I recently had the privilege of talking with bestselling author James Donovan about his excellent book, The Blood of Heroes. After reading The Blood of Heroes last month, I really wanted to sit down and discuss it with the author himself, and Mr. Donovan was gracious enough to agree. We discussed his research process, the writing process for the book, and the importance of separating fact and legend.
MJM: I’m wondering what originally drew you to the Alamo? Did you have an interest in it before writing The Blood of Heroes or were you prompted to write about its history in some other way?
Donovan: My previous book was A Terrible Glory, about the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Little, Brown, 2008). That sold well, so my editor wanted to know if I had any ideas about a follow-up along the same lines. I live in Dallas, and I said, “Well, there’s this well-known battle that happened here in Texas a few decades before that one . . .” He loved the idea, and thought it a perfect follow-up.
MJM: I can tell by reading through your Notes and Bibliography sections that a great deal of time, work, and effort went into the research behind the book. How long did the research process take? What did your research process look like? (How did you determine where to start? How did you go about gathering and organizing the information needed?)
Donovan: A Terrible Glory had required a lot of travel to do it right—to many collections at various universities and archives around the country, as well as a few trips to the National Archives. Since the Alamo story did not involve federal archives—Texas wasn’t a part of the U.S. at the time—I thought the research would be more easily handled. In a way it was, since it didn’t involve much air travel. But for about 18 months, I was on the road to San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and other Texas places about every other weekend. A lot of driving . . .and of course that involved delving into lots of collections and archives, and reading old manuscripts, letters, newspapers, etc. That part of it is actually the most enjoyable for me—it’s the closest thing to time travel. But before I do that, I read several broad, comprehensive histories, to get a good feel of the subject and the era, and then I start living in the bibliographies of those books and making lists of their sources. The point is to go back further and further until you’re reading every primary source (written by participants or observers) available. That’s how you get the closest to the truth of what happened. It’s also the only way you’ll find anything new. Most writers don’t dig too deep, but there’s almost always unused material if you dig deep enough. All of that, the background reading and the archival research, took about three years.
MJM: That’s a fascinating process. Wow, three years! I think you have to be dedicated to and passionate about the project to undertake such a task. I also love the researching part of a project. It’s the most enjoyable part for me.
Donovan: I’ve got a full-time job and I also had a young daughter to raise while writing that book, so I did most of my work—outside of the travel—at night and on the weekends.
MJM: I think that’s the picture of dedication right there.
The book’s layout is perfect. The chapters flow and weave into one another beautifully. Each of the key players in the siege of the Alamo receive at least a chapter to themselves. I wondered how you decided on the layout of the book. The Blood of Heroes covers a great deal of ground, both the history surrounding the Alamo and the lives of the people involved in the fight for Texas’ Independence. With such a big undertaking as this one, how did you decide on where to start?
Donovan: Thanks for the compliments. I never jump into the actual event immediately—I think it makes more sense, and the reader will have a much better understanding, if you show how it got to that point, and put it all in context. So with the Alamo, you’ve got to go back to the earliest days of Texas, and discuss its relationship with Mexico, and even Spain. Of course, doing that without sounding like a history textbook is the hard part, because no one reads history textbooks for enjoyment. Whenever possible, I try to focus on the human side of whatever aspect I’m tackling at the time, because if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that people like to read about people. I take it a chapter at a time, and I spend a lot of time deciding how to open a chapter, because I see that as the key to letting a reader into the story in that section. If at all possible, I like to start a chapter talking about a person. That draws the reader in. Then, when you’ve got them interested, you can segue to something else. But of course you can’t make up a single thing, or pretend to know what’s going on inside a character’s head unless that’s known through an account or interview. It’s not easy—probably the hardest part of the process.
MJM: That approach makes sense and as a reader, I thought it worked very well. It’s true that you understand more if you’ve spent a good part of the book reading about all of the events leading up to the siege. Basing it around people rather than the events themselves helps the reader get more invested in the book. You get a feel for these people and develop a better understanding of their mindset.
Donovan: You hope so, anyway.
