Alamo de Parras' historical consultant, Dr. Stephen L. Hardin, goes one-on-one with author William C. Davis. Davis is best known as a Civil War historian, with many fine books to his credit. His latest book is a departure from his usual area of interest. Three Roads to the Alamo is a telling of the story of the lives of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, leading up to their common destiny at a small mission in Texas.
WINNER OF THE 1998 REUBEN M. POTTER AWARD
WCD: Three Roads to the Alamo really came about by accident. Several years ago Kevin Young said to me that we really needed a good biography of James Bowie. Having been writing Civil War books for almost twenty years at that point, I was getting just a bit tired of the same subject area time after time, and I filed this away as a possible diversion from the Late Unpleasantness. Then I thought of doing a Crockett biography until I heard that Paul Hutton was well along on his. Finally the idea of doing the three Alamo icons struck me-of course Virgil Baugh had done it back in about 1960, but not very well-and my publisher liked the idea. In fact, I have gotten sufficiently jaded on the Civil War that now every other book I do is on some other era. In a couple of years I'll be writing a dual biography of Jean and Pierre Laffite, for instance, an outgrowth of my research into their association with Bowie and early Texas and Louisiana.
ADP: How many books have you written? How old were you when you began your career as a writer?
WCD: To date I've published about 40 books that I either wrote or acted as editor on. Of course, half a dozen of them are rather thin and hardly worthy to be called books. On the other hand, I edited a book on alternative energy for Mother Earth News and don't even list it on my c.v., as I have never even seen a copy. My first stab at writing for publication was made when I was a sophomore in high school, but nothing came of it. As I recall, the article was about the CSS Albemarle, and most of it was plagiarized from a couple of old books! I never submitted it to anyone. My first published work I wrote when I was a college sophomore, and it really started my career, leading directly to my first book, and to my 21 years in editorial and management with a magazine publishing company.
ADP: I was enormously impressed by the amount and quality of research in Three Roads to the Alamo. How much time did you devote to research before you began writing?
WCD: I spent about two years researching Three Roads, which is probably about average for my books since I left the publishing business to work more or less full time as a writer. This may sound fast, but keep in mind that I can devote almost full time to it whereas most historians holding down regular jobs don't have that luxury.
ADP: Do you have interesting research stories to share with our readers?
WCD: The research for Three Roads was the most interesting and challenging of any I have done to date. Getting into the Mexican Military Archives at Defensa Nacional was quite a story in itself, involving our ambassador and the U.S. Information Service, and a lot of luck, and the visit to Mexico City was wonderful. The officers and men at Defensa were extremely cordial, and though I didn't find the kind of personal documents on my characters that I hoped for-it was always a very long shot-I did find some important new reports on the Alamo that solve some mysteries and change the story pretty dramatically in terms of the end of the fight, and certainly that was exciting.
ADP: What was your greatest find?
WCD: Actually I think my greatest find was in the National Archives in Washington. We have all known for a long time about Bowie's involvement in attempted Arkansas land fraud. Purely on a hunch, I decided to check to see if there was anything dodgy about his extensive Louisiana land holdings. What I found out at the Archives, of course, was that the famous Bowie brothers plantation and all his other Louisiana holdings were based on extensive forgery, fraud, bribery, and intimidation, making him easily the largest land swindler of his era. This is hardly what I was wishing to find-you follow the trail of sources wherever it takes you-but it and a lot of other stuff really rewrites the verifiable story of this remarkable character.
ADP: What was your greatest disappointment?
WCD: Actually, Bowie represents the greatest disappointment, too. For all of the hundreds of previously unknown documents that I uncovered on him, he remains one-dimensional and enigmatic. There is not one personal letter to a friend or family member, nor anything else that is reliable that fills out the picture of what was a most unusual character. We don't know how he felt about his wife, what made him laugh, his political views, religion, and so on. I can interpolate some of this, but that is always dangerous, and very subjective. As he is the most interesting of the three men, to me anyhow, I am disappointed not to have been able to provide a three-dimensional portrait to balance or offset the unrelentingly unfavorable picture that most of the surviving documents present. Some people certainly loved him, and he had undeniable charm and sway with his personality. It would have been nice to have some body of genuine evidence to flesh out that part of him. Of course, there is a lot of nonsense and imagination and myth that attempts to fill those blanks, but that is of little use to an historian and is best left to the uncritical hero-worshippers.
