"AN ART THAT TAKES TWO PEOPLE TO MAKE IT WORK": AN INTERVIEW WITH DEL HOWISON
Del Howison, an author known for short horror fiction, wrote his first novel, a western titled The Survival Of Margaret Thomas in 2018. The book follows a woman who journeys to see justice done to the man who gunned down her lawman husband, making friends with two women on societies fringes, and Bantam a diminutive man that her husband arrested in the past. The book sold out of it's hard back run, but Pandi Press has rereleased it in paperback and it is worth getting. Del was kind enough to talk about the book with us.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: How did the idea for The Survival Of Margaret Thomas come about?
DEL HOWISON: I grew up loving westerns. They were my Star Wars, an alternate universe or certainly an alternate life to the one I knew growing up in Michigan with months of shitty weather. Westerns were an escape. My father was a big fan of the western films, so when we’d go out to a movie it tended
to be a western or war film. It was a great time for westerns – Peckinpah, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Magnificent Seven, plus there were lots of older western films on TV. The 50’s through the 70’s were heaven for me.
S.M.: This is your first western. Did you draw from any influences when writing it?
D.H.: This is my first western novel but not my first western. The very first horror short story I had published was a western, The Lost Herd, which appeared in the anthology Strange Bedfellows – Part of the Hot Blood series of erotic horror books. I checked a lot of boxes with that one. The series was edited by Jeff Gelb and Michael Garrett. That was how I met Jeff Gelb whom I later talked into co-editing the Dark Delicacies series of horror anthologies with me. Mick Garris bought the story for his horror anthology television series “Fear Itself” rendering a few tweaks which essentially removed it from the western genre and making it really all horror. I wrote another couple of western horror stories that were published in other anthologies. For example, the western story Liminality was published in Kasey Lansdale’s e-book only anthology Fresh Blood, Old Bones. I don’t believe that is even available anymore. But Kasey is co-owner of Pandi Press who published the trade paperback edition of Margaret Thomas after I had the rights from Hardback returned to me by Five Star Publishing. Five Star is no longer in business being absorbed by Gale. Hope I didn’t help bring that about, though I doubt it. My original run of a thousand hardback copies is sold out. But The Survival of Margaret Thomas came about by something that nagged me. I was tired of only seeing western tales that were basically two white men shooting each other. Where were the female driven heroes? The old saying is if you can’t find what you’re looking for create it. So, I did. This story definitely has influence from the Charles Portis novel True Grit in that a single woman is trekking across the old west to see somebody brought to justice. But I think the similarity ends there as True Grit had a young girl protagonist lead while mine is a grown widow woman who eventually hooks up with two other ladies and a little person during her odyssey. Also, being a horror writer at heart, Margaret’s story becomes very dark as the journey ensues. People who follow me as a horror writer will not be disappointed. However, as dark as it is, it is not supernatural by any stretch of the imagination. It is more the Heart of Darkness that Joseph Conrad explored back in 1899.
S.M.: Did you discover or learn anything about the western through writing one?
D.H.: I did a lot of research and at times ended up down a lot of rabbit holes. Probably 95% of what I learned is not in the book but colors the narrative in ways I could never have imagined. I was in love with the research and had to stop myself from putting all this fascinating knowledge on the page. I really did not want to write the Moby Dick of western tales. They say, and it is mostly true, that there are only two types of westerns. Somebody goes on a quest, or a stranger comes to town. The two short stories I mentioned earlier where variations of a stranger comes to town. Margaret is the quest tale.
S.M.: Margaret has such an authentic voice. How did you approach her as a character?
D.H.: Thank you. I think would point to two things. The first one is obviously the research that I did for the book. But the second one is being true to the character. I love writing about women as I find them deeper and richer than male characters. A lot of what drives the character lays beneath the surface of the story for the reader to mine. First off, when the book opens, Margaret Thomas is in extreme emotional turmoil, riddled with guilt, because she has convinced herself that she was responsible for the death of her husband. She has turned to several things to assuage that guilt, like the bottle and isolating herself out on her ranch/farm away from other people. When the news comes that she has the opportunity to travel across the West and attend the trial of one of the people the law believes actually killed her husband, she accepts the invitation but with a lot of trepidation. She has a hard time getting past herself. Speaking of authentic voices, the audio book shines an entirely new light on the story, and I know several people who have both read the novel and then listened to the book. The reading by voice-over artist Carol Monda is extraordinary. She embodies Margaret Thomas for me as perfectly as you could get. She recorded it in a studio in New York while I sat out here in Los Angeles biting my nails. I needn’t have worried.
S.M. All the supporting characters stand out. Who was the most fun to write for?
D.H.: I would like to say Bantam because he was such a contrarian. But if I had to choose one character that made me smile every time I included them on the page I would have to say Slocum. You know, since you’ve read the book, but I give sketches of what characters look like, leaving it up to the reader to take the information of what the character does and says and what others say about them to allow the reader to fill in their own mental picture of what they are reading. I have people sending me pictures and saying, "This is what I imagine Slocum looks like, am I right?" There is no correct. It’s whatever works for you. Writing, to me, is an art that takes two people to make it work – the author and the reader. It’s a partnership. It works differently for everybody who reads the book.
S.M.: Do you have any other ideas for westerns percolating?
D.H.: I have been asked many times if I am going to write anymore Margaret Thomas books, maybe a prequel. I did fall for her thanks to my own inability to corral her in the direction I wanted to and just following her lead and to Carol Monda’s reading of the novel. My latest in progress novel takes place around 1900, starts in New York City and then travels. I seem to like that format. For those who want to
know, it is definitely a horror novel. It’s fun baking a novel but I never know how it will taste until I complete the book. I can’t wait.