The cracks of a rifle come from above, at least seven or eight shots in rapid succession. Bullets spray the Big Sandy River about 10 yards from where Dean King and his teenage daughter are standing. A warning, King thinks, but too close for comfort.
The bestselling Richmond author and his 16-year-old, Hazel, accompanied by a pair of timber company forestry rangers, have bushwhacked deep into the rugged backcountry of southwest West Virginia. They've traveled near Matewan, to the delta where Thacker Creek meets Tug Fork, separating the state from eastern Kentucky. King is searching for the spot where Cap Hatfield shot and killed Jeff McCoy in 1886.
It's the beginning of research for his latest nonfiction book, "The Feud: the Hatfields & McCoys, the True Story," released in May.
During the shooting, the rangers hustle King's daughter to a nearby tent shelter. They know not to panic. This is a hardscrabble place where just about everything runs on creeks, moonshine and word-of-mouth reputations.
"We didn't want to turn tail and run. So we took a deep breath and walked out," King recalls a couple of years later from the sunlit writing room of his large, stucco house on Three Chopt Road, the same home where he was raised and which he now shares with his wife, Jessica, and four daughters.
The 50-year-old has the trim, athletic frame and owlish spectacles of an uncommon species: the jock bookworm. "It was kind of surreal," King continues. "What just happened here?"
Like many stories surrounding the notoriously violent family feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, what happened is up for debate. Maybe King ventured too close to an illegal marijuana-growing operation, or moonshiners — or more commonly these days, meth-makers. Shortly before the shooting, King recalls seeing a man on an all-terrain vehicle ride past, only to stop and eye their group suspiciously from a distance.
"Just because the rangers knew the area, they were officials. They weren't a part of the people," he says, while his Hurricane Katrina rescue dog, Rosie, ambles around the room, sniffing at a visitor. "I knew right away the big challenge of this book would be breaking the ice with the families."
The saga of the Hatfields and McCoys has fascinated Americans for more than a century. King's "The Feud" is almost dizzying in its kaleidoscopic storytelling, sifting through a huge cast of characters. The Wall Street Journal called it "popular history as it ought to be written." A critic for the Boston Globe wrote, "Like his subject matter, King's approach is outsized, as is his prose. ... His well-researched narrative confidently separates hearsay from fact, and bulges with bloody set pieces."
It's an important book for King. His previous work, "Unbound" had disappointing sales, perhaps because of its subject matter, the infamous Long March in China under Mao Zedong. On a more personal level, King's family has roots farther north in Parkersburg, W.Va., close to the Ohio River. His father played basketball at West Virginia University and became a licensing lawyer for A.H. Robins Co. after moving the family to Richmond when King was 2.
"In a way, this book was about reconnecting with who I am," King says. "Once West Virginia is part of your story, it never leaves you. The natural beauty and the earthiness of the place. The salt of the earth people."
But he hardly could've known when he started his three-year writing journey that it would take him from secret Hatfield clan hideouts and guitar-playing whiskey sessions on remote mountaintops to the cutthroat world of show business with its own back stabbings, bidding wars and the Wild West frontier of reality television.
In the last year, the Hatfields and McCoys drama has become big business. It's been the subject of an Emmy-winning miniseries starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton on the History Channel, with a two-hour companion documentary that features King as a main narrator. King's also a producer for a History Channel reality series featuring descendants of the feud, set to premiere in August.
He's convinced that the feud has a lot to say about Americans as a people — and that the true story needs to be separated from the myths and rebuilt, brick by brick, using old records, documents and oral histories. "The idea that these were toothless, moonshinin' hillbillies taking potshots at each other just isn't right," King says.
If you want to keep up with King, you may run out of breath, as I did while jogging with him down Grove Avenue on a blazing hot afternoon in late May.
The author was home for a short break from his 14-city guerrilla book tour to promote "The Feud," which has included stops throughout rural West Virginia, Kentucky and along the East Coast — even inside the Exxon station at Three Chopt and Patterson ("the grease bays were ideal," he says).
King is an adventurous writer known for traveling the globe to research his narrative nonfiction books. For "Unbound," he retraced the treacherous Long March made by prisoners of war in China in 1945 — an event King says never was properly acknowledged because of the Chinese government. For his most popular work, "Skeletons on the Zahara" (2004), he journeyed more than 100 miles by foot and camel through the Sahara Desert to better understand Capt. James Riley's memoir, "Sufferings in Africa."
