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True Western

Paulette Jiles wasn’t born in Texas, but she started writing novels set here as fast as she could.

By October 2016Comments

Jiles at her home in Utopia on September 1, 2016.
Photograph by Bill Sallans

This month William Morrow will publish News of the World, the sixth novel by Paulette Jiles, a 73-year-old poet, novelist, memoirist, and resident of the Hill Country town of Utopia. Set in Texas just after the Civil War, the book recounts the adventures of Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Confederate veteran passing through Wichita Falls who assumes the dangerous task of returning a ten-year-old girl who has been taken captive by a band of Kiowa to her family in South Texas. It’s as transporting and stirring a western as you’re likely to read this year—an opinion apparently shared by the National Book Foundation, which just this morning named it to the ten-book longlist for the 2016 National Book Award in Fiction, the first time Jiles has been so honored. (On October 13 Jiles will find out if she has made it to the shortlist, and if she does, November 16 is when she will find out if she is the winner.)

We spoke to her in late August while sitting at a table in front of her modest home atop a stony ridge with views in every direction.

Jeff Salamon: Your new book is so full of details about Texas history that I assumed you were Texan. Specifically, I assumed you were from one of those Texas families that have been here forever and passes all sorts of lore down. But, in fact, you’re from Missouri and moved to Texas as an adult. How did you work up such an impressive imitation of a native?

Paulette Jiles: I don’t know. Define your terms. What would you call a native and an impression?

JS: You just seem steeped in the history and the folkways of the state. Unlike in any other state that I can think of, Texans have to learn the state’s history growing up in public schools. So people in Texas really know a lot about Texas history, and there are so many people who are passionate about it and continue to learn about it. I just took you for one of those people. There’s so much detail and so many nuances about the differences between various ethnic groups and stuff. I guess you must have done a tremendous amount of research. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

PJ: I think the original Texans and my people are basically the same people—we’re Scots-Irish. Many of the old families in Texas, if you ask them where their ancestors came from, they’ll tell you Missouri. Or they stopped over in Missouri. The Whitehead people from Sonora—have you ever heard of them?

JS: No.

PJ: The Whiteheads left Missouri in about the 1850s and drove a herd of around one thousand sheep down to Sonora, and now they’re one of the biggest sheep raisers and goat raisers in Texas. We also had in Missouri, the same as here, a large German contingent. Part of the Jiles family, after the Civil War, came to Boerne—near Boerne. They’re still there. I haven’t looked them up yet, but I’m going to.

JS: I don’t think of Missouri as being our neighbor, but I guess it isn’t that far from Texas—it’s only an Oklahoma away.

PJ: “An Oklahoma away”—I like that!

JS: Can you tell me a little about what type of research you do for these books? There are so many small details, like the references to the Chandler & Price hand-fed press and the Platen press [vintage printing presses]. There’s this fascinating reference in News of the World to the Apache, who would slice open a telegraph wire and pull out some of the wire and replace it with horsehair, which would make it impossible to send messages, but no one could figure out where the cut was to fix it. Where did you get stuff like that?

PJ: You have to have a liking for those details. I don’t like anything to get past me that somebody might catch me out on, which they’re going to do in this book, believe me. There are people who are much more adept at that sort of thing, and they’re going to catch me out. The Platen press, that’s easily available on Wikipedia and on YouTube; if you look up “antique presses,” you can sit there and watch a film. Somebody has rebuilt that press, and you can sit there and watch it work. I use YouTube all the time. And then of course I get sidetracked and look up the latest Pixar film. They’re so great; they chew up my whole day.

As for the wire, there’s a book called The Bohemian Brigade. It’s about the journalists of the Civil War, and one of those guys went out West after the war and was killed, but somewhere in his biography, it explained that the Cheyenne had strung horsehair between two ends of the telegraph wire. And then when I was researching Missouri and my own family history and the Civil War in the Ozarks, I learned that several of the partisans had done that as well. So I read about it in two different places.

JS: One thing I love about News of the World is what your protagonist, Captain Kidd, does for a living. He travels from town to town in Texas with these newspapers and does these dramatic readings of stories from all over the world. It was like television for these audiences, basically. Where did that come from?

