Interview by Lincoln Farrish: WIDOWMAKER

(This article originally appeared in 2016 as a guest-blog on author Lincoln Farrish’s Farrish’s Freehold website. Dated items have either been updated or excised.)

WIDOWMAKER is the first book in a semi-noir series following Shepherd Sunday, a war-scarred veteran of the Boxer Rebellion and Philippine War, and chief of security for the Eastern Nevada Mine Owners’ Association.

It is 1907—an era of Ragtime saloons and isolated mining camps, horse-drawn wagons and swift new motorcars, overnight millionaires and unemployed hordes. In the scramble for Nevada’s incredible mineral wealth, mine owners and unions are locked in a death-struggle. In this war, no one is neutral, but the orders detective Shepard Sunday follows put him at odds with his long-dormant conscience. When his boss decides he wants Sunday’s girlfriend for his own, Sunday finds that a price has been placed on his head and that the only people he can turn to are his former enemies in the miners’ union. Evidence of a monstrous fraud may be what Sunday needs to bring down his boss’s corrupt empire, but only if he can survive long enough to take it public. Fraught with class, social, and race issues that echo across the decades, WIDOWMAKER is a white-knuckled tour of one of America’s forgotten battlefields.

Excerpt from Chapter One, WIDOWMAKER

Funny thing about these desert snowstorms: rarely does anything accumulate. On the highest peaks, sure, but down in the basins or on west-facing slopes like the one Delamar occupies, often nothing stays. It can storm for hours on end but the stuff just blows away. God knows where it all goes.

Between the hour and the weather, no one’s out and the streets are empty. Curt’s put chains on the tires so other than some slipping and sliding, our drive up to the Black Cat is uneventful. We speak of practicalities. Nothing friendly and nothing important, and since neither of us can keep the windscreen clear, before long he leans outside just so he can see the road. Almost as bad, the fast-falling snow throws back so much glare from the Pierce-Arrow’s headlamps that he simply shuts them off and runs dark. Curt is nothing if not confident, though, and we continue at a pace that seems excessive in view of conditions. Road uphill is narrow but not especially steep, and good thing, too, given how it turns back on itself five or six times before we reach the narrow summit of Chokecherry Ridge. Down the ridge’s back, though, Christ, the road’s a rocky mess and it’s a wonder my teeth aren’t chipped. At last, Curt throttles back until we are barely crawling between the cedars.

Typical for this corner of the district, the Black Cat Mine is a shirttail outfit. Its dumps are small. Full-time crew of six, around four-hundred feet of drifts, and three buildings clustered near the main incline’s mouth. A concrete magazine for storing explosives hunkers in the woods a hundred yards to the south. I know this because I have one of the keys to it. To date, I don’t think the property has produced more than a few carloads of shipping ore. Could be the Association keeps it going just so that those of us in security have someplace we can put in scutwork without attracting attention. Or maybe it’s a blue-sky concern, operating just so our boss’s agents can curb stock in San Francisco and New York. Again, I don’t know.

Curt says something, but it sounds like he has a frog in his throat.

Wasn’t paying attention so I ask him to repeat himself.

“Gold Cord, bub; upper Helene Wash. Cobb Farlane’s property.”

“What about it?”

“It’s running wild.”

“Yeah? Well, I haven’t followed the markets in a while.”

“Your loss.” Curt clears his throat, spits out the window, and wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “One of the shift bosses told me things were doing—that they’d struck a rich new ledge but weren’t gonna announce it for five days—so last week I bought a thousand shares at twenty-five cents. Closed this afternoon at four and three-fucking-quarters. Sold it all, too—how do you like that?”

“That’s something, alright.” Who knows if he’s telling the truth or just trying to get a rise out of me?

“Minus commissions, that forty-one hundred eighty dollars.”

“I’m pretty good at math, thanks.” I take a small flask from my jacket and down a slug.

The car’s rear wheels spin and spit rocks as we climb a rough stretch. I grab a strut to keep from bouncing out the door and a shotgun set across the back-seat clatters to the floor.

