Erwin A. Thompson’s Famous Author Day at Hayner Library, Alton, Illinois
Pop (Erwin A. Thompson) had a reading and signing at Hayner Library in Alton, Illinois this week for his new Western--Cattle Country and Back Trail: Two Tales from the Thompson Western Series. He always delivers more content and more soul than any audience could hope for.
In the morning when I came downstairs, I heard him splashing and singing Colorado Memories as he took his Saturday night bath on Wednesday morning. The fragment that really caught my ear was "Bring back the romance." I thought to myself, "Now there's a happy man." Here's some more from his bath-serenade selection:
The rumble of the stage coach
Still echoes from each hill
Bringing back the memories
Of Buffalo Bill.
Linger with the dawn.
Pop spent the entire morning preparing for the reading, marking passages to read, gathering things to take, and packing everything, including his violin in the car. He said, "I only heard that song Colorado Memories once, but I hear it as I write these Westerns. I'm going to play it for them today."
We were sitting back to back in the dining room. I sat typing at the computer while he prepared his passages at the dining room table (mostly his huge desk). I heard some sniffing and thought maybe he had a cold.
"No," he said, "I'm reading some of the passages in Cattle Country and I'm moved." Then he read me a passage about a group of people who challenge the social system at a town square dance. "Big people. Acting together. That's what moves me," Pop said.
When I went outside just before we left for the library, I saw some of Mother's iris were in bloom. She had a selection of varieties with all different colors. Some were varigated. All are beautiful. I picked a few for a bouquet, and told Pop, "We'll take Mother with us. She'll enjoy that." So, Mom's spirit tagged along.
We had an enthusiastic and cozy audience for the event, including a man who had worked with Pop, and brought along his grand-daughter, an aspiring writer. He said, "I saw these being written" when we talked about how Pop wrote in the back of the locker room at Union Electric on inclement weather days.
Pop read, told stories, answered questions, and played songs. First, he read the background story of the Ashburns from a book that comes chronologically earlier in the series that we have yet to publish The Wagoner.
Pop's Westerns emphasize relationships and community--people helping others solve their problems. His Westerns aren't about just one lonely hero, rugged individualist, that rides off into the sunset, after a gunfight, maybe with a girl. I reckon that reflects on him personally. He's all about getting folks together in real life, too.
Qs: Where did you get the feel for the West, since you didn't live in the West?
Erwin: I absorbed what I read. I learned to write from Haycox. He explores social situations; he's interested in the feelings of the situation--the courage it takes to make decisions, not just who won the gunfight.
I temper the action with the people and feeling, trying to get more depth than what we are exposed to in the stories that grace the newstands.
I also absorbed the cowboy songs of the day on the radio. Death Valley Days when they played on radio always featured a song. Songs give you the feelings.
In the era I grew up in music could even take you into politics. W. Lee O'Daniel used his group "The Light Crust Dough Boys" as a crucial part of his campaign strategy for govener of Texas. Whenever someone asked a question he didn't want to answer, he just said, "Boys, strike up a song!"
I carry stories in my soul. I don't tell the exact story, but transpose those values and feelings into the narrative of my book.
Qs: How did you learn to write? You write beautifully.
Erwin: Though not college educated, my aunts, who raised me, wrote beautiful letters. My Uncle Frank published several books of poetry as did my mother, Anna Riehl. I was surrounded by well-spoken and well-read people while I was growing up.
Miss Frida Perrin, my highschool English teacher, inspired me. I had some friends in school I helped with their work. One was Chess McKee. Mrs. Perrin used to say, "Erwin Thompson and Chess McKee are two of the best students I have." I had another friend who helped me with woodworking and I helped him with his English. He was dumbfounded when the story we wrote together got chosen for publication. We started a creative writing club in school that my sister Alice belonged to later.
But, really, it was when I was in the hospital in WWII, recovering from my wounds, that I started writing.
These were some of the questions that folks wanted answered yesterday. You can read more about what's on my father's mind and about "Cattle Country and Back Trail" in an interview with Reader Views.
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