Last week I wrote about finding the characters for my next novel in the Legends series. My latest interview with Mary Doria Russell—the author of two renowned science fiction books, The Sparrow and Children of God, as well as the historical novels Epitaph, Doc, Dreamers of the Day and A Thread of Grace, the last nominated for a Pulitzer Prize—explores how even real people whom we think we know require rediscovery and compassionate understanding if they are to become viable characters.
The thirty-second gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, exposed the social and political tensions in a town where cattle ranchers rubbed elbows with thieves, nouveau riche mine owners, gamblers, drunks, and saloon girls a bare two decades after the outbreak of that great conflagration called the US Civil War. Tombstone’s two rival papers leapt on the story, which soon became national news, leading to exaggeration and the vilification of both sides. Only much later, under the influence of Wyatt Earp’s wife, did the story jell into the familiar narrative of one incorruptible lawman, loyal friends at his side, fighting a gang of incorrigible criminals determined to bring him down.
As with most morality tales, the reality is more complex and thus more interesting. As Doria Russell mentions during our conversation, Wyatt Earp was both a law-abiding teetotaler and a self-appointed executioner, an abused child who fought for years to restrain the rage inside only to lose that battle for a few crucial days. His friend Doc Holliday, consigned by history to the dual role of gambler and ruthless killer, was in fact a tubercular dentist who adored a good book, had a classical education, and played the piano with skill. His goal in life was to fix teeth, but gambling paid the bills—a reality that shamed him so deeply that he denied it for years. Thomas McLaury, who ended up on the wrong side of Holliday’s pistol, was a peaceful farmer who grew alfalfa for the cattle ranchers and may not even have carried a gun to the fatal shootout.
“The less you know, the more you can be sure,” Doria Russell says. In Epitaph, she notes, “Who tells the story and why … That makes all the difference”—a comment as true of history as of historical fiction. And then there is the opening of The Sparrow: “The Jesuit scientists went to learn, not to proselytize. They went [to outer space] for the reason Jesuits have always gone to the farthest frontiers of human exploration. They went ad majorem Dei gloriam: for the greater glory of God. They meant no harm.” And yet in every case great harm results, whether the characters intend it or not. It almost has to. Otherwise, as writers say, there is no story. In the hands of this gifted teller of tales, the foibles of human nature are, more often than not, the source of both the harm and the intense poignancy of its effect on characters we have come to know, to appreciate, and even to love.
But don’t take it from me. Listen to the conversation. You can find it, as always, at New Books in Historical Fiction, where you will also find the rest of this post.
The Wild West of Zane Grey and John Wayne movies, with its clear divisions between good guys and bad guys, cowboys and Indians (never called Native Americans in this narrative), bears little resemblance to the brawling, boozy refuge for every Civil War-displaced vagabond, seeker of gold (copper, tin, silver, oil), and would-be financier that once constituted the US frontier. In two novels about Doc Holliday and his friends the Earps, Mary Doria Russell pulls back the curtain to reveal the social, economic, and political divides that in the 1870s and 1880s kept the land beyond the Mississippi a hotbed of lawlessness and vice mixed with occasional acts of heroism. Doc begins the story in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1878. Epitaph continues it a few years later in the Arizona Territory, focusing on the events leading up to and the aftermath of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone, Arizona, is an example of everything right and wrong on the frontier. The silver mines have made huge fortunes for the businessmen and speculators who have flocked to town, especially in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873—a recession as, if not more, dramatic than that of 2008. The flood of money into politics has had its usual corrupting effect, and tension is brewing between those from the postbellum South seeking a better future and entrepreneurs arriving from the North. Cattlemen and gamblers, miners and ladies of the evening, thieves and lawmen—Tombstone has them all. So when the Clantons and their friends the McLaurys decide that the Earps and Doc Holliday are the source of their troubles and, after a long night of drinking, set out to even the score, thirty seconds of violence become a touchstone for both sides of what is wrong with the other.
But that was not the end of the story. Tombstone had “legs,” as journalists say, becoming a symbol of the Wild West at its wildest. Here, in Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell recovers the story behind and beyond the gunfight, with compassion for those who saw their lives changed by it, whether they stood with the Earps or against them.