Don't fence him in
Fidelity VP Thomas Eidson is known as a Western author, but he's getting beyond that
It's a long, long way from the 22d floor of 100 Summer St. to the deserts and canyons of New Mexico in the 1880s, but Thomas Eidson is always in both places. In his "real" life, he's executive vice president of corporate affairs at Fidelity Investments, the mutual-fund giant. In his writing life, he's narrating adventure tales of the American West.
"The Missing," the film adaptation of one of his novels, opens tomorrow, directed by Ron Howard and starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones. The movie brings the Western yarn of a farm wife and her father to Boston, where its author lives. For moviegoers, "The Missing" proves again that the American West isn't yet closed. For Eidson, though, the course of his career so far has a different point: that it's possible for a writer of stories with a Western setting to transcend the genre.
Eidson had no need to write fiction. Before he came to Fidelity in 1997, he was worldwide chief executive officer of public relations giant Hill & Knowlton, a job he describes as "nothing more than a plane ticket to visit 58 offices around the world." He was in his mid-40s, well past the usual age of a first novelist, with a busy and prosperous job. Still, something was missing. Though he had done some television writing (collaborating on scripts for the old "Columbo" series), he longed to tell his own stories in his own way, without having to share authorship with others.
So in 1993 he wrote the first of his novels, "St. Agnes' Stand," in about three months, working at night and on his days off. It was published in the United States and 18 other countries. Set in the 1880s, it concerns an injured Texan fleeing a vengeful posse. He encounters a wagon train under attack by Indians. The Texan joins the defense and meets an elderly nun, Sister Agnes, who is shepherding seven orphans to California. His subsequent connection with Sister Agnes and the other nuns proves to be redemptive for him and them.
The book did OK in the United States in the Western niche, winning the best-novel and best-first-novel awards of the Western Writers of America. In England and elsewhere in Europe, however, it was marketed to a broader audience and sold considerably better. Eidson wrote three more novels -- "The Last Ride" (renamed "The Missing" for the movie and the new Random House paperback), "All God's Children," and "Hannah's Gift." The first two appeared in America and Europe, but Eidson decided not to publish "Hannah's Gift" here. The main reason: He resented being typecast as a Western writer.
"If I showed you the jackets of those early editions," he says, "you would laugh. They were trying to push me as a cowboy writer. Louis L'Amour was gone, and they thought I could take his place. But I don't satisfy the Louis L'Amour reader." L'Amour, who died in 1988, published 123 Western novels, most of them as formulaic as an Ian Fleming thriller.
In this country, Eidson says, "the first impulse when people hear it's a Western is to say, `I'm sorry, I thought you were a novelist.' The Europeans look at you differently. They said, `We don't want to call him a Western writer, but a mystical writer.' We have so rationalized the world, we see everything in shades of gray. The beauty of the Old West for me is that everything was seen in black and white, and morality was an ironclad thing. It provides a good opportunity to tell a moral story."
With their religious/mystical/parapsychological elements, Eidson's books are a long way from "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." "The Missing" is more like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien, complete with evil magician, set in the fantastic landscape of the Southwest. In both novel and film, Samuel Jones, a man who has abandoned his white wife and children to live with an Apache wife, shows up unexpectedly years later at the New Mexico farm of his daughter, Maggie, after both wives have died. Soon after his arrival, renegade Apache raiders attack the farm and kidnap one of Maggie's children. Aided by psychic phenomena and competing prayer strategies -- Christian vs. Indian -- father and daughter set out to find the lost girl.
Eidson's British editor, Susan Watt of HarperCollins UK, explains the transatlantic difference: "We do not publish Westerns as a category in Britain at all," she says via telephone from London. "Any book would be viewed in its own right, and not as a Western. They are set in the Western part of the United States at the end of the 19th century, but they are about redemption and hope and faith. His writing is so good and clear, and he has a storyteller's instinct."
"It's difficult for authors who have been pigeonholed to break out," says Paul A. Hutton, professor of history at the University of New Mexico and president of Western Writers of America (and a historical consultant to Howard on "The Missing"). Supermarket book racks have long been dominated by cookie-cutter Westerns, virtually all adorned with a mounted cowboy and a title in those ornate block letters we identify with the Long Branch Saloon and the Dodge City Jail. For a writer trying to push away those familiar images, attracting readers outside the faithful is no easy task. Hutton says such readers ask, "Do I want to read a cowboy book? No. But if it's a strong character study of Western life, maybe I would read it."
While his books never left the American horse-opera racks, they were all picked up by Reader's Digest Condensed Books, which put them together with non-Westerns under one cover. Better still for Eidson, they were all optioned by Hollywood producers, though none has been filmed until now. In some years, he earned film option fees reaching into six figures. The most likely next movie would be "St. Agnes' Stand," optioned by Steven Spielberg's DreamWorks, with Martin Scorsese as director, but the production date is uncertain. Random House has the reprint rights to Eidson's other books, and it plans to republish "St. Agnes' Stand" in the United States in 2005.
Listening to Eidson talk in a corporate conference room, surrounded by plush chairs and a chart of a Fidelity marketing campaign on the wall, it's hard to bring to mind the settings of his imagination. Like the publicity veteran he is, he is articulate, polished, and elegantly if casually dressed. But his family story has the same true-grit ingredients as those he invents.
His great-great-aunt was Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. But most of his family tree is trimmed with a more sunburned breed: a grandmother who homesteaded 160 Kansas acres with her sister, a grandfather who left his Kansas farm and went off to start a ranch in Colorado -- and die there -- so he wouldn't infect his family with tuberculosis. There was a great-grandfather who owned a cattle ranch in Oklahoma and a great-aunt who was a full-blooded Cherokee.
Both his parents were Kansans. His father, a wheat farmer and accountant, was wiped out in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and he moved the family to California -- after an attempt at dairy farming in Colorado -- where he took a job with Douglas Aircraft Co. Eidson grew up in Los Angeles. He says, "I was raised by the last generation of people who sat around the dinner table and talked. They were great tellers of tales. It was a way of life that has disappeared."
Divorced and with three nearly grown children, Eidson has more time to write than he used to. Although he is toiling away at a new novel under contract with Random House, he says he enjoys his work at Fidelity and doesn't envision himself as a full-time novelist. Still, to be a storyteller clearly meets a need in him unsatisfied by the abstract world of high finance, where life is not lived quite so near the raw edge as in the Old West of legend and truth.
David Mehegan can be reached at email@example.com.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.