Within King's books are traces of the writers he admires most. The lurid, bloodthirsty style of Cormac McCarthy. The incisive economy of short-story master Raymond Carver. The deadpan comedy of western writer, Charles Portis. But it is King's meticulous investigative skills that set him apart.
His vivid descriptions of the feud violence would make Quentin Tarantino's eyes sparkle: "Tolbert leaped back within the ring of onlookers that had formed and whipped out his own curt but fat-bladed jackknife. He and Ellison sprang at each other, the crowd surging with their violence as they tried to observe the blows yet avoid them. ... [Tolbert] sank his knife into Ellison's side so fiercely that it might have killed him if the blade had not been deflected by his rib cage."
His books make him seem like a real-life Indiana Jones, although he looks more like the casual dad in a J. Crew catalogue.
"I don't know about all that," King says flatly.
To be fair, director Steven Spielberg did hold an option on the film rights to the "Skeletons" book, but has let it drop. "He wanted it to be like his 'Lawrence of Arabia,'" King says. But after the untimely failure of several historic epic films, including "Troy" and "Alamo," the genre became more of a gamble. King's agent has other offers but holds out hope that Spielberg will renew his interest. "Honestly," King says, "it's got me a little nervous."
Growing up with four sisters, King often snuck out of the house with his father to grab breakfast at a truck stop. As a boy, he loved to re-enact historical events and dress up in military costumes. He says his father instilled his hard work ethic and love of sports from an early age.
Along for the jog is one of King's oldest friends from St. Christopher's School. "He's always been competitive," Shelt Horsley says of King, adding that the two played high-school lacrosse together. "I've got calcium deposits on my hips from him whacking at me with the stick."
King became a national champion lacrosse player in the early '80s at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he met his wife, Jessica. "He always told me he wasn't that good at lacrosse," she says. "He just wanted it more than anyone."
King continues to be a devoted player of squash and tennis as well as an avid hiker. Combining his history interests with physical activity is a big part of his seven books. "I love the physical challenge of it," King says. "Also, if you push the boundaries when you get out there, you're bound to find things others haven't."
A 1981 graduate of St. Christopher's, King's probably the most notable writer from the school since a student named Tom Wolfe was a flashy young sports writer for the high-school paper, The Pine Needle.
When editing the literary magazine at UNC-Chapel Hill, King arranged to interview Wolfe. It was the summer of 1984 and Wolfe was writing "Bonfire of the Vanities," a drama set against Wall Street in the '80s, which was being serialized in Rolling Stone magazine. King spent the whole summer reading everything Wolfe had written and preparing for the interview, only to learn that it was canceled at the last minute when Wolfe had problems with his novel, changing the main character from a writer to an investment banker. The final book was heavily revised.
"So I wrote him a few pointed letters because I was very invested," King recalls. "He wrote back, we sort of went back and forth. It didn't get ugly, but. ..."
For a college student dealing with a famous writer it was a ballsy move — and it's typical of King's unyielding belief in himself. King met Wolfe years later during a party at the white-suited literary star's New York apartment. "The first thing he said was, 'Yes, I believe we've corresponded," King says.
After college, King and some friends traveled Europe. He walked across England, one of his first "long walks," which he likes to repeat every few years. Soon he settled in New York and went to work as a part-time assistant copy editor at Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, while attending graduate school at New York University, where he studied under E.L Doctorow and Gloria Naylor.
As an unknown freelancer, King says he quickly learned that "the one thing I knew more about than anybody in New York City was West Virginia." He began crafting vibrant stories for national magazines and The New York Times about places such as the state's northwest panhandle and the Kanawha River.
He headed his own projects that included the Southern Farmer's Almanac, started by Wick Allison, publisher of the National Review, and Bubba Magazine, which poked light fun at Bill Clinton and bubba culture. The latter generated coverage as wide-ranging as "60 Minutes," "Entertainment Tonight" and from Japanese media, which King says helped him land an agent.
Logan Ward, an author and magazine writer based in Fairfax County, worked alongside King at the Southern Farmer's Almanac and considers him a mentor. "He worked me so hard I literally fell asleep at the keyboard," Ward says.
During this period, King was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma at age 29. He immediately turned the harrowing experience into work, co-editing a book with his wife called "Cancer Combat," which features interviews with 100 different cancer survivors about their best, small nuggets of advice.
