Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Terrence McCauley, Author of Dark Territory

Among the highlights of my writing career was a Bouchercon panel assignment in Albany circa 2013. (Editor’s Note: The Oxford English Dictionary has called to complain about the use of the word “career” to describe my writing activities, to which I say, “Bite me, you Limey gobshites. I got your Brexit right here, pal.”) Moderated by the lovely and talented Peter Rozovsky, it included Eric Beetner, Mike Dennis, Jonathan Woods, and today’s guest Terrence McCauley. I’d read Terrence’s book Prohibition and was delighted to run into him in the booksellers’ area before the panel, where we chatted and he gave me a copy of another of his Prohibition-era books, Slow Burn. We became friends and remain so even as I have come to understand there’s nothing the prick can’t write well, from period crime novels to techno-thrillers to crossovers of the two and now, Westerns. We’ve talked about his previous writing before, so today we’re going to focus on Westerns.

One Bite at a Time: Your Prohibition- and pre-World War II-era books are well received, as is the University series of techno-thrillers. What took you over to Westerns?

Terrence McCauley: I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with the genre. On the one hand, I love the true history of that time in our nation’s history. The drama, the danger, the rawness of it and the wickedness, too. I never liked how it was portrayed in movies or television shows because I think they whitewashed a lot of things and flat out lied about the way people lived back then. Like the whole showdown on Main Street at high noon. Those kinds of things didn’t happen very often, if at all. I wanted to write a western that was closer to the kind of story I wanted to see. Almost every type of story has been told about the west, all the way from the unrealistically patriotic movies of John Ford to the equally unrealistic revisionist history of later years. I wanted to tell a story that was about people, not stereotypes. People seem to have liked it.  

OBAAT: I haven’t had a chance to read Dark Territory yet, but Where the Bullets Fly is a fascinating mix of modern sensibilities and sensitivities while also serving an homage to classic Western tropes. Was that the plan, or did it just come out that way?

TM: I wrote the kind of story I wanted to see, but rarely did. The western expansion was a far more diverse time than people realize and I wanted to write a story that showed that diversity without pandering to current audiences seeking diversity where there was none. For example, there weren’t many women gunfighters, so I don’t have such characters in my westerns. But the women weren’t shrinking violets, either, and I write the same type of strong female characters in my westerns as I do in my other books. There were, however, black lawmen at the time, most notably Bass Reeves among others. My Billy Sunday character harkens back to that. After introducing him as an essential character in Bullets, I have him branch out even more in Dark Territory and in the third Mackey book, tentatively titled Blood Warrant that I’m working on now. I plan on continuing to add more realistic, diverse characters to the mix in my westerns because I always seek to avoid stereotypes and want to keep my work as interesting for me and for the reader.

OBAAT: How hard was it to fall into a style that suited a Western after writing the University series? I know The Fairfax Incident came between but that’s closer to the University than to a Western.

TM: I’ve found it to be more restorative than anything else. It keeps me from getting stale. Too many books of the same type in a row tend to bore me and I deserve better. So does my audience. That’s not to say I’m done with the University Series or Charlie Doherty or Terry Quinn or James Hicks or any of the characters I’ve created. Far from it.

But I enjoy the challenge of changing up tone and setting of my stories. Writing about the 1930s for me is like a bowl of ice cream. I love every second of it and I love it more with each passing page. Fairfax wasn’t an easy book to write, but it was a joy to do it.

Writing about Hicks and the University Series has become easier as I’ve grown more familiar with those characters and what they can do.

Westerns are a different pace entirely. Everything took longer back then and present special challenges. One couldn’t just pick up a phone and call. They couldn’t hop in a car or board a plane and get from point A to point B quickly. Even the shortest trips took the better part of a day at least and required planning. Horses needed to be fed and tended to. They got sick and injured, too. Death was always just a cold or an infected cut away. It was a deliberate time and only deliberate people survived it. So, in some ways, my westerns are different from the rest of my work, but there are also many similarities.

OBAAT: What or who are your primary influences as a writer of Westerns?

TM: The movies played a huge role in my interest in westerns, just as they played a role in my interest in the 1930s. But, like the 1930s, once I began doing research into the actual era, I found a world the movies only scratched.

However, my first real interest in westerns came from a short story I had to read in high school called, “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky”. It was a story that broke all of the expected tropes in westerns and showed me that there was much more to the genre than I had seen in the movies.

But the movies that had an impact on me were huge. Yes, The Searchers is flawed and could have done with a sharper editor’s blade, but several of the scenes in it were iconic as was the ending. (The book is excellent, by the way, and differs from the movie in several key areas.) The Outlaw Josey Wales was right up there with another anti-hero and epic scenes filmed by Clint Eastwood. 

