Grit, Grief, and Guts

James Robert Daniels and Writing the Heroic Anti-Heroine

· Author Interview,James Robert Daniels,Jane Fury,The Comanche Kid,Western Fiction

There are very few novels that grab hold of me and don't let go. Books I think of for months and years afterward. That I reread again and again. The Book Thief. Code Name Verity. Life and Fate. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. This past year, The Comanche Kid, by James Robert Daniels, joined the list.

It's a western in its best form - a young girl witnesses her family killed in front of her by a band of Comanches, her younger sister kidnapped. She dons her brother's clothes, picks up the guns, and seeks out her sister - and vengeance. Along the way, she joins a cattle drive, finding safety among the cowboys, and always always searching for the Comanches that took her sister. We are dropped into the brutally beautiful west. The raging winds of the plains. The buffalo slaughtered for their hides. The Buffalo soldiers guarding a fort in the middle of nowhere.

Throughout, we watch Jane's journey through grief and vengeance, one driving the other. We watch, too, a fragile love unfold. I can't give away the story; I can say that the stark truths in it won't ever leave me, nor will Jane herself - willful and impetuous, hot tempered and scared and so deeply human.

You don't have to love westerns to love this book; it goes beyond the genre and is indelibly a book about the nature of revenge and the toll it takes.

When I was looking for endorsements for The Good Time Girls, I immediately thought of contacting James Robert Daniels. He was generous enough to read the book and provide a wonderful blurb. He's generous as a whole; when I told him I was researching cattle rustling, and knew nothing about it, he wrote and said, "Let's talk. I know a lot." And we did. I call him a friend. I'll read anything he writes.

Lucky for me, his new book, Jane Fury, just released. I'm in love with it. But I'll let Jim tell you more about it, as I was lucky enough to grab an interview with him.

Tell us about your book.

Jane Fury takes place fifteen years after The Comanche Kid. Jane has a fifteen-year-old daughter, and Jane has become a schoolteacher. The book begins as Jane comes across a fist fight in the streets of Corpus Christi. She recognizes one of the participants as a cowhand from the trail drive to Dodge City years ago, a hand she didn’t get along with, and one who thought even less of her. I don’t want to give too much of it away, but suffice it to say events domino: a jailbreak, a severe wounding, a massive theft, and all while Jane is dealing with both a major loss in her life and a recalcitrant daughter who blames Jane for that loss. And that’s only the beginning. Jane sets out on a trek that includes a confrontation with a gang of thieves (a gang whose vengeance is going to return to haunt her), some time in jail for assault, a harrowing journey with the Texas Rangers, and a raging gunbattle in Mexico. To make things worse, Jane’s daughter, who has been kept in the dark about Jane’s past, proves to be even more headstrong than Jane, so Jane gets a taste of her own medicine. I’ve intentionally left out some other incidents and subplots that I hope are dramatic, moving, and God-willing, even humorous.

I’m pleased to admit Jane Fury has received great responses on Amazon and the audio book has just been recorded by Hollywood actress Michaela McManus and is currently in post-production. It should be out in late May at Side note: Michaela just happens to be my daughter-in-law. When she learned the narrator for The Comanche Kid was unavailable for Jane Fury, she took the initiative and auditioned for the job as narrator, all on her own. They loved her. I had no hand in hiring her!

Are there themes you like to explore in your books?

The two novels I have written revolve around loss and grief. We lost our grandson, Finn, at the age of twenty-one months due to chronic health issues. His illness and subsequent death were devastating to all of us, obviously even more so for our son, Luke. Luke describes the awful experience of a father losing his son with compelling honesty, openness, vulnerability, and yes, even humor, in his brilliant audio book, Unspoken (available on Audible).

Experiencing Finn’s loss, and in awe of my son’s painful journey, I kept asking myself, how do you go on when you have lost everything? With love and wisdom Luke answers that question profoundly in his audio book, far better than I could ever answer it, but both The Comanche Kid and Jane Fury were my way of addressing what would appear to be insurmountable loss. Death and loss and grief fascinate me, as do rage and violence and forgiveness and redemption.

I am also interested in exploring spiritual themes. Is there or isn’t there a God? And if so, what is the nature of our relationship with him or her? And yes, I like a love story. If there isn’t a love story I tend to think, what’s the point? Besides, I once had an English teacher say, “Every love story is a metaphor for man’s relationship with God,” so what better way to explore that?

I am also interested in dealing with themes of social justice, but those themes need to be organic to the story, otherwise they just become heavy-handed proselytizing.

What’s the most challenging thing about the writing life?

