TV Writing Professor Pens Quanah Parker Novel, Netflix Screenplay
Professor Alan Nafzger’ new novel, Quanah Parker’s Herford Bull, is his 21st book.
When Professor Alan Nafzger’s new novel, Quanah Parker’s Herford Bull, is published on August 1, he will be focused on adapting the novel into a feature film for Netflix. A western thriller, the story is about a the Comanche chief and self-styled “civilized Indian,” who has a Hereford bull stolen and lead off into Texas. In real history, the chief did have a Durham bull stolen but wasn’t able to cross over into Texas to retrieve it. In Nafzger’s novel friends Ranald Mackenzie and Charles Goodnight accompany him as he attempts to recover the animal.
Academia Today caught up with Nafzger, at his Matagorda Bay home to discuss the book as well as his recommendations for what to read and watch during quarantine, the differences between writing a novel and writing for the screen and who he would invite to a dinner party.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
A. Well, I set my last novel, McMurtry’s Typewriter, in the city where I grew up and probably the most corrupt county in Texas. I have always been concerned with police corruption and I was thinking “well, what makes these cops suddenly corrupt?” But I realized the law men of the American West were just as corrupt. And then I waited for a case to prove it.
When I read that Quanah Parker had a bull stolen and the tracks lead off into Texas. He of course couldn’t persue the thives; for one it was Texas and he’d have been killed just for being there. And also, who would be ballsy enough to steal a bull from the Comanche chief.
Q. You are saying it was Texas Rangers?
Nafzger: Are you telling me Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call wouldn’t steal a Comanche’ bull off a reservation. I believe those Rangers would figure it was even owed to them. But it’s fiction; I don’t mention “Gus” or “Captain Call” in the book by name. But it did happen. Quanah Parker kept his animals down at Big Pasture, which was his personal property, right there on the border. It would have been easy to do it, lead the bull across the Red River. Someone did it. Opportunistic if you ask me.
Q. You and McMurtry are friends?
I’ve always was curious about how he wrote Lonesome Dove as a Quixotic tale, but the people missed the point. Logic demands that you drive cattle from a place without a population to a place with a population; ya wanna sell them. But these not heads drive them from South Texas to Montana, where of course they probably froze to death and they did it “just for the hell of it.” Just to be heroes, like Don Quixote. By the way Gus is Sancho and Call is Quixote.
American’s however read it as a hero tail. We worship cops far too much in my opinion. Fiction sometimes needs to expose the truth, so when I have the thieves turn out to be Texas Rangers… well is anyone really surprised.
Q. Most of the novel is about the Native American boys however?
Nafzger: Years ago, when I was just a teenage, I made contact with a radical Indian rights group and they allowed me to sit in on a few meetings. I was struck by their impassioned argument that there was a moral imperative to protect take back what was theirs, even in ways that broke the law.
The contemporary Native American gatherings in Lawton and Anadarko can get a little radical of two decades ago came together in my mind one night. I set out to write a novel about Quanah Parker, a visionary conservative, who only wanted to take his young followers on one last buffalo hunt. But when his bull, and a Hereford bull that would put meat on his cattle’s bones, is stolen he must risk his life to track it down.
If an Indian was to venture into Texas after they’d just done their best to exterminate them and run them off into Oklahoma, then he’d need help. When I read that Charles Goodnight and Ranald Mackenzie were personal friends with the chief, I was set.
Q. Have you ever written about a pandemic?
A. Yes, but in the Philippines. I have a television movie being taped that is set in the quarantine. I was in Manila in 2016 and you can’t walk down the street without being exposed to this huge sex industry. And then the virus hit and I read about the suffering and the pitiful stimulus the Filipino’s received. And they were hit by a typhoon and then I read that many Filipinos didn’t even get their 5000 pesos because they weren’t registered workers.
I don’t know if it was a day dream or just a dream, but I got this picture in my head of a bargirl, which is a dancer/prostitute homeless and sleeping in the recess in front of a closed topless bar… in the middle of a hurricane. And I thought of a story how she could use the epidemic to escape the sex industry. It’s a romantic comedy/drama. It’s the first romcom set in the quarantine. I would have loved to shown it to Hollywood, but it really doesn’t make sense here in the USA.
Q. Will COVID -19 provide material for a future novel or screenplay?
Nafzger: I doubt I’ll write about this pandemic, but I’m sure the experiences of the past few months—and especially quarantining—will work their way into my writing. I also think that COVID-19 may play a role in the reception of my new book. I have a hard time sticking to one topic or theme. I wrote the Permanent Girlfriend in a week and that’s all I care about the virus.
