Monday, December 2, 2013

Mark Mitten, Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave

Review and interview

This is a heckuva western novel that more than lives up to its unusual title. Mitten knows the conventions of the genre and then turns them inside out to create a sprawling narrative that ranges all over the state of Colorado. The cast of characters includes working cowboys, the worthy citizens of several Rocky Mountain settlements, and the members of an outlaw gang.

Their lives converge on a fatal day in 1887 when a stage hold up is interrupted by a cattle drive. A traditional western might start with an incident like this, but Mitten puts it squarely in the middle of his story. The first half of the novel is prologue to it, as we meet his characters and get into the rhythm of their lives, both for good and ill.

The second half portrays the aftermath as it follows a dozen or more characters as they disperse in all directions. Their lives intersect with those of multiple other characters, and for a while Mitten is tracing their adventures along eight different storylines. The cast of characters eventually numbers 75 or more men, women, and children. That includes cameos by the likes of Doc Holliday and Soapy Smith.

Leadville, Colorado, c1880
Plot. Mitten’s novel is a tightly plotted chain of cause, effect, chance, and coincidence. Complex as a chess game, it mimics the unpredictability of life itself. And it continually discovers that nothing is ever as simple as the conventions of western genre fiction would have us believe.

The title of the novel refers to a scene in which cause, effect, chance, and coincidence meet again as they have before in the novel. One of the outlaws escapes being shot for a horse thief by hiding in a grave he is digging for another man. He happens to have a bottle of whiskey with him.

In the end, the incident that begins it all—the shooting of a sheriff—is finally resolved and justice is served. And not without some ironies. Meanwhile, life goes on for the other characters (at least those who survive), as the events and incidents of the novel take them onward, leaving the past behind. Mitten seems to be saying, nothing ever really ends, and a reader may sense the possibility of future sequels.

Style. Mitten shows a gift for dialogue and the vernacular. When a cowboy sees a man in a slicker (something new in 1887), he admires it and says, “Need me one of these.” That’s the kind of line you can hear being said.

The narrative also shows an unusual appreciation for the impact of death. Characters experience shock and grief when someone is killed, and the feelings do not soon wear off. Mitten notes how death hits hard those least accustomed to it. A bunch of young cowboys are shaken as the posse they are riding with comes upon the bodies of two men shot dead.

Colorado mountains, Albert Bierstadt
There is really no central hero in the story. Now and then someone does something admirable, but it’s not always the same person. As one example, Griff Allen, a deputy sheriff, emerges at the scene of that killing as representative of “order and good in society.” Stopping to bury the dead men, he demonstrates a belief in “the importance of propriety and doing things right.” Unlike lawless men, he doesn’t have “the luxury of transgression.”

One of those acts of transgression is the stealing of an heirloom pocket watch inscribed with a loving message from a man’s wife. The tenderness and civility of that sentiment feels violated as the watch passes into the hands of a lawless man. Ironically, as cause, effect, chance, and coincidence play out in the novel, the theft leads to the undoing of the thief.

The outlaw Bill Ewing comes closest to being the center thread in the novel. Yet Mitten breaks with convention by making him neither a truly bad man nor a good-bad man. Other men in the novel are more vicious, cold-blooded, or mean, but Bill has no particular saving grace either. In the end, he gets what he deserves.

Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave is Mark Mitten’s first novel. It is currently available in paper and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Mark Mitten

Mark is also a musician and has worked professionally with horses. Until recently a resident of Colorado, he now lives in Minnesota. Mark is a member of Western Writers of America and Western Fictioneers. His novel Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave was nominated for a Peacemaker Award. Mark has agreed to spend some time at BITS today to talk about writing and the writing of Sipping Whiskey. It’s a pleasure to have him here.

Mark, talk about how the idea for this novel suggested itself to you.
I’ve spent most of my life in Colorado, and a lot of time in the mountain towns. Much of the history of the state is grounded in the same time period as the novel, the mid to late 1800s, and there is still an Old West vibe in many of those towns. I love the Victorian architecture, which is often maintained.

