An Interview with Gerald Kolpan

A Conversation with Gerald Kolpan
Author of ETTA

Where did the idea for Etta originate?
I saw a TV special on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid years ago. The narrator said that Etta Place was a complete mystery. No one knew where she came from; no one knew what became of her. So I started researching his claim and found out he was right. There were plenty of theories: she was a schoolteacher, a hooker, the niece of English royalty. The most credible one is probably that she was Sundance's cousin! But no one knew anything for sure. I was intrigued.

There must have been extensive research involved. How did you go about it?
The Free Library of Philadelphia was a great resource as was the good old internet. Another terrific source for me was a book I've had since the 1970s: A Pictorial History of the Wild West by James Horan and Paul Sann. That really got me started.

Just how much of this book is true?
It loosely follows the time line of the lives of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and historically I tried very hard to make sure that Etta was where I say she was in the book. But most of it, especially as it pertains to her, is pure fiction. There's no evidence whatsoever that Etta was from Philadelphia, knew Eleanor Roosevelt, or ever even met Buffalo Bill, let alone worked for him. The great romance is all conjecture because nobody even knows if Sundance was Etta's boyfriend. Harry Longbaugh, a socialist? That's all me. Sometimes I even made things up when I knew the real story. Like the showdown between Sundance and Kid Curry? Never happened, but the book needed it.

Was the lack of information about Etta Place a challenge or did it allow for more creativity?
Oh no, it was great. The fewer the facts, the bigger room I had to play in. For instance, there was only one clear photograph of Etta - the double portrait of her and the Sundance Kid. The more I read about her, the more contradictions I found, so in the end I just let my imagination run wild.

This is your first novel - why write this one?
All my life I've tried to do creative things I've never done before. My degree is in art. I drew pictures and did graphic design for over ten years. I gave that up to start a rock band in the late '70s. I'm a reporter now, but I've never been to journalism school and I've never taken a writing class. I don't know. I just say to myself, "that looks like fun" and try to figure it out. Plus, if one day I picked up The New York Times Book Review and saw somebody else had actually written a novel about Etta, I'd probably wish I had one of those nice Colt revolvers for my own head.

A degree in art, a career in graphic design, and a rock band under your belt - you're a renaissance man, and perhaps a risktaker. Do you think this helped you to create the varied personalities of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang?
I don't think so. I've never skydived and so far I've managed to avoid bungee jumping. I once went to an amusement park to cover the opening of a new roller coaster and The New York Times called me a chicken in print because I was the only reporter who refused to ride it. No, I just took the information on the various outlaws and amplified it, and where there was no information I added people who would move the story along. That's how Peg Leg Elliott winds up working in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show. I mean, Kid Curry was bad, but he wasn't this bad.

Of all the characters in this novel, who did you enjoy writing the most?
I loved them all, but I especially liked creating Etta herself. The challenge was, for me anyway, writing a credible woman of a hundred years ago. I was lucky in that my wife and my wonderful editors, all women, helped remove false notes. I also liked writing Buffalo Bill because he gave me a chance to be funny.

There are historical icons in Etta, and you've gone into great detail about some. Are you worried about sullying Eleanor Roosevelt's memory with this book?
No. Growing up in a good New York Democratic house, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt were the closest people we had to gods. As a kid, I really liked her and when I got older and read about her, I admired her even more. She's probably the greatest American woman of the last century. So do I think my novel is going to undo that legacy? Not at all. Besides, I'm hardly the first writer to bring up Eleanor's relationships with other women. Historians have written about it and her reputation hasn't suffered one bit, nor should it.

Do you think audiences who aren't familiar with Westerns or the movie will be able to connect with Etta?
Sure. First of all, as brilliant as the movie is, Etta bears almost no similarity to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's a completely different story. And Etta isn't really a Western. Yes, there are horses and six-guns and Indians in it, but it could just as easily take place in the days of the knights or the Vikings. And anyway, a good part of the book takes place in non-western settings like the cities of Philadelphia and New York and the pampas of Argentina.

You're right, this novel weaves together so many different elements, yet tells a beautiful and riveting tale and illuminates a great moment in history. What elements of the story do you hope people find most interesting?
There's a lot of "stuff" in this book. Like how disgusting railroad food was at the time. Like what an oasis a Turkish bath could be in a much filthier era. I set out to write a book that was surprising - that would surprise me. And if it surprises me, I hope it will surprise the people who read it.

As a features reporter, did telling this story come naturally to you?
Writing fiction is really different from writing a minute and forty-five seconds of TV every day. Much, much harder. I wrote Etta five times before I ever showed it to an agent.

What is your writing process like?
I don't have a daily routine, like I write every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I have a full-time job and a family, so it's hard to find time for any extracurricular activities. Etta was written at night and on weekends and on vacation in a rented house at the Jersey shore. I took my time. I also gave the book to friends to read as things went along and that was a huge help. For instance, everyone who read the second draft said the book was just too dirty. I even gave it to one person to read who I knew would hate it. That person gave me some of the most valuable feedback.

On the creative side, I put together an outline of the book based on what was known historically plus what I was adding. But I'm a big believer in staying flexible and open-minded. If the outline says one thing and the character says another, listen to the character. Sometimes I think the story is already out there and if you don't force things and get in the way, it will emerge. It's like how Stevie Ray Vaughan and Jimi Hendrix played guitar: to me it always seemed like there was this big cosmic radio out in space somewhere and they were conduits for the sound.

Also, I always listen to my editors. I never tell them "no" until I've given their suggestions a try. And believe me, they know what they're doing, so they're right the majority of the time.

What do you like to read?
As far as my favorite reading material, give me a thousand-page biography of Roosevelt's third vice president and I'm ready for the beach.

And what books are on your nightstand right now?
Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott and Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

People say "write what you know." Do you agree?
Not at all. If everybody wrote what they knew, there would be no Zorro or Emma or Sherlock Holmes or Batman. If I had written what I know, this book would have been about a reporter in Philadelphia instead of a beautiful, sexy train robber a hundred years ago. I'm already living my life. Why would I want to write about it, too?

What's next for you?
Well, tomorrow, I'm going back to work. Meanwhile, I've started researching my next book. I don't like to talk about subject matter until a book is further along. This one will also have cowboys and Indians in it, but in a lot of ways it will be different from Etta. For one thing, she wasn't Jewish.