Tom Clavin Interview: How Red Cloud Changed the West, Filling the Gap in American History
Image attributed to Anne Drager
Tom Clavin is the author or coauthor of 16 books, including the New York Times bestseller Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, An Epic Storm and an Untold Rescue, Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero, One For the Ages: Jack Nicklaus and the 1986 Masters and Last Man Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam.
Clavin’s latest collaboration with author Bob Drury is The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend (released November 5, 2013). Drawing on a wealth of evidence, Drury and Clavin bring their subject to life again in a narrative that climaxes with Red Cloud’s War – a conflict whose massacres presaged the Little Bighorn and ensured Red Cloud’s place in the pantheon of Native American legends.
"You can ask almost anybody which of these three leaders have you not heard of before: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull or Red Cloud. About 99% of the people are going to say 'Red Cloud.' His story has just not been told. We’re hoping our book allows people to recognize that there’s a huge gap in American History, and that’s because people don’t know how Red Cloud changed the West."
Drury is the author/coauthor/editor of 9 books and has written for numerous publications including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Men’s Journal and GQ. He resides in Manasquan, New Jersey.
For 15 years, Clavin wrote for The New York Times, and magazines he has contributed articles to include Golf, Men’s Journal, Parade, Reader’s Digest and Smithsonian. Clavin currently lives in Sag Harbor, New York.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tom, when did you begin writing professionally?
Tom Clavin: I began professionally in the 1980s. I wrote for a bunch of small publications and weekly newspapers just trying to generate as many bylines as I could. A big break for me was getting picked up to write for the regional sections in The New York Times. I wrote for the Times in different sections for the next 15 years, and as you can imagine, when you have New York Times on your resume, it starts to open up a few other doors.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing now other than authoring books?
Tom Clavin: The book writing is my primary focus, but I do some part-time teaching to get me out from behind the computer, and I still keep my hand in doing some work for magazines. I write for Men’s Journal and Smithsonian and a couple of other magazines, but the primary focus and the way I’m making most of my revenue is book writing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you first meet Bob (Drury)?
Tom Clavin: Drury and I have been friends for many years. We’ve known each other going back to our newspaper days in New York, and we sort of lost track with each other and then reconnected almost 10 years ago. I told him about a World War II story that I didn’t think had ever been reported before, and he suggested that we collaborate on a magazine article. We did, and that magazine article turned into our first book together which was titled Halsey’s Typhoon, a true World War II story about the Admiral’s Pacific Fleet that ran into a typhoon.
It was the greatest loss by the Navy in that war, not against the Japanese, but against a typhoon. It’s a rescue story too. When the ships sank, many guys were hauled out of the water. That book started us off. We each have separate projects, but the Red Cloud book is the fourth collaboration. We’re in a good situation in that we can pursue other book projects that are of individual interest, and then the way it’s worked out is that every couple of years or so, we come out with a book that we’ve written together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the beginning of the collaboration, was it difficult for you to write with another person?
Tom Clavin: I think that was true of Bob more than me because I’d had some experience collaborating on book projects before. He didn’t have as much experience, although he had done a couple of books, but they were more of a “ghost writer” kind of thing. It would be like the Jerry Jones biography, the Cowboys owner, and then in small type would be “with Bob Drury.” It helped that we were friends ahead of time. We were not coming into the process totally cold and complete strangers and trying to learn about each other.
We already knew to some extent what some of our idiosyncrasies were, so we didn’t have to start at square one in relating to each other. We made some decisions early on that helped us that were not ego driven decisions such as how to divvy up the labors and whose name would appear first and things like that. For me, they were easy decisions to make. We cleared them out in the beginning, and it didn’t hurt that the first book that we did came out of the gate as a bestseller, so that makes you more encouraged about continuing collaboration.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. That never hurts at all. I’m interested in how you came up with the title, The Heart of Everything That Is.
Tom Clavin: Initially, our publisher was saying that we should just call it “Red Cloud” because he’s the title character, and we have this rather imposing photo of him on the cover. We felt kind of differently. I think we were inspired a bit by S. C. Gwynne and his bestseller, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. We wanted something a little more lyrical.
