David Corbett - Crime Thriller about Notorious Love Letters between a Gunman and a Nun
David Corbett is the author of six critically acclaimed novels: 2018's "The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday;" 2015's "The Mercy of the Night" (starred review, Booklist); "The Devil's Redhead" (nominated for both the Anthony and Barry Awards for Best First Novel); "Done for a Dime" (a New York Times Notable Book); "Blood of Paradise" (nominated for numerous awards, including the Edgar, and named both one of the Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers of 2007 by the Washington Post and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book); and "Do They Know I'm Running?" (Spinetingler Award, Best Novel 2011 -- Rising Star Category). As our Author of the Day, Corbett reveals what inspired him to write about the love letters between Doc Holliday and his cousin Mattie, a Catholic nun.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holiday is about.
If I may, let me defer to my elevator pitch:
The most notorious love letters in American history, supposedly destroyed a century ago—between Doc Holliday and his cousin Mattie, a Catholic nun—mysteriously reappear, and become the coveted prize in a fierce battle for possession that brings back to life the lawless world evoked in the letters themselves.
What inspired you to write a crime thriller around one of the most notorious love letters in American history?
Well, it’s not “one” letter, of course. The two corresponded throughout Doc’s life, even after Mattie entered the convent four years before Doc’s death. It’s impossible to know if any of the letters were romantic in nature, for neither Doc nor Mattie ever made any admissions in that regard. When Doc died, Mattie’s letters were returned to her, so she had the whole of their correspondence until, late in her life, she decided to destroy the letters.
That has always suggested to me that there was something to hide in those letters, despite the fact that Mattie once remarked, when biographies of Wyatt Earp emerged in the 1920s with a distinctly unflattering view of Doc (the wives of Wyatt and Virgil Earp in particular held him in low regard), that if people could only read Doc’s letters they would have distinctly more favorable view of him. So why then burn them?
Doc once told a friend in New Mexico that the real reason he left the south was because a woman jilted him. If this was Mattie, she may have used her faith as a reason, for the Catholic Church forbids marriage between first cousins.
Regardless, the Holliday family has always steadfastly attested that Mattie and Doc were just close friends. They remain very protective of Mattie’s reputation to this day, emphasizing that this was a woman who joined the Sisters of Mercy as Sister Mary Melanie.
Underscoring that point is the fact that Margaret Mitchell, who was a member of the Holliday clan, used her as the model for the saintly character Melanie in Gone With the Wind. The irony of that name, however, which Mattie chose herself upon fulfilling her vows, is that refers to a saint who did indeed marry her first cousin.
All of that, to my mind, cried out for fictional portrayal—and as any novelist worthy of the name would tell you, the first assumption had to be that the letters were indeed love letters. The gunman and the nun. In love. What isn’t fascinating about that?
I toyed with the idea of simply writing a book comprised of the letters, but was deterred for a long while by the absence of a definitive biography of Doc. What passed for biographies relied far too much on myth and folklore, and were largely fiction themselves.
Then a little over a decade ago the historian Gary L. Roberts came out with a meticulously researched, definitive biography, and I felt I finally had something solid I could work with.
I was in the middle of building my career as a crime writer by then, and it took me a while to find the right time and space to address this material properly.
I decided to use the two-track approach referred to above in my elevator pitch, with the supposedly destroyed letters mysteriously appearing in the present day. This immediately raises several questions: Are they authentic? If so, what are they worth? Who would want them? And what lengths would they go to in order to get them—and keep them?
That would require that I compose some of the letters (and I’ve been gratified by the fact some readers actually have wondered if they were authentic), and use them as a McGuffin—the thing of value that all the characters in the present-day story line are obsessively pursuing.
What fascinates you about Doc Holiday?
I’ve been intrigued by Doc since I first encountered his story as a boy, but I grew particularly intrigued when I learned of his life-long connection to Mattie. He’s also the iconic American antihero, the personification of the “Good Bad Man” who came to define the West. It’s difficult to think of a historic personage more contradictory in nature—educated gentleman and intemperate drunk, loyal friend to both lawmen and outlaws, a crack shot dying from consumption, with a vicious temper and a broken heart. Wyatt Earp said of him, “He was a philosopher who liked to play the wag.” In films, we normally see the wag. I wanted to find the philosopher.
