Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Michael Zimmer, Leaving Yuma

I was drawn to this recent novel by its theme—a perilous journey into Mexico, which as a subgenre of the western in both fiction and film continues to fascinate me. I already mentioned this a while ago in a review of The Wonderful Country. As a theme, it can be traced back at least as far as Stephen Crane, whose story “One Dash—Horses” (1896) tells of an American adventurer’s scary encounter with Mexican rurales.

Plot. In this nerve-jangling novel, the central character is a Yuma Prison inmate, who gets early release to lead a party of men into Sonora to deliver a ransom. The ransom is in the form of machine guns and ammunition for a brutal bandit, Chito Soto, who has taken over a garrison town during the revolution against Porfirio Díaz. The man is holding a man’s wife and two children, kidnapped from a train. The year is 1907.

J.T. Latham has been doing time at Yuma for smuggling consumer goods across the border. He knows the forbidding terrain south of Nogales from three years as a young captive of Yaqui Indians, who bear a savage intolerance for both Mexicans and norteamericanos. Capture means almost certain death by gruesome torture.

Sonoran desert
Getting the guns to Chito Soto is confounded by the high-handed demands of Davenport, the wealthy businessman paying the ransom; an ill-tempered and distrusting Arizona deputy sheriff; an Irish driver (the novel involves early motorized transportation); and two viciously untrustworthy Mexican indios. Latham is joined by an old friend, Luis Vega, the only man among the lot he can trust not to betray him.

Tension mounts as Latham and Vega deliver the first gun. But all well-laid plans soon begin to unravel as the novel spins into a downward spiral of treachery and sudden death. Before long, the two men are rescuing the remaining prisoners and making a punishing run for the border, pursued by Chito Soto’s soldados.

Storytelling style. While the storyline is not original, Zimmer fills it with so much suspense and so many surprises that he seems to be inventing the form. One of the least predictable is the character of Davenport’s wife, Abigail. In the routine hands of a lesser writer, she would have been sexy and copeless or a weepy, awkward burden.

Instead, Zimmer makes her bravely fearless and the possessor of unexpected skills that get Latham and Vega out of more than one life-threatening predicament. With the introduction of a woman, the novel also avoids the tempting prospects of steamy romance. Intent on saving their skins at all costs, they have no time to waste on hints of amorous attraction, so love does not bloom, not even in the end when safety is reached north of the border.

Sonoran desert mountains
And Zimmer has more than one trick up his own sleeve. There are cleverly ironic twists in the presentation of the story that nearly bend it in the direction of literary fiction. Not satisfied with a simple first-person narrative account of Latham’s adventure, which would have been finely told all by itself, Zimmer invents for it what can be called a rhetorical situation.

Latham is supposedly telling his story some 30 years later to a collector of people’s personal narratives for the Federal Writers Project. What we are reading is a verbatim transcript, with interruptions caused by a power outage during the recording and his comments about the recording equipment. The 1930s feel of the text is heightened by the editorial “bleeping” of Latham’s coarser language (h---, d---d, and so on).

Passing itself off as a long monologue, the novel also rambles believably at times, with flashbacks and digressions. Along the way, there are loose ends, unanswered questions, guesses and speculations, much as there are in anyone’s recollections of the past. There are also moral quandaries as Latham wonders aloud years later whether choices he made were right or wrong. He obviously remains haunted by them. All of which give the story a tone of credibility.

So do the occasional editor’s notes that appear in the flow of Latham’s account and the excerpts from historical records providing background and filling in the gaps in Latham’s knowledge of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s Indian tribes. In the end is a brief obituary for Latham, revealing a surprising life that began as a young runaway in the borderlands of the Southwest before the turn of the last century.

Aranguez, Sonora, Mexico
Logistics. Unlike other writers who can lose me at times in the description of an action scene where the logistics matter, Zimmer expertly sets up the layout beforehand. I felt I was always seeing it exactly as he was. No confusion about where anything was in relation to anything else.

An example would be the physical layout of the garrison town held by Chito Solo. You need a mental map of it to thoroughly enjoy the daring prisoner rescue and escape. Zimmer has that well in place before the action begins. And he has done it seamlessly as part of the flow of the narrative—nothing obviously methodical or deliberate about it.