PJ: I have friends in Utopia, Wayne and June Chisholm. June is a good riding buddy of mine, and her husband, Wayne, comes from an old North Texas family, and his great-great-grandfather was Aloysius Cornelius Kydd—something like that. He was telling me that his great-great-grandfather used to read newspapers in public performances in North Texas. And I thought, “What a marvelous character. This is incredible.” And I said, “Wayne, can I use him?” And he said, “Sure, I mean he’s dead.” So I just changed the spelling to Kidd. I have never heard of any other place where that happened. I had never heard of a paid-for reading of newspapers.

JS: Except for Wayne’s telling you this, did you find any records of this?

PJ: No.

JS: So you basically had to make up how it actually went down?

PJ: Yeah. Wayne said he used to travel around with the newspapers and they would be from as far away as he could possibly get ahold of, so the people wouldn’t have read it or they wouldn’t have heard it already. He had sort of an exclusive on all these news stories from London and Philadelphia and strange and exotic places and he would read them.

JS: I really felt transported reading those scenes.

PJ: Researching what would have been news at the time was also really fun. That took a lot of work on the internet.

JS: Do you spend much time looking at primary documents, or are you basically working from secondary sources?

PJ: Generally from secondary sources. But with my first book, Enemy Women, I had to go to the primary sources, and that was really hard because historical novelists depend on historians. We’re not historians. We’re novelists. But for Enemy Women, for the history of the Civil War in southeastern Missouri, there was nothing, nothing, nothing. I had to go back to the old courthouses—to the, it’s 170 volumes I think, and it was put together in Washington D.C., I believe, in the 1870s. It’s called the The War of the Rebellion: Original Records of the Civil War, and most Civil War writers use that quite a lot, but it has not been indexed. It is almost all the communications that went on—actuary reports, telegraph reports during the Civil War, mainly Union. They don’t have a lot from the Confederates, but it’s invaluable. I didn’t have to go through all 170 volumes. I had a friend who was researching and writing on the Civil War, and she gave me all the stuff she had about southeastern Missouri, which is where I got a lot of the detail. Sometimes they would swear, and they would keep those references. Nobody edited it. Nobody has indexed it, and so you are on your own in a sea of print. I still have stacks and stacks of xeroxes. In case anybody needs it, I have it.

JS: What were their swears like?

PJ: “Son of a bitch” and “scumbag” and “damned” and a few things like that.

JS: Was going through those sources a slog, or was it kind of exciting?

PJ: It was kind of exciting, because at the same time I was trying to find out what happened to my great-great-grandfather in the Civil War, and I went through it a lot of times with my heart in my mouth because he’s three or four generations removed from me, but if I’d found that he’d been assassinated, I would have been very upset. I don’t know why, but I would have been. There was always this tension: I’m going to come upon his death. I never did. I eventually did find out, but not in those reports.

JS: How did he die?

PJ: He was hung. He had a wife and four small children.

JS: What was his crime?

PJ: You don’t know. They lied all the time. It’s been proven again and again that a lot of those Union reports, especially the southeastern Missouri reports, where nobody was checking up on people, that they wrote a lot of lies; they were invented. So somebody said he was stealing mules, which was extremely unlikely because he was the justice of the peace for the county. He taught the common school. He helped organize the county, so what he would have been doing stealing mules? The report was written by someone who was cashiered out of the Union Army for stealing horses. So the report is dubious, but it’s clear somebody hung him for something. We don’t know.

JS: I was reading this old interview from 1993 in the Southwestern Literary Review, and you said, “When you change cultures you develop antennae that the people whose culture you are entering do not have because they are in it. By virtue of the fact that you are a stranger you develop very sensitive antennae.” Does that apply at all to your experiences in Texas?

PJ: Not really. I always felt pretty much at home here.

JS: Because the Missouri Ozark culture and Texas culture are similar.

PJ: Pretty much the same, yeah.

JS: So do you think there’s anything about Texas that you see that Texans don’t see?

PJ: I think I will never get used to the drought. Or the heat. I whined and bitched about that drought. It went on for seven years and I never stopped bitching the whole time, but everybody else around here, they lived through the drought of the fifties, which was terrible. So I guess that’s the difference.

JS: You’ve written three books set here. What’s distinctive about Texas that makes it a worthy subject?

PJ: It’s like the Missouri culture I come from, but richer and stronger and, um, spicier. My ex-husband was born and raised in Corpus Christi. For him, Texas was a culture that was never to be apologized for. Defiant almost. I really love it.

