BookEnds Talks to Max McCoy

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Nov 16 2006

Max McCoy
Book: A Breed Apart: A Novel of Wild Bill Hickok
Publisher: NAL
Pub date: November 2006
Agent: Kim Lionetti

Max McCoy is an award-winning author, investigative reporter, and screenwriter. He is Journalist in Residence at Emporia State University at Emporia, Kansas.

Awards: Spur Award, best first novel; Western Writers of America (for The Sixth Rider, Doubleday); Oxbow Award for Short Fiction (“Spoils of War”); many other awards, mostly for journalism.

Author Web site:

BookEnds: Describe your book in 50 words or less.
Max: History remembers him as Wild Bill, but he was born James Butler Hickok, a young man who forged his future as a scout on the plains, and as a Union spy during the Civil War. But it was on one afternoon in Springfield, Missouri, that Hickok found his true calling—with a revolver in his hand.

BookEnds: What do you think distinguishes your work from that of other authors of this genre?
Max: First, I never considered myself as writing for a genre—to me, the books have always been novels, period. The publishers label some of my novels as westerns, of course, but that’s a marketing decision. As for A Breed Apart, it’s the story of Wild Bill Hickok facing his greatest enemy—himself—and losing. Hickok is a fascinating character, and while everybody knows he was shot dead by Jack McCall at the Number 10 saloon in Deadwood while holding a poker hand of aces and eights, not a lot of attention has been paid to his early days, which I find more intriguing. How did this fellow who was plagued with self-doubt become an icon of the American west? While A Breed Apart is of course fiction, I have attempted to remain truthful to Hickok’s character and what is known of his life and have endeavored to steer clear of the clichés created by the dime novels of his time and by Hollywood of ours.

BookEnds: What is your favorite thing about this book?
Max: It’s hard to choose just one favorite thing. It’s set in the Ozarks, it takes place during the Civil War, and the lead character is Wild Bill Hickok—what’s not to like?

BookEnds: How did you come to write this book?
Max: When I mentioned to Brent Howard, my (terrific) editor at New American Library, that I was a fan of HBO’s Deadwood, he suggested a novel on Wild Bill Hickok. After some research, I realized that Hickok’s early years, on the Kansas and Nebraska border, and later in the Ozarks during the Civil War, would make a good story. The novel ends with the famous shootout with Dave Tutt on the Springfield, Missouri, square—a shootout that launched Hickok’s reputation as a pistoleer. The fight may be the only truly “classic” gunfight in the history of the west, with the combatants facing each other and drawing at the same time. Hickok put a ball through Tutt’s chest, at a distance of 70 yards . . . a spectacular shot with a pistol. Tutt was Hickok’s best friend, the fight was ostensibly over a trifling debt and a pocket watch, and there was the suggestion of a woman as well. And there you have everything a novelist needs to spin a tale.

BookEnds: What’s your next book? When and where should we look for it?
Max: It’s called Hellfire Canyon and will be released in February 2007 by Kensington. But I hate the title, and I’ll tell you why. The book features real-life Civil War serial killer Alf Bolin, who ambushed people on the coach road a few miles from what is now Branson, Missouri. His hideout was a massive rock formation known (after his depredations) as Murder Rocks. So, the original title of the book was Murder Rock. I dropped the “s” for stylistic reasons. Anyway, my editor at Kensington, Gary Goldstein, told me that somebody—the publisher, buyers, Wal-Mart, maybe—didn’t think Murder Rock sounded like a western. So they changed the title to Hellfire Canyon, which has to be one of the worst titles ever, especially when you consider that the story takes place in the Ozarks—we have hills and hollers, draws and valleys, but no canyons. That’s a Southwestern word. So, the only way I could live with myself and actually write a book with such a horrible title was to poke some fun at it, so I invented a terrible 1930s movie called Hellfire Canyon, which premieres at Joplin, Missouri, and one of those who attend is Jacob Gamble, who was a boy during the Civil War and who narrates much of the story. I had some fun making up a history for the movie—it was filmed on location, for example, and starred Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, was directed by John Huston, and the only print was lost when a shed on the MGM lot was destroyed during the burning-of-Atlanta scene for Gone With the Wind. It is difficult for me to judge my own books, but I am particularly fond of Jacob Gamble. He was the narrator for a story called “Spoils of War,” which I wrote some years ago for Louis L’Amour Western Magazine, and I brought him back so that he could tell the rest of his story, which ends at Murder Rock in Taney County, Missouri. I’m still frosted over the title, even though Gary Goldstein is one of the good guys and has long been a friend of mine (but then, he’s probably frosted with me for being, well, difficult in a hundred ways). I’m thinking about providing an alternative cover on my Web site so readers can download it and paste it over the awful Hellfire Canyon title. To me, the novel will always be Murder Rock.

BookEnds: Do you see yourself in any of your characters? If so, who and how?
Max: I put a lot of myself into my characters. Certainly I’m Richard Dahlgren, the cave diver and underwater investigator from The Moon Pool. But there’s a lot of me in Hickok in A Breed Apart and Jacob Gamble in Hellfire Canyon as well. There’s just something about loners, outlaws, and outsiders that I identify with.

BookEnds:Bonus Question: Is there anything we missed or anything you would like to add?
Max: Let’s see. Yeah, I’d like to acknowledge my debt to Don Coldsmith, who introduced me to Doubleday editor Greg Tobin at the Tallgrass Writing Conference in Emporia, Kansas. That meeting launched my book publishing career. I’d like to remember Fred Bean, a writer friend of mine in Austin who died a few years ago. Everybody misses the hell out of him. And I’d like to thank my agent, Kimberly Lionetti of Bookends, who came to Eureka Springs and gave a terrific talk at the Ozark Creative Writers conference a couple of weeks ago.

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