The original idea for the novel came from my brother-in-law. He grew up in a small town in Kansas. All the kids in his town were instructed by their parents to stay away from the next town over.
My brother-in-law found out later it was because the town was where the mob sometimes sent guys to cool off after a job, after a hit.
When I started the novel I planned to have Frank, the mob guy from New Orleans who is one of my main characters, sent to hide out in the small town where the other main character, Charlotte, lives.
She’s stuck in a bad marriage, stuck in a job with no prospects. As I was writing, though, I realized that Frank being sent by his dangerous boss somewhere wasn’t nearly as good as Frank on the run from his dangerous boss.
And it made a lot of more sense to have Charlotte on the run too, taking her fate in her own hands.
The inspiration for Charlotte was my mother. My mother grew up poor and never had a chance to go to college, but she was ferociously intelligent and resilient and curious about the world. A couple of years ago I was going through old photos from before I was born and something just started stirring. I started thinking, like every writer does, What if? What if, at a certain point, my mother had made a different choice? Would it have been the best choice of her life, or the worst?
I knew when I started planning NOVEMBER ROAD that I wanted the assassination to be a backdrop, not a focus. Still, though, I read a ton of stuff about the Kennedy assassination. One thing that surprised me: as farfetched as some of the assassination theories might seem, the facts themselves are almost as incredible.
For example, President Kennedy’s brain, removed during the autopsy, disappeared soon after. That’s a fact! It’s no wonder that doubt about the Warren Commission report emerged soon after it was issued.
Yes. In 1978, six employees of a family steakhouse in Oklahoma City – four of them teenagers – were murdered during a robbery. That really shook the city up, and it shook me up too. I was thirteen years old at the time and working across town at an ice cream and burger place. I remember thinking about how terrified those kids must have been. I guess I never stopped imagining what they must have been thinking that night they died, and what their lives had been like before that.
A few years later, I was working at a movie theater when two teenage girls disappeared from the State Fair of Oklahoma. It turned out the mother of one of the girls sometimes worked at my theater, checking box-office numbers for the studio. I didn't know her, but I remember watching her from across the lobby and trying to imagine what she must have been going through.
Both titles – GUTSHOT STRAIGHT and WHIPLASH RIVER – are poker terms. A "gutshot straight" is when you have to draw a single card rank to make a straight – a pretty reckless gamble, in other words. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT isn't about poker, but it IS about characters who do quite a bit of reckless gambling. But I don't see that as always a bad thing – when you're trying to make big changes in your life, to really change who you are, sometimes a reckless gamble is your only play.
The title of WHIPLASH RIVER refers to the final card revealed in a game of Texas Hold Em – the "river" card. In poker as in life, sometimes you think you've got a great hand, but then a surprising, last-second turn of fortune can really slam the brakes on you – and give you whiplash. In the novel, the characters have lots of experience with surprising, last-second turns of fortune that jerk them around in unexpected directions.
A couple of characters in NOVEMBER ROAD are real-life mob guys: Carlos Marcello, who in the 1950s and 1960s was arguably the most powerful mafia boss in America, and Moe Dalitz, who represented the interests of organized crime in Las Vegas. The character of Big Ed Zingel is a fictional invention, but he’s a first cousin to colorful historical figures such as Gus Greenbaum and Johnny Rosselli.
In THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE, the character of Lyle Finn, lead singer of the rock band The Barking Johnsons, was very loosely inspired by a beloved local legend here in Oklahoma City, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.
And one of the characters in GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, I'm not going to say which one, is based almost entirely on my wife.
The one based on my wife.