Interview With Miles Hood Swarthout
A Classic in the making. . .
"The Sergeant's Lady"
Written by Carla Fischer
During the 26 years from 1860-86, doors swing open to the wild, wild, west and the growing threat of Apache uprisings on
settlements across the untamed Southwestern Territories. Opportunities for commerce and ranching were available to immigrants brave enough to inhabit those hard lands and endure their harsh climate.
Miles Hood Swarthout, a Malibu local, has skillfully crafted this tempestuous frontier history into his new novel,
The Sergeant's Lady. This Western was inspired by a 1959 short story, "The Attack On The Mountain," by his late father,
Glendon. This father and son writing team also collaborated on
The Shootist, which the Western Writers of America recently
in 2000 voted one of the Best Western Novels of this past century. Miles adapted his father's bestseller for the screen, which became John Wayne's final movie in 1976, and has since gone into film history as one of the Duke's very best.
In The Sergeant's Lady,
Miles writes about the renegade Apache bands still raiding ranches and small towns on both sides of the Mexican border in 1886, and the large number of military men, 6000 troops, one-quarter of the entire U. S. Army at that time, chasing them. Both lifestyles are well described. Naiche's (Cochise's 2nd son) band of renegade Chiricahuas on their final, almost suicidal, raid up into Arizona from their sanctuary in Mexico's Sierra Madres, and the five-man detail of soldiers
operating a heliograph (sun-flashing) observation station passing Morse-coded military messages between mountaintops. This is the first Western ever set against the backdrop of
General Miles' new 33-station heliograph network, which the U.S. Army experimented with for a couple years at the end of the Apache War, to make their communications more secure. Interwoven into this unique
historical setting is the romance that develops between a Cavalry Scout, Sgt. Ammon Swing, and Miss Martha Cox, a divorcee helping run her brother's cattle ranch at the foot of the
mountain where the Army men go down to pick up their shipped-in supplies. Martha Cox
is a woman "on the sunny side of forty," almost an archetype of a frontier
Miles's accounting of the Apache's demise reflects compassion for a sad and difficult chapter in our subjugation of these last warring Indians, and recounts the courage shown by both cultures
struggling to survive in those tough, burning deserts.
The author weaves southwestern history into this stirring adventure with innovative literary technique
by beginning each chapter with quotes by historical figures, some humorous, most factual. Beginning the book is an epigraph from General William Tecumseh
Sherman -- "We had one war with Mexico to take Arizona, and we should have another to make her take it back!"
CF: What is your educational background?
MS: I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My father and mother were writers and teachers. My mother, Kathryn, researched and wrote books for children with my father. I taught screen writing and film history at a junior college in Scottsdale and then at Arizona State. I graduated from Claremont Men's College with a degree in
literature and went on to USC in the early 70's, where I got a Master's in Telecommunications, minored in Film, in what is now their
famous Film and Television School.
CF: How did your technique as an author evolve, to enable you to make your father's short story into a novel,
The Sergeant's Lady?
MS: My dad never adapted his novels for the screen. I was always interested in
film: the art form of the latter half of the 20th century. I thought several of
Glendon's short stories lent
themselves well to film. I thought my dad's other traditional Western story,
The Attack On The
Mountain, would make a good film, so I wrote it first as a screenplay. But I ended up with so much extra research and story
material that I couldn't fit into a 120-page script, and decided to expand it further into a novel. After writing several increasingly long drafts and getting rejected for the book still being too short,
I was aided by a New York literary agent who liked the basic story and knew my dad's books. Nat
Sobel put me through rookie novelist boot camp. When I finished, I had turned a 13-page short story into an 80,000 word novel, which
Nat quickly sold to TOR/Forge, one of the few publishers that still prints a few Westerns by their name novelists every year in hard cover. Most genre books today, Westerns, romance, science fiction, many
mysteries -- are published as original paperbacks, so hard/soft deals are only for the best. My Forge editor, Bob Gleason, also suggested starting each chapter with a quote from one of the many histories about that
war, about what was really going on with the Apaches and soldiers at that time. For example, one chapter heading is about how many millions of opium pills were issued to soldiers in the Civil War for all kinds of ailments. In my chapter that follows, it's discussed how one southern Veteran in this heliograph detail has become addicted to these little blue pills for his "backache." Opium addiction and extreme alcoholism were quite common in the post-Civil War army. Other novelists must have used this historical footnote technique before, but I can't cite any specific books. Early readers and book reviewers have complimented me on this innovation, but it was actually my editor's idea. My point is that first-time novelists usually need all the help they can get, and I was very fortunate to have a couple real pros like Sobel and Gleason give me instructive advice to improve
The Sergeant's Lady and finally get it published.
