Writing the High Country; or, Author Larry Bjornson on His Western, Wide Open

Writing a novel is hard work. Writing a good western can be even more daunting: westerns, which tend to have plotlines so well traveled you can drive a wagon train through them, nonetheless require historical specificity and a protagonist who typifies rugged individuality—laconic and gimlet-eyed from the start or in a dude-to-hero arc.

So whenever I read a western that takes the well-worn themes of the West—cowboys vs. settlers, wild frontier vs. banks and churches, flamboyant historical figure vs. stolid community—and adds texture and complexity and humanity, I stop skimming and begin reading.

Wide Open, the debut novel of Larry Bjornson (Berkeley Trade Paperback Original, published June 5, 2012; www.wideopennovel.com) is set in 1871 Abilene, Kansas, at the beginning of the end of the Wild West. It’s an epic—i.e., a lot of small stories that trace the greater story of a shift in society—that mainly follows a protagonist, a young “townie” named Will Merritt, as he and the infamous cowtown Abilene grow up. Will and his townie comrades idolize the rowdy cowboys and their cattle-driving life, but as Will befriends a family of settlers, he finds his loyalties tested and must choose between the Old West of adventure and the New West of settlement, between cowboys and winter wheat, between being accepted and making his own way.

Abilene, 1875

While farmers struggle to bring their fields to harvest on the outskirts of town, Wild Bill Hickok is hired by Abilene to bring law and order—of a sorts—inside Texastown, the town’s “wrong side of the tracks,” as the cattle herds begin to arrive from Texas. Will’s father is the catalyst for change, introducing winter wheat that can be harvested in the late fall, which would allow farms to be profitable, bring more settlers in, and tilt the balance away from the seasonal drifting cowboys toward stable, year-round citizens.

Our hero begins as the city-kid version of a Westerner—with pulp-novel-inspired dreams—but the reality of a grimmer, more violent West and a budding love (a must-have in a western!) confront him with opportunities to change. In a true-to-life story of adolescence the boy backslides a bit (for example, to keep his place in the city-kids gang, he helps humiliate a drunken farmer who has fallen into their clutches) yet he does find the strength to act against violence when his conscience—and love—force him to choose when the stakes are highest. In so doing, he reveals himself as a true western protagonist: he creates his own story (one of the themes of westerns–the ability for someone to reinvent him or herself by crossing the Mississippi) and changing from a callow youth to a man (gimlet-eyed or not).

The fundamental idea in traditional westerns is that progress is inevitable and desired. Recent nontraditional westerns portray the West as a dark place, where society is opportunistic and violent and conflicts remain unresolved. (Compare classics like The Virginian and Shane with The Sisters Brothers and No Country for Old Men.) In the traditional style, Wide Open describes a West where ultimately agriculture and its winter wheat win, and the protagonist takes his place as a productive member of society. What I truly, dearly loved is what caught my eye, my nose, and all the rest of my senses–the period flavor to this arc, the vivid descriptions of the fording swollen rivers, the cattle pens’ stink, the raucous nights in Texastown, the smell of sod freshly ploughed, and more.

Randolph Scott understood Abilene makes a good story, too. Abilene Town, 1946.

I asked Larry Bjornson a few questions about writing Wide Open, and he graciously answered with descriptions of his writing process—inspirational reading for any kind of writer—as well as the truth behind the myth of the Wild West and Wild Bill Hickok.

Bucko: What was especially compelling about Wide Open was that while you showed a conflict often found in traditional westerns, that of the cowboys/cattle barons versus the pioneers/farmers—portraying the greater conflict of “every man for himself” versus “act for the greater good”—you took pains to keep from picking sides, showing both the Texas cowboys and the farmers as part of a bigger society. You even chose to “center” the action in the town of Abilene, a place that both stood to gain and lose something in this conflict. But it’s also a simple (though not simplistic) coming-of-age-story, that of Will learning what it takes to take a stand for his principles. What inspired you to explore this kind of historically fraught conflict in such a way? And the end result seems very cohesive and complex. As a writer myself, and with many writer-readers, I’m always interested in how the original inspiration transforms and is honed to final, published result. Can you share any of that process?

Larry Bjornson: Almost everyone involved in creative endeavors wonders about “the process” of bringing a project to a successful conclusion. How is it done? I suspect that the question is essentially unanswerable. My book is approximately 100,000 words long, and I estimate that in writing it I probably made over a million decisions large and small. So, how did I do it? To a disturbing degree, looking back, I have no idea. And even more disturbing, I have no idea how I will do it again. In the end, I simply have to have faith. Many of the story elements in the book that I like the best simply popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.  I frequently got out of bed in the middle of the night, or pulled over to the side of the road, to write down ideas that had abruptly appeared.

