Friday, August 31, 2012

Phil Truman, Red Lands Outlaw: The Ballad of Henry Starr

Review and interview
This must be one of the gentlest western novels ever written about an Old West outlaw. Phil Truman takes the story of bank robber Henry Starr’s life and retells it as a lightly humorous, slightly quirky, and sometimes bittersweet tale of an otherwise decent man who happens to find his calling on the wrong side of the law.

A descendant of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, Starr might have lived his life differently. But despite his efforts to earn an honest dollar, his natural gifts inclined him otherwise. Not that he was always lucky, as the opening scene demonstrates. What starts out as a Dalton-style double bank holdup in 1915 gets him shot and arrested. The novel closes with his last turn of bad luck, shot again during another bank job in 1921, this time fatally.

Starr, by Truman’s account, was also unlucky in love. Married three times, he had no trouble charming the girls. But his inability to support them, once wedded, kept his marriages brief.

Character. Calling the novel a “Ballad” nicely describes its overall structure. Like the verses of a long narrative folk song, the story Truman tells is not so much biographical as it is a sequence of dramatic incidents portraying the character of the man.

What neither title nor subtitle reveals is the novel’s wry humor. And much of it comes from Starr’s way of choosing to be amused by any unexpected turn of events. An early attempt at robbing a train becomes a comedy of errors, but while nearly everything goes wrong, the man remains a model of grace under pressure.

Poster for movie about Starr, 1919
He is respectful of others, even as he’s robbing them. He speaks calmly, assuring them that no one will be hurt, so there’s no reason to be alarmed. Determined to be remembered as a professional and a gentleman, he tells them his name while making off with the loot. He even gives a girl a handful of quarters before one departure.

His nemesis in the novel is legendary lawman Bill Tilghman, who had done much to clean up Oklahoma in the years following statehood. Seeming to understand Starr’s basically well-mannered temperament, he treats him with polite regard. He also gets Starr involved in a movie project, reenacting one of his unsuccessful robberies, to show that crime doesn’t pay.

The only real villain of the story is hanging Judge Isaac Parker of Fort Smith, Arkansas. The judge sentences Starr twice to the gallows for the same crime and finally fails to see him executed, by dropping dead himself before a final retrial. Also appearing in the novel is Comanche chief Quanah Parker, who invites Starr into his home one night for a dinner of fresh game.

Wrapping up. Truman chooses as his central character a man who grew up a contemporary of Old West outlaws and lived to a time when bank robberies made use of getaway cars. A fugitive from justice much of his life, he spent only a handful of years behind bars, always winning early parole by being a model prisoner.

You believe as surely as he does that he’ll never break the law again when he’s released, but it’s hard for an Indian and an ex-con to find a steady job. Eventually, a wife and child become a responsibility beyond his means to support, and ill-gotten gains are too temptingly irresistible.

From beginning to end, Starr is a man who learns from his mistakes, but what he learns is not of much use to him. And when his luck finally runs out at the end, he accepts it without complaint. He only asks that he be buried in the new suit he’s just bought, hoping the bloodstains won’t show. The whole novel is like that, its wry humor unforced and always catching you by surprise.

Red Lands Outlaw is currently available in paper at amazon and Barnes&Noble and for the kindle.

Phil Truman
Phil Truman has agreed to spend some time here today talking about writing and the writing of Red Lands Outlaw. So I'm turning the rest of this page over to him. 

Phil, how do you define the “traditional western”?
I grew up in the era of TV westernsGun Smoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Bonanza, Wagon Train, Rawhide, and on and on. So for me a traditional western has, at a minimum, one good guy, one bad guy, a good woman (or a good bad woman—see Kitty, Miss), perhaps some Native Americans, several horses, cows, lots of dust, fist fights, an agreeable amount of gunplay, and preferably some American history.

They’re usually morality plays—good vs. evil, right vs. wrong. Two writers come to mind when I consider the traditional western novel: Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry. One is the godfather of the American Western, the other is the Homer. One defines the genre, the other carries it to epic proportions.

Do you think of Red Lands Outlaw as an example of it?
According to the elements I listed above, I suppose Red Lands Outlaw would fit the traditional western category, but my gut feeling is, it’s not. I see it as more of a character study, a biographical morality play, about a man cornered by societal circumstances and making bad choices. Also, it’s my rookie attempt at writing a western, so what do I know. I feel I have a lot to learn from those who write westerns really well.

Belle Starr
Talk about how the story of this novel suggested itself and came to take shape for you.
Part of my my second novel, Legends of Tsalagee—a non-western, mystery, adventure—involves a supposed lost treasure of Belle Starr. While doing research on Belle for that novel, I ran across the account of Henry’s dual robberies of the banks in Stroud, Oklahoma. That fascinated me, so I dug a little more. I used him as a minor character in that second novel, and decided to make his biography my next project for a historical western novel.

Did you have the title from the beginning, or did that come later?
No, I had about fifteen working titles throughout the writing of the book, even ran some of them by friends. Red Lands Outlaw was one of the finalists, but the secondary title, The Ballad of Henry Starr, came to me the day before I sent it off to my publisher. As far as I’m concerned titles are the hardest part of writing a book.