CF: Martha Cox represents today's modern woman, in that she has a strong sense of personal identity and is in many ways a liberated woman. Her boyfriend, Sergeant Swing, refers to her as a "pioneer in
MS: To give my heroine some back-story I read early feminist history. There's a lady professor, Glenda Riley, who wrote a book called
The Female Frontier. She details the earliest divorce laws in America in the late 1830's and early 40's, in what were known as the "emancipated Plains states," Iowa, Oklahoma, and North Dakota. So I made my heroine a divorcee from Iowa, going through the legal difficulty of divorcing an uncaring man who'd left her to seek his fortune in the West. Martha's a bit of a tomboy, too, trained by her hunter father to be a crack shot with a rifle, and learning herbal medicine from her mother. She can fight
and heal the wounded as well as any man on that rough frontier. In action films today, you're starting to see women fighting the bad guys right
along with the heroes. I wanted to bring this fighting female aspect into an old-fashioned genre like the Western. We're all aware that women could be just as tough as the men out on that wild frontier. They had to be to survive. Let's call my story an updated Western.
CF: What is your favorite aspect of your craft as an author?
MS: My favorite stuff is the research, because you get to read so much interesting history. I read all the books about the Apaches! I mean all of them! Everyone knows about Geronimo and the Apaches' constant raiding, but I tried to convey some of their pantheistic philosophy, their culture and rituals. Raiding, killing, and robbing was the Apache lifestyle. They didn't herd sheep like the Navajos; raise cattle or farm crops like the river Indians, the Pimas, Papagoes, and Yumas; weren't potters like the Pueblo tribes; and didn't breed horses like the
Comanches of Texas. The Apaches were killers, pure and simple, the kings of their desert mountains, who preyed on and terrified everybody trying to intrude on their desert domain in the Southwest, including whites, Mexicans, and other Indians.
CF: You've compared the Apaches to modern day terrorists.
MS: The Apache renegades (there were nine distinct bands of them) were fighting to protect their territory and raiding way of life. At their bitter end in 1886, they staged almost a kamikaze, suicidal last raid up into the States. Naiche was out with Geronimo and some of their women. Naiche later stated in an interview that they knew they were going to be captured or killed, so they didn't care anymore if they went down in flames. They were celebrating their wild, free way of life for the last time, thumbing their noses at all the troops trying to catch them and be damned. I see a lot of obvious parallels between those Apaches and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda Muslim terrorists trying to attack us around the world. Our 26-year war against the Apaches was the longest in America's history, and to this day they are the roughest guerilla fighters the U.S. Army has ever come up against, with the single exception of the North Vietnamese.
CF: What other plans do you have for The Sergeant's Lady?
MS: Most screenwriters who try a novel have a bigger idea than they can contain in a script, or at least they want to flesh it out more fully first. Louis
L'Amour wrote Hondo as a short story first and expanded it into his first novel. So you could call
Hondo the very first novelization of a film, something that's done all the time today.
It's deservedly a Western classic, and I've followed L'Amour's same development
process -- short story into a film script into a novel. I doubt I'll follow in Louis's legendary bootsteps, but a film of
The Sergeant's Lady would be nice. (laughs)
CF: You write for all readers,
Miles, male and female. What other authors do you like?
MS: There's an exquisite novelist named Steven Becker, who wrote the mystery
A Covenant With Death, which also became a film; Robert Wilson, a newer thriller writer, who wrote the terrific
A Small Death In Lisbon, and naturally Elmore Leonard. These guys, like my late father, write great stories. Most good movies are plot-driven. Much contemporary fiction is instead, character-driven. Not a lot
happens, the characters internalize their thoughts and feelings, which doesn't interest me
as much as storytelling. Movies gotta move
and well-plotted novels keep you up late, turning the page. I'm of the film generation and
storytelling is in my bloodlines. Can't fight my genes.