Interview  with David Corbett

The Long-Lost Love Letters Of Doc Holliday may be the most fun novel author David Corbett has written. New and old west converge when the supposedly destroyed  romantic correspondences between gunfighter and his first cousin Mattie fall into the hands of former rodeo cowboy and art forger turned western artifact appraiser Tuck Mercer and his arts lawyer Lisa Balamaro, putting a shady judge and  a militia group with their own agenda for the letters after them. David is one of the smartest authors I know, so I hope you can catch him when he discusses and signs the novel on August 27th at BookPeople. Here is some idea of what you’re in for.

MysteryPeople Scott: Even for you this is a very different crime novel, how did it come about?

David Corbett: I love that “even for you.” Yes, I suffer from Ross Thomas Syndrome. I am congenitally incapable of writing the same book twice.

I’ve had a fascination with Doc Holliday since childhood. That said, I can’t pinpoint exactly where that fascination began.

I’m old enough to remember watching the early 1960s TV Series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, in which Doc was played by yeoman character actor Douglas Fowley. Fowley’s credits span five decades, and he often played the suave second fiddle (or debonair schemer) in everything from Charlie Chan on Broadway to Cornell Woolrich’s Fall Guy to Singin’ In The Rain. (Late in his career he even got a shot at playing the mad professor in Buck Henry’s 1977 Star Wars spoof, Quark.)

Going back and watching the available video clips from the Wyatt Earp show, however, filmed at a time when Pinocchio had no monopoly on wooden performances, I can’t say that Fowley’s portrayal captures anything particularly mesmerizing about Doc. I was just a boy, though, and it didn’t take much to stir my imagination.

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday Cover ImageNor do I recall seeing the contemporaneous portrayals by Kirk Douglas and Victor Mature, both enigmatic and compelling in their own right (if wildly inaccurate). It would be decades before I saw the more recently. depictions by Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid, and I only recently managed to catch the (even in more wildly inaccurate) portrayals by Jason Robards and Stacy Keach.

It should be clear, though, that Doc held a special place not just in my imagination but the whole culture’s. Maybe I just intuited that from what I saw and read.

Regardless, by early adulthood, when I began to write, I came across two biographies of Doc that quickened my interest, especially in the fact that Doc had a lifelong correspondence with his cousin, Mattie, who would ultimately join the Sisters of Mercy. The letters were destroyed, which just seemed like a great opportunity for a fiction writer.

Life intervened—specifically, my career as a private investigator, then my early crime novels—but the idea kept nagging me from the back of my mind. Finally, I saw a way to weave the correspondence into a modern-day crime novel by making the letters a MacGuffin—the thing of inscrutable value that all the characters seek to possess and pursue relentlessly, even violently.

MPS: Tuck Mercer is such a stand-out character, former rodeo star, art forger, and now appraiser. He’s one of those great fictional personages that can practically go anywhere. Did you keep anything in mind when writing for him?

DC: I’m glad he resonated for you. I’m not sure he would qualify as a “rodeo star,” since he was just an eighteen-year-old rodeo bum when he suffered the accident that ended his career, but it was certainly a large part of who he once considered himself to be. And he never lost the sense that life is a brutal sport that can end very badly, so you have to grab what chances come your way.

It’s actually the art forger part of his life story that framed the greater part of my understanding of him. He had been no more than a sketch artist working outside rodeo arenas up until his accident, “The Rodeo Rembrandt.” But once his career as a rider—and the love of the woman he was trying to impress—were lost to him forever, he developed a simmering rage to get even: with God, with fate, with the family of the girl he’d never see again and the man she would ultimately marry. That burning need to get even, forged into a meticulous devotion to detail, which art forgery requires, and a growing confidence in the craft of deceit—that’s what I always kept in mind with Tuck.

MPS: Part of the book deals with history and how we try to own it in various ways. What did you want to explore about history?

DC: The saying that, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, formed a core theme for the book. Thucydides addresses this in his history of the Peloponnesian War. He did not believe in reincarnation, as some of his contemporaries did, nor that history in any way genuinely repeated. But the power dynamics that naturally occur in social and political arrangements strongly indicates that what happens once will happen again in one form or another. That is why he wrote his history of Athens’ fall. He felt sure there were lessons to be learned from how its arrogance, internal corruption, and descent into rancorous faction would prove helpful to future generations.

In that same way, the story of 1880s Tombstone seemed to be ripe with parallels to the modern day. Democrats and Republicans despised each other to the point of bloodshed, with each side claiming they were the true voice of “the people,” and each had its own official media outlet (newspaper) with its own unique take on current events, neither of which could be reconciled with the other’. Sound familiar?

Another echo from the past, however, this one unexpected, also came up as I researched the book. One seldom hears about the Apaches in the usual stories of the war between the Earp Brothers and Doc against the Cowboys. And yet, right around the same time as the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Geronimo broke out of the San Carlos Reservation, and the Chiricahua Apache band he led began a series of raids across the southwest as they made their way to their traditional sanctuary in the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico.

The term “Indian Country” was first used during Vietnam to describe land held by the insurgent Viet Cong. More recently, we’ve been engaged in two more counterinsurgency campaigns, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Taliban tactics have been openly compared to those of the Apache. And the veterans of these wars are every bit as embittered, adrift, and restless as those who escaped the Civil War, only to come west and find a place where they could at least try to outrun their demons.