MJM: You handled the scene of the final battle for the Alamo beautifully. I would imagine that writing that particular scene was a rather daunting task. There’s not a whole lot of information available on the details of that battle. Not to mention the conflicting information and theories surrounding that final battle, Crockett and Bowie’s deaths in particular come to mind. What was your mindset going into writing that particular scene? What were some of your concerns, if any, in handling that scene?
Donovan: You’re a sharp reader. Yes, it was difficult, because we don’t know so many details of what exactly happened to specific people. Any book or story is more satisfying when the main characters are involved in the climax. When that information isn’t known, the writer has to work harder to involve, and to emotionally invest, the reader. But one thing I don’t do—and this is a mistake that too many writers of history make—is stop in the middle of a scene and discuss various theories or conflicting accounts. I call it the Battle of the Footnotes, and if you’re trying to tell the story dramatically, it brings the proceedings to a screeching halt. I’m not saying there aren’t good books that do that, but for a popular history, it’s dangerous. You risk losing your reader. I prefer to write the story based on my conclusions as to the most likely scenario after much deliberation, and discuss that in the endnotes (few publishers use actual footnotes anymore). So in the climactic battle scene involving the predawn assault, I tried to write it as dramatically as possible and as accurately as possible. It was frustrating not to be able to write more about the three main characters, and other prominent ones, because I know the reader also wants to know what happened to them.
MJM: I agree. You handled it beautifully. When reading your depiction of the final battle, I couldn’t help but feel emotionally invested in these people. I knew what the outcome was going to be already, obviously, but I still found myself rooting for them and feeling a sense of pride at their show of bravery and courage. When you recounted De la Peña’s account (on page 286) about admiring “one robust blonde norteamericano as he fired, ran back a few steps while loading, turned, and fired again, until he finally fell,” I could almost feel my heart swell with pride for who we assume was David Crockett in his final moments.
MJM: I appreciated the fact that you went with the account/belief that David Crockett died in battle as opposed to surrendering and being executed afterward. You explain your reasoning behind using this account on page 446 in the Notes section of the book, ultimately stating that there is very little evidence to support the “execution scenario”, due to all accounts pointing to that theory having major credibility issues. Your explanation of Crockett’s death, which spans 4 pages front and back, demonstrates the fact that you thoroughly researched the subject and gave it an enormous amount of thought, before going with the “died in battle” account. Have you received backlash for your stance?
Donovan: Yes, that’s the longest endnote in my book. As you point out, I think it’s unlikely that Crockett was one of the prisoners taken alive and executed. There’s certainly not enough evidence to write it as history. There’s been some backlash, but not much. The most interesting was probably the review in an academic periodical, the Southwest Historical Quarterly, by James Crisp, author of Sleuthing the Alamo, whose Alamo celebrity is largely based on espousing the Crockett execution theory. He spent most of the review criticizing my rejection of that theory and the “eyewitness” accounts supporting it, and distorted or misread one of my points. But that comes with the territory, I suppose.
MJM: I was put off by Crips’ Sleuthing the Alamo. It seemed to me that he was more concerned with pushing and proving his own agenda and bias toward racial equality than digging deep and getting down to the bare bones of the historical record. I also read his review of The Blood of Heroes and to put it simply, it seems to contain an undertone of sour grapes. On the surface, readers may see a man complimenting you on certain aspects of the book, but if you dig deeper, it really seems like he’s whining over the fact that you didn’t side with him (and Kilgore for that matter) on the circumstances of Crockett’s death. Personally, in my humble opinion, I think The Blood of Heroes is far superior in its research, content, and writing style than Sleuthing the Alamo.
Donovan: There’s also the bias that academic historians have against those without doctorates, which is unwarranted. Historians have performed tremendous research in every area of history, and written countless excellent books, but an academic often view them as trespassers in their area of expertise. Crisp, by the way, wrote much of an expanded edition of Dan Kilgore’s book How Did Davy Die?, which of course supports the Crockett execution theory.
