A sixth-generation Texan, Scott Zesch fell in love with
San Antonio as a child. He became interested in Adina de Zavala and her
standoff at the Alamo when he saw an exhibit at the Witte Museum in 1986.
ADP: Scott, we met at the 1999 Texas Book Festival where we were both selected authors on our respective Alamo books. Your first published book, Alamo Heights, is a highly fictionalized account of the, so-called, 2nd Battle of the Alamo. Why did you pick this part of the Alamo's history to write about?
SZ: I became obsessed with it. I first learned about this story in 1986, when I saw Bill Greens Alamo exhibit at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. It had one small item about Adina De Zavala barricading herself in the Alamo convent for three days in 1908 to save it from demolition. Before that, Id never heard of De Zavala. But I was hooked. Later, I read David Montejano's Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, in which he observes that the Alamo has occupied an ambiguous place in the minds of many Texas Mexicans. The question that dogged me was: Why was this woman of Mexican descent so determined to save the Alamo? My novel grew out of that question.
ADP: The Alamo story is awash in Biblical terminology and comparison. You have created a female trinity to defend the Alamo. I am guessing here, but Rose Herrera is Adina De Zavala, Alva Carson is Clara Driscoll and is Mathilda Guenther Elisabet Ney?
SZ: That's right, although Guenther is actually a combination of sculptors Elisabet Ney and Pompeo Coppini.
ADP: Did the trinity come out of the writing or was it by design?
SZ: Both. When I was planning the novel, I knew that Rose and Alva would play complementary roles in saving the Alamo, but that their personal differences would keep them apart. That's straight out of history. It was less obvious what to do with Guenther, the sculptor, after she fulfilled her plot purpose of telling Rose that the Alamo convent was in danger. As the characters took shape, it became clear to me that Guenther should be Roses confidant and mentor, guiding Rose as she undergoes personal changes and, to some extent, serving as a mediator between Rose and Alva.
ADP: Why did you create fictional characters rather than dramatizing the actual participants?
SZ: De Zavala's public work is well documented, but her private
life is a bit of a mystery. I decided to invent some personal and family
conflicts for Rose so the reader could see more sides of her character.
Once I departed from the facts, I no longer considered calling her Adina.
SZ: I suspect that Rose is considerably softer in personality than the real Adina, who apparently terrified many people, especially her pupils. Adina could be a rabble-rouser and a fanatic. On the floor of the 1907 DRT convention, she warned that she did not like to take extreme measures. I laughed when I read that, because I think De Zavala loved to take extreme measures. As for Alva, Id say she pretty closely resembles the Clara Driscoll that emerged from my research.
ADP: What about the events? How closely do they follow history?
SZ: All of the events in Alamo Heights having to do with the struggle to save the Alamo are based in fact. For the most part, I stuck to the factual sequence: the hotel company's attempt to purchase the convent, the near-accidental first meeting of De Zavala and Driscoll at the Menger Hotel, Driscoll's purchase of the property, the stormy DRT convention that split the organization, and, of course, De Zavala's highly publicized standoff at the Alamo. Most of the subplots involving the characters personal lives are fictional.
ADP: Rose is your main character. She seemed to be pursuing the Alamo in order to preserve her own past.
SZ: Yes, but she's not aware of that at first. Only after a confrontation with Menchaca, the mariachi, does she begin to realize that its essentially her own dignity she's fighting for.
ADP: Was that true for De Zavala as well?
SZ: It's hard to say. But it's interesting to me that the sites De Zavala worked so hard to preserve were neglected pieces of Hispanic Texas: the Spanish Governor's Palace, the José Antonio Navarro and José Francisco Ruiz houses, Mission San Francisco de los Tejas, and, of course, the Alamo convent. Maybe she thought that part of Texas history was being relegated to the background.
ADP: Were you trying to address the larger issue of Anglo control over, not only the Alamo, but of Texas?
SZ: Yes, I was very interested in the South Texas land sales that took place in the latter 19th century. That historical background gave Rose's localized preservation battle a much larger context. Of course, it would take a longer novel than Alamo Heights to deal with that issue fully, but I thought it was important to raise it.
ADP: Does Rose ally herself with Anglos as a marriage of convenience?
