J. M. Gulvin’s new novel, The Long Count, is one of our picks for October. Gulvin was kind enough to answer a few questions about this new series featuring Texas Ranger John Q.
- Interview by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
MysteryPeople Scott: Family is an element in both of your protagonists’ lives. What did you want to explore in with the idea?
J.M. Gulvin: You’re right, family is very important for this first novel and the rest of the series. My intention is to create as real a feel to the stories as possible so it’s important to me that all the characters are rounded enough that they could actually have existed. Family, dependents, loved ones and responsibility are all part of that. It’s been my experience during thirty years of travelling the west, that family is extremely important. I believe it is still an integral part of the make-up of the people that we’ve lost just little of in Europe and the UK. I wanted to be true to my understanding of the American spirit, particularly given the fact that I am not a native and am coming at these books from a different perspective altogether.
I don’t know anyone in the US (friends or business acquaintances) who don’t appreciate the fact that their nearest and dearest both present and past are an intrinsic part of their identity. Familial ties bind so much more tightly than any shared ideology and I find this whole sense of belonging fascinating. As a mechanism within the plot, it helps to establish context and character history. I learned very early that family isn’t just blood ties, however, it’s a bond that extends to friends, neighbors, and members of a given community. When I first went to Idaho in 1997, I saw how the 1534 inhabitants of a town called Bellevue, made sure that the rent and medical bills were paid for a man named Jeff Farrow, who had been involved in a snow mobile accident and took six months to recover. That sense of responsibility and purpose, of shared community and familial care, is exemplified in the personal response of ordinary Texans to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Harvey. I’ve tried to identify with this (in some small way) in the relationships forged between John Q and his friends and neighbors on the ranch in Wilbarger County.
MPS: You are a Brit who now lives in and writes about the American West. What draws you to it?
JMG: I used to own a cabin on a lake in southern Idaho but had to sell it for various reasons. As soon as I’m able I plan to buy something in Texas or New Mexico. As you so rightly point out I am drawn to the west and always have been. I grew up watching westerns and something about the pioneering spirit, the can-do – have-to, approach to life really struck a chord with me. The first book l I ever read was “Squanto Friend of the Pilgrims” and from that moment I was transfixed. I started to read western novels and then later Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and various true-life accounts of mountain men who lived with Native Americans. A lot later I worked on a ranch close to the cabin where Vardis Fisher wrote “Mountain Man”, which was partial inspiration for the Robert Redford/Sidney Pollack movie “Jeremiah Johnson”. Prior to that I discovered Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.
That pioneering spirit I mention is still very much in evidence today and I see it in my American friends. I love it, the lack of cynicism, the zest for life; when it’s coupled with the landscape of Texas or New Mexico it just seems to draw me. What’s interesting is that I find writing about the west at my house in Wales UK, to be more inspirational than if I was on the ground. As you’ll know better than me the Texas I’ve tried to create is a landscape from fifty years ago so it’s very different now and I find the physical distance allows my imagination to overcome some of the hurdles of reality.
MPS: What I like about John Q is that he has a sensitive side and a less self assured swagger that you see in most portrayals of Texas Rangers. How did you go about constructing him?
JMG: Man, I could wax lyrical about this one. How long have we got? Seriously, I’ve been working on John Q as a character since 2009. Initially he was loosely based on Ed Cantrell a Wyoming cop in the 1970’s who was actually tried and acquitted of murder after outdrawing another cop Michael Rosa, in a Rock Springs prowl car. Cantrell was the inspiration but gradually John Q morphed into a much younger man and a Texas Ranger. I made the real life Ranger Frank Hamer (Bonnie & Clyde) his god-father deliberately to engender a sense of veracity. Ironically. I had no idea that there was an expression in the US “John Q public”, in the UK we say “Joe Public” and even my New York agent didn’t pick up on the connection. I really like the connotation, inadvertent as it is, because I’ve tried to make Quarrie “a man of the people”.
Having spent so much time developing both him and his relationships, I feel that I know him very well and hopefully that comes across. I gave him the background I did, his son James, Pious and all the folks on the ranch etc to make him as true to life as I could. Yes, he’s tough, and he’s good with firearms because I wanted that old west lawman feel; honesty, a moral compass and overriding sense of integrity. I wanted an unequivocal hero. No navel gazing, a “what you see is what you get” kind of Texan, but also someone who displays the level of humanity you picked up on. I know a lot of cops, both in the US and in the UK, from FBI agents, to county sheriffs, city detectives etc and – I think – that the nature of the job is such that one has to be able to see all sides of the story.
I chose Frank Hamer to be John Q’s godfather for a very specific reason. When WWII broke out Hamer wrote King George VI of England offering a personal bodyguard of retired Rangers in case the Nazis rolled into London. As a Brit, I was hugely flattered by that, and perhaps writing about Texas Rangers is some sort of homage. I don’t know why but there’s something about them as a law enforcement agency that just hits a note with me. That old west toughness, the ability to work alone in inhospitable terrain and extreme circumstances. It’s an important element of the book given how they evolved as a police service. It’s said they’ve been shaped by the enemies they’ve faced and that had to be part of the narrative, but it was vital John Q did not become a caricature hence the sensitivity you pointed out and his ability to empathise with not only victims but those he’s hunting. Hopefully it creates the kind of real-life feel that I mentioned above and it will be an enduring feature of this series.
MPS: How did you decide the period to be the early seventies?
JMG: I chose the 1960’s because at that time there was still much of the old west feel about the Rangers though they were evolving into the modern outfit they are today, and I was able to set that juxtaposition against a backdrop of massive social change in the United States. On a simpler note, though, I’m no lover of technology and computer deduction. I long for the silences that John Q can experience when he’s alone in his car with no cell phone and out of radio contact. One of the things that’s struck me since embarking on this journey however, is how so much of what’s happening today mirrors the time I’m writing about. Someone at the Edinburgh Book Festival pointed out the prescience of my narrative, and I think they have a point given the current political situation.
MPS: One thing that struck me about the book was it’s mood. Are you aware of creating that when you’re writing or is it simply the result of your writing?
JMG: That’s a really interesting observation. The mood is as important as the voice I use and the way I try to create a sense of rhythm within the narrative. To that end I do work on it, yes. It’s not subconscious, it’s a skill I’ve been trying to hone for a very long time in an attempt to bring as much originality to the page as I can. A lot of people pick up on it and again, the fact that I’m not American, and am coming at this from a slightly different perspective, might be part of why it is so apparent. Hopefully, that’s a good thing and the more I write the character the more that sense of mood will develop.
MPS: From what I can tell, this is your first crime novel. Did you draw from any other writers in the genre?
JMG: Actually, It’s not my first crime novel. I’ve written a few under Jeff Gulvin, all of which are available in the US through Open Road Media. This is the first in this series however, and the first under JM Gulvin. The truth is I don’t read a lot of crime and never have. In my youth, I read the masters Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Steinbeck, etc because I wanted to be the best craftsman I could. They are my influences along with the genius of McCarthy. Rather than reading crime, I watch a lot on TV as some of the current US series are astounding. Steven Zaillian’s “THE NIGHT OF” for example, blew my mind for feel, atmosphere and subtlety of suggestion, and I devour anything Dennis Lehane is involved with. After a long day at my desk I find it easier to soak up something visual rather than sit down and read.
You can find copies of Gulvin’s latest on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.