MJM: Why do you think people are so fascinated with David Crockett and his death, as opposed to the other key players in the Alamo. I mean, if you take a look at the facts and information on hand, Crockett was actually a small player in the events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and the siege itself, as compared to say Travis or Bowie or Seguín. So why then are we so enamored with Crockett and his death?
Donovan: Crockett was a fascinating character, and he was also one of our first folk heroes. Larger-than-life legends like him who are involved in last stands have to be the last man standing—think about cultural representations of Roland, and Custer, and many others. When there’s a mystery about such a death, myth rushes in to fill the void.
MJM: A quote by legendary director John Ford comes to mind, it was usually his motto when tackling a project where history and legend intersected: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Donovan: Right. I think it’s an innate human tendency, something to do with refusing to accept an ordinary death for a well-known personage.
MJM: What does the process of separating fact and legend look like and mean for you in regards to writing The Blood of Heroes?
Donovan: It’s a large and important part of the process. The farther back you go in history, the less accurate things are, obviously, and the more time you spend weighing all the evidence in primary sources to decide what exactly happened. You’ve always got to keep in mind the three basic tenets of good popular history writing, as laid down by the great historian Samuel Eliot Morison: objectivity, vigor, and accuracy. I’d add a fourth: exhaustive research. You’ve got to constantly remind yourself to be objective, because even the best historians can slip into subjectivity without realizing it—a classic example is the biographer who falls in love with her subject. Another example is the historian who enters into research on a subject with preconceived notions or conclusions, and uses sources selectively—citing those that support his theory and ignoring those that don’t.
MJM: When writing the book, were you at all concerned about the reception it would receive?
Donovan: I never gave it a thought. You can’t, otherwise you’re allowing that to influence what you write. Besides, it’ll just drive you crazy, because you can’t please everyone.
BC: Are you currently working on another project/book?
Donovan: I recently finished a book about the Space Race and Apollo 11 entitled Shoot for the Moon. It’ll be published sometime next year. I haven’t even thought of another project—I’m just catching up on reading for enjoyment, which I can’t do much of while I’m working on a book.
BC: Just one more question before I let you off the hook. I’ve spoken to quite a few authors and their stories about how they first got into writing are all quite different. Some of them have loved to write from an early age, others developed the passion later on. According to your bio on your website, you have been a literary agent since 1993. So you were within the “industry” already. I’m wondering, how did you come to be an author? Have you always enjoyed writing?
Donovan: I’m sure my answer is similar to those of most other writers. I’ve loved the written word since my mother read her favorite poems—many of them story poems like “Casabianca” and “The Highwayman” and “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” and others—to me and my siblings. I read voraciously after my mother bought me a copy of Tarzan of the Apes when I was nine. I wrote various things as I grew older, and in high school I wrote for and edited the school newspaper. But after that I didn’t think about writing until I became a book editor, and then a literary agent. I wrote a couple of small books—one about Dallas, where I live, and one about the Dallas Cowboys—and I was looking for something bigger. One of my authors—he had written several good history books—wanted to do a coffee table book on Custer and the Little Bighorn, but he was busy finishing something else, so he asked me if I wanted to do it with him. I said yes, and got started researching, and then writing. He never found the time to work on the book, so I finished it and sold it. That led to my first book with Little, Brown, A Terrible Glory. So there you are: from Tarzan to Custer and Crockett and now to Neil Armstrong. Makes perfect sense, right?
BC: That’s interesting. Each author has their own unique story of how they came to be in their profession. I’ve spoken to several authors who said that they were never interested in writing or reading when they were younger. It wasn’t until they got older that they developed the passion. One even said that the only reason they became a writer was to help pay bills, nothing more.
It does make perfect sense in a poetic sort of way. All four “characters” share the same quality. It’s the one that pushes them to press forward into the “wild”, unseen, untamed world. I can see the connection.
Donovan: A few years ago when I told a New York book editor about the new book I was working on--Shoot for the Moon—he said, “Another book on the same theme.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Men on the frontier.” He was right.
Liz Austin. Bibliophile. Writer. Book hoarder. I would rather be reading....