READERS, Tom Rizzo published this interview on his website, and you can find him at http://tomrizzo.com
If you ever have a chance to sit down with Julia Robb and chat about her award-winning days as a journalist, you’ll leave laughing, shaking your head, or gawking in astonishment.
Among her presentations is one where she reveals “amazing” historical anecdotes she discovered while researching her novels.
Julia did single out what she considered one of the most fascinating facts and puzzling things that ever happened in the West.
“Following the Battle of Little Big Horn (Custer’s Last Stand), a bunch of Cheyenne came to Crazy Horse’s Camp asking for help. Crazy Horse was a Sioux, one of the most famous warriors and one who helped defeat Custer.
“These Cheyenne had participated in the Little Big Horn battle and were Sioux allies. They were hungry and had nothing to feed their families.
“Crazy Horse desperately needed every man he could get, to help defeat the OTHER white soldiers, who were now after him–as the U.S. Army didn’t appreciate what the Sioux did to Custer and his command. But what did Crazy Horse do? He turned these warriors away and wouldn’t help them.
And what did the Cheyenne do? They rode to the nearest U.S. Army command and offered to scout against Crazy Horse and the other Sioux. Which they did.”
Julia has written three novels. One review describes her writing and “exciting and excellent.”
Another remarked that “Julia Robb proves that she has mastered more than just the craft of writing: she also possesses the art.”
1. You spent 20 years in the newspaper business. In fact, you’ve won several awards. What did you do and how much do you miss it?
I covered everything from jalapeño eating contests—most of the contestants immediately threw up every pepper in their stomachs in full sight of the spectators—to cops.
Like the time one drug dealer chased another down the street with a butcher knife, stabbing the victim every step of the way, finally cutting the poor guy’s throat.
I was also sent to Florida with the Maryland National Guard, to play war games.I was forced to hold my notebook above my head when we forded swamps, to keep it dry.
The first morning out, the “enemy” ambushed our camp and the guy with whom I was sharing a foxhole exclaimed “I just love the smell of gun smoke in the morning.” Right, he stole that line, with a slight variation, from Apocalypse Now.
Can you imagine saying that! I quoted him. Of course, the enemy was shooting blanks.
Once, a murderer—who was convicted and sent to prison—confessed to me. Can you imagine my astonishment? And then the cops called me up and accused me of ruining their case.
I guess they were afraid they could not enter the story in court evidence and the defense could ask for a dismissal based on something or another.
I enjoyed writing features and hated covering politics. I was able to interview many famous people, which was instructive.
California Governor Jerry Brown was fun. This was when he was governor the first time, in the 70’s, and he was a big flirt.
Sometimes, reporting provided thrills that not everyone would understand. Covering a Maryland anthropologist who reconstructed faces allowed me to touch ancient bones.
But I don’t miss reporting: Too much stress, every day in every way.
2. There are quite a few journalists turned novelists. What inspired you to start writing fiction—and especially Westerns.
Only later do they understand they want to tell imaginary stories, to empty the contents of their unconscious minds and force the world to make sense, on their terms.
That’s what we do. The characters’ conflicts are our conflicts. We transfigure those conflicts, but they are ours.
Writers are usually triggered by something; and this is where my Westerns come from.
The sea triggered Joseph Conrad and the cultures he observed in his ports of call. The Great Plains triggered Willa Cather. And, I was triggered by Texas—and I hate to write my name in the same sentence as Conrad and Cather, as they were great, great writers.
That’s why I wrote Scalp Mountain. I was attempting to say something about the Indian Wars waged here in Texas—what both sides did to each other.
I was also inspired by West Texas, where I grew up, the plains reaching for an ever-receding horizon, and its tiny, dying towns. That’s where Del Norte came from.
The long struggle between Texas Hispanics and Texas Anglos inspired Saint of the Burning Heart. Finally, about Saint, why can’t Nicki just give Frank up?
3. If someone asked you to describe the kind of stories you write, how would you answer them?
That’s hard because there’s a difference between what we think we write and how other people perceive it.
I think I write historical novels but most people refer to them as Westerns.
Even the Kirkus reviewer called Scalp Mountain a Western. I believe a historical novel explains the why of a place and a Western explains the how. But, whatever.
Many of my reviewers have said my novels are “dark.” Huh? I consider them full of light and redemption.
4. What is your approach to the storytelling process? Once you’ve got the ideas, walk us through what kind of steps follow.
- Scalp Mountain began with seeing Colum searching for a place to establish a horse ranch, alas, a doomed idea.
- Del Norte began with seeing a tombstone propped against the back wall in Magdalena’s saloon.
- Saint of the Burning Heart Saint began for me with the last scene. (Can’t tell you about that).
From there, it’s like growing vegetables. Who is this guy Colum? Why did Magdalena put her father’s tombstone in the saloon rather than the graveyard?
5. What’s the best piece of writing advice you every received?
I was struggling with a novel and my sister-in-law, Vicki, said, “Just tell the story, Julia, just tell the story.”
Admirable advice, highly helpful, yes indeed that’s why we have sisters-in-law, so someone will give us advice like that.
6. If you could travel back in time to the American Frontier, what would you be doing and what three characters would you be eager to meet and why?
Being an Indian scout for the Army has its attractions. Being out in the open yet having a task which provides structure—I enjoy searching for things— or perhaps establishing a ranch and making it into a home, or even being an itinerant gambler. I also enjoy playing games.
I would love to meet Wyatt Earp. (I am a huge Earp defender), George Custer, and Nate Champion, of Johnson County War fame.
I would like to hear Earp and Custer tell their stories, their stories, not someone else’s stories about them.
And the same with Champion. I’ll defend anyone who has the guts to defy powerful interests and when he’s surrounded and they’ve set his cabin on fire, has the presence of mind to write a note, knowing he’s going to run from the cabin and be killed. And his last line reads “So long boys, if I never see you again.”
I would also like to meet Billy Bonny so he could tell me his version of events.
Many so-called historians and writers attack all the people I mentioned here, but it’s usually because they are augmenting their own egos.
7. You speak and conduct workshops featuring various Texas historical figures. Share a few tidbits from your presentation entitled, The Amazing Things You Can Find Out About History When You’re Researching a Novel.
I’m just riffing here, as my memory is shot, but many amazing things happened in the West.
A trooper serving with Gen. Ranald MacKenzie was shot in the abdomen by Comanches, the shot penetrated his colon and he was poisoned by his own excrement—But he lived.
And this was way before antibiotics. The surgeon kept feeding him broth made from buffalo meat. Can’t think that was the doc’s secret, but the man did live. Remember, this was a time when just stepping on a piece of barbed wire could kill you. Lockjaw was not a respecter of persons.
Comanche Chief Quanah Parker—half white, great warrior— became a prosperous businessman and political figure in the white world, and Sitting Bull toured with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.
American lives. Go figure.