Stephen Harrigan

Interview conducted by Dr. Stephen L. Hardin


ADP: The Gates of the Alamo is a departure from your earlier books. What drew you to the story?

Harrigan: The Alamo has been a magnet for me all my life. I first saw it when I was seven, not long after seeing the Fess Parker movie, and I don't think I've ever fully recovered from the impact. I remember the sense I had standing in the Alamo church and feeling that I was in a completely different realm. It was the first time I ever felt the presence of history.

ADP: You dedicated the book to the memory of James E. McLaughlin, 1918-1948. Who was he?

Harrigan: He was my father, a World War II fighter pilot who died in an airplane crash a few months before I was born. I never knew him, but dedicating the book to him felt right to me, since the novel itself is an attempt to come to terms with an ungraspable past.

ADP: The dust jacket notes describe your characters as "vibrant" and "unexpected." They're certainly that. I can't think of another writer who would cast a botanist as a major protagonist. Did you attempt to avoid the stereotypes and clichés common to the genre?

Harrigan: I desperately wanted to avoid the cliches, to jettison the myths of the Alamo and try to present an imagined but credible reality in their place. And as my protagonist, I wanted somebody who was active and engaged in an important pursuit but who was fundamentally an agnostic when it came to the war itself. One of the myths of the Alamo and the Texas revolution is that all these colonists rose up as one against the tyranny of Santa Anna, but as anyone knows who has studied the period with any care there was considerable divisiveness and ambivalence. It made sense to me to have a character who could reflect the complexity of the situation, and whose heroism was of a different sort than that usually associated with the Alamo story.

ADP: Your earlier books—Jacob's Well, A Natural State, Water and Light: A Diver's Journey to a Coral Reef—reflect your interest in the natural world. To what degree did your own proclivities influence the Edmund McGowan character?

Harrigan: The novels that excite me the most present a living, breathing world. To write about Texas in 1836 and not write about its most obvious feature—the landscape—would have been peculiar. I wanted readers to have a sense of being steeped in that landscape, to see it sharply and in detail. And what better eyes to see Texas through than those of a man driven to notice everything?

ADP: The book leaves at least one question unanswered. In the world you created what became of McGowan's manuscript of Flora Texana?

Harrigan: In my mind, the Flora Texana is still moldering in some forgotten Mexican archive, waiting to be rescued from obscurity.

ADP: I don't want to give too much away for those who have not read the book. Suffice it to say that McGowan has some "issues" that relate to his sexuality. How did his conflicted sexuality drive the character's development? Why did you opt to portray him as a person so at odds with his sexuality?

Harrigan: Characters aren't interesting to me unless they have some internal conflict. I wanted Edmund in some way to be a hostage to his own pride, and in the 19th century, in particular, pride could take people off in peculiar directions. We forget, in the sloppy liberation of our own time, what a powerful and unpredictable force unreleased sexuality can be. We forget that there were once people—even adventurous, heroic people—for whom this basic human urge was deeply frightening. Or so I speculate. The fact that I grew up Catholic and spent a lot of time among presumably celibate priests probably helped to plant this notion.

ADP: Readers will enjoy the skillful way you weave your fictional story into the documented history in a way that is virtually seamless. What historical sources did you find the most useful?

Harrigan: Well, your book, for one. Texian Iliad is a very elegant summary of the revolution, and Gary Zaboly's illustrations were a revelation the first time I saw them. But after reading the big sweeping histories, I found myself going back time and again to the same primary sources—Travis's letters from the Alamo, Almonte's diary, and then more recently Ramirez y Sesma's battle report. The books that assembled all of these accounts in one place, like Bill Groneman's Eyewitness to the Alamo and Alan Huffines's Blood of Noble Men were especially useful. But by far the most important research activity was just sitting around with you and all my other historian friends and arguing or theorizing about various aspects of the Alamo story.

ADP: You made a pact with fellow novelists Elizabeth Crook and Jeff Long that relates to the actions of the characters in each of your three books. Could you tell our readers how that concept developed?

