My first job after college was in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat. When you write sports for a morning newspaper, you learn to write quickly. There are few things I enjoy more than sitting around with former colleagues and exchanging stories about bad press boxes, tight deadlines and standing at pay phones while dictating stories following high school football games on hot September nights.
I respect those who can write quickly. But when I think of turning out words on deadline, I usually think of newspaper writers rather than novelists. Ace Collins of Arkadelphia is an exception. Collins has written more than 80 books for 25 publishers. Those books have sold almost 2.5 million copies. In addition to his novels, Collins has written biographies, children's books and nonfiction works on culture, history and faith. We're having a late breakfast at the Cracker Barrel in Caddo Valley (those of us who write for a living don't eat at normal hours), and Collins is explaining to me how he turns out so many books.
"When I start one, it takes me about a week to get back up to speed," he says. "Once I get going, I can write 8,000 to 12,000 words a day. When I have an idea in my head, it's really hard to go to sleep. The characters just won't leave me alone."
Though Collins still tries to turn out at least one nonfiction book a year, he prefers fiction. The Color of Justice, a courtroom novel that won the 2015 Christy Award for Suspense Book of the Year, was written in a month.
"You're not limited by the facts," Collins says. "You're only limited by your imagination. I consider it another form of Arkansas storytelling, the same kind of storytelling my grandparents used to do on their front porches. I also listen to classic radio programs for inspiration because the writing on those shows was so good. Thanks to the Internet, I have access to thousands of shows that are archived. I try to listen for about an hour a day."
Collins, an only child, was born on an Air Force base in Illinois and spent time in Fulton County in north Arkansas and at Conway, where his father was a student at what's now the University of Central Arkansas. He came of age, however, in Royal, Ill., where his father was a teacher and basketball coach. Royal had a population of only 293 in the 2010 census. The most prominent features in the farming community are grain elevators and St. John Lutheran Church.
"It was a nice place to grow up," Collins says. "The town was populated by hardworking people who were from German Lutheran stock. We never really quit being Arkansans. We cooked okra, peas and squash. My father got the Arkansas Gazette in the mail."
And thanks to the 50,000-watt signal of KAAY-AM in Little Rock, the family could listen to University of Arkansas football games on Saturday nights.
"Every summer, we would head back to Arkansas and spend time with relatives," Collins says. "It came down to a coin flip whether I would go to college at Ouachita in Arkansas or at Baylor in Texas. I ended up at Baylor and met my wife on my first night in Waco. That Texas girl is how I finally got to Ouachita."
That's because his wife, Kathy, accepted a job teaching in the School of Education at Ouachita Baptist University in 2009.
Collins says he always wanted to write for a living. He majored in journalism and English at Baylor. He went to work after graduation as a high school teacher and basketball coach at Penelope, Texas, a town of only 200 people about 30 miles northeast of Waco. Collins signed his first book contract in 1982. He officiated high school basketball games and worked as a substitute teacher for a decade as he tried to make it as a full-time writer.
"I was writing for free if it got me exposure," he says. "My real name is Andrew Collins, but they started calling me Ace in college because I won a hearts tournament. My publisher suggested that I use Ace as a writer, and so I did. My first book to hit it big was called The Mandrell Family Album in 1984." In the book, Louise Mandrell discusses the upbringing of the Mandrell sisters and their careers in country music.
In 1993, Collins wrote Lassie: A Dog's Life. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and led to specials on ABC and PBS.
"I knew then that this was a real career and that I no longer would have to officiate basketball games to make ends meet," Collins says. "From there, I went on to write a book about gospel music's greatest songs. In 2001, we released Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas. Because of that book, November and December are still months when I find myself doing radio and television interviews about Christmas songs."
Collins has wide-ranging interests. He restores classic cars, collects jukeboxes and even served as the radio play-by-play voice of the Ouachita basketball team. He and his wife host a dinner at their home every Sunday night during the school year for students from Ouachita and neighboring Henderson State University. The average attendance is 50.
"There have been 10 marriages come out of these dinners," Collins says. "We love it. Sunday is our favorite night of the week. The kids energize me. Coming here was great because it put me back in Arkansas and because Arkadelphia has a special energy due to the 5,000 college students here. When they're gone in the summer, it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the town. It's unlike anywhere I've lived as an adult. Learning is emphasized here, and that's good for a writer."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 06/27/2018