What was involved in your research for the novel?
I’ve found that you can find out just about anything you want to know on the Internet, and some of it is actually factual. One of the reasons I gravitated to writing novels is because you can get away with making up most of what you don’t know. Historical novels, on the other hand, do require a certain responsibility to get most of your facts straight, especially biographical work.

I did a fair amount of scouring old newspaper articles about Henry Starr. The double bank robberies in Stroud, Oklahoma, were well documented, and the movie he made was based on that event. I also found and bought a copy of his autobiography. Interesting, though, that I found several written “histories” with varying accounts of the same events, including names of some of the principals in the stories. So I guess journalism hasn’t changed all that much over the years.

Quanah Parker
Was there anything about the stories or the characters that surprised you in the writing?
That always happens when I write fiction, and it amazes me. Things just start coming out that I had no idea about before I started writing. One example in the book was Henry’s meeting up and having dinner with Quanah Parker and cattleman Burk Burnett. That sent me off onto avenues of research I never expected to go, but were quite fun.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
In my research, I ran across a general timeline for Henry’s life, a listing of dates for the major events in his life including all his bank robberies, so that served as my major outline for the book. I took bits from his autobiography and embellished them some to fill in the gaps between robberies, prison stays, and marriages.

Talk a bit about how you settled on the cover for the book.
I’d found and sent some stock photos to my publisher which kind of suggested the ideas I had for cover art. One was very similar to the one that’s now the cover. I liked the reddish sky, the “western” sunset, and the cowboy silhouette.

My publisher had a photo in his files he’d taken of a Native American and cowboy friend of his down near Flower Mound, Texas, which he PhotoShopped-up to what you see. He also picked the font for the main title, which is very unique, I think.

Did you ever find that fact got in the way of fiction as you wrote?
Not at all. If it started to come close (to getting in the way), I’d just “enhance” the facts. After all, I put a disclaimer at the front of the book.

Was there any material you found in your research that you wanted to include but chose not to?
After I’d completed the first draft, I discovered I hadn’t included Henry’s mother at his death and funeral, which she, in fact, had been. I hadn’t said much about their relationship earlier in the book, and had actually had Henry swear on his mother’s grave in one place. So, rather than go back and change everything, I just kept her dead.

Is the published version of the novel closely similar to the first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
I wouldn’t call the revision process extensive, but my habit is to go back and try to whack away everything that isn’t pertinent. I tend to go off on tangents, which are kind of interesting (to me), but don’t have much relevance to the story. My goal was to keep this book at around 75,000 words, which I did.

What have been the most interesting reactions to the novel so far?
There have been a couple readers who didn’t recognize it as a novel, that is, they thought it completely true. I guess they didn’t read my disclaimer at the front.

What are you reading now?
I’m about 200 pages into Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West. It’s sitting on my nightstand. Taking it slow with that one. About six months ago I decided to make Louis L’Amour’s entire Sackett saga a personal reading project. I’m currently through book nine of the seventeen books.

Who, if anyone, would you trust to make a movie of the novel?
Why, either Sam Peckinpah or John Ford. But they’re both dead. Is the guy who did/is doing Hell on Wheels available?

Wes Studi
Is there any actor you’d like to see play Henry Starr on screen?
Lou Diamond Phillips comes to mind, but makeup would have to work on him to get him younger. Wes Studi (born in Nofire Hollow, Oklahoma) is my all time favorite Native American actor, but he’s too scary. I also like Eddie Spears, the young fella who plays Joseph Black Moon in Hell on Wheels.

What have you learned from your readers?
Remain humble.

What can your readers expect from you next?
As I said earlier, I’d never written a western before Red Lands Outlaw, but the research I did on Henry and Belle captured my imagination, and now that’s all I want to do. My next two projects (which is as far ahead as I want to plan) are westerns: one, another historical novel about an Oklahoma lawman, and the other the first of what I hope is a series of mystery/westerns revolving around a minor character—a deputy U.S. Marshal—introduced in Red Lands Outlaw.

Starting with my first novel, all are and will be Oklahoma-centric. Oklahoma and the Indian Territory have such a rich history AND abundance of colorful characters, I see no need for me to write beyond the state lines.

Anything you’d like to add that we didn’t cover?
Just a plug for my two other novels also available at Amazon, Barnes&Noble, etc. GAME, a sports inspirational, set in rural 1970’s Oklahoma, and Legends of Tsalagee, a mystery, adventure, romantic comedy, also set in…Where?...Yes, Oklahoma.

Also I would welcome visits to my website and blog. Feel free to email me at

Thanks, Phil. Every success.

Image credits:  
Movie poster and photo of West Studi,
Others, Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Saturday Music, Roy Rogers


  1. Interesting novel and interesting interview. Sports, mystery and now western writing, quite a variety.

    1. Thanks, Oscar. I guess I'm searching around for my writer identity, but I think I'm getting close with the westerns. I'm an ex-teacher and football coach, hence my sports novel, and I like small town dynamics which explains the other.

  2. Really enjoyed this interview, Ron. Nice to meet you, Phil.

  3. Mr. Truman makes a fine distinction between novels and historical novels. Historical fiction has evolved in a big way over the past two decades. I like the way modern writers weave historical facts into a fictional work and make it interesting enough for readers to stay involved till the end. War and western are probably two genres that have the maximum content based on real-life events and personalities. Ron, thank you for the interview with Mr. Truman.

  4. I'm pretty interested in Henry Starr. I'll have to check it out.