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.

 

Steven Saylor on writing about history, crime, & more

Steven Saylor’s Ancient Roman detective, Gordianus The Finder, finally takes on the biggest murder of his time in The Throne Of Caesar. He will be discussing it at BookPeople on February 22nd, but our Scott Butki got in some early questions in concerning writing about history and work in the future.

MysteryPeople Scott Butki: Let’s start by talking about how you came up with this seed of an idea that became this novel. You got the idea at a cocktail party with scholars?

Steven Saylor: I was invited to speak to a group of Classical scholars meeting at Baylor—a long way from Rome!—and a professor named James O’Hara, having heard me bemoan the “impossible challenge” of writing a mystery novel around the Ides of March, said to me, “Make it about…X.” In the Author’s Note to The Throne of Caesar, I fill in the blank, but it would be a spoiler to do so here. The point is, I am so lucky to be linked in and to get insights and feedback from some world-class experts on the ancient world. Sometimes all it takes is a single word, as in this case, to get me over the stumbling block and out of the starting blocks.

MPSB: As someone writing about Ancient Rome did you feel you had to write, at some point, about what you call “the most famous murder case in history”?

SS: Once I realized that my first novel Roman Blood (set in 80 B.C.) would become a series, getting to the assassination of Caesar in 44 B.C. seemed a natural goal. It’s such a huge watershed event, a real before/after moment in world history.

MPSB: If anyone thinks they already know how this story will end—it being so famous after all—what would you tell them?

SS: As in most of my novels, there are two plot lines running parallel and simultaneously—the plot on the surface, and the invisible plot. You know how one will turn out, but hopefully the other will give you a surprise.

MPSB: How did you decide how much of Shakespeare to quote in the book?

SS: There’s only one direct homage to the Bard, when a certain character speaks a line lifted directly from Julius Caesar. I reveal the details of that in Author’s Note. It’s a line that works one way in Shakespeare’s play, and a different way in my version, so it’s loaded with irony, and one of many in-jokes sprinkled throughout the book that may amuse history buffs and Shakespeare lovers.

MPSB: Let’s back up now. Why did you start writing novels about Ancient Rome in the first place?

SS: I give a great amount of credit to the sword-and-sandal movies of my childhood, chief among them Cleopatra, written and directed by the great Joseph Mankiewicz. The tale of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra became one of the central myths of my imagination. The assassination scene in that movie is pure cinematic genius, unforgettable. I went on to study Classics and history at UT Austin, and then years later had the idea to turn Cicero’s first murder trial into a crime novel; that became Roman Blood. The book found a readership, and I suddenly had a whole career ahead of me.

MPSB: Why did you decide to write erotic thrillers under a different name, Aaron Travis?

SS: That was back in my slacker twenties, which are a bit of a blur now. Hormones ruled my life, and the erotic was my muse. I’ve kept those works available in e-editions for the discerning connoisseur, but I must warn readers that they are not for the faint of heart.

MPSB: When I last interviewed you you said, “I would like to write another historical epic set in Austin some day, about the early days of the Texas Republic.” Is that still on the radar?

SS: Hmmm, off the radar for now, I would say. I have a current project that’s consuming all my research and storytelling. (More about that below.) But every now and then I find myself musing about Mirabeau Lamar and Sam Houston and their competing visions for the Republic of Texas. I still collect books about that period. You never know.

MPSB: As both a graduate of University of Texas and a part-time Austin resident, what are some of your favorite spots around Austin?

SS: My Austin is all about swimming, running, Tex-Mex and BBQ—working up an appetite at Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Hippie Hollow, the trail around Lady Bird Lake, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt (but not all in the same day!) and then eating at Maudie’s, Green Mesquite, Chuy’s, or The Iron Works. For culture, I love the Blanton Museum; I’m eager to see Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” structure. And I still drop in on the occasional lecture on the UT campus.

MPSB: What would readers be most surprised to learn about you?

SS: I’ve been with the same guy for well over forty years now, since Rick and I were both at UT back in 1976. Now we’re legally hitched. Such long marriages are not so common these days. I’m very lucky to have had so much emotional continuity in my life. I’ve also had the same editor and agent since forever. I’m very loyal, I suppose.

MPSB: What are you working on next?

