It’s the perfect question to ask an author. And for the last year, after I’d tell people what I was writing, their responses were always fascinating. They’d say things like:
“He was a baaaaad man.”
Long pause. “The murderer?”
“Oh? He robbed a bunch of banks and trains. Interesting choice…”
At no point did anyone get very enthused about my topic. At best they were mildly polite. Usually they were just puzzled. The most common response was a general “Why him?”
And I get that response. I get it, hard because I would have been right there with them. Though I grew up in the west, I was never particularly interested in William Bonney. I liked my Billy’s to be ‘Idol’ and not ‘the Kid.’ But about five years ago, I was writing another book and I needed to use a famous person from the late 1800s with the name ‘William’. Billy the Kid seemed like the best choice because he would be a familiar name to people. To me, Billy was some heartless western thug who’d become immortalized for the same reason people tend to elevate the infamous. What I ‘knew’ about him, I’d picked up from our culture, which is pretty chock full of Billy the Kid references. There are dozens of songs, hundreds of books and over fifty films about him. There is even a Billy the Kid Ballet. But if you were to ask me what I knew about Billy, I would have said “He always rode alone (like the Billy Joel song). He was semi-legit when he rode with The Regulators, a barely-legal posse out to get justice for the murder of their boss. Billy made his living robbing trains and banks somewhere in the southwest. I think he died young in a shootout with Pat Garrett.” One and a half of those sentences would have been correct.
Since I first fell down the Billy rabbit hole, I’ve read dozens of books about him and the Lincoln County War that brought him to fame (not robbery, as it turns out). I even took a trip to his old stomping grounds in New Mexico. I walked around the cell of his final escape and talked to lots of Billy experts. One cold evening, I stood by his grave – all alone in the cemetery at sunset; Billy and I shared a toast of Jack Daniels.
The bulk of my time, a few hundred hours, was spent trying to create a book that would do him justice. Culture and legend haven’t painted an accurate picture of the man. Hell, the world wasn’t fair to him back when he was in it. Things haven’t changed so much. So I did my best to give the Kid his due. Billy is a very controversial and polarizing guy and I can’t help but wonder about others reactions to my book. It’s time-travel. It’s playing with the legend. People may like it or hate it or ignore my book entirely. Naturally, I hope for that first response. But I’ll tell you the truth. When I think about how others might react, mostly I’m thinking about the real Billy and what he would have thought of his own legend. What would he make of a scene in a book where he is dancing to Taylor Swift or working up a cattle stampede with a items found on a key fob? I hope he would have read it like one of his dime novels and it would have made him grin.
Thanks, Billy. It’s been a hell of a ride.