Weapons. Western fiction today, much more so than in the formative years of the genre, gives considerable attention to the make, model, and caliber of weapons carried by characters. To me, this is a habit akin to name-dropping that seems often little more than a nod to the gun enthusiasts among readers. As such it often comes across as window dressing and a distraction that slows the narrative.

Zimmer is the first western writer I’ve read who actually takes the time to let his narrator explain, for instance, why such details matter—why one gun is preferable to another in a given situation. And since situations are not always clear-cut, that moment of calculation adds to the unpredictability of what lies ahead. I liked that.

Wrapping up. Leaving Yuma is one heckuva western novel. It is a well-crafted, well-paced, high-tension adventure by a gifted storyteller. If it were a movie, the excitement at times would have you under your seat. It is currently available in hardcover at amazon and Barnes&Noble.

Michael Zimmer

Michael Zimmer has generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about Leaving Yuma and his writing. And so I turn the rest of this page over to him.

The perilous journey into Mexico has been a sub-genre of western fiction and movies from early on. What drew you to this material?
I don’t have a simple answer for that. I’ve always been intrigued by transitional periods in history, and certainly the two decades immediately following the turn of the 20th century were rife with change. The industrial revolution was in full swing, automobiles were creeping into places where they had never ventured or been seen before, and war was becoming even more brutal with the advent of powerful new weapons.

It was a time of immense change, clashing cultures, and social upheaval, and that was especially true of the U.S./Mexico border. A fascinating time with a lot going on, and researching a novel is a great way to learn more about an era or event.

Did the story come to you all at once or was that a more complex part of the process?
My ideas usually come to me piecemeal. One image that stands out in my mind, and that was instrumental in this story, was a painting I saw many years ago of a 19-teens motorcycle pulled up in front of an adobe trading post. I remember a bedroll and canteen, and there might have even been a rifle in a scabbard hanging off the side.

Another image I had was from reading about automobiles capable of carrying up to a dozen passengers taking over the old stagecoach routes. I also read an article, probably a couple of decades ago, about smuggling merchandise across the border. Not guns or whiskey, but just common trade items like bolts of cloth or lanterns or shoes, to avoid paying a tariff.

So I had a lot of scenes like that just floating around in my mind, along with partial stories that lacked either a beginning or an end, and what I thought were interesting characters but with no place to put them. And then out of the blue, it all starts falling into place.

The story uses a single point of view character and a first-person narrator. Talk a bit about your decision to do that.
I like a single point of view, or to at least limit the POV to no more than a handful of key characters. I think it allows for more fully developed characters, and isn’t as distracting to the reader. I find it really off-putting when a writer shifts the POV too often, especially in the same scene. As a reader, I’m not a big fan of first-person narratives, but sometimes it’s necessary. I really liked the idea of the American Legends Collection, and the only way that would work was through a first-person approach.

How did you hit on the idea to make it a transcript of a WP project and to document it with excerpts from other sources? Also the hyphens for the swearing?
A college course I took many years ago had a focus on the WPA Folklore Project, and I was blown away by some of these narratives. I also read a lot of non-fiction—journals, reminiscences, and histories—and enjoy running across little gems of information that bring the Old West to life in ways I’d never considered.
Chaparral, Sonora

I also like footnotes, especially on the same page, as they can clarify what a person is talking about, or put it into historical perspective. What I wanted to do with the American Legends Collection was to impart the same level of excitement I feel when I make these discoveries, but without the tedium of reading non-fiction. Negotiating with an American Indian for passage across lands claimed by his tribe is fascinating. Reading about how many miles they covered that day isn’t.

As far as using hyphens for swearing, I thought it would be in keeping with the time frame of when these stories were supposedly being recorded, the 1930s. Surprisingly, a lot of people have expressed dissatisfaction with that, saying they find it distracting, and some have complained that it doesn’t respect an adult reader, so Leaving Yuma is the last American Legends Collection novel that uses hyphens for swearing. From here on out, I’ll let the hells and damns fall where they may.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, did it go through any key changes?
 No, not really. I’ll normally revise a novel three or four times, then do a hard copy edit, because stories read differently in different formats. Then, if I’m satisfied with the finished product, I’ll ask my wife to read it and see if she spots anything I might have missed. After that, I’ll do one last revision to tighten the story, and it’s ready to ship. Leaving Yuma went fairly smoothly from start to finish, but there are always tons of minor changes in any novel, who lives and who dies, routes chosen, etc.

