Where did the inspiration for Josey Angel come from?
I’d been reading a lot of stories about post-traumatic stress disorder, which has been around even longer than Homer, though our understanding of it is only a recent development. Josey goes to war with the kind of noble intentions that only a young man can bring to that endeavor. He’s appalled at what he sees and horrified to discover that he’s good at killing people. We are accustomed to making heroes of men with a skill for killing when it’s justified. I wanted to explore what happens to a character when that book or movie ends. The war has made Josey something of a legend, but he’s not equipped psychologically to cope with his celebrity. I think of him as Achilles, cursed with a sensitive soul.
Annabelle at first seems like a more traditional character — a strong Southern woman. Discuss how she changes over the course of the book.
Belle is the readers’ surrogate. We see the world through her eyes, from the challenges of discreetly relieving oneself on a treeless plain to the wonder of the beauty she encounters at places like Scotts Bluff and the Yellowstone River. If you read the journals of women who went west, the experience of feeling liberated from the expectations of the east’s mannered society is rather common. I see Annabelle as someone who felt she always had to appear strong; in the West she can be strong.
Amid all the danger and adventure, you’ve said Trail Angel is at heart a love story. Booklist called it “a story of two lost people who find each other and a way to keep living.” What compelled you to write it that way?
I enjoyed researching and writing authentic history and thrilling action, but from the outset I knew this would be a character-driven story. Too often, critics of what we broadly call “genre fiction” act if we must choose: Do we want a great story or memorable characters? I want both! When I set out to write Trail Angel, I had in mind my favorite uncle who loves histories and thrillers and my aunt who prefers character-driven love stories. I wanted to write a book that would appeal to both of them.
Did they like it?
Yes, they did. And my cousins, too. At the time, I told my wife, “Now we just have to see if people who aren’t related to me like it.”
As much as the people, the geography in Trail Angel seems to drive the story. Was that your intention?
On a simple level, this is the story of a road trip — one that lasts months and never gets going at more than a walking pace. The journey, of course, provides plenty of obstacles for the characters to overcome, but as the landscape changes, so do they. Annabelle, in particular, leaves behind the relative luxury of the Herndon House in Omaha for a rough world where even wearing the fashionably wide skirts of the time posed a mortal threat when cooking over an open flame. She has to adapt to survive, and the experience changes her. It’s a world where anything seems possible to her, and she finds that it suits her.
Your economic use of details provides a sense of the changing landscape without a lot of what Elmore Leonard called “hooptedoodle.”
“Economic use of details.” I like that. It’s important that readers “see” the changing landscape in Trail Angel. The transition from rolling prairie to mountain streams marks the passage of time as much as the wagon train’s progress. Yet even if I imagined I had the skill to write pages of description on the sight of grass waving in the breeze or the pungency of a corral of oxen, I’m not confident most modern readers have the patience for that. I’ve been a journalist too long not to keep my audience in mind. I would love if readers come away from Trail Angel feeling they’ve learned something about the history and geography of the setting while being thoroughly entertained, but I’m not here to try to impress anyone with my literary aspirations.
While Trail Angel is firmly rooted in the past, every point-of-view character confronts issues that seem just as relevant today, such as Josey’s PTSD.
One hundred and fifty years seems like a long time, but people’s nature hasn’t changed so much. Reading all the journals and contemporary literature I did really reinforced that for me. Annabelle’s reaction to her miscarriage is an example. Here’s this beautiful, intelligent young woman questioning her worth to society because she can’t have children. In that way, she reminds me of career women who feel they have to defend their choice to be childless or working mothers who fear they can’t live up to an expectation of perfection while balancing work and a satisfying home life.
Caleb’s resentment of the Rutledge family’s wealth seems another example.
Exactly. The idea that the wealthiest 1 percent have rigged the rules of society to benefit themselves is nothing new. If anything, the circumstances that have inspired all this debate about class warfare today are more in keeping with most of history. Though uneducated, Caleb is wise enough to see that the new world order emerging out of the war and the freeing of the slaves will be much the same for his lot as the old world order. His resentment motivates him to actions he probably wouldn’t have considered before the war.
Josey carries a Henry rifle, which at times helps to define his character. Why did you choose that weapon?
It was important to me that Josey be relatable to a broad audience despite his prowess on the battlefield. In an era when just about everyone was using rifled muskets, a sixteen-shot repeating rifle provided a technological advantage that’s almost unmatched in history. Josey’s skills in battle extend beyond his use of the rifle, as we see, but the edge it gives him helps create this dichotomy between his lethal reputation and his thoughtful manner and mild appearance. I didn’t want a superhero; I wanted an average man with a superlative skill that fills him with regret.
