Set in 1878, Phillips’s excellent new novel, Hop Alley (Counterpoint), continues the adventures of Bill Ogden, frontier photographer and libertine.
The period you’re writing about in Hop Alley is a fascinating one: the lawlessness and violence of the frontier are still very much in evidence, but the modern era looms on the horizon. Protagonist Bill Ogden seems to operate somewhere in the middle. It’s fertile ground for a writer. Any thoughts?
I’m fascinated by the urbanization of the old West. In a way, the Denver of the 1870s was a very modern and civilized place, but you also had this poisonous hostility toward the Chinese population and a vast capacity for violence beneath the genteel veneer. Bill is from the east, and his father was a minister, but he’s lived on the frontier also, so he’s somewhat at home both places. Or neither place.
How did you get the tone down for this book? It has the rollicking feel of the penny dreadfuls of the day. Were there any literary inspirations?
It’s been a while since I read [George MacDonald] Fraser, but the Flashman books certainly influenced me. I first wrote in Bill’s voice in Cottonwood, and at the time I read a few memoirs from the period, picking up bits and pieces of their voices. Certainly the most useful voice, the one I’m most indebted to, is that of Jack Black (the 19th century criminal memoirist, not the modern comedian) from his book You Can’t Win. And Bill’s erotic confessions have a smidgeon of the Frank Harris school to them. In The Adjustment, Bill’s grandson Wayne mentions having read [Frank Harris's multi-volume] memoir, My Life and Loves, and assumes that they were never meant to be published because of their sexual frankness.
Was Hop Alley originally conceived around the time Cottonwood was published, or was it written more recently?
Parts of it were meant to be included in Cottonwood, but I cut out the midsection of the book for reasons of length, structure, and cohesion. The events in this book bear little or no relevance to the story of the Bloody Benders, which is the heart of Cottonwood. A couple of years ago my friend Cort McMeel asked me if I might have a novella for an anthology he was going to put together. I sent him some of that material and his response was that I should expand it to novel length.
The anti-Chinese riots depicted in the book are based on real historical events. What kind of research did you have to do in preparation?
When I was researching Cottonwood I assembled a pretty substantial library of reference on 19th century America, particularly the west, and a whole lot of books about Colorado and Denver in particular. A wonderfully entertaining book is Hell’s Belles by Clark Secrest, about crime in Denver in the late 19th century. That was one of my first reasons for wanting to set it in that place and time.
Regular readers will be familiar with the adventures of later generation Ogdens in The Walkaway and The Adjustment. Will future books fill in the gaps? Do you see the books as comprising one big narrative?
I have a notion that Bill wrote everything down, and I’ll probably get back to him at some point. I’m doing some research on Hollywood around WWI; I have him ending up there as a technical advisor on silent westerns as an old man. And it’s not so much that they’re one big narrative as they are a bunch of interconnected ones. Though I’ve never published it, I’ve decided that Charlie Arglist from The Ice Harvest is an illegitimate descendant of Bill’s, stemming from a time when Bill visited the Arglist farm while farmer Arglist was away.