Friday, October 12, 2012

To Hell or the Pecos: A Fascinating Interview with Author Patrick Dearen

Three men haunted by the past . . . A girl haunted by the present . . . And all four of them on a collision course for Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, a place synonymous with hell in Texas in 1886.

·         "To Hell or the Pecos is a masterful rendering of the vast, uninhabited lands of West Texas and the passage across them of pursuers and pursued. Texas is a vital, fully-realized character here, a pitiless landscape with no hope of rain or mercy. This story--an old one of outraged innocence and heroic revenge against all odds--is fresh, feels fresh, and keeps the reader moving forward, thirsty and keen as the characters themselves."--Mary Hood, author of How Far She Went and Familiar Heat

·         "Patrick Dearen knows the territory of To Hell or the Pecos. He knows the geography, topography, the history, the loneliness, the lawlessness, the heat, and the weather. Dearen also knows the temper of his characters, their morality or lack thereof, their ethos and egos; characters who must overcome fear, hunger, thirst, a big drought, a big die-off, the blazing sun, and the waterless miles between the Concho River and Horsehead Crossing. There is also an electrical storm, ball lightning, Saint Elmo's fire, and a black blizzard in this taut and suspenseful tale of rescue, revenge, retribution, and revelation."--Robert Flynn, author of In the House of  the Lord and the award-winning Echoes of Glory

·         "In the classic style of Alan Lemay's The Searchers or Elmore Leonard's Only Good Ones, To Hell or the Pecos is a powerful tale of an epic journey by characters leaden with dark pasts and inauspicious futures. Patrick Dearen writes eloquently and delivers a topnotch story worthy of high praise."--Mike Kearby, author of Texas Tales Illustrated and the award-winning A Hundred Miles to Water

In the author's words . . . 

Join me in welcoming author Patrick Dearen as we discuss his latest book, To Hell or the Pecos. I've watched the trailer, read the reviews, and I'm looking forward to reading the book written by someone who understands how to weave words and history together. Welcome Patrick!

What inspired you to write this book?

The late Elmer Kelton, considered by many the best western writer ever, was a fellow West Texas native and a personal friend.  Almost single-handedly, he lifted West Texas out of a literary wasteland. Driving home from his funeral in August 2009, I pondered how I could best honor this special man.  I decided to write a novel about the region he and I so loved, and to dedicate it to him.  The day after my return, I began writing.
Did you plan to be a writer or did it just happen?

When I was 14, a teacher suggested that I consider writing as a career.  Little did he know that he had created a monster.  I went home that very afternoon and began my first novel.  Ever since that moment, writing has been an integral part of my life.  I can trace almost every important personal relationship (including my marriage) to that early decision.

What is your favorite non-writing pastime?

I’ve backpacked wilderness areas more than a hundred times over the last 37 years.  It’s a return to the elemental, and it helps me connect with the mind-set of those who lived in earlier times—an invaluable understanding as I write about characters immersed in 19th century Texas.

What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? Have you been able to overcome it?

I think the greatest challenge a writer always faces is not the quest for a publisher or sales, but rather himself.  Does he have the strength of will to write day after day, year after year?  Forty years ago in college, I came across a quote that I keep framed above my computer:  “The real trick is to keep on writing when no one cares if you do or not, to keep on writing in the face of loneliness and fear.”  The willingness to persevere is what writing is all about.

If you had to sum it up To Hell or the Pecos  in 30 or less words, what would you say?

Three men haunted by the past . . . A girl haunted by the present . . . And all four on a collision course for Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, a Texas river synonymous with hell in 1886.

What inspired the idea behind your book?

I’ve spent 30 years researching the Pecos River and early cowboy life.  Among other things, I interviewed 76 men who cowboyed prior to 1932.  They represented the last generation of cowhands who plied their trade exclusively on horseback.  Armed with that general knowledge, I focused in on three actual incidents in the Pecos River country of 19th century Texas—an 1867 siege by Indians at Horsehead Crossing, the early 1880s abduction of a teenage girl and her rescue at Horsehead, and an 1890 horseback chase across the same stretch of Butterfield Trail that I write about in To Hell or the Pecos.