I liked how even the secondary characters in Trail Angel seemed to have lives off the page that I could imagine, like Lord Byron, the former slave who rides with Josey. How did you come up with that name? Was there a historic precedent?
While many freed slaves adopted new surnames after the war, I’m not aware of any who took up the names of English Romantic poets. In my mind, Lord Byron’s choice spoke to a great pride he maintained despite all that he’d been through, and to the closeness and comfort he felt with Josey and the Colonel. I wanted to convey all of that with just a few words instead of a hundred pages of backstory. One of the frustrations of writing a novel is that there are limits, at least in the expectations of readers, to how much detail you can fill in. Some writers reject those limits by producing 700-page novels. As a reader I enjoy imagining details of characters’ lives that aren’t spelled out on a page. In that way, readers can take ownership of a character as not just someone they’ve read about, but someone they know.
You brought up the Colonel, one of my favorite characters. While he’s not a point-of-view character, he seems just as essential to the story.
The Colonel is the literary workhorse of Trail Angel. He provides much of the exposition that’s necessary to any historic fiction; he’s the loquacious foil to Josey’s taciturnity who reveals character; as confidante to Josey and Annabelle, he’s the bridge that helps foster their romance. With so much responsibility for furthering the story, his character could have been tedious, but he felt anything but every time I started to write him. I’ve heard authors describe characters coming to life off the page, but I wasn’t sure I understood what that meant until I met the Colonel.
The Colonel provides much, though not all, of the comic relief in Trail Angel as well.
Some of my favorite chapters were those when we see the banter among the Colonel, Josey and Lord Byron. I wanted to hang out with these guys. Look, some will label Trail Angel as an adventure. Others might deem it foremost a love story. No one’s going to call Trail Angel a comic novel, but humor is a part of life. Humor is the grease that keeps all of the cogs turning in any workplace or family setting, and a wagon train is both of those things on some level. The publishing world can be so segregated about its genres that I think some authors feel prodded until they are relentlessly serious or grim. That’s just not a world I enjoy spending a lot of time in.
Like the landscape, our view of the Indians the emigrants meet along the way changes.
By 1866, the tribes along the Platte River road had been decimated by diseases introduced by the passage of the white settlers through their lands. The Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 had provided for safe passage for the whites along the Oregon Trail in exchange for an annuity of $50,000 — food and goods that didn’t always find their way to the Indians, which added to their suffering. Many settlers were disappointed by the Indians they encountered along the way, like seeing an underfed and mangy lion in a zoo (and the settlers very much would have equated Indians with a zoo display). Those who ranged into the Powder River region of present-day Wyoming confronted a different sort of Indian altogether.
Besides the Indians and dangers endemic to such a journey, Trail Angel includes mysterious “road agents” — bandits — who are trailing the wagon train for reasons best left unsaid here. Even their leader, who is as close as an irredeemable bad guy as there is in Trail Angel, has some sympathetic nuances to his character. Why did you write him that way?
The captain of the road agents is a bad guy — he’s greedy and selfish in a way that suggests a life of easy entitlement. But his act of betraying the Confederate cause during the war is justified in his mind by his rejection of slavery. It’s an accident of geography, he tells Josey at one point, that compelled him to fight for a side despite his reservations about their cause. While he clearly benefited financially from the institution of slavery, he strikes me as the type who would have been willing to negotiate a compromise if even that suggestion hadn’t been viewed as treasonous to his home state.
Without spoiling the ending —
Yes, don’t do that!
Right. Without spoiling things, the ending is more, let’s say ambiguous, than some readers might expect. Why did you go that way?
Some readers — my wife included — didn’t care for that, but I felt I had no choice. Part of what makes Annabelle and Josey so interesting is that they carry these deep emotional wounds. While the romantic in me wants to believe love heals all wounds, I don’t believe that happens simply or quickly. Because Josey was coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, I feared it would be a betrayal to suggest that falling in love is all it takes to overcome those unseen wounds.
Falling in love was the easy part. Making it work — especially in a world where the Lakota nation is stirred up and determined to drive the army from their sacred hunting grounds — that’s the real challenge.
Every writer seems to have different work habits. Describe yours.
I floundered about before I found what worked for me. I have a pretty demanding day job at the Daytona Beach News-Journal, so Trail Angel was written mostly on weekends, nights and vacation days stolen from my wife (you know she loves you when she’ll agree to a “staycation” that leaves you at your desk all day). A change in the day job’s schedule made for a more efficient experience on the sequel, Angel Falls. I do my best writing first thing in the morning, so I’m up before dawn writing for an hour or two before I go to work. I write longer on the weekends. I keep a log on an Excel chart, which I like to think provides motivation to maintain my schedule but is probably also a symptom of undiagnosed OCD. I managed 160 straight days, including holidays, to finish the version that went out to my beta readers.
