Larry Sweazy’s A Thousand Falling Crows is a fantastic Depression-era crime novel. Sonny Burton, a Texas Ranger who recently lost an arm in pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde, goes on the search for a man’s missing daughter. His investigation leads him to another group of robbers and to a killer who dumps his victims’ bodies in the Texas fields. The book has both a moody and an authentic feel. We caught up with Mr. Sweazy to take a few questions from us.
- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople Scott: Both the character of Sonny and the story are unique. Which came first?
Larry Sweazy: Sonny, no question. Characters always seem to come first to me. I knew a few things about Sonny from the beginning (his real name is Lester). I knew he was at the end of his career and that his father had been a Texas Ranger, too. Sonny had a perspective of history, could remember his father talking vividly about going after outlaws like King Fisher and John Wesley Hardin on horseback, while Sonny was rooted in the Twentieth Century, going after Bonnie and Clyde in a 1932 Ford. I also knew that Sonny was a World War I veteran and suffered from the Thousand Yard Stare (our version of PSTD). He was also a widower with a difficult relationship with his only son, who is also a Texas Ranger, but for seemingly different reasons. The story came out of research for another project I was working on and I stumbled across an article about Bonnie and Clyde coming out of the Ritz movie theater in Wellington, Texas. There was a chase, a shootout, and a flaming car crash where Bonnie was hurt, but they escape. The timing was right and l knew that I could insert my fictional character into that historical situation and go from there.
“I want the historical novels I write to be accessible, relatable, and an emotional journey as well as a physical one. That’s what I try for every time I sit down to write.”
MPS: What were some challenges of writing a one armed protagonist?
LS: This was probably the most difficult and the most personal aspect of writing this novel. Difficult because I’m right handed and can’t imagine losing the use of my right arm—but I had to imagine that. And personal because my grandmother was a late-in-life amputee. When I first starting writing Sonny, I walked around my house with my right arm bound behind my back and tried to get through the day (after writing) without using my right hand. I’m not ambidextrous, but I slowly figured out how to button my shirt, how to get through the day with one hand. I felt anger and frustration, but I always knew I could use my right hand if I really had to. Sonny didn’t have that choice. I also read as much material as I could get my hands on concerning amputees. That was the physical challenge. The emotional challenge rested with honoring my grandmother. She was a very active, outgoing person before she lost her leg in her early seventies, but she changed after the amputation. She was never the same. I could only capture the emotional blow that she experienced from a distance. I only had my memory to rely on since she has long since passed, but her loss had a big impact on me and my entire family. It broke her spirit.
MPS: This is your second Texas ranger hero. What draws you to that profession as a writer?
LS: I lived in Texas on and off for five years and there were fleeting moments during that time when I would see a Ranger. It always stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it was the romance of the organization, the whole “One Riot, One Ranger” mythology, I’m not sure. Rangers carry themselves differently. I had a fleeting inclination early on to become a U.S. Marshal, but that didn’t last. I think when I moved to Texas I became more aware of the Ranger organization and began to have a mild fascination with the history of it. Actually, my first professionally published short story, “The Promotion” featured a Texas Ranger, too. It was published in an Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg anthology, Texas Rangers (Berkley, 2004), and was set in modern-day San Antonio. That story was my start. So, now with Sonny, there are three chapters in Ranger history that I’ve touched on. I think the research I’ve done is foundational, and I hope I’ve captured the character of the men I’ve portrayed as Rangers accurately as I possible.
MPS: You use a large flock of crows waiting for their next meal of the dead to create tension and mood. Was that something you had planned from the beginning?
LS: No. That actually came in about midway through writing the novel. I felt like there was something missing and I decided to try to add kind of a Greek chorus point of view. I was nervous about it, to be honest with you, because the book might have lost its straight mystery status with some readers with a crow point of view. But I think if you take the crows out the book it would be incomplete. I visited a bird rehabber regularly and was able to spend some time with crows, and I hope that research comes through.
MPS: What did you want the reader to know about 1930s Texas?
LS: It was a pretty hopeless situation for most people. There’s no question that all of Texas suffered and the hard times tested the spines of all its people. I immersed myself in Dorothea Lange photographs, which were mostly black and white portraits of everyday people during the Depression years. All you have to do is look at their faces to see their struggle. One has to wonder how they survived, how they held onto any hope at all. People lived vicariously through Bonnie and Clyde even though they knew what the end would be for them. Bonnie and Clyde knew what their end was, too. They had nothing to lose. Death was better than going back to jail for them both, or surviving beyond the day. It’s one thing to imagine losing an arm, but to be stuck in such a bleak and spirit-breaking world day after day had to be really tough. We have it so much easier now…
MPS: One of the things I admired about A Thousand Falling Crows is I felt the story was taking place in it’s time than looking back at it,which is the feel of many historicals. How did you accomplish this?
LS: One of the wonders of the Internet for writers like myself is that I have the capability to go to a web site and access a radio station that plays nothing but 1930s music. When I go into antique stores I touch the metal toasters that fit on the stove tops, or the faded velvet of the chairs… I believe the research accumulates into some part of my imagination that I can immerse myself in…and connect with the reader on the same level. I love books that engage all of my senses, so that’s what I have always hoped to write, too. My first inclination as an artist of any kind was to become an actor. I was lucky to have had a progressive high school drama teacher who introduced me to Stanislavsky, the “method” acting, Lee Strasberg and the Actor’s Studio, etc. James Dean was born fifty miles north of where I was born, and I got to witness the brilliant young careers of De Niro and Pacino as they unfolded in the 1970s. I think all of those ingredients along with my research and desire to get it right go into the soup when I’m writing. I want the historical novels I write to be accessible, relatable, and an emotional journey as well as a physical one. That’s what I try for every time I sit down to write.
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