Meet Tom McCourt, the Bard of Carbon County


Careers as a writer have been launched in many ways and for a variety of reasons – curiosity, puffs of inspiration, historical events, strong opinions, the call of the wild.

But how many started with the explosion of a coal mine?

For the moment, only one to our knowledge: that of Tom McCourt.

21 years ago, McCourt was there, over two decades in his profession as a quality control manager for Plateau Mining Co. headquartered in Price, Utah. He had a living wage, a pension, good benefits and no reason to think anything would change.

Then a spark in the Willow Creek mine caused a fire which resulted in an explosion that resulted in the deaths of two coal miners and an inoperative mine. Rather than throwing the good money after the bad, Plateau has closed its doors.

At 54, Tom was out of work.

He thought about going back to college. He had his bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Utah – “I turned that into a clerical job at the coal mine,” he jokes – and once upon a time, before the kids and mortgages, the plan was to get a graduate degree in archeology and become an archaeologist. But when he applied to graduate school, he found out that they wanted him to retake several undergraduate courses because so much had changed in 30 years.

After that, he laughed and generally felt sorry for himself until Jeannie, his wife, a muse and personal guidance counselor who not by chance had a full time job with the district. school, said: “The house is paid, the children are raised, I can feed us, why don’t you do what you always wanted to do?

What was written.

So Tom did it. He got a job with the Sun-Advocate, Price’s bi-weekly newspaper, writing feature articles, reporting on local events, writing a column. His first salary officially makes him a professional writer. And when he wasn’t doing his newspaper articles, he was at home on the computer working on his first book.

In two years he completed “Split Sky,” a thesis on the summer of 1963 that Tom spent working on the old Nutter ranch in Nine Mile Canyon.

Forty years may have passed, but when he sat down at his keyboard, everything came back to him: the adventures, the characters, the stories, the lessons learned, all as fresh as the rain of yesterday.

When his book came out in 2002, Tom prepared for what was to come. Would anyone read it? Would anyone like it? Should he see if they were hiring at the mine?

Then came payday, literally and figuratively. As it turned out, his experiences resonated with a lot of people who lived where he lived and thought as he thought. People liked it. People bought it.

Encouraged, he writes another.

This book was about the year he wore the uniform of the US Army in Vietnam. “To Be a Soldier” was as personal as it was shocking, an unshakeable memory of a tragic war and those involved in it.

Suddenly he heard Vietnamese veterans from near and far, many still suffering all these years later from the remnants of the war. McCourt became their quasi-therapist.

The writing seized him. He loved her as much as he thought he would. Now he couldn’t stop if he wanted to.

To market what he had written, he went to Back of Beyond Books in Moab, handed his books to Andy Nettle, the owner, and asked him if he would read them. And if he liked them, would he place them in his shop? They have been in stock since.

Like clockwork, a McCourt book comes out about every two years. There are now eight, a combination of personal memories and tales of the rich – and often unrecognized – history of southeast Utah.

The writing is as homemade as the man who wrote it. Reading a book by Tom McCourt is like inviting you on his porch to sit next to him in a rocking chair. Its style is as unique as the rock art of Nine Mile Canyon. Unvarnished, unpolished and as honest as a handshake.

He is quick to credit the environment that raised and shaped him as the reason he writes, with special honorable mention to his maternal grandfather, Lorin Winn, a man and former uranium expert who led Tom and his brother Reed through the desert and canyons in his 1957 pickup truck that didn’t have a radio.

Instead, he told the boys stories. “He could really appreciate a good story and tell it so well,” Tom said. “I learned a lot from him.”

It is now Tom who crosses the desert and the canyons, distributing his books on a circuit he has designed himself. He has a series of bookstores, convenience stores, hotels, motels, antique shops, and gas stations in Southeast Utah that regularly sell his books – from Moab in Hanksville to Torrey to Green River in Wellington to northern Spanish. Fork.

Every three or four months he and Jeannie get into his pickup truck with boxes of books from Southpaw Publications – that’s Tom’s brand – to replace the ones that have been sold.

It’s an in-your-face to the technological revolution. McCourt’s books are only available in physical stores in a print edition. You have to hold it in your hand if you want to read it. There are no eBook or audiobook options. And they are not available online. (The Amazon Cup, he says, is like a highway robbery.) Tom is a distributor, supplier, trader, and writer. (You can call him home at 435-637-4544, on his cell phone at 435-637-4752, or email him at [email protected] and he will send you a book.)

That didn’t make him compete with John Grisham in sales. Tom estimates that he has distributed 20,000 of his books in the past 20 years, probably a little more. His average profit is around $ 1,000 per month.

“This completes my retirement, we have a great time hawking them in the back of my truck, it gives us an excuse to go to Moab every now and then,” he says with a smile – and every now and then, and more often than he would ever have guessed – someone walks up to him and asks, “When are you doing another book?” “

He’s working on one, he’ll tell them. He doesn’t intend to stop writing. He might be 74, but the Carbon County bard started late.

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