Interview with Dr. Florence Byham Weinberg
Why did you decide to self-publish?
At first, I tried for a major publisher in New York City. My agent worked hard but got refusals mostly on the grounds that my topic was “too local.” That effort lasted over a year. Trying one agent after another, one publisher after another might take many years and still yield nothing. I decided not to wait any longer but to go it alone. Self-publishing has been low in respect and prestige, but I think it is becoming more popular. The public, at least, has realized that the quality of self-published books can be high. It’s entirely up to the author—and the reader’s judgment. There are advantages, too. While the cost of self-publishing is considerable, still it is manageable, and profits from sales are all the author’s, not mostly to the publisher. Whether to publish or reprint is also entirely up to the author. I chose that route and so far, am happy with my decision.
What do you think most characterizes your writing?
I think placing my protagonists in a setting that can be visualized, touched and smelled. My people must move in a “real” world, not in some gray abstraction. Before the Alamo is set in the nineteenth century, when roads were not paved or even graded, where the only floor covering in San Antonio was either brick or tile or none at all, when Main Plaza was a stretch of dust or mud, dotted with piles of manure. Laundry was done by beating clothes against a rock with a stick; soap was homemade, a boiled combo of lard and ashes. The “dryer” consisted of convenient bushes where the clothes were spread to catch the sunlight. Water was carried into the house in buckets. Life was not easy, and my book shows how hard it was. I want the reader to feel those inconveniences as if s/he were there.
How do you decide if your main character(s) will be male or female?
I write from the point of view of either gender. My choice depends on the subject matter. I have written two historical novels about the Franciscans who founded San Antonio by establishing their missions along the San Antonio River, beginning in 1716. Those main characters were, of course, mainly male, although an Apache Woman Warrior plays a major role in Apache Lance, Franciscan Cross. And I wrote four murder mysteries starring a real, historical Jesuit missionary named Ignaz Pfefferkorn, who acts as my detective. I have written three books set in the French Renaissance. I chose to write about Emilia Altamirano in Before the Alamo because I wanted to present a woman’s view of conditions and events in Texas before—and a bit after—1836. Women had to struggle much harder than men to make their mark in the nineteenth century, even into the mid twentieth, when they could exercise the vote. That struggle made writing from Emilia’s point of view much more interesting.
In researching this book, did you learn any unexpected, unusual, or fascinating information?
Yes, two things: María’s story, which is factual, and the Battle of the Medina River in 1813.
The historical María was bought by a Béxar de San Antonio native on the slave market of a border town, perhaps Rio Grande, which no longer exists. She’d been taken from her tribe (perhaps the Otomí) as a baby and raised by a Spaniard as his daughter. She learned to read, write. And learned all the graces of a Spanish lady. When she reached puberty, he could not resist her charms and he assaulted her. He blamed her for seducing him and sold her on the slave market. That is when the scion of a San Antonio pioneer family bought her. She became a slave in his household.
A librarian in the Alamo Library handed me the statement about María, made by a descendant of that family. I at once recognized its importance. María, one of the protagonists in my story, is, of course, Emilia’s mother.
The Battle of the Medina River (or Battle of Medina) took place in 1813. Texas was a late entry in the fight to liberate Mexico from Spanish rule. Texas mustered an army of 1,800 men to fight the Royalist Mexican Army under the command of General Joaquín de Arredondo. They met at the Medina River. The Texas recruits were probably good sharpshooters and hunters, but they had little military training. Arredondo was a brilliant, though ruthless, military tactician. He sent an advance contingent to engage the Texan army. The Texans overwhelmed the Royalists, who fled. They followed in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Arredondo had arranged the bulk of his 2,000+-man army in a horseshoe formation. When the Texans arrived within the arms of the horseshoe, all hell broke loose. They were mowed down, slaughtered to the last man. The few who escaped were pursued and killed. Arredondo moved on into San Antonio, leaving the corpses unburied. In San Antonio, he executed anyone suspected of independence sympathies. Many families had fled to New Orleans, but those who remained suffered many losses. Arredondo acted as governor of Texas for a while, continuing to kill independence sympathizers throughout Texas. He greatly reduced the male population, which guaranteed that the population in general could not bounce back. This is the main reason why Texas was considered too sparsely populated to stand as its own state when México created the united states of Mexico—it was merged with the state of Coahuila—Coahuila y Tejas. Texas was also open to Anglo immigration, Stephen Austin being the first to move in with 350 families. The Anglo influx became a flood, taking over property belonging to Spanish-speaking citizens, sometimes by force. Thus, Texas became an Anglo-dominated Republic of Texas (1837-1845) then joined the United States of America on December 29, 1845. In Before the Alamo, I maintain that Texas’s history from 1813 on was determined by the disastrous Battle of the Medina River.