Soon as the car reaches firmer ground, Curt coughs and spits out the window. “Thought you played the markets, no?”

“Not lately.”

Not since last March, anyway. System’s rigged as far as I’m concerned. Back in February I was a rich man, too—on paper, anyway. Lasted about two weeks and then the floor collapsed. Me, I’d been reading about how the bigwigs were scalping the markets—Charles Schwab, Bernard Baruch, and George Wingfield—and son of a bitch, I caught Greenwater fever at the eleventh hour. What a sucker. Bought $5,000 worth of shares on margin. Watched these soar to $45,327.15, and in a span of nine hours, ended up with a trunkful of paper worth about fifty cents. Worked off-book to pay down most of what I owed the broker, collecting debts and such, but still I’m short about a thousand dollars so I’ve been living like a bum ever since. I’ll bet five thousand people all across this state could tell you how they’ve been butchered in similar fashion. Nevada has more former millionaires than New York and Boston have real ones.

And despite this smashup—hell, because of it—I can’t help looking for the next big play. That’s just how it is here. Everyone’s afflicted, everyone’s looking to get rich overnight. Something new ever comes along, mark my words, this time I’ll get out faster than I got in. I just need another break.

Curt coughs and spits out the window. “You jump in now, might still be room to run—who knows?”

“I’m done playing the markets,” I lie.

“Well, too bad for you.” He spits out the window again.

Glancing sideways, even as he’s straining to see through the swirling darkness, I can tell Big Curt is wearing that ugly grin of his.

Bastard.

Questions:

What is your main character’s motivation?

Initially, Sunday is obsessed with revenge against a former associate, someone who betrayed him twice—once during the Philippine War and again after they’d returned to Nevada. Later, Sunday finds himself at odds with his former boss, Jack Lipford, and his thirst for revenge becomes a burning desire to see Lipford brought low and his empire destroyed.

What is his secret strength/weakness?

Sunday’s greatest strength is his adaptability, whether assuming a false identity to escape a hostile situation or improvising during his escape from the isolated mining camp of Delamar. His greatest weakness is arrogance—a stubborn insistence on believing what he wants in spite of evidence to the contrary. This leads him to underestimate potentially lethal adversaries and to trust others who are anything but allies.

Any philosophical issues in this story?

I tend to root for underdogs. For people who make amends after doing wrong. Both of these outlooks figure into WIDOWMAKER. I also detest the abuse of power. I cheer when abusers—whether individuals, corporations, or governments—get their comeuppance.

In the course of my research, I found interesting parallels between events at the turns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. First is a concentration of wealth in the hands of a few individuals. In both eras, these wealthy few subsequently used their money to try to bend the entire republic to their benefit. Both eras also saw widespread public opposition to these plutocrats (primarily unions and Progressive politicians in the 1900s [recently, political writers have made several flimsy comparisons between Teddy Roosevelt and Donald Trump]; today’s opposition is rather less-well defined). As well, there were controversial foreign wars (the Vietnam War [1965-1973], and the Philippine War [officially, 1898], which quickly went from being an effort to free the Philippines from Spanish control to a long counter-insurgency [1898- 1903] against Filipino forces who felt they’d been cheated of their rightful independence). Racial animosities affected nearly every region of the country. And lastly, both eras witnessed rapid and disruptive technological changes.

When did you start to write this one and why?

I started writing WIDOWMAKER about three and a half years ago. I love studying the history of mining and the settlement of the interior West, but I’m not aware of much fiction addressing these subjects from angles that interest me. Ninety percent of the time when I tell someone I’m writing Western fiction, they ask if it’s about cowboys and Indians, and I am just not a cowboys-and-Indians guy. Frontiersmen, romance, or ranching, either. Mines and miners are what I like. I’m writing what I want to read.

When will it be available?

WIDOWMAKER is currently with an editor; I hope to have all my re-writes completed by May of this year [2017]. Then my agent gets to do his magic. Early 2018, maybe?

What’s next in this series or in your next book?