SS: My next novel will be the third volume in my family saga series, to follow Roma and Empire. It’s a big chunk of history, taking the family from the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius and his no-good playboy son Commodus (notorious from the movie Gladiator, though my version will be very different) all the way to Constantine the Great, who made Christianity the state religion. Along the way we meet the sun-worshipping, drag-queen emperor, Elagabalus. His reign was quite short, I’m afraid, but he made quite an impression.

Emma Flint Slays in Little Deaths

It took me a while to read Little Deaths by Emma Flint.  Perhaps because of the time period.  I don’t normally read books that aren’t set in the modern day unless they’re by Laura Lippman or Megan Abbott or other authors I trust frequently.  I am so disappointed—not in this book, which was absolutely stunning, but that I waited so long to read this fantastic novel.  This book, loosely based on a true story, is anything but boring, predictable, or dull.  I did, in fact, read it all in one sitting—one very long sitting, staying up all through the night while my partner constantly asked me to go to bed.  It was that haunting.

Little Deaths, like many of Megan Abbott’s books (or all of Megan Abbott’s books, really, and most of Laura Lippman’s standalones as well) is based on a true story—did a woman actually kill her young son and daughter? From the beginning of the novel, we know that things do not bode well for Ruth Malone, and the novel goes on to chronicle the trial she endures for—and I won’t spoil anything—perhaps murdering her own children.

Stories like these are often complicated.  I come from South Carolina, where Susan Smith drowned her own sons in the ‘90s, when I was still a child.  There are many women who experience or commit several crimes, often enduring post-partum depression or other issues that drive them to a point of madness or simply utter confusion and loss.  Flint manages to portray all sides of the situation with such agility and fierceness that the reader is forced to question everyone, and even sympathize with a would-be, might-be child murderer.

Image result for emma flint little deathsThere are so many things incriminating Flint’s protagonist, this woman who has had her own hard life and now must face an even tougher outcome. Yet the book flows effortlessly, never weighing the reader down too much with too much gravity or sadness, always reminding the consumer that this is the woman’s story, not the child’s story, and that the woman at the center of the book is, in many ways, a victim of the times she lives in and her situation.

I do have one problem with this book, and it may seem juvenile. I wish it was longer, and that is purely for selfish reasons. I did not want this book to end. Little Deaths, a play on words, a play on my heart, is a book I wanted to continue on forever, just so I did not have to part with the characters or, even more frankly, the writer Flint’s beautiful style. She can at once be so matter-of-fact and also lyrical it puts many other authors to shame.

If you don’t trust me in regards to Flint’s stunning novel Little Deaths, then perhaps refer to the numerous nominations and praise it has received, the stunning responses of fans from around the globe who truly love this book.  I rarely close an article by saying this—and yet, with so many great debuts coming out this year, this phrase may become a favorite of mine—I cannot wait to see what Emma Flint produces next.  She is a writer of superb talent that is virtually unmatched by beginner writers, someone who should be revered and read widely.  She is a writer who understands women, various time periods, and all of the emotions and contradictions of the human hearts.

Read Little Deaths.  Read it now.

Guest Post: James Ziskin on historical novels and names

Thanks to James Ziskin for putting together this post about his crime novels, set in the early 1960s, and how that time period impacts what he does. He’ll be here Monday, February 5th, at 7pm with Terry Shames and Laura Oles to discuss his book, Cast the First Stone

I write the Ellie Stone mysteries, a series of traditional-cum-noir crime novels set in the early 1960s. Ellie is a mid-twenties reporter for an upstate New York daily. A self-described “modern girl,” she works twice as hard as any man at the paper, gets half the credit, and all the wolfish leers.

My books are sometimes categorized as historical. The time period is near past, which presents both advantages and challenges when it comes to creating a believable fictional world. The sixties were not so long ago, and the world isn’t all that different, at least not when compared to a hundred or two hundred years earlier. But the things that have changed have done so in sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle ways. Before considering names, let’s look at a few of the obvious differences.

Cars. On the left is Ellie’s 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer and, on the right, its descendant, the 2018 Dodge Lancer.

Ziskin cars

Well, they both have four tires, and they’re both red. Of course, two-toned paint jobs and chrome were all the rage in the fifties. But under the hood and inside the brains of the cars, they might as well be a biplane and a jumbo jet for all they have in common. By the way, Ellie’s car—same colors even—was featured in a Dodge commercial just a couple of years ago. Have a look. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1JeNv0FoPXo

Telephones. The old black rotary phones have gone the way of the dinosaur. Today’s phones are powerful computers, great for doing research or enjoying entertainment.

