For Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester, the release of the third and final novel in their Legends of the Lost Causes series — The Key of Skeleton Peak — is the culmination of a decade of collaboration.
Brad’s name may be familiar to longtime News-Times readers: the Arkansas native was a reporter in El Dorado in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and it’s a time he remembers fondly.
“I remember how friendly people are there, how supportive the community is,” he said. “I was there on Sept. 11, 2001; during those events and the days that followed, I saw the community really come together. They just gelled. People rallied and I think they always do there: El Dorado is just a great community.”
After a brief stint in Austin as a musician, which Brad said “didn’t work out so well,” he eventually made his way to Stillwater, Oklahoma to attend Oklahoma State University. There, he met Louis, and the two bonded over coffee shop literary discussions. The discovered a shared passion for storytelling and they began writing the first of what was to become a three-book series for Macmillan: Legends of the Lost Causes. The book was followed by The Fang of Bonfire Crossing last year, with The Key of Skeleton Peak dropping March 17.
The stories focus on Keech Blackwood and a ragtag team of orphans known as the Lost Causes. Set in 1850s America and drawing inspiration from the Old West and fantasy literature, the action-adventure series is aimed at middle grade readers (roughly 8-12 year-olds).
“The series started out very much grounded in the real world, and the Lost Causes have dug deeper into that kind of magical space, so the narrative has shifted with them,” Louis said, adding he’s a fan of introducing more fantastical elements into a Western setting. “We don’t have a problem putting fantasy in modern, urban settings or medieval times… why would fantasy dry up in between?
“I personally love the Western genre; as a storyteller, I love it because the limited technology requires your characters to rely on themselves or the team. You can’t call the cops, you can’t ask the government to swoop in to save the day. You’re in the middle of nowhere, and you have to use your wits and skills to solve whatever problem you’re presented with.”
Skeleton Peak is the end of the series, at least for now. A fourth book was planned, but Brad said it made more sense for the story to wrap up in the third installment. Those changes were being made as Brad was mourning the loss of his dear friend and mentor Jim Patterson, which made for a difficult experience. Patterson also worked at the News-Times and at the Camden News, among other newspapers.
“In April, I went to visit him in Colorado and in May he was gone,” Brad said. “When I was able to come out of my mourning for Jim, those emotions really helped distill the concluding pages. There is a lot of heartfelt stuff in the final moments.”
The Key of Skeleton Peak is an exciting conclusion to the series, Louis said.
“All of the challenges the Lost Causes have been facing up to this point come to a head,” he said. “You’ll see a real raising of the stakes in what’s been a roller coaster. In a roller coaster, you save your big loop-de-loop for the end. Readers will see the excitement and adventure won’t let up at all.”
“We take them off the plains of Kansas and into the Rocky Mountains, where the world just grows larger and larger,” Brad added. “The world just grows larger; it’s probably our most action-packed while giving people a lot more meat, back story and emotional content. There is this ever-present feeling of facing darkness, and I want kids to see the action and adventure as a source of hope and inspiration.”
The authors have always worked to ensure their books, set during a time and in a genre that often ignores or marginalizes indigenous peoples, are very respectful and intentional in the use of indigenous peoples, historical places and other cultural elements. Brad often visited the Osage Nation cultural center in Pawhuska, Oklahoma to ensure their books provided an accurate historical perspective on westward expansion.
“One of the reasons we decided to tackle the Western is that there are incredibly moving stories set in the Old West, but there are dangerous stereotypes and erasure that contribute to a very ugly genre at times,” Brad said. “We wanted to do something completely different and bring cultures of the region into the book as characters. We worked hard with the Osage cultural center and other culture experts throughout the series to think about what we did and where we took our characters.”
Louis — officially Dr. Louis Sylvester — is an associate professor of English at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho, while Brad has remained in Oklahoma. They plan, write and edit remotely, relying on emails, phone calls and Google Docs to produce a cohesive story (as well as editor Brian Geffen of their publisher, Henry Holt and Co.). The system, where they’ll plan out the story, divvy up chapters, and then swap those chapters for editing purposes, is a productive one. It takes a lot of trust and vulnerability to work like that, and in many ways Brad and Louis’ reliance on each other reflects a major theme in the book series — the value of teamwork.
“I’m to the point where I wonder how people can write without a partner,” Louis said. “In book three, I wrote maybe 90 pages that were deleted; during book one, that would have broken my heart. But now I understand that if you want to be a writer, you have to write and rewrite and throw things away, and that’s okay.
“If you want to be a writer, you need somebody who is on your team who will read your work and give you criticism. I learned the value of having somebody, a friend, who was there for me.”
Legends of the Lost Causes was a Junior Library Guild Selection, 2019 Oklahoma Book Award winner and was also featured on the 2019-20 Red Dirt Awards List, the 2018 Arkansas Gems List and the International Literacy Association Young Adults’ Choices 2019 Reading List. Legends of the Lost Causes and The Fang of Bonfire Crossing both reaching No. 1 on the Oklahoma Bestsellers List, and the series has been on the list more than 16 times since February of 2018.