I imagine Shepherd Sunday still has at least a half-dozen stories left in him, spanning the remainder of Nevada’s boom years (1900-1915), across World War I, and on into the Great Depression. He may wander into an adjacent state or two, but generally I see him as a creature of the West and living out his life there. I’m done researching and plotting books two and three, so I have a good idea what I’ll be working on for the next several years.

Where do you get your ideas?

Reading and travel. Reading for ideas about people, places, and events. Travel for the sensations unique to a particular place: its weather, sounds, and smells. Far easier to write about a place having stirred its dust.

When did you start writing?

I’ve always enjoyed reading, and I think writing is a natural extension of that. I wrote for creative publications in high school and college. Had a few freelance articles published as an adult, but didn’t feel the urge to write books until I was in my 30s. Perhaps I heard some biological clock ticking. I’ve always held jobs where I’ve written a great deal, though typically it’s very dry, technical stuff (any fictions penned on behalf of my employers were unintentional). Creative writing is an antidote to all that repetition and conformity.

Before my kids were born, I had a small art career going and that was my creative outlet. By some quirk in my DNA, though, I find it intensely frustrating to sit down at the easel for anything less than four uninterrupted hours. Now that I have kids, that just never happens. With writing, I find I can easily pick up where I left off and ten minutes of writing is as satisfying as ten hours.

I self-published a Civil War novel in 2012 (http://www.amazon.com/Glorieta-Quinn-Kayser-Cochran/dp/0615669905 with more information at http://quinnkaysercochran.com/). I don’t promote it much, though, because truth be told, I’d love to reel it back in for repairs. Let me spin a cautionary tale for independents working on their first book: more than a marketing plan, more than an online platform, even more than an agent, what you want is a good editor. Many independent authors could substantially improve their work by finding someone (freelance editor, wise mentor, etc.) who will call them on their BS and cull all the weak sub-plots, gaps in logic, and flabby prose everyone puts into their first several drafts. Not supportive friends or family who will overlook or minimize problems to spare your feelings. Writing is re-writing and finding someone to coach you through that process is essential. What you want is a cold-eyed realist who will drag you away from your own worst instincts. That said, finding the right freelance editor is hard. For one, the good ones are expensive but you will unquestionably get what you pay for. For GLORIETA, I hired two freelance editors on the cheap. The first was a good copyeditor, but she said not a word about the story’s spine, characterizations, or progressive complications, etc. The second editor was terrible. Just terrible. Dopey suggestions. Questionable copyedits. At that point, I’m afraid I basically threw my hands up and contacted CreateSpace just so I could get that damned manuscript off my desk. I’d been slugging away for about eight years.

and I just ran out of steam. The result is a passable third draft, brimming with potential but riddled with flaws. Someday maybe I’ll revisit GLORIETA, chop away a third, and tidy up all the loose ends (another cautionary tale: just because you’re working with a publishing company, don’t assume there won’t be issues with typesetting or format. GLORIETA has several. After several rounds of proofs, I only skimmed the last one and missed typos, run-togethers, and an epigraph tacked onto the end of a preceding chapter—some of which were not in earlier proofs). Then again, maybe I won’t. There are other stories that need to be written.

Who or what inspired you to become a writer?

Every good book I’ve ever read. For nonfiction, I appreciate J. Anthony Lukas, John Krakauer, Walter Karp, and academics such as Sally Zanjani and Brian Linn. For fiction, I enjoy reading Hilary Mantel, Joseph Conrad, Henry Miller, Donna Tartt, and Russell Banks.

As a reader, I skew 3/1 in favor of nonfiction, so I suppose my interest in fiction is my way of putting flesh on the bones of history. That, and I love every minute I get to spend in front of a keyboard.

What is the hardest part about being a writer?

Consistent production. Distractions are everywhere. And I write slowly. I wish I was monumentally productive, but I am not. Not at all. That’s the reason I rarely blog: it takes everything I have to produce one manuscript every four to five years.

2017-06-01T04:14:42+00:00 April 17th, 2016|History, Writing|0 Comments

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