Edgar Rice Burroughs' 'Tarzan Of The Apes' Inspired Patrick Dearen To Write Western Novels

Updated on July 16, 2017
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Patrick Dearen: Acclaimed Western Author

Western Author Patrick Dearenhas two of his books optioned for movies by Turnpike Productions.
Western Author Patrick Dearenhas two of his books optioned for movies by Turnpike Productions. | Source

Patrick Dearen Joins Pantheon Of Great Western Writers

When Western author and historian Patrick Dearen accepted the Spur Award in Lubbock, Texas, for his modern classic novel The Big Drift, in 2015, he said he was honored to join the elite group of other great writers who had won the top award in that genre. The Spur is to western writers what an Oscar Award would be to actors in Hollywood.

Dearen, a resident of Midland, Texas, was inspired to become a writer by his mother who recommended he read the classic Edgar Rice Burroughs novel Tarzan Of The Apes. The acclaimed author agreed to an interview and answered the following questions.

l. What inspired you to write your most recent novel?

Dearen: Dead Man's Boot, which was a finalist for the national Peacemaker Award of Western Fictioneers, grew out of my longtime interest in legends of West Texas. For my book Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier, Revisited (to be released in August by TCU Press), I researched the history behind the legend of the Lost Sublett Mine. Sublett was an early-day West Texan who ventured west of the Pecos-perhaps-into the Guadalupe Mountains and found gold where it shouldn't exist. He took the secret of its location to his grave, but that didn't keep me from putting on my novelist hat and playing with the idea.

2. What is the theme of this novel?

Dearen: Vengeance or greed may drive a person, but real purpose lies elsewhere.

3. What inspired you to write The Big Drift?

Dearen: As with my other western novels, I pulled The Big Drift out of actual history. In early 1884 and early 1885, a Great Plains blizzard pushed hundreds of thousands of open-range cattle down into Texas. They bunched up and died on the Devils and Pecos Rivers, necessitating the largest roundup in history the following spring. With this dramatic event as the backdrop, I explore race relations on the cattle range. My black cowboy Zeke is a composite of seven black cowhands who were either onetime slaves or first-generation free men. Interviews with these cowhands are in the Library of Congress.

4. Why did you write that book?

Dearen: In the 1990s, I researched the big drift of history and found it to be an almost-forgotten event. I wrote about it from a nonfiction perspective in my books A Cowboy of the Pecos and Devils River: Treacherous Twin to the Pecos, 1535-1900. But sometimes we can learn more about history through fiction, for a novelist has an opportunity to place a reader inside the minds of characters and thereby experience and event for themselves. As a novelist, the big drift of history was just too dramatic to pass up.

5. How did you get started writing?

When I was a fourteen-year-old freshman in high school in my hometown of Sterling City, Texas, my English teacher returned a book report to me with a note that asked in effect, "Have you ever thought about writing as a career?" Little did he know that at that moment he had created a monster. I went home that very afternoon and began my first novel, which I completed while still in high school.

'Tarzan Of The Apes' Major Influence On Dearen

6. Who is your favorite author?

When I was ten, my mother gave me Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and my life was never the same afterward. I already loved to read, but Burroughs provided the adventure for which my young mind yearned. I eventually collected all his works, including an author-signed copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars and many other first editions. My enthusiasm for Burroughs has never waned. Although he's best known for Tarzan and science fiction works, I consider The War Chief the premier western novel of the twentieth century.I also greatly admire Leigh Brackett, James Oliver Curwood, and Elmer Kelton.

Why Dearen Chose Western Genre

7. Why did you choose the Western genre?

The western genre more or less chose me. As a regional reporter for two West Texas daily newspapers in the 1970s and early 1980s, I scoured West Texas for stories and uncovered fascinating material. Later on, I interviewed seventy-six men who cowboyed before 1992. These last-of-a-breed men represented the final generation to have cowboyed exclusively on horseback. From this research, I generated several nonfiction books-which then provided the springboard for my western novels.

Dearen Reveals His Favorite Book

8. What is the best book you ever wrote?

My personal favorite is Perseverance, the story of a young man's spiritual journey along the rails in Depression-era Texas. I grew up hearing my father's stories of his rough days riding the rails in the early 1930s, and finally got around to writing a novel inspired by his experiences. I still think it's the most important novel I've written. From a technical standpoint, I consider my best novel to be When Cowboys Die, which is based on a 1976 manhunt I covered as a reporter for the San Angelo (Texas) Standard-Times. A man who longed for the Old West stole a horse and disappeared into rugged canyons, sparking a four-day manhunt that pitted modern technology against the wits of a cowboy with a nineteenth-century mentality. This true story provided amazing material for a novel.

What Is The Significance Of The Spur Award?

