Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Bookjam: Three Writers, One Topic
by Anne S. Lewis
Back in the spring of 1987, Texas writer Elizabeth Crook had two balls in the air. Her first book ("The Raven's Bride," about Sam Houston's 11-week marriage to Eliza Allen) was finished, but needed a publisher. Meanwhile, she was working on another one, a novel based on the Texas revolution of 1836. When Texas Monthly Press expressed interest in "The Raven's Bride," Ms. Crook met with one of its editors, Stephen Harrigan. Over lunch here, Mr. Harrigan happened to mention that he himself had a historical novel in the works . . . something about the Texas revolution if 1836.
Ms. Crook recalls vividly the panic, the surge of authorial territoriality -- "This man was writing my book!" When she recovered sufficiently to sputter out her own identical project, it was Mr. Harrigan's turn to experience "the sheer terror of having your subject matter poached upon." An awkward silence hovered over the lunch table. "Then, we started laying dibs on different battles," Ms. Crook remembers. "Steve promised not to write about the massacre at Goliad if I wouldn't write about the Alamo. And it was settled, just like that."
Little did these two Austin writers know that Jeff Long, a Boulder, Colo., writer whom Ms. Crook had met while researching her first book, had recently embarked upon -- what else? -- a novel about . . .the Texas revolution of 1836. Luckily, he'd settled on the remaining significant battle site, San Jacinto.
Surprisingly, Ms. Crook's friendship with Mr. Long flourished, as did her new association with Mr. Harrigan, even though she later changed publishers. Fittingly, the two men met at her book signing in New York when "The Raven's Bride" (Doubleday) finally came out in 1991. And they liked each other. So now there were three friends working in two cities on the same subject, each re-examining through personal prisms, and with very different agendas, the mythology surrounding Texas's fight for independence from Mexico.
It was, by any measure, an unusual situation, and a potentially perilous one. After all, it is every novelist's worst nightmare to discover that someone else is writing his book. But now these writers were friends and the question became: How do friends proceed to work on three parallel projects? Each could have worked in isolation, outwardly convivial but inwardly anxious, fretting about the impact that the other two books would have on his or her own market share. Instead, they decided to collaborate, share their neuroses and their ideas -- and have some fun, too.
Why not, Mr. Harrigan suggested, share a few characters -- to titillate, and reward, anyone who read all three books? So, for example, one of Ms. Crook's main characters makes a cameo appearance in Mr. Long's book and will also appear in Mr. Harrigan's. And though Mr. Harrigan's book is not yet finished, one of his primary characters has already appeared in print -- in Mr. Long's just published novel, "Empire of Bones" (William Morrow, 265 pages, $22).
Mr. Harrigan says he doesn't mind: "True, we have a few characters in common, but when those characters wander from one book to another, they enter completely different landscapes."
Indeed, Mr. Harrigan's and Ms. Crook's books are almost certain to give a very different view of the 1836 rebellion than Mr. Long's. He is the political revisionist of the group. This was already clear from his highly controversial earlier non-fiction book about Texas history, "Duel of Eagles." Contrary to what Texas schoolchildren may learn, Mr. Long views Texas's struggle with Mexico as "no noble bid for freedom, but rather a bald attempt at land theft." Thus the battle at San Jacinto, generally regarded as a holy battle of redemption for Texas, is depicted in "Empire of Bones" as a massacre, waged not by heroes and martyrs but by a greedy horde of land thieves.
Mr. Harrigan prefers to sidestep such political judgments. A diverse writer whose most recent book was "Water and Light," a personal investigation of scuba diving, Mr. Harrigan will not be giving Houghton Mifflin a manuscript that will trouble any Austin neighbors who remember the Alamo with pride. He calls himself a "casualty of the Fess Parker version of the Davy Crockett legend" and is writing about the Alamo because he's "spent a lifetime trying to conjure up this place that has always seemed the essence of antiquity and mystery."
Ms. Crook's "Promised Lands" centers on the experiences of Hispanic Texans at the massacre at Goliad and will be published by Doubleday next year. She puts herself somewhere between Mr. Harrigan's detachment and Mr. Long's polemical stance. "I prefer to tell the story and let the themes percolate up through the characters," she explains.
Ms. Crook, Mr. Long and Mr. Harrigan share an obsession with the details of everyday life in Texas in 1836. Did people use shoelaces? What did they use to clean their teeth? Answers must be painstakingly culled from academic journals, diaries, personal histories and other primary sources housed in archives around the state. Mr. Long filled 10,000 index cards with historical arcana for "Duel of Eagles." It made sense that the three would pool their voluminous files -- and look over each other's shoulders in an informal three-way editing network.
"Their comments were always different," Ms. Crook observed. "Jeff is more cause-oriented. He wants to change things through his books, rewrite the Texas myth. He wanted me to change the ending of my book to have more of a political impact."
Mr. Long laughs as he recalls Ms. Crook's discomfort each time he portrayed her hero, Sam Houston, in a less-than-flattering light, revealing, for example, his opium addiction, and that he wore a girdle. "She felt it was OK to make Houston look bad, just not silly," he says.
Ms. Crook was, however, open to suggestions, even to the point of accepting actual language from Mr. Harrigan when she hit a rough spot in her story. When it was time to kill off one of her favorite female characters, she was too attached to the woman to commit the "murder" herself. At first she laughed when Mr. Harrigan offered to write the scene for her, but later she accepted. "I wrote the lead-up and then went out for a jog," she recalls. "When I got home, there was the death scene on my fax machine. I read it and wept -- I felt like I'd let someone else take my dog to the vet to be put to sleep. I made some changes, but the scene was definitely better for the objectivity Steve brought to it."
So will this friendship-cum-literary collaboration survive the publication of all three novels? Sure, Mr. Harrigan says, "so long as we don't review each other's books."