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interview    
 
an interview with Stephen Harrigan      
 
photo of Stephen Harrigan


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  What is it about the subject of the Alamo that people still find compelling today?

It's the myth that compels people first. The idea that these men in the Alamo willingly chose to surrender their lives for freedom, although that is not exactly what happened. It has this powerful hold on our imagination. The one most powerful moment in the Alamo mythology is Travis drawing that line in the sand and saying to the garrison, "Whoever is willing to die, cross this line." That notion of deliberate self-sacrifice is very stirring. It goes all the way back to Thermopylae: it touches upon people's fondest hopes of what they are capable of and it's a very powerful message. I have to emphasize that that is the myth, that's not the reality. But it's a very stirring legend, and it just grabs people.

Is that story of drawing a line in the sand based on some other historical moment, or myth that existed before?

Not that I know of. There have been incidents like that that have occurred in the past. I seem to recall reading that at some point in the Battle of New Orleans somebody drew a line in the sand, but I don't know if that's true or not. But it's really unique to the Alamo, at least in terms of most people's imagination or understanding of history. The fact that it never happened isn't really as important as the fact that it registers so strongly in people's imaginations.

The truth of it was that they were forced to fight because Santa Anna wouldn't give them good conditions to surrender.

Santa Anna was operating under a decree by the Mexican government that all of these rebels be executed. The "Texians" in the Alamo had no leverage. If they surrendered they would die. They tried to surrender, but Santa Anna would accept no terms. It would have been a complete and unconditional surrender, which meant that they would all be shot. They didn't have a choice.

It's much different than something like 13 Days to Glory. That's my background knowledge about the Alamo: seventh grade history and 13 Days to Glory.

The TV show?

Yeah, the miniseries, where Bowie sits up in his sickbed firing off his two pistols and he's the last one to get killed.

In my generation, it was Davy Crockett, the Fess Parker movie, the Walt Disney version of Davy Crockett, that came out in 1955. It was like Star Wars--I was just transfixed by it. Everybody was obsessed with it.

Do you think Crockett is the most compelling of all the historical personalities in the book?

Davy Crockett and Santa Anna were the easiest to write. I felt that I understood them immediately somehow. I understood Santa Anna's ambition and lust for absolute power. (Laughs) For some reason I found that easy to write. I understood Crockett's broken-down, defeated-but-still-vibrant personality. Of all the famous people in the Alamo, he's the one who stands the test of time as a fairly decent and interesting human being.

A hero?

I'm not sure that his heroism is what translates so much as his humanity. He was a guy you would be fascinated by today: the Jesse Ventura of his time. He was an over-the-top politician who had suffered a series of political defeats but was trying to revivify himself. There was a certain fundamental decency about him. He was not a calculating politician. He was a warm-hearted character and the more I read about him, the more I liked him.

You could contrast him with Bowie because they both come across as having charisma and great personal magnetism but with Bowie you get the sense that underneath the charisma there was something very dark.

If Crockett was the Jesse Ventura of his time, Bowie was the Charles Keating of his time. He was a giant land swindler, a very charming but basically criminal personality.

Were you particularly repelled by any of the personalities involved?

No. Even Bowie, who was probably the most scurrilous of those characters. I didn't want the book to have any villains.

What about Sam Houston? Shouldn't Sam Houston have sent reinforcements?

I think Sam Houston should have acted sooner than he did. You could make an argument that the Alamo was a bad place to make a stand. But Houston seemed to be playing politics during the days of the siege. He wasn't prompt to raise reinforcements and didn't seem to be doing much of anything except staying drunk.

He didn't treat it as an urgent situation.

He didn't seem to believe that the Alamo was in danger. I think that Houston's reputation is undergoing a re-evaluation by Texas historians right now. I think he was an interesting guy and in many ways a courageous person, but he was not at his best and brightest during this period. As far as winning at San Jacinto, I think he basically lucked out.

He doesn't exactly come across as a jerk in the book, but when they finally decide to fight, it's so easy for them that you wonder if they shouldn't have acted sooner.

He could have. They may have lost. His strategy, to the degree that it really was a strategy, ended up paying off. But at the time it seemed like he was just retreating and doing nothing. There wasn't a lot of love for Houston during this period, or even afterwards. Until he won at San Jacinto, he was reviled. I think he could have been more responsive and deliberate. Whether it would have made a difference I don't know. It may have made the situation worse. The men in the Alamo would have felt that he let them down.

Was it difficult to find the documents you needed to research Gates of the Alamo?

