We’ve all heard the cliche about how real life is stranger than fiction. But if it’s true, where does that put fiction that’s based on real life? It’s a question I pondered, to no avail, after interviewing writer Andrew Hilleman about his new novel World, Chase Me Down (paperback, digital), a fascinating and fictionalized account of a kidnapping that took place in 1900.
I always like to start with the basics. So, what is World, Chase Me Down about?
In a nutshell: the first successful ransom for a kidnapping in the history of the United States. If the book had a tag line, that would be it. In 1900, Pat Crowe kidnapped the teenage son of Omaha’s wealthiest meatpacking tycoon for a ransom of $25,000 in gold, and got away with it scot-free for five years before returning to Omaha to face the music.
At its core, it’s a revenge novel about an honest man who lost everything — his butchery business, his home, his wife and daughter — and turns criminal in the aftermath of his world falling apart. Pat Crowe, the kidnapper and antihero, definitely has some shades of Walter White. A frontier Robin Hood you could call him. There are a lot of kidnapping stories out there in both literature and film, but I’ve never come across one before where the audience roots for the kidnapper. If I’ve done my job right, readers will be pulling for Pat Crowe until the end, despite his villainous turn.
It’s historical fiction that takes place during the first five years of the twentieth century, but it’s also a tale that has resonance today. It’s history that matters to us now and our current political discourse about the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Beyond the kidnapping, it’s part Western, part chase thriller, part courtroom drama. Add in some political overtones and a heartbreaking romance, and you start to get an idea of how many genres are blended in the novel.
How close is your novel to what really happened?
Pretty damn close. I stayed as true to the main events of Pat Crowe’s story as I could. I felt an obligation to do so as a writer even though this is fiction. The kidnapping and ransom exchange are very near to the actual history. The ensuing five-year long manhunt for Pat and his federal trial are also genuine, but certainly not 100% factual. Everything in the novel has some measure of invention. There’s only so much you can discover in research. The rest must be created from scratch while remaining true to the essence of what really occurred.
My understanding is that you came across the real-life story of Pat Crowe while doing research for another novel you were going to write. What was it about the Pat Crowe kidnapping that made you drop what you were doing and write World, Chase Me Down instead?
I was actually writing another historical novel about Omaha while in grad school at Northern Michigan. That story centered around Tom Dennison, Omaha’s political boss for the first thirty years of the twentieth century. But in my research I kept coming across information about Pat Crowe. The more I read about him and the kidnapping, the more I thought: Wow, this is the story I really want to tell about Omaha. I’d never approached a story before as a writer that made me mad. His pain is something I’ve felt acutely in my own life. I think many Americans are going through this kind of pain and hopeless frustration right now. I didn’t immediately drop the Tom Dennison novel, though. I saw that novel through to the end. I don’t like to abandon projects. Plus, I was able to fit Dennison into World, Chase Me Down. He’s an important secondary character. So that first book wasn’t a total loss. In many ways, writing the novel about Tom Dennison was prelude.
So how much research into the real incident did you do?
A ton. I love to do research. I was born and raised in Omaha, and I like to consider myself an amateur historian about the city. Especially its vice elements. In terms of actual time spent, I’d say that two-thirds was conducting research and the other third was writing.
Is there one book about this case that sticks out for you? Maybe something you’d suggest someone read if they’re still curious about the case after reading World, Chase Me Down.
There’s more than one to be sure. I’ll give you two. Pat Crowe actually wrote an autobiography in 1927 entitled Spreading Evil. It’s a hard find, a rare book. A much easier find is The Last Outlaw: The Life Of Pat Crowe by John Koblas. It’s a good, quick read that covers most of his escapades in just under 100 pages.
What do you think was the biggest thing your research added to your novel?
Authenticity about the time and place. Historical fiction is a lot like science-fiction and fantasy in terms of world-building. Every detail must be de novo and antiquated at the same time, if that makes sense. I wanted to recreate the city of Omaha at the turn-of-the-century as vividly as possible. That meant researching everything from what types of jackets men wore in old Montgomery Ward catalogues to common slang circa 1900 to how slaughterhouses operated in the South Omaha stockyards.
Did you ever run into a situation where the truth would’ve made your novel less exciting?
I wouldn’t say “less exciting” as much as I would “bloated.” The original draft of the novel was almost twice as long as what is being published. No editor wanted to take a chance on a 700-page debut novel. So a lot of very exciting and true material had to be cut. Crowe’s escape from prison by inducing his own temporary paralysis, his many bank and train robberies, a few gunfights, and some of his backstory leading up the kidnapping were all left on the cutting room floor. That part of the revision was tough. Getting rid of those moments, despite their truth, was essential to focusing on what really mattered: the kidnapping itself.
Was there every any thought of going even further with the fiction, like maybe turning it into a science fiction story or setting it in the modern world?
Never. Even though the story is set a little more than a century ago, it’s still a modern story about our world today in many ways. This is an epic tale about Omaha’s dark past and to change that would be a disservice to our history. Crowe’s tragedy isn’t a relic. It’s fresh. It still resonates for me like breaking news.