A few years ago, when I first started writing Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave, I was spending some time up in Leadville (a town that sits at 10,000 feet in elevation). Leadville used to rival Denver in size, during the silver boom. There are still a lot of old mines up there, and evidence of that boom is everywhere you look. The history is very present and it was very inspiring to me as a writer.

I also enjoy reading historical books about that time period. Several books really fueled the cause:
          Bob Fudge: Texas Trail Driver
          6000 Mile of Fence: Life on the XIT Ranch of Texas
          The Negro Cowboys
One more thing. I have worked in the horse industry off and on over the years. Of course, there are two main branches of horsemanship: Western and English. The Western style is inextricably linked to the American West, and I’ve always been impressed by the working cowboy. There is a something about the ethos, identity, and connection to the outdoors that defines the working cowboy—and it really appeals to me. So, as a creative person, it is no surprise that my imagination took me in the direction of a western novel set in Colorado.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
It was certainly a process. From concept to manuscript completion, it took me three years. In the early stages, it actually began as a screenplay. One of my creative outlets is acting (in independent films, by Colorado filmmakers). I had played roles in several westerns, and the experience made me want to write my own film.

That’s where it began—but once I tried shopping it around, I realized that indie filmmakers usually stick with their own original storylines. So I realized the best way to get the story out was to turn it into a novel. And once I shifted the story into a novel format, it opened up the doors creatively to take the characters in directions you simply cannot go on film. A novel allows for character development in deeper ways that a visual medium is not suited for.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
By the time I completed the final chapter, I realized that my writing style had matured since I first began. One key change, was that I scrapped the first few chapters and literally re-wrote them. I wanted continuity in tone and quality. I also went on through each chapter and revised, revised, revised. Especially after having gotten to the end, I felt I was in a position to go back through and re-write anything that I felt was inferior.

A critical step for me was having a friend proof-read the manuscript. At this point, after pouring over each chapter, sentence by sentence, I felt I had done all I could with it. Having a fresh set of eyes work it over helped weed out further grammatical errors that I had missed. Once I found a publisher, there were hardly any editorial notations. I credit that to my proof-reader (thanks, Mark Spellman!)

Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
The book is divided into three parts (and a short epilogue). The first part was partly mapped out, having been based loosely on the screenplay. But once I got into part 2, I was into new territory. I still had several unresolved character arcs and I knew where they were going. But I felt a renewed sense of creativity as I moved into the unknown.

In many cases, I had no plan going in. No story threads mapped out on a dry erase board. I mainly relied on intuition and research to carry on. In some cases (like the XIT Ranch storyline), the story was heavily based on actual historical events and people. It was a matter of fleshing out the scenarios. Other storylines, like Casey and LG, and Bill Ewing, were far more intuitive. It was also fun weaving in some historical figures into the mix, giving them personality and storyline impact. It was continually rewarding to draw from history to lend authenticity to the narrative and dialogue.

The cowboy Casey and the outlaw Bill are both strongly drawn characters. Talk a bit about where they came from.
If a reader is looking for a distinct protagonist and a distinct antagonist, you’ll realize that with such an ensemble of characters it’s hard to identify any easy picks. But Casey and Bill are top contenders. Casey is clearly a good man, wrestling with a broken spirit. His life becomes about picking up the pieces and carrying on. He wrestles with guilt, confusion and abandonment. Bill is ostensibly the bad guy. But as we get to know him, it gets harder and harder to despise him. We come to understand that everyone has a story—even the worst people we meet.

Sipping Whiskey is a character-driven story. It is my hope that the reader will close the book feeling a rich sense of closure and satisfaction. After immersing yourself in the lives of all these people, you feel their angst, share in their sense of consummation, and walk away feeling that, whether good or bad, “this too shall pass.” And ultimately, it is goodness that is the most worthwhile pursuit in a world of social injustice and unfairness.

In Sipping Whiskey, there are people who have experienced being wronged, and do not realize that some form of justice has indeed been pronounced (somewhere, somehow). But they carry on.  Some forgive, some don’t. Some fall prey to bitterness, others move on in goodness. There are also people who do the wronging. Some have a scalded conscience and don’t give a second thought, while others struggle with shades of regret and conviction.

Casey and Bill’s storylines do stand out, and convey this sense of life’s circumvections. Especially in a story with a good number of characters weaving in and out amongst each other, these are two strong threads.