SZ: No, I wouldn't say that. Despite the things that happened after the Texas Revolution, I think the most prominent Mexican-American families of Roses day still felt a closer affinity to elite Anglos than to lower-income Mexican immigrants. For instance, even though De Zavala had great sympathy for these underprivileged citizens, as she called them, she referred to that group as them rather than us. To me, the tension caused by class differences within Mexican-American society was every bit as interesting as the Anglo-Mexican conflict.
ADP: How did you deal with the class differences?
SZ: In my story, the characters of Rose, Antonio (her husband), and Menchaca (the mariachi) could be roughly categorized as upper, middle and lower class, respectively. Antonio is an attorney with social ambitions who tries to distance himself from his upbringing. In contrast, Rose is more comfortable with who she is, or at least who she thinks she is.
ADP: The family's struggle with their past is pushed further with their son, Enrique being mentored by Tejano musician and extremist, Rafael Menchaca. Was Menchaca based on anyone?
SZ: No, he's a purely fictional character. He came to mind when I saw an 1880s photo of a chili vendor in Military Plaza. However, De Zavala did get some men to help her guard the Alamo during her standoff, so Menchaca plays a small factual role in the end.
ADP: Do you believe you captured the spirit of the Alamo preservation struggle if not Anglo and Hispanic interpretations over what it represents?
SZ: I tried to, especially in the verbal exchanges at public meetings, which admittedly aren't very subtle. Judging from the newspaper accounts, the rhetoric of that era was direct, unequivocal, and passionate to the point of being purple. In fact, one of the reasons I settled on the title Alamo Heights was because the word heights suggests the hysteria that erupted over the Alamo. And this preservation war really did divide the state. The people in my hometown of Mason, for example, publicly endorsed De Zavala and pledged to come to her aid if necessary.
ADP: For this battle, did you draw any from personal experience?
SZ: I didn't become involved in my first real-life preservation skirmish until December 1998. Ironically, at the same time I was proofing the galleys of Alamo Heights. I was both surprised and reassured by how closely the real episode resembled my story. Afterwards, the only thing I felt I'd gotten wrong in the novel was letting Rose become immobilized by shock for a few hours between the time she first saw the wrecking ball and the time she stormed the Alamo. In retrospect, I think she would have been out the front door in an instant.
ADP: Many people mistakenly associate Clara Driscoll as the sole Savior of the Alamo, instead of sharing the credit with De Zavala. Is this why you focused on Rose?
SZ: Exactly. De Zavala fought for over sixty years to preserve the Alamo, and I thought it was shameful that her role had been downplayed.
ADP: People probably ask you which woman really saved the Alamo.
SZ: Yes, and my answer is: They both did. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but its true. If Driscoll hadn't put up the money in the nick of time, the struggle would have ended in 1904, and today wed have a high-rise hotel beside the Alamo church instead of the Long Barrack Museum. But if De Zavala hadn't persevered, Driscoll's followers would have leveled the convent in a misguided attempt to beautify the grounds. In short, Driscoll saved the convent from commercialization, and De Zavala saved it from demolition.
ADP: You mention in your afterword that it wasn't just these two women involved, but the entire Daughters of the Republic of Texas.
SZ: That's true, and I should also point out that these women weren't the first people to save the Alamo from destruction. That distinction probably belongs to the Mexican General Andrade, who failed to carry out orders to destroy the Alamo in 1836. Another early preservationist was Captain Ralston, who proposed in 1847 that the U.S. Army should remodel rather than replace the existing structures.
ADP: Do you think the actual dispute between Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll was based in ethnic differences?
SZ: Probably not. When I read De Zavala's letters and newspaper quotes, it was hard to distinguish her views of the Texas Revolution from the prevailing Anglo mythology of the day. So it would be too simplistic to characterize De Zavala as a defiant champion of Hispanic culture in an increasingly Anglo Texas. Still, I think its worth noting that De Zavala, unlike many of her Anglo colleagues, was interested in the Alamos early Spanish history, not just the Battle of 1836. In fact, she wanted to restore the Alamo convent to the way it was originally built rather than to its 1836 appearance.
ADP: Why did the De Zavala-Driscoll feud become so heated?
SZ: I think it was partly just a clash of egos, but there was a clash of ideologies as well. Ironically, both women wanted to preserve the Alamo. But these were the early days of historic preservation, and there were several competing views of what preserve meant. Many people thought that no matter how historically significant a building was, there was no need to save it unless the building also had aesthetic value. In other words, why bother to save the log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born, if its just a log cabin? Instead, they felt that the best way to preserve and honor a historic site was to beautify it. That's why Clara Driscoll's followers wanted to get rid of the Alamo convent and landscape the property so that the church would stand out more prominently.