Oddly, I’ve found that music can bring on a creative storm. On a number of occasions I would lay on the couch with one particular song playing over and over in the background and write an entire chapter in my head. That, by the way, is how the book’s prologue was written.

As to the more workaday aspects of writing, here’s the routine I followed. I began by doing a tremendous amount of reading, mostly source material written in the book’s historical era or in later years by people who had lived through the era. Additionally, I read a good number of scholarly works, such as Robert Dykstra’s The Cattle Towns. During this time of unfocused reading, I kept my eye open for “the one,” the idea that could drive a book and strongly capture my enthusiasm.

I also took notes–pages of notes, reams of notes, piles of notes. Eventually, my notebooks stood two feet tall when piled up. They mostly contained facts about life in the mid to late 19th century, often seemingly inconsequential facts, facts about how something was done, lifestyle, customs, habits, attitudes, dialect, slang, anything that struck me as even remotely useful or interesting. I then created a filing system that allowed me to access the facts I needed on almost any topic or situation.

In time, after I had settled on the general story that you see in Wide Open, my reading became much more specific. I went to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, where I read the 1871 issues of the Abilene Chronicle, city council notes, and personal recollections. I also went to Abilene to get a feel for the place and terrain.

Perhaps there is an insight into the creative process in this long academic slog. Saturate yourself in the material long enough, and eventually you begin to live in it and make creative connections that are new and exciting.

In the end, what drew me to the story of 1871 Abilene was the political complexity of the place. It was a divided hotbed of three distinct and fairly cantankerous groups–transient Texans, county settlers, and townspeople–each one highly prejudiced against and mistrustful of the other two, but locked together by mutual dependencies. They disliked, even hated, each other but were inescapably held in close contact by the things they needed and wanted (money, land, railroad access, supplies, etc.).

But what clinched the deal for me was a rather obscure statement in a rather obscure source, which mentioned in passing that Abilene’s teenage boys were divided into two informal gangs, membership being determined by the occupation of the boys’ fathers. These warring teenage gangs were a youthful reflection of Abilene’s adult society. If your father’s business catered to the Texas cattle trade, you were in the pro-Texan gang. If your father made his living from commerce with the local farmers, you were in the smaller pro-settler gang. This, combined with the extraordinary finale to Hickok’s tenure as marshal of Abilene, was enough for me to settle on this time and place as the historical basis for Wide Open.

Finally, on your observation that I avoided picking sides (thanks for noticing!). Yes, that was one of my guiding principles–no pure heroes or villains, either among the individual characters or among the three major factions of Abilene society, the Texans, the settlers, and the town dwellers. Everyone in the book, even the best of them, at some point behaves badly. And even the worst are capable of honorable actions.

As for Will Merritt, he has to discover what his principles are before he can stand up for them. At the beginning of the story, he has no idea. He’s a teenager and hasn’t given it much thought. By the end, though, he knows exactly what his principles are, and it sets the course for his long life.

B: Louis L’Amour once said that “for one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived.” I would say this holds true for one who writes as well. Your details are incredibly rich, from the dangerous crossings of the Kansas rivers to the rough-and-tumble of cowboying to the drudgery of farming. Apart from the historical details, which you bring vividly to life, what details came from your own direct experience and what came from research?

LB: Well, I was bucked off a horse once when I was twelve, something I was enormously proud of (if I’d broken my neck, I’d feel differently about the matter). To be honest, it wasn’t much of a horse. “A swayback nag” to be accurate.

More to the point, for the past three generations my family has owned, and sometimes operated, a farm in North Dakota. My father’s grandparents immigrated to Canada around the time period of Wide Open after their farm in Iceland had been buried in ash by one of that island’s periodic volcanic eruptions. No sooner were they settled in Manitoba than a diphtheria epidemic swept through the area and killed all four of their children.

Unwilling to stay in such a sad place, and now alone, they moved to North Dakota. Here their luck changed dramatically. They had four more children, among, them my grandfather, all of whom survived to old age. My grandfather bought our current farm during World War II while my father was overseas. There are definitely some echoes of this family history in Wide Open.

My grandfather met and married my grandmother in Cody, Wyoming, a town founded by Buffalo Bill Cody. On one occasion, grandfather, who was a member of the town’s band, played a violin solo for Buffalo Bill. And, of course, Buffalo Bill was a close friend of Wild Bill.