JS: Does part of that strength come from the fact that it’s a hybrid culture? You’ve got the border with Mexico, you’ve got the coast, you’ve got—

PJ: It feels like a nation. It really does. And of course it was a nation for—how long?—almost ten years? Something like that. I can’t make pronouncements about Texas—it’s a terrible thing to do. I’m not an expert. It’s so tempting to make these sort of ex cathedra pronouncements. You’re tempting me. You’re the devil. Get behind me.

JS: Well, I’ll quote one of your ex cathedra pronouncements. In The Color of Lightening, you write, “Texans are so clear and straightforward in their speech. They do not seem to need to hide their attention behind deceptive and gentle phrases. They came to take the land and they meant to keep it.” And that’s referring to Texans 150 years ago. Do you still feel like you see that character today?

PJ: Yeah. I think it’s a good character and I like it.

JS: Do you think any of that culture is being lost now?

PJ: I don’t know. I have lived in two different places in Texas. One was the King William Historic District, in San Antonio; people love those houses, they knew the history of every person who had ever lived in them. The other place is here, in Utopia. I don’t know the large urban places, like Dallas, for instance. And I don’t know the Texas literary world, because I don’t hang out with Texas literary people, so I can’t say.

JS: Did you like living in San Antonio?

PJ: I don’t like cities. I’m easily overstimulated, and cities often overwhelm me. San Antonio is different. I love that city. I’m glad I’m out of there because it’s still a big city. But its culture is so rich. There’s, like, three different levels in the Hispanic culture alone. You can’t just say “the Hispanic culture of San Antonio.” There are the very, very old families, the Canary Island families. There are the people who came across the border during the Revolution of 1911 because they were escaping the violence in north Mexico—a lot of them came with the clothes on their backs. They were very poor, very desperate because villages were being razed, first one side then the other. Then there are the people from very wealthy families in Mexico who send their children to Incarnate Word and the other colleges there to be educated. There’s just different layers.

JS: Does living in a rural area help you write about nineteenth-century Texas, when a lot of the state was very much like this?

PJ: It helps very much. People say, “How can you stand to live up there all alone, all by yourself?” I tell them that when I’m writing, I’m living with 25 characters in my head. And when I walk out of that study and away from my computer, I need quiet. Or something small-scale. The whole area here is small-scale, like Texas was in the 1870s. Things were small-scale. You didn’t travel; more than thirty miles in a day was pushing it hard. You’re pushing your horses very hard for thirty miles a day. So things tend to be small-scale.

JS: You write books that are set in the past, you live in a town that in some ways is much like it was one hundred years ago, you don’t own a TV, and on your blog you spend a fair amount of time railing against contemporary literature—

PJ: Do I?

JS: You do, yeah.

PJ: Ohhh.

JS: You’re pretty down on the whole literature of consciousness, of, like, bourgeois soul-searching.

PJ: I’m going to go back and cut that out. You called me out. I didn’t know anyone read that stupid blog; it’s more like a diary.

JS: The question I’m building up to here is, I’m curious: Are you in retreat from, or perhaps in rebellion against, the modern world?

PJ: No. This is the modern world. Where you’re sitting, this is the modern world. I don’t spend my time rebelling, I spend my time creating.

JS: But you’ve chosen to live a life very different from that of the vast majority of people in this day and age.

PJ: Yeah. The country is about 89 percent urban now. That’s unbalanced.

JS: A colleague of mine has this fairly critical view of contemporary Texas fiction. He thinks a lot of the Texas historical fiction that has come out in recent years is very good, but he thinks too few Texas writers are dealing with what’s been happening in our state over the past few decades and that the dominance of Texas historical fiction—no matter how good the individual examples are—adds up to some sort of dodge. People aren’t facing what their state is right now, which is what you would think would be one of the tasks of literature, to make sense of what we’re living through. You very much have chosen to write about historical Texas rather than contemporary Texas. Can you tell me why most of your interest lies in historical fiction?

PJ: No, I can’t. I have no idea. I wake up in the middle of the night and voices speak to me. They say, “Write historical novels.” [Laughs.]

