Peter Meech has had an international career as a writer, producer and director for television and film. “Billy (the Kid)” is his debut novel. He has written, produced and directed several short films and has several television credits. He received a Master’s degree at Stanford, where he received the Stanford Nicholl writing award.
What inspired you to write “Billy (the Kid)”?
My mother was born in Pueblo, Colorado, where the novel is set, and I grew up hearing stories about all the wonderful characters who populated her childhood. There was one character in particular who caught my fancy — a retired dentist who claimed to have been an outlaw in his youth. This gentleman—and he was a gentleman in his older years — never discussed the details of his past, and he never specifically identified himself as Billy the Kid, but he was the same age the Kid would have been if the Kid had not been shot by Pat Garrett. And this gentleman owned the same kind of guns — Colt Double-Action Thunderers — that the Kid used, and there were a number of other biographical details about this gentleman that aligned with the Kid’s life.
But what specifically inspired me to write about an older version of the Kid was to write about a man who had undergone a spiritual transformation. From a young man who enjoyed gunning down his adversaries to an older man who renounced violence—what had occurred in this man’s life to enable such a transformation? What was this man’s personal journey?
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In writing about this character, I also wanted to explore the possibility that the retired dentist was not Billy the Kid, that he was simply an old toothpuller with an active imagination who talked about his storied past to enhance his reputation as a dentist. In the end, the reader has to decide if we’re dealing with a Walter Mitty fantasist or a once-notorious outlaw who has seen the light.
That leads me to my next question. Do you think Billy the Kid was really killed by Pat Garrett?
It’s one of the central questions that my novel explores, so I’ll let my readers come to their own conclusion.
Was Billy the Kid ever in Colorado?
If you’re asking whether the historical Billy the Kid was ever in Colorado, here’s what we know, or what we think we know. The Kid was born on the lower East Side of Manhattan, probably in Five Points. If you’ve ever seen Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” you’ve seen the Kid’s childhood neighborhood. The Kid and his older brother Joe moved with their mother to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she met a man she would later marry in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was while they were en route to Santa Fe that the four of them spent some time in Denver.
And this wasn’t the only time the Kid was in Denver if we are to believe a report that appeared in the Denver Tribune two days before the Kid’s death. A man who supposedly knew the Kid reported seeing him in a Denver hotel, but the sighting, alas, was not confirmed by other witnesses.
And although we don’t have any record of the Kid spending time in Pueblo, it wouldn’t have been out of the question. Up until the late ’50s, Pueblo was the second largest city in Colorado after Denver. A lot of desperadoes passed through Pueblo in the 19th and early 20th centuries, so it was exactly the kind of city that would have appealed to the Kid. Today, the Kid is memorialized in Pueblo by a street name. For a few hundred thousand you can buy a house on Billy the Kid Lane.
What surprised you most about writing the book?
When you write a short novel, it’s imperative that you know the structure of the story at the outset. At the very least, you have to know where the story is headed, who the central characters are, their relationship arcs and their individual character arcs.
As the author of a short novel, you have very little time to sight-see along the way (although I manage to do that from time to time). Although I knew every character’s relationship to every other character, what surprised me the most was how deep and compelling some of the relationships became over the course of the novel. For example, Billy’s mentorship of the young boy Tommy was much more affecting than I had imagined it to be. Similarly, Billy’s infatuation with the widow Grace took on dimensions I could not have anticipated.
What books did you read when you were writing your novel?
With the exception of Larry McMurtry’s novel “Anything for Billy,” I stayed clear of fiction that focused on Billy the Kid. I didn’t want to be unduly influenced. Since McMurtry’s book is sui generis, there was little chance I would be affected by it, anyway. Incidentally, Larry McMurtry read my book shortly before he died and gave me a wonderful endorsement, which pleased me to no end.
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I love reading beautiful writing, and among the books I kept close to me when I wrote my novel were “John Keats: The Complete Poems,” “The Complete Walt Whitman” and Mark Twain’s “Roughing It.”
I also frequently cracked open a Craig Johnson Longmire mystery, to take a break from my writing and for sheer entertainment. After my novel was published by Sentient Publications—a Colorado publishing house–I was delighted to discover that Craig Johnson was a fan of my writing.
What’s something about your writing habits that has changed over time?
I used to write only in the morning and only until noon. Now I write at any time of the day, whenever I have a few moments to spare.
Just as eating can stimulate the appetite, so can the act of writing stimulate the imagination. Once I begin writing, I find ideas bubbling up to the surface of my consciousness that I didn’t have five minutes earlier. Something about the physical act of writing causes my brain to work in a different way. After about five minutes of physically writing—either on the computer or with pen and paper—I find myself in a flow state.
Recently I’ve been reading studies about the mapping of the writer’s brain. There’s a midbrain structure called the caudate nucleus that lights up in an MRI scan when a writer is writing. The caudate nucleus also lights up when you see or hear something beautiful. Writers who are just starting out don’t activate the caudate nucleus in the same way. The takeaway for beginning writers is: write, write, write. To which I would also add: read, read, read.
What other projects are you currently working on?
I recently completed narrating the Audible version of “Billy (the Kid)”. It should be available later this year.