How much consideration did you give to recreating the vernacular of the day?
Quite a lot! I deliberately sought out nonfiction firsthand accounts from that time period to make it as authentic as possible. I wanted it to seem like you are listening in on actual conversations, steeped in their original historical context—which means that a phrase or term is sometimes unfamiliar to the 21st century reader, and it might go unexplained. And that’s okay.

I’ve noticed that some westerns, both book and film, can fall into the trap of western-lingo caricature:  “Draw, pardner!” Sometimes, though an author may be well-meaning, the western genre can lend itself to a rhythm of language that seems more like parody than period dialogue. I wanted from the outset to consciously avoid any paint-by-numbers dialogue.

If the novel were made into a movie, whom would you like to see in the cast?
Tricky question.

Not too long ago, I read an article about the hypothetical casting of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Like anyone who has read the novel, there is a great sense of mystery in who these characters are. Names even seem to be avoided for key characters, like the kid and the judge. The article threw out some names: Liam Neeson? As the judge? You gotta be kiddin’ me. It was somehow deflating to even consider popular actors (regardless of how good they are) to portray these timeless characters that my imagination had already assigned a somewhat anonymous vibe to. What about casting it with “unknown” actors, so the film has a clean slate and the audience has no preconceptions?

Not to say that there aren’t some amazing western films, because there certainly are—it’s just that it’s hard to go from a book you’ve read to seeing a film version.

So what to do with Sipping Whiskey? Of course my gut reaction is to think that, if Hollywood were to come calling, a big part of me would be excited and honored. And yet another part of me would be worried about the end product. When I think about western books being turned into film, few seem to hold up in my opinion.

Perhaps one must consciously compartmentalize the book from the film as completely separate entities, and refrain from comparisons, in order to keep oneself from a sense of proprietary indignation. And really, art should not be proprietary…once it’s out there and subject to each audience’s interpretation and reaction. Even the artist (in this case, author) might find it wiser to disassociate ownership once it is catapulted beyond reach. Let it become what it becomes, and weigh it on its own terms.

At this point, after considering these angles, I think the characters in Sipping Whiskey should stay in the realm of the reader’s imagination. I had no actors in mind when I created them, and perhaps it should remain that way—for now.

Is your style of storytelling influenced in any way by movie westerns?
No. I have seen many western films, and recognize a variety of storytelling approaches. But when I wrote the novel, I didn’t have any movie styles in mind. Probably the reason for this is that my novel (while containing its share of action) is heavily interested in character development. I believe the narrative shines brightest when it explores the minds and motives, the dialogue and interaction, of the characters on a human level. Many western films are the opposite: action driven. Gunfights and hangin’s.

Soapy Smith, 1898
What gave you the idea to include Doc Holliday and Soapy Smith?
When I first began, it all started with a date. I chose a year (1887), and then began diving into research. What was the historical context? What was happening that year? What happened the year before? And I asked, who were the prominent figures of the day? Which led me to Doc Holliday and Soapy Smith. As well as several others, who are lesser known, but history buffs will enjoy encountering these characters, as well. (Horace and Baby Doe Tabor; Big Ed Burns; Charley Crouse; most of the XIT crew; even Kare Kremmling and the Kinsey brothers of Kinsey City.)

There are frequent shifts of point of view in the novel. Talk a bit about your decision to do that.
Great question, and good eye for catching on. I did incorporate shifting POV as a deliberate tactic. One main goal in writing this novel was to create a character-driven story. I wanted to embrace the freedom of crossing into character minds. Characters' perspectives can be diverse, just like the people around us.

Somewhere along the line, single-POV became a red flag in some circles. I'd call the single-POV literary rule a tenet of conventional wisdom, and in my experience it’s usually other writers who cry foul—and not non-writing readers. And I do understand the rationale…if the narrative is hindered by shifting POV, I would agree. But I do believe shifting POV is not automatically a bad thing. It should depend on its use and effect on the story, and not simply on its employment.  If I’m honest, I am not a big fan of conventional wisdom—I think it can limit creativity! As an artist, I believe in coloring outside the lines.

