Mr. Wheeler, I’ve been reading your books forever, and seeing them in libraries and bookstores.
Q. Don’t you have a new book being published? What’s the title and what’s it about?
A. Julia, thanks for your interest. The 2015 Forge historical novel follows an early vaudeville company through Montana and Idaho. People in isolated mining towns in the far west swiftly erected opera houses and invited entertainers. It was their contact with the outside world. The novel is called The Beausoleil Brothers Follies, and it follows a 1890s vaudeville company through the mining towns, including Helena and Butte.
A. My ideas arose from a close study of regional history. I began writing traditional westerns, but soon switched to historical and biographical novels, which were richer and more satisfying because I was dealing with people in real circumstance, and not gunfighter mythology. The West is so rich in great material, much of it well documented in histories, that I was permanently seduced into writing about the real west.
I used to be able to write a traditional story in two or three months; historical novels took longer, because in those pre-Internet days there was site research, stacks of books, and sometimes interviews with knowledgeable people. The internet has vastly shortened the research. I can get onto Google maps and look at a place. I can access tons of material. I spend six or more months doing a big historical novel.
A. For the challenge. Mysteries are harder. You have to have a clear idea what happened, and then lead your protagonist and readers toward that. For me, it was like wanting to climb Mount Everest. I should say that I never plot or outline; I put a character in an initial dilemma and let the story unfold on its own, usually drawn from the character’s nature and decisions. It’s a rare mystery writer who does it that way, because you find yourself in blind alleys, and maddening traps. I just can’t plot, so completing my first mystery was like landing on the moon.
Q. I find I experience the place I’m writing about. Do you do the same thing? What’s it like writing about Milwaukee in the 1940s, for the Sonntag series.
A. I grew up in Milwaukee, a big industrial city with numerous ethnic neighborhoods, mostly Eastern European. I absorbed all that as a child in the 40s, and decided to set a series there featuring Sonntag, a Milwaukee police detective of the period (yes, a little like Joe Friday).
Milwaukee seethed with tensions. It had a Socialist mayor, and Communist-led unions, and sprawling companies such as Allis-Chalmers. At the same time, there were Catholic and Lutheran churches everywhere, and Orthodox ones too, and they exercised vast authority, far beyond what is seen today. The city was proletarian, richly traditional, and prime material for a mystery series set there.
The more I wrote, the more those old memories flooded back. I spent a teen summer working on an assembly line at Cutler-Hammer, taking my lunch bucket to work on a streetcar, transferring twice each way, surrounded by worn out people in work clothing, women in babushkas, or head scarves.
A. The land. I was a newsman in Arizona, Nevada, and Montana (and before that, California). In Arizona, my first news job, I became enthralled with the desert, with its arid and unsettled beauty, its mystery, the fragile cattle industry that tried to make a living from the desert. Much the same thing happened in Montana and Nevada. The land captured me, the land fevered my imagination, the land set me to exploring ghost towns, and wondering what sort of people once occupied them.
Q. You’re very successful, in terms of books written and, I’m assuming, sales. What can you tell new writers to help them?
A. My vocation as a novelist largely took place before the Internet and social media, and I fear I’d only mislead readers who must make headway in a new world. I started late in life, after a failed news career and a stint of book editing. So my advice is going to seem nuts to young people.
I loved literature. I loved the history of American literature. My favorite book is a biography, Max Perkins, Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. It’s about the legendary Scribners editor who found and helped Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and a host of others. I blotted up the anecdotes, absorbed the lore. I would say the first step is to confront yourself and ask what you want: Money? Literary recognition? Avant garde recognition? A Pulitzer Prize? Best-seller status? Each of these things requires a different approach, and you will need to master the lore.
Q. The self-publishing revolution has changed everything in the publishing world. Do you have thoughts on that?
A. My early publishing life was humbling. Editors cut favorite scenes, condensed, sent material back for rewrites, turned lame sentences into better ones, even asked me to start over. They asked me for a more compelling opening, told me that a character didn’t seem to work, wanted better endings, asked me to make chapters more coherent, asked me to make points of view clearer, asked me to get rid of excessive attribution in dialogue, asked me to create more empathy for my protagonist, and sometimes flat-out rejected a novel, or turned down my favorite idea for a new one. One of them reduced me to tears.
I am not a natural storyteller, and the editors and copyeditors and sometimes the publicists had plenty of advice they wished for me to heed. But out of all that harsh, but also kind, disciplining came a new self: I was a professional. There are a few self-published authors who have all those innate skills and qualities, and need no instruction. But most of them need the struggle and torment of a hundred revisions, and the attention of some savvy, kind, and thoughtful editors.
Q. John C. Fremont (who you wrote about in Snowbound) is often viewed as an egotistical incompetent, but I’m assuming you have a different view of him.
A. John Charles Fremont was a man of great skill and ruinous weakness. I ended up my extensive research thinking I’d not like him much if I were to meet him. That colored my novel. I wrote about his most tragic and foolish venture, after he had been booted out of the army, and let him hang himself. His narcissism cost ten or eleven men their lives.
Q. People interested in the West have different views of what is now named The Gunfight at the OK Corral. Some, like me, defend the Earps, and some attack the Earps, accusing them of many things; dishonesty, being pimps and gamblers, shooting disarmed men. But I assume you feel differently as you wrote about the Earps in Trouble in Tombstone.
A. My intent was to humanize Wyatt and remove him from the fierce controversy surrounding him. In my story, he is neither a positive nor negative icon. He’s a man who turns suddenly shy when he meets his future wife, Josie; a man filled with grief and anger about the loss or wounding of his brothers, a man who can feel remorse.
I chose to present him as an old man reminiscing, so I could defuse preconceptions and let him tell his story his own way. In recent years, newly uncovered sources tend to support the proposition that the Earps were lawmen of some integrity. Researchers have uncovered valuable material published in San Diego, sent by a stringer from Tombstone.
And they’ve uncovered a contemporary reprint of The Nugget’s first account of the fight, which powerfully supports the Earps’ version of it. The Nugget was hostile to the Earps and later changed its tune as to what happened, which is why the discovery is so important.
Q. You must have extensively researched in order to write your books. Were you ever surprised at what you found? What’s the most interesting thing you ever researched?
A. I think my research about Major Marcus Reno, the scapegoat of the Little Big Horn fight, (An Obituary for Major Reno) was as moving as anything I’d done. At the battlefield cemetery, his grave is always decorated, winter and summer, plastic flowers, real flowers. That began a quest to understand a deeply flawed man and his role in the fight.
A novel ought to be written about the Butte, Montana, labor wars, pitting the radical Industrial Workers of the World against the ruthless Anaconda Copper Mining Company. Some industry thugs, probably Pinkerton men, dragged the IWW organizer Frank Little behind a car to a railroad trestle and hanged him there. His grave, even now, winter and summer, is usually decorated. And Dashiell Hammett, a Pinkerton man in Butte at the time, was so repelled he changed his political views and wrote Red Harvest.
If you want to write a fine novel, find a grave that is decorated in all seasons, and start asking about it.
Julia, thanks for all this. I hope your own writing career prospers. I believe it will. Those are splendid reviews and notices.