Did anything about the story or characters surprise you as you were writing?
Always. I’ll start a novel with the plot fairly well developed in my mind, but as soon as the characters and the story take over, I step out of the way and just try to keep up with everyone.

Your narrator, J. T. Latham, is a strongly drawn character with an unusual past and a very individual voice. Talk a bit about where he came from.

I’ve been reading Westerns since the early 1960s, and I’m tired of the white hat/black hat mentality in so many of these tales. Latham has a past that he’s not ashamed of, but which still landed him in the territorial prison at Yuma for a 12-year stretch. He also has a strong sense of right and wrong, which doesn’t necessarily conform to what others believe, and he’s okay with that, too.

There’s a scene I like that sums up Latham’s philosophy, and that I’m going to copy here, beginning with Latham as he and Luis Vega strip the packs from their mule:
          "I left home early, too, but it wasn't because of my father. It was because of what he did for a living."
          "Pretty bad."
          After a moment's reflection, Luis said: "A politician?"
          "A grocer."
          The slim Mexican shrugged. "That does not sound so bad."
          "He wanted me to become one, too," I replied, and Luis shuddered.
          "You made the right decision," he assured me as we lowered the machine gun's crate to the ground.

The longest year of my life was my first day on an assembly line in a factory. I suspect J.T. would feel the same way.

What parts of the novel gave you the most pleasure to write?
I love the creation of what I believe is a realistic portrayal of a time and place. I also like to be surprised in the way my stories develop. That happened several times in Leaving Yuma, but especially at the end, in the Yaqui village.

Did any parts of the writing present a particular challenge?
It’s always a challenge to avoid the clichés, and to try to add a deeper layer to the characters, the time and place, and the plot. Plus, I like to write about country I’ve traveled and that I’m familiar with. I’ve never been to Mexico, so that was probably my biggest challenge with this story.

Is your style of storytelling influenced in any way by movie westerns?
Not really. I love a good western, and always try to see a new one in the theater to support the genre, but I seldom watch them on television anymore.

Were you thinking of any other writers while writing this one?
Again, no. I was just trying to tell a good story while being true to myself and what I like in a western.

The novel is only indirectly about leaving Yuma. How did you decide on the title?
 To me, Leaving Yuma is a story about freedom. Because of a conflict with another convict, it becomes obvious within the first few pages that Latham isn’t going to live out his term, so leaving the territorial prison at Yuma is his only option for survival.

What were the creative decisions that went into the novel’s cover?
I love that cover. It’s the result of what a good publisher—Five Star—and a good design company—High Pines Creative—can do when they care about their clients. The art itself is a detail from Eric Michaels’ Chihuahua 3 Diciembre 1913,  and really captures the essence of the story. I’m a big fan of Michaels’ work, as well.

What have been the most interesting reactions of readers to the novel?
 That it seems to resonate with so many readers. My wife rates it as her number three favorite of my novels, after The Poacher’s Daughter and Beneath A Hunter’s Moon, and others have made similar statements. I’m always too close to be objective about it, so it was a pleasant surprise to get so much positive feedback on this one.

What are you reading now?
 I’ve just finished The Pagan Land” by Thomas Marriott, so now it’s on to the fun of choosing my next novel. For non-fiction, I’m reading “Mickey Free,” by Allan Radbourne.

What can your readers expect from you next?
 The Poacher’s Daughter is on the shelves now. As much as I like Leaving Yuma, I consider The Poacher’s Daughter probably the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s set in Montana during the 1880s. It’s the only novel I’ve ever written where I refer to the book by the character’s name, rather than the title.

This is Rose Edward’s story. I was just along to record the events as they took place. A tremendous amount of research went into it. Again, I wanted to capture the period of a transitional West, when the hunters and traders were being pushed out by the encroaching cattle barons of the 1880s, and Rose’s father is poaching buffalo in the newly formed Yellowstone National Park.

Anything we didn’t cover you’d like to comment on?
Just that I’ve got additional American Legends Collection novels in the chute. Miami Gun, about a cattle drive in Florida in the 1800s, will come out in September, and Charlie Red, with what I hope will be a neat little twist, is scheduled for next March.
Thanks, Michael. Every success.

Further reading/viewing:

Coming up: Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest (1929)


  1. I liked that cover, too. I'll take a look at the book. Enjoyed the review. To see how writers come up with plots and characters is interesting..

  2. Michael Zimmer is one of the finest western novelists writing today.