A Conversation With Local Author Greg Wright
Debuting later this month, “West of the Gospel” is a new book from local author Greg Wright. Published under his pen name, W. John MacGregor, the book is a fictional account of events set against the very real, historical backdrop of the 1910 “Big Burn” wildfire that destroyed millions of acres in Montana and Idaho.
The book posits a theory surrounding the identity and actions attributed to the “Hero of Avery.” An enigmatic man named Thaddeus Roe who is mentioned in early historic accounts of the wildfire but has been all but forgotten since.
“West of the Gospel” is the debut novel from Greg Wright, who until now has published several non-fiction books. In conjunction with the official release of the book on August 17, Greg will be using social networking tools to have characters from the story share events from the book in real time via Facebook, Twitter and a blog.
Greg will also be appearing at the grand re-opening of Burien Books at 824 SW 152nd St in Olde Burien on August 7 from 1-3PM to sign copies of his book.
I had the chance to conduct an online interview with Greg recently, using Facebook. Here’s a transcript of our conversation:
Mike: Let’s start with a little background, can you give us thumbnail of your literary journey up to this point?
Greg: Well, I was a voracious reader as a kid. In college, I majored in English Lit, but really didn’t focus on creative writing other than one poetry class. I always envisioned myself as a novelist, though… and was pretty surprised when my first several published books turned out to be pretty technical non-fiction. Of late, most of my reading has been biographies. So it’s not too surprising that my first novel has a very historical, factual feel to it.
Mike: I know your previously published books have focused, in part at least, on Lord of the Rings. So it seems interesting to me that your first non-fiction work is a sort of Western novel. How did that come to be?
Greg: I’ve always been a huge fan of the Western genre. John Ford and others have observed that, like fantasy, it’s a genre that’s largely based on archetypes, a level of abstraction that allows writers and filmmakers to talk about general principles of human behavior and the moral plane. The central theme of West of the Gospel fits into that realm, so the germ of that idea got attached to the Western motif some 25 years ago. When I ran across the historical accounts of The Big Blowup of 1910, a light bulb turned on. It was the perfect setting for my protagonist’s journey.
Mike: You just mentioned The Big Blowup of 1910, and that’s really central to the story in West of the Gospel. Despite this being a work of fiction, there is a fairly solid historical background you’re working against. How much of the story is historical?
Greg: Without giving too much away, I’ll say that whole sections of the book are taken verbatim from the historical record, such as it is. But readers are generally surprised to find out which sections are genuine, and which are fictional. Suffice to say that there are genuine historical mysteries that emerge from the accounts of what transpired on August 21 and 22 of 1910 in and around Avery, Idaho, and my novel proposes a fictional answer to the question: Who was Thaddeus Roe?
Mike: So in a sense, you could almost think of this as a historical mystery in a western setting then?
Greg: Yes. It’s part of a four-novel arc called The Fewkes Legacy that spans from 1893 to 1910 in the Pacific Northwest frontier. Each is a mystery of sorts, and we start at the end with West of the Gospel, and work our way backward.
Mike: How did you get onto the trail of the story behind the Big Blowup of 1910? What was it about the story that pulled you in?
Greg: I’ve got to thank the Burien library for that. In 2001, I was using the public Internet at the library for Broadband connection, and on one of my visits, Stephen Pyne’s Year of the Fires was on the New Release shelf by the front door. I ate it alive… and then went out to track down every book I could find on the subject of what is variously called The Big Blowup or The Big Burn. So many of the stories that emerged from that catastrophe are literally unbelievable yet true — the perfect backdrop for a tale of legendary proportions. Each of the stories in The Fewkes Legacy capitalizes on the notion that every legend or myth is borne from some seed of truth. The onus is on the hearer of the tale, then, to discern where the line is crossed. When does a story become just that? How much is baby, and how much is bathwater?
Mike: So is it fair to say that you’re deliberately challenging your readers to decide for themselves the truth in West of the Gospel? From my reading of it, it seems like you leave plenty of room for the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Greg: Yes. I have found it fascinating how many different interpretations readers have had. And that’s an interesting thing even from a writer’s perspective. I wrote an extensive biography of my grandfather, who was a boy in that era, and Tad Montgomery is a lot like Irvine and his brothers: tight-lipped. They played their cards close to their chests and didn’t let many folks get very close to their true motives. So even though I had to get inside Tad’s head to write his words, and I ultimately “know” what he was about because I had to, even I am influenced by what other characters in the book have to say and find myself waffling, in my own mind as a subjective third party, about what he was up to.
Mike: I’ve heard it said that a person’s true character comes out under pressure, when they fall back on their habits and instincts. Given that the historical record is vague and cloudy on Tad Montgomery, alias Thaddeus Roe, alias “Three Card Monte” is that maybe part of the message you want readers to come away with?
Greg: In part, yes. There is one view of human behavior that says we can never know, in advance, what we will do under unpredictable circumstances. If you believe that, that not only affects your own behavior, it colors how you interpret the actions of others, too. There’s another school of thought that says we are the products of either evolution or environment, and our reactions are natural byproducts of our genetic makeup or societal conditioning. From that perspective, too, you can be pretty fatalistic about interpreting your own behavior and the behavior of others. The angle that fascinates me, though, is the notion of instinctual behavior and the ways in which instinct can be honed.