It was a thinly documented time, 1835-6 in Texas. There are not many period newspapers. It's just hard to get your hands on the things that you need to convincingly portray this world. Finding those details, learning if they wear shoes, if they wear boots, if they wear cravats, what kind of food they ate. It took a lot of time and imagination to come up with the details I needed to make this world plausible.

Then as far as the Alamo itself, it's a complete can of worms. It's almost impossible to discover what really happened there. I had to wend my way through different historians and interpretations of the geopolitics of the thing, and try to come up with a version of all that that made not just historical sense, but dramatic sense to me.

In the afterword, you say that certain historical sources--like the one that claims David Crockett surrendered and was executed as a prisoner--struck you as false the more you read them, while others--like Travis's letters from the Alamo--seemed more true and real the more you read them. What makes one of these types of documents seem more or less credible than another?

A lot of it is cross-corroboration. Travis says something in his letters, and then you read something in Almonte's diary that supports it. You read a letter from a Mexican lieutenant that says something happened in the battle that the battle report of General Ramirez y Sesma supports. So you get mutual support for a lot of these things. The de la Pena manuscript just feels kind of spongy to me. To the degree that there was corroboration, the details seem to have been lifted from other sources. Whether it's an authentic document or a forgery, as some people maintain, I think it's not necessarily a highly credible document. If de la Pena himself wrote it, as it is maintained that he did, I think he borrowed from a lot of other sources.

In one scene in the book, a soldier is truncated by a cannon shot and you describe his body as looking like a sack of grain torn open at the bottom. Is this an analogy you would come across in the course of your research for the book--in a diary or something--or just a detail you conjured from your own mind?

Both. In that particular case, it was just an image that came to mind.

It's very gory.

But there were other times...there was a scene where a guy tries to stop a rolling cannonball with his foot and it took off his leg. That was a famous incident in the Mexican War. There were things like that I took from diaries and letters and accounts, to try to conjure up what the reality of the combat was like.

A lot of the women and children got out, but Joe [William Travis's slave] was the only man who got out alive, right?

Yeah, Joe was a real person who escaped the Alamo, or was spared. We don't know exactly how many people survived. There's an account--probably bogus--of a guy named Warnell who escaped the battle and died several months afterwards of his wounds. I don't think it's unlikely that someone escaped. It's a terribly confusing battle that took place not only inside, but outside the walls, most of it in darkness. There's no telling exactly what happened. I felt like I had some license, if I needed a character to escape, to do that.

Had you intended the book originally as a fictional history of the battle, or as a novel?

I first had the idea to write a novel about the Alamo when I was fourteen. It was a long time ago. I carried that notion around with me through much of my life, not knowing whether that would be feasible or whether I was capable of it. When I finally forced myself to... (laughs) cross that line in the sand, and write the book, I didn't know exactly what form the book would take. I knew it would be a novel, that it would be a mixture of fictional and historical characters, and I knew I needed protagonists who made sense to the kind of person I am. People who spoke to my own ambivalent and contradictory notions about what was going on. So I came up with the idea of having a botanist as the main character, because he could move between both worlds with relative ease. His preoccupations with landscape and wildlife are similar to mine. I've always been interested in the natural history of Texas. So I kind of followed the course of least resistance in a way, trying to concoct characters that would carry a reader through the battle so that you could observe every aspect of it.

Do you consider Edmund McGowan the hero of the book?

(Laughs) I haven't really ranked them like that in my mind. Edmund McGowan occurred to me first. I always knew I wanted it to be a love story, so Edmund and Mary were equal in my eyes as protagonists in the book. He just happened to be there: there he was. Some characters were more deliberate than others. I knew I wanted Mexican officers and soldados in the book, so I deliberately set out coming up with those characters: Blas and Villasenor. But the characters who occurred to me unbidden were Edmund and Mary.

Edmund shares his interest in botany with Santa Anna, to an extent. Did Santa Anna ever get his expedition together to harvest chewing gum in the Yucatan?

He ended up being the co-inventor of chewing gum, with a guy named Adams of Adams Chewing Gum. I don't know that he ever sent an expedition down, but he was one of the inventors of commercial chewing gum.

Did they flavor it?

Yes, with mint and sugar and other things. This was the late nineteenth century.

On a sidenote, I was named after Anson Jones [the last President of the Republic of Texas]...

I won an Anson Jones award once. They give it every year for a magazine article that touches on or has something to do with medicine or medical history.

Because Anson Jones was a doctor.

He was one of the most prominent doctors in the Texas Republic. I can't remember anymore what I won it for, but it was 200 dollars. I was pretty excited. It was me and Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.




interview by Anson Lang
 
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    Photo credit © Shannon McIntyre