How much research did this book require from you?
Let’s just say I violated Tom Robb Smith’s “four-month rule,” by which he gives himself only four months to do research before beginning a novel. I went way over that, largely because I was dealing with a character who stands in unique regard not just among historians, but Old West aficionados, western movie buffs, and the general public.
Even more daunting, I had to do all this research to create sufficient authority to write about something that no longer exists: Doc’s and Mattie’s correspondence. I was going out on an imaginative limb, and so had to make sure everything else was grounded as much as possible in fact.
As I said earlier, Professor Gary Roberts has written an excellent biography of Doc, and it was my touchstone in all the other research I did, which included visiting Tombstone, tramping across the Dragoon Mountains (which my characters do), and tracking down a lot of the secondary sources Dr. Roberts references in his bibliography. Those sources are listed in the book’s Acknowledgements, so I won’t be tedious and list them here, but for anyone interested there now exists quite a treasure trove of scrupulously researched material on Doc, the Earps, Tombstone, the OK Corral, and the West in general.
Beyond that, I read up on how consumption was endured and treated in the mid-nineteenth century, since that’s the affliction that haunted Doc throughout his adult life, and ultimately killed him. I also researched love letters between men and women during this same period, which proved particularly eye-opening.
Finally, I had extensive conversations with two litigators to make sure I nailed the courtroom procedure elements and the legal issues surrounding recovery of stolen artifacts—it’s trickier than it sounds. I was very gratified when another lawyer described my courtroom scene as pitch-perfect. (I’m not exactly a stranger to legal matters, of course; I worked as a private investigator for 15 years, and was married to a lawyer.)
Tell us more about Lisa Balamaro. What makes her tick?
This is something of a story, so get comfortable.
I was about 100 pages into this book with the same protagonist as the last—Phelan Tierney, the hero of The Mercy of the Night—when I had a conversation with my agent about taking it to a new publisher. She quite reasonably informed me that she couldn’t take the second book in a series to a new house, and then added that editors were crowing for strong women protagonists. “Could you do that?”
Of course I could.
This obliged not just complete revision of what I’d written. It required creation of a whole new character from nothing more than “strong woman protagonist.”
Fortunately, I’m blessed with a number of formidable women friends to cannibalize—ahem, rely upon—for inspiration.
I knew the character was going to be a lawyer, given the story, and I happen to be very close to an impressive litigator named Allison Davis—brilliant, funny, tough, i.e., perfect.
I also wanted to give my character a bit of a wild streak and a complicated backstory. Fortunately for me (if not so much for her), I’m also friends with the poet Kim Addonizio. Seriously, read her work, especially Tell Me, which was nominated for the National Book Award, or her set of biographical essays, Bukowski in a Sundress. Kim gave me more than enough to work with, especially when I melded her incendiary spirit with a lawyer’s mind.
But the real, original inspiration for the character who would become Lisa Balamaro, my protagonist in The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday, was a friend of my wife’s whose identity I will keep secret. The moment that convinced me I needed somehow to use her as a character occurred at our wedding.
It was that moment when the DJ announces, “I want all the single ladies out on the dance floor.” The dreaded bouquet toss.
None of my women friends bothered to respond—no way they were going out there. Most were well beyond hoping for (another) husband. But one of my wife’s dearest friends—call her Belinda—bravely went out as requested. Alone. As in absolutely—except for the four-year old daughter of another friend.
It was one of those excruciating gaps in time when you almost close your eyes, hoping the seconds will tick on by and it will all be over soon.
But then suddenly a voice cried out, “Okay buddy, come on,” hands clapping, “chop chop, let’s go!” Another of my wife’s friends, a Philly Italian in a vivid red dress, came out on the floor, pushed up her sleeves, and dared the DJ to throw those damn flowers. It took all the attention off Belinda, and made an otherwise unbearably awkward scene into comedy. It was so selfless, so caring, so funny I knew I had to use it, use her. Here was my big fat Italian heart.
In the book, these three women meld together into one composite character, with some additional inventive touches of my own. The result is a young arts lawyer, the black sheep of a prominent east-coast family, with a generous heart, a savvy mind, and a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She’s been dismissed as a mediocrity if not an outright embarrassment by her famous father, her demanding mother, and her over-achieving siblings, but she’s about to show them and everyone else just what she’s really made of.
