Friday, March 8, 2013

Mary Walters and John Aragon: A Team is Born

(Suitably subtitled by the Tart: Co-Writing for Fun and Profit—or I hope it's profitable, anyway)

Note:  I know I usually have a fresh blog Monday morning, but I this is a good one and I wanted to make sure Mary and John got some weekday eyes.

FIRST, I have to extend a HUGE apology to Mary and John—I was totally supposed to post this Thursday, but had a family member juvenile delinquent incident which drove all else from my mind... I am SO SORRY!)

Still.... this is a fabulous story. John and Mary are friends of mine from the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and they are both FABULOUS people. I adore them... and recently they've undertaken something that totally sounds like a hoot to me... they wrote a book... TOGETHER. Mary is in Canada, John in New Mexico... they've never met in person... but they decided to undertake this thing... so TODAY, YOU are going to learn how that went (and be jealous—you're welcome, just another service I offer around here).

So without further ado... THEIR Story:

A Team Is Born

John: The collaboration began after Mary and I got to know each other in the first-ever Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition. There was a great bunch of writers in the ‘Class of ’08,’ and a number of us became good friends online. Mary and I started talking regularly on the telephone soon after that, when I hired her to edit my first novel, Billy the Kid’s Last Ride.

Mary: I had read few if any “dime store westerns.” I hadn’t even watched all that many western movies. John’s novel was a real eye-opener for me. I began to learn about the history and mythology of the American West, and to appreciate its huge capacity to take hold of the imagination. John is very knowledgeable about his region’s history, politics and culture, its flora, fauna and geography, and about Western books and films. But more than anything, the warmth and humour of his writing appealed to me.

John: Our friendship grew and we shared books that we enjoyed. I learn a lot from Mary. I hope she learns from me too.

Mary: With any luck, he will eventually learn to locate Canada on a world map.

John: We really enjoy talking to each other about literature – and theology, philosophy, politics, the weather, you name it. Mostly we really laugh a lot when we talk. I made her read westerns and she made me read a bunch of literary stuff. (I never did make it through Under The Volcano.)

Mary: But he did make it through a Salman Rushdie novel, to my amazement, and he recommended some fine literary works to me: All The Pretty Horses ain’t just another dusty Western.

John: At some point we started talking about writing a novel together. I don’t know how the idea came to me, but I thought it might be fun to do a western sort of loosely based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. Mary liked the idea.

Mary: I’d always meant to read Don Quixote. This gave me the impetus I’d needed, and what a book it is! It’s been called “the first European novel” and I think it’s also the first post-modern novel. I was amazed at how Cervantes was teasing the line between reality and fiction, between truth and madness, way back in 1600. There are so many intellectual and philosophical layers to that book, and it’s also hilarious and moving.

John: We wanted to write something really funny, as humor is such an important part of our relationship. But you can’t “send up” the pulp western genre without a lot of action either, so we knew that the novel would have to have lots of murders and hangings and gunfights. Lots of western action.

When Mary was on a family vacation in the southern U.S. a couple of years ago, she was able to stop in Santa Fe for a few days and we got to work. We started with a rough outline, which we wrote one night in my backyard over a bottle of tequila. (Well, I drank the tequila. Mary probably drank water.) Then we began work on a chapter near the middle of the book, in which Don Valiente and Roz mistake a film shoot for reality ­– with dramatic and hilarious results. Boy, did we laugh.

Mary: After I returned to Canada, we finished the book by phone and Skype. (We thanked Skype and Cricket in the Acknowledgments.) We spent hours and hours and hours on it – almost always in the evenings because we had "real work" to do during the day.

John: My favorite part was when we brainstormed and plotted out each chapter before we started to work on it. We would talk about who the characters were, and what they would do in that chapter. Once we had agreed on what would happen, I usually wrote a very rough and incomplete treatment of the chapter or sections of it.

Mary: I type faster than John so I did the transcription, and he did the pacing back and forth. After we’d got a full first draft of a passage down, I’d email it to him, and then we’d go over it line by line until we agreed that it was exactly right before we moved on to the next section. We dithered over almost very word of it . . . in some cases, every comma. When we’d argued and argued over a phrase, neither of us willing to give up until it was right, and then we nailed it – and we both knew we’d nailed it – we were ecstatic.

