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Art Maker: Gerald McFarland, writer

  • Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” He dedicated the book to his father Frank and brother Dick, who are seen here in an old family picture. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Leverett author Gerald McFarland’s newest book is “T.T Mann, Ace Detective,” a send-up of the hard-boiled genre.  STAFF PHOTOS/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” He dedicated the book to his father Frank and brother Dick, shown here in an old family picture. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” The author’s picture in the book is from his first birthday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” The former UMass Amherst history professor has written four nonfiction books and, since his retirement, four novels that draw on history. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” Gerald McFarland with his latest book, “T.T Mann, Ace Detective.” The former UMass Amherst history professor has written four nonfiction books and, since his retirement, four novels that draw on history. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Leverett author Gerald McFarland, a former UMass Amherst history professor, has written four nonfiction books and, since his retirement from teaching, four novels that draw on history. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


Friday, November 16, 2018

During the 44 years he taught history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Gerald McFarland published four acclaimed books of history, including “A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West,” a study of the westward migration of his own ancestors that the Colonial Dames of America named one of the three best books of U.S. history in 1985.

A native Californian who now lives in Leverett, McFarland has since turned his knowledge of history and his writing skills to fiction. Two of his novels, “What the Owl Saw” and “The Last of Our Kind” —  they’re part of the author’s “Buenaventura” trilogy — were finalists for New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards.

Hampshire Life: Talk about the work you’re currently doing. What does it involve, and what are you trying to achieve?

Gerald McFarland: It’s writing books. Eight so far, four books of U.S. history and four of fiction. My latest, a book of linked detective stories, “T.T. Mann, Ace Detective,” is set in San Francisco in 1955 and is a mixture of realism and imaginative fantasy, in that its main character is a private eye who stands six feet tall but weighs only 22 pounds. I’m currently preoccupied with spreading the word about the book.

HL: What do you draw inspiration from?

GM: Each book has its own origin. The astonishingly thin detective who’s the protagonist in “T.T.  Mann, Ace Detective” originated in a story my father told my brother and me when we were young. I wanted to honor my father’s quirky creativity by expanding his story into a book.

The inspiration for “A Scattered People: An American Family Moves West” came from an experience I had at age 11. An aunt showed me drawers full of family letters, some dated as early as the 1820s and others written in subsequent decades by ancestors living at locations scattered across the country. An image of a map came into my mind’s eye that traced the routes these ancestors had taken as they gradually moved westward from the East Coast to California.

The image of the map stayed with me, but more than 30 years passed before I built a book around the stories it represented.

HL: Name two writers you admire who have influenced your work.

GM: Early on I adopted a narrative style in my historical writings, even though that approach was not at all in vogue when I entered the profession. My model was Francis Parkman (1823-1893), a scholar whose histories of Franco-British imperial conflict in North America and whose description of his travels on the Oregon Trail were examples of narrative history at its best.

Although Carlos Castaneda did not consider “The Teachings of Don Juan” fiction, I was very taken with it as imaginative literature, and both the high-desert setting and the main character in my “Buenaventura” Trilogy — the series is set in early 18th-century New Mexico — reflect the influence of Castaneda’s stories.

HL: If you weren’t an artist, what do you think you’d be?

GM: I am a historian by training and a storyteller by nature. My present business card reads “Historian and Novelist,” but simply saying “Storyteller” works even better.

HL: Dream dinner party: Who would you invite?

GM: I’m curious. Would a dinner party with Agatha Christie, Carlos Castaneda, and James Michener as my guests be a success or a disaster?

HL: What’s your go-to snack while you’re working?

GM: Dark chocolate, of course, with seventy percent or more cocoa content.

— Steve Pfarrer