You’ve written more than forty books and won the prestigious Spur award six times. You’ve done well writing about the American West.
Q. On your website, you said you’re interested in the West because you were exposed to westerns as a child. Could you be more specific?
A. I grew up during the tail end of the western TV craze, so my introduction was from Gunsmoke, The Virginian, shows like that, and I watched as many movies as I could find on TV. I can’t tell you how many times I saw Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on the CBS Saturday night movie. I also remember reading, rereading and re-rereading comic books on Daniel Boone and Billy the Kid. And when I was older you’d find me browsing the Western selection on the shelves at Ray’s Novel Shop or in the used-book stores. That’s where I discovered Will Henry, A.B. Guthrie Jr., Dorothy M. Johnson and Jack Schaefer.
Q. Personally, I write (mostly) about the 19th century West because I don’t enjoy today’s physical and cultural restrictions. Do you feel at all the same way, or do other aspects attract you?
A. I’ve written what I guess you’d call contemporary Southern short fiction – dare I say autobiographical? – and some of my “westerns” are pretty much historicals set in the South. But since they’re set in the Backcountry in the 1700s, the publishers can call them frontier novels. I don’t know, but I’d guess that what really attracted me to the West when I was growing up was the fact it seemed a long, long way from the swamps and tobacco fields of South Carolina. And maybe I still feel that way.
But what really draws me into writing a novel or short story are the characters and the land. I just find a subject that starts taking root and it becomes an obsession so that I have to write about it.
But, trust me, I know plenty of publishers and editors who put physical and cultural restrictions on what they want to see in westerns. And I don’t like rules – except in baseball – and I don’t like fences and I don’t like boundaries. I like to write about what I want to write about.
Q. While researching, have you found anything that surprised you, or would surprise others?
A. I love the research, and I’m always finding something new. Probably the most recent thing came when I was researching a nonfiction book, Billy the Kid on Film, 1911-2012. The first actor to play Billy the Kid in a movie was an actress. When I started, most sources credited an actor named Tefft Johnson, but it turned out to be Edith Storey.
Q. Do you believe people who lived in the 19th century West really had a different set of values and modes of behavior than we do, or that people have always been basically the same?
As an example, 19th century western men seemed to revere women and be protective of them (that’s what we read). But is it really true?
A. I think people are people. We haven’t really changed that much. You can make a good argument that the bushwhackers who rode with Quantrill are no different than the members of urban gangs today.
One of the fascinating aspects of reading history is seeing how often it’s repeated. Certainly, you can find people out West who put women on a pedestal – same as you can likely find today, although that’s probably becoming more rare. But you can also find men who had absolutely no respect for women, same as today.
Going back to the previous question, I remember reading Britton Davis’s The Truth about Geronimo and discovering how he despised the words squaw and buck. Proof there were liberals even in 1880s Arizona.
Q. Is there a 19th century western man (or woman) you highly respect, (or is even your hero or heroine) and why?
A. I’ve often said that I would have liked to have met Bill Cody – perhaps because he would have bought me a drink or two. I like John Muir, Mark Twain, Quanah Parker, Mary Goodnight, Chief Joseph, Lozen, Sam Houston, Sequoyah, Texas Jack Omohundro, Satank, Annie Oakley, and, to an extent, Cole Younger.
The ones I highly respect are the women and men, red, white, Hispanic, Chinese, Irish, Norwegian, Southern, Northern, etc., who nobody remembers, who never wrote a memoir, never took part in a gunfight, probably never even got their names in a paper – and maybe not even on a tombstone. Just did their jobs and brought up their families, lived and died in relative obscurity. But we wouldn’t be here without them.
Q. You are a very successful author who is published the traditional way, by a publisher, printed as well as digital. What do you think of the Indie revolution?
A. Books are books. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that stories were all told orally. And carrying my kindle onto an airplane is a whole lot easier than packing six or seven books for a trip. And I still believe that no matter how you’re published, great writing will eventually be recognized.
Q. Why have you gotten interested in particular stories? For instance, in Northfield you wrote about the “Great Northfield Raid.” Why did you choose to write about the disaster that destroyed the James gang when it tried to rob the First National Bank of Northfield, Minnesota, on September 7, 1876?
A. Northfield came out of the movies and a lot of bad fiction and nonfiction. I’d read and seen so much hogwash about what happened in Northfield, I wanted to tell the story as accurately as possible. That’s the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ idea.
Stories come to me in different ways. A magazine article I’d read led me to do East of the Border, about the theatrical careers of Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro.
I once heard a speech by an Indian lawyer named Killstraight – which led to my Killstraight series. I just loved the name and remembered John Jakes telling me about the ‘power of the letter K.’
The Hart Brand began with a horse wreck I had on a trail ride. Some come from passages in books, from places I’ve visited, people I’ve met, newspaper articles, something I simply overheard someone say, movies I’ve seen, or even a photograph or painting.
Q. What advice would you give to other western authors, particularly those beginning their careers?
A. That’s easy. Write. Read. Write. Read. Write. Read. Edit. Edit. Edit. Edit. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Then write and read some more.
Q. You’ve written more than 40 books, short stories, and are a photographer. How did you do that? Do you have certain writing habits?
A. It’s a job. My commute is just shorter than most people’s. I have no inheritance, no retirement, and my wife’s a realtor. I write for a living. It’s to the office in the morning and working eight to ten hours a day, five or six days a week.
My advice is Don’t Quit Your Day Job. That’s the advice I was given many years ago. I just didn’t listen to it. This is an incredibly hard way to make a living, but there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.
Q. What are you working on?
A. Let’s see. I have two magazine assignments I have to finish next week, and I just got another assignment that I’m trying to set up the interviews for, plus I’m trying to set up some interviews for a travel assignment in April. I’m proofing a short story for an anthology that I have to email to the editor tonight. A magazine editing job just landed on my computer, so I have to get that done in the next 10 days. There’s a novel I’m working on, and I’ll probably get proofs for another novel in the next week or so.
About four literary functions are coming up. I have to take my son to snowboarding lessons tomorrow, and one of the dogs needs a bath.
Q. Are the number of western readers shrinking, expanding, or has the number held steady through the years (and why)?
A. Well, I’ve always been loose with what I call a western. Mystery writers Craig Johnson, C.J. Box, Tony – and now Anne – Hillerman, I call what they’re writing westerns. I also call The Grapes of Wrath a western.
Jeff Guinn, a best-selling nonfiction writer, signed a three-book deal for Western novels with a major New York house, Philipp Meyer’s The Son earned phenomenal reviews, and we’re seeing more and more western nonfiction rise on the New York Times best-seller lists.
The problem is most people think of westerns as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, and those readers are usually older males. Most people buying books these days are women.
And for several years now I’ve tried to write at least one young adult novel to get our children – especially boys – interested in reading about their history and heritage.
I think westerns have always been that ugly stepchild when it comes to genre fiction, but it’s still there despite countless epitaphs and death songs over the past several decades. People still like those stories.
And I’m certainly busier now than I’ve ever been. That’s a good sign, I think, for anyone who writes or reads westerns.