"That experience does make you realize what is important," King says. He has been cancer-free for 20 years and is considered cured.
"He is the most determined and focused person I've ever known," Ward says. "And I'll be damned if he didn't beat cancer too."
The book that truly launched King's career was a biography of novelist Patrick O'Brian, who wrote naval adventure books ("Master and Commander" was one). King greatly admired his work, writing several companion books that continue to sell today. He then set out to write the biography. That took him to a small town in Ireland, where he learned that O'Brian wasn't who he claimed.
"It was like I was a private eye," King says about the information he uncovered with the help of a genealogist. O'Brian was in fact not Irish, but an Englishman named Richard Patrick Russ who'd written earlier books under that name. "I still consider him one of the great writers of the latter half of the century," King adds.
Charlie Slack, a former reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch who's a full-time book writer living near New York, covered King for the paper. They soon became good friends. "He is absolutely dogged and fearless in his pursuit of the truth. And he's got a great nose for a good story," Slack says. "Dean is that rare combination of an idea guy, creative writer and a go-getter."
For 20 years King has shared writing drafts with fellow authors Slack, Ward, and a third friend, James Campbell, who lives in Wisconsin. Campbell writes narrative books similar to King's, and says the group refers to their individual writing rooms as pain caves, a term coined by their author friend, Hampton Sides.
"He's a passionate, inspired guy. He loves life. You don't have many boring moments with Dean King," Campbell says. "When he gets a nose full of scent, there's just no stopping him."
King didn't originally want to write the book. "I was worried it was too much myth and not enough meat," he says.
His brother-in-law, Morgan Entrekin, the publisher of Grove/Atlantic press, pitched the story after a series of failed attempts to find a writer for a narrative version. The idea began with the late John F. Kennedy Jr. who, while editor of George magazine, contacted Entrekin to commission a retelling of the feud. As King writes in the book, Kennedy was fascinated that pockets of the eastern United States were still outside of government control so late in the 19th century.
The first thing everybody wants to know is what really started the feud. And the first thing they learn is that there are no easy answers.
"A feud is not a rational thing. There aren't five easy steps. You could have a murder and it might not get avenged until 15 years later," King says. "It's the sons who grow up without a father who resent it and come back much later to avenge it."
The Hatfields and McCoys saga started just after the end of the Civil War. The families were heavily intermarried, with a lack of resources that forced them into conflict to survive and prosper. Most of them supported the Confederacy.
King traces the feud primarily to three central events. There was the alleged murder of a Union soldier, Asa Harmon McCoy, by a Hatfield relative in the mid-1860s, a legal fight over some stolen razorback hogs between Randall McCoy and Floyd Hatfield, and a dangerous romance between moonshiner Johnse Hatfield and the lovely Roseanna McCoy. All helped fuel the brutal violence that eventually led to 12 official killings between 1882 and 1890. More people probably fell victim — not to mention ongoing generations of bad blood and folklore.
There's still minor bickering between the families over the accuracy of the stories. But for the most part they've lived together peacefully for the last hundred years, with far more marriages than murders. There's a Hatfield and McCoys Reunion Festival every June in Matewan, complete with massive tug-of-war competition. Descendants even appeared together on "The Family Feud" game show in 1979 with a pig in tow.
While interviewing descendants, King reveled in hearing the different passed-down versions of the stories. Even when he knew some stories were inaccurate from his research, he says, he usually held his tongue until afterward.
"You want to be skeptical, but there's generally a good bit of truth to oral tradition," King says. "I find it fun and useful as a storyteller to see these conflicting accounts, to compare and contrast a bit. To let the readers absorb them and make their own minds up."
King says he'd heard about the feud since he was a kid visiting his grandparents in West Virginia. "I probably thought what most people thought," he says. "These were rough people with few redeeming qualities. But you get in there and these families were the pillars of the community, they fought in the wars. They were influential political characters — that's why the Hatfields didn't get hunted down, because they could deliver their county to a politician. Politics is everything in West Virginia."
"You ain't a cop are ya?" a man named Alvin asks King, standing face to face with him late at night on a remote narrow ridge-top known as Devil Anse Rock — the spot where Bad Frank Phillips murdered Big Jim Vance. King can't help but notice the chain saw mounted on the front of Alvin's ATV, the pistol in his hip holster and a jar of moonshine in his saddlebag.
"I told him, 'I'm just a writer,'" King says. "He said 'good,' pulled out the moonshine. After that, we got on great."
