Melissa Whitley Lenhardt has been serialized.
“Bloodoath” and “Badlands,” the second and third volumes of her “Sawbones” trilogy were recently released by Hachette Books.
The 1988 the Winnsboro High School graduate published her first novel, “Stillwater: A Jack McBride Mystery,” in 2015, shortly followed by its sequel, “The Fisher King.”
She quickly inked a deal for a three-book series of historical novels centered around a single, female physician who is forced to flee New York City after being falsely accused of murder.
Along the way, Catherine Bennett (who goes by Laura Elliston and any other name that might hide her true identity), falls in love with William Kindle, a soldier. Together, they face danger, Indians and blood-thirsty bounty hunters.
Lenhardt is the daughter of Linda and the late Henry Whitley. She and her husband, Jay, a sports business consultant, live in Frisco with their two boys, Ryan and Jack.
Her first book in this series, “Sawbones,” is dedicated to her father, who loved Westerns, especially “Lonesome Dove.”
Lenhardt took a break from working on her latest project to answer a few questions about her strong female character, violence and the new sub-genre of Feminist Westerns.
Henry and Linda Whitley. Henry was a big fan of Westerns; the movie “Lonesome Dove” was a favorite. After his death, his daughter Melissa spent the summer watching westerns and reading Larry McMurtry’s book. (Courtesy Photo)
The Winnsboro News: Give us a little background on how this series got started.
Melissa Whitley Lenhardt: My dad loved watching Westerns, especially “Lonesome Dove.”
When he died in 2008, I spent the summer watching Westerns and reading “Lonesome Dove” for the first time.
When I looked around for other Westerns to read, I discovered I could either read a very male-centered traditional Western, or a Western romance.
There wasn’t anything in between – a female- focused story with the grit of a traditional western and a love story. So, I decided to write one.
TWN: Talk about the reaction to “Sawbones.”
MWL: You’re never going to get universal approval, but I’m proud of the fact that, even after being out for a year (“Sawbones” released in digital in March 2016), it doesn’t have a single one star review on Amazon.
The response to “Blood Oath” and “Badlands” has been even better. Readers have really connected with Laura and her story.
The most common criticism I’ve received is about the violence.
We tried to prepare readers, giving the books titles that don’t make you think “romance” and by putting the blurbs that talk about the grittiness of the series up front.
I think the shock boils down to two things: one, the preconceived notion that a Western written by a woman is going to be light and focus on a relationship with a man with only allusions to violence, if any at all; and two, the pervasiveness of the myth of the West, how violence, especially against women, was elided over in favor of the male white hat/black hat dichotomy.
I should probably write an essay about it!
TWN: Talk about “Blood Oath.” Did you know how it was going to end and where Laura and Kindle would be?
MWL: I always know how my books are going to end.
When I started “Blood Oath” I knew that I could be a little daring with the end since it was a three-book series.
The challenge with “Blood Oath” was getting them to the end.
I sat in front of the computer every day with no clue what happened next. It was a stressful way to write a book, let me tell you. But, that seems to be my process (I did the same thing with “Badlands,” and I’m doing it now with my work in progress).
TWN: Talk about the research you did in writing these novels, especially the violence.
MWL: We have such romantic notions of the Wild West. That is quickly dispelled in the first novel and it expands from there.
Violence and danger are on almost every page.
Melissa Whitley Lenhardt
TWN: What did you read/find while researching background for those scenes with graphic violence?
MWL: I read a lot.
The book that helped “Sawbones” come together was “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C. Gwynne.
He didn’t whitewash the horrible things whites did to the Natives, and a lot of my outlook on the West is based on the idea that whites were savage, too, which was revolutionary to me.
It wasn’t what I was taught in history class, and it’s not what Hollywood has been spoon feeding the public for 100 years.
When I stopped seeing everything the Army and the settlers did as “noble” or “well-intentioned” it opened so many story possibilities.
There are plenty of written records of the violence against whites, but there has only recently been acknowledgement of what the whites did to the Native Americans. It’s not a stretch to imagine the violence against Natives being just as savage.
We are all human, and hatred and violence is in everyone’s nature.
TWN: What kind of research did you do for the scenes requiring medical procedures?
MWL: I read “Gangrene & Glory,” a book about Civil War medicine, and Googled a lot.
TWN: In “Blood Oath,” we meet Kindle’s sister, a nun who runs an orphanage in St. Louis. How did the idea of Sister Magdalena come to you?
Will we see her again?
MWL: Sister Magdalena was one of those ideas I came up with to discombobulate Laura, and to make her realize how little she knows about Kindle.
I have no plans to expand on Sister Magdalena’s story.
TWN: You had to have some working knowledge of how the military was structured during this time period. How did you decide to make Kindle a cavalry officer?
MWL: I honestly don’t remember. I started this book nine years ago!
TWN: And did you visit a fort during your research?
MWL: I visited Fort Richardson in Jacksboro at least half a dozen times.
It’s a state park and the hospital is still there, and one of the wings, the doctor’s office, the kitchen and mess, the dispensary are all set up as they would have looked during the 1870s. The other wing has a model of the fort during that time, and uniforms, sabers, guns and photos. It’s a cool place to visit.
TWN: Laura has to rely on her wits and instinct while on the run. How did you come up with all the twists and turns she and Kindle face?
MWL: First, you get your characters in a tree, and then you throw rocks at them while they’re trying to climb down. Sometimes you saw off a limb. You want the journey to be as difficult as possible because only when your character has overcome impossible obstacles will the story resolution feel satisfying.
TWN: Talk a little bit about the whiskey runners. What a bad bunch.
MWL: My purpose with “Blood Oath” was to show the other side of the settling of the West, how the whites were savage and brutal to Native Americans, and the whisky traders are a big part of that.
We’ve been spoon fed the idea that Native Americans couldn’t hold their liquor and it’s always been considered a weakness, a moral failing, but very little attention is paid to the fact that it was supplied by whites with the express purpose of weakening them and their resistance. I hope that readers will at least stop, think about and question the myths we’ve been raised on.
TWN: What surprised you most in the writing of this series?
MWL: After I finished “Sawbones” I had very little idea of what happened next for Laura and Kindle. The publisher wanted a series, so I sat down and, with no plot, wrote “Blood Oath,” and finished it in six months.
TWN: Talk about the idea of publishing two volumes almost back to back. Has binge-watching TV fueled this trend?
MWL: The original contract with Hachette was for a digital series, with the possibility of trade paperback if the digital versions did well enough.
The digital schedule was a release every six months, and I had deliverable dates for book two and three with that in mind. I delivered “Badlands” to my editor right about the time the digital version of “Sawbones” was released.
They decided a couple of months later to put them all in print, and the decision was made to release them in successive months because the books were in the can, and because they are the kind of books that you want to keep reading.
I think it was a great idea, especially with “Blood Oath’s” ending.
A lot of readers have said they binge-read the books and it’s been nice for me, too. I haven’t had to wait a long time to get feedback on the series.
TWN: You were recently part of a discussion panel at the Dallas Book Festival. The panel was billed: Why I Turned to Crime: Three Texas Women Tell Their Stories. Talk about that experience.
MWL: It was a thrill to be included in the Dallas Book Fest! One of my favorite things about this career is connecting with readers, and befriending other writers.
We have a rich writing community here in the North Texas area and it was an honor to be included in the DBF’s celebration of it.
TWN: What’s next for you?
MWL: I’m currently working on another Western which is due in August. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a pinprick right now.
After that, I’m not sure what I’ll work on. I have some things in the works, so we will see where inspiration, and the industry, take me.
For more on Melissa Lenhardt’s book, visit her website.