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I'm Mark Mitten, an author and a Colorado native who recently moved to Minnesota. Over the years, I've done some different types of work. I used to work with horses in what's called “therapeutic horseback riding.” It's where people with disabilities get to ride. I was also an equine vet assistant, which I liked a lot. Now I'm mainly a starving artist, these past few years. Three prongs: acting (indie film), music (currently lead singer for an acoustic/electric folk-rock band called Atomicana), and then I'm an author. My first novel was just published by Sunbury Press not too long ago. It's a western novel (historical fiction) called “Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave.” It is set in the late 1800's, in Colorado. It follows the lives of several cowmen on a trail drive, and a gang of thieves who are on the run, and then the posse who is trying to bring them in. The lives of all these people start out in different places, constellate, explode, and intertwine in new ways. It's about life, hardship and the human spirit. How we react to difficulties, and one way or another, move on.
What first inspired you to start writing?
Hard to say specifically, no clear trigger "I'm gonna write this thing"...but it was mainly that inner rising of creative passion to take on something new. And I had been spending time in several high mountain towns in CO, (Leadville, Ward, Gold Hill) which have a rich history there, steeped in that time period (late 1800s) which is very present. Especially in the architecture and tourism angles. It was also a very creative time period for me, in other mediums, which contributed.
What attracted you to the western genre?
Working with horses and living in Colorado, it was easy to develop a deep connection to the western genre. At a garage sale many years ago, I found a box full of Louis L'Amour novels which I got for 5 bucks. That got me started to some degree, although I had a friend before that who introduced me to Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize winning novel). That book is unique, in that it is almost inseparably connected to it's movie version. It was turned into a mini-series starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, and unlike so many other books-turned-movies, it actually did what it was supposed to do: bring the book to life visually, faithfully. I've also read Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian) and Zane Grey (Riders of the Purple Sage). I really love the working cowboy, the authentic West. I enjoy reading Western Horseman Magazine, American Cowboy, and other publications like that. There is something special about the horse, the culture that the horse inspired, and the ideals we recognize concerning the cowboy: morality, identity, destiny. It's important to me to be connected to nature, God's creation, because it's so much a part of who I am. Colorado has made a big imprint on my soul & psyche, and there is so much western history in that state. I think it's interesting that a lot of westerns are usually set in the plains or deserts of the southern US. So I decided to write a western set in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
The absolute creative freedom. You, as the writer, are exploring your own imagination. You are not constrained by anything. In fact, it's fueled by your own subconscious, which makes it very personal. You can express some things in story form that you can't necessarily get out by consciously-driven conversation. Plus it is “codified” for all time...once it's published, it will always be “out there”. Another thing, is connecting with readers. It can be very validating when someone really connects with your story. That means they are connecting with your own experiences and perspectives, your heart, your path. That's gratifying.
And the least?
It can be daunting to write something substantial – especially if there is a chance no one will ever read it. You want to connect with people, share something creative. You put in a great amount of time and energy to get it done. I think self-publishing has been a great antidote to this, giving average people a chance to be read. At the very least, by a local audience. But who knows, you may attract more and more readers. But every author needs that validation, that confirmation, that they touched someone. That's a very important aspect to what art is about. So there is a step of faith in just getting started. And if I'm being honest, it may not work out. But you do it anyway.
If you could turn any book into a film, which would it be?
Such a dangerous thing, given the challenge of capturing the written word in a visual medium. It's next to impossible to “do it right.” One of my favorite authors, Per Petterson of Norway, writes fantastically introverted stories. If they could be turned into a movie, it would be one of them. Probably “Out Stealing Horses.” But I don't know if I'd want to violate the sanctity of the narrative by handing it over to filmmakers...smiley face goes right here.
What advice would you give new and aspiring authors?
Ignore formula. Follow your own path. And don't be afraid to go back to early chapters and re-write.
What are you working on at the moment?
A sequel to “Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave.” I've been doing a lot of research, since I need to, to get the settings and the overall gestalt right for this genre, to make it as authentic as possible. And now I've started writing, too. Very early in that process. I'm looking forward to seeing where these characters take me. Since it's that dreaded “second work” place on the spectrum, I want to move forward with it quickly and steadily. So I can get on to my third novel! Whatever the art form, the second piece will be invariably compared to the first, and that creates a pressure on the artist/author. An unfair prejudice, since the thoughts & feelings that fueled the inaugural piece are by definition different. But I am certainly feeling good about what I see ahead, with this one.
Tell us about your latest work and how we can find out more.
It's called “Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave” and it's published by Sunbury Press. It just came out in November (2012). It is 338 pages long, and costs $16.95 (paperback) and $4.99 (e-book). Anyone can get a paperback copy, or an e-book. It's on Amazon (paperback & Kindle), Barnes & Noble (Nook only), and via the publisher (paperback). Find it on Facebook, join the community there.
Here's the synopsis:
It is 1887. Snow is falling in the high country of Colorado. Bill Ewing led a bank heist in the small mountain town of Kinsey City — but just woke up tied to the back of a mule. "Sipping Whiskey in a Shallow Grave" is an epic novel chronicling Bill Ewing’s gang of thieves and the posse that takes after them, the cowhands of the B-Cross-C, and the unexpected turns of life which bring them all together. Following the Great Die-Up, the harshest winter to ever hit the West, LG Pendleton and Casey Pruitt lead a mixed herd of Polangus and Durham cattle down the stage road in Lefthand Canyon. Their way of life is fading with the changing times. Fences cross what once was open range, locomotives are eliminating the trail drive, and both Casey and LG must learn to change with it — or fade away themselves.