Monday, May 23, 2011

Interview with Jeff Guinn in AZ Republic

5/26: Q&A with 'Last Gunfight' author, in Scottsdale

Jeff Guinn deconstructs myth of O.K. Corral

"I'm your huckleberry."

Jeff Guinn

What: Author talks about and signs "The Last Gunfight."When: 7 p.m. Thursday, May 26. Where: Poisoned Pen, 4014 N. Goldwater Blvd., Scottsdale. Admission: Free, but books for signing must be purchased from the store ($27). Details:480-947-2974,
Anyone who has watched Val Kilmer's deliciously sly portrayal of Doc Holliday in "Tombstone" - or any of the other dozen-odd movie retellings of the legendary "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" - knows that Hollywood's version of the Wild West is a bit over the top.
In fact, most folks probably prefer it that way. But not Jeff Guinn, the Texas author who deconstructs this iconic moment in Arizona history in his latest book.
Guinn will be at the Poisoned Pen on Thursday, May 26, to sign his just-released "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral - and How It Changed the American West" (Simon & Schuster, $27). He is also the author of "Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde" as well as the novelistic "The Autobiography of Santa Claus."

Question: What is the mythical version of the shootout, and what does it tell us about America?

Answer: The mythology of the gunfight at the O.K. 
Corral - which was really not much of a gunfight and didn't happen at the O.K. Corral - is that good and evil faced each other in the American West, and when the smoke cleared and the bodies were dragged away, the West was saved for good men and women everywhere.
The fact is there were all kinds of social, economic and political factors involved that meant people who were on different sides of issues were inevitably going to collide in some way, probably violently. It just happened to be those eight men on that day. What that says about us culturally is that we like these things to seem simple. We like events to be clear-cut.

Q: But wasn't it the mythologized movie version that got you interested in the first place?

A: Of course. When you talk about Wyatt Earp, I see Hugh O'Brian riding a horse with the Buntline Special on his hip, even though it's pretty unlikely Wyatt actually carried a Buntline Special. All my books are about iconic events in American history, and anything that is iconic almost by definition has been exaggerated. I like to go back and try to understand better the events themselves or the people themselves, because when we really try to learn history, that's when we can understand ourselves a whole lot better.
What fascinated me was the real history of southeast Arizona. Tombstone was not this little dry, dusty outpost. It was a fabulously sophisticated place. There were some telephones. They were debating in city council meetings about how they were going to put sewer lines in the main streets and how much they would have to tax the businessmen to do that. It was an amazing story.

Q: What gets obscured in the iconic version?

A: A big change in the psychology of the people who were moving west came right after the Civil War. Previously, a lot of the folks who were settling the frontier come from the North, where there isn't a whole lot of land to be had, because jobs and industry are harder to come by because there's so much immigration. But after the Civil War, a lot of people in the South wanted to get away from the states that had been absorbed back into the Union and that they thought were under the thumb of the Yankee Republican government.
And that was a big part of what happened out in Tombstone. You had the businessmen who wanted to modernize everything and wanted a powerful government that was going to make sure that the laws were followed and taxes were paid. And you had all these folks now fleeing from an area in the country where they felt that the government was intrusive, and they just wanted to live their lives as they pleased, and anybody who was trying to tell them differently was the enemy to them. The Earps represented the business faction, the modernization, the folks that wanted that. The Cowboys - the Clantons and the McLaurys - represented the free spirits who just wanted to be out there and left alone.

Q: There have been some fictional efforts at deconstructing the myth of the Old West in recent years. Any thoughts on HBO's "Deadwood"?

A: You've got to remember that some types of art, movies, television, books, are meant strictly for entertainment purposes. They can take some truths and kind of expand on them and exaggerate them. I did watch "Deadwood" for several episodes, until I finally decided that the dialogue, with an obscenity every third word just to make sure we would remember that people did cuss in the Old West, got old for me.
I enjoy watching the various Tombstone movies now. It doesn't mean I think they're necessarily factual, but I think the storytelling's a lot of fun. The challenge in writing this book was to take the truth, what really happened, and challenge myself to make it every bit as entertaining as the mythology. There's no reason reading about real history has to be boring.

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