Devil Anse Rock was remote, even for a region that King says "felt like a third-world country." The coal and timber companies own practically all of the land. Most people are renters and many are ravaged by drug abuse or live on disability.
King was lucky to make it up the hill, nearly falling off the back of an ATV driven at an almost 90-degree angle straight up by his local guide, Scotty May, a Hatfield descendent he met at the Matewan Bed and Breakfast.
A colorful character with a salt and pepper Grizzly Adams beard, May took an instant liking to King. After initially charging him $100 for a tour, he spent the next several years helping him for free, arranging parties and meetings with other descendants.
This interaction was critical while King earned the trust of the community. He visited West Virginia and Kentucky numerous times, staying for weeks, often handing out copies of his old books "like calling cards," he says, for a sort of instant legitimacy.
Most previously published books on the feud take one family's perspective over the other, says Keith Davis, chief executive of Woodland Press in Logan County, where many of the original events took place. But this wasn't the case with King's book.
"He brought a sense of balance and a great deal of additional research," says Davis, an expert who regularly lectures on the feud and worked on the History Channel documentary. "It's really quite profound."
King became fascinated with former reporters who covered the feud in the 19th century, such as New York newspaperman James Creelman, who was nearly shot in the woods in 1888. However, the author's biggest contribution may be the fleshing-out of ancillary characters, such as lawman Dan Cunningham, who pursued the most notorious family members. Other notable discoveries included finding a book a judge had written, hidden away in an attic, which contained an eyewitness account of a significant burial. King located lost courthouse records, GPS-mapped the feud, and discovered a 10,000-word, eyewitness account from a New York newspaper of the period.
The cemetery in Logan County, where many Hatfields are buried, including the patriarch Devil Anse Hatfield, used to be overgrown and quiet. But locals now are keeping it up because there can be as many as 150 tourists on some days, according to Davis. Even local students have a renewed interest in their history. The success of the miniseries, which was watched by 14 million people each night it aired, brought a totally unexpected tourism boom.
"It's been a blessing for everyone here," Davis says. "For the first time, people are looking at the Appalachian region and wanting to learn more about our culture and history. ... We may be losing some of the dumb hillbilly stereotype."
Davis oversees some public arguments between descendants of the families as administrator for a Facebook page ("Hatfield and McCoy Feud") that has more than 13,000 members. He's quick to note that feuding legend Cap Hatfield, notoriously violent and illiterate, later learned to read and write. He became a lawyer with a family practice that included the first female lawyer in West Virginia.
"The fascinating story that people are tripping into is that these violent, brutal feudists went on to change with the times and become productive members of society," Davis says. "That gives hope for us all that people can change."
Scotty May says that his life has changed immeasurably since he met King. "But I can't really tell anything about it," he says. "Because well ... I signed something."
The compelling documentary, "The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia," came out in 2009 and chronicled the hell-raising White family of Boone County. Its success had television execs salivating over ways to break into Appalachia. There had been other films, including John Sayles' 1987 feature, "Matewan," and more interesting documentaries. But the indestructible White characters felt tailor-made for today's tabloid reality television programming.
When King started the book, he wanted to make a companion documentary. He considered taking a National Geographic film team but instead went with a small company, Wild Eyes, from Southern California. Together they made a "sizzle reel" that showed various clips of characters King came across, as well as some guitar-playing and whiskey-drinking parties. King pitched the documentary to the History Channel, he says, but it wasn't interested.
Not long after, a producer from the channel called King to see if he would serve as a historian for the documentary companion to a newly announced miniseries. "This person had no idea who I was," King says. "Or that I had already been pitching the idea to them."
The channel sent Charlottesville-based producer Mark Cowen, a veteran filmmaker, to King's house. He spent 10 hours interviewing King for the documentary. "They didn't even take a break," Jessica recalls. (King was saddened to learn that Cowen, who suffered from depression, committed suicide not long after the interview.)
When the miniseries landed, King began getting more interest in his reel from the Discovery Channel and a minor bidding war began. Last January, the History Channel told King it would buy his material — with a catch. "They said, 'We're going to buy the reality series,'" King says, "'but we want the guys who made the miniseries to make it.'"
The filmmakers at Wild Eyes weren't about to let the channel hijack the project, King says. So they went to a much larger company, Coolfire Media in St. Louis, and asked it to buy Wild Eyes. This gave them more bargaining power. The end result was a partnership between Coolfire and L.A.-based Thinkfactory Media, which worked on the miniseries.