Harrigan: A little over ten years ago, just as Elizabeth and Jeff and I were getting to know each other, we discovered that we were each writing a historical novel about the Texas Revolution. Theoretically, we weren't in direct competition. Elizabeth was writing the novel that would become Promised Lands, which tells the story primarily of the Goliad Massacre. Jeff was doing San Jacinto in Empire of Bones, and I was taking on the Alamo. Still, we all felt a little nervous—me most of all, because their books were almost finished and mine was not even begun. So I suggested that, instead of thinking of ourselves as competitors, we should think of ourselves as collaborators. The net result of that is that fictional characters from each of our novels wander through the pages of the others. So, for instance, Terrell Mott—from my book—shows up at a campfire with Sam Houston in Empire of Bones, and Hugh Kenner, the doctor from Promised Lands, makes a cameo appearance in The Gates of the Alamo.

ADP: In the "Author's Note" you make the following observation: "The debate over the authenticity of [the de la Peña] manuscript is abstruse and sometimes peculiarly heated—it matters to people how Davy Crockett died—but in my own relatively dispassionate assessment I have come to the conclusion that de la Peña, forgery or not, is a document of dubious historical veracity." As you know, Alamo de Parras has followed this debate in some detail. Do you care to expand on the above comments?

Harrigan: There are two separate questions about the de la Peña manuscript: 1) is it authentic? and 2) is it reliable? On the first point, I prefer to stand back and let Jim Crisp and Bill Groneman and Tom Lindley slug it out, because I know I'll never have the command of the material that they do. On the issue of its reliability, I just feel that it's squirrelly. If José Enrique de la Peña was its true author, it's still obviously something of a clip job, and when it comes to Crockett's death scene, for example, it just has the ring of hearsay to me. I understand the exasperation that some historians feel over the endless barrage of suspicion aimed at this document, but I also feel that until recently de la Peña has never really been looked at critically at all. So I tried to keep a judicious distance from it, though I'm very interested in the ongoing debate.

ADP: You have a wonderfully detailed scene in chapter three wherein Jim Bowie wrestles an alligator. I'm almost afraid to ask, but how did you become such an expert on this arcane pursuit?

Harrigan: This is a direct result of the wonder of the Internet. I went onto the pets forum of America Online and posted a message under "Reptiles" asking for information about how to wrestle an alligator. In less than a day I had five or six messages, one of which was three single-spaced pages specifying, in minute detail, how to wrestle an alligator.

ADP: Those of us who write books never know what the press people are going to put on the dust jacket. The dust jacket around Gates, for example, makes the following claim: "[F]or the first time the story is told not just from the perspective of the American defenders but from that of the Mexican attackers as well." That person was clearly ignorant of John R. Knagg's The Bugles Are Silent: A Novel of the Texas Revolution (1977) that also showcased several Mexican characters that told their side of the story. Had you read Knagg's earlier novel before you began writing Gates?

Harrigan: Oops. I should have caught that. Yes, of course I've read John's novel, and admire it. I suppose the reason the comment slipped by is that The Bugles are Silent seems to me not to be primarily an "Alamo" novel so much as it is a panoramic novel of the Texas Revolution. The same is true of J.Y. Bryan's Come to the Bower, which also features Mexican characters. And of course Elizabeth Crook's Promised Lands is prominently peopled with Tejanos.

ADP: Your depiction of the Alamo assault is the best in print. Since it's better than the one in Texian Iliad, it gives me no special pleasure to concede that. It is also realistic in terms of the damage done to the human body on nineteenth-century battlefields. Do you fear that some readers will be repelled by all the blood and guts—not to mention the urine and excrement? This is not the way Alamo heroes die in the movies!

Harrigan: Writing these battle scenes was slightly troubling to me, because I became aware for the first time of what the phrase "pornography of violence" means. But you can't tell the truth about combat without beginning to feel, in some way, that you've gone too far. On the other hand, there is also a certain obscenity in the sanitized, glorified version. I guess what I hope is that readers will realize I have tried to find an honorable middle ground.

ADP: You have a reputation for not only writing well, but also writing quickly. I know that you worked on Gates for years. Why did this one take so long?

