Questions & answers with the author, George Lankford

Q. Since you're a historian, why did you want to write this story as a novel rather than non-fiction?

A. I'm not really a historian, although I try. My PhD is in folklore, but my attention is usually on historical issues. Almost all of my writing has been academic—academic articles in professional journals and book collections, mainly. My books are university-press types. The topics I have dealt with have been about Native American prehistory, iconography, and myth—that's one realm. The other is Arkansas culture and history, with a focus on local history (Ozarks, White River, Batesville). I guess that sort of makes me a historian, at least by interest. In addressing the story of the death of Nick Burton, I first wrote the account as an extended academic narrative. When I first read the documents about the incident thirty years ago, I thought it was one of the most fascinating and puzzling stories I had ever stumbled into. I talked about it in teaching about local history, and I found it a great window into that era for students. The more I learned about the times and the people involved in the story, the less happy I was with the historical outcome, and I came to consider it a "cold case" that ought to be solved. After I wrote the first narrative, I found it not very engaging for the reader just entering that time period in Arkansas, and I was puzzled about how to offer my "solution" to the murder. So I wrote it again, novelizing the story by introducing description and dialogue. Some of my readers thought the result was a narrative in search of a genre: Was it history or was it fiction? They felt it would be better as one or the other, clearly. I responded with a third version, trying to use the modern-detectives-stumble-into-a-cold-case-and-solve-it theme. It was so labored that I didn't even finish it. This "novel" as I have finally written it (fourth time) is my answer to the question of how to tell this story. I have kept to the facts as known and have used them—even the documents themselves—as the fixed points, while I tried to supply words and motivations to make sense of the way everyone acted, with a final resolution that seems the most likely "real" story. That's a complicated answer to your question. The short version is that I wanted to re-write history with a solution to the case, but strict historical narrative doesn't make that reasonable, so I pitch it in fictional form.

Q. Could you talk briefly about the actual event that forms the main story of your novel?

A. The events themselves occurred in the 1840s in Batesville in Independence County, just ninety miles north of Little Rock. The uproar over the shooting of Nick Burton, the search for the man who had fled to avoid capture, his return and subsequent grand jury trial, the failure to indict him, and his murder by the dead boy's brother a few years later—all of that was a topic of gossip, scandalized opinion, and political consequences for almost a decade in Arkansas. No matter in what form you read it, it is a gripping story, full of the issues that make life and sudden death today as much a subject of headlines and public fascination as this antebellum incident was.

Q. Do you have a sense of how the people of the town responded to this event?

A. Probably the most significant response was the polarization of opinion. In Independence County, there was great outrage at the death of the seventeen-year-old boy, and most people took sides on whether the accused man was guilty. When he was killed seven years later, his assassin was acquitted in court, a very thought-provoking outcome that indicates the strength of public opinion about the correct course of justice. Q. What else was going on around Arkansas during this time period? A. This was the time of statehood for young Arkansas (1836), a political development that came at the same time as the national Panic of 1837. The creation of the State Bank and its failure during these years, with the resulting financial crisis, was the backdrop for this story, for many of the local people who figure in the story were also players in the state's financial and political difficulties. One man who appears in a central role in this book, for instance, was Fent Noland, one of the most popular authors in Arkansas, a nationally known humorist who was also a lawyer and politician who lived in Batesville and represented the area in the General Assembly.

Q. What kind of sources did you use in researching this book?

A. There are several journalistic records of the story, and there are some letters that have survived. There were later attempts to write the story, and they have found their own place in the records. The background, of course, is rooted in the local records of Independence County, a wonderful intact set of public documents from the founding of the county in 1820. The work of the Independence County Historical Society has been of great importance to me, for their fifty volumes of issues of the Chronicle are full of the public and private details of the families and individuals who lived here since the town was founded. One of the reasons for my enthusiasm for seeing this murder story in print is the satisfaction of providing an insight into complexities of life in early Arkansas that few people are aware of. Batesville was a small town, but it was not a simple one. I think its celebrated murder case has a lot to tell us about the lives of our ancestors.