Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Larry D. Sweazy, The Gila Wars

Review and interview

It takes a while to realize what this new Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger, novel is truly about. Sweazy has a whole lot more on his mind than the unsuspecting reader is likely to notice. Count me among the unsuspecting. I must have been almost three-fourths through it before the pieces began falling together for me.

Josiah Wolfe (as mentioned here earlier) is a complex and interesting character. He fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, and his battlefield experiences have left him somewhat troubled. Bloodshed and death haunt him.

Peace time, such as it is in post-war Texas, has been no less harsh for him. He has lost his loving wife and three daughters, all dead from influenza, and his service with the Texas Rangers keeps him away from his young son. Earlier novels in the series have told of difficulties that have left others unsure of him. His one partner is an unseasoned junior Ranger, Scrap Elliott, whose hair-trigger anger makes him explosive and unpredictable.

Padre Island, Texas coast
Plot. The “war” in this novel is a campaign to capture or kill a border lord, Juan Cortina, who has been raiding longhorns from the King ranch. The Rangers have word that a steamboat is to take a rustled herd on board and ship it from the Gulf coast of Texas to Cuba. Under the command of Captain Leander McNelly, they are sent out to intercept the shipment and put a stop to Cortina.

The novel takes an abrupt turn as Wolfe and Elliott head off together toward the grassy, low-lying flatlands along the shore. Their job is to act as spies and learn what they can, but a shooting incident in a cantina suddenly sidelines Wolfe, and he nearly dies of gunshot wounds. During his convalescence there he becomes attached to a young woman, Francesca, who cares for him.

Back in the saddle, he rejoins his company of Rangers, and there is a bloody battle with Cortina’s men as they attempt to rendezvous with the steamship. A death in that fight produces another abrupt turn, as Wolfe and Elliott escort the dead man all the way back to Austin. There he has some personal matters to attend to as he decides what to do with the rest of his life.

Padre Island, Texas coast
Themes. There is more than one “war” in the novel, as the title suggests. In addition to the one against Cortina, there is a deeply divided conflict in the very heart and soul of Sweazy’s central character. Killing and bloodshed have left Wolfe both physically and emotionally scarred. The traditional western hero is untouched by death. Killing serves a self-justifying purpose: to restore order and justice.

But in reality, we know that for some men at least, it comes at a cost. It may haunt them for a lifetime. As this novel proceeds, Wolfe becomes increasingly burdened by regret, guilt, and shame. Not a weak or fearful man by any means, he is just a man. Brave and courageous, as we all hope we might be in his shoes, but a man all the same.

There is a modern note of resignation in the novel’s attitude toward war. The Rangers’ battle against Cortina and his kind of thievery on the US-Mexican border calls to mind today’s unending “war on drugs” and the pervasive violence along that particular international boundary. The Rangers’ search and destroy mission on the alien coastal terrain easily recalls footage of troop movements in foreign lands on the evening news.

Wolfe continues to remember the War Between the States with bitterness. The dead and injured in the battle against Cortina remind him of the depression that follows killing, how it haunts sleep with dreams of walking with the dead. The war has become a bad memory without meaning. So are the deaths of his wife and children. It is an unforgiving world, and these experiences have left Wolfe without belief in a God or an afterlife.

There is a powerful scene between Wolfe and the camp doctor and mortician, Verlyn Tinker, a Yankee who served in the ambulance corps at Antietam. As a doctor, doing what he can to undo the damage done on the battlefield, he says he has learned to let the past go. Besides, he says, wars don’t end. New battles and new enemies come along to take the place of old ones. That is a belief not unfamiliar today.

Texas coast
Style. There are action, suspense, and excitement in the book, but it is also much of the time simply thoughtful, as Wolfe reflects on his life, the people he has known, and his situation. A large part of the story is devoted to the growing affection between Wolfe and Francesca and the dilemma this creates for him, especially as he starts the novel engaged to another woman back in Austin.

Characters are sharply drawn. Scrap Elliott makes a good contrast with Wolfe. Too young to have fought in the War Between the States, he imagines the killing fields as a place to freely release his rage. He is almost unhinged by his hatred of Mexicans. Easily insulted, he is always ready to explode and make trouble for himself and Wolfe. His short fuse and immaturity make him a volatile presence in the narrative. Running out of his usual patience, Wolfe finally socks him in the face, then regrets it.

The camp doctor, Tinker, comes across vividly, talking with Wolfe as he goes about his work. An older man, he has a worldly wisdom and a reassuring depth of character that calm Wolfe and the patients he’s treating. He also possesses a degree of moral stature that is reflected in his physical resemblance to Abraham Lincoln.