What has been your greatest challenge in writing To Hell or the Pecos?

   Blazing heat, frigid snows, and aching feet—really.  Swamped by a massive research project, I pondered how I could possibly steal time to write a novel.  There was only one solution: on my daily walks.
   On that August day in 2009, I struck out on my four-mile walk armed with a pen and a blank sheet of paper.  Over the next 289 days, I hiked 1,200 miles while immersed in the Pecos River country of 1886.
    I quickly learned that I think better while walking. Maybe not faster, but better. I averaged about 35 WPM--words per mile. I wrote during the heat of a Texas summer and during frigid snows when the chill factor was 26 below zero. Try writing about characters facing heat stroke when it's so cold the ink in your pen freezes!
   The short days of winter were my enemy, but I donned my headlamp and forged on. When I was out of town, I continued to write--in airports, in a speeding car, even deep in the wilderness of the Chihuahuan Desert. I never missed a day.

     It's said that the journey is the most important thing. The journey "To Hell or the Pecos" was certainly one that my feet will never forget.

Will you share with us a short preview of To Hell or the Pecos?
     Sixty-year-old Tom Rowden is dying.  For twenty years, he’s been haunted by the memory of killing his wife at Horsehead Crossing to spare her from Comanches.  Now he’s going back to Horsehead to make final atonement at her grave and join her.  His journey is interrupted when Mexican bandits burn down a ranch house and abduct a young woman, Liz Anne.
     Tom joins ranch hand Jess Graham and three other men in an attempt to ride down the Mexicans and rescue Liz Anne, whom Jess loves. But the haunting memories and a 79-mile stretch of desert prove just as threatening as the bandidos they must overtake on the Pecos.

What has been your greatest pleasure in writing this book?

My showers after each day’s hiking-writing session!  Seriously, though, it’s gratifying to hold the finished product in my hands and consider all the work—and miles—that went into it.

Do you have a favorite author? Who and why?

I’m a writer today because of my early, and lifelong, admiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I discovered his Tarzan novels at age ten, and quickly graduated to his John Carter of Mars novels.  When my teacher suggested writing as a career, it seemed the logical thing to do, considering my enthusiasm for Burroughs.  I’m still awed by his ability to immerse me in worlds of his own-creating.  For those who don’t know, Burroughs also penned westerns, two of which I consider among the best in the genre (The War Chief and Apache Devil).

How do you feel about book trailers? I found yours very interesting!

Trailers are a superb promotional tool for an author.  The trailer for To Hell or the Pecos is posted on both YouTube ( and my website (  Not only does the trailer include photos of the historic sites I write about, but also a stand-up of me at Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos, scene of the novel’s climax.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

In a Q&A after a Larry McMurtry speech 40 years ago, I asked him what advice he would give an unpublished novelist.  His answer: “Write regularly.  You may have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t have the dedication and energy and perseverance to sit down and write, you’ll never get anywhere.”  It’s no accident that I titled my Depression-era hobo novel Perseverance.

What challenges did you face in getting your first book published?

I wrote for 13 ½ years before I sold my first novel, but I think the quest for publication of my first nonfiction book is even more interesting.  After enduring 75 rejections, I faced a dilemma.  I had been turned down by every appropriate publisher, so should I give up or persevere?  I decided to persevere.  I changed the title—that’s all, just the title—and started through the same publishers a second time.  I accumulated another 25 rejections until a publisher jumped at it . . . after exactly 100 rejections.  I guess I’m as stubborn as my wife says I am.

You’re spending one year living on a desert island – which three authors do you want with you?

As writers, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett, and James Oliver Curwood.  As persons, Elmer Kelton and Paul Patterson, another great man who was a mentor to both of us.
Did the plot of the book turn out the way you planned or did something change during the process of writing it?

I knew the ending of To Hell or the Pecos (or at least two possibilities) before I wrote the first word.  But it’s not always that way when I write a novel.  I usually start with a premise and a setting, then I create characters and play the what-if game:  If such and such happened to this character and that character, how would they react?  Of course, a writer needs to keep in mind the three kinds of conflict--man against nature, man against man, and man against self—and he also must resolve everything in the end.

