THE LAST OF THEIR BREED
Writing History and the Thin Line between Outlaw and Lawman
I’ve been deep in research for my new book, but I recently took a welcome detour to chat with fellow author Tom Clavin. His latest book, aptly titled The Last Outlaws, is a riveting exploration of life on the edge of the law during the twilight of the Wild West. Through a tapestry of history and high-stakes adventure, Clavin resurrects the infamous Dalton Gang—brothers bound not just by blood but by a spree of bank and train robberies that marked the American frontier. The narrative reaches a thrilling peak with the 1892 Coffeyville raid, where Clavin skillfully humanizes the gang, rendering them as multifaceted figures shaped by their era.
I first came to read Tom in his collaborations with Bob Drury. This dynamic duo has produced a string of New York Times bestsellers, including The Heart of Everything That Is and The Last Stand of Fox Company. But Tom, a veteran journalist, has a healthy library shelf of his own solo titles, and a chronicle of the Dalton brothers was the perfect match of author and subject.
In our engaging discussion a few weeks back, Tom shed light on his new book, writing process, and career. If the gritty allure of outlaw legends or the craft of weaving history into compelling narratives intrigues you, then you’ll enjoy our conversation. Here we go…
I'm always fascinated by the origination of book ideas. How did you come upon the Dalton boys? Why’d you decide to write about them?
As what often happens , it was an accident. I was researching something else, and I came across Coffeyville 1892. There was this gang called the Dalton Brothers. They decided they’d rob two banks at the same time in broad daylight in Coffeyville, Kansas. Mayhem ensued.
The more I investigated it, the more I thought this is a really good story with a climatic event like Tombstone. When I pitched the idea to my editor, Mark Resnick at St. Martin's Press, he agreed. And off I went.
You’ve written a range of books on a range of subjects. Is there a theme that runs through all of them that connects or is it simply about a fabulous narrative that you want to tell?
It's a combination. A fabulous story might carry a book, but who are the characters involved? Is there one that is really interesting to me? Is there more than one, a bonus. In The Last Outlaws, you had these brothers that rode together, one who was killed in the line of duty as a lawman, another who was on the fringe until Coffeyville. If I'm going to be spending a year, two years, on a book, I want it to be with characters that I wake up with every morning that interest me, not just tolerating because the story is so good.
Let’s talk about the Dalton brothers. How they became famous outlaws? Why? I love this line about one of them: “Although Bill occupied the respectable position of family man, politician, and rancher, he kept all doors open all the time and I had the feeling that he might disappear through any of them, any time.”
Well, they were related through their mother to the Younger brothers, a previous generation gang of outlaws. Instead of that being a warning sign, the Daltons took a certain kind of family pride in that. To an extent also, there was some justifiable grievance that they had fallen on the wrong side of the law. Originally Bob and Grat were working as deputy U.S. marshals. You didn’t get paid much. It was dangerous. So, they were doing side jobs, selling whiskey on Indian reservations and the like—most of it illegal. They got fired, and with no other real marketable skills, they turned to robbing trains and found they were good at it. Instead of intending to, they sort of fell into the work and began to relish the idea—“We’re outlaws, we’re brothers, and we’re going to make a name for ourselves that was bigger and better than the Youngers.”
And how about the law pursuing them? The Three Guardsmen?
Madsen, Thomas, Tilghman—each had a rather different story, but they end up joining together to clean up the town. You have Chris Madsen, who’s originally from Denmark, he is a conman. He ended up in the US basically because they kicked him out of Europe. Of all things, he ends up a lawman and a good one. That’s what always interested me about the American West, there’s always a very thin line between outlaw and lawman.
Then you have Dick Tilghman, a veteran of Dodge City, he was very effective, but then became a film director and then went back to being a marshal, working into his seventies. The character I found most interesting was Heck Thomas, a lawman’s lawman. He served as the role model of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. He lost his wife and kids because he was on these long outings, chasing robbers.
I was very intrigued by your choice of openings for the book, starting with Emmett Dalton in his sixties, ruminating over how crime doesn’t pay.
Originally, I thought I’d start with an action scene, a shootout or one of the train robberies. Leave the reader with a cliffhanger. But, when the time came to begin writing the prologue, I wanted to convey a sense of melancholy, of remembrance, of the poignance of the surviving brother going to the graves for the first time of his slain brothers. It was really an instinct kind of thing, what feels most comfortable.
In terms of your research, how do you sift out fact from legend. There’s a lot of legend in the Old West.
Years ago, Bubba Smith was on a talk show at the height of his All-Pro fame as a defensive tackle. The interviewer asked him about his uncanny ability to always tackle the guy who was carrying the ball, and how he managed to do that. And he said, well, when the ball is snapped, I collect all eleven guys. One by one, I take them and throw them out of the pile, until I'm left with the guy with the ball.
And that's my philosophy about research. The Bubba Smith School of Research. I try and grab as much material as I can. Books, articles, whatever I can find. Newspaper accounts, contemporary, contemporaneous stuff. And just keep sifting through until I get down to the most reliable information. I am quite aware that I’m writing entertainments, that if people aren’t inclined to keep turning the page, then I’ve failed as a storyteller, but that doesn’t mean I play fast and loose with the facts.
You started your career as a newspaper reporter—what was that transition to writing books?
Newspapers were my profession. For 15 years I wrote for the New York Times. I also edited a chain of weekly newspapers, which I loved. Ink definitely flows through my veins. I still write for local newspapers…there’s no money in it, but I love it. In books, I got my start co-authoring for experts. That’s how I got my foot in the door. My first agent. My name was on the cover of books, in very small type. Four or five titles later, I reached the point where I was writing my own books.
But then you went back to co-authoring, but in equal partnership, with Bob Drury? How does that relationship work?
With our first book, Halsey’s Typhoon, we decided early on that of the two of us, I had more strength as a researcher, and Bob had a more muscular style of writing that suited military history better. So basically, I do most of the research and sort of prepare the meal. I serve it to Bob. He does the writing, comes back to me for revisions and editing, and that's the process. You know, we just, we just believed early on that four hands on the keyboard just weren’t going to work.
Talk to me a bit about your writing routine. I’m always fascinated by how others work their book craft.
I'm an early-morning person. With luck, I’m at my desk in my home office at 7 am. My commute is thirty seconds up the stairs. When the time comes, I can't make it up the stairs, I might be finished as a writer.
I'll write till 1 pm. Then it’s time for research-related things, if anything. Then I’m back at my desk around 6 pm, maybe for an hour and a half to fill in some blanks and get prepared for the next morning’s week.
I find it very difficult to go for any length of time, at most 24 hours, without writing. I'm very lucky that I have a profession that I'm very passionate about. I’m a firm believer that writing is the best teacher. I’ve nothing against Iowa Writing School or a Master’s program like that. They produce some excellent writers. Ultimately though, writing regularly is what’s going to teach you to become a better writer.
Hope you all get a chance to read Tom’s latest THE LAST OUTLAWS. More CreativeCraft posts to come shortly. Have a wonderful holiday!
My best, Neal
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