ADP: Did you encounter any major surprises during the course of your research?
WCD: Bowie's land dealings were certainly a surprise, as was the 'smoking gun' testimony of Mexican General Ramírez y Sesma on the fate of about a third of the Alamo garrison. I was surprised, too, and very pleasantly, to find that the portrait of Travis so often drawn as a priggish twit and even a possible murderer was false. It was quite rewarding to watch him mature as the sources revealed a promising young man who was on his way to the top when the Alamo stopped him.
ADP: Which books did you find most useful during your Alamo research?
WCD: For military events, your own Texian Iliad is unmatched. Paul Lack's volume on the politics of the revolution was very good, though I don't agree with all that he says. For all its flaws, Jenkins's papers of the revolution series was indispensable. Ruby Mixon's University of Texas thesis on Travis was a remarkable work for the time it was done, and though flawed, it was very helpful, especially for some documents that have been lost or stolen since she used them. Also very helpful was a dissertation by Joseph Tregle written in the 1950s, and only finally being published this year by LSU Press, on Louisiana politics in the age of Jackson. Actually, after finding it so useful, I recommended it to the press, which indirectly has resulted in its publication, which is satisfying.
ADP: Once you completed the research, how long did it take to actually write the book?
WCD: I write very quickly, but again, not having another job to worry about, I can devote almost full time to it. Three Roads was started in December 1996 and coincidentally finished on March 6, 1997 in San Antonio, in the Emily Morgan Hotel in a room overlooking the Alamo. I didn't plan it that way-it just happened. So it took about ten weeks altogether.
ADP: Would you describe your writing regimen? Take us through an average writing day.
WCD: I adhere to a very strict writing schedule. I don't exactly know why. It is just what has evolved. I take a brisk 6-mile walk in the morning, which helps clear my head and arrange thoughts for the day's work. Then I start writing at precisely 10 a.m. and stay at it until 6:30 p.m., usually with 90 minutes off at lunch. I do that seven days a week until the book is finished, and every day I produce 14 pages of finished copy on the word processor, or two pages an hour. Most importantly, I do not answer the telephone or knocks at the door. A 10-second phone call from some boob telemarketing burial plots or insurance can cost half an hour or more if a train of thought is interrupted and has to be recreated. Writers should never forget that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's greatest poem is unfinished because some moron interrupted him while he was writing. Once I'm done writing, I usually sort the note cards for the following day's work, then sit down in front of the fireplace and read a book or watch a British comedy on television.
ADP: Do you use a word processor? If so, when did you make the switch from typewriter to word processor?
WCD: Until 1992, I wrote all my books on a typewriter, a manual for the first several, and an IBM electric for the rest. I resisted getting a word processor for a long time, chiefly because I find people who talk about computers to be such bores that I didn't want to risk becoming one of them. I still miss the 'whack' when a proper key hits the roller on a typewriter. The wimpy little clicks from a PC keyboard just don't sound to me like real creation, but then I am a Luddite at heart.
ADP: How has the word processor changed your writing habits?
WCD: The word processor really hasn't changed anything that I can put my finger on. I have always been a lazy writer. I never rewrite, and rarely do anything more than light editing-correct typo's, make passive verbs active, that sort of thing. I think I may do a little more revision now because a PC makes it so easy, but that is about it.
ADP: Weighing in at 791 pages of small print, Three Roads to the Alamo qualifies as a bone fide tome. Do large books present special challenges?
WCD: I don't find writing a large book all that challenging. I have done four or five the size of Three Roads, and really, after getting through the first day, which is the hardest, I find that the job takes on its own life and I really don't notice that it may be getting long. But then I always plan how long a book is going to be before I ever start. I do a very simple outline of chapter headings-nothing more-and make a guess at how long each chapter should be. Three Roads went about 50 pages longer than I anticipated, but considering that the manuscript ran to about 1,300 pages, that is still pretty close.
