An interview with Steve Teske, author

Why did you choose these particular characters out of Arkansas history?

I was looking for people who lived in Arkansas and contributed to the history of the state (and also were shaped by their years in Arkansas) whose stories were interesting with a touch of controversy. I did not want to include anyone who is still alive or who has recently died. I also did not want to include anyone who is already the subject of a lot of research and writing. David O. Dodd, for example, the “boy martyr of Arkansas,” was excluded because so much already has been written about him. Albert Pike and Belle Starr also have been the subject of full-length biographies, so I left them off the list. Some of these characters were suggested to me by others who were eager to learn more about them—Charlie McDermott, for example, was recommended by a man who is a friend of one of Charlie’s great-granddaughters. Others drew my attention because their stories are so interesting—J. N. Smithee, one of the participants in the “last duel fought in Arkansas” matches that description.

Out of the characters in the book, do you have a personal favorite? If so, why?

The nine are interesting in such different ways that it is hard to choose a favorite. During the research and writing of each chapter, I found that the character in that chapter was perhaps my favorite at the time.

Looking at the nine characters, is there anything that they all have in common?

Aside from their Arkansas connections, the quality they share is complexity. None of them was a simple person whose actions and attitudes are easily explained. All too often, our inclination is to simplify the past, to remember people for one or two of the things they did, and to find a single reason for them to have done whatever it is they did. People are complicated creatures. Sandy Faulkner did a lot more in his life than tell an amusing story, and even his reasons for developing and sharing his tale of the Arkansas Traveler go beyond a mere desire to entertain his friends. The last chapter is more a murder mystery than a biography. We know very little about Connie Franklin, yet his history is as fascinating as those of more heroic or notorious characters.

How did you go about your research and what resources did you use?

Whenever possible, I tried to find access to what historians call "primary sources"--those written or spoken accounts that come from witnesses rather than researchers and interpreters. I looked at manuscripts kept in archives, visited museums, and talked with people who knew these characters. I had the privilege of visiting with Marian Watson, the daughter of John Brown Watson, who was president of Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College in Pine Bluff (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). Many of the accounts of her father’s life and career were gathered by Marian from the teachers and students who learned from her father. Of course, in some cases (Bernie Babcock, for example), the people described in this book wrote a bit about what they were doing and why they were doing it.

Another great source of information was newspaper accounts. Quite a bit of my research time was spent with a microfilm reader, looking at copies of newspapers from the 1870s or the 1920s or whatever time period I needed to cover for that chapter.

Of course the work of historians to gather and interpret information makes books like this possible. Writers such as Dallas Herndon, Margaret Ross Smith, Michael Dougan, and Brooks Blevins, among others, have written valuable books and articles that open new doors of understanding about Arkansas’s history and about the lives of its citizens.

What do you think the stories of these nine people tell us about Arkansas history?

They tell us, first of all, that Arkansas history is not boring. Second, they tell us that the people who came to Arkansas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and those who were born here, were just as complicated as people are today. In many cases, each of these nine people were seen in different ways by the various people around them. To some they were saints, but to others they were scoundrels. Whenever possible, I tried to present all sides of a person so that the readers of Unvarnished Arkansas can decide for themselves whether each of the nine is a saint or a scoundrel.

Did you find any surprises in your research about these characters? If so, what?

I was expecting to find contradictions in their lives and contradicting interpretations of their actions, and I was not disappointed. Maybe the biggest surprise to me has been finding the accounts others have recorded that show only one side of a person and try to ignore all the complexity and contradictions of that person. None of these nine characters was always right, and none of them was always wrong. Those mixed records of a person’s life make historical research fun.