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Sex and Sunsets
Riverhead Books
257 pp.

Skipped Parts
Riverhead Books
384 pp.

Social Blunders
Riverhead Books
304 pp.

Sorrow Floats
Riverhead Books
400 pp.

Western Swing
Riverhead Books
352 pp.



The Wag Chats with
Tim Sandlin

Tim Sandlin discusses the difficulties and joys of writing in the wilds of Wyoming and tells us why he thinks a four-novel series can still be a trilogy.

I want to talk first about your GroVont trilogy. Rumor has it there might be a fourth one coming out.

Sandlin: Well, I'm working on it. They go every ten years. Skipped Parts was 1963, and then there's '73 and '83. So I'm working on a 1993 installment.

WAG: This will be the fourth part of a trilogy, so we've got a tetralogy? A quartet?

Sandlin: I'm calling it a four-book trilogy. Larry McMurtry wrote a four-book trilogy, so I can too.

WAG: The first one was probably the most controversial of the trilogy so far. Skipped Parts deals with a couple of teenagers who decide that since they're only going to be friends, they might as well experiment sexually with each other—that way, when they get to somebody who really counts, they'll know what to do and not make any mistakes.

Sandlin: Exactly.

WAG: That's a rather bold step to take, isn't it? It's not the sort of thing most publishers will look at and say, "Oh, wonderful! Let's go with that! That's a feel-good book!"

Sandlin: Well, they sure seemed to like it. I enjoyed writing it. When I started it, it was about a bartender in Las Vegas and a guy in Pinedale, Wyoming, who fixes satellite television. That's the idea I sold to my publisher. And then it sort of evolved over about a year or so, and suddenly there's no Vegas and no bartender and no Pinedale. None of the stuff that I sold is actually in the book.

WAG: But the satellite repair element does come up in a different book.

Sandlin: Three books later. Actually, the end of the third book ends right at the first scene that I sold to Henry, Holt.

WAG: Oh really?

Sandlin: Yeah. The scene where they're sitting around after the funeral and talking about things—that's what I sold the book based on. And then I started doing backstory, and it just kept getting longer and longer. Finally, I wrote "The End" at the end of it.

WAG: There's certainly a lot of action in your novels, but you seem to have much more fun with the characters themselves. Is that a fair assessment?

Sandlin: Sure. All good books that I know of are character-driven. You've got to start with the people and throw things at them and see how they handle it.

WAG: What about those who say it's got to be plot-driven? You've got to be able to sum up the plot in twenty-five words or less for the public before they'll buy it.

Sandlin: That's more for movies, I think. I've never really known that for books. Category genre books are traditionally considered plot-driven—science fiction and romances. But the really good ones—like Kurt Vonnegut or something like that—they're really character-driven too.

WAG: You talk movingly about genre fiction in your novels—Max Brand, a favorite Western author, pops up in a couple books, I believe.

Sandlin: He wasn't character-driven.

WAG: No. You can't really say that. But is this affection real?

Sandlin: Oh yeah. When I started out, I wanted to write Westerns. But the genre kind of died out from under me. And then I started writing more personal books about where I live and what I see, and it just kind of went from there. But I originally wanted to write Westerns.

WAG: It's hard. Even those guys who were lucky enough to have the name Lamour or Grey—it doesn't seem like their estates are selling many books right now.

Sandlin: No, that genre's down. But the thrillers and mysteries are up. It comes in waves.

WAG: It's all cycles. We had the science fiction cycle a while ago. And, of course, we're enduring the romance cycle now. But maybe Westerns will be back about the time you come out with the next book.

Sandlin: The West seems very popular in books nowadays. They're just not the traditional Western set in 1880. I'm more interested in places like Sun Valley and Taos and Mojave, where the big influx of the new people and new money runs into the old West. That's the part of the West that I find exciting.

WAG: One of the trilogy novels has been turned into a movie, and there's another on the way, right?

Sandlin: Right. Sorrow Floats is a Showtime Original with the title Floating Away. It came out last summer. And it looks like we're going to shoot Skipped Parts in August up in Saskatchewan.

WAG: It's going to be interesting to see how that gets translated. Did you work on the screenplay?

Sandlin: Yeah, I wrote the script. It's quite close to the book. Floating Away wasn't really close to the book. We had to get rid of a lot of stuff. It was too complex for a movie. But Skipped Parts is basically the book.

WAG: You have assembled a great collection of characters for this series—Sam and Maurey, the protagonists in these books, also Sam's mother—

Sandlin: Lydia.

WAG: Who is probably one of the world's first feminists. And the Indian caretaker—

Sandlin: Hank Elkrunner.

WAG: Who is a marvelous character. I love his little asides. Do you sometimes find yourself driving to the donut shop and suddenly these characters start talking to you?

Sandlin: Sure. They're real to me, especially when I'm writing the book. They're much more real than real life. I relate to Sam and Maurey much more than I do to people around me.

WAG: They've obviously been with you for a very long time, and if you're already planning the fourth book, you've gone through their entire lives. You know everything that there is to know about them.

Sandlin: Yes. If I go in a restaurant, I'll look at the menu and figure out what all the characters would order before I figure what I will order. I know what they'll want. It's me I've got troubling figuring out.

WAG: That's got to be frustrating to some of your friends and family.

Sandlin: I can do it real quick. They don't know that I'm doing that, I don't think. And we exchange presents at Christmas sometimes. I'm married now, but back when I was single, it was a lot spookier because it was just me and six or seven fictional characters in this apartment.

WAG: I'm beginning to see where some of the characters in Sex and Sunsets came from.

