Matt Vincent, a fifth-generation native of the Colorado plains, graduated from Yuma High School in 1975 and from the University of Colorado School of Journalism in 1980. After more than 30 years in the newspaper and magazine business, he retired in 2009 to pursue other interests in the publishing world. Today, he and his wife, Robin, reside on a small family farm in northeastern Colorado.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Matt Vincent: “Wild Times” was my COVID project. During our self-imposed isolation on the farm, I needed something to keep busy, so I returned to what I love most, beginning with the concept of a collection of short stories. It quickly progressed to research and organization, and once I started, I couldn’t stop. The joy of writing had returned.
By the time the pandemic isolation ended for us, I had more than 25 stories in the hopper. I took what I thought were the best ones and self-published. I thought about using historic black-and-white photographs but those were largely inaccessible because places like the Denver Public Library were shut down due to COVID. But as fate would have it, I met an incredibly talented artist on Facebook. Her name is Brigitte Shafer, and she eventually produced all the interior art for the book. Her art made the project even better than what I had originally envisioned.
Once we published the book, my wife, Robin, made me promise to take a break. Apparently, I’d become a hermit, a “recluse” in her words! To maintain peace and harmony at the farm, I took a temporary leave of absence from the keyboard.
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The inspiration for the book, of course, came from my upbringing on flatlands, the hinterland of North America, a place that most people only view from 30,000 feet or at 75-mph down the interstate. Many of the stories came from the memories of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents – the Dust Bowl, the Flood of ’35, the Plains Indians, the outlaws, and tales of pioneer days.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Vincent: The excerpt comes from a chapter entitled “Love and Lust in Wild Places,” the story of Mattie Silks, a famous madame from Colorado’s gold rush days. I first learned about Mattie in a book from my father’s library called “Wildest of the West.” It was written by Forbes Parkhill, an old newspaperman from The Denver Post and once a famous western author.
Parkhill related the tale of a young Missouri farm girl who followed the Smoky Hill Road to the west not long after the Civil War. Mattie eventually found her way to Georgetown, Colorado, where she opened a house of ill repute for the area’s hard-working miners.
Of course, a good portion of their gold and silver ended up in Mattie’s pocketbook. As Georgetown’s mining boom subsided, Mattie and her new boyfriend, an outlaw named Cort Thomson, moved down to Denver where Mattie made a fortune with her stable of prostitutes.
Try as she might to find a place among Denver’s elite “highbrow” crowd, she was ostracized by her past. What she desired most in life – a place among the city’s nouveau riche – became unattainable in life. But she achieved her goal in death by purchasing a small plot of ground in the exclusive Fairmount Cemetery near present-day Lowry Field.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write?
Vincent: I’ve always been a huge fan of history, especially the history of the American West. Plus, as a former journalist from the dying newspaper business, I would say this first book was predestined to happen. And it didn’t hurt that I’ve been to all these places mentioned in the book, so that was additional inspiration to tell those tales.
SunLit: What did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Vincent: More than anything, it made me rethink the basic process of writing. You don’t just sit down and write a book. I had to lose that newsroom mentality.
It required much more on the front end, beginning with a comprehensive outline of the overland project and the road that would take me there. More than anything, it required a daily commitment to the keyboard.
To keep myself motivated and laser focused, my office walls and windows were soon covered with brightly covered Stick-em Notes. Reminders. Guides. Unfortunately, it soon bordered on the obsessive.
“Wild Times and True Tales from the High Plains”
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My office resembled a construction site. And it consumed my thought process. I would find myself dreaming ideas, solutions to transitions and actual story construction. If I didn’t have a notebook on my bed stand, I would jump out of bed in the middle of the night and write ‘em down so they weren’t lost by morning. Drove my wife crazy.
As far as subject matter, the secret wasn’t a secret. It was simply thorough research.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Vincent: There’s no question that self-doubt loomed largest. I wasn’t sure if I could do it and I didn’t know if it would be any good once I finished it. The other challenge became my bad habit of continually rewriting what had already been written, which slowed down the entire process.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Vincent: That Shakespeare was right – past is prologue. History is priceless.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Vincent: I really haven’t figured out the current theory driving today’s political breeze. Once upon a time in America, it was admirable to become a well-informed and educated citizen. Hopefully, the current fires will eventually become cold ashes when reason returns.
If we can’t learn from the past and apply that wisdom to the future, we’re in big trouble as a society and country. Solutions? Support your local bookstores. Contribute to your public library. Attend school board meetings. Vote.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Vincent: A good friend once shared some advice that kept me focused. His advice was a cliché posing as a motivational question. “How do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time.
As it applied to the process of writing this book, I forced myself to start the coffee pot at 5 a.m. every day, no matter what, and I committed to 1,000-word bites of the elephant. If I went over on any given day, I kept eating. Surprisingly, what began as a daily ordeal soon became a productive habit. Some days the eating – and on other days it was hard to digest. But eventually the elephant was barbecued.
SunLit: What should readers take away from reading “Wild Times?”
Vincent: Hopefully, the short stories are motivational. You might feel uneasy, disturbed, and you might be compelled to investigate those overlooked flatlands of Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. You might discover enough roadside attractions out there to bring you back. And if you’re truly brave and adventurous, you will one day learn to “travel the gravel.”
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Vincent: I’m halfway through another collection of short stories. It’ll be finished in early 2024 and it’s also centered around the early American West. Some of the characters might be familiar to western history buffs and, hopefully, some will be completely new. It’s the same general construct as “Wild Times & True Tales” but a whole new cast of characters. The die is cast and there’s no turning back!
A few more quick questions
SunLit: Which do you enjoy more as you work on a book – writing or editing?
Vincent: If there’s an analogy between book publishing and home construction, I prefer the rough framing over the tedious finish work. Writing is the joy. Editing is the labor.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Vincent: If pride comes from recognition, the first one I was truly proud of was a first-person account I wrote for the Littleton Independent involving a fatal drugstore shootout back in 1983.
While I was standing at the checkout counter to purchase a lottery ticket, a man walked up beside me, leveled a .45 at the pharmacist and demanded drugs. The pharmacist promptly shot him dead with a 9 mm pistol that was hidden under the counter. That story was later named the Best Feature of the Year by the Colorado Press Association.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, would you invite over for a great discussion about literature and writing?
Vincent: Hunter S. Thompson. Ernest Hemingway. Samuel Clemens.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Vincent: “Make it sing.” – from Ken Grissom, my first newspaper editor at the Houston Post.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Vincent: Western history nut, nonconformist, hoodlum.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Vincent: Loud music with a soundtrack that revolves and evolves monthly and sometimes weekly. My current Spotify playlist includes James McMurtry, Lucinda Williams, Justin Townes Earle, Ry Cooder, Big Head Todd and Phil Cook.
SunLit: What music do you listen to for sheer enjoyment?
Vincent: Little Feat, Cowboy Junkies, Duane Allman, Alejandro Escovedo, T. Rex, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, Brewer & Shipley, Johnny Winter and John Lee Hooker. And anything that ever came out of Muscle Shoals.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Vincent: Age 17. The Watergate hearings and the eventual resignation of Richard M. Nixon. The seed was planted in fertile soil by Woodward and Bernstein.
SunLit: As a writer, what do you fear most?
Vincent: That I will ever cease to be inspired.
SunLit: Also as a writer, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Vincent: That I’ve been doing this for over 40 years and am actually getting paid.