ADP: And De Zavala?
SZ: Just the opposite. De Zavala believed it was essential to save every existing scrap of a landmark structure, beautiful or not, and restore it. In that sense, she was years ahead of her time. The Alamo convent is a good example of how strongly she felt about preservation. According to the photos taken during the restoration of 1912, only the south and west walls and the north foundation were original, and even those original walls had been modified by the army in 1847 or 1848. The east wall of the convent was missing altogether, so it had to be reconstructed. And, frankly, the restored Alamo convent is a pretty unimpressive-looking building. Still, De Zavala was determined to save it because of what had happened there. Incidentally, the convent is believed to be the oldest building still standing in San Antonio today.
ADP: You seemed to have a good grasp of the early 20th century. What research did you do?
SZ: There was no shortage of material. Adina De Zavala kept several boxes of her correspondence from that period, and the Texas newspapers thoroughly covered the events and interviewed the women involved. To get the details right, I studied San Antonio maps, photos, city directories and promotional brochures from the early 20th century. At times I was fanatical in my research. I went to Lincoln Center in New York to look at the score of Clara Driscoll's Broadway musical Mexicana, and a librarian at the Nettie Lee Benson Collection in Austin dragged out an old record player so I could hear one of the earliest mariachi recordings from 1908. I also consulted several secondary sources. The roadmap for my research was Robert Ables article "The Second Battle for the Alamo" (Southwestern Historical Quarterly, January 1967). To get a feel for the social climate, I read David Montejano and Arnoldo De León. I also read biographies of Clara Driscoll and Elisabet Ney. Finally, both Adina De Zavala and Clara Driscoll wrote books about the Alamo.
ADP: Here is a sexist question. Was it difficult to write for women?
SZ: You bet. And keep in mind, my protagonist is not only a woman, but a Mexican-American woman living in a very different era. I never would have taken on a story so far removed from my own experience had I not been captivated by what she did.
ADP: How has Alamo Heights done critically and commercially?
SZ: The book received warm compliments in the Dallas Morning News, Texas Monthly, San Antonio Express-News, Austin Chronicle, and a number of other papers. I was especially pleased that some critics described it as lively and suspenseful words not ordinarily associated with a story about historic preservation. And it sold well enough to go into a second printing. Even though its not likely to become a bestseller, I'm happy that, a year after publication, Alamo Heights is still selling and is still available in bookstores.
ADP: Why did you go with TCU Press over a traditionally fiction house?
SZ: My agent thought Alamo Heights had national commercial potential and submitted it to a few of the big houses, but it elicited that dreaded response, Too regional. However, I knew that TCU published some Texas and Western fiction and had done a beautiful job with C.W. Smith's recent novels. So I was delighted when they said yes.
ADP: What are your writing habits?
SZ: Undisciplined, I'm afraid. I don't set aside a certain time for writing every day. But once a story starts to take hold of me, I find the time to write it.
ADP: Your bio states you split your time between NY and TX. You have served in the Peace Corps and only just returned from monitoring elections in Bosnia.
SZ: I developed wanderlust in my fourth grade geography class. Maybe that's why my favorite theme in fiction is culture clash. My Peace Corps job was teaching secondary school in a rural village in Kenya the classic Peace Corps assignment, with no electricity or plumbing. More recently, I've made three trips to Bosnia-Herzegovina to supervise postwar elections. In fact, I did some rewrites on Alamo Heights in Banja Luka in September 1997, while hundreds of angry Serbs demonstrated against hard-liners from Pale and British armored personnel carriers roared by. I also traveled in Uganda in the aftermath of the tragic Amin and Obote eras.
ADP: Fascinating stuff. Ever going to write about that?
SZ: I already am. The novel I'm working on now is set in contemporary East Africa and deals with Texans, Africans, Anglicans, and ethnic cleansing. Much closer to my own experience than Alamo Heights.
ADP: Thanks for your time, Scott. The staff here at ADP wish you all success.
SZ: Thank you, Alan. I'm always glad for a chance to talk about Adina.
Interview by Alan Huffines 03/2000