I’m pleased to welcome award-winning Western author Gary McCarthy to the blog today. Gary has written over 50 books about the American West, with over 3 million books in print. His work is available in trade paperbacks as well as ebooks. Learn more about him at www.canyoncountrybooks.com or Amazon.
Your book Mesa Verde Thunder is set in the famous prehistoric cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado while most of your other novels are either westerns or classic historical novels. Why did you write MESA VERDE THUNDER, a prehistoric novel? I’ve often traveled over to the Four Corners area while visiting Lake Powell and the beautiful and rugged country all around there. I’ve been in Canyon de Chelly and have seen their ancient ruins as well as in many other national monuments. But of all these cliff dwellings and ancient ruins, none can compare to Mesa Verde National Park which is the largest archeological preserve in the United States with over 4,700 sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings.
Who were those ancient peoples and what were they really like? Hunters and gatherers, sure, but if you look at the petroglyphs and pictographs in those deep canyons, you have to believe that they were also a very SPIRITUAL people. They were called the Anasazi which I believe loosely means “ancient enemies” by the Navajo. Today they are generally called “Ancestral Puebloans” which reflects their modern descendants, the Hopi and the Zuni. When I first witnessed Mesa Verde as a small boy, I was awestruck…not only by the cliff dwellings, but by a perfectly preserved body of one of the cliff dwellers. The small mummy rested in a glass coffin out in front of a government building and I couldn’t help but stare and wonder what that man or woman’s life had been like. Of course their lives were much shorter and harder than ours today, but were their hopes and dreams so very different? Even as a boy I thought not.
Before I began to think of a storyline for Mesa Verde Thunder, I revisited the national park many times and
talked to the park ranges, anthropologists and archaeologists. I asked endless questions of them….what do the writings in stone really tell us today? Why did the “ancient ones” come to Mesa Verde and why did they suddenly leave around 1300 AD? I found myself on fire with curiosity about these little known people. What did their names sound like and what or who were their gods? Every people have a creation story…what was theirs? The experts differed on almost all their answers…but in the end they said that if I studied the Hopi and Zuni, their traditions and beliefs, I’d get a better understanding of those long ago cliff dwelling peoples. And so that is exactly what I did and out of it slowly begin to emerge a story, with the RAVEN CLAN and its many characters some of whom I liked and disliked with names like ECHATA, LI-TIA and STORYTELLER.
How did you come up with a plot for the novel when so little is actually known of the people? I wanted to tell not only the story of the “ancient ones” but also how Mesa Verde was discovered and then, sadly plundered. So I began to write TWO stories, one in recorded time beginning around 1888 that set up a clash between those early preservationists who fought to save the ruins for posterity and by careful excavation and study what those cliff dwellers were like…as opposed to those who were simply interested in profit. And this is a clash between opposites that continues to this very day not only in America, but all over the world. I enjoyed the more modern characters, but honestly not as much as the wonderful characters that I created who lived, loved and hunted, lusted and dreamed inside the deep, stony silence of Mesa Verde.
And as for why did they arrive in Mesa Verde around 1AD and why did they leave around 1300 AD, what I heard most often was that these small, tough little suvivalists of the ancient Southwest behaved like all prehistoric peoples…they went where they had the best chance to survive. Where there was game, good soil to plant in, plenty of wood burn for warmth and protection and most certainly most important of all, where there was water. And so, that is why the Anasazi left Mesa Verde…because dendrochronology (tree ring analysis) shows without a doubt that the Southwest was gripped in a terrible drought.
Try if you will to imagine those peoples as year after year of drought drained their hope and their strength which also meant their ability to fight of wandering peoples who would surely kill and plunder a weaker clan or village. What I think happened is that, as the drought around the Southwest intensified over many decades, the Anasazi grew weaker while they had to work ever harder. Deer and other game would have left the area in search of grass and water. Nearby trees that had long provided fuel on the mesa tops would have been harvested making wood gathering ever more difficult year after desperate year. Less food and less fuel for the hard winters costing much more precious energy. And here is the great and most interesting
question…did they one day sit down with the starving remnants of their people and have a meeting and decide to leave Mesa Verde all together for protection against what they might face in unknown places? Or, as I think more likely, did families in small groups seeing their old and young starving and even their people in the prime of their lives growing increasingly weak…did they just quietly leave those magnificent stone dwellings and walk away into the unknown? Some would no doubt have been killed off by peoples stronger and more numerous than themselves, others would likely have been welcomed and integrated into new cultures. What fascinating stories they could tell us about their long ago exodus!
What is your latest novel? I just finished one set in the period 1972-1977; a big time difference from the
Anasazi but not so far in terms of physical distance. It’s called Elvis & Cowboy Charlie and I loved writing the novel because so many Elvis fans just wished Elvis had met a man like Cowboy Charlie and would have turned his life around. It was a “what if” novel and something I’ve wanted to write for years because I was a big fan. I sure can’t change history, but it’s fun to play with it as long as the reader knows the real story.
Why does the American West hold such a fascination for you? I grew up when cowboy westerns were popular and we watched great shows like Bonanza, Gunsmoke and the great movies where silver screen heroes like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Gregory Peck brought the struggles of the West to life. I still love westerns, although they have fallen out of favor…but Russell Crowe and especially Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall have brought a new slant to the American West and with Dances with Wolves and other great movies, people have a chance to better understand what we did to Native Americans and how they still managed to remain strong and vital with their cultures and traditions intact.
With 50 books, you’re a master. Do you have any tips for beginning writers? I believe they should write what they love and not try to copy other writers and jump onto whatever is currently popular. I have always thought that it is the CHARACTERS that we create that are most important…not the plot or the setting. Create complex, deeply developed characters in your novels and it doesn’t matter if they are flying around in space…or sitting in a New York apartment or hunting deer with an atlatl as the Anasazi did long ago. Readers love great characters above all and they are the hardest thing for any writer to create. I wish I could tell you how to create them…but my only advice is just to love and hate and enjoy them and if you are true to your craft, the characters will magically just take on their own lives and even change your plots as their personalities become as real as our own.
Thanks, Gary. I appreciate you sharing with us on the blog.