JS: Okay, I’m going to ask the same question in a different way. Your fiction is largely divided between historical fiction, which is set in the past, and dystopian fiction, which is set in the future. There aren’t many writers I can think of who have that split. Cormac McCarthy sort of did it—The Road is a futuristic novel—but that’s an anomaly in his body of work. Whereas you actually seem really engaged in science fiction. You reprint covers of old science fiction magazines and fifties science fiction books on your blog—you’re reading Jack Vance and stuff like that. And I can’t think of many western writers who also have that other separate literary life as well. I’m curious: the historical fiction and science fiction that you’re doing, are they two different ways to get at the same set of concerns? Or do they address completely different concerns?

PJ: Okay. I see where you’re coming from. You’re talking about concerns and this is not about concerns.

JS: Okay.

PJ: In some ways Captain Kidd was speaking for me. I want to move you into the world of the imagination. If you’re saying, “Let’s talk about contemporary Texas,” then you’re talking about taking a critical, sort of sociological stance, almost reportorial, okay? And I have no intention of doing that. I want to move people into the world of imagination, into a sort of world of folktale and a world of fairytale, and if you look at the folktale and if you look at fairytales, they do not set up in the contemporary world. They have people—there’s always the woods. “She was lost in the woods.” “Then they headed to the woods.” “And the huntsman took her to the woods.” You have people trying to climb the glass mountain. You’re back to really primordial images. Which is where I want to go. If I were to write about contemporary Texas, I’m afraid that what I would get tangled up in, and what a lot of people are afraid to get tangled up in, is contemporary politics, where outside pressures come to bear. If you don’t write the right thing, somebody is going to nail you. Someone is going to jump on you. Somebody is going to call you names. Someone is going to get all blame-y, and then you’re expected to get blame-y back. And you get engaged at a very shallow level. What Captain Kidd is doing with his audience, he’s traveling through the contemporary world, and he’s trying desperately to get these people to move into the world of imagination, which I think is as necessary to the human soul as food is to the body. I truly believe that. I know that, it’s not a matter of belief, it’s a matter of knowledge. So in reading about the sinking of the Hansa [a Swedish passenger ship that was torpedoed by the Soviets during World War II] up in the Arctic and bringing forth these images of people in furry suits up in the ice and the snow, he’s trying to move them into the world of the imagination.

If you look at the human mind, it’s a series of layers—no, not a series of layers. It’s like petals on a flower; every one of them is necessary. The contemporary world is necessary: You have to take care of your kids. You have to get to work. You have to make a paycheck. You also have to move into the world of imagination. And that’s what I think we’re really lacking. You get there sometimes by fairytales, sometimes by prayer, sometimes by transcendental meditation, or just meditation of any kind. What human being do you know who isn’t put almost into a state of hypnosis when you bring up that phrase, “Once upon a time”? All of a sudden, certain fibers in your body relax. I mean, think of the five food groups up in northern Ontario, which you used to call moose, moose, moose, fish, and pie. [Laughs.] Just think about it. You need your vitamins and your minerals and your dairy products and your proteins and your carbohydrates. The mind also needs a variety of things, but I think in the contemporary world, we’re missing a really vital element, which is the world of the imagination. Which is why people flock to these remakes of Spiderman and Superman and Deadpool and all of the Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, whoever, because these are silly and funny and you can just float off into the world of the imagination on a magical balloon—and you need to do that. It’s not sugar. It’s not a dessert. It is as necessary as protein.

The worlds of science fiction and historical fiction are sort of the same thing. They take you away into the world of the imagination.

JS: I wonder if part of the appeal for you, for the historical stuff and the dystopian stuff, is in both those cases, your protagonists are in survival mode, which by and large doesn’t happen in this country today.

PJ: No, it doesn’t.

JS: Is that what charges you up, people who are in those sorts of situations?

PJ: Yes, very much so.

JS: Do people think it’s funny that you write dystopian novels and live in a town called Utopia?

PJ: It’s weird, isn’t it? I didn’t name the town. My real estate agent found me this place.

JS: And do people comment on that?

PJ: Not so far.

JS: When I was reading News of the World, I found myself wondering what you would have thought of Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which deals with some of the same historical material—

PJ: I reviewed it on my blog.

JS: And then I read your blog and discovered that you absolutely hated it. Can you tell me a little bit about what you didn’t like about that book? Which is a book a lot of our readers will know, so I’m just curious.

PJ: They will?

JS: Oh yeah, that book did very well in Texas.

PJ: It was just dull.

JS: Did you read the whole thing or did you give up on it?