What’s the view from your desk?
I’m blessed to have a home office with a view of the Intracoastal Waterway, known locally as the Halifax River, just south of Daytona Beach. If I step out onto the balcony I can just see the ocean across the barrier island. It’s beautiful. I feel like I’m on vacation the moment I’m done for the day. But I don’t appreciate the view while I’m working. I pull the shades. My wife pulls them back while I’m away from my desk, but I close them the next morning.
Outline or write as you go?
I don’t go on vacation without writing an itinerary, so, yeah, I use an outline. I think they’re great time savers, especially for an intricately plotted novel.
Trail Angel is a work of fiction. Annabelle, her family, Josey, the Colonel, Lord Byron, Caleb and everyone else in the wagon train never existed. Yet many of the people they come across were real. If you’re like me, on finishing a book of historical fiction you want to know what liberties the author took with the facts. My short answer is: not many. Real-life accounts of wagon train journeys to the west were exciting enough that I never felt a need to stretch the truth. It was the same with the events that precipitated Red Cloud’s War. This summary provides a more in-depth look at the real people and events described in Trail Angel.
William Tecumseh Sherman: The general commanded the armies of the west in 1866. Once I came across a reference to a visit he made to Omaha in May—staying, indeed, at the Herndon House, the finest hotel in the city at that time, despite charging extra for the few rooms equipped with a stove—I felt I had to arrange a meeting with Annabelle. Many of the remarks Sherman makes about his hopes for the west and his frustration in keeping the peace among settlers and the Indians are based on letters and journals he wrote.
Jim Bridger: The legendary mountain man was in his 60s but still scouting for the army when Red Cloud’s War broke out in 1866. Descriptions of the man vary, but nearly everyone found him to be as charming as Annabelle did. He was fond of tall tales and claimed to have been in the West so long that Pike’s Peak was a hole in the ground when he first saw it. Changing the reference to Chimney Rock for the benefit of a pretty young woman who’d never seen Pike’s Peak seems just the sort of liberty he would take. Bridger makes a return appearance in the sequel, Angel Falls.
Henry Carrington: The commander at Fort Phil Kearny was a convenient scapegoat for the army’s failures in the Powder River region. As described in Trail Angel, Carrington had no experience leading men in battle and did not enjoy the confidence of many of his junior officers. Yet he successfully oversaw the construction of the fort under difficult circumstances. The poor weapons and scarcity of ammunition were real concerns. Sherman himself probably couldn’t have fared much better under the circumstances. Carrington’s challenges only grow greater in Angel Falls.
Margaret Carrington: The commander’s wife is also the source for much of what we know about Henry Carrington. Her book, Absaraka: Home of the Crows, is a beautifully written account of her journey to the fort and her life there. Many of the views she expresses about Indians and the difficulty of life on the frontier come from her writings.
Minor characters: Many minor characters, or at least the names, were drawn from historical accounts. I used newspaper advertisements in Omaha to provide the names (and in many cases addresses) of the stores described there. So there really was a Hellman & Co. store and a McCormick’s, though I can’t speak for appearance or manner of the owner. The same is true for many of the soldiers the travelers meet along the way, including Captain Joshua Proctor, the commander at Fort Reno, Doc Hines and the redoubtable Lieutenant Wands and Reverend White.
Events on the trail: Much of what’s described on the trail happened in real life to real people. More emigrants died from illness and accidents than violence. The Indian tribes that lived along the Platte River had been decimated by disease and the loss of good hunting, yet they remained a source of fear among emigrants. The Colonel’s story about Indians taking revenge at Rawhide Creek was one that settlers told around their campfires. Weary travelers came together to celebrate Independence Day. Even the account of luring a curious antelope close by waving a flag came from a traveler’s journal.
Fort Laramie peace treaty: The government did sign a peace treaty with Indians in the summer of 1866, but the Indians who signed on the mostly pacified tribes who lived near the fort. Red Cloud stalked out and threats were made if travelers continued to follow the Bozeman Trail.
Confederate gold: Rumors of hidden or stolen caches of the Southern treasury were commonplace after the war, but most accounts—like this one—are the product of fiction writers’ imaginations.
Crazy Woman Creek: The Indian ambush occurred much as it’s described, though I had to streamline events and characters to accommodate them within this story. The description of soldiers preparing their rifles for a suicide shot came from an account of the Wagon Box Fight. Though that took place in 1867, it didn’t seem a stretch to imagine soldiers would resort to similarly drastic actions under equally dire circumstances. The desperate run for water led by Lieutenant Wands and Reverend White helped sustain the small force until help could arrive—led by Jim Bridger.