SALT LAKE CITY — A prolific writer, Jim DeFelice has authored thrillers to nonfiction to co-authoring (with Chris Kyle and Scott McEwan) the memoir "American Sniper" that became an Academy Award-nominated film. For DeFelice, every project should offer him discovery and learning, and his latest work, "WEST LIKE LIGHTNING: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express," (William Morrow, 355 pages) did just that. It tells the story of the Pony Express with details our seventh-grade history books left out: how the cutting-edge technology of the time made the Pony Express possible, the organization's financial wheelings and dealings, pioneer tales that are also pony express tales and the legends that are as valuable to the Pony Express story as are the facts.
The Deseret News talked with DeFelice about Utah's role in the Pony Express and the Utahn who rode three hundred and sixty miles so his brother could see his girlfriend.
Deseret News: So much of (the story of the Pony Express) is about landscape.
Jim DeFelice: Yeah. I retraced the trail. Of course it took me four weeks, and I had a car, but that one thing — being out there, tromping around — (it's) a spiritual thing, kind of communing there. You know, you’re in a place that literally thousands of people walked. … I’m not sure I could have understood (the landscape) to the point that it had to be understood if I hadn’t actually gone there.
DN: Since (the Pony Express) is such a big part of American history that happened in such a short period of time, what did you want to do differently with this story of the Pony Express that hadn’t been done before?
JD: There were a couple of things. This is a book for a general audience. Hopefully it’s like a gateway drug to deeper history … and maybe people will want to read about the pioneers that settled in Utah or the gold rush … or the many specialist articles and books on the Pony Express. So that (history aspect) was first. But I also wanted to put it in context of the country’s history, the West and different things that were going on.
I love the legends of the Pony Express and the Old West, and I wanted to celebrate them. I do point out what’s fictional, but I wanted to do it in a way that values legend and great stories.
DN: Part of the story of the Pony Express is the story of Utah, and one can’t tell the story of Utah without telling the story of the Mormon faith — which you do rather even-handedly. Talk a bit about Utah’s role in the Pony Express.
JD:: It’s interesting. It isn’t really fair to say that historians (have) neglected Utah totally, but when people think about the Pony Express — on a popular basis — they tend to focus on the two terminuses, and I understand why.
Utah really plays … a key role, not just because there were good roads there or a decent hotel. … When the Civil War comes, Utah had decided not to side with the Union. I don’t know what the outcome would have been, I don’t know if it changes (it), but American history would be a lot different (had Utah made a different choice), so that’s kind of a key event there.
You also have someone like (station superintendent) Howard Egan (who’s) really a key figure for the Pony Express in setting things up. And these days, the reason there’s no book about him is because he’s a very solid guy. He wasn’t a boring guy — he isn’t a criminal, so there’s not anything to write about there — but he’s the kind of guy that if you don’t have, you don’t have Utah('s involvement with the Pony Express).
Mormons were persecuted. That’s a fact, and you can’t talk about this period of time without discussing inequities. It just so happens that (Pony Express co-founder, Alexander) Majors kind of spans that time period and has this odd history relating to Utah, so I put that in the book.
DN: Did you have a favorite character from your research?
JD: I have two favorite stories. One of them is the Jack Slade story — he uses (a) horse thief for target practice, cuts off his ear and puts it on a post. He’s a character in "Roughing It" by Mark Twain. When I was in Julesberg, Colorado, where there’s a monument to the Pony Express (unfortunately on private property), I looked past the barbed wire fence and saw an ear on one of the fence posts. Somebody has one heck of a sense of humor.
Also, Howard Egan is the guy in charge (of the Pony Express), basically from Salt Lake west, and he’s got two sons that ride for him — Howard and Ras. … Now there are a couple of guys who claim to have the longest ride (on the Pony Express), but I like Howard’s claim the best because he did it for love — but not for his love, but for his brother. (Ras) was dating a girl that lived on Howard’s stretch of the trail, so they switched routes … and (through various mishaps) Howard ends up going three hundred and sixty miles (on one ride) and doesn’t even get a date out of it.
The thing that really impressed me about the riders — I thought they’d be bragging, “Oh, I went the hundred miles or the ninety miles in X hours.” (But) that’s not what they bragged about. They bragged about how long they rode. It really is a story about endurance, humans against nature.
DN: What do you think people would be surprised to learn about the Pony Express?
JD: The fact that it (lasted) only eighteen months. … Also the financial machinations behind (the Pony Express), which was always figured to lose money itself … and how clever the business people were behind it. They manipulated all those cities along the Missouri (River). They got the best deal out of St. Joseph, (Missouri). … In theory that real estate alone would have given (the people of St. Joseph) tons of money. The other thing I think people are surprised at is that (the Pony Express) used the telegraph and the railroads so much. … I realized they were around, but I didn’t realize they were incorporating them (into the Pony Express) as often as they could.
DN: You’re very much a part of this book — some of that speaks to your ability to tell a story, and to tell it in a certain voice — but I was fascinated in all these moments where you would interject, that you were so present in the story. Can you speak to that? Is that specific to this story of the Pony Express, or is it specific to you?
JD: Thanks. Every book is different, and you’re trying to be appropriate in what you’re trying to do. In telling this story, I wanted it to have that friendly flavor, like (readers are) sitting in the car with me. … Hopefully it worked. … Too often kids are turned off to history because it feels too distant. … It becomes boring, and it’s not boring. A lot of the legends aren’t true, but we tell them for certain reasons, and I felt like picking up my book could be for entertainment like those legends were.
If you go …
What: Jim DeFelice book signing
When: Tuesday, June 26, 7 p.m.
Where: The Kings English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East
How much: Free
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of "West Like Lightning" from The King's English.