John: I remember one time, after working on a sentence for about thirty minutes, we both laughed with pleasure at what we’d done. Mary said, “It sings.”

Mary: It wasn’t always easy to get to work. Half the time, one of us would be exhausted and want to take the evening off, so the other one would need to persuade him or her that we had to keep going if we didn’t want to lose our momentum.

John: It took about 18 months, I think. First we finished the chapter we’d started, which is now Chapter XXV. Then we went back and started on Chapter I. We never looked back.

Mary: Never in my life did I imagine that I’d be involved in writing a Western, but even less did I ever think that I could write a novel with another person. Both writers have to be totally on the same wavelength for something like this to work, but fortunately we were (well, about most things. We may never agree on the Oxford comma). The experience was exhausting and challenging, but it was fantastic fun as well.

John: And we are very proud of the book that we have written: The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid.

John A. Aragon was born in Española, New Mexico. A former Forest Service "Hotshot" firefighter and Hall of Fame rugby player, he attended Saint John's College in Santa Fe and the University of New Mexico. John A. Aragon is the father of two young adults and a practicing trial lawyer for thirty years. John’s first novel, Billy The Kid’s Last Ride, was published by Sunstone Press in 2011. He works and writes in Santa Fe. Visit Billy the Kid’s Last Ride website at

Mary W. Walters is the award-winning author of three novels (The Woman Upstairs, Bitters and The Whole Clove Diet), a collection of short stories (Cool) and one book of non-fiction (Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars, The Johns Hopkins University Press). Mary works as an editor, specializing in funding applications and research-related writing for books and scholarly journals. She maintains several blogs, including The Militant Writer ( She lives in Toronto, and her website is located at


Hart Johnson said...

I adore Don Quixote, and now that I know that was part of the inspiration, I am in even bigger a hurry. I also stand corrected on thinking you guys had never met in person, but I frequently make stuff up. I love this tale!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I'm just amazed when two authors can come together in one book like that. Congratulations, John and Mary!

Blackie Noir said...

Two fine writers, I read and respect. Two good ABNA pals of mine over the years. Two fine people, it's my pleasure to know.

All that ads up to the nice treat reading this blog has been.

Also, this great was blog presented by another fine ABNA pal, Hart, J . . . forever sans pants. Thanks, Hart.

Kudos to all!

Hart Johnson said...

Alex-it's a big job, for sure. I have a couple friends who know me really well I might be able to do it with. Could only do it for a humorous outcome though.

Blackie-hey, thanks!!!

Hart Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johanna Garth said...

This is such a cool story. I love how writer relationships can build to create something as big as a book together. Speaking of which, the book sounds great too :)

Roland D. Yeomans said...

John and Mary -- great luck with your collaboration. May your sales be high. Hart, I hope your family storm has calmed down a bit. Thanks for visiting my blog. :-)

Jan Morrison said...

this is a heavenly post, Tartlette, thank you! I have written four plays (3 of them musicals) with a friend. Well, the three musicals I wrote the libretto with my friend Malc but we also had two others (Dawn and Jim) working on the music. So fun. I also write my murder mysteries (the ones I do at hotels) with my two partners, Linda and Kerol. So much fun to write together. A novel? Cool. Cannot wait.

Helena said...

What a wonderful, fun post. I admire both writers and love how they actually got together and began this project. Now, of course, I've got to look up Don Valiente and the other books of both Mary and John. I've also been really intrigued by Billy the Kid after recently seeing a PBS American Experience profile of him.

L.G. Smith said...

Very cool experience. I've done this before for a short story with someone I know only from being online. We talk almost every day by email (never met him or spoke to him on the phone) and one day we started writing a story, tossing it back and forth each day. It was the most ridiculous story I'd ever written, and it was just for fun, but it ended up teaching me a lot about story progression and character development. We had arguments over plot, but shared a lot of laughs over it too.

Best of luck on your collaborative project!