"It was a real lesson for me in what that industry was like," King says.
Entertainment lawyer Kirk Schroeder says that while negotiations were tough, King was successful because he established his bottom line and dug in. "He had invested a lot in that community, where he was trusted," Schroeder says. "Writers usually get shell-shocked in the television and film market. Dean had integrity and his guiding principles. That's also why he has such a broad appeal with his work."
Tentatively titled "Hatfields and McCoys: White Lightning," the show will follow Jim McCoy and Mark Hatfield as they try to work together to legally sell moonshine from old family recipes. History Channel executives seem excited about the final product, King says. (Its publicist didn't return calls from Style Weekly). The channel has ordered 16 half-hour segments that will begin airing in August over eight consecutive weeks.
King isn't worried that the show will make fun of the people that he's come to regard as friends. They're too smart for that, he says. Instead it's a chance for many of them to have a better life. "The Hatfields aren't going to become the Kardashians," King says. "What I like about the History Channel, they're top of the food chain in reality television. Their shows are aspirational, positive, not 'Honey Boo Boo.'"
At the casting call for the series, King was surprised to see 150 descendants show up. "Whose idea was it to put 150 Hatfields and McCoys in the same room together?" he recalls one of the production assistants asking.
Even Scotty May was there helping with the interviews and King says he will have a prominent role in the series. "Everybody here is related a long time ago," May says. "I found out all the double cousins I had."
King's author friend, James Campbell, produced the History Channel reality series, "Great Lake Warriors," about tug and bargemen. It was canceled after going head to head against the Olympics, he says. "It's all about positioning in the publishing world and on TV," Campbell says. "Dean has finally delivered these amazing characters that the reality TV world has wanted for ages."
The book launch for "The Feud" is a lively affair at the Page Bond Gallery on Main Street. It's a warm evening in mid-May, and a bluegrass band called Heartwood plays in the corner to a long line of people waiting to meet King and have their books signed. There are tasting tables of corn liquor and a legal, apple-based moonshine from North Carolina that goes down like extra-thinned cough syrup.
Watching King interact with Richmond notables from the arts scene and local politicians, he appears entirely comfortable — friends say this is true whether he's socializing with old money elites or partying with hillbillies. The strong turnout is a testament to King's presence within the local literary scene as well. He's a founder at the James River Writers and on the board of directors at the Library of Virginia Foundation and contributes time and money to both. A frequent speaker, he also established the annual James River Writers Conference, using his connections to help bring big-name writers to town.
Mary Beth McIntire, executive director of the Virginia Library Foundation, says that King has helped increase the stature of the foundation's literary awards to what author David Baldacci calls "the state's premiere literary event," a sell-out black tie affair presenting awards to established writers — such as Tom Wolfe, who received a lifetime achievement award five years ago.
"Dean always challenges us creatively to look for new and different opportunities with how we share the history and literary culture of Virginia," McIntire says in an e-mail. "We benefit from his discerning eye and attention to detail."
King still talks regularly with his West Virginia friends by phone — which isn't unusual in the wake of most of the author's books. He spends so much time with interview subjects that often he makes lifelong friends. His books have begun to feel like chapters in his own life, Kings says. He still wears a ring that the camel wrangler gave him on the Sahara. The guide who ran his trip in China has come to Richmond to stay. ("The people in these stories do become a part of him," his wife says).
Should the reality series fail, King won't be crushed. "I write books. That's what I love to do," he says. "I think real documentaries are a natural offshoot. But once it stems off to reality television, it's pure entertainment. It doesn't have much reality. Well, a little."
King's most important critic is his longtime first reader and copy editor, his wife, who left a professional editing career with American Express Publishing in New York and now works on all of her husband's books.
"People are amazed we can work together, but he's very open to criticism," she says. "It's funny he has a job behind a computer, because he's really a people person at heart." She says all of their daughters write frequently, each keeping more than one journal going at a time.
At the party, her attention turns to friends and well-wishers, but not before she addresses the river shooting in West Virginia that came so close to her daughter Hazel, who just recently graduated from St. Catherine's School.
"They didn't tell me the shooting story until many weeks later," Jessica says, rolling her eyes. Then she smiles. "I think Hazel's eyes were opened then that what her dad does maybe isn't so boring after all." S