Conversation: Author S.C. Gwynne Brings the Brutal Frontier to the Briscoe

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Detail from cover of "Empire of the Summer Moon," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2011.

Rivard Report: "Empire of the Summer Moon" took the state and San Antonio by storm. A lot of armchair historians, including this one, believe it to be the best book ever written about the Comanche and that period of time when European settlers were arriving and domesticating Texas and points West. Was the book the work of a lifetime of exploring that chapter in Texas and Southwestern history, or how you did go about reporting and writing it?

S.C. Gwynne. Photo by Corey Arnold.

S.C. Gwynne. Photo by Corey Arnold.

S.C. Gwynne: Thanks for the kind words. I would never have written this book if I had not moved to Texas. I spent a decade traveling the state as a reporter for Time and then Texas Monthly and just fell in love with the western part of Texas, which happened (though I did not know it at the time) to be Comanche country. As you know, if you travel west of Fort Worth or in Western Oklahoma you hear Comanche stories. I started out just being curious about this amazing landscape and the people who lived on it, then graduated to T. R. Fehrenbach and Rupert Richardson and Walter Prescott Webb. The rest, as they say, is history.

RR: Did your agent and publisher appreciate what they had in their hands, or were they taken by surprise that book was such a critical and commercial success?

SCG: I think we were all taken by surprise. There is a substantial fairy-dust factor here. I am still not sure why it has been such a success, but I am not arguing.

RR: It was a brutally violent time, with both sides taking no prisoners as often as not. What kind of reaction did you get from readers who grew up with a far more sanitized view of events as presented in Texas textbooks and in Hollywood? Do people accept a more authentic and accurate view?

SCG: Mostly people just told me how surprised they were at the brutality of the frontier. I don’t know why that should surprise Texans, in particular. But I think people just forgot about it. And I think there was a general forgetting of the fact that Indians were not just gentle folks who got crushed by the westward-rolling American empire. "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee" and similar books are part of that myth. They are not wrong; they just tell only one side of the story. Many tribes were immensely powerful—none more so than the Comanches. They were forces to be reckoned with.

RR: Bring us up to date on the status of the film rights and whether the book will become a movie. If so, are you writing the script?

Cover of "Empire of the Summer Moon," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2011.

Cover of "Empire of the Summer Moon," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2011.

SCG: I think there is a good chance that the movie will be made. Warner Brothers’ first attempt, with Larry McMurtry and Diana Osana as screenwriters, did not pan out. But Warner has not given up. A new screenplay is being delivered this month by Derek Cianfrance, the talented young director who did "Blue Valentine"  and "Place Beyond the Pines," and who is now shooting the Spielberg-produced "Light Between Oceans" in Tasmania. When he finishes shooting that movie, we are all hopeful that he will begin shooting mine. He and his co-writer Darius Marder are really smart guys. I spent a week with them this spring driving around Comanche country in a Suburban and eating barbecue and just trying to figure out how the movie might go. We had a great time.

RR: You have a new book now, which we will talk about in a minute, but have you received a lot of interest in writing more about the demise of the Native American population and culture? Any interest in writing more on the subject?

SCG: Yes, there has been interest in my doing something else about Native Americans. And I probably will, one day. For now I just don’t have that single, compelling idea. Also, my book set off a wavelet of Native American books that has preempted some of the ideas I might have pursued.

RR: For all of San Antonio's interest in our own 18th century roots as a city, and the importance of the Spanish settlers and the Old Spanish Missions, we seem to know relatively little about the indigenous peoples who inhabited this area and South Texas. Many people here of Mexican descent actually are part Native American. Some know it, some do not. Why do you think the historical record is so thin or that so little general interest history exists illuminating the people and their culture?

SCG: When you get into the subject of mestizos—people of mixed Native American and European descent—the picture gets very murky. Most Mexicans are mestizos, for example. Many Americans are mestizos, of one blood quantum or another. Many current-day tribes today are composed primarily of mestizos (though including African-American blood and Asian blood and pretty much any blood you can think of). Think of how many “white” people in Oklahoma and Texas claim Cherokee blood. Quanah was of course a mestizo. I wouldn’t want the job of trying to sort that out.

RR: Tell us about "Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson." The title alone tells me you are taking the Stonewall Jackson story places others books don't go. True?

Cover of "Rebel Yell," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2014.

Cover of "Rebel Yell," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2014.

SCG: I hope so. There is a lot in my book that you will not find in the other biographies of Jackson. The whole approach and structure are different, as is the time I spend seeing Jackson as the enemy saw him. In my book you will find different versions of First Manassas, the Valley Campaign, and other battles than you will find in the major biographies. I am also the beneficiary of considerable research that has been done by others since the last biographies were written. We are all very pleased that "Rebel Yell" has spent the last month on the New York Times Bestseller list and is now No. 13 on that list.

RR: Will your talk at the Briscoe Thursday night focus on "Empire of the Summer Moon" exclusively, or will you be talking about "Rebel Yell," too?

SCG: I have been asked to speak about "Empire of the Summer Moon," and that is the general idea. But I will certainly entertain questions about Jackson. Both are stories of epic transformation.

The next installment of the Briscoe Western Art Museum’s Distinguished Lecture Series
will feature author S. C. Gwynne Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Admission is $10.

*Featured/top image: Detail from cover of "Empire of the Summer Moon," by S.C. Gwynne. Publisher: Scribner, 2011.

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