Harrigan: A book this long, and this detailed, requires a tremendous amount of research. I read for about two years before I felt I knew enough to even begin writing it. And then I had to work on the novel in and around other projects. Typically, I was working on at least one screenplay, not to mention various articles, at the same time I was trying to write the novel.

ADP: How long have you been a professional writer? How did you make your start in the business?

Harrigan: I sold my first magazine article in 1973, when I was mowing yards for a living, and have been a professional writer ever since. I started out as a free-lance magazine writer and over the years have gradually morphed into a novelist and screenwriter. It hasn't always been easy, but I feel I've been very lucky to make a living doing something that brings me so much pleasure.

ADP: You have had a long relationship with Texas Monthly. What is your current status with that magazine?

Harrigan: I'm now listed on the masthead as a contributing editor, though it'd be more accurate to call me a contributing writer. I still publish occasional pieces in the magazine—this current issue, in fact, has an article of mine about how to visit the Alamo—and I have a close allegiance to the publication and a long friendship with many of the people there. In many ways, Texas Monthly made my career. It was an incredible catalyst for Texas writers, and I think working for the magazine sharpened my wits, enlarged my curiosity, and helped me learn to write.

ADP: I've heard through the grapevine that someone has optioned Gates for a feature film. Do you have anything new to report on that front?

Harrigan: Several production companies have expressed interest, but at this point, nothing concrete has happened. Part of the reason, I'm sure, is that there are three or four other Alamo movies in various stages of development. This is probably because of all the middle-aged studio executives out there who, like me, were transfixed by the Fess Parker movie and are now reexamining the icons of their childhood.

ADP: How has the word processor changed the way you write? Which system do you use?

Harrigan: I wrote this book on a Macintosh with Microsoft Word. I now have an IMac, with a newer version of Word, which I absolutely detest. There's this creepy little computer creature who pops up unbidden on the screen to constantly inquire into your business. But even with these sorts of aggravations, computers are an unbelievable blessing. I wrote my first two novels in longhand, two or three successive drafts in composition books. And though there was a certain satisfaction in having amassed all those pages full of ink, I don't miss the tedium a bit.

ADP: I know you do be a remarkably disciplined writer. Describe an average writing day.

Harrigan: As I said before, I tend to work on more than one project at once. So a typical writing day for me might be working on a screenplay in the morning and a book or an article in the afternoon. I'll often work for an hour or so at night as well, though I try as much as possible to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule. Being a free-lance writer, however, means you run a small business, so there is an alarming amount of time spent on the phone, answering e-mail, raiding the refrigerator, paying bills, and waiting longingly at the door for the Federal Express man to bring you that magic package whose contents will forever free you from all financial anxiety.

ADP: The people at Alfred A. Knopf have a hectic book tour planned for you. Can you tell our readers how a book tour works? Which cities will you visit?

Harrigan: I don't really know how it works, since this is my first one. But my impression is that I will be whisked about from one city to the next, endlessly repeating in 50 words or less to various interviewers what my book is about, and then giving a talk or a reading at a bookstore or library at night. It's supposed to be exhausting. But it's a different kind of exhaustion than writing, and so I'm ready for it.

ADP: Gates had a first printing of one hundred thousand copies. Obviously, the editors at Knopf believe that the Alamo story has an appeal outside Texas. What is it about the Alamo battle that engages the interest of people all over the country and, for that matter, all over the world?

Harrigan: I think it's the notion of deliberate self-sacrifice, the idea that there is an ideal or a principle that is worth dying for, and the hope that we ourselves might be capable of such a choice if we were ever called upon to make it—that we would "cross the line."

ADP: What is your next project? Can our readers expect another historical fiction from the word processor of Stephen Harrigan?

Harrigan: I've just finished a screenplay for TNT which is a western reworking of King Lear, set in South Texas in 1842 and culminating in a rather historically loose version of the Battle of the Salado. Sorry to disappoint, but I think my next book project will be a contemporary novel. After that, however, I might dip into history again. Writing an historical novel is a bit of a chore, but I've never done anything else that was quite as much fun.

February 2000

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