First presented by Western Writers of America in 1953, the annual Spur Awards are the most important awards in the nation for western writing. I've heard them described as the "Oscars of western literature." Winners have included Louis L'Amour, Larry McMurtry, Tony Hillerman, and Elmer Kelton. When I had the good fortune to receive the Spur Award for my novel The Big Drift in 2015, I was astounded to find myself in such company. At that time, only 144 novels by 102 different authors had ever won Spur Awards for adult level novels in the sixty-two year history of the awards.

Dearen Writes Both Fiction And NonFiction

10. Do you prefer fiction or nonfiction?

I started out as a kid to be a novelist, and that's how I think of myself. In recent years, however, I've embraced my nonfiction work for its vital role in providing background for my fiction. I've found that the two work in tandem; my nonfiction work provides ideas and lends authenticity to my novels, and my novels force me to do research that leads to additional nonfiction works.

Dearen's Accumulation Of Awards

12. What awards have you received and what do they mean?

Dearen: Of these awards, the most competitive are the Spur Award and the Peacemaker Award, both of which I had the good fortune to receive for The Big Drift. I'm told that The Big Drift is the only novel to win both the Spur and the Peacemaker Award in the same year. To say that I've been blessed is an understatement. I've also been a finalist for a Spur (in 1994 for When Cowboys Die) and a Peacemaker (last month for Dead Man's Boot). The Peacemaker Awards, in their eighth year now, are sponsored by Western Fictioneers, a national organization of professional fiction writers who write about the American West prior to 1920. The Spurs, the Peacemakers, and the Western Heritage Awards (which I have not won) are the three most important national awards for western writing. Below is a list of the awards Dearen's books have garnered as follows: Dead Man's Boot was a 2016 finalist for Peacemaker Award for western novel (no ceremony) and a 2016 finalist for western fiction, Will Rogers Medallion Awards ( upcoming ceremony in Forth Worth); Bitter Waters: The Struggles of the Pecos River (nonfiction) won the 2016 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award for nature and environment; The Big Drift won the 2015 Spur Award for best western traditional novel received in Lubbock, the 2015 Peacemaker Award for best western novel, the 2015 Kelton Book of the Year Award, sponsored by West Texas Historical Association and the 2015 Bronze Medalist for western fiction, Will Rogers Medallion Awards; To Hell or the Pecos was the 2013 finalist for western fiction at the Will Rogers Medallions Awards received in Fort Worth and won the 2013 Elmer Kelton Award, sponsored by the West Texas Historical Association received in Odessa; and Devils River: Treacherous Twin To the Pecos, 1535-1900 (nonfiction) won the 2012 Richardson Award for nonfiction book from the West Texas Historical Association, received in Wichita Falls, Texas and the 2012 San Antonio Conservation Society Award, received in San Antonio.

Two Books In Movie Production

11. Have any of your books been made into movies? Which ones?

Two of my novels, When Cowboys Die and The Big Drift, are presently in development at Turnpike Pictures. My fingers are crossed. A number of years ago Edward James Olmos' production company optioned my novel The Illegal Man, the story of a Mexican national who crosses into the United States and faces trials and tribulation on a West Texas ranch. Unfortunately, the movie was never greenlighted.

Early Awards

Some of Dearen's earlier awards include those for When The Sky Rained Dust which won the 2006 R.C. Crane Award for fiction from the West Texas Historical Association and When Cowboys Die was a Spur Award finalist for short novel, received in El Paso in 1994.

'The Big Drift' Is Modern Day Classic

The Big Drift should be included in the conversation for one of the alltime great western novels. The page-turning thriller revolves around two protagonists who each embark upon their own individual spiritual odysseys in the midst of the 1884 blizzard which descends upon them. Will Brite is a cowboy trapped under his horse and entangled in a barbed wire fence who is saved from a premature grave by Zeke Boles, a former slave fleeing from a past he fears will engulf him. For those readers who enjoy deep character studies this book is a must read.

Team Dearen Includes Family

Patrick Dearen never claims to create his books alone. He gives credit to both his wife Mary and his son Wesley for helping him. Mary Dearen is the managing editor of the Midland Reporter-Telegram. He said, "For a writer, it's a great advantage to have a built-in editor in the home. She and my son Wesley have long served as my first readers and editors of my manuscripts. When Wesley was nine and ten, he served as my consultant and first editor for my middle shool trilogy, Comanche Peace Pipe, On the Pecos Trail, and The Hidden Treasure of the Chisos. Only the last book is still in print.

Patrick Dearen Receives Coveted Spur Award

Patrick Dearen shown receiving Spur Award in Lubbock, Texas for 'The Big Drift.'
Patrick Dearen shown receiving Spur Award in Lubbock, Texas for 'The Big Drift.' | Source

Patrick Dearen In The Guadalupe Mountains

Western writer shown in Guadalupe Mountains, scene of one of his books.
Western writer shown in Guadalupe Mountains, scene of one of his books. | Source

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