Tom Clavin’s Wild West Triology Ends in ‘Tombstone’

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The cover of "Tombstone," Tom Clavin's latest book.

Tom Clavin’s most recent book, “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday and the Vendetta Ride from Hell,” was published by St. Martin’s Press on April 21. One impact of the coronavirus on all authors has been the inability to go out on tour to meet readers, book sellers, and others who make the release of a new book so enjoyable. Fortunately, Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor has devised a way for Clavin to talk about his book virtually, via Zoom, and he will do exactly that on Saturday, May 30, at 5 p.m.

Author Tom Clavin.

Q: You’ve written about the Wild West before — with your books “Wild Bill” and “Dodge City.” What was your motivation for writing “Tombstone”?

Among the reasons, two stand out. One was to complete the “Frontier Lawmen” trilogy. There is an arc to the story of how law and order evolved in the American West after the Civil War. At first there were lone gunmen with badges, such as Bill Hickok in “Wild Bill.” Then there was a new generation of young men choosing to be peace officers, such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson in “Dodge City.” And finally, in Tombstone in the early 1880s, there was an emerging police department and a populace preferring peace over lawlessness. My book tells the tale of how the Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday reluctantly became the representatives of “civilized” society. The other reason is the story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Earp “vendetta ride” that followed has too often been distorted over the decades, especially the portrayal of Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp. I have no bias, I just wanted to tell a darn good — and accurate — story.

Q: Explain the dynamics of the “Wild West” after the Civil War and its effect on life in Tombstone, Arizona.

After the war the exploration and settlement of lands west of the Missouri River resumed, and with an extra gusto to it because many people wanted to escape the destruction of the East and the Reconstruction of the South. Tombstone did not exist until more than a decade after the war’s end but by then Arizona had become a sort of “final frontier” for that westward migration of explorers, prospectors, ranchers, cowboys, and other rootless people.

Q: You say in the book that the infamous 1881 gunfight known as the “Shootout at O.K. Corral” was considered to be “the last gasp of violent lawlessness in a closing frontier as ‘civilization’ took hold in the West.” When and how did that change come about?

Inevitably, as new towns sprang up in the West, their citizens brought with them what had made their previous communities to the east thrive — small businesses, churches, schools, and a system of law and order. There was certainly violence in the West after October 1881, but the O.K. Corral gunfight can be seen as the last major confrontation between the rising and expanding forces of justice and the ‘Wild West,’ outlaw way of living.

Q: What led to this bloody showdown between Wyatt Earp and his posse and a loosely organized outlaw group known as the Cowboys?

Wyatt was a reluctant yet unavoidable representative of the rule of law. He was certainly no goody two-shoes. He and his brothers were in Tombstone to be businessmen, not lawmen, and Wyatt’s “vengeance ride” happened only after one brother was permanently maimed and another was killed. His ragged posse was a de factor sword of justice because much of local law enforcement was still mired in the outlaw muck. As the O.K. Corral shootout was about to commence, Virgil Earp shouted, “I didn’t want this!” Wyatt could have uttered the same words about unhappily being in the role of tarnished avenger.

Q: The title of this book mentions Earp’s “Vendetta Ride to Hell” — which was his killing spree attempt to avenge his brother, Virgil’s, life-threatening attack and another brother’s murder after the 1881 shootout. Briefly give us an overview of this pursuit and how it came out.

Sadly, the toll of the October 1881 gunfight was not the cathartic bloodletting that prevented future violence, which is what the Earp brothers and many citizens in Tombstone hoped. Virgil was ambushed two months later, then Morgan killed the following March. In addition to vengeance, Wyatt faced the prospect of doing nothing leading to all the Earps being wiped out. He and ever-loyal Doc Holliday had to seek out and punish the evil-doers and injure that outlaw influence which threatened other families. Wyatt had a lot of faults but he was not a cold-blooded killer and leading a “Vendetta Ride to Hell” was the last thing he wanted to do. But he was pushed too far.

Q: You note that this shootout and the violent circumstances that surround it have been the topic of many previous books and several movies, often containing exaggerations or outright fiction. How is your version different?

One difference is sticking to the facts! Over the decades many people, because of their own agendas, have changed the story of Tombstone and the shootout, especially to portray the Earps as villains —there is even a “Star Trek” episode to this effect. Warts and all, the brothers, and Doc, were reluctant heroes of the “Wild” West of lawless violence transitioning to the “New” West of optimism and prosperity. What I learned from “Wild Bill” and “Dodge City” also applied to “Tombstone” — the real story can be just as fascinating, if not more so, than the embellished or concocted ones. To read “Tombstone” as reportage rather than a tall tale is, to me, a more satisfying experience.

Q: Of the screen versions of Wyatt Earp and events in Tombstone, which ones would you recommend?

I am not a contrarian when it comes to “Tombstone” with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer. Yes, liberties were taken, but it is fun to watch. I also like “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I would recommend “My Darling Clementine” only as an example of John Ford’s artistry as a director because otherwise, it’s too fictionalized for my taste. I am a fan of Kevin Costner in “Wyatt Earp,” one reason being he may be the closest physically to anyone who has portrayed Wyatt on screen.

Q: This book is dedicated to your brother, James — why is that?

Deep down, “Tombstone” is a story about the relationship and fates of a set of brothers. Wyatt had five brothers. Jim is stuck with just me. The least he could get out of it was a book dedicated to him.

Q: COVID-19 has canceled all sorts of in-person book events. How extensive was the planned tour for “Tombstone” you now can’t do?

I have the unhappy distinction of being canceled twice. It’s like girls and high school again. The national tour was April 20 to May 6, then that was rescheduled for July 6 to 18, and now that’s a goner too. But thanks to Zoom and similar technologies, many personal appearances are being replaced by virtual one, like the one coming up at Canio’s. It’s my understanding that I can still do a Q&A with the audience and people can purchase books via caniosbooks.com.

Q: Where do you do most of your writing?

My personal bridge on the Enterprise is my upstairs office in my home in Bay Point. Often my younger dog, Sophia, accompanies me, which is fortunate because when I get stuck she’s a canine thesaurus.

Q.: How have the current quarantine restrictions affected the way you work?

Other than not having physical access to research venues, there has been no impact on my work. Even better, as long as this situation lasts I appear normal because I already work at home, dress poorly, and I’m socially … well, it’s more like inept, but distance helps me disguise that. A return to normal means I’ll be back on the outside looking in.

Tom Clavin discusses “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday and the Vendetta Ride from Hell” live via Zoom on Saturday, May 5, at 5 p.m. The virtual event is hosted by Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor. Visit the calendar page at canios.wordpress.com for the Zoom link and password. To order a copy of the book, call 631-725-4926.
Clavin will also take part in a “Tombstone” talk for the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton on June 24.

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