As we were doing the research, we realized that the Lakota Sioux’s name for the Black Hills, which is their most sacred place, is Paha Sapa. The translation of that in English is “the heart of everything that is.” That describes what that place is to them. It’s the heart of everything they know, and the heart of everything that they’ve been. So we sort of stood our ground, and said we wanted the book to be titled, The Heart of Everything That Is, and then have a subtitle with Red Cloud in it. We just felt that gave more of an indication that the book was not a straightforward biography of an individual Indian. It was more about the entire culture and the history of the Great Plains. It was more than just a book about one man.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very interesting. What makes this book different from other biographies written about Red Cloud?
Tom Clavin: Well, that’s the thing. Red Cloud is pretty much an unknown figure. I’m not saying he has never appeared in a book before. There are some academic and scholarly works that bore some aspects of his life. But there hasn’t been a book like this that puts Red Cloud front and center and also recognizes what we believe is that he is the most significant American Indian figure of the 1900s. We believe that moreso than for Sitting Bull or Crazy Horse or Cochise or Quanah Parker or Geronimo or any of the others.
He was the first American Indian to be able to unify tribes to face a common enemy. That was a remarkable achievement because, as our book points out in some detail, in the first half of the 1800s, the Indian tribes of the plains West of the Missouri spent a lot more time fighting each other than fighting the intrusions of the white people. The other thing that Red Cloud did that was remarkable was that he was a military strategist. He figured out the best way to fight the white man and as it turned out, to defeat them. So for those two things alone, he was the most remarkable and most successful American Indian leader, yet he has been almost completely lost to history.
You can ask almost anybody which of these three leaders have you not heard of before: Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull or Red Cloud. About 99% of the people are going to say “Red Cloud.” His story has just not been told. We’re hoping our book allows people to recognize that there’s a huge gap in American History, and that’s because people don’t know how Red Cloud changed the West.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Especially in older books about the Old West, Indians are portrayed as bloodthirsty savages. Do you feel that, in literature, they have received a bad reputation?
Tom Clavin: Not necessarily. As our book points out, for the tribes of the West of the Missouri of the American West of the 1800s, it was like a gang war out there with the Sioux against the Crow against the Pawnee against the Cheyenne against the Arapaho. They all fought among themselves for territory, for horses, for buffalo, hunting ground, things like that. It was a very savage existence of survival, and when they would take somebody captive, they would horribly mutilate them and kill them in the most excruciating, painful ways that they could find, that they could create. That went on for decades and decades.
This book is not one in which we portray American Indians as noble savages. This is no Hiawatha story. This is based on real sources, on factual information. It was a kind of a violent free-for- all out there, and once the whites got involved, they picked up on it pretty quickly. They started to give back as good as they got.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you feel that discrimination against the American Indians is still going strong in the United States today?
Tom Clavin: The Indians are basically collateral damage for our western expansion and manifest destiny. The US government, with the Army leading the way, would go out there and offer various treaties which were broken even before the ink was dry. When this went on all through the 1800s into the 1900s, the collateral damage of our westward expansion was that the Indians were losing their culture, their language and their ability to feed themselves. Most of their survival skills were lost.
The discrimination now is basically that they are an unhappy reminder of the genocide that we perpetrated on the native peoples of this country. I’ve been to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota where Red Cloud is buried. It’s like our Calcutta. The unemployment rate is 80%, and the average life span of an Oglala Sioux male is 49 years old. The alcohol rate is off the charts with diabetes and hypertension rampant. It’s an awful place to try and raise children and have any kind of successful family life. It’s such a symbol of what the US government has done and continues to do to the American Indian.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that brings me to the recent Washington Post article written by you and Bob. The two of you suggested that the Washington Redskins professional football team be renamed to the Washington Red Clouds. Is that not a similar stereotype?
