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March 25, 2009

Gerald Kolpan: Writing ETTA

Posted by carol
Gerald Kolpan's debut novel, Etta, imagines the life of Etta Place, who dodged the law with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In today's guest blog post, he shares how he brought to life this intriguing and elusive historical figure --- and why he enjoys writing about female characters.

People like to ask me what inspired me to write Etta.

What I usually tell them is that the idea came to me after I watched a television special about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid back in 1997. That show was what made me hit the library to see if what it claimed was really true: that very little was actually known about Etta Place and that she was indeed a "mystery woman." As it turned out, all the incontrovertible facts about Etta could probably fit on a page or two.

"Great," I said to myself. "I'll find out about that really happened with the other characters, research the period, make up the rest and I'll have a novel."

Of course, it took me five more years to screw up the courage to actually start writing the book. That's another story. But the real inspiration for Etta isn't only that single broadcast; nor is it Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, the 1969 movie that featured Katharine Ross as Etta.

No, the book has two less obvious sources. To wit:

(1), The 1950s television series Zorro and (2), the fact that I don't trust or enjoy any situation in which there are no women.

When it first aired in 1957, Zorro, produced by Walt Disney and starring the charismatic Guy Williams, hit me like a Clydesdale's hoof. It featured a debonair hand-kissing leading man who could flash a sword like Errol Flynn and crack a bullwhip with more authority than a dominatrix. A protector of the people, El Zorro fought against oppression and corruption in Spanish California. With his black mask and cloak, he rode "out of the night" (as the theme song sang), on his trusted steed: a fleet and enormous black stallion named Tornado.

God, I loved it.

For at least the whole first season, I ran around the neighborhood in my own mask, cape and plastic sword, looking to carve a "Z" in any kid who dared to dress as the evil Capitan Monestario or the fat, craven Sergeant Garcia.

But one outgrows polystyrene sabres. I outgrew Zorro (and Wyatt Earp and Sugarfoot and Maverick) and eventually discovered girls. Once I made that discovery I also began to think that the whole male bonding ethos was something to be outgrown as well. It's okay to keep girls out of the clubhouse when you're eight; when you're fifteen, not so much. And unlike the jocks with their locker room hijinks or the male hippies with their attitudes about "chicks," I soon found that in most situations, the presence of women added not just visual stimulation but challenge and mystery. Sure, they could be tough to understand and they were right far too often; but how was I going to practice all that Don Diego suavity I learned watching Zorro if all I hung out with were football players and lead guitarists? And unlike my buddies, if you were lucky (or they took pity on you), women could introduce you to the kind of bonding that the male type just couldn't match.

So Etta is as much a reflection of these influences as anything else. She's smart, charming and dedicated to justice like Zorro. She even rides a huge and vicious black horse. She also kicks ass. And just like the many women in my real life, her dynamic female presence has kept me keenly interested over all the years I've known her.

I'm preparing my second novel now and this time, the main characters are men. Writing them is fine, but the second the female actors walk onto my stage everything gets more exciting for me. They look better, they think smarter and they have the grand potential to get my boys in a world of trouble or delight or both. I love telling their tales.

It's probably the only time I write what I know.

---Gerald Kolpan