Jeff Guinn on weaving the past into fiction and nonfiction
Jeff Guinn, whose newest book launched last week and who will be a featured author at the 2015 Texas Book Festival, has written about everyone from Santa Claus to Charles Manson—literally. And it’s his sense of the literal in historical fiction that has created such a huge following and a fan base for the Fort Worth writer. Known for his meticulous and extensive research, Guinn often debunks historic myths in his novels. His latest, Buffalo Trail: A Novel of the American West (Putnam, 2015), is sure to attract Texas readers and discussion with its retelling of the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. Guinn took time from launching his new book to chat via email.

LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: Jeff, you are a self-described military brat who grew up mostly in Italy, Germany, and England, but you spent much of your adulthood in Fort Worth, Texas. In the course of these interviews we’ve run across many Texas authors who hail from Fort Worth—Gary Cartwright, Sandra Brown, Dan Jenkins, among others. It seems to be fertile ground for writers. How has living in Fort Worth informed your writing?


JEFF GUINN: You can't live in the same city as Dan Jenkins and Sandra Brown, meet and talk with them, and not learn a great deal about effective storytelling. Beyond that, one of my greatest advantages in living in Fort Worth was becoming books editor of the Star-Telegram. I spent years interacting with exceptional writers who were generous in describing their work habits and writing techniques. I tried to listen carefully. The drawback to living in Fort Worth is that, with Dan and Sandra also here, I can never rise higher than #3 local author.



It seems like in Texas we have a literary tradition of many of our best authors coming from newspaper backgrounds. When you were a journalist, did you ever think you’d make the leap to writing books? How did your first “big break” into being an author come along? Do you ever “miss” the newspaper business, like stopping in front of a newspaper rack to see how a story is played?


I wanted to write books from the time I was eight and started reading John Steinbeck novels. Like most journalists, I always hoped the day would come when I'd write books instead of daily stories. My first books were written for a small area publisher. My big break came in 2004 when Tarcher (a Penguin imprint) republished my first novel, The Autobiography of Santa Claus. It hit the New York Times bestseller list and I've pretty much gone on from there. I frankly don't miss being a journalist. The business has changed a lot, and I would have hated to become one of those old timers just hanging on and constantly griping how things were so much better back in the day. (Though they really were.)



You are known as being an avid researcher. How does research for historical fiction, such as Buffalo Trail or Glorious, vary from nonfiction research, such as Manson or Bonnie and Clyde?


Whether I'm writing nonfiction or history-based fiction, my research process is always the same. I go to wherever the action takes place and try to immerse myself. It's crucial to give readers a realistic sense of time and place. I want them to be able to imagine themselves there, right beside the main characters. For Glorious, I actually tried prospecting for silver. For Buffalo Trail, I went out to the Texas Panhandle and tried to pace off exact distances. Going places, seeing things for myself — that's part of the fun.



Your fictional protagonist Cash McLendon of the Glorious and Buffalo Trail novels has been described as the Forrest Gump of the Old West — he encounters and interacts with actual historical figures. But the characters in your novels debunk myth. Can you tell which myths in these two books have been supplanted with factual details gleaned from your research?


I think all of my books, fiction and nonfiction, are at least partially about real history as opposed to mythology. In Glorious and Buffalo Trail, I try to present the real historical figures as they really were — Ike Clanton as a blustering drunk, Doc Holliday as a bad-tempered card cheat but exceptional dentist, Bat Masterson as a young hustler making a living picking up and selling buffalo bones for fertilizer. I'm particularly anxious to discount the traditional one-dimensional presentation of the so-called Old West as a place where every town had Main Street shootouts and high noon and Indians mounted large-scale attacks on settlements every other day or so. Frontier history is much more complex, much richer, than that.



Why do you suppose Texans are so intrigued with Quanah Parker and the Battle of Adobe Walls? This era in our history continues to fascinate readers.