PJ: I think I gave up on it. The main character did not engage me at all; he was repellent. The incessant obsession with sex, various aspects of sexuality, human sexuality were sort of dingy. There was a dinginess to it. Shabbiness, kind of a shabbiness to it. Now, whoever the author of The Son is is just really going to appreciate this, won’t he? But man, I didn’t like it.

JS: You wrote that the main characters were all sort of unlikable, all sort of cynical. And that comes up again in your blog a lot when you write about contemporary books—that these books are full of unlikable, cynical, sometimes ironic people. You’re more interested in literature that is in more of a heroic mode?

PJ: Yes. It is so prevalent, the unlikable character, the cynical character, which keeps intelligence, I feel, at a very low level. It’s easy being cynical, constantly cynical. It’s sort of a fast and dirty way to appear intelligent without really being intelligent. It seems to be very prevalent to the point where any new, young writer starting out almost assumes that they have to take on that attitude. I don’t think it’s very lucrative for a writer. I don’t think it opens up into other things. It spirals. It’s either an endless circle or a downward spiral for me. I had to work my way out of that when I started writing Enemy Women. I had a character who was unlikable and cynical and nasty and mean, and I thought, “I don’t want to write this. Why am I doing this?” Because it’s so prevalent, it is so there, it is so much the modern, the contemporary mode that people no longer know how to write a non-cynical character without becoming stickily sentimental.

JS: On your blog you talked about two different modes of literature: there’s the one you don’t like so much, which is the psychological exploration of consciousness, and then there’s the literature where big things happen to people and they have to grapple with those big events. And you wrote, “Students often wish to explore, at length, the layers of personality within their main character. They wish to lay out what it is that makes people do what they do. Great, but leave the Johnston Flood out of it. Don’t mix up the two. I have seen them mixed up many times. It doesn’t work.” And that seems puzzling to me, because it seems like your work does do that. I mean, Kidd is a character with richness, and though lots of things happen to your characters, they do have richness and depth—history and regrets and things like that. I have a feeling I’m not understanding what you’re saying there when you say, “Don’t mix up the two.” What is it you’re telling people not to do?

PJ: They’re not absolutely exclusive. I guess I should’ve made that clear. In one, the mode of psychological exploration is the most preponderant mode. It takes over, and action is almost nonexistent. They’re not mutually exclusive totally, but one preponderates and the other does not. In News of the World we have some vision into Kidd’s internal life: his captain is shot, he fails to save him, and it haunts him all his life. But the whole book is not about the haunting of losing that captain. He refers to it I think twice and very briefly. But with a book that is full of psychological exploration, it would be pages and pages.

JS: Do you have a sense of who your readers are?

PJ: No, I don’t. I don’t know who reads my blog. I was surprised you read it.

JS: Do you go out and do events?

PJ: I will for this book. But people of all sorts love Enemy Women. It’s a book that is very beloved. I’m surprised and happy that people like it so much. Book clubs were very strong with Enemy Women.

JS: Is it more women readers than men readers?

PJ: Yes. But I think women readers predominate anyway.

Paulette Jiles
Jiles with her horse, Buck.

Photograph by Bill Sallans

JS: People never seem to let go of the Cynthia Ann Parker story, which, I assume, is an inspiration for News of the World. Authors are still writing books about The Searchers, and there was The Son, which is about a Texas boy who is taken captive by Indians and then reluctantly returns to his family. Why is everyone so fascinated with that narrative—the children who are taken away and then brought back and almost never fully readjust?

PJ: It’s a fascinating thing, the plasticity of human psychology. People wonder, are we really that plastic? If that happened to me, would I be able to recover? Would I be myself? Who are we as people? Are we one thing? Do we have a core self? That’s a serious question.

JS: Do you have an answer to it?

PJ: No.

JS: You spent a good amount of time with indigenous people in Canada, specifically the Cree and the Ojibwa [Jiles was working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, setting up radio stations]. You even learned the Cree and Ojibwa languages. Can you tell me—I know nothing about what that culture is or was a few decades ago—did they lead lives that most of us would regard as relatively modern lives, or is theirs much more closer to an older way of life?

PJ: It’s much closer to an older way of life. Because, you see, they were on what they call a reserve, which here we call a reservation. They’re in very remote areas, and nothing is remote here in the United States, certainly not like that. And they can only be reached by bush plane, a lot of them. They’re very remote, and therefore their language is surviving, one of the few surviving indigenous languages.

