In his new book, Oblivion’s Altar, David Marion Wilkinson tells the story of Major Ridge, a little known American hero. Here the author talks about his career and why he feels it was necessary to write this book.
texasmonthly.com: You had many jobs before becoming an author. Did you always want to be a writer? What inspired you to write your first novel?
David Marion Wilkinson: I’ve wanted to write since I first read The Red Badge of Courage as a third- or fourth-grader in a small town in Arkansas. I felt this strange connection to the writing as I imagined the scenes that propelled the story forward. I remember thinking, ‘I could do this.’ I wrote plays and short stories as a kid and then I stopped for a long while, mostly due to a long-term family crisis and the resulting chaos it interjected into my life. I started to write again in college at the University of Texas, when I found out that you could actually take a course in creative writing. I was hooked after that, but it took another fifteen years and four unpublished novels to learn the craft. Of course, I’m still learning.
I started to dream about the story that evolved into Not Between Brothers after I’d read J. Frank Dobie’s A Vaquero of the Brush Country. I was myself a refugee to Texas. All I had to do was inject a character close to my heart into the circumstances of the early nineteenth century, and we were on the hunt.
texasmonthly.com: Your latest book, Oblivion’s Altar, centers on a Native American family dealing with Indian removal in the 1830’s. What attracted you to the saga of this family? Why was it important to tell their story?
DMW: Oblivion’s Altar is built around the life and struggles of Major Ridge, the Cherokee chief usually held most responsible for the Trail of Tears. At first I was intrigued by why the Cherokee would want to hunt down one of their own, especially the man who had once been their champion. The more I learned about the details of Major Ridge’s life, however, the more I understood that this was an aspect of the often told American Indian/United States conflict that had never been told to a mainstream American readership. Every school child recognizes the names of the great Indian leaders—Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, and Tecumseh. Yet Major Ridge was the only chief sophisticated enough to battle the United States without firing a shot. He took America’s institutions to task and pushed Andrew Jackson’s ambitious young nation to the brink of civil war. Yet almost no one had ever heard of him. I wanted to do a little something to help change that.
texasmonthly.com: Did you attempt to incorporate both the Indian and white perspective into this book?
DMW: Absolutely. As always, there are no villains in this story—only diverse and conflicting cultures led forth by blind ambition. We all know what happened on the Trail of Tears. I’m more interested in the why behind this tragedy. I also learned some time back that history is always more complex than we think it is. I really enjoy bringing these pivotal moments back to life for readers to remember today. For me, history is a living, vibrant, and vital thing. Human struggle and tragedy should always interest a writer. Personal sacrifice is even rarer. When I discovered both of these qualities in the true-life story of Major Ridge, all I had to do was type.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of research went into writing Oblivion’s Altar?
DMW: I’ve always loved history so none of this felt like work. I traveled to the places described in the novel. I love doing that. I read close to 25 books on Cherokee culture, history, lifestyle, and myth, both academic and primary source works. I consulted first-person missionary diaries that provided an astonishing record of daily Cherokee life. I discussed a number of complex historical and cultural issues with known experts and authorities. Award-winning novelist Robert J. Conley was especially generous with his time and knowledge. A teacher of mine once said, ‘Be bold, and powerful forces will come to your aid.’ I learned on my own that if I add ambition and injustice to the mix, even more guys would show up and lend a willing hand. I’m one writer who never works alone.
texasmonthly.com: When writing historical fiction, how difficult is it to ensure accuracy?
DMW: For me, even the incidentals of any given moment in a story represent a bone-crushing obligation. I bury myself in reference books as I draft a scene, and still I don’t know all the necessary details of what life was like back in the 1820’s and ‘30’s. Readers are becoming more and more sophisticated. They expect a writer to get things right. I work hard to see that I do, and by the end of any book, I’m worn smooth out. I swear I’ll never delve into the past again. Then I get a call from my agents who remind me of a few things . . .
texasmonthly.com: Of all your work, which is your favorite?
DMW: I’ve always been proud of Not Between Brothers. But I feel like I told a better, more sophisticated, and far more important story in Oblivion’s Altar.
texasmonthly.com: What writers have inspired you?
A partial list of early influences would have to include Herman Melville, George Elliot, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Makepeace Thackeray. Nowadays I read as much contemporary mainstream and literary fiction as time allows and most of these writers have a little something to teach me. I admire the work of Kaye Gibbons, Dorothy Allison, Sandra Scofield, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, Cindy Bonner, Carol Dawson, and I can go on and on. Not too long ago, for instance, I read Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles and loved it. Last month, I finally broke down and read Alice Siebold’s The Lovely Bones. I found the story to be compelling, but that novel was something extraordinary from a structural standpoint, too. I’m always surprised by how much I enjoy different styles and voices.
texasmonthly.com: You are now working on a memoir with retired Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?
DMW: My mother first asked me to talk to him. At first, I didn’t think that I’d be interested in collaborating with another person on any writing project, especially a memoir. But Joaquin Jackson is such a charismatic figure that he won me over the first time we actually sat down and talked. I told him that if he’d met me ten years ago he’d have had to arrest me. He gets a kick out of that. We struggled at first with this enormous project until we got to know one another better. Then there was the imposing challenge of finding some cohesion in 27 years worth of law-enforcement anecdotes, case files, and recollections, all of which had to be portrayed against the backdrop of Ranger legend and myth. There was a point early on when I didn’t think we’d make it. I pissed him off a couple of times, too. Joaquin turned out to be as stubborn as I am, but we hung on to each other until we slowly found our rhythm. It’s working beautifully now.
Joaquin Jackson was always in the right place at the right time—usually near the troubled U.S./Mexico border. His career reveals the Ranger Service in transition between the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of international drug cartels right up until the uncertainties with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His story is a compelling account of personal triumphs and tragedies, a farm boy who’s taken some hits in his life but never forgot his sense of humor. The people of Texas will be interested to hear what this man has to say, and I feel honored that he chose me to help him get it all together. Every day he makes me laugh.