Sandlin: Yeah. I just started talking, and there it was. There's been so many drafts and people have evolved so much that they're not who they started out as.

WAG: The West must be a remarkable place for a person to write.

Sandlin: It can be too beautiful. Sometimes, you can be somewhere really beautiful, and words don't seem to matter that much at all. I write most of the time in the winter, when it's dark at 4:30.

WAG: That's got to be a pretty harsh existence. It makes me think of Skipped Parts, when Sam and Lydia have just come up to Wyoming for the first time from North Carolina. The harshness of the winter doesn't bother the natives, but for a Southern boy like Sam, it seems to be quite a culture shock.

Sandlin: You get used to spring coming at a certain time, and in North Carolina, spring's quite beautiful, as I recall. Here, it can be snowing, and suddenly it gets incredibly beautiful overnight. But really, you spend a month where you don't see the ground. And you have to get used to that.

WAG: Let's talk a little bit about channeling your characters into a series. I have interviewed some authors who have sat down to do two or three books in a series. And they have a thick concordance, and they have people help them map everything. Is this how you work or do you just sit in front of the word processor and fly by the seat of your pants?

Sandlin: I fly. I just create the characters and then see what happens. Tell me about the concordance—do they keep up with what these people do?

WAG: They keep a log of it. It will actually be descriptions that they have written of the person's house and the town and the car and if they have pets, what they are, how they've related to the pets in certain situations.

Sandlin: That's the memory of your own life. I know all that. I know everything about these characters for the thirty years that I've been writing about them. I don't have to write it down or have a list anywhere. I had one character that was in about two paragraphs in Skipped Parts, and I had to go back and see what color his eyes were.

WAG: What triggered Skipped Parts? These fourteen year olds losing themselves in this sexual practice—it just seems to be kind of an odd choice.

Sandlin: Well, I had two adult friends—a man and a woman. And they were really close friends—the very best of friends—and there was no sexual tension between them. And I was wondering why it was that way, and I started looking at their past, and I realized they'd been together as teenagers. I talked to a doctor here in town, and I found out that there's a rumor among kids nowadays that if the girl's never had her period, she can't get pregnant. So you can have sex before the girl's had her first period—which didn't come up in 1963, when I was a kid. And I started wondering what would happen if that kind of thing happened back in 1963, when we didn't know anything at all. Kids now watch a lot of movies and they know a lot more a lot younger than we did back then. Like my character Sam—somebody will say something and he'll say, "What's a period? I don't understand." He doesn't understand anything.

WAG: Sam is completely innocent during this time.

Sandlin: The book is about innocence. And the only one who comes of age in the book is his mother Lydia. Sam is just as innocent at the end as he is at the beginning. They were kids except for the fact that they had a child. They don't change.

WAG: Maurey does change considerably in the second book.

Sandlin: Yeah. She has an alcohol problem by the second book. I'm not sure where all that came from. The second book is kind of independent. Sam's not even in that book. It's the story of Maurey. She almost loses her baby and goes on a road trip to North Carolina, trying to find herself again with two ex-alcoholics in an ambulance.

WAG: Hauling five thousand dollars' worth of Coors beer.

Sandlin: Back in those days, Coors was illegal in the East, so people would haul it out of here and sell it for a lot of money. You can always sell things that are illegal for a lot of money, even if later on nobody wants them.

WAG: I like the way that the trilogy works. It's Sam and Maurey, and then it's Maurey, and then it's back to Sam in Social Blunders. Is the fourth book going to follow suit and be another Maurey?

Sandlin: I think the fourth book's going to be completely different. In 1993, Lydia gets out of jail. As you may remember, at the end of Social Blunders, she goes underground, so five years later, she gets caught and goes to jail. There's a minor character named Oley in all three books. Part of her sentence is doing an oral history of him. So it's going to be more historical. It's going to be what Oley remembers from 1923, when he was a motorcycle ranger in Yellowstone Park, and then there's going to be a modern part with Lydia. As far as I know right now, the kids are not going to be too important. They've been through so much hell and they're fairly happy—I just don't have the heart to give it to them again.

WAG: You could always pick up with their daughter.

Sandlin: Yeah, she might be a major character in it. It's like that first book—when I started, they were in Las Vegas, and I got completely sidetracked. So I don't know what it's going to be. That's just the plan right now.

WAG: One last question. You have probably got the spottiest resume of anybody that I've ever interviewed. You were a dishwasher and a cook at the Lame Duck Chinese Restaurant, you've been an elk skinner and a novelist.

Sandlin: Yeah.

WAG: Why did you do all these off-beat jobs?

Sandlin: I wanted to be a writer, and I never wanted a career. I've known too many people who got careers and said, "I'll get back to writing later." So I always took the cruddiest jobs I could find, so I wouldn't like it so much that I got stuck in it.

WAG: So which is cruddier—elk skinner or dishwasher at the Lame Duck Chinese Restaurant?

Sandlin: Dishwasher's probably not that much fun. But back in the '60s, there were very few jobs out here in the fall and winter. Elk-skinning was the only job I could find—and I knew it would look good on the back of a book some day. I didn't have a book for another fifteen years, but I was working on the publicity already.

—Interview conducted by John Porter

Posted September 1, 1999


Tim Sandlin is the author of six books. His works of fiction are the GroVont Trilogy (Skipped Parts, Sorrow Floats and Social Blunders), Sex and Sunsets and Western Swing. He has also written a collection of columns called The Pyms: Unauthorized Tales of Jackson Hole. He lives in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.



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