My grandfather died more or less as expected. He had been half gone already and the liver disease put a period to a long story with the bottle.
My father made the trip alone from Colorado down to the ranch, a remote, hardscrabble cattle operation on the Arizona-Mexican border near Douglas. He came home with a few artifacts, including a lever action Winchester and a mare named Cherry. Since I was away at college in Minnesota and everyone out west had pity on me, I inherited a mail order ranch coat that was fine for the desert but wasn’t much good to me until April.
If I’d had my wits about me, I would’ve asked for him to bring back a book.
Lately I've been reflecting on some of the sources and inspirations for my novel. Monument Road is a contemporary story featuring a rancher who's isolated and out of time—both in his life and his place in the century.
The book didn't start out at all as a "western," and it had little to do with the traditions of western novels—whether the old time fantasies of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, the horse-crazy books by Anna Sewell and Marguerite Henry or the modern westerns by Thomas McGuane, Kent Haruf, Cormac McCarthy, James Galvin and Richard Ford.
But damn, once a rancher shows up, pretty soon there are horses, maybe cows, and land that is either failing or outgrowing its usefulness. Next thing you know, you're penned in.
Leonard Self started out as just one of the cast, invented to be part of an ensemble playing variations on the tune of suicide. A diversity hire, you might say.
But as I began making him a real character, with credible reasons for ending his life, the old cuss started to grow on me—and before I knew it, he'd taken over the narrative and I was stuck writing western fiction, a regional novel or some such.
I blame it on the horses.
There's no surer way to be branded a genre writer—okay, plus spaceships and vampires—than to put a ranch in your story. I mean, your protagonist could be a writer, an architect or even, god help us, a horny college professor, and you would be considered right in the mainstream. But give a character a corral as his workplace?
I tried to subvert the stereotype. Leonard wants to free himself from the land rather than cling to it. I put several guns in his hand that were never fired. His experiences around horses revealed character but were largely tangential to the story.
I wonder if reviewers will notice.
Once I started getting a complex about this, I remembered a book at my grandfather's ranch I'd seen as a boy. A relative pointed to a character named Russ (my grandfather's middle name which he preferred to Homer) and said, that's grandpa.
I was too young and too interested in the ranch itself to read more than a few paragraphs. I got the impression it was a cowboy novel with rough cowpokes riding the range.
Many years later, after my own father's death, family history became more important, and I wondered about that book. I thought I remembered the title as Red Embers, and occasionally I searched for that title, but all I came across was a novel about a California girl and her polo pony by another juvenille fiction writer, Dorothy Lyons.
Polo? I figured the book with my grandfather's name in it was some pulp fiction that had turned to dust by now.
But today, I took one more stab and tracked down an Arizona cousin. If the book had survived in the family it was likely to be down there.
She wrote back saying she didn't remember the book, but she had heard that Grandpa Quimby had trained polo ponies back in the early 1920's in California.
The book I remember didn't have a dust jacket. The cover art for the Lyons book would've made clear the novel wasn't about fading cowboy campfires. I'm doing more research before I declare myself—including finding a copy to read—but it looks like I might be more connected to the horsey tradition than I thought.