Does A-Rod think about each grounder that he fields? Or does he just react? How much were those reactions the result of evolutionary by-products or environmental conditioning? Were they honed and fine-tuned? Would he be able to sustain that level of instinctual reaction without regular practice? Certainly, getting thrown into the middle of literal firefight is not something you can practice and rehearse, nor is one’s response to the urge for revenge when a loved one is murdered. But I think the same principles apply. What do we think about instinctual responses? And what kind of instinctual responses has Tad Montgomery honed? Of what is he capable, and of what is he not capable?
Mike: So we haven’t really talked about Tad’s background much leading into West of the Gospel, but even a quick read of the book’s flyleaf reveals that there’s a genuine feud between Tad and the Fewkes Brothers that culminates just prior to the events in the book, if I’m understanding the timeline correctly. And it is these events that we know little about that bring Tad to where we find him in the new book?
Greg: Yes, that’s right. He’s gone through his life believing that his future is not determined by his past, though, so he’s brought up pretty short by folks who don’t much buy into that belief. It’s a conflict of philosophy dealt with through Colts and Winchesters.
Mike: Can we assume that the rest of the books in the series will eventually tell the rest of the story then?
Greg: There will be some insight into what happened between the Fewkes brothers and Ash Montgomery, Tad’s dad. But volumes 3 and 4 both take place in 1899, and Tad doesn’t enter into those stories. Who Tad is and what he was thinking when he walked into Libby on August 25, 1910, will remain something of a mystery, one only settled to any degree in each reader’s mind.
Mike: Like Tad, I see you’re playing your cards close to your vest! Even the title of the new book, West of the Gospel, is open to the reader’s interpretation. Would you share a few thoughts on how you selected the title for the book?
Greg: The starting place of Tad’s journey is the cattle country down around what’s now the Gospel-Hump wilderness in Idaho. In 1910, that was Gospel Mountain and Buffalo Hump. There’s an echo of Steinbeck’s East of Eden in West of the Gospel, given the generational issues and “the sins of the father.” So the title just leapt out at me. I’ve also studied period vernacular pretty extensively and the use of “west of the gospel” to mean “just shy of the truth” is a plausible invention. This is about the nature of truth, not about the Good News of Jesus in some back-door fashion. Though, of course, religion is much more a natural part of Tad’s life than it might be in yours or your neighbor’s. Times have changed.
Mike: Is there a message you’d like readers to take away from their time spent with the book? Or is it more about the experience of having to choose for themselves what the book is really trying to say?
Greg: There is one message in there that I’ve yet to have anyone comment about. So I’m still waiting for that one to be discovered. But that’s not really my objective! What I would like is for readers to be surprised and intrigued — maybe by themselves as much as by the story.
Mike: Like yourself, I’m a voracious reader though my selections may run to different genres, and that seems to be a philosophy not much embraced in most of the recent literature I’ve read. From my knothole, it seems like too often writers tend to go for wrapping everything up a neat little bow for the reader. Is there a particular set of authors or styles that inspired you in writing West of the Gospel?
Greg: Actually, not at all. I was conscious of breaking just about every rule of the form that I knew when writing the novel. I have never read a novel like West of the Gospel. The form just seemed right. I have had some readers call it “Rashomon-like,” but that’s not really the case, unless you consider Tad’s character to be the subject rather than a specific event. I agree, though. I think most pop fiction has gotten too formulaic and too intent on tidy denouements. Gladly, I was not having to write for the broader audience. An agent who is now at William Morris told me that he loved the book, but he couldn’t sell it. I’m actually glad that I could retreat into the protection of niche marketing. The story is what it is, and can’t be watered down or simplified.
Mike: Given your experience, any words of wisdom you’d care to share with aspiring writers out there?
Greg: Well, your audience, many of whom I’ve known for decades, may be wondering why I’m writing this series of books under the name of W. John MacGregor. It’s a funny fact that, in the publishing industry, agents, producers, and publishers all love a good story, too — and sometimes, fiction is more attractive than nonfiction! It turns out that W. John MacGregor’s “story,” as a writer, is much more appealing to folks in the business than Greg Wright’s! Like Tad, I’ve had to overcome certain prejudices by claiming a new name and writing a new and vicarious ending to my own story. Go for it!
Mike: Aha, the story behind the story! And on that note, the book is officially coming out in August, right? Any public events or book signings scheduled as part of the launch?
Greg: What’s known as the “street date” is August 17, the 100th anniversary of the event that opens West of the Gospel. But the book is now available through HJ Books’ online storefront and all the online retailers. A book signing will be upcoming at Burien Books. W. John MacGregor will also be appearing at the Benewah County Fair in St. Marie’s, Idaho, from August 19-22, and at And Books Too in Lewiston September 3 and Placer Village Books in Wallace September 4.
Mike: Any last thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Mike: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us Greg, greatly appreciated!
Greg: My distinct pleasure.
Photo of Greg Wright courtesy of Jenn Wright