Three very different men in the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush anchor Howard Blum's tale of the last frontier, The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the American West and the Yukon Gold Rush .
How did you first discover the story of Charlie, George, and Soapy?
I wish I could say I saw it all whole. I started out by wanting to write a western and to me the most interesting part of the West was its coming to an end—these men who were heroes in many ways had outlived their usefulness. While researching, I discovered Charlie Siringo's books. He had this wonderful voice and talked about his escapades, solving something like 97 cases in four or five books. I saw this Alaska case, and then I came across the guys who were behind the robbery and that led me to Soapy Smith, which led me to George Carmack. All the pieces fell together to weave a tale that was bigger than one man, even bigger than three men.
Is that usually how nonfiction books come together for you?
The key is to know what the people are thinking—what they said and what they felt. If you're writing a novel, you can make that up. [For nonfiction], you have to find primary sources. The way this worked was through Siringo's books and Carmack's letters, which were bought in a bookstore for $55, then donated to the University of Washington. Soapy Smith had a voluminous book written by his great-great-grandson that enabled me to write that with some authority. Once you have these first-person sources, the book comes together. You choose a point of view that will drive you through the story and can lead to a dramatic ending.
What do you find most appealing about the cultural myth of the Wild West?
The iconic values of the cowboys and the pioneers: wanting to live with adventure, wanting to do what's right, the quest for justice, the sacrifices people made. That kind of self-sacrifice and indomitable spirit I hope pervades the book and shows that these men are flawed, but also heroes.
You say that during the gold rush people were "so squeezed by the economic hardships of the times that they were willing to do or try just about anything to fill their lives with the prospect of something better." Do you think this relates to America today?
Very much so. The surprise hit of this season on cable TV is Gold Rush: Alaska. These are a bunch of guys who have no other option, so they're off to Alaska to look for gold. When hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world went to the Yukon to look for gold, the original prospectors had already claimed most of it. These people were going to a country where there was nothing to be found. There are also the scams—the Soapy Smiths, the guys selling the gold to investors today. A whole bunch of Madoff-type schemes come up in tough economic times when people are trying to maximize return on their investments. The parallels are very dramatic. Gold has an almost atavistic lure. People feel it has a panacea effect.