In 2013, the University of Texas Press announced an ambitious $1 million, 16-book project and accompanying website called the Texas Bookshelf. To be written by UT faculty, it is meant to explain the state’s culture and history in a comprehensive manner. Four years later, the project has produced its first pearl, “They Came From the Sky: The Spanish Arrive in Texas,” a handsomely produced chapter from author Stephen Harrigan’s narrative history of Texas that’s already underway.
American-Statesman: What’s the status of your contribution to the Bookshelf?
Stephen Harrigan: My job is to write the sort of keystone volume, which is a soup-to-nuts history of Texas. I’ve written about 600 pages so far. It’s a dizzying project. The state of Texas, as you may have heard, is pretty big, and there’s a big history to go with every square inch of it.
The major challenge for me is to try not to be intimidated by how much story there is to tell, by the bewildering complexity of people and events that have created this place. It’s a lot of fun, but I spend half of every night lying awake thinking things like: “Wait, did I forget to mention all the villages along the lower Rio Grande that José de Escandón founded in the 1750s?” or “Is it OK if I just skip over a few of these kinda boring governors?”
In dealing with the Native Americans and earliest Spanish excursions into what is now Texas, do they follow the patterns of such encounters in the rest of the New World?
Pretty much. It was a cataclysmic era turbocharged by a particularly Spanish combination of rapacity and religious idealism. But the Spanish were encountering an equally complex world of long-standing wars and alliances and trading networks among the indigenous people of the Americas. The greatest weapons the Spanish had — besides steel and horses — were the diseases they brought with them for which the Native Americans had no immunity.
I’d never heard the story of Sor María de Jesús de Ágreda, or if I did, I’d forgotten it. Tell us a little about her significance.
She’s a fascinating character, very mysterious and mystical. She was a young cloistered nun living in Spain in the 1620s. She never left the convent, at least not physically, but she claimed that she frequently “bi-located” across the Atlantic to Texas to teach the gospel to the Indians there.
At this time, Texas was still pretty much an unknown immensity to the Spanish. Their early settlements were far to the west, along the Rio Grande in New Mexico. But out of that immensity one day appeared a delegation of Jumano Indians, who reported to the friars near present-day Albuquerque that they kept seeing this apparition of a “Woman in Blue” who urged them to ask for priests to follow them into their lands to teach them the Catholic faith.
Toward the end of her life, still having never left the convent, Sor María was interrogated by an Inquisition priest, who found her to be very credible, or at least not working for Satan.
How do the storytelling skills that you employ in historical fiction such as your recent “A Friend of Mr. Lincoln” help bring alive Texas history, which many Texans think — and I emphasize “think” — they already know.
Being a novelist has taught me the importance of writing in scenes, of not just telling about something that happened but trying as much as possible to throw the reader into the action. I try to anticipate where the reader might start to get bored — say, with an accounting of cotton production in Texas in the 1890s — and to shift focus to some interesting human detail — for instance, the dietary preferences of James Hogg, our proudly corpulent reformist governor.
Obviously, I can’t make up dialogue the way I can in a novel, but there are plenty of colorful quotes from letters and diaries that I’ve found are immensely helpful in moving the story along and keeping things lively. And one of the things that keeps my own excitement fresh is actually visiting the places I’m writing about. There are plenty of days when I’ve driven 400 miles just to visit some obscure grave or gawk at some almost inconspicuous dirt mound that used to be a Caddo temple.
It’s not all that common that a chapter from an upcoming major history is published on its own, except perhaps in a magazine.
I think UT Press sees it as a kind of movie trailer for the finished book that they are patiently awaiting. Oh so patiently. I promise, guys, I’m writing as fast as I can!