MPS: You recreate correspondences between Doc Holliday and his cousin. How did you go about developing their voices?

This was one of the great challenges of the book. There are no extant copies of any letters Doc wrote, though he is “quoted” in an 1886 New York Sun article. One learns to cast a gimlet eye at such quotations.

And though Mattie wrote a brief history of her side of the family, it reads more like a rough outline than a finished product, and it was produced years after Doc’s death, so might not at all be indicative of how she might have expressed herself when younger—especially in intimate correspondence.

So I had to fashion their voices from what I could learn about them from the various credible sources concerning their lives. Fortunately, in the last two decades, several books have appeared that survive the test of reasonable skepticism.

Karen Holliday Tanner’s Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait draws from family records and lore, and provides a very personal if not always reliably accurate portrait of Doc; Gary L. Roberts’ Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend is an excellent source by a bona fide historian; and Paula Mitchell Marks’ And Die in the West addresses the Gunfight at the OK Corral in a way that focuses a much more jaundiced eye on the hagiography surrounding Doc and the Earps.

I also researched romantic correspondence in the mid-nineteenth century, to get a better idea of the language and, even more importantly, the prevailing themes that appeared in letters between lovers.

Finally, I honed in on what I considered the core of who these two people were. This is always tricky, and I don’t pretend to have somehow magically or mystically divined their souls.

That said, Mattie’s faith and specifically her Catholicism were clearly of great importance to her. This comes across clearly in the brief family history she wrote, which emphasizes how her mother’s faith gave her strength during the horrors of Sherman’s March. It also appears that it was her devotion to Catholicism that prevented her from accepting Doc’s proposal of marriage; Catholics are forbidden from marrying first cousins.

As for Doc, I needed to embrace several conflicting elements of his nature:

His intelligence, and love of learning. Specifically, I imagined him having a particular fondness for Thucydides, and Doc would readily have identified the fall of Athens with the collapse of the Confederacy—who better to represent the mechanical brutality of Sparta than the American North?

His devotion to his mother, and her to him. She died of tuberculosis, the same disease that would fell Doc, and he no doubt saw this as a kind of stigmata, an emblem of his suffering through his love of her. Perhaps more importantly, having sat at his mother’s bedside as she grew increasingly and painfully ill, he knew a similar fate awaited him. He would die young, which created the fatalistic absence of fear for which he was renowned.

His hatred of his father, who married a mere three months after Doc’s mother died—and the bride was a mere seven years older than Doc.

His likely racism. He hated the post-war occupation with its scalawags and carpetbaggers, and considered his father in league with them. He is known to have killed a Buffalo Soldier in or around Fort Griffin in Texas, and at least one of the reasons he fled the South involves a shooting incident concerning a number of black youths at a watering hole on or near his uncle’s property along the Florida-Georgia border.

His fascination, even obsession with gambling, and his skill with a gun.

His fondness for dentistry, which he admitted to a number of people, suggesting again not merely his intelligence but manual dexterity, which no doubt served him well at the card table.

His steadfast loyalty, which not only explains his devotion to Wyatt Earp but his putting up with Kate Elder despite their incessant drunken quarrels. (She once helped him escape imprisonment, a bold act he never forgot, but she also betrayed him to his Tombstone enemies in a drunken stupor, which finally led to their parting for good.)

His hair-trigger temper, exacerbated by his excessive consumption of alcohol, which he used to mitigate the pain and coughing his TB caused.

His manners; he never forgot his breeding, which expected him to be a gentleman.

His turn from Southern Democrat to Western Republican, embracing the vigorous pursuit of opportunity and progress that the industrialists, speculators, and mining interests brought to the frontier.

Putting all that together in one man’s heart, and having him speak a unique American vernacular that somehow captured both his Southern roots and Western adventurism, proved a daunting task, but I’ve been gratified by how many readers have found it compelling, even convincing.

MPS: What was your take on Holliday after writing this book?

DC: Doc is the quintessential American antihero, not just living up to the legend of the “Good Bad Man” that emerged in the late nineteenth century during the taming of the West, but embodying as well something of the Byronic hero, as exemplified by this line from The Corsair:

He knew himself a villain—but he deem’d?

The rest no better than the thing he seem’d;?

And scorn’d the best as hypocrites.

It would have been fun to talk philosophy with him. I don’t think I would have wanted to play cards against him, nor would I ever have wanted to find myself on his bad side.

MPS: The story examines the relationship between the old west and the modern one. Did you find more differences than similarities?

DC: The difference lies entirely in the settlement of the region. The Old West was wild, unformed, and largely lawless. Doc himself, in the 1886 New York Sun article I mentioned, identified himself as a member of a certain class of men who brought the law, commerce, and progress to a harsh, anarchic, and unwelcoming badlands. That may be a bit self-serving, but the truth remains that the West got gentrified, and the hunting grounds of the Native Americans are gone forever.

That said, a certain toughness, self-sufficiency, and independence still characterizes much of the West, and that has come to define much of what we mean by being an American. Unfortunately, all too often it curdles into a kind of self-congratulatory braggadocio, cruelty, and meanness of spirit.

One sees that embodied in the battle between Doc and the Earps on the one hand and the Cowboy rustlers on the other. Both sides have their apologists and mythmakers, both claim the other side is lying. The Gunfight at the OK Corral is a battle for America’s soul, and its echoes can still be heard if you listen.

 

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