This first-time novelist draws on the stark landscapes of his hometown of Alpine as inspiration for the rugged ranch and mountain settings in Kings of Colorado (Simon & Schuster, $24). It’s a grim-faced novel about thirteen-year-old William Sheppard, sentenced to two years in a Colorado boy’s reformatory after stabbing and nearly killing his abusive father. The facility has little interest in reforming or rehabilitating its residents and Sheppard and his fellow teens have to draw on their inner resources just to survive their treatment at the hands of their keepers. Hilton, a lifelong Texan, lives outside Austin.
Kings of Colorado opens with this jaw-dropper: “In the summer of 1963, when I was thirteen, I stabbed my father in the chest with a Davy Crockett Explorers pocketknife.” When you typed that sentence did you know the rest of the story?
I went back and forth about whether to open with that line. I was concerned it would be difficult to root for a character who’s done this horrible thing. But it dawned on me that this line clearly establishes my main character perfectly. This isn’t your typical protagonist. William Sheppard is a flawed, broken character, and he’s letting you know this on page one. Constant inner struggles make him such a likeable character in the end. I will say I had no idea just what that end might be or how things would turn out. If asked, I’ll usually tongue-in-cheek suggest that every writer should always plot and outline. That said, I never do. To me, that’s what makes the process exciting and fresh. I’m drawn to the idea that each time I sit down to my notebook, something new is going to transpire.
What were your reference points while writing about this “flawed” and “broken” early teenager? Research? News accounts? Personal experience?
Growing up, I was always that kid who was getting sick, so I began to fill the extra time I had with reading. I soon found myself with the typical things you’d expect of any eight-year-old’s reading repertoire: Bunnicula, The Hardy Boys, Stephen King. As I got older, I began to be drawn to very tragic and dark literary novels. Usually, I’d sneak these out of the high school when visiting my dad’s office up at the school. Or I’d ride my bike across town to the local library in Alpine. I’d pull a novel off the shelf and just sit on the floor somewhere, find a corner. I used to get in deep water with my parents because they’d often in the middle of the night find me in my closet, reading. And these novels all tended to run in a common vein—they featured flawed characters, many times teenagers, facing hurdles I couldn’t even begin to imagine happening in my own life. My guess is that these stories appealed to me because my childhood was relatively vanilla. That’s the power and draw of losing yourself in a good book. I’m glad I learned how important that was at such an early age.
Were you writing with teenaged readers in mind—if so, do you think parents/teachers will object to the grittier passages?
No, I never intended Kings of Colorado’s audience to be teenagers; I imagined it to be a story mainly for adults. I hope not too many have experienced an