Based on Real People
B. Lynn Goodwin interviews George Jansen
Sweeping prairies dotted with frontier towns are a hallmark of the Old West. So are the old justice systems, which used wanted posters instead of DNA . Back then, an outlaw could clean out a bank or rob trains and disappear on horseback. Jesse James, his brother Frank, and they Younger Brothers were legendary outlaws. We know more of their deeds than their backgrounds.
To fill in the gap George Jansen created THE JESSE JAMES SCRAPBOOK, which fictionalizes newspaper clippings and interviews for a new look at the life and legend of Jesse James.
Our interview below explores where fact leaves off and fiction begins. Jansen shares his unique experience bringing the Old West to life.
LG: Tell us about yourself. What did you write before this book? What kinds of writing do you like best?
GJ: I'm a Bay Area kid. I went to Cal during the Vietnam era, wrote term papers for money, learned to play bridge and watched the police march down Bancroft Avenue.
I went to San Francisco State in the Masters in Creative Writing program, then lived in the country -- a semi-hippie. Recently, I've been editor and rewrite man on several technical books written by my good friend, Bryan Costales.
LG: How did you come up with the scrapbook format and decide this was the best way to tell the story?
GJ: The Jesse James Scrapbook, although fiction, is similar to a history "source book," in which many documents are gathered together and published with minimal explanation. The earliest example I know about was done by a 9th century monk called Nennius who took documents, including some regarding King Arthur, and "put them in a heap."
Other influences were Lawrence S. Ritter who wrote The Glory of Their Times _ -- the best baseball book ever -- Michael Ondaatje, who wrote a book of poetry called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and Homer Croy, who recorded stories about Jesse James he had heard as a boy.
The scrapbook form is particularly suited to Jesse's tale, because he was different things to different people -- common killer or Robin Hood, it all depends on your point of view.
LG: With so much primary source material available, how did you decide which stories and characters to include?
GJ: For years I had a hundred or more color-coded, three by five cards strung out across the walls of my writing room.
Certain events and characters had to be included, of course, but others were optional. I also wanted to alternate between first person tales, newspaper articles, letters, and diaries. In the end it came down to which chapters came alive and which didn't.
LG: Obviously Jesse, his brother Frank, and the Younger Brothers lived. What about the lesser known people who shared their memories? Did they really exist or were they created to move the story forward? How close were their stories to events that really happened?
GJ: The many narrators who tell of their encounters with Jesse, are sometimes flights of fancy, sometimes based on people of the period and sometimes based on friends. A number of secondary characters are based on real people who played a part in Jesse's life. These, I've altered somewhat and given fictitious names -- among them are the diehard rebels, General Sidney Marion Keats and Colonel J.A.X. Brown; the smarmy outlaw and informer, Pony Sawyer; and Mary Rhawn Sievers, the woman who may or may not have had an affair with Jesse. It's their story as much as Jesse's.
LG: Was there a Bill Drury, and if not what sources did you use to authenticate his contributions?
GJ: There wasn't a Billy Drury as such, but I ran across a number of old codgers who told stories about Jesse. My Billy, as I recall, was mainly inspired by a farmer called Billy Hudspeth who tells a tale or two in a book written in 1882 by Joseph A. Dacus.
My Billy came tumbling out of me one day, and he was so fresh and easy that I eventually decided to use him to narrate several chapters. The truth is, deep down, Billy is me -- a lovable (I hope) crank and recluse. Billy says whatever he feels like saying. Me, I usually edit myself.
LG: Are characters compilations of people you read about?
GJ: Many are. Ophelia Helms, Jesse's teacher, is a good example. Cole Younger once mentioned how he and his classmates had played "hang John Brown" when he was a boy, and I thought that would make a strong incident. I read some memoirs by teachers of the period and Ophelia popped out of me -- strong and determined, yet terrified by the horror that gathers around her.
Merrill Corbett, the letter-writing Confederate cavalryman, is a product of the letters and diaries of a number of Civil War soldiers. Monk Ferris, the determined Pinkerton, is based largely on western detective Charlie Siringo. Whit Smith, the vaudevillian, is a bit like Eddie Foy.
But there is more to them than just research. Merrill Corbett -- disillusioned with war but fatally attracted to its thrill -- is also based on a couple of men I knew who'd served in Vietnam. The same can be said of my conception of Jesse's likely bout with drug addiction and his inability to cope with normal life after the war. Another character, _ Squirrel Tooth Sally, is based on a Dodge City prostitute called Squirrel Tooth Alice, but her breaking of William S. Beadle's heart is based on an experience from my own life.
LG: Why are so many people fascinated by tales of cowboys, outlaws, and the old West?
GJ: I suppose we all long for heroes who can set things right, but it's a mythology that tends to mislead us. We imagine that if we can just get rid of the bad guys or elect this or that good guy, then everything will be hunky-dory. But the world is much more complex and some of our problems probably don't even have solutions.
LG: Did you edit as you wrote or create a complete first draft before you began editing? How long did it take you to write the book?
GJ: The actual writing took about five years, but the manuscript sat in a drawer, untouched, during a ten year period when I quit writing fiction.
I first piled everything I'd gathered together in a "heap," like Nennius. But as Frank James, himself, once said, "Writers can never resist the temptation to put a little color on things," and so, being a writer, I started coloring.
Still, every incident in the book is based on real, or at least legendary, incidents.
LG: How did you find your agent and how did she find the publisher?
GJ: A friend who, many years before, steered me into a wonderful writing class taught by Marcia Savin, had a drug problem. He ended up being arrested, charged with a felony and sentenced to six months home detention. When he was sentenced, he decided to take a creative writing class so that he could be released from home detention one night a week. He asked me if I wanted to go, too, and it turned out the class was taught by Sue Clark, who is now my agent.
LG: That's a new motive for taking a class. What are you working on now? Where can people find copies of your book?
GJ: Right now, I'm working hard to promote Jesse. You work all your life to get a novel published, then you have to peddle it door-to-door. It's the end of serenity.
I'm also trying to finish a new novel, set in the year 1900, in a once-bustling town that stands along the Carquinez Straits, where the Sacramento River flows into San Francisco Bay. The protagonist is a Washoe Indian who the town folk fish out of the Straits one dark and stormy night. He turns out to be a hard-drinking, ragtime-loving, ex-big league baseball player who transforms the town by teaching its ball team to cheat.
A good way to learn more about The Jesse James Scrapbook would be to go to my [publisher's] website -- [http://www.foolchurch.com]. There, you can read a sample chapter and a few, actual newspaper articles about Jesse. You can also e-mail me and see a picture of me and my dog.
Going online is the best way to buy it, but it can also be ordered through Barnes & Noble stores and, someday, Borders.
LG: Thanks for sharing your ideas and experiences.
B. Lynn Goodwin: WriterAdvice (formerly Haven's List) Managing Editor; Novel Advice Contributor, Inscriptions Reviewer, EWG Presents Columnist, and Dustbooks Reviewer.
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