By Meredith Allard
Lee Nelson is the author of the popular The Storm Testament series books, which portray western life during the 1800s. He has also written Rockwell, Walkara, Black Hawk Journey, Moriah Confessions, and Ephraim Chronicles. Most recently, Nelson completed an unfinished manuscript of Mark Twain’s, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, which has been published by Council Press.
Meredith Allard: How did you come to co-write Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians with Mark Twain?
Lee Nelson: It all started when I wandered into the Brigham Young University barbershop in 1968, a time when I was finishing up my work on a degree in English literature and had been reading a lot of Mark Twain. There on the reading table was the new Life Magazine with a photo of Twain on the cover, and the announcement that his unfinished sequel to Huck Finn was printed inside. Huck, Tom and Jim were heading west to have adventures with the Indians. It wasn’t long until they were riding with a mountain man to rescue two white girls kidnapped by Indians. Interesting character, wonderful western setting, and a great conflict… then it stopped in the middle of a sentence, after about fifteen thousand words. I was so disappointed, and wanted so much to know how it ended.
I learned that Twain started the story in 1885, the year Huck Finn was published. Though he lived 25 more years, he never finished it. It didn’t occur to me at the time that maybe I could finish it.
Then two years ago, while watching a Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain on a PBS station where the subject of the unfinished story was discussed, it occurred to me that I was probably more qualified to finish this story than any other living author, having published a dozen or so historical novels with settings in the American west of the mid eighteen hundreds. In my research I’ve learned how to chip arrowheads, build fires without matches, I’ve even killed a bull buffalo from the back of a galloping horse with a bow and arrow.
I located the Mark Twain Foundation on the Internet, and e-mailed my proposal. My request was shuffled back and forth, from office to office, until I finally ended up at the legal office at the University of California Press where copyright matters were handled. The exchange continued for a few more weeks until permission was granted for me to finish the copyrighted story. The Mark Twain Foundation wanted a share of future royalties proportionate to the number of Mark Twain composed words in the finished work. I had no problem with that. They sent out a contract and I signed it.
M.A.: Obviously, you are an ardent fan of Mark Twain. What is it about Twain’s writing that appeals so much to you? What can writers learn from Mark Twain?
L.N.: Twain never let rules and social restrictions get in the way of a good story. And nothing was too serious that he couldn’t insert a little humor. He was more than just a good writer, he was an entertainer, and he could do it on the written page. Yet, as he romped happily along, there was a surprising amount of depth and wisdom that could not be ignored.
M.A.: How did you prepare to write this novel? How were you able to slip into Twain’s (or, in this case Huck’s) narrative voice?
L.N.: After receiving permission to finish the work, I went through the Twain manuscript, line by line, word by word, taking copious notes, writing down every unusual use of grammar, every slang word, unusual sentence structure. I made notes on everything he did, that would not be part of my normal style of writing. I pinned these notes on the wall next to my computer, and reviewed them every few days while finishing the story, making sure I continued using the same devices. My goal was not to write like Mark Twain, but to tell a story in the voice of Huck Finn.
If I open the book and read a paragraph, I can tell if it’s mine or Twain’s, but everyone so far who has read the story and told me about it, says they can’t tell where Twain stopped and Nelson began. So I think I did a pretty good job of continuing the Huck Finn style.
M.A.: What has the reaction been to Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among theIndians? How do you answer the critics who think that Twain’s work should be left alone?
L.N.: I tell them I did leave Twain’s work alone. I didn’t change a single word in his portion of the story. All I did was add a middle and an end to the story, my middle and end. I don’t presume to know how he intended to finish the story, and I’m not sure he knew either, or he probably would have done it. Twain never earned a penny on this story while he was alive. Now for the first time, his foundation and interests are benefiting financially. So far I am not riding on his coattails, but he on mine because most of the six thousand people to buy the book so far are my fans, not his. I hope it catches on with his fans, but that remains to be seen.
M.A.: What would you like readers to take away from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians? What do you hope to achieve with this novel?
L.N.: Early in the book Twain introduced the theme of not making judgments based on things we read in newspapers and book when Huck finally realizes that “book Injuns and real Injuns ain’t the same.” I continue this them as Huck learns that “Book soldiers and real soldiers ain’t the same either.” There’s real gunfighters versus book gunfighters, real Mormons versus book Mormons, even real honeymoons versus book honeymoons.
M.A.: You have written 30 books about the history of your home state, Utah, and the West. What is it about the West, particularly Utah, that inspires your writing?
L.N.: About half my books are historical novels, with settings ranging from Missouri to California. Nothing in Texas so far, but I’ve done a lot with New Mexico’s early history. Done a lot with the early history of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. Nevada too.
M.A.: You have had some exciting experiences doing research for your adventure stories, including hunting buffalo, crossing the Green River on horseback, and team roping like a cowboy. How does participating in these physical activities help your writing?
L.N.: Until you’ve actually bitten into a raw buffalo testicle it’s pretty hard to describe that. One time a newspaper accused me of thinking the Indians of the 1830s had freeways, the way they were able to get around in my books. As the years have passed, I have learned, if anything, I have been conservative in the distances traveled by my characters. When my character is going to go somewhere on his horse, or on foot, I get out a topo map and ask how long it would take me to go that far on one of my horses or mules—and I’m a sedentary writer with a paunch, not a 20-year-old Indian with no mortgage to worry about.
I feel guilty sometimes when I think about killing the poor buffalo from horseback with the bow and arrow. While it was a great piece of research, training the horse, learning to shoot arrows at full gallop, tanning the hide, making pemican and jerky, and all the other stuff—I benefited much more from the publicity generated by the research. Literally hundreds of newspapers published feature articles about it. TV camera crews drove hundreds of mile to film me training the horse and starting fires without matches. The fact that I did something like this set me apart from all the guys behind desks who just make stuff up. My fans want to come and ride the outlaw trail with me. At team roping competitions everybody wants to be my partner. All this has helped sell hundreds of thousands of my Storm Testament series books.
M.A.: Which authors have inspired you the most? Why?
L.N.: When I was a kid I read all the best-selling authors. Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, John Steinbeck, Irving Stone, James Michener, Zane Gray—I was reading five or six books a week all through grade school and almost didn’t get to college because of it. I read in class instead of listening to the teachers. Soul on Ice, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind, The Silver Chalice—I could fill twenty pages with titles I’ve read. Then at college I switched my major from Physics to English when I found out English majors were given a list of over 400 classic books to read if they hoped to graduate. I intended to read all those books anyway, even if I worked in a factory, but at BYU they would give me a degree for doing it.
M.A.: What are you working on now?
L.N.: Last summer I rode horseback across a large portion of outer Mongolia, research for a thousand-page historical novel on Genghis Khan. Hope to finish it next year.
Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.