NEW YORK Novelist Robert Lautner chronicles the adventures of a young boy and the impact of the invention of Samuel Colt's revolving handgun in "Road to Reckoning," a coming-of-age tale set during the great depression of the 1830s.
Lautner's story follows 12-year-old Thomas Walker as he tries to make it home to New York after losing his father on a sales trip to market the first line of Colt Paterson revolvers.
Thomas forms an unlikely alliance with Henry Stands, a drifter and part-time bounty hunter, and the two face a barrage of hurdles, including pursuit by a killer, as they work their way through the turnpikes and trails of Pennsylvania.
Lautner, who is British, owned a comic-book store and worked as a wine merchant before becoming a writer. "Road to Reckoning" is his debut novel.
He spoke to Reuters about his research, his interest in guns, and how the revolver changed the shape of warfare.
Q. How did you nail down the voice of 1830s America?
A. I had to find a traveler's dictionary, which was for English travelers in America in the 1850s, kind of like a slang dictionary. I also read "American Notes for General Circulation" (a travelogue by Charles Dickens of his 1842 trip to North America). Reading that was a great boon. I had to get the tongue correct but also make it understandable to the modern reader. I picked it up quite naturally, I think. The easiest thing is just to remove contractions.
Q. Talk about your interest in the revolver.
A. I've always been interested in guns. That's a childhood thing. I knew the legend of Samuel Colt carving his first model out of a block when he was 16. I always thought that would be a romantic thing to put into a novel — you've got this model of a gun that represents the world's first successful repeating weapon. So, as a boy growing up, and being around guns, it seemed logical to me.
Q. Your setting is characterized by a combination of economic hardship and lots of gun violence. Did you intend to draw a parallel with today's world?
A. It's a bit spooky, isn't it? I didn't realize it as I was writing, but I eventually realized that Colt making an assembly line weapon was really the start of an industrial revolution almost. People were going from horses and canals to steam and locomotives. And going from single-action guns to a repeating firearm, that was kind of the start of gun violence.
Q. In the narrative, you hint at the depression rather than explicitly discuss it. Why?
A. I did pull it back from the narrative. I was wanting that to be underground, something you might pick up on a second read. You can hear it in Thomas' voice when he hears things, sees things. Even Henry Stands is almost a hobo really, getting piecemeal work collecting prisoners who've run away. I originally wrote it as a young adult story, and when I presented it to an agent, they said it was a literary fiction piece, so it's something a father and a son could both read and get different things from.
Q. Henry Stands tells Thomas, "If you can scare a man, you can beat him." How does that saying apply in today's world?
A. In the story, there is a wooden model of a revolver, and the idea was that just the shape of a gun could instill fear. I thought, ‘What kind of man could go into a room with armed men, carrying just a wooden gun?' We've got to a point where people think just having a gun is enough to scare people off.
Q. Did you know how you wanted the book to end?
A. I didn't have an end. I never do. I think if I don't know the end of the story, then the reader doesn't either. I always have an outline based on scenes I want to get to. I have these scenes, and I will get to them, but the story I will let develop itself. If you over-plot, you're not really entertaining yourself, so how can you entertain anyone else?
Q. The book is dedicated to your brother, John, whom you call "The Actual," a descriptor also used in the story. What is "The Actual"?
A. There was a book on desperadoes of the 19th century called "The Story of the Outlaw," written by Emerson Hough. He used the phrase "The Actual," as in, there can be a guy who looks like a bad man, as with the gun and the boots and the hat, but he's just showing off.
"The Actual" would be a rougher version, a guy who doesn't talk a lot but will get the best of you.