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On the morning of Nov. 21, 1980, H. Lee Barnes was heading to the Sands Hotel to play tennis. He turned onto Koval Lane and saw something he knew he never would forget. He watched two people jump to their deaths from the windows of the MGM Grand Hotel. The fire and smoke engulfing the building was to claim the lives of 87 people.
The fire plays an important role in the life of the protagonist of Barnes’ most recently published book, Cold Deck (University of Nevada Press). Jude is a casino dealer who barely survived the fire and years later still is struggling.Barnes’ life experiences have a habit of finding their way into the stories he writes. He was a dealer for many years at various Las Vegas casinos, gaining an in-depth knowledge of the casino culture that proved useful for Cold Deck as well as Dummy Up and Deal (University of Nevada Press, 2002), a book he describes as “creative nonfiction.”
Nowadays, he doesn’t spend much time in the casinos. “The last really good time I had at a casino was riding the rollercoaster at New York New York,” he recalled.
He began his college studies at Texas Western College, (the predecessor to the University of Texas at El Paso) but eventually dropped out. Within five weeks he received his draft notice. He was going to Vietnam.
Welcome to two other Barnes books, Gunning for Ho, Vietnam Stories (University of Nevada Press, 1991) and When We Walked Above the Clouds (University of Nebraska Press, 2011), the latter a memoir about his days as a Green Beret. It was following a reunion of men with whom he had served in Vietnam that he wrote about the war. “They off and on pressured me to the write the story. I wrote it for them, not so much for myself,” he recalled.
Now, he said, “I hope I never write about Vietnam again.”
But he knows that his books about the subject won’t soon be forgotten. Gunning for Ho is one of his more successful books and has been incorporated into numerous university courses focused on the history of Vietnam and on literature about Vietnam.
Other aspects of his life, such as his stints as a private detective and as a narcotics agent, also provide fodder for his work.
Barnes, who was named an outstanding graduating senior, later earned a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Arizona State University. He now teaches at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN), and is the lead faculty member in creative writing.
Today he has eight books in print, including novels, a memoir, nonfiction books, and short stories. Along the way he has picked up several awards, including the Willamette Fiction Award and the Arizona Authors Association Fiction Award. In 2009 he was elected to the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame. And this year the Vietnam Veterans of America honored him with an excellence in the arts award at its national convention.
His first attempt at writing came in 1977 when he tried to write a novel based on a real-life narcotics case on which he had worked. The 338-page manuscript was not good, he said. After reworking the story as both fiction and nonfiction, he eventually abandoned it. He was too close to the subject and couldn’t find the story.
“But, I realized I had the discipline to write and write daily,” he said. “The more you write, the more you learn the craft, and the better you get
But, “I didn’t know it would take more than 20 years to get a book contract.”
Barnes compared the writing process to cleaning up a cluttered garage.
“The first draft is a really messy garage,” he said, adding that it isn’t until you work on it a while that you begin to see what it can look like when you finish.
When he was working in casinos he found it easy to write every day. But because his teaching job takes more time (he teaches five classes each semester), he now commits to writing at least 12 hours a week and fits it in whenever he can.
His routine? “It’s simple. I don’t answer the phone. That’s it. Only my dog is allowed to be with me. I run all my ideas by my dog.”
His latest work, The Gambler’s Apprentice, is an epic novel that is a prequel to his book, The Lucky (University of Nevada Press, 2003). The books features Willy Bobbins, a character loosely resembling a colorful personality well known to longtime Las Vegans, the late Benny Binion. The story begins in 1917. Bobbins rustles cattle, plays poker in back rooms in New Orleans and Texas, and eventually helps build Las Vegas as a casino owner.
Barnes expects to send it to the publisher soon.
“It’s all done. Now I’m just going back and cleaning out the garage.”