OBAAT: You and I have known each other as members of the crime fiction community since we shared a Bouchercon panel in Albany in 2013. I know you’ve been to at least one major Western conference. What are they like? Similarities? Differences?

TM: I attended the Western Writers of America conference in Billings, Montana in 2018 and absolutely loved everything about the experience. I love Montana, the scenery and the people. The convention was much smaller than Bouchercon, but fantastic. People who think the genre only encompasses books about cowboys and Indians and bandits and sheriffs really need to take a look at the number of categories they have for the Silver Spur Award to see how wrong they are. The amount of scholarship in that community is so deep, it’s almost impossible to believe. Sure, they cover western history and fiction, but they also cover modern subjects as well, such as organized labor and environmental issues facing the west. People’s political views were all over the map, too, and they didn’t mind welcoming the bald guy with glasses and the thick New York accent into the fold. They couldn’t have been nicer to me and my wife, Rita, and I’m proud to be a member of the organization.

To the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of bitterness and piety in the crime fiction community lately and it saddens me. There’s a mob mentality that seems to spring up right before a convention that creates a nasty undercurrent throughout the event. A controversy is born, sides are chosen and armies of right and righteousness take to steed and charge into battle.

At least on Facebook and on blogs and on Twitter, anyway.

It’s a trend that’s not fair to conference organizers, volunteers or to attendees. Unfair accusations get thrown around like they don’t mean anything, but they do. We have to be mindful of people who seek to burn things down simply to have the joy of licking the ashes. The ruins be damned.

For example, last year’s Bouchercon was dominated by the #MeToo movement and respect for women. It’s a just cause that can never receive enough support or attention. Anyone who believes it’s not a problem that deserves to be stomped out wherever it takes place is a fool. Some attendees even wore stars on their name tags to show they cared and could be a safe space for women who needed help. My wife and I even volunteered for the program, but no one got around to giving us a star. We kept an eye out anyway.

But the luster of those stars dimmed when it actually came time to actually do something about defending female attendees or female staff members of the hotel. One particular participant was on a drunken tirade the entire weekend and none of the brave souls with stars stepped in when he was nasty to women or to female staff members. Many members of this star force probably remained quiet because a) the offender was a friend of theirs and b) because the guy who drank actually posed a physical threat. Posting one’s commitment to defending women on line is one thing. When faced with a raving drunk who could knock you on your ass? Well, that’s different. It’s far safer to stay in the crowd and sip your pilsner and talk about your training than actually putting it into practice.

The drunken offender was obviously going through a lot and needed some kind of assistance. But I abhor grandstanding phonies who either brag about their bravery online only to shrug when it’s needed. I hold people who use a crisis they helped to create as a way to sell books in particular contempt. “Take a stand against predatory men and fight for women.” Great idea. Sign me up, until: “And the best way you can tear down the patriarchy is to buy my book right now.” Huh?

There have also been a lot of ugly accusations thrown around concerning racial diversity in our genre. I’ve had good friends smeared on both sides. Their motives have been questioned and it’s horrible. But good things come out of turmoil and I’m glad to see a dedication to increasing the diversity in our gene. It won’t happen immediately and we can’t get there soon enough, but I’m glad many members of our community are taking steps to moving it in the right direction.

My take on controversies at conventions is simple. If you see or hear of someone stepping out of line or doing something horrible, do something. Call them out on it directly, or get someone else to do it. Demand answers. You’re entitled to them. If not, then remain content to talk about craft beer and social injustice and stay in the corner where you belong while the people who are actually trying to improve things do their work.

OBAAT: Dark Territory followed Where the Bullets Fly by only six months. Is this a sign of a permanent shift toward Westerns? Two books you got ideas for at once and had to get off your chest? Or do Westerns seem to come quicker for you?

TM: Where the Bullets Fly was actually written ten years ago before I was published. I had it on my computer for a long time while I waited to see if the genre might rebound. When my agent asked me for a list of all my work, I figured he’d ignore the western. To my surprise, that’s what he focused on. The good people over at Kensington were interested and they bought it. They asked for Dark Territory so quickly because they knew I was in between projects at the time.

Writing about the west comes quicker to me now than it did when I started Bullets. I know these characters now. I’m comfortable with them and the world they inhabit. Writing about Aaron Mackey and Billy Sunday and the evil James Grant is easier because I know them now, but it’s by no means easy. I try to make each book a bit different than the last, so each work presents its own new set of challenges.  

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