Right now I’m thinking baseball is the cure (The Baseball Muse), and I think there were a lot of people who feel that mankind needs to be entertained and they are sick of all these real and imaginary threats. The past few months may have finally pushed people over the edge politically. We are just sick of feeling vulnerable by the media. They need a baseball romantic comedy.
Q. What has it been like to adapt your own book into a screenplay for Netflix?
A. I fell very much in love with my own novel, which I wrote in a magical months. Now that I’m getting the chance to adapt it, I have to constantly remind myself that what worked in the novel may not work in the movie version. This sometimes leads to removing characters and storylines that I like, and novelistic dialogue that reads well, but will never play on screen.
Q. When will the film air?
A. Netflix is developing my novel for a possible movie, but there’s no guarantee it will be made. Studios develop many promising projects and then decide which few to green-light and bring to the screen. I have written more than 30 scripts for studios in India, the Philippines and Russia, and only five have been made into movies. It’s nearly impossible to predict which projects move forward, especially in Los Angeles. Timing plays a great role, and there’s an element of luck.
Q. What is the main difference between writing a novel vs. writing for the screen?
Nafzger: For me, a novel is about character. I try to catch the voice of the main character and follow him or her through the story. I never write novels from outlines. One of the joys of writing a novel is when your main characters start making choices that you don’t completely understand, but you stay out of their way and follow them.
In contrast, a screenplay for me is about structured conflict. I write screenplays from detailed outlines that are often more than 10 pages long and spell out the central dramatic conflict or tension beat by beat. There is less freedom, and the writing is far more controlled.
Q. Do you prefer one form over the other?
A. I started out as a novelist, and it’s still the form that’s closest to my heart. But the money just isn’t there. It’s very rare to find a reader. Mr. McMurtry feels that same way and he’s said that Hollywood financed the novels. He was right. So most mornings I sit down and began writing Quanah Parker’s Herford Bull, my first western novel.
I wrote my first novel, Lenin’s Body, in a Dublin when I was working on my Ph.D. in my early twenties. I traveled to Russia in 1985, 1996 and 2019, so I waited till I returned to the city of Matagorda to finish Quanah Parker’s Herford Bull. I was a little sad to finish, and it felt like I was saying goodbye to the characters chapter by chapter. How can I write about Parker, Mackenzie or Goodnight after this?
Q. How is writing for TV different than writing a feature film?
Nafzger: Feature films have a quality of unreality. When I wrote movies for the studios, the note I often got that I hated the most was: “Show me something I’ve never seen before.” If a studio is putting up $50 million to make a feature movie, they want that. Magical realism. I look to include that.
TV, on the other hand, is smaller and—in my experience—based much more on real life. When I began writing for The Roosevelt Public Library, I asked the highly experienced showrunner, “What makes a good Roosevelt episode?” He told me: “It’s like Love Boat meets The Equalizer, real people with real situations.”
Q. What books, movies and TV shows would you recommend during quarantine?
A. We all need distraction. My family watched Japan Sinks, and we’re now watching Yellowstone. I’ve been reading Where the Crawdads Are by Delia Owens and some novels by Fernando A. Flores .
Q. What’s the last great book you read?
Nafzger: Cynthia Bond’s debut novel, Ruby. There were rave reviews in Kirkus and People, and sales leaped when it was named an Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 selection. The story of Ruby Bell, a black woman from rural East Texas who descends into madness after a life of unspeakable violence and tragedy, has even been optioned by Hollywood. But a small subset of readers hated the book’s explicit portrayal of various forms of abuse. One Amazon reviewer wrote, “It was so vile, there were many pages I couldn’t read.”
Q. What’s on your summer reading list?
A. I don’t make reading lists. I like to go to Amazon and browse. I doubt bookstores will ever reopen . I doubt people ever be able to walk down the aisles again.
Q. You’re hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite and why?
Nafzger: I studied political science and Francis Fukuyama; I was so intimidated at being in the same room as him, the author of The End of History? that I never got to properly thank him for all that he taught me.
I met Jonathan Turley once, who is an attorney, legal scholar, writer, commentator, and legal analyst in broadcast and print journalism. Prior to joining the George Washington University, he was on the faculty of Tulane University Law School. In his impeachment testimony, Professor Turley objected to the effort political effort to “craft” articles of impeachment around four criminal allegations: bribery, extortion, obstruction of justice, and campaign finance violations. We all owe him a big thank you. For me it’s not Democratic vs Republican, it was a matter of the balance of power and the ease we could slip into anarchy or totalitarianism if Trump were removed.
Larry McMurtry is more a novelist than a scholar, but he taught writing at Rice so I suppose he qualifies. I learned how to write by reading his books over and over, particularly the masterful Lonesome Dove series. I did get to thank him once in person, but I’d like to do it again, over a good dinner.