Finding the time to write amidst all the daily life stuff. I keep asking myself, don’t Stephen King and John Grisham have to mow the lawn and go to the grocery store or wash the car or go to the post office? How do they write so many books? (A friend of mine told me kindly, “No, Jim, they don’t mow their own lawn.”). So the struggle is: how to carve out forty-five minutes here or two or three hours there, and I am blessed with a wife who says, “Go write.”

Another of the big challenges is research. I can never do enough. There are a myriad things I need to know, and things I should have known, and things I didn’t even know I needed to know. Every time I read I find myself telling myself, “I wish I’d known that sooner.” I look back, and even though I’ve always been a reader, I keep realizing I haven’t read enough. I once heard that when Thomas Wolfe walked into the Harvard Library and saw all the books, he burst into tears because he realized he could never read them all. I have great regret over what I haven’t read. Also, understanding how to do research over the internet has been a steep learning curve. And I wish it was a little easier to facilitate all the traveling I would like to do in order to research terrain or battlefields or architecture or museums, etc.

Most importantly, finding a publisher was a massive challenge. The Comanche Kid went out to some forty or sixty publishers, I lost count, and just as many agents, if I remember right, and it was rejected by everyone. I found Lee Goldberg, the publisher of Cutting Edge and Brash Books, through a total fluke, a set of unbelievable circumstances too complicated to explain here. Lee believed in the potential of both The Comanche Kid and Jane Fury, and his support and guidance and patience have been incredible. I am deeply grateful to him.

What's your favorite genre to read?

When I was younger I read plays avidly. Since then I have generally gravitated towards history and biography and autobiography. Even though I have now written two Westerns, I have read very few Westerns. I’m embarrassed to admit that last year I did read a Louis L'Amour novel for the first time, and I thought, “Wow, this is really well written! Who knew?” Duh. I am a big fan of Paulette Jiles (I loved Enemy Women), and I love detective stories. My all-time favorite author is Jack Kerouac. My God but he could write.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished your knock-out book, Kim, The Good Time Girls and absolutely loved it, as well as Chris Emmett’s biography Shanghai Pierce, A Fair Likeness. Pierce was a famous Texas rancher, an out-sized, flamboyant character if there ever was one. As a change of pace, I am currently reading Malachy McCourt’s History of Ireland.


What's the next project and when can we expect it?

I am hoping to write a third Comanche Kid novel and I’m still reading and researching that era and area of Texas. I have two different directions I am considering, so we will see what the future holds. I am also considering doing a novelization of my play So Far From God, which takes place during the U.S-Mexican War (1846-1848) and follows two brothers as they travel from Mexico to their home in Tennessee. It’s quite a picaresque journey and involves steamboats and a raft ride and slave traders and gun fights, and a female ghost that only one of the brothers can see and talk to, which causes a lot of confusion when he does it in front of other people.


JAMES ROBERT DANIELS is the author of The Comanche Kid and Jane Fury as well as four professionally produced one person plays, Sam Houston: Standing In His Own Blood; Edwin Booth: The Falconer’s Voice; Custer Rides and Wyatt Earp: Last Man Standing. Jim’s path to writing began in the theatre. He has been a professional actor and director for over forty years, having acted at such theatres as Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Cleveland Play House, Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Repertory Theatre), the Houston Shakespeare Festival, and the Asolo Theatre of Florida (now Asolo Repertory Theatre).

His production of Othello performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and his play about the U.S.-Mexican War, So Far From God, was last presented at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. Jim was director of performance for the Western Michigan University Department of Theatre for twenty-five years and retired as professor emeritus, then taught for five years as a senior lecturer in Acting at the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance. Jim received his MFA in Acting from the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota, Florida. He served in the infantry in Vietnam with the Eighty-Second Airborne and in the artillery with the First Infantry Division. Jim and his wife, Patricia, live in Austin, Texas. 

K.T. Blakemore grew up in the United States West and never left. THE GOOD TIME GIRLS is the first in the Wild-Willed Women of the West Series, featuring women who take no prisoners and succeed through sheer grit, determination, and a parcel of luck.

Her award-winning historical suspense and young adult historical fiction, written under the pen name Kim Taylor Blakemore, has been awarded a Silver Falchion Award, Tucson Festival of Book Literary Award, and a WILLA Award for Best YA Fiction.

In addition to writing, she runs the Novelitics ranch, which provides developmental editing and workshops to novelists. She teaches editing and craft workshops to writing groups around the United States and Canada.

She has hung her hat in California, Colorado, and currently the Pacific Northwest. The rain does not deter her research whether it be train timetables from 1905 or the best way to catch a loose horse. 

Subscribe to her newsletter for an exclusive excerpt of THE GOOD TIME GIRLS *and* a free gift of "How to Survive Cactus", a Good Time Girls short. 

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