Western writers tend to be good about how things look and sound. Sweazy reminds us that the Old West had its characteristic smells, as well. Riding into the flat grassland along the Gulf shore, Wolfe and Elliott are ambushed, and “the putrid, rotting smell of the ground mixed with the metallic blood and the gunpowder.”

Death is often referred to as having a smell. Baths being infrequent, a man might “smell like a dead possum that had been baking in the sun.” Longing evokes olfactory memories, as when Wolfe recalls the scent of a woman’s toilet soap. Hungry, he is pleased by wood smoke and the smell of meat cooking on a campfire. In the doctor’s tent, he notes the smell of whiskey being used to clean a wound.

Wrapping up. This is another fine western from the pen of Larry Sweazy. It’s #6 in the Josiah Wolfe series and reportedly the last. A review of the previous volume, The Coyote Tracker can be found here. The Gila Wars can currently be found at amazon and Barnes&Noble in both paper and ebook formats.

Larry Sweazy
Larry Sweazy has generously agreed to spend some time here to talk about writing and the writing of The Gila Wars, and I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

Larry, we last talked here in August 2012. How have the last nine months been for you as a writer?
I have started a new Western series that I’m writing for Berkley that will debut in late 2014. It features an ex-Confederate spy, Lucas Fume, who is wrongly imprisoned and must prove his innocence (the title is Vengeance at Sundown). It’s been an interesting challenge writing a new character. With Josiah there was the whole structure and history of Texas and the Texas Rangers to consider, and the loss of his family to deal with.

Lucas Fume is not affiliated with any organization (by design), and he’s a single, unmarried man, so the research and emotional journey has been different. But just as much fun. The structure is different, too. So, really, the last nine months have been pretty good. It’s always a good thing for me to know what I’m going to be writing for the next year or two.

Talk about how the idea for this story suggested itself to you.
I wasn’t sure that this was going to be the last book in the series when I started to write it, but it felt like it. I had written all of the Josiah Wolfe books sequentially, so I was ready for an end of some kind, or a new start creatively, even if it was just a break. Anyway, that was in my mind, and I wanted to wrap some things up that had started in book #1, The Rattlesnake Season, and had kind of arced through the series without full resolution.

And there was the Red Raid just sitting out there in history to frame the story around. It worked with my timeline. Cortina had played a role in the earlier books, so the event seemed perfect to bring things to as much of a close as was possible.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
My process is usually to outline a few chapters ahead, but I knew the end to this book from the start, so I worked my way through the events that had to happen historically, and within the structure of the story. There were a lot of surprises for me along the way—which I always welcome. I hope that sense of surprise translates to the reader.

Is the published version of the novel closely similar to your first draft, or was the revision process extensive?
There were changes in the editorial process. There always are. I’m so close to Josiah, and the story, that it’s easy for me to be blind to some holes, or lack of character development. I think I’ve said this before, but I’m happy to work with my editor, Faith Black. She came in mid-way through the process of book #2, The Scorpion Trail, and her input has really helped shape the series into what it is.

And, of course, my wife, Rose, is my first reader and editor in her own right, and has her opinions, too. My agent, Cherry Weiner, has had input along the way, and I’ve been really fortunate to have the same copy-editor, designer, and cover artist for the entire series. That’s made a difference, I think. The continuity of everyone involved has been a great help to me as a writer. Publishing a novel is more of a community effort, instead of a solitary one, than most people realize.

Did anything about the story or the characters surprise you as you were writing?
Josiah never ceased to surprise me. Just when I thought I knew everything about him, he revealed another, usually deeper, layer of himself. Scrap, too. I think he’s really unhinged in this book, suffering a little PTSD from his experiences in prior book, #5, The Coyote Tracker. I think under the right circumstances, Scrap, and Josiah, too, for that matter, could cross over to the dark side.

There was always a thin line between the white hat and black hat within the early Texas Ranger organization, and I wanted that to come through in my stories. These were real, fallible men, who, sometimes, came up on the outlaw end of the gun. That’s what makes both of these characters so interesting to me. They live on the edge, on the border of good and bad.

The romantic sub-plot dominates the first third of the novel. Talk about how that happened.

That was another surprise. I wasn’t sure how Josiah would react to his Dear John letter from Pearl Fikes (I’m not giving anything away, this is mentioned on the back cover). Francesca appeared, and she is completely different from Pearl. Given Josiah’s situation, being vulnerable after the letter, and being shot, one thing leads to another. But the relationship isn’t easy. Nothing, especially love, for Josiah, ever is.

