A Q&A With Paul Robert Walker
Once upon a time, there was a man who told stories. From tall tales to true accounts, he kept America educated and entertained. His latest book, True Tales of the Wild West, brings to life the story of westward expansion for young readers. Here, the teller-of-tales, Paul Robert Walker talks about his new book and why stories are so important.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve written a fair amount on American frontier history. How is True Tales of the Wild West unique?
Paul Robert Walker: It’s unique in that the ten individual tales taken together tell the larger story of the American westward movement during the nineteenth century. For the most part, there is one story for each decade, so the reader can watch the historical progression from Lewis and Clark heading into an unknown wilderness in the early 1800’s to the strangely modern Klondike gold stampede of the 1890’s. In-between, we meet fur trappers, missionaries, prospectors, soldiers, Indians, Pony Express riders, railroad builders, and gunslingers. These are key events, steps along the way, and if a reader understands these ten events, he or she will have a pretty good understanding of how the American people spread out from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.
The book is also unique in that each story focuses on a specific event in a specific period of time. For example, the Lewis and Clark story focuses on their passage through the Columbia River rapids over a ten-day period. The Little Bighorn story focuses primarily on a single day from dawn to dusk, and the Tombstone story covers about fourteen hours. All of the stories have this tight chronological focus, along with a tight focus of setting and point of view. These are “you are there” stories in which the reader sees the action as much as possible from the point of view of the participants. The stories have a palpable immediacy, with the big picture perspective provided in the essay that follows each story.
texasmonthly.com: How thorough is the documentation of the early American events, which you recount in your books?
PRW: I believe the documentation in True Tales is more thorough than has ever been presented before in a book for younger readers. I worked extensively with primary sources—diaries, letters, interview transcripts, newspaper stories, and court transcripts. When I used secondary sources, it was either to get the perspective of experts on that particular subject or to access primary sources that were already incorporated into those secondary sources. There are many questions on the interpretation of these documents, and it is impossible for any author to claim that his account is the “absolute truth.” That doesn’t exist in frontier history. What I can say is that these are the most accurate, well-researched stories a middle-grade reader is going to find on these subjects. I had every story vetted by an expert in the field, and I believe the facts and interpretations as presented in these stories will hold up to rigorous historical scrutiny.
texasmonthly.com: What were you most surprised to learn while conducting your research for True Tales?
PRW: I already knew these stories quite well from other books I’ve written, primarily my two adult books for National Geographic: Trail of the Wild West, and The Southwest. So there were no big surprises this time. However, I did go through that “surprise” process when I wrote my first book on the West, a collection of biographies for young adults called Great Figures of the Wild West (Facts on File, 1992). The first biography I worked on was of Wyatt Earp, and I was absolutely amazed to find out that everything I thought I knew about Wyatt Earp wasn’t true. He was never a marshal in Tombstone or anywhere else, and he was a complex individual who walked a precarious line on both sides of the law. As I worked on that book and then another young-adult book called Spiritual Leaders, which deals with American Indian religious leaders, I was amazed to see just how badly white America treated the Indian people. We all know this in the backs of our minds, but when you really get into the details, it’s stunning how boldly we lied to them, and how viciously we tried to destroy their culture. At the same time, I am deeply impressed by the bravery and adventurous spirit of the whites in moving west and creating their own culture in a new and often inhospitable land.
texasmonthly.com: You created a solo stage show called Tall Tale America, where you tell stories of the American frontier. How did this come about?
PRW: I have visited schools for many years, and ever since the release of my tall tale collection, Big Men, Big Country, (Harcourt 1993), I usually ended my assembly by performing one of the tall tales. This always got a wonderful response from the kids, and I began to think about creating a show where it was all tall tales from start to finish. However, it didn’t really click for me until I wrote my first adult book for National Geographic, Trail of the Wild West, which tells the story of the wilder side of the West from the California gold discovery to the Klondike gold rush. After I finished that book, I suddenly realized that some of the tall tales in my earlier book fell into key chronological periods in the western movement. The show came together very quickly, and with the strong historical grounding I had gained by writing Trail of the Wild West I was able to weave the tall tales into a continuous story, connecting them with true historical anecdotes and authentic songs of the period.
texasmonthly.com: On your Web site, you wrote that “telling stories is part of what makes us human.” Why do you think stories are so important?
