New England native Matthew P. Mayo has long been fascinated with the history of the American West. He expresses that well in his books, from his Spur Award–winning novel Tucker’s Reckoning to his popular nonfiction works, including Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears; Sourdoughs, Claim Jumpers & Dry Gulchers; and Hornswogglers, Fourflushers & Snake-Oil Salesmen, all published by TwoDot. Those last three include some of the wildest, but true, episodes in the Old West. Mayo is also a magazine editor, helps run Gritty Press and frequently collaborates on projects with his wife, Jennifer Smith-Mayo, an accomplished photographer and videographer. Wild West recently tracked down the author at his Maine home.
What spurred your interest in Western history?
My parents were raised in the heyday of TV Westerns and passed on their fondness of classic shows such as Bonanza, The Rifleman and Gunsmoke to my brother, Jeff, and me. My folks are also big readers, another great passion they passed on to us. Those old shows led me to rummage in libraries and bookshops searching out everything about the Old West, a place and time so full of promise, yet so remote and unfathomable to a kid on a back-road dairy farm in Vermont’s “Northeast Kingdom.” Thank goodness for books!
Do you prefer writing fiction or nonfiction?
I don’t really have a preference, as each requires one of my favorite things: research. Much of the fiction I’ve written is pretty well grounded in fact. Each project requires lots of rooting around for information. In addition to books, nothing beats on-the-ground research—visiting historic sites, museums large and small, town offices, rummaging through archives and talking with local folks, particularly old-timers.
How did your books for TwoDot come about?
The idea for the first, Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West, was proposed to me by an editor. I refined it, and it ended up being so fun to write, I made it into a series. (There’s also a New England entry: Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks.) Readers enjoy the “grittiest moments” books—the first has become a perennial bestseller—and I’ve received lots of mail about them. Though the books are written for a general audience, schoolteachers tell me they use them to help reluctant readers dip a toe in the book pond, and to help students see how exciting history can be.
Who was the West’s sleaziest swindler and why?
How about that rascal James Reavis, the “Baron of Arizona”? He cobbled together fraudulent land grants and booted innocent folks off their homesteads, raking in millions in the process. Not surprising, his greed got him in the end, but even among sleazy swindlers his reek is especially foul.
‘Riker was tough as nails and full of grit and determination. I wondered what it would have been like had she kept a journal throughout that harrowing winter’
What was the grittiest moment in Western history?
Would you settle for list of, say, 50? OK, how about the incredible true saga of Janette Riker, who as a young girl in 1849 traveled west with her father and brothers. By September they made it to the Rockies in what would become Montana. The father and brothers leave to hunt for the day and never return. Janette waits too long. Early snows trap her in the little mountain valley. She builds a rough shelter and spends a long, cold winter alone, battling wolves and mountain lions. She’s finally found by Indians in the spring, weary and malnourished but alive.
Riker was tough as nails and full of grit and determination. I wondered what it would have been like had she kept a journal throughout that harrowing winter. That’s how I came up with the premise of my recent novel, Stranded—which would make a great film (hint, hint, Hollywood).
What drew you to Riker’s story?
I first read about Riker’s incredible survival story while researching Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears. There was very little information about her, a few paragraphs from a book from 1877, and I wanted to know more. Though I eventually conveyed her story as a historical novel, my wife and I were still curious.…We’ve amassed quite a bit of footage and information and look forward to taking the mini-documentary to schools and other captive groups to show that research isn’t all stuffy and academic.
You’ve also done a book on the haunted West. Do any ghost stories ring true?
Many. There are the ghosts of the abandoned town of Bodie, Calif., who make life increasingly unbearable for anyone who filches from their moldering abodes. Or the many accounts, by apparently lucid folk, who’ve happened upon the specter of famed lawman Seth Bullock roving the corridors of his beloved Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, S.D. If people claim to have an inexplicable encounter, who am I to argue? And besides, they’re great fuel for campfire conversation.
How often do you get back to the West?
My wife and I try to spend part of each year roving westward, towing our wee camper and exploring. Our trips can last as long as several months or as brief as a few weeks, depending on other commitments. Family—and the beauty of New England—keep us as residents of the Northeast for now, but once you’ve experienced Death Valley or the northern Rockies or Texas Hill Country or New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, it’s difficult to be content anywhere else.
How easy or difficult is it to collaborate on a project with your significant other?
Fortunately, we work well together. We’ve been married for 24 years, so we’ve learned that when one of us begins to grumble (usually me), Jen will head to the garden, and I’ll split wood. As a bonus, come winter, we’ll be well fed and warm. In addition to our individual pursuits—my writing and Jen’s documentary work—we run Gritty Press, our own “media empire.” With our pup, Miss Tess, we are Team Gritty, exploring and sharing our adventures via our website.
So what’s next for you, Jen and Miss Tess, in nonfiction and fiction?
I’ve just finished the third novel in my Outfit series, and I’m hip-deep in research for a novel involving William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. I’m also finishing the first in a series of kids’ books about the West. We also need to fit in a Rockies horse-and-mule packing trip to research an upcoming novel, and of course we’re still on the trail of Janette Riker. WW