Starting the next novel…

I always seem to do two books in each genre. After resisting the pattern for months, I have bowed to the inevitable. DOC, which will be out in May, focuses on one half of the West’s most famous friendship, telling the story of Doc Holliday’s short and tragic life. I’m now committed to a second Western, which will center on Wyatt Earp, on what led to the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and on the long and bitter aftermath of the bloodbath known as the Earp Vendetta.

Why did I hesitate? Easy. A dozen movies have told this story. Entire forests have been sacrificed to pulp novels and moment-by-moment histories about what happened during those 30 seconds in Tombstone, Arizona.

I always try to bring something new to hoariest subjects of the genres I tackle. Often, it’s the women in my story who bend a genre in an unexpected direction. In DOC, Kate Harony, Bessie Earp and Isabelle Wright each shine a light on their own lives and those of the men they love, but I just didn’t see how I could bring anything new to Tombstone.

Then I found a used copy of I MARRIED WYATT EARP by Josephine Marcus Earp (Glenn Boyer, ed., Longmeadow Press, Stamford CT, 1976). What hooked me was a comment by one of Wyatt’s nephews. “No one could convince me that Wyatt was a killer — he lived with Josie for fifty years!”

I had to check with the Library of Congress to figure out if I MARRIED WYATT EARP a novel disguised as a memoir or really classified as nonfiction. Turns out, it is the version of her life with Wyatt that Josie Earp wanted us to have.

The woman who lived with Wyatt Earp for so long was not a simple girl. If John Henry Holliday was an American Odysseus, “a wily man made moreso by his wanderings,” then Wyatt Earp was the Achilles of an American Iliad. Josie would have us believe she was the young and innocent Briseis, but she is the story’s Helen, an ambiguous figure at the heart of a war rooted in her faithlessness to a man who didn’t deserve fidelity.

The other thing that pushed me toward a sort of sequel to DOC was reading Hillary Mantel’s wonderful novel WOLF HALL, which redefines Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and Henry the VIII. The moment I finished reading that massive book, I thought, “Oh, man! I hope she does the other four wives next!” And it occurred to me that readers might have the same reaction when they finish DOC. That novel is tightly structured around a single year of Doc’s life, but it alludes to the gunfight in Tombstone, and I hope that my readers will be as eager for a follow-on story as I was when I finished WOLF HALL.

The first step has been to assemble a shoeboxful of index cards that track each historical figure’s movements year by year, day by day, and sometimes hour by hour. This book feels something like A THREAD OF GRACE because it has a strict historical timeline that must be followed if my story is going to elucidate history. After that, I’ve got to work through about 24-linear feet of bookshelves devoted to the background reading I need to do.

I don’t know yet what the title will be. Maybe just WYATT, which is the obvious title for a companion to DOC. But I have also imagined a book cover with a tombstone into which the title has been carved: THE CURE FOR ANGER.  In any case, the first chapter starts with Josie, and it begins:

She learned to lie from her father.

22 thoughts on “Starting the next novel…

  1. Wyatt didn’t deserve fidelity?! I beg to differ. I love him and can’t wait to have you devote more time to him.

  2. Thanks for the news! Sounds fascinating!
    Since you are in Western mode, I am wondering if you have seen the Coens’ True Grit, and what you think of it?

  3. O boy, this is exciting. I too loved “Wolf Hall” and have since gotten a tad resentful of treatments that present Cromwell as an utter slithering worm — that book was a revelation, much as Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time” was about Richard III. Back to the Old West: I am now reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s “The Last Stand” — I’ve always loathed Custer but there are sides of him I’ve missed, and I guess I got my views of him from one of my all-time favorite books, “Little Big Man.” Trying to find truth in all this…what a challenge!

