John Willingham – The Edge of Freedom

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

My new book is The Edge of Freedom, subtitled A Fact-Based Novel of the Texas Revolution.

The novel is a creative study of the relationship between the famous battle of the Alamo and lesser-known events going on near the village of Goliad at about the same time. Some of the Alamo heroes appear in the novel—Jim Bowie, William Barret Travis—and their influence and that of the famous battle colored many of the actions around Goliad. Their images haunted the Goliad commander, James Fannin. Bowie and Travis sent a messenger, James Bonham, to Fannin with an urgent request that he march to reinforce the Alamo. Why didn’t Fannin go to the Alamo? What did he and Bonham say to each other? This is an unanswerable question for historians, but I had to find my own answer. I put the two men together in my novel and let them talk. Then I found I had a much longer story to tell, which led me to a different understanding of both events and their places in history.

Tell us something about yourself.

I had several careers—firefighter, newspaper reporter, editor, social worker—but finally settled into a long stint as an elections official in Texas. I was an election observer in Bosnia and worked on a national task force after the U.S. election fiasco in 2000. But I always wanted to write fiction.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was inspired to begin research on the novel after going by the old fort in Goliad during family vacations more than 30 years ago. I finally stopped and spent some time there, and it was then that I decided I had to know what James Bonham, sent from the Alamo, said to James Fannin about marching to the Alamo’s defense. In answering that question in the novel, I found that the whole relationship of the Alamo and Goliad needed a reappraisal. I set the novel aside for many years, then in the late 1990’s, I read about two men, one Anglo and the other Tejano, who were partners in a ferry operation downriver from Goliad. The two men worked together then parted ways to fight on opposite sides in the Revolution. And then they renewed their partnership after the fighting was over. I knew then that these two men, John White Bower and Carlos de la Garza, would frame the larger story and serve as a perfect microcosm for what should have happened at Goliad instead of the tragedy that actually occurred there.

How did you choose the title?

The title came from my realization that freedom, the driving force in the Revolution, is double-edged, just like the famous knife of Jim Bowie. Freedom inspired many of the Texans, but freedom in the form of unbridled self-assertion almost gave Santa Anna victory. Texan commanders from Bowie and Travis, to Fannin, to Sam Houston himself, were beset by fighting men who simply would not be told what to do and wanted to fight no matter the circumstances. That the Texans lacked horses only added to their frustration: they couldn’t be as aggressive as they liked, and it drove them crazy, forcing them into old stone forts.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

Unfortunately, by the time I finished the rewrite, two university presses in Texas with whom I had had either a previous publication or near misses cut back or eliminated their fiction list. I late 2010, I had an opportunity with a small publisher on the west coast for a contract, but they could not put the book on their list until 2012. I was determined to get the book out for the 175th anniversary of the Texas Revolution in 2011, so I finally went with a collaborative contract with a publisher who could get the book out in 2011.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I have thought about being a writer since I was in my early teens, after being encouraged by an English teacher. In my junior year at the University of Texas, I decided to try for a career as a writer, although then my focus was on journalism. I work in that field for a few years, and then moved along; still, I wanted to write, and I kept trying.

Do you have any writing rituals?

During much of my work on The Edge of Freedom, I got up at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning to write for a couple of hours before going to work. Now that I write full time, I do about half my work in the mid-morning until noon or so, and half in the evening, from about 9:30 to 11:00.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

Almost all of the main characters in The Edge of Freedom were actual historical figures. The few who were not had name changes during the writing—for variety, symbolism, or a better 19th century sound.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

Writing The Edge of Freedom brought home to me the inherent rewards of the work itself. The sense of discovery inherent in writing fiction makes it fascinating. The excitement that occurs when you develop insights and write sentences that you never imagined you would write provide a sense of creative accomplishment that I, at least, can find in nothing else.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

If I were doing it all over again, I would try to have a much cleaner manuscript before reaching the galley stage. I wasted so much time and energy making up for mistakes that I should have seen earlier in the process.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I read history, literature, and philosophy. Reading books in one these areas informs one or both of the other areas in a continual, ever-changing process. My favorite novelists are Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Thomas Flanagan, Willa Cather, and Patrick O’Brian. The poetry of Robert Frost, especially “West-Running Brook,” is important to me, along with poems of W.B. Yeats. I am close to completing a novel set in a county courthouse in modern-day Texas, during the first term of George W. Bush. Another historical novel set in Texas is in the wings.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The ideal reader of The Edge of Freedom is curious about the interplay of history and mythic versions of the past, and about the ways in which memory ignores meaning that is complex or contradictory in favor of more black and white views.

The best way to find out about my novel is to visit