BookEnds Talks to Max McCoy

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Feb 23 2007

Max McCoy
Book: Hellfire Canyon
Publisher: Kensington
Pub date: February 2007
Agent: Kim Lionetti

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Max McCoy is an award-winning author, investigative reporter, and screenwriter. Most of his work, including Hellfire Canyon, is set in the Ozarks. Currently, he is Journalist in Residence at Emporia State University in east central Kansas.

Awards: Spur Award, best first novel, Western Writers of America (The Sixth Rider, Doubleday). Oxbow Award for Short Fiction (“Spoils of War”). Many other awards, especially for investigative journalism. In 2005, he was named Outstanding Graduate Alumnus at Emporia State University.

Author Web site:

BookEnds: Describe your book in 50 words or less.
Max: Don’t know how to describe this book in “50 words or less,” though I tell my writing students that they should be able to pitch any project in one or two sentences. Okay, I can do that: young Jacob Gamble sets out with his mother on a trek across Civil War Missouri that will eventually take them to the lair of serial killer Alf Bolin at the infamous Murder Rocks near present-day Branson—but that is only one aspect of the book.

BookEnds: What is your favorite thing about this book?
Max: Jacob Gamble, the protagonist, and Alf Bolin, the serial killer, are my favorites. Jacob is a recurring character for me, and I first used him (in slightly different form, as they say) in a short story called “Spoils of War” for Louis L’Amour Western Magazine. Jacob, who is on the verge of being a teenager when Hellfire Canyon begins, is the story’s first-person narrator. We also see him later in the book, as an old man in the 1930s. He’s spent time in prison, the press has dubbed him “The Fiddlin’ Outlaw,” and Hollywood has just released a movie titled Hellfire Canyon, based on his life. Frankly, the novel was originally titled Murder Rock, for the spooky natural rock fortress in Taney County where the historical Alf Bolin ambushed and killed folks along the coach road to Arkansas. It is still the most appropriate title. But the publisher changed the title, over my fierce objections—after all, canyon is a southwestern word. It evokes an entirely different landscape. In the Ozarks, there are hollers, draws, and valleys. So, when the publisher changed the title, I changed the story to explain the title—I invented the movie Hellfire Canyon that stars Tyrone Power and was written and directed by John Huston, and shot on location in the Ozarks, and which premieres at Joplin, Missouri. I included footnotes and some other devices to give the novel an air of believability (and this is something that drove my editor, Gary Goldstein, to distraction—he said nobody is going to leaf through the novel at a paperback rack at some truckstop near Winslow, Arizona, and buy it after they see footnotes). Well, he may be right. Gary is a very shrewd editor. In any event, readers are already asking me where they can find a copy of the movie with Tyrone Power. As for Alf Bolin, I like his character because he is not your typical killer. He’s literate, smart, and based on the historical record. Nearly all of Bolin’s character comes from the historic record. And although Bolin slaughtered dozens before a Yankee manhunter named Zach Thomas lopped off his head with a slingblade, practically nobody has heard of him today, even in the Ozarks. If people are familiar with his name at all, they remember it from Silver Dollar City at Branson, from a train robbery skit that features a rather dim-witted bandit named Alf Bolin.

BookEnds: How did you come to write this book?
Max: The idea for Murder Rock—the original and best title—has been with me since I did a feature story a few years ago for the Joplin Globe on Alf Bolin. A local historian took me to Murder Rocks, which is on private property in a particularly wild section of Taney County, Missouri, a few miles from downtown Branson. The area was so spooky and the character of Bolin so outrageous that it was the perfect inspiration. After all, Bolin was so feared that, after he was killed, his head was put on a spike and displayed outside the Christian County Courthouse. Thus perished a monster, to quote a contemporary account.

BookEnds: What has surprised you most about the business of publishing?
Max: That it has become strictly a business. Now, I always knew it was a business—of course people have to get paid for what they write, and publishers have to make a little money at it, and the agents deserve their cut, and hopefully everybody will have made a profit when the numbers are all in—but in the last few years the business paradigm seems to have replaced everything else. It’s not enough that a book makes money, it has to make a ton of money. There are more books being published than ever before, but fewer titles, and publishers are more and more going with established authors with good track records. I started seeing this in the 1990s when Doubleday and the other houses dropped their library hardcover lines. It wasn’t, as I recall, that the lines weren’t making money, but that they weren’t making enough money. It seemed shortsighted to me, because those hardcover mysteries, westerns, and science fiction lines worked quietly but steadily to cultivate new generations of readers. Now, is it any surprise that the ranks of genre readers are diminished?

For years, books have been getting short shrift in popular culture, when compared to the “virtual reality” of video games and other electronic entertainment. But the thing is, books are the original virtual reality. They put the reader in the story like no other form of entertainment can, and you don’t need the latest video card—or any type of hardware at all, for that matter. You can stuff a paperback in your back pocket and take it with you, and when you’re ready to resume the story again, you can turn right to the page and dig in without booting anything up. Part of the problem also is that we live in a society where advertising drives just about everything. It has turned us all into consumers, into batteries for the machine, and people are so bombarded with appeals for their attention that it doesn’t occur to most of them to seek out anything that doesn’t have a million-dollar advertising budget. People need to turn off their televisions (well, except for perhaps Deadwood and Six Feet Under) and spend more time at their local library. In my classes, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing students to narrative nonfiction, the kind practiced by Susan Orlean and Mark Kramer and John McPhee. Their reaction usually begins with “What the hell is this weird stuff?” and ends with “Where can I find more of it?”

BookEnds: Do you have a job outside of writing?
Max: I’m Journalist in Residence at the Department of English at Emporia State University. I research, write, and teach a class per semester (this semester we’re doing Projects in Investigative Journalism).

BookEnds: What are your other hobbies or interests?
Max: I am interested in so many things that I’m embarrassed to name them. Well, I am a scuba diver, as those who read my 2004 novel, The Moon Pool, will know. I am also an amateur radio enthusiast and kit builder in the area known as QRP—that means low-power—and belong to a group that builds these weird projects that fit in Altoids tins. There’s a novel there, I’m sure. Add to that photography, natural history, music, and various Fortean topics. As in Charles Fort, the chronicler of strange phenomenon. There’s a wonderful British magazine I occasionally write for called Fortean Times.

BookEnds: Is there anything we missed or anything you would like to add?
Max: I’ve just made a deal with Signet for my next novel. It is tentatively titled I, Quantrill, and will be a fictional account of the last few weeks of the noted guerrilla’s life. The editor is Brent Howard, who I worked with on A Breed Apart, the novel about Wild Bill Hickok that was released in November 2006. I’m particularly excited to be working with Brent on another Civil War tale.

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