  4. The weirdest thing about Wyatt Earp is that he is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Colma, just outside San Francisco. I keep promising myself that the next time I’m in San Francisco, which is my hometown, and go to visit my parents’ graves, I’ll go see Wyatt Earp’s too (and Josie’s, of course).
    I’m looking forward to both Doc and Wyatt.
    Esther Hecht

  5. I’ve never really been interested in the Western genre because it always seemed so hard to separate fact from fiction. I get so tired of seeing the whole whorehouse/marshal law thing be overdone and glorified, making the wild west into some kind of Disneyland adventure. I am really looking forward to reading western novels written by someone I trust. I hope you find excitement and joy in the process of this new work and I SO look forward to seeing you here in Seattle in May!!

  6. I’m glad you feel that way, Kimberly. I try hard to get the historical details right. Occasionally, I will play a little loose with minor details, but I work hard to get the heart and soul of the characters to ring true.

  7. Esther, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp was Jewish, though she was not observant or devout. She outlived Wyatt, so she had him buried in a Jewish cemetery.

  8. Rebecca, I’ll order Daughter of Time! I always felt Richard III got a bad rap, but I do tend to like the bad boys best. Cain is more interesting than Abel. Esau is more interesting than Isaac…

  9. Jennifer, Josie was with Wyatt for 49 years. She was living as John Behan’s wife. when she and Wyatt began an affair, and that was the beginning of the bad blood that led to the gunfight in Tombstone. Johnny Behan was a jerk, and didn’t deserve fidelity, but he expected it. But of course, that’s what the new book will be about.

  10. I too delighted in Wolf Hall, so much so that with each page I read more and more slowly. I did not want the book to end. Then I read Robert Hutchinson’s ‘Thomas Cromwell, The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII’s most Notorious Minister. Which was closer to the truth? Neither and both. Aren’t we all many people living in the same body?

    Holding my breath for ‘Doc’ and do hope I live a couple more years and get to read ‘Wyatt’.

  11. Mary, the Cromwell hero in Wolf Hall was actually Thomas Cromwell, not Oliver….he was later, I
    believe.

  12. Mary,
    I don’t care WHAT you write about – all I care about is that you WRITE and publish it! You are my all time favorite author!! Your books are ALWAYS worth the wait! I am so looking forward to DOC and everything you publish after that! Happy New Year to you!
    Blessings,
    Elaine P.

  13. Re Mary’s comment about liking the bad boys best: Who was it said “The snake has all the lines”? True….Virtue can, unfortunately, be such a one-dimensional bore! And didn’t you, Mary, say in a radio interview that without evil we wouldn’t have any stories?

  14. Elaine P. has it NAILED! Those who’ve paid attention don’t care what you write as long as you WRITE and PUBLISH! Another sale for Doc while we were waiting in the Richmond airport! Love, Bob.

  15. Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time” is outstanding. But you should also read, if you haven’t already, Sharon Kay Penman’s “The Sunne in Splendour”. Its a massive book, so be warned. But its beautifully written, set in the fifteenth century, and she presents a compelling case for Richard III’s innocence.

  16. This is to Kimberly….I’ve always loved westerns. I thought it would have been grand to have lived in that time and experienced the wonders of the “Old West”…until I saw McCabe and Mrs. Miller! I quickly changed my mind about how wonderful that time would have been for a women, let alone a man. I still love westerns…but I take them with a large grain of salt. Except for Mary’s westerns!

  17. Mary, I just wanted to say I have enjoyed all of your novels, and can’t wait to read more. I have about 2 chapters left to go in Doc and I’ll be sad to see it end. But knowing that a sort-of-sequel is on its way is very exciting. Keep up the good work! Also, can you recommend any other western novelists? I’ve only read Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy in that genre, both of which are terrific. From a fellow Clevelander…Leslie

  18. Leslie, I read a ton of westerns when I was a kid, but the three I still remember 45 years later are The Oxbow Incident by Walter van Tilberg Clark; Shane by Jack Schaeffer; and The Virginian by Owen Wister. I have no idea how they’ll hold up, but they are classics in the genre.

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