Mark Zvonkovic practiced law for 35 years at three multinational law firms in Houston and New York City. He has written three novels. His most recent, Belinda, a legal thriller, releases in June.
Character development is important to me in my writing. I’ve always been a keen observer of people. When I was a child there was never an element of judgment; rather, I was perplexed, and sometimes completely astounded, by what I saw. But I kept my observations to myself. Perhaps I was just a shy child, or it could be that the implications of what I saw were so bewildering that they made me reticent to speak of them.
For a writer who loves to put multiple layers into a character, I am indeed fortunate to have spent a good deal of my life in Texas. When I moved to Texas as a child my discovery of the men and women who lived in Texas the century before was akin to what had happened near Beaumont at Spindletop in 1901. And the outsized personalities that were spawned in Texas over the century after oil became part of Texas culture were but a drop in the bucket to those of Tejanos, Texians, and Texans who had lived in earlier times. These included not only the names everyone remembers from the Alamo, but the great Comanche warrior Quanah Parker, Sam Houston, Pa Ferguson, William Hobby, and Charles Goodnight. Later came Chester Nimitz, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly, to name only a few, as well as a multitude of flamboyant oil barons, like H.L. Hunt. Since my childhood years I have soaked up historical information about many bigger than life Texans like these as well as their cleverness and ethics, or lack thereof. They have in small part seeped into a number of my characters in Belinda.
The protagonist in my novel, Lyn Larkin, was born in Corpus Christi and practiced law in Houston for many years before the story began. There have been many Texas women with the same strength of personality and ambition that Lyn demonstrates in the novel, women who I like to think are a big part of the “Texas Identity.” One such woman was, of course, Barbara Jordan. She was from Houston, practiced law for a time before she was elected to the Texas Senate, and then later went to the U.S. House of Representatives. But she was best known for her keynote address to the 1976 Democratic Convention, which established her rightful place as an extraordinary Texas woman. Many other strong women had preceded her in Texas history, particularly from the frontier days. Lizzie Johnson Williams was one such woman. She was a strong independent businesswoman who was a schoolteacher and a writer before she started her own cattle enterprise with her own registered brand, sometimes accompanying her cattle up the Chisholm Trail. She may also be the first Texas woman to make her husband sign a prenuptial agreement.
A second protagonist in my novel, Jay Jackson, was born on a fictional ranch in San Saba and practiced law for many years (when he wasn’t being a spy), until he retired to take over the operation of the Jackson Ranch. There are so many colorful men in Texas history that it is impossible to categorize them. But several extraordinary ones deserve mention. The first was Charles Goodnight who, with his partner Oliver Loving, set the bar for the standard of the determined rancher by leading trail drives through Indian country all the way to Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. One Indian they often had to deal with was Quanah, whose parents were a Texas woman named Cynthia Ann Parker and the Indian chief who had abducted Cynthia, Peta Nocona. Quanah became a formidable chief and for many years eluded the U.S. Cavalry, until he finally exhibited the level headedness to negotiate a truce. For my protagonist Jay Jackson, however, I was inspired by a rancher named Watt Matthews, whose mother insisted that he go to Princeton University, as was the case with Jay Jackson and his mother. Watt was in college around the same time as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but he ultimately returned to his Lambshead Ranch, never married, and lived there until he was ninety-eight, just before the start of the twenty-first century.
One excellent place to find inspirational characters is in well-written fiction, and I would be remiss if I didn’t sing the praises here of Larry McMurtry, whom I believe is the master of developing the Texas protagonist. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving inspired the best characters in McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove. And McMurtry created several women in his novels who were inspirational to my creation of Lyn Larkin. The two most notable of these are Patsy Carpenter, from Moving On, and Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment. Both of those women were strong, independent, and determined; but both had their demons to overcome, as is the case with Lyn Larkin. In an essay, McMurtry told the story about his publisher insisting on the title Moving On, even though McMurtry believed the book would be more suitably entitled “Patsy.” I took his essay to heart and for my own novel held firm for a title that denotes my novel’s protagonist.
My fondness for Lyn Larkin caused me, when writing the novel, to go deep into her background with my imagination. Sadly, and with some regret on my part, my editor prevailed on me to delete those passages. He said it was too much, and almost fifty pages hit the cutting room floor. So the reader doesn’t learn much about Lyn’s childhood, which included her job in a restaurant while a teenager, the day she spent in a storage room with her boyfriend during Hurricane Celia, and her dawning sexuality as she came of age. Nor does the novel reveal her eccentric great grandmother from Raymondville who was convinced she was a descendant of a martyred Sephartic-Crypto-Jew from the former El Nuevo Reino de Leon Spanish lands of northern Mexico. For now, I have other cattle to round up, but I hope a day will come when I can dust off those fragments and tell Lyn’s early story.
Cover: Mark Zvonkovic, courtesy photo
Mark Zvonkovic’s upcoming legal thriller, Belinda (June 2022, Dos Perro Press), is set in the conference rooms of white-shoe Houston law firms and the stunning coastline of Baja California. Belinda is the story of a woman’s bravery and resourcefulness as she navigates the end of her career (forced retirement is a real thing, especially for women lawyers) and a complex world of international intrigue, legal infighting, and unexpected romance.