PRW: Stories create meaning out of chaos. Let’s face it, life is pretty chaotic, but when we tell stories, we put events in order and give those events new meaning. Stories help to define our culture, and they often reveal subconscious dreams, fears and desires. Stories carry across time and space, giving us a good sense of how it was to be human in another era or another place. This is one of the reasons I’m drawn to historical tales, especially in eras like the Italian Renaissance or the Wild West, when individuality took center stage. I’m always amazed by how “modern” these people seem.
texasmonthly.com: You write books on a myriad of subjects from sports to frontier history. How do you come up with your story ideas?
PRW: A little fairy hovers above my head, opens my skull, and drops the ideas directly into my brain. Seriously, ideas do pop out of nowhere, but they’re often triggered by something I read, or a particular direction I’m trying to pursue. Sometimes I have been asked by publishers to write books, so in those cases the ideas come from someone else. Usually, however, the ideas are my own, based on thinking about what kind of book might work for a particular publisher or a particular editor. Also, one book often leads to another. Although it may seem that I’m all over the place with the books I have written, they actually fall into several reasonably coherent strands. There are books on the American West, books on the Italian Renaissance, books on baseball, books on folklore, and even a couple of books on miraculous events. These are all subjects that interest me, and in each of these strands, there was a natural progression from one book to the next.
texasmonthly.com: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich approached you to write your first book, Pride of Puerto Rico: The Life of Roberto Clemente. Did you choose this topic, or was it assigned to you by the publishing company?
PRW: I was given a list of eight possible subjects for a biography, and I chose Roberto Clemente because I knew a lot about baseball, and I had always admired him as a player. That book was then assigned to me as part of a larger project that Harcourt was trying to put together. At the time, Harcourt owned Sea World and other theme parks around the country. They wanted to create a series of biographies that they would sell at the theme parks. They also were creating a four-volume homework encyclopedia for the same purpose, and it was after I had written several articles for the encyclopedia that I was asked to write the biography. As it turned out, Harcourt had to sell the theme parks to fight off a corporate takeover and neither the encyclopedia nor the other biographies were ever published. The entire project was scrapped except for my book, which was transferred to the regular trade-publishing division and became a “real” book instead of part of a package. To some extent I was lucky, but it’s also true that the people at Harcourt kept my book because they thought it was the only one worth publishing. Fourteen years later, it’s still selling steadily in both hardcover and paperback.
texasmonthly.com: You write for both adult and young audiences. Which do you prefer?
PRW: They each have their good points. From a pure writing point of view, I enjoy writing for adults because I get to use all the words—not to mention semicolons and complex sentence structure. I also like the fact that I can tell what really happened in all its ramifications and details without holding back, simplifying or sanitizing. At the same time, I really enjoy writing for younger audiences because I get to write very different kinds of books than I would write for adults. True Tales of the Wild West was a joy to write, but it would probably not work for adults—even though adults will find the stories interesting and compelling. It’s just a different market. The same goes for my storytelling treasuries. Books for younger readers are shorter and therefore take less time to write, which means I have the opportunity to work on more books and explore more subjects. Juvenile books often lead to adult books and visa versa. I’m fortunate to be able to do both.
texasmonthly.com: What subject or genre would you like to explore next?
PRW: I currently have one proposal for another middle-grade book oriented toward American history, which would be a follow-up to True Tales of the Wild West. And I have a proposal for another narrative nonfiction adult book set during the Italian Renaissance, which would be a follow-up to my brand new book from William Morrow, The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance. My long-range goal is to write a novel for adults, and I have an idea that has been percolating for a long time and now seems ready to explode. I have a couple of ideas for middle-grade novels that I may pursue, and I’d like to do a picture book for younger readers.
texasmonthly.com: How has your writing evolved throughout your career?
PRW: I never set out to write for children, but through a serendipitous chain of events, that’s where I began on a professional level, and my first twelve books were for middle-grade or young-adult readers. That experience made me a better writer, because it forced me to be more careful in choosing my words and more focused on the dynamics of a good story. When I began writing books for adults, I tried to maintain those disciplines while expanding my use of language and the reach of the subject matter. Writing at different levels keeps me sharp, and I am always aware of my audience as I write. Words flow easily for me, and one of my goals in continuing to develop as a writer is to tighten my words while maintaining a poetic flow in my prose.