If you could get anyone to read your book, who would you choose and why?

My dream is to be on a trail and meet someone who’s hiking along and reading the very novel I wrote while I was hiking along.  Maybe I’ll start a fad!

Favorite place?

Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico.

Best Christmas present?

Family and friends.

Favorite smell?

Rain . . . Something we see too little of in West Texas.

Favorite series?

“The Andy Griffith Show,” “The High Chaparral,” and “24.”

Favorite movie?

“Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

Favorite dish?

Beans and cornbread.

Favorite color?


Your best trait?


Your worst trait?


Is your book in Print, eBook or both?

Print edition as of October 5. The ebook will follow in a matter of weeks.

The Author

The author of nineteen books, Patrick Dearen was born in 1951 and grew up in the small West Texas town of Sterling City. He earned a bachelor of journalism from The University of Texas at Austin in 1974 and received nine national and state awards as a reporter for two West Texas daily newspapers.

          An authority on the Pecos and Devils rivers of Texas, Dearen also has gained recognition for his knowledge of old-time cowboy life. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he preserved the firsthand accounts of 76 men who cowboyed before 1932. These interviews, along with decades of archival study, have enriched Dearen’s ten novels and led to nine nonfiction books.
          Dearen has been honored by Western Writers of America, West Texas Historical Association, and Permian Historical Association. A backpacking enthusiast and ragtime pianist, he makes his home in Midland, Texas with his wife Mary (managing editor of the Midland Reporter-Telegram) and their son Wesley.


An Excerpt


How many times he had silently voiced her name. He had never
spoken it aloud since that black hour, but how many, many times he
had called it in his thoughts and dreams, through fitful nights and
dawns such as this, breaking empty and alone and as gray as the ashes
of his campfire.

Sitting cross-legged before the mesquite flames that lapped a
smutty pot, he took the 1860 Colt Army revolver by the walnut stock
and watched the smoke curl over the tarnished brass trigger guard and
cylinder caked with rust. He ran his fingers down the eight-inch barrel, feeling the brief but distinct bulge, and re-lived the blood and foul gun smoke and ringing ears of that distant night when he had rammed in too great a charge in his haste to reload. In those desperate moments, he had never known for sure which round had ballooned that barrel, but now his mouth went dry and the .44 trembled in his hand at the idea that it had been the last shot—the round for which he had placed the muzzle gently beside her ear, deliberately slipped forefinger over trigger, thumbed back the hammer to an ominous

Tom Rowden swallowed hard, the years of regret, and worse, exploding inside him like that final round must have done between those crumbling walls. Funny how his mind spared him those last few details—his finger squeezing the trigger, the hammer snapping for-ward against the percussion cap, the quick—and merciful, he had
believed—end to it all. But the memory of her lifeless body was vivid
enough, lowered into a shallow grave of alkali dust.

He lifted the .44 higher, its three and a half pounds strangely
heavy before the glowing coals, and suspended it, a blur before his
cheek. He curled his forefinger through the trigger guard and bent a
sweaty thumb across the hammer. Closing his eyes, he could smell the
axle grease sealing the cylinder chambers and feel the barrel nudge his


He was always closer to her like this than any other way, the
revolver a strange bond across time and distance. Yet, it was never
close enough, not even when he slipped the muzzle under his hat
brim, as he did now, and met the upright barrel with his hanging head.
Sarah, I’m sorry.

On that long-ago night, the barrel had grown too hot to touch,
but in a few days the muzzle would be cool and tender against his
temple, just as soon as he reached Horsehead Crossing and those
blood-stained adobe walls where Sarah had waited for him all these
twenty years.

And finally, he would have peace.


  1. Thank you for joining us today Patrick! I have to say that I'm looking forward to reading this book and will be moving it up on my list for sooner than later. It sounds like a fantastic read.

  2. Thanks for the attention, MK. It's a pleasure sharing a few of my ups and downs as a writer with your readers.