JM Gulvin: An Exclusive Interview on The Long Count

JM Gulvin: An Exclusive Interview on The Long Count

How did you go about creating your lead character, Ranger John Q?

It was 2003 and I was researching a novel in Idaho. Taking a break, I switched on the TV and came across a documentary about a police officer from Rock Springs, Wyoming called Ed Cantrell. He was a man born out of his time, old school, tough, honest and uncompromising. Master of the quick draw, he shot and killed a fellow police officer called Michael Rosa who was going to shoot Cantrell. Rosa’s gun remained holstered and Cantrell was tried for murder. He was acquitted however, because it was proven that Rosa was going for his weapon. Cantrell just got to his faster and killed him in self-defence.

That story blew me away. It was the beginning of John Quarrie. I actually wrote a novel called The Defendant largely a fictionalization of that event, but I could not sell it. Undeterred, I knew I had found the kind of character I wanted to write, I just had to develop him.

I decided to make him a Texas Ranger and move my setting back ten years or so to a time when the world was changing and an old school police force like the Rangers were attempting to change with it. That gave me the opportunity to have this old fashioned cop, who was tough, honest and uncompromising. He was working alone in the vast landscape that is Texas in a time when prevention was still much better than cure.

I didn’t want any modern technology. No cell phones or satellite tracking. I wanted one man, one car; but none of the “lone wolf” clichés. I gave him a son, a best friend he’d served with in Korea and an extended “family” of friends all living on the same ranch in the Texas panhandle.

I already had a basis in reality through Cantrell, but in a more overt fashion I used Captain Frank Hamer. He was one of the most famous Texas Rangers of the 20th century, brought out of retirement to go after Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker when their robberies started to involve murder. Hamer epitomized the “One riot, one Ranger” epithet that’s been applied to a group of men who, by the admission of most historians, really were “a breed apart” from the rest of us.

When WWII broke out Frank Hamer wrote to King George in London and offered a personal bodyguard of 49 retired Rangers in case Germany managed to invade. He meant it, every word. I knew all about him before I created Quarrie so for that extra dusting of reality I made Hamer Quarrie’s godfather.

Sense of place is so strong in ‘The Long Count’ – how did you research the book?

I have spent a lot of time in the US, particularly the west and southwest. When I’m in Texas I make a point of keeping away from the major conurbations because they are so vastly different now to how they were in the late 60’s when the novel is set. I’m lucky in that I have an affinity with all things “western” both old and modern. I was married in a small US town, had my reception in a blue collar cowboy bar and used to own a cabin on a lake in Idaho. People tell me I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time, but perhaps that enables me to imbue the page with the right kind of atmosphere, if so it’s more by accident than design. That said, I love driving the back roads (the old ranch to market roads, as they’re referred to in Texas) because the landscape does not change. Those roads are the same as they’ve always been and many of the smaller towns have hardly altered at all. The rest is pure research. It might sound odd but there’s a TV programme called “American Pickers” about a couple of antique dealers, and I watch that avidly so I can learn the history of what we call “Americana”. It’s a great source of knowledge when it comes to what was being bought and sold, what was popular with whom and when. I have a raft of old photos of Dallas and Wichita Falls, old road maps of the entire state and also I’ve studied video footage on You Tube and watch any movie made in Texas or the south in the relevant time period. I know my American automobiles pretty well and I’ve picked up “timelines” here and there of what things cost, houses, cars, gasoline etc.

The paper research is actually more important than the physical travelling because of when the book is set, but it’s being on the road, driving “Road America” as I call it, that really enables me to soak up the atmosphere that takes shape in the book.

If you could sum up the book in 5 words, what would these be?

THE FIRST IN A SERIES.

Are you working on anything else at the moment?

Yes, I’ve delivered the second book in the John Q series to Faber & Faber. It’s called The Contract and we see another side to John Q in his role as a Texas Ranger. I’m working on the third book right now.