How did you go about deciding on the novel’s title?
Originally, the working title was simply The B-Cross. As the story grew in the telling, I knew that title was going to be inadequate. Once I got to the point in the storyline where Bill was digging a grave, I knew I had it. But I saved the exact phrasing for the end of the story, and wove it into the narrative in a very rewarding moment. I hope, when the reader gets to that point, it will bring a smile and a nod of appreciation.

What were the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover?
Before I found a publisher, I first tried self-publishing via Amazon’s Kindle. The cover art was my own creation.

I took a drive in the mountains one day, heading to Westcliffe—a beautiful town with the Sangre de Cristo mountains rising above the valley. It was winter, and I literally parked on the side of the road, crossed over to a barbed wire fence, and took the shot. Then I touched it up with a photo editing program to age the picture and alter the color.

I also decided to create several pencil drawings for the book. The drawing on the cover is based on an old photo of a cowboy roping a cow. (In addition to this, I drew an old western saddle and a bronc rider—which are also included in the book.) The cover was designed to convey the book’s main subject: Colorado cowboys. I also included a quote on the front from a present-day cowboy singer who lives in Colorado (Fred Hargrove), who had written a recommendation for the novel. Fred’s quote lends it some “street cred” that western readers will appreciate, plus a sense of professionalism.

When I found a publisher (Sunbury Press), I simply asked if I could retain my original cover art…and they agreed. Most of the books that Sunbury publishes have cover art which they make themselves. And in fact, they chose the image for the rear cover (which is a black & white depiction of cowboys playing cards.) Turned out perfect.

What have been the most interesting reactions of readers to the novel?
The only critical thing I’ve really heard, is that there are a lot of characters. This is true, and I hope it doesn’t intimidate readers. I would simply say that Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave is not a “quick” read with one good guy and one bad guy…like Louis L’Amour or Robert Parker. Instead, go in thinking of it like some of these TV shows or movies you’ve seen, with an ensemble cast. You get to know them as you go along, and as they relate to each other. And the story is more meaningful as a result, with more depth.

What are you reading now?
I just finished Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape, by Mark Lee Gardner. The author lives in Cascade, Colorado (a town I know well). Plus, the book is about the James-Younger gang robbing a Minnesota bank. This really appealed to me, since I recently moved from Colorado to Minnesota. I’m also halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing.

What can your readers expect from you next?
A sequel is in the works right now. It is set in the year 1893, about six years after Sipping Whiskey. I’ve done the research, and I’m about a dozen chapters in.

For readers who like your work, which other writers would you recommend to them?
For westerns, I would point them to Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series, of course. And one of my favorite authors is Per Petterson—a Norwegian writer. He has five novels out which have been translated, and they are all very good. His books are set in various periods in Norwegian history, and his writing style is very “interior.” Start with Out Stealing Horses…which is not a western at all, but it is an excellent book.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Promoting Sipping Whiskey is a grassroots effort. My goal is to reach out to the western and horse community. So getting this opportunity on “Buddies in the Saddle” is an honor, and a big help.

I wanted to thank you, Ron, for your time and thoughtful book review. It’s clear to me that you read the novel closely, got to know the characters well, and really engaged with the story. That means a lot to me right there. And of course, I appreciate the positive book review a great deal. The whole point of writing a novel is to connect with readers. And I am hoping your own blog readers might pick up a copy after reading about it. By the way, for anyone living in Colorado, Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave is available at almost every library in the state. Thanks again, Ron! For supporting the western community, and western authors.

Thanks, Mark. Every success.

Image credits:
Author’s photo,
Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: James Stewart, The Far Country (1954)


  1. Excellent, thoughtful review that does justice to the novel. Great interview, too. I'm looking forward to the sequel.

  2. Definitely sounds like an unusual story pattern, and I love that title. Great interview. I've not read Mitten so I'll have to give it a look see.

  3. Great interview of a fine author and review of an obviously fine novel. This gives me hope.

  4. I love the title. This looks great,Ron and nice interview.

  5. Ron, thanks for an excellent review of "Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave" by Mark Mitten and the interview with the author. I also liked the unusual title and cover art. The question and answer on shifting point of view was interesting.