Both Scrap and Tinker are strongly drawn characters. Talk a bit about where they came from.

I think I touched on Scrap a little earlier with the PTSD, but he continued to evolve for me. His rage gets him in trouble, but I think under all of that anger is a scared little boy who just wants acceptance, not unlike a lot of young men who are put in dire circumstances that they’re unprepared for. Tinker is one of those characters that just kind of walks on stage and takes over. He could have his own novel.

Most of the time Josiah is the parent, or the responsible one, but he needs calm guidance and tended to,just like everyone else in certain situations. Tinker provided that in spades. Wisdom in war comes at a cost. We really don’t know much of Tinker’s story, but there’s no question that it’s been bloody and pain-filled. Somehow, Tinker has chosen to walk a forgiving path, and Josiah needed to see that forgiveness, even for himself was possible, that he could carry on with some kind of sanity, and lead a productive life.

What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
Navigational map of Texas shoreline, 1864
The ending. It was clear in my mind at the start, and I wrote it as I originally saw it. Only with a twist—why Pearl really sent the letter. I hadn’t even suspected her real reason until I was about a third of the way through the novel. It was one of those happy surprises that a writer can only get from working every day.

Were you thinking of any other writers while writing this one?
Interesting question. My influences run from John Steinbeck to Elmore Leonard. I really never try to channel any of the authors I admire when I write, but maybe it comes through, I don’t know.

Animals figure in all the Josiah Wolfe titles. How did you settle on the title for this one?

The original idea was to use animals native to Texas in the titles. I’ve adhered to that idea for all six books in the series. I owe this title to Loren D. Estleman, to whom the book is dedicated. He was half-joking with me one day about my titles, and kind of challenged me to come up with Gila monsters for one… And there you have it. I’m always up for a challenge.

Will we see Josiah Wolfe again, or is he gone for good? And how do you feel about that?

The door’s not all of the way closed for future Josiah Wolfe novels. Never say never. But for now, I’m finished with the series. It’s kind of bittersweet for me because Josiah was my first novel and my first series character, but to grow as a writer, I really feel I need to write other characters, other novels, in different settings and times for that matter, to stay fresh. I may revisit the universe Josiah inhabits someday.

Gulf coast of Texas
I can see a series of novels featuring Scrap Elliot as the lead character. And I have ideas for books #7 and #8 in the Josiah series if the right circumstances present themselves. Writing the Josiah Wolfe novels has been one of the greatest creative adventures of my life. I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to write six Western novels about a not-so-traditional, emotionally flawed character. It’s been a life-changer for me.

What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Death of a Citizen by Donald Hamilton. It’s the first Matt Helm novel, and it was just an excellent read. Somehow, I had missed these books, probably because I thought they were like the campy 1960s Dean Martin movies. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I know better than judge a book by its movie. Apples and oranges. I’m really glad I read it, and it was helpful as a source of research for the novel I’m currently writing. Spies are spies no matter the era…

What can your readers expect from you next?
The Lucas Fume novel I spoke of. Look for it in late 2014, followed by another in 2015. Beyond that, I’m not sure what I’ll be doing, but rest assured, I’ll be writing something that challenges me.

For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
Loren D. Estleman, Jory Sherman, Johnny D. Boggs, and Elmore Leonard’s Westerns for starters. The list is longer than that because there are lot of really good writers working in the Western field today. I really prefer to read writers that are still alive. We need to buy their books so they can continue to write, and tell the stories of the West like only they can. With no disrespect to the writers of the past, on whose shoulders we all stand, I still read those books, too, but that’s what I’ll tell them to read—writers that are still alive.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Thanks for the in-depth reviews of my Josiah Wolfe novels, Ron, it is greatly appreciated. Your passion for the Western is contagious.

Thanks, Larry. Every success.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Willa Cather, The Troll Garden (1905)


  1. Ron, one of the reasons I enjoy reading your reviews of westerns is your sharp understanding of the West and its history, as evident in this and previous posts. I also enjoyed reading your detailed interview with Larry D. Sweazy whose novels I haven't read yet but intend to soon. It's a reminder that I ought to read more contemporary Western authors than I do now.

  2. That's a part of Texas I'd like to explore some winter.

  3. I've always appreciated Larry's history. Delightful post, guys. Well done.

  4. Another fine review and interview, gents. Readers are lucky for having the Wolfe series, and for what promises to be another fine run from Larry D. Sweazy!

  5. Thanks, guys. I appreciate the encouragement...