What would be your typical day as a writer?

I don’t get up at the crack of dawn. I’m at my desk by 9:30 and I’m there for the entire day, save to go downstairs and refill my coffee cup. I go through a pot a day, milk and two sugars, always filtered Americano. If I’m working on a first draft I’ll write then re-write between ten and fifteen pages each day. That’s between 4000 and 6000 words and I’m religious about working Monday to Friday and sometimes the weekends too. Writing is my job and I treat it as anyone else would treat their working day. Once a full first draft is complete I spend months working on the text. A book takes me a year on and off, about 90,000 words in length, the time is taken making sure every element of the plot is correct and every word matters. It’s all about achieving the spare sense of simplicity I want in the writing. Simplicity doesn’t mean simple, and it’s actually very hard to do.

You spend time in both the U.K. and the U.S. Do you think the location where you are writing affects your work?

That’s a very good question. I used to write at my place in Idaho but not anymore. This new series is set 50 years ago so I can’t get a day to day sense as I did when the books were contemporary. For that reason I travel over there and hang out, so to speak, to get my fix of Americana, but I write in Wales. As I write this for you now I’m looking across the River Usk in Wales to the Llangatock Escarpment. As soon as I turn to the keys of my lap top however, I’m in the Texas panhandle and it’s my imagination based on 20 years experience that takes over.

Do you have any maxims that you live or write by?

Yes I do. As far as living goes, I’m big on honesty and loyalty. We all have our vices and foibles and I’m no exception. But I hate liars or what some call “spinners of the truth”. I brought my two daughters up by myself and I taught them to be tough on themselves when it comes to working for what they want to achieve and to only deal in the truth.

As far as writing goes there are four maxims I would suggest any serious writer employ:

VIEWPOINT – Don’t head jump. In real life we only ever know our own thoughts. Don’t be omnipotent, work at getting across a secondary character’s thoughts by describing what they say and do.

SHOW ME DON’T TELL ME. Don’t tell the story, fully dramatize it and your reader will become part of the fabric and so soak up the atmosphere.

TELL IT HOW IT IS. Hemingway worked at simple unembellished prose, all of us can learn from him.

WRITE FAT RE-WRITE LEAN

Write as much as you want to begin with by the final drafts need to contain only what needs to be there. Sculpt like a sculptor, hone your work, it’s the most satisfying part of the process.

You worked with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman on the book of their ‘Long Way Down’ trip, how did that work come your way, and how did you find the move to writing non-fiction?

The chance was offered by my agent Robert Kirby who is head of Literature at United Agents. He agented the book for Ewan and Charley, I wrote a 13 page audition piece, Charley loved it as did the producers. I hadn’t met Ewan at the time and the piece was in the first person and part of it told as if I was him. He read it and gave me the job straight away. It isn’t easy to move from fiction to non-fiction and I don’t ghost write unless I’m forced to financially. That said, both Charley and Ewan are friends now so if I was asked to work for them again I would.

Who are your literary influences?

In my opinion the greatest living novelist is Cormac McCarthy and he has been the biggest influence on me. As a craftsman he has no equal. I don’t think he’s the finest storyteller in the world but he is the most accomplished stylist. Apart from him there is Ron Hansen who wrote The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford. When I was younger I was a huge fan of Graham Greene and when I was learning how to re-write I studied the work of Ernest Hemingway.

Which fictional character do you most wish you had created?

This might sound a little arrogant and it’s really not meant to, but I don’t envy anyone else’s character. I created John Quarrie, drew him into life over a five year period and even wrote him as a fifteen year old in a book called The Dividing so I could figure out who he is. I like him. He’s everything I would’ve liked to have been and I’ll die happy knowing I managed to get him into print.

Do you have any recommendations of books you’ve enjoyed reading recently?

I don’t have time to read as much as I would like and I read to learn from the craft of the author rather than for pleasure. That said, I’d recommend The Son by Phillip Meyer.