In the late 1970’s, I became intrigued with nonfiction material I read about black cowboys and soldiers in the Old West. I was surprised to find that their contribution to the West was much larger than I had been led to believe by general history books, Western novels, and films over the years. The reason for this is painful but real: Racism had hidden their contribution. The information was there, and in abundance, but it hadn’t been properly mined. A full quarter or more of the cowboys in the Old West had been black or of color. You didn’t see this in Westerns. Blacks were always maids and cooks in novels and film, if they were represented at all.
Most of the material about their lives and times in the West, was nonfiction. John Ford had touched on it in a safe way in his film Sergeant Rutledge. Still, on the posters the main star was Jeffery Hunter, not the black actor, Woody Strode, who played the title character. There were a few novels about blacks in the West, but I didn’t encounter any that were epic. I was thinking of writing one in the vein of Wild Times by Brian Garfield, Little Big Man by Thomas Berger, The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., or The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters by Robert Lewis Taylor. I wanted to write about the real black experience in the West, and at the same time, make it larger than life. I had also read an autobiography about Western life by a black cowboy named Nat Love. Nat Love’s experiences were no doubt influenced by the dime novels of his era, so it has to be taken with a grain of salt, but his story was epic, and it was clear he knew his business when it came to being a cowboy. He knew the world of his time, and was able to express it in such a way as to put you there. It was the kind of book I wanted to write. Better yet, it was a book by an actual black cowboy. He was doing the same thing that many white Westerners had done. He was “stretching the blanket,” as they used to say, taking kernels of truth and turning them into a kind of hybrid product that housed both reality and dadburn lies. He claimed to have acquired the nickname Deadwood Dick due to a shooting match he won in old Deadwood, and he also claimed the dime novels about Deadwood Dick, the Black Rider of the Plains, were based on him. No doubt they were not, but this was a kind of wish fulfillment for Nat, so he took his life and welded it to the Wild West tale. Unlike so many dime novel heroes, Nat’s adventures seemed real.
This inspired me more than any of the books I read about the black experience. I had the real material in hand, but I loved the way Nat told a story. I wanted my novel to be almost mythic. I was eleven years old when I first read the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer, and I had already devoured all the Greek myths. That grand sweep, the epic adventures of gods and heroes, hit me hard. I think for years I was trying to find a novel-length outlet for a story about the black experience in the West that could be mythic, or legendary, and when I was in my late twenties the idea of tying it to a realistic background was the way I decided I wanted to go. More real than myth, and instead of Greek-style mythology, I chose the voice of the frontiersman, as it was expressed by Nat Love and in dime novels. I read a large number of the Buffalo Bill novels by Ned Buntline, and those by other authors about Jesse James, and other frontier heroes. I read Davy Crockett’s fictionalized biography (and boy was it), and that had a terrific impact on the way I wanted to tell a story. I decided I was going to write a novel titled The True Life Adventures of Deadwood Dick (still my preferred title).
I was all set. But my publisher at the time was not. I pitched the idea, but didn’t get the response I wanted. It seemed if I wanted to write a short novel about a black cowboy or soldier, I was in, but I knew it would be on bookstore shelves about as long as it takes a bald man to comb his hair. I wanted to write an epic, and I was hoping it would actually be promoted a bit, and that it would have an opportunity to get the proper attention. But I was told a novel about the black experience wouldn’t have readers. I was offended. I knew that what they meant was that whites didn’t want to read about black heroes, especially Western heroes, because the audience for Western novels were mostly white men, and that there weren’t enough black readers to care. I begged to differ and felt that either way, the novel should be written, and that the accomplishments of blacks in the West could be revealed, and that I could write a tale that was also fun and exciting in the same way Nat’s story had excited me.
The book was dead.
Time went on, and then some more time went on, and I was yet to write my dream project. I feared I might never do it, and that the emotional window that allowed me to look out at the story and feel its presence, if not its form, might close. It had happened before. A few more years went by, and I decided I could at least write short stories about Nat Love, for I had borrowed the name of the writer who had so inspired me. I wrote two short stories about the character, and both were well received. I then pitched the book to my relatively new publisher, Mulholland, and my editor, Josh Kendall, jumped all over it. He didn’t hesitate, and once he said go, I was off to the races. I was a little worried that after so much time, I might have lost my feel for the character I had in mind, or the kind of story I wanted to tell, but soon I found I was writing quite rapidly. I wrote the first half of the novel in six weeks in Italy, most of it in an apartment in Rome. What a strange place to be writing a novel about the black experience in the Old West. I would write in the mornings, as I do at home, and then we would explore parts of Rome we hadn’t seen and visit friends we had made over the years. By the time I got home, I was starting to fade a bit, and a slight touch of panic set in. On a driving trip from East Texas to Santa Fe to visit George R.R. Martin and his very cool theater, the Jean Cocteau, I began writing a Nat Love novella. I wanted it to take place at Adobe Walls, where two famous battles between whites and Native Americans had taken place. I put Nat into that adventure, and my wife and I stopped off at the real Adobe Walls, and I tried to absorb how it must have been. A handful of Buffalo Hunters hidden behind walls of adobe with Quanah Parker, chief of the Comanche, outside, leading a horde of brave Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa against them. I finished the novel by the time we had finished our visit with George and the showing of Christmas with the Dead at his theater—a film based on my short story of the same title, scripted by my son, directed by Lee Lankford, with music partly written by my daughter. Talk about a really nice time. The movie. George. And that novella, which became Black Hat Jack.
By the time I got home, I was cooking. I finished the second half of the novel quickly. It didn’t actually fit within the timeline of the Adobe Walls story, but Black Hat Jack and the trip to Adobe Walls and Santa Fe was like a dose of adrenaline. I briskly finished the novel, my longest to date. It was done, and I was overwhelmed by a feeling of accomplishment. A story that had been with me over thirty years, or at least the general idea, had finally been completed. Afterward, though I continued to work, I felt as if I had been dragged behind a truck wrapped in barbed wire. It took me over six months to really regain my normal energy. I completed projects during this time, but I was close to being depleted physically and emotionally. The story had been hidden so long, and so deep in my subconscious, I felt as if my shadow had been torn out of me. It had been one of the greatest and most satisfying experiences of my life. I felt a kind of vindication. I had done it. getmetaz I had wanted to do it for a long time, but now, I had actually done it.
So Paradise Sky (in my mind forever titled The True Life Adventures of Deadwood Dick) is loose on the world. May it go out there and multiply in copies, and may the readers have as good a time reading it as I had writing it.