September 25, 2013

Big Brothers and Bigger Research: an interview with Eric Pierpoint, author of "The Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole"

Eric Pierpoint is a veteran Hollywood actor who has been on stage, screen, and television for nearly thirty five years and whose credits include Hart of Dixie, Parks and Recreation, Alien Nation, The World’s Fastest Indian, and Holes.

His new novel is called The Last Ride of Caleb O’Toole: Caleb O’Toole and his two sisters are left orphaned after a cholera outbreak in their hometown of Great Bend, Kansas. Attempting to fulfill their mother’s dying wish, they strike out on a one-horse wagon to travel the treacherous road along the Oregon Trail to the Montana Territory to live with their aunt. Caleb promised to keep his two sisters safe. But safety is thirteen hundred miles away in the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, past the dust-choked deserts, monstrous tornadoes and ravenous wolves of the Oregon Trail. And after witnessing a crime by the infamous Blackstone Gang, Caleb and his sisters have no choice but to brave the dangers of the trail, trying to stay one step ahead of murderous outlaws. 

I had the chance to ask him a few questions about the book and writing in general. Enjoy. 

Gef: Your stepfather worked as a journalist, with you as a "typewriter caddy" on occasion in your youth. What were some of the things you picked up in those days with regards to writing?

Eric: My stepfather, Robert Pierpoint, was an old guard, very professional newsman. It was his attention to detail and tireless research that impressed me. He was relentless when tracking down a story. And he was extremely disciplined. At that time of my life, I probably did not have those qualities in terms of writing. In my acting career, I did. But now, I am also developing these traits. I hear his voice when I need to keep on track and “Get to the story!” I also learned that writers are investigators. Of course, he was reporting the news and a reporter has to learn to condense his material. When my father wrote his book, it was more difficult for him to flesh it out and expand detail and story, rather than lean it out. So, I learned how to research, have discipline, investigate, and support facts. Now I am using those skills to enhance a hopefully rousing adventure.

Gef: You have an extensive acting career to boot, so what might you have taken from that profession to put towards your writing career?

Eric: Actors are storytellers. Sometimes it’s hard to shut us up. I love to tell stories. I love to entertain. I try to use this instinct in writing. As actors, we can dig pretty deep in our characters. When I write, I try to “play” all my characters and give them a good fleshing out, be they major or minor to the story. If it doesn’t seem right in terms of what they are going through or what they are saying, I keep at it until I feel they are real and authentic. I can build these characters with various traits or give them skills that as an actor, I would want to bring to an audience. I also think I have a built in timer that tells me to keep the story moving, especially for this age group. The last thing they need is boring exposition. Action! I can hear my agent’s voice. Boys really need excitement and entertainment in reading, not just a history lesson. I want all the readers to have a good time and visceral connection to the story. All actors probably fear being boring! Passion! Urgency! All these words rattle around in my head from years of acting. I try to give my writing these things.

Gef: The Last Ride has that coming-of-age vibe, with a western backdrop, which is not a blend that you see a whole lot of--at least I don't beyond thinking of True Grit and a couple Joe Lansdale stories? What was the initial lure towards this story for you?

Eric: Glad you picked up on the coming of age theme. When I first began to think about this story, I was on an adventure with my 12 year old Little Brother from Big Brothers Big Sisters. We were in Montana rafting, fishing, and having a great time. We did a horseback ride, just the two of us with a map and no guide, near Yellowstone. Once in a while I would look back to see how he was doing with his horse. The mountains rose around us as we rode through streams and valleys and the forest. We saw some amazing sights. I began to wonder how a boy might survive the hardships and dangers of the Wild West all alone. So, in the book, I stripped away everything Caleb had, all his comforts, and his parents. Caleb grows tremendously during The Last Ride of Caleb O’Toole. He must travel from the dangerous cow town of Great Bend, Kansas all they way to Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains. Caleb has to gain the skills and strength to survive, deal with very bad men, ride, shoot, think and take care of his two sisters to boot. He learns from very good men and treacherous situations. He and his sisters must face the ultimate evil in the Blackstone Gang. He must confront this challenge. By the end he is well on his way to becoming his own man.

Gef: With a story like this and its historical setting and relevance, the research must have been exhaustive. How difficult is it as a writer to find that balance of what you've learned through your research and what to share through the writing process?

Eric: The research for historical fiction is endless. It’s hard to know when to quit. It’s also hard to know how much to give to your readers. I think the story is greatly enhanced by the constant research. It adds authenticity to the story and makes it come alive. It can also kill it. I had to remove a huge amount of fact in The Last Ride of Caleb O’Toole because it was weighing everything down. I also had the outside eyes of my agent and editor to ring the gong when they felt things too tied up in detail and dry fact. “This passage is didactic!” “Cut!” My agent is really tough in this regard. She is a former editor. My editor is my agent on steroids. “Cut!” Anyway, it is a truly amazing process. You find in research that finding something interesting will lead you to a huge pile of equally interesting facts. Also, you cannot tell the whole story of, say, the Indian Wars or The Great Railroad Strike of 1877. But definitely put in the parts you believe to be essential and interesting. What I found so fascinating about this era were subjects that had not been given as much attention. Such as how some Indians and pioneers felt about the slaughter of the buffalo, the reasons for Indian and white conflict, the compassionate sides of certain Native American leaders. I was riveted on the subject of how women became doctors and where they were degreed. I wanted to show other sides to old stories. There is so much great material.

Gef: Middle-grade and YA literature often get spoken of as if they are genres unto themselves, but seem like much bigger sandboxes for authors and storytellers to play in. Do you see yourself revisiting stories from younger characters' viewpoints in the future, or is there something different you have planned for your next book?

Eric: In a way, I wrote the book I wish I had read as a kid. Most of the required reading seemed dull, the history dry. Maybe I was just lazy! I love this age group. I want to stimulate the imaginations of these kids with hopefully a rousing story, laced with the facts of the time. They are young enough, but smart enough for more historical fiction. I believe they could use more of it. I am visiting this age group again. My next book, and I am about 8 chapters into it, deals with a boy during the American Revolution. It is a huge adventure that centers around the great Battle of Yorktown. Talk about thick research! Holy…jees. I just went to Virginia to walk the battlefields, drive the route and breathe the air. I spoke with historians everywhere. These folks are passionate about that era. And they were also very attentive and generous with their time; especially I came up with questions that were different. One man I completely stumped with a question about the timing of a secret message a spy had delivered. We had an hour -long conversation that is now a major plot point in the book.

Gef: Thanks, Eric.

As for the rest of you, if you'd like to get your hands on a copy of The Last Ride of Caleb O'Toole, just head on over to Amazon by clicking here.

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