.

I grew up in Houston, Texas at the height of the oil boom. LOL Some of y’all know what that means and for the rest, I’ll just remark that all that money and no sense made for some genuinely fun times and tacky outfits. Urban Cowboy was more than a title and Dallas was hot-hot-hot on TV, but Texans knew which one was the real city. Houston lives in a constant state of rush hour and its annual “Livestock Show & Rodeo” is the linchpin of the whole damn year.

Like Los Angeles, Houston is actually a mishmash of several small communities masquerading as the fourth largest city in the country. At the same time, Texas mythologizes itself in a way that California doesn’t, so what Houston lacks in civic identity it makes up for in cocky bluster: big hair, bigger jewelry, and cars large enough to bury a steer.

Besides living in Houston my family also kept a ranch north of the city, and we split our time between. Totally different rhythm out of the traffic. We raised quarter horses and longhorn. My mom kept a strange menagerie of rescued wildlife. It was a perfect way to grow up, because I learned how to navigate the concrete, but I also knew how to saddle a horse and buck hay. Of course, by the time I moved to NYC as a teenager, the city and the ranch felt like anchors holding me back.  I wanted to be going-going-gone without a glance in the rearview mirror.

When I started Lickety Split I kept dwelling on this question: what happens when you head back to a home you thought you hated?

Homecomings are always fraught because either they represent a past you regret or an origin that changed in the retelling. Journeys happen in the mind. None of us stay stationary, even if we never move 10 miles from the place where we were born, because we can’t ever come back the same. Capital-L Life builds our muscle and knocks us over too much to leave us unscathed and unscarred.

For a long time I avoided anything that took me out of my mental metropolis. Growing up as a showbiz kid all I wanted to do was get to New York City; I was aimed at the northeast like a rocket from the time I was five. Of course even after I got the college, I didn’t have much interest in books and movies that romanticized small town America. I knew the pros and cons of tightknit communities where everybody knew your business.

Still, as I got older I gradually learned to appreciate the gentler rhythm and the relative quiet. Did I want to live there? No. But I could grok the appeal. As a romance reader, plenty of my favorite books took place in tiny, homey places where secrets couldn’t be kept and everybody was a neighbor. That makes sense in a way, because romance can edit out all the little irritating truths about having folks up each other’s butt all the time. Why do we run so fast to get away and why are we so slow to return? Lickety Split taught me a lesson about homecomings and why they pack such a punch.

The first time I ever heard Kristan Higgins speak, I’d only known her in the abstract: sweet small-town romance. Yeah, not for me, thanks. But then her keynote at RWA in Atlanta was so hilarious and warm and moving that I got up out of my seat ready to buy her entire backlist and binge that night. I did just that. Since then, she’s become one of my closest friends and colleagues, but the simple, classic perfection of her stories is all about strengths and sweetness of small-town America. Her voice, wit, and fierce regard for human potential make me close each of her books feeling like a better person.

Something pretty similar happened to me with the incandescent Sarah Morgan. Her book Some Kind of Wonderful was part of my Rita-box jumble, titles I had to judge for the Rita awards. Again like a fool, I thought “small-town romance, cute cover, book 2 in a series no less… are you kidding?” By happy accident, I wound up reading it on a plane ride between New York and Houston and somewhere over St. Louis I was ugly crying so hard that the flight attendants stopped to check on me. Gorgeous, effervescent romance. Sarah Morgan’s Puffin Island series made a monkey of me and I ended up reading and rereading all of her books to study her impeccable craft and her infinite care for her characters.

As it happened, when I decided it was high time I took a crack at a cowboy romance I’d finally embraced the roots I’d run from. Nowadays, I’m a diehard twostepper; I own Reba McEntire’s entire discography; my closet runneth over with Wranglers and boots in a wide spectrum of colors and exotic leathers. Until Lickety Split, all of my books had been set in New York City, but I knew writing a homecoming story would make me take a long hard look at the things that had driven me away as well as the memories that pulled me back. In the end the book became a love letter to all the things I miss and the place that made me…a Texas of the mind.

Patch Hastle isn’t from Houston or anywhere near it. In fact Hixville, Texas doesn’t even exist on a map because I made it up out of whole cloth and plunked it out in the Big Thicket of East Texas where the soil is thick with red clay and Texaco is slowly devouring farms, county by county. I used a fictional town so I could distill all the pros and cons into one place. I wanted Patch to have legitimate reasons to run, so I decided to build an entire small town worth running away from, but real enough to come home to.

Nostalgia is a tender poison. It tugs us towards these soft-focus revisions which can be more convincing than facts. Nostalgia feels accurate which means it can really screw with your head and your happiness. No two people will remember a moment or a place the same way because the emotions color the recollection. And yet, it’s easy to confuse motion with action. Sometimes we go back so that we can move forward.

In a romance, those relationships and memories make for intense, acrobatic complications between people. Patch and Tucker struggle to reach each other through a swamp of unpleasant history and impossible odds, precisely because of their nostalgia. Rather than freeing themselves form the past, it frees them.

For my part, I think all homecoming romances wind up tracing the crazy tension between the way we remember the past and the place we lived it. Neither can be accurate because overwhelming emotions get stirred into the mix. Lickety Split let me explore just how deep you have to go to come all the way back to the starting point in one piece, better than new.


Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. Though new to romance fiction, Damon has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades. He’s won some awards, but counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year. Get in touch with him at DamonSuede.com.

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BLURB:

Lickety Split: love won’t wait.

Patch Hastle grew up in a hurry, ditching East Texas for NYC to make his name as a DJ and model without ever looking back. When his parents die unexpectedly, he heads home to unload the family farm ASAP and skedaddle. Except the will left Patch’s worst enemy in charge: his father’s handsome best friend who made his high school years hell.

Tucker Biggs is going nowhere. Twenty years past his rodeo days, he’s put down roots as the caretaker of the Hastle farm. He knows his buddy’s smartass son still hates his guts, but when Patch shows up growed-up, looking like sin in tight denim, Tucker turns his homecoming into a lesson about old dogs and new kinks.

Patch and Tucker fool around, but they can’t fool themselves. Once the farm’s sold, they mean to call it quits and head off to separate sunsets. With the clock ticking, the city slicker and his down-home hick get roped into each other’s life. If they’re gonna last longer than spit on a griddle, they better figure out what matters—fast.

A/iB/BN/K