The second battle of Adobe Walls, the one I write about in Buffalo Trail, is unique in several ways. There's an overwhelming tribal coalition that substantially outnumbers the white defenders, but superior firepower ultimately makes the difference. Quanah Parker, Isatai, Billy Dixon — these are colorful, charismatic individuals who don't require exaggeration to be interesting. There's the intrinsic drama of an era ending — after this, the Red River War is going to finish off the threat of Southern Plains tribes for once and for all. I'm especially pleased to introduce readers to an amazing real-life figure I'll bet they know nothing about — Mochi of the Cheyenne, perhaps the greatest woman warrior ever among Native Americans. I'd never even heard of her until the staff at the Panhandle-Plains Museum in Canyon brought her to my attention. Everyone should know about Mochi. I may have to write a spinoff novel so I can take her story beyond Adobe Walls.



Which writers did you enjoy reading growing up? Who do you enjoy reading now?


John Steinbeck's work amazed me when I was a little boy. It still does. When I was a freshman in high school I read T. H. White's The Once and Future King, and that really expanded my literary horizons. Today I'm constantly dazzled by Robert Olen Butler, Suzan-Lori Parks, Sandra Cisneros, Bill Bryson, and James Lee Burke, among others. Whenever I'm personally having a bad writing day, I reread passages from Goodbye to a River by John Graves. He's an inspiration.



How long does it take you to write a book, and what’s your writing process like?


I can usually research and write a novel in about eight months to a year. The nonfiction projects take longer, two or even three years if there's a lot of traveling and interviewing to be done. Over the last few years I've usually been writing two books at once, fiction and nonfiction. It's challenging sometimes. Once I begin a book, I work on it every day until it's finished — no holidays. I get up about 5:30 a.m., take the dog for a walk, have breakfast, and try to start writing by 7. I take a lunch break, write some more until mid-afternoon, read over and edit what I've done for the day, and finish up sometime between 4 and 5 pm. When I'm on the road doing research or a book tour, I work in the motel room at night.



How has publishing changed in the decade that you’ve been writing books full-time?


Publishing has become even more of a bottom-line business. Quality of writing is secondary to market potential. Successful book proposals to publishers almost always include sections on target reader markets — authors have to think like sales reps. There's less time now for writers to build up audiences. If you haven't started earning profits for publishers after one or two books, you're out the door. So it's necessary to be practical as well as creative, a tough combination.



What advice would you give to aspiring authors?


Aspiring writers should never give up. Just about every successful author I know wrote two or three books that got turned down everywhere before one finally was sold. Early rejection is part of the process, but the only way it's certain it'll never happen for you is if you stop trying.



Last but not least: what’s the quintessential Texas meal for Jeff Guinn?


If Mexican food ever becomes a banned substance, I'll be in prison for life. My quintessential Texas meal is a cheese-filled chile relleno at Benito's in Fort Worth, with a taco de barbacoa on the side. If you're ever in Fort Worth, get to Benito's in the hospital district. It's where I take all my writer friends when they come through town. Maybe I'll see you there.


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Praise for Jeff Guinn’s BUFFALO TRAIL:


“Guinn makes lively characters of historical buffalo hunters, and his imaginative take booms like a Sharps .50 as cultures collide across the Cimarron River….Guinn's research brings to life the daily lives of the Comanche….Few Westerns reach the level of Lonesome Dove, but Guinn's latest is a better, more rambunctious tale than the trilogy's opener.” —Kirkus Reviews


“Full of historical notable figures from the Old West, this second volume in Guinn’s trilogy not only provides a buoyant narrative but also several lessons in Western history. This title is so well constructed that it could stand alone (for readers new to the trilogy). Guinn skillfully ties his carefully constructed prologue outlining the Massacre at Sand Creek (1864) to a lone female warrior he imagines at the Second Battle at Adobe Walls.” —Library Journal


“A grand effort, and Quanah and his bogus medicine man, Isatai, are an entertaining pair.” —Booklist


“Jeff Guinn’s Buffalo Trail is history-based Old West fiction at its finest.” —Dallas Morning News

Jeff Guinn is the winner of the 2016 TCU Texas Book Award and the bestselling author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including Silver CityBuffalo Trail, Glorious, Manson, The Last Gunfight, and Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. The former books editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and award-winning investigative journalist, he is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. Guinn lives in Fort Worth.