Probably the most important factor of my personal experience relative to the book, however, was my parents’ love of reading and history. That, truly, is where Wide Open began.

B: Wild Bill Hickok is so famous and infamous it’s hard to discover something new about him. In Wide Open, you bring out a possible kinder, gentler side by having Hickock befriend Will; in addition, as I was reading about Hickock’s interest in Shakespeare, I couldn’t help but think of him as an actor in his own tragedy, aware of his fate yet unable to stop himself from rushing toward it. In your research about the man, what struck you about him that you feel has been overlooked?

LB: As I like to say–he wasn’t Wild, and he wasn’t Bill.

Most people who know anything about him understand that his given name was James, not William. But they probably assume he was called Wild because of wildness. I would say, however, that he wasn’t particularly wild by the standards of the westerners.

He certainly wasn’t a sociopath (as a number of the West’s gunmen were) or even someone who picked fights or looked for trouble. Generally speaking trouble came to him. Mostly this was the natural consequence of the places he frequented and the types of men that inhabited those places. Hickok was not the loud, obnoxious, swaggering type. He was clean, well dressed, style conscious, and someone who was happiest when left alone to play poker. But, anyone who has a big personal presence and frequents tough saloons and gambling dens is going to have problems. The same is true today. Imagine you’re a big guy who spends every night in biker bars. What are the odds that you’re going to run into trouble?

Unfortunately for challengers, he was “a bad man to fool with,” and once aroused, he would cut to the chase very rapidly with anyone who was stupid enough to confront him. He was physically huge, capable of crystal-clear thinking in dangerous, fast-moving situations, pretty much devoid of fear, and highly skilled in violence. Until the day he was assassinated (from behind), his challengers had always ended up dead or hurting.

There are a variety of tales describing how he became “Wild Bill,” some told by a straight-faced Hickok, daring the listener to believe him. Here’s the one I believe. For a time, before and during the Civil War, Hickok’s brother, Lorenzo, got a job driving for a freighting company. For unknown reasons, Lorenzo preferred to be called Bill. As was often the case in those days, the men of the freighting yard gave Lorenzo a descriptive nickname. Because he was a shy, quiet, introverted man, he became known as Tame Bill.

It appears that James also worked for the same outfit periodically. James, in contrast to his brother, was much more outgoing, ready to laugh, a practical joker, given to humorous stories, and certainly happy to have a drink with the boys (although he often assured his mother in letters home that he was not drinking). So, to distinguish James from Tame Bill, the men began referring to him as Wild Bill.

That has the ring of truth to me.

B: Do you have westerns that inspired you to write Wide Open, either novels, stories, or films?

LB: The conquering of the West was largely a commercial enterprise. Certainly, there were those that went west for freedom and adventure, but most went there to make their fortune. This was particularly so in the towns, and Abilene was an exaggerated case even relative to the hyper-commercialism that dominated the more typical prairie towns. The disdain held by Abilene businessmen for the spendthrift, partying Texas cowboys knew no bounds. To them, Texan behavior was a revolting waste of human potential and a hindrance to the quick, efficient advance of civilization across the wilderness. Texan roistering was seen as a temptation to the town’s youth, an infectious threat to general morality, and possibly a menace to physical safety. And yet, and yet, despite their feelings of disgust, the town was just making piles of money from Texas cattle and Texas cowboys. Morality versus business. What to do? This is the conflict behind the extraordinary developments of Abilene’s momentous 1871 cattle season.

As much as possible, I wanted the book to come from materials that have survived from the original place and time. To the exclusion of other influences, I tried to live in the source material–recollections, reminiscences, letters, newspapers, city council notes, historical nonfiction, and so on. I wanted to see things through the eyes of those that were there and avoid allowing anyone else to step in between the source and me. I hoped that this would make my work a reflection of the times and give the reader a feeling of being there. Consequently, I ceased reading all Western fiction, and to a lesser degree all other fiction, while working on Wide Open.

Still, there have been fictional works that had an effect on me as I was selecting the story I wanted to tell and the way I would tell it. To Kill a Mockingbird beautifully weaves the lives and personal issues of fictional characters into a larger moral dilemma of the community in which they live. I also admired the way the Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven showed the moral confusion of “the Schofield Kid,” (the youthful sidekick of Eastwood’s William Munny character), when the reality of his actions clashed harshly with who he thought he was and what he thought he believed.

Larry Bjornson


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