Tom Clavin: The whole thing is a little bit tongue in cheek, but it is amazing the number of comments under the story. We had hundreds of comments on the Washington Post website. But the difference is that Redskins is an offensive term. This is not me saying it’s an offensive term, but one Native American group after another saying it is. The director of the Red Cloud Heritage Center on the reservation wrote a letter to the Post a couple of weeks ago about it. It’s an offensive term. Now the name “Red Cloud” is not offensive to any Indian. It shouldn’t be because he was a proud, intelligent, charismatic warrior and leader. So it is kind of like night and day.
Will we see the team change their name to the Washington Red Clouds? Probably not. It’s not a very sexy name (laughs). But I would think they have to replace Redskins. I mean, the time has come. The Cleveland Indians have gotten some criticism, but the name “Indians” is not an offensive name. They were Indians. “Redskins” is not the name that any American Indian wants to be known by.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Atlanta Braves baseball team has encountered criticisms over the years.
Tom Clavin: I think the name “Braves” by itself is not necessarily offensive. There are a lot of books and articles, even those written by Native American people that refer to warriors and braves. But I think they’ve gotten a little more criticism because of the tomahawk chop thing that they do during the games. I think the perpetration of some stereotypes is what they’ve been getting criticized for. But definitely the poster boy for insensitivity toward the Native peoples is the Washington Redskins.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Perhaps the Washington “Warriors” would work for the team name.
Tom Clavin: Yeah. They have that in basketball already, the Golden State Warriors. Washington can even decide not to do anything relative to Native people. They could just become the Washington “Skydivers” (laughs). They don’t have to maintain a connection to American Indians. But if they feel they don’t want to completely sever a connection to American Indians, then they’ve got to come up with a name that does not offend. It’s like a team called the American “Honkies.” It’s an offensive term, and they’ve got to get rid of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m surprised it hasn’t been changed because there has been so much pressure to do so over the last few years.
Tom Clavin: I think it’s getting stronger too. It seems like, not that I’ve paid a lot of attention to it, that there is more resistance to it this year than I’ve seen in previous years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there any plans to adapt the book into a film?
Tom Clavin: We’re open to that. To be quite blunt about what we’ve been told so far is that it’s a very tough sell as a film because there isn’t a Native American actor who has any pull at the box office. I’m not going to dance around the topic, but we’ve talked to a couple of people in the film industry who we gave the book to even before it was published, and they said, “Look at all the stories and drama. We love this book!”
The problem was that the main character is a dynamic, charismatic, handsome, distinctive character, but he’s an Indian. In this day and age, you can’t have a white guy playing an Indian. We saw what a disaster the Johnny Depp thing was playing Tonto. What producer is going to hang a $50 million picture on the shoulders of a main character who is a Native American actor? There isn’t one. I can’t disagree with that logic. I know that there are some very fine actors who are a part or all Indian, but are they going to have anybody show up at the box office?
Lou Diamond Phillips is a very good actor. Is anybody going to say, “Hey, let’s go see that new Lou Diamond Phillips’ movie?” So that’s the challenge that we face. It would be a marvelous mini series or a movie because of all the characters and the sweep of history, but so far, that’s the resistance we’ve gone up against. I don’t have an answer for it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a shame. What interests you other than writing, Tom?
Tom Clavin: I don’t have many interests other than writing (laughs). I work a lot. I get most excited about whatever the project is I’m working on. It’s fun when a book comes out because I love talking about it. I love making appearances, meeting people and answering their questions about the book. I can’t tell you that I restore old cars or that I travel in France (laughs). Six times a year I play golf with my son, and I love movies. But writing really does occupy 90% of my time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s the next project?
Tom Clavin: There are two things underway. One is a book I’m doing as a solo project, which is a book on Sergeant Reckless. She was actually a horse that was recruited by the Marine Corps that became a hero during this one particular battle in the Korean War. That’s my next project.
Drury and I have just signed to do our next book which will take us again another two years. We’re going back to a World War II story, but this time it’s a story about pilots and flyers in the Pacific Theatre related to the 5th Air Force that was stationed in New Guinea and Port Moresby.
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