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 adolescence as turbulent as Will’s, but we all had fears and pressures to conquer at that age. At the same time, I believe many young people can take a novel like Kings and relate because of the chaos in their own lives.
As a first-time novelist, how confident were you in your choices whether it was plot or character or language?
I tackled many of these qualms back when I was writing short stories. I published several pieces—some I’m proud of, others not so much—online, and in small market mags. I pretty much made myself learn the basics of storytelling on the job. The language—well, I don’t go out of my way to mark off my favorite swear words from a list, but at the same time, I think it’s necessary to always be true to your characters. That’s not to say I don’t pay for it in my own way, though; I can’t tell you how hard it is for me, still, to hand a piece of writing over to my parents knowing some of that gritty language is part of it!
And when it was time to edit did you embrace the process, or were battles fought?
You know, editing is a different beast altogether. On one hand, I hate to have someone pick apart my writing. On the other hand, I love it, because I’ll end up constructing entirely new scenes, sometimes even characters, and dialogue that I fall in love with. The day my agent called to offer representation, I was king of the world—for all of around twenty seconds. She instantly began to go into detail about everything that didn’t work with the story. This needed tweaking, that needed a rewrite, what was I thinking in this paragraph, and on, and on. By the time I hung up the phone, I was two inches tall, but that’s exactly what I needed to hear. That’s exactly what had to happen.
There’s an old saw about writers having twelve years to produce their first book and twelve months to produce their second. Do you have a deal for a second book and, maybe more important, do you have a subject?
There’s a lot of truth to that, but I’ll be the first to say a quick turnaround request is one of the best problems a newly published author can have. I wrote this book simply because it made me happy to do so, whether I sold it or not. I love writing, so yes, I am currently writing my second novel, and even though it is not a follow-up to Kings of Colorado, I can say that one character does play a prominent role throughout a portion of the story. Like Kings, it will be a character driven piece that drags the reader along an emotional journey.
A number of horror stories have emerged from Texas youth detention facilities in the past decade. Did you draw from any of those incidents or lockups for your Colorado reformatory?
Each year, my parents would scoop up the kids and drive us from Alpine up into the New Mexico mountains to go snow skiing. I can’t remember where precisely anymore, but not far after crossing the state line, we’d pass a marker along the side of the road, which simply read: Boys Reformatory Ranch. My dad would slow the station wagon, and begin joking (I think) that they were going to drop me off for the weekend. Not me and my siblings, only me. We’d all get a good laugh from it and move on, with me secretly glad to not have been abandoned. But I would always wonder, I’d always start to think about the kids that were up there, what their days were like. I think that just sort of stuck with me, somewhere in the back of my mind, and when the time came for my muse to strike inspiration—that memory resurfaced.
Having spent a lot of time visiting dark mental and emotional corners for the book, do you feel changed in any way by the experience?
Absolutely. I touch on some very serious issues in this novel, sort of run the gamut really—from the alcoholism and domestic abuse that Will is witness (and subject) to in his home life, to the physical and sexual abuse that occurs at the reformatory ranch. Without going into too much detail, I will say that, as a father, these were all exceptionally difficult for me to put down on the page. But my job as the author is to weather that difficulty, no matter what novel I’m constructing, and try and find some sort of salvation for my main characters, if at all possible.
One reader drew a parallel between Kings and Lord of the Flies—what comparison do you think they were making, and do you agree with it?
I do think there can be a comparison case to be made with Flies when I take my characters up into the mountains. That’s when they’re suddenly faced with having to survive on their own, knowing that no one else is there to protect them. It was interesting for me, as I was writing that portion of the novel, to note how each character reacted being in that situation, because they are all so different. I’ll admit, I got very attached to these guys, and it’s hard to see them suffer.