Ziskin telephone

Fashion. Ellie might have dressed something like this. Today, these ladies look like a mashup of air hostesses, Don Draper’s secretaries, and the Stepford PTA.

Ziskin women (1)

And what would Ellie have been listening to on the AM radio in her car? Brenda Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts for three weeks in the summer of 1960. Tastes change. If you don’t think so, listen to this song.

Ziskin song

Sports. Heisman trophy winners Joe Bellino, 1960, and Baker Mayfield, 2017.

Ziskin sports

And then there’s this…

Ziskin hair

But wait a minute. Wasn’t this supposed to be about names?

I was just getting to that.

Take girls’ and boys’ names. There weren’t many Justins, Aidans, or Graysons running around in Ellie Stone’s 1960. You were more likely to find Davids, Michaels, and Jameses. Hmm. What do you know? James. And I was born in 1960… For girls, names were pretty tame back then. Mary, Susan, and Linda were the top three in America. And when Ellie was born in 1937, the most popular were Mary, Barbara, and Patricia. Not one of those three names cracks the top hundred in 2017. And that’s on a list that includes “Luna” at number forty-eight! Last year, neoclassical and old-time names Sophia, Olivia, and Emma topped the list. And, surprise of surprises, neither Sophia nor Olivia made the top hundred in 1937. Emma barely squeezed in under the wire at number eighty-nine.

For Cast the First Stone, I dropped Ellie into 1962 Hollywood. She’s sent to California by her editor to interview a local boy who’s landed the second male lead in a beach picture. First, to avoid lawsuits and hate mail, I decided to avoid using real Hollywood stars in my book—at least none who appear as characters. Of course people mention the odd actor or actress in the course of the story, but no actual celebrities appear in the book. Well, one does, but just for one line, and I’m not telling who it is. (Here’s a useful, hint, though. Dead people cant sue for defamation.) Second, to achieve maximum believability, I wanted to avoid inventing fictional megastars. It’s difficult—but not impossible—to win the reader’s buy-in. Cal Granite, Bart Steele, or Dirk Bogarde just aren’t believable as names. Well, okay, Dirk Bogarde was a real actor, but I almost had you, didn’t I?

So how to create believable names for the period? I lowered my sights. Instead of A-listers, I populated Cast the First Stone with end-of the-dugout directors, no-name producers, and C-list actors. The same is true for the title of the fictional film at stake in the book, Twistin’ on the Beach. It’s 1962, people were doing the twist again (like we did last summer), and teenage beach pictures were just entering their golden age. If there weren’t at least two or three films with that name that year, there should have been.

Now I needed actors for my film. No big names, remember. So I came up with boy-next-door types appropriate for the era. And white-bread white last names. Tony Eberle, Bobby Renfro, Bo Hanson. The female lead in the movie is Carol Haven, though she never makes an appearance in the book.

There’s also the question of using real places whenever possible, and fictional ones where convenient. From the outset of this series, I chose to fictionalize the town where Ellie lives and works. New Holland, New York, cannot be found on any map except the one in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Making up a small city is no big deal, and it frees me from researching every last detail about a real place. But once Ellie lands in Los Angeles in Cast the First Stone, real locations are necessary to create the impression of that great city. I chose to use the actual Paramount Studios as the site where Twistin’ on the Beach was being filmed. The instant name recognition helps create realism. Everyone’s heard of Paramount, so I didn’t have to labor unnecessarily to convince readers. The Godfather took a different route, probably to avoid potential lawsuits, using a fictionalized studio—Woltz International Pictures—for the famous horse-head-in-the-bed sequence. (Oh, come on. It’s not a spoiler after forty-five years.) As great as that film is, the name of the studio strikes me as less than compelling. We know it’s not real, and no magic is conjured by seeing its name or its unimpressive gate.

I used the same tactic in my upcoming A Stone’s Throw (June 5, 2018). Where possible, I used real names—e.g. Saratoga Race Course—but brought the characters down to a manageable level of fame. Thoroughbreds, jockeys, owners, and gamblers are all fictional, except for a few real horses, mentioned here and there, and Willie Shoemaker making a cameo appearance. Those recognizable names make the time period feel more authentic to the reader. The fictional characters do their job, too, entertaining us with their exploits, while never breaking the spell with their unfamiliar “household names.”