World, Chase Me Down has been compared to such gritty Western movies as The Magnificent Seven, True Grit, and The Hateful Eight, as well as to the TV series Deadwood. Do you think those comparisons are fair?
They might not be fair, but I will gladly take them. The comparisons are humbling. It’s hard as a writer to judge and compare your own work alongside giants. To quote King Lear: that way madness lies. There are certainly similarities between World, Chase Me Down and those titles.
But I wouldn’t call this novel a Western in the traditional sense. It pays homage to Western motifs, but it also draws inspiration from classic chase thrillers and courtroom dramas. Still, if readers place this novel among those masterpieces, you won’t hear any argument from me.
But do you consider any of those things to be influences on the way you wrote World, Chase Me Down?
Absolutely. I adore all of those aforementioned titles. While I was writing World, Chase Me Down, I watched and read the same movies and books to the brink of obsession.
Though the biggest literary influence on the novel was, oddly, Lolita. The mastery of the prose, the uniqueness of the voice, the darkness of the narrator Humbert Humbert and his redemptive qualities despite his wickedness: all were chiefly influences during my writing process.
The film I watched the most was On The Waterfront. God, I watched parts of that movie every night for nearly two years. It’s embarrassing. And drove my wife a little bonkers. Marlon Brando’s character, Terry Malloy, is Pat Crowe in so many ways.
The strange thing is that neither Lolita nor On the Waterfront are Westerns. It just goes to show that what inspires your writing is hardly ever what your finished product resembles despite all of your mania otherwise.
So, has there been any talk of making a movie or TV series based on World, Chase Me Down?
There has been quite a lot of talk about a film adaptation ever since the news broke on day one that Penguin was publishing the novel. There’s actually something in the works as we speak, though it’s very early in the process.
I think a movie would work best. If the novel was adapted for television, it would probably be a mini-series. Something akin to the first season of True Detective or The Night Of. Eight episodes at an hour apiece. The novel is finite in that regard. It couldn’t sustain multiple seasons.
A video game would blow my mind. Fallout 4 and Skyrim are so near and dear to my heart. I also spent far too much time playing Red Dead Redemption. Still, that will never happen. I’ll give you 1,000-to-one odds it doesn’t. It just wouldn’t make sense.
So, if World, Chase Me Down was going to be made into a movie or TV show, and the producers or director asked you for casting suggestions, who would you like to see play Pat Crowe and the other major characters?
Tough call. I’ve never fainted in my life, but if Tom Hardy [Mad Max: Fury Road] were cast as Pat Crowe I just might. There’s also a relatively unknown actor who is about to blow up in the next couple years if there’s any justice in the world: Boyd Holbrook [Gone Girl]. He’d be a spectacular Pat Crowe as well. Ben Foster [3:10 To Yuma] would be a great Billy, Pat’s partner in crime. Pat’s wife, Hattie, is destined for someone like Carey Mulligan [Suffragette] or Emma Watson [the Harry Potter movies]. I’d love to see the role of Pat’s lawyer as a Colin Firth type. Or Colin Firth himself. Stellan Skarsgard [Thor] would be an inspired Edward Cudahy, the owner of the Cudahy Stockyards who forces Pat out of business. His son, the kidnapped Edward Jr., is a role that Tye Sheridan [X-Men: Apocalypse] could knock out of the park.
If it sounds like I’ve spent a lot of time daydreaming about casting, I have.
Now that it’s done, do you know what you’re going to write next?
Yes, I’m getting deep into my second novel. It’s a thriller set in the upper peninsula of Michigan during the early 1990s. I fell in love with the U.P. during my three years in the MFA program at Northern Michigan and have wanted to write a novel that takes place there ever since. That’s all I’m really comfortable divulging about it now.
What about the book you were working on before you got sidetracked by this one?
The novel I worked on before World, Chase Me Down, centering around Tom Dennison, will remain in my proverbial desk drawer for the foreseeable future.
Has there been any suggestion of writing a sequel to World, Chase Me Down? Y’know, World, Chase Me Down II: Still Can’t Catch Me or something? Or maybe another fictionalized account of another kidnapping, like the Lindbergh baby or Patty Hearst?
None. Pat Crowe’s story is complete in World, Chase Me Down. If I were to attempt any kind of sequel, it would only be a sequel in terms of another historical novel that takes place in Omaha. Something akin to what William Kennedy has done with his Albany novels. Or Dennis Lehane with Boston. Chronicling an entire century of crime in Omaha was once a grand idea of mine, but it would be a hefty feat to undertake. The material and the history is there. I just don’t know if I have the ambition or the stamina for such a conquest. Still, never say never. Who’s to say how I will feel in three or five or ten years. It’s certainly an epic notion I will keep on the back burner.
Finally, if someone enjoyed World, Chase Me Down, what would you suggest they read next and why?
Where to begin? There are so many. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt, Red Sky In Morning by Paul Lynch, Fallen Land by Taylor Brown, The Son by Philipp Meyer, The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert, Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon, any of the Wyoming Story collections by Annie Proulx, or anything by Larry McMurty, Cormac McCarthy, Ron Hansen, Daniel Woodrell, and Tom Franklin.