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Meet Tom McCourt, the bard of Carbon County

Nobody knows southeastern Utah — or writes about it — better than Tom McCourt

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Author Tom McCourt pose with his dog near his home in Price, Utah.

Author Tom McCourt pose with his dog near his home in Price on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. McCourt has written several books about the history of southern Utah.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Writing careers have been launched in numerous ways and due to a variety of reasons — curiosity, bursts of inspiration, historic happenings, strong opinions, the call of the wild. 

But how many got started by a coal mine blowing up?

So far, only one that we know of: Tom McCourt’s.

Twenty-one years ago, there McCourt was, two-plus decades into his profession as quality control manager for the Plateau Mining Co. headquartered in Price, Utah. He had a decent salary, a pension, good benefits and no reason to think anything would change.

Then a spark in the Willow Creek mine led to a fire that led to an explosion that led to two dead coal miners and an inoperable mine. Rather than throw good money after bad, Plateau closed its doors.

At 54, Tom was out of work.

He thought about going back to college. He had his bachelor’s degree from the University of Utah in anthropology — “I parlayed that into an office job at the coal mine,” he quips — and once upon a time, before kids and mortgages, the plan was to get a graduate degree in archaeology and become an archaeologist. But when he applied to grad school he found that they wanted him to redo several undergraduate classes because a lot had changed in 30 years.

After that he moped around and generally felt sorry for himself until Jeannie, his wife, muse and personal guidance counselor who not incidentally had a full-time job with the school district, said, “The house is paid for, the kids are raised, I can feed us, why don’t you do what you’ve always wanted to do?”

Which was write.

So Tom did. He got a job with the Sun-Advocate, Price’s biweekly newspaper, writing feature stories, reporting on local events, penning a column. His first paycheck made him officially a professional writer. And when he wasn’t doing his newspaper stories, he was home on the computer working on his first book.

Within two years, he finished “Split Sky,” a memoir about the summer of 1963 Tom spent working on the old Nutter ranch in Nine Mile Canyon.

Forty years may have passed, but when he sat at his keyboard it all came flooding back: the adventures, the characters, the stories, the lessons learned, all as fresh as yesterday’s rain.

When his book came out in 2002 Tom braced himself for whatever came next. Would anyone read it? Would anyone like it? Should he see if they were hiring at the mine?

Then came the payday, figuratively and literally. It turned out his experiences resonated with a lot of people who lived where he lived and thought like he thought. People liked it. People bought it.

Encouraged, he wrote another one.

This book was about the year he wore the uniform of the U.S. Army in Vietnam. “To Be a Soldier” was as personal as it was jarring, an unflinching memoir of a tragic war and those who were embroiled in it.

Suddenly, he was hearing from Vietnam vets near and far, many still suffering all these years later from the residue of war. McCourt became their quasi-therapist.

Writing grabbed him. He loved it as much as he thought he would. Now he couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

To market what he’d written, he went to Back of Beyond Books in Moab, handed his books to Andy Nettle, the owner, and asked if he’d please read them. And if he liked them, would he place them in his shop? They’ve been in stock ever since.

Like clockwork, a McCourt book comes out about every two years. There are now eight of them, a combination of personal memoirs and accounts of southeastern Utah’s rich — and often untold — history.

The writing is as homespun as the man who wrote it. Reading a Tom McCourt book is like he invited you onto his front porch to sit next to him in a rocking chair. His style is as unique as the rock art in Nine Mile Canyon. Unvarnished, unpolished and as honest as a handshake.

He is quick to credit the environment that raised and shaped him as the reason he writes, with special honorable mention to his maternal grandfather, Lorin Winn, a man’s man and one-time uranium assessor who used to drive Tom and his brother Reed across the desert and canyons in his 1957 pickup that didn’t have a radio.

Instead, he told the boys stories. “He could really appreciate a good story, and tell it so well,” says Tom. “I picked up a lot from him.”

Now it’s Tom driving across the desert and canyons, distributing his books on a circuit of his own design. He’s got a series of bookstores, convenience stores, hotels, motels, antique shops and gas stations across southeastern Utah that regularly carry his books — everywhere from Moab to Hanksville to Torrey to Green River to Wellington to as far north as Spanish Fork.

Every three or four months he and Jeannie hop in his pickup with boxes of books from Southpaw Publications — that’s Tom’s brand — to replace those that have been sold.

It’s an in-your-face to the technology revolution. McCourt’s books are only available in brick-and-mortar stores in a print edition. You have to hold it in your hand if you want to read it. There are no ebook or audiobook options. And they’re not available online. (Amazon’s cut, he says, is like highway robbery.) Tom is distributor, supplier, marketer and writer. (You can call him at home at 435-637-4544, on his cell at 435-637-4752, or email him at southpaw@emerytelcom.net and he’ll mail you a book.)

It hasn’t made him rival John Grisham in sales. Tom estimates he’s distributed 20,000 of his books over the last 20 years, probably a few more. His profit averages around $1,000 a month.

“It supplements my retirement, we have a good time peddling them out of the back of my truck, it gives us an excuse to go to Moab once in a while,” he says with a smile — and every now and then, and more often than he’d have ever guessed — someone comes up to him and asks, “When are you doing another book?”

He’s working on one, he’ll tell them. He has no plans to stop writing. He may be 74, but the bard of Carbon County got started late.