This entails dealing with the man on whom she has a secret crush: Tuck Mercer, one-time bull rider and sketch artist (“The Rodeo Rembrandt”), reformed art forger (“The Man Who Forged the West”), as well as a corrupt judge from the Tombstone area and a quartet of highly motivated ex-marines.
Which character did you find the most challenging to create?
Doc and Mattie created unique challenges because they’re both historical figures and yet I’m writing about a part of their lives that, if it existed, was kept secret. I had to create voices for them from thin air, because nothing written by other of them survives, except for a very rough family sketch written by Mattie. This required imagining both of them on a deep level, a level that history never recorded, and have that emerge in their own words through the most intimate form of communication between two people: the love letter.
Between the two of them, I found Doc easier, mainly because I felt a kinship with his bitter despair over being dealt such a bad hand with his mother’s death from the same disease that would cut his own life short. For Mattie, I had to not only enter a nineteenth century woman’s psyche, but a very particular woman—a “reconstructed rebel” who never forgave the Union for how the war destroyed her father, a devout Catholic, and (in my imagining) a secret, even feverish romantic.
Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?
I like to think I’m a decent husband. I lost my first wife to cancer, so I know that my time with my current wife carries no guarantees. I try to make each day with me worth it to her. I don’t succeed as much as I’d like, but thankfully she’s a very forgiving person.
Beyond that, teaching and editing consume what might otherwise be known as my spare time. I’d love to get back to playing guitar. Someday…
You seem to juggle several plot balls in this book - with success. How did you pull this off?
Seriously, it’s just work. You need to see each plot line as a single aspect of the whole, and never lose track of how it has to both influence and be influenced by the other plot lines. After each scene, you have to ask not just how well it works on its own, but how it both resonates with the other narrative threads and contributes to their forward progress. If the scene doesn’t accomplish that, you have to go back and find a way to make it happen. This requires a really firm grasp of the overall story. And a willingness to rewrite.
Do any of your characters take off on their own tangent and refuse to do what you had planned for them?
I’ve done this long enough I’m pretty good at lassoing truculent characters back into the corral.
Which famous person, living or dead would you like to meet and why?
I’ve had enough experience in this regard to know better. Admiration fogs the vision, and no one ever lives up to expectation, nor should they have to.
When working on a new book, what’s the first thing you do?
Sob uncontrollably. Until the whisky kicks in.
Otherwise, I usually hash out some basic idea of the story, then I work out who the characters need to be, and I put a lot of work in making those characters as vivid, compelling, and intriguing as possible. Then I push them into the story, lock the door behind them, and watch through the peephole.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?
I like to use music to help me tap into what a character longs for—but doesn’t yet have. For example, in the current novel I’m working on, my protagonist, as a young boy, watched his mother taken away by a singularly wicked and powerful man. He felt ashamed, helpless, enraged. Ever since, he’s had a special devotion to helping women in trouble. To get myself beneath the level of words and ideas when starting one of his scenes, I’ll play “She Moved Through the Fair,” a traditional Irish song with a predictably haunting melody and tragic lyrics.
As for my usual writing day: I usually get to my desk at around 6:30 AM, and write on whatever project is my principle focus at the time for several hours. It used to be a good six hours, but I have so many irons in the fire right now that I have to divide my time wisely. Once I’m finished with the creative work, I focus on emails, social media, PR, whatever classwork or editing work I have at that time. The early morning/creative work I try to do every day (I’m an early riser, my wife sleeps late, so I have a few hours to myself early in the day); the rest depends on schedule, deadlines, and so on.
What are you working on right now?
I have a new book on writing, THE COMPASS OF CHARACTER, coming out in October from Writer’s Digest, and I just received my editor’s notes, so I’ll be busy for the next month.
I’m also working on a novel, but I hate talking about fiction projects before they’re finished. It robs the work of its magic if you jabber about it before it rises from the desk, all wings and flame, like the infernal being it is.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I can always be contacted through my website, www.davidcorbett.com
I’m pretty easy to find on Facebook—I have both a personal and professional page—and I’m also on Twitter: @DavidCorbett_CA