The Whitehall Ledger - Serving Southern Jefferson County in the Great State of Montana

By Jack H. Smith
Ledger Publisher 

Hays uses Whitehall as inspiration



Since graduating from Whitehall High School in 1984, Clark Hays has traveled around the world, now finding himself settled in Portland. The co-author of four books in the "Cowboy and Vampire" series with his wife Kathleen McFall, and the soon to be released "Bonne and Clyde: Resurrection Road", Hays not only reflects back fondly on his time in Whitehall, he also uses it as an inspiration for his work.

Hays remembers moving around a lot as a kid. His father, Hubert, was in the oilfield so that meant stints in California, Texas, Alaska, Scotland and finally, Whitehall.

"We lived on a ranch about 15 miles from town (Fish Creek) so my early life was shaped by western sensibilities, an appreciation of nature and a love of solitude and a liberating kind of self-sufficiency," Hays said.

Looking back at growing up, he said going to town seemed like such a treat in those days. Even after traveling the world, he said not one of the larger cities he visited could replicate the sense of joy and anticipation of making the trip into town, and maybe eating at the Borden's Hotel, or at the A&W, admitting he still has a guilty love of corn dog and onion rings. He added a trip to Butte in those days seemed really exotic.

In 1999, Hays and McFall would publish their first book, "The Cowboy and Vampire: A Very Unusual Romance". It would be the first of four in the series that Hays says draws heavily on his time in Whitehall.

"Our books, in many ways, are love letters to the past and to life in a small, western town," he said. "I have such affection for my Whitehall days, even though at the time it seemed a little limiting, that the chance to draw from those experiences - and mix in a little humor - helped bring through an authenticity to the 'Cowboy and the Vampire Collection' that readers seemed to really appreciate. We heard from people in small towns around the country, especially in rural areas, that the main characters really resonated with them, embodying small town life."

The books of course feature a vampire aspect, but Hays said the western side of the stories are all grounded in his memories. As an example, he said the first books starts off with the protagonist Tucker, driving his pickup to town and waving – two fingers lifted of the steering wheel – to other drivers he knew, which, of course, was everyone.

"That was basically a mirror image of every drive from the ranch to town," he said.

The final book in the series "The Last Sunset" features a tribute scene to the old feed store in Whitehall.

"I have such fond memories of wandering though the aisles. I can literally still remember the smell of salt blocks," Hays said.

Along with the memories of places, Hays added their books make an even more fundamental connection to small town life: the people who live there.

"In the small town in our book - LonePine, population 498 - there's a rich cast of supporting characters, all quirky and kind and willing to help out and lend a hand when things get weird and scary. That too is based on my time in Whitehall," he said.

Hays who has also penned many short stories and poems, said he owes his writing career to his fourth grade teacher Ms. Magee and the Whitehall School system.

"The Magees actually were our closest neighbors on the ranch; they had a place about three or four miles down the creek. She managed to light the fuse on my interest in creative writing. I remember spinning out crazy stories - poorly self-illustrated; my artistic abilities never materialized - with way too many modifiers. She took them all as seriously as Pulitzer Prize level writing and taught me to refine it a little bit. Between that and positive feedback from my classmates, I was hooked," he said. "I went through the typical stages of writing: the non-paying kind - bad poetry, then really bad poetry, then decent short stories and, finally, a closet full of unfinished novels - and then the paying kind: journalism, grant writing and now, communications. But thanks to Ms. Magee, I never gave up on the creative side of things and I've been lucky enough to merge the two, paying and un-paying, into a series of successful books."

He also credits his mom Marie, who he said along with teaching him a love of reading, as well as unwavering support, even for his really bad poetry.

Along with the encouragement from his former teacher and mom, Hays said perhaps the luckiest break was meeting Kathleen (McFall), noting they had matching and similarly sized creative and self-destructive streaks.

"And it was always a toss up which side would win. After a fiery break up, separation and equally fiery re-collision, we decided to focus more on the creative side. Our first book, the "Cowboy and the Vampire: A Very Unusual Romance", was born in a truckstop in Madras, Ore., sketched out in crayon on the back of a placemat while we chain-smoked and drank rough coffee," he said.

Thanks to a steady diet of Louis L'Amour novels and a childhood spent outdoors ranching and hunting, Hays said his style is steeped in the west.

"To me, that means more than writing about cowboys, it means appreciating place and people, and an uncluttered approach to showing, not telling, and an appreciation of action over conversation," he said.

Even with his affinity of writing about the west, he said too much of that can be boring, and luckily he has McFall as the co-author to balance it out with more depth.

"Kathleen and I are a package deal and between the two of us, we make one awesome writer. Kathleen grew up in almost the exact opposite situation: the heart of Washington, DC. Her writing style is deeper, more thoughtful, and grounded in people and emotions that motivate them," he said. "Bringing those two styles together is what makes for such a deep, surprising read. The Cowboy and the Vampire Collection, setting aside all the romance and action and shootouts, is a meditation on love and human consciousness. Seriously. We both share an interest in where the 'self' comes from, and vampires gave us a chance to explore a shared external consciousness of our own making, called the Meta. And the cowboys let us come at it from the awe we feel in wilderness."

This month, the duo will take a far departure from the Cowboy and Vampire series with the publication of "Bonnie and Clyde: Resurrection Road" which he calls a story about redemption, and also features a timely enemy: greed.

"We were drawn into the Bonnie and Clyde myth because, like cowboys and vampires, we like the fact that almost everyone knows about them, knows the legend, and so they bring instant associations. Bonnie and Clyde - and maybe Jesse James - are the closest thing we have to American Robin Hoods. Of course, they were also cold-blooded killers, but Kathleen came up with the idea of redeeming them, and setting against the greed of the era," he said.

The two spent a year reading about Bonnie and Clyde, watching old movies, and learning about the era.

"Suffice it to say, Google and the age of the Internet has made research a lot easier, although our search histories are probably quite perplexing if anyone in the government is paying attention: slang from the 30s, how many rounds does a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifles) hold, when was nitroglycerine used, etc.," he said.

They also have at least two more stories in the series, one set in the 1930's and one in the 40's.

The new book is quite the departure from their previous stories, but Hays said they have been living with the undead for a long time now, and even though they had a great times and many readers really respond to the concept, vampires tend to "turn off" a significant portion of readers.

We've got at least two more stories planned in the series, one in the 30s and one in the mid 40s. So we expect to learn a LOT more about American history.

"That is not the case with Bonnie and Clyde. Just mentioning the title evokes a whole flood of thinking around car chases and Tommy guns (even though, actually, Clyde favored BARs, and fedoras and illicit romance and sticking it to the man," he said. "We had been planning a different series, a murder mystery series set in national parks, and had done the work creating the characters and sketching out a few plot lines. And had even started the first book. But then Bonnie and Clyde showed up and just wouldn't be ignored."

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