Jeff Guinn’s latest book talks about how the West was really won

Posted Sunday, May. 04, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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Jeff Guinn’s new novel, Glorious, is a myth-busting take on the Old West.

“As much as I loved the Saturday-morning matinee Westerns with the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, it wasn’t really like that most of the time,” the Fort Worth-based book critic-turned-author says. “It wasn’t just train robberies and posses and shootouts at high noon.

“These are elements of what the West was like, but they didn’t happen all the time.”

So why, Guinn wondered, do they have to happen, almost by rote, in storytelling?

With Glorious (out Tuesday), he provides evidence that a realistic depiction of 1870s American frontier life can be even more fascinating than the idealized B-movie version.

“The truth is always better than the mythology,” Guinn insists. “Always.”

Guinn knows a thing or two about this chapter in American history. In The Last Gunfight, his 2011 nonfiction bestseller, he set the record straight about the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, revealing that everything we thought we knew about the legend was wrong.

Now he applies the same passion for historical accuracy to Western fiction.

Glorious is the first in a series chronicling the frontier travels of city-bred Cash McLendon, a man on the run from a sadistic killer whose weapon of choice isn’t a six-shooter, but steel-toed boots.

McLendon’s first extended stop is in Glorious, a rugged yet charming silver-mining town in Arizona.

We turned the tables on Guinn, the Star-Telegram’s former books editor, by asking him questions about his book.

What was the genesis of this book?

This was not anything I was thinking of. The Last Gunfight had just come out. I was on my way, in my car, driving to Dodge City in Kansas, to do a book program event for the Ford County Historical Society and the Kansas Heritage Center.

When you’re driving through western Kansas, there’s a whole lot of nothing to look at. Basically you’ve got hours and hours where you could take a nap behind the wheel because there’s nothing to run into. And I had just hit that stretch. Boredom was setting in. And my phone rang.

It was Ivan Held, the president at Putnam. He had been reading Last Gunfight and he said he thought there was a market for intelligent, accurate Western fiction. Had I ever thought about trying to write some? I said, “No, but I’ve got this drive ahead of me. Why don’t I look at the story possibilities?”

So that’s what I did. I thought about the things I like about Westerns and the clichés I don’t like in Westerns. And by the time I got home, I called him back to say, “I think I have something for you.”

One of the adventures in the book involves a prospecting expedition. How do you know so much about digging for silver?

I went out and actually tried it. If you want to be historically accurate, you have to go do all this stuff yourself. You know what I discovered? You think about people looking for gold. There’s these chunks of ore, just glistening, ready to be spotted. Silver prospecting is not like that at all.

If you’re lucky, you see some faint black lines on rock and you chip that away and maybe the lines go deeper and maybe you’ve got a significant find. But it’s hard work. And you know what else I discovered? When you hit rock with the hammer at the wrong angle, the rock hits back!

One thing that’s a must in this genre is a protagonist with a memorable name. Is there a story behind the name Cash McLendon?

It seemed like it took forever. I got his last name, McClendon, easily enough. That’s a solid name. It’s got a good rhythm, especially after a one-syllable first name. But I went through many first names and I didn’t like any of them.

One day I was up in my writing room and I turned to my dog, a half black Lab, half shepherd who’s sort of my writing buddy, and I said, “Maybe I can call him Carl McLendon. What do you think, Cash?” And that’s how I got the name. He’s Cash McLendon, named in honor of my dog.

Are you still writing nonfiction as well?

Sure. I’ve got Putnam for fiction and Simon & Schuster for nonfiction. It’s a nice combo. The next nonfiction project is Jim Jones, the cult leader. In the same way that my book Manson wasn’t just about Charles Manson, but also about the 1960s in America, this book will be about the ’70s, and Jim Jones is the vehicle I use to get readers there.

When did you decide that writing books would be the life for you?

I was an Air Force brat in the 1950s and 1960s. We lived on these tiny bases in Italy and Germany. No TV, but every base would have its little library. I would haunt these libraries and systematically read every book in there.

When I was very young, I discovered a book which I still think is the best book I’ve ever read: The Once and Future King, by T.H. White. It was the whole Camelot legend, only told better. I was 8 years old and admiring how a writer can take you to this place and make it seem real.

That’s when I said, “I want to be a writer someday.” I couldn’t think of anything more exciting or fulfilling. And the amazing thing is I was right. I have been wrong about a lot of things in life, but not that.


by Jeff Guinn

Putnam, $26.95

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The author will be featured in An Evening With Jeff Guinn at 7 p.m. Tuesday at TCU’s Dee J. Kelly Alumni Center, 2820 Stadium Drive. James Ward Lee is the host for the event, presented by the Friends of the TCU Library and TCU Press. Admission is free; free parking is available adjacent to the Kelly Center. Glorious will be available for purchase. Guinn will sign books after the discussion.

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