JS: And you lived among them for—

PJ: Ten years.

JS: I know you can’t summarize ten years in a couple of minutes, but can you give me some sense of what that experience was like, how that changed you?

PJ: I came away feeling competent—strong, stronger than I had ever been. I can do stuff, you know? I can do this, I can learn this language. I can figure out how to get a radio station going. It just gave me a lot of confidence. I just came away feeling confident, like I can do things. I can manage my life.

JS: You lived for ten years with indigenous people in northern Canada, and now you write novels in which very different native tribes, which are located thousands of miles away, figure very strongly. Is there a line that connects your experiences among the Cree and Ojibwa and your attempts to portray the Comanche?

PJ: The native culture and basic deep ideas, they’re pretty much the same all over the North American continent and probably South American as well. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. When I was in northern Ontario, there was a young woman who would make clothing out of snowshoe hares. If you skin a snowshoe hare and you cut it in strips and you roll it, you get a sort of very narrow, furry rope. And then you start knitting it together and it’s called knoll-binding. They make jackets and caps out of them, and they’re extremely warm—you look like a big fuzzy, rabbit-y ball. They don’t last long—rabbit hair comes out very easily, and it won’t last more than a winter. But I was at the Witte Museum, in San Antonio, and I was looking at a blanket, a baby’s blanket from South Texas, and it was the same thing. I was just amazed. I listened to a lot of legends while I was up there, and the basic characters of the foundation myths were astoundingly the same here and there. The same emphasis is put on personal reserve—and for men to be warriors, for women to be producers.

JS: You note in the acknowledgments that virtually every white person who was captured by Indians and raised by them didn’t want to return to white civilization, and those who were forced to often did very poorly. What is the power of those indigenous civilizations that they have such a strong hold on people?

PJ: I don’t know. Everybody asks me that, but I just don’t know. I really don’t. There were some exceptions. And the exceptions were always children who were taken captive closer to their adolescent years. Of course, they weren’t treated as well as a little five-year-old. You know, a little five-year-old would gather to some grandmother’s bosom just after she’d seen her parents slaughtered and their brains scattered all over the cabin. But the closer they got to adolescence the less they adapted. And of course the stronger the belief system, whether that was Christianity or whether they came from a German home, in which the culture is very strong and there’s certain kinds of cooking and songs and stories and folktales and music, by the time you’re about eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen you begin to absorb that culture as your own. A fourteen-year-old girl back in those days was almost ready to get married. A fourteen-year-old boy was ready to go out on adventures and ride horses and do that sort of thing. They were ready to move forward into life. So they didn’t adapt. And [if they were rescued] they came back and resumed their lives as before. So there were exceptions.

Do you see those two mountains over there [Jiles points to a pair of peaks she can see from her home]? The very farthest mountains to your left just before you get to that green ridge, just on the other side, the last Indian captive from this area was taken. His name was Frank Buckley, and he was fourteen, and he was taken by the Apache. They took him—and that direction is Mexico, when you’re looking this way—to San Vicente, which I don’t think exists anymore. They kept him for a year, and he was redeemed by an American who was down there, a man named Hudson, who was down in San Vicente for some reason, I don’t know. But he saw the boy among the Apache and got him back somehow. And he was very glad to get back and he was normal, for the rest of his life. But he was fourteen.

JS: You put up a blog post about your ex-husband that was written without an ounce of bitterness. You said that when you were with him, you had to unlearn a lot of things, and you began to see the world differently.

PJ: I had been such a hippie-dippy poet for so long, living in a very narrow world, a world that I often wanted to get out of. But I didn’t know how to do that as a single woman. And being with Jim, I married into a military family, military for generations, and I learned so much from him. We traveled around a lot on military transport—they will take old retired farts if they have room. We hitched a ride to Incirlik Air Force Base, in Turkey, and to the air force base in Crete, and to Germany. This was stuff I never would have experienced otherwise.

JS: Did the fact that you were spending a lot of time with people whose lives involved valor and physical bravery have anything to do with your switch from poetry, which is to a certain extent a medium of contemplation, to novels, which are a medium of action?

PJ: It was reinforcing. About two or three years before I met Jim, I had attempted to write a novel, but I had no idea what I was doing. How do you write action? They don’t have any courses that teach you that. The first really intelligent western I’d ever seen was Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, which is a masterpiece. I thought, “This is great. This is what I have been trying to do.

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