ADP: You take a 'warts and all' approach to your three subjects. Have you received any grief from readers for tarnishing the reputations of their heroes?
WCD: Maybe the biggest surprise so far with this book is that I haven't heard an outcry from the traditional Alamo community, especially since an erroneous rumor got out while I was writing that I intended to take a hatchet to these three, which was never the case. Certainly I am critical of them in places, and certainly I challenge a lot of the conventional old sources that don't stand up under scrutiny, but still there has been no flak at all to speak of, either from the serious scholarly fold, or from the buffs, the latter being the ones I most expected to hear from. I take this as a sign of a healthy maturing of the Alamo community, that it realizes now that its heroes can be handled as real flesh and blood characters, warts and all as you say, and still be heroes at the end of the day. There has only been one real complaint, and that from a long-time student of Bowie who seemed to interpret my questioning of some sources and conclusions as an attack on himself, whereas I think the underlying problem was really that I had said unkind things about his hero. But that is all so far. Keep in mind, that my portrait of Crockett is quite favorable in the main, and I think I actually resurrect Travis's reputation from much undeserved and unwarranted opprobrium. It is only Bowie whose iconic status suffers, and that dramatically, yet at the end of the day he is still in his way a hero.
ADP: Having now finished the book, do you have a favorite among the three subjects? Why?
WCD: It is almost impossible not to love Crockett, of course, and as I said, I really enjoyed watching Travis outgrow his youthful immaturity and irresponsibility. But Bowie has to be my favorite, not for himself-for he was an unregenerate white collar crook and something of a braggart and bully-but because he presented such an interesting research challenge, and because he remains tantalizingly elusive. I am continuing to find more material on him even after the book has been published, most of it in places no one has ever looked, and some of it rather startling, so someday I may return to him and do a single biography incorporating all the new stuff.
ADP: How many copies did the publisher print in hardback? How many have sold?
WCD: To date Harper-Collins has printed about 14,000 copies I think, and 12,500 had sold through the end of December. It should have been twice that, but Harper-Collins is not the publisher it was a few years ago, and they have done next to nothing to promote the book. Being owned by Rupert Murdoch is the kiss of death for quality publishing, alas, as one can see in the poor old Times of London.
ADP: Does Harper-Collins have any plans to publish a paperback edition?
WCD: I'm told that a paperback version will be coming out this spring, probably in May.
ADP: Will you make any changes or additions to the paperback edition?
WCD: Certainly I'll make corrections if given the opportunity. I never got to proofread the index, and there are a dozen or so typo's in it, as well as some that slipped past in other spots. I also have a few factual corrections to make, like saying that Travis rode west from San Felipe to Anahuac (of course he could have, but it would have taken him 25,000 miles and three oceans to get there). Even the aggrieved Bowie buff pointed out three or four minor but genuine errors. Everyone makes them no matter how hard you try not to, and I would welcome the chance to set them aright. I doubt it will happen in the paperback, though, because publishers generally like to take a book into paper with no unnecessary expense, which really means no changes.
ADP: What are your working on now?
WCD: I've just finished research for a biography of the fire-eating secessionist Robert Barnwell Rhett, Sr. See, I'm back to the Civil War again. I'll write it this spring, do a couple of other rather brief books, and then launch into a book on the flight of the Confederate government in 1865. Then comes the Laffites, and a large political/social history of the Confederacy. So there is always plenty to do.
ADP: Do you currently have any plans to revisit the Alamo or the Texas Revolution?
WCD: Yes I do. I found the sources fascinating, both for what they contain and for the problems within them. I am very interested in genuine events that generate mythology, another attraction of the characters in Three Roads. So I am going to follow it up with a general history of the Texas Revolution, concentrating heavily on the political aspects on both sides, but not ignoring the military. I don't think I'll go to great lengths on the campaigns and battles, though, for I see no point in duplicating the work you have done so notably in Texian Iliad. I also hope to get back into the Mexican Archives, which are incredibly rich and voluminous. Really, the proper story cannot be told without them. That, very likely, will be another big book.
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Artwork by Randell Tarin