I always wrote, but never thought of becoming a professional writer until I spent time in the VA hospital at Ft. Miley, San Francisco. I was a manic-depressive, and this was a special ward with intensive therapy. My psychiatrist asked if he could tape our sessions (3 times a week) and I said okay. The staff decided, from the way I described complex feelings and thought processes that I might do better if I skipped OT (Occupational Therapy) and write. So, they gave me an office, typewriter and paper. I started writing, with no purpose, no plan. There was a writer in our small group. He and the staff flipped out over this raw material. The consensus was that I had the makings of a poet. So, after I left the hospital, I made a decision that I would just write and do any kind of work to allow me this freedom. I studied and wrote, and what emerged was poetry. I have never regretted this decision. I was about 22 or 23 at the time I began writing poetry.
What was the first novel you had published and if this wasn’t a western what was your first western?
My first novel was LUST ON CANVAS. It was not a western, but was a story about an artist whose work I had seen in a gallery in San Bernardino (Calif.). It went through several printings and one day I met the artist, who had read the book and liked it. My first western was GUN FOR HIRE published by Major Books. It, too, went through many printings and many cover prices, starting at 50 cents and going to $1.50.
None. The publishers of that first book were friends who started their own publishing company and came to me. These were a writer/editor, an artist and a photographer.
Which writers influence you?
Hard to tell, because I was influenced first by James Joyce whose ULYSSES I read when I was 10 years old and read it over and over until I was 15. In poetry, I was influenced by Federico Garcia Lorca, Dylan Thomas, the Symbolist poets such as Rimbaud and Verlaine. My father’s aunt, Bertha Muzzy, wrote westerns under the name of B.M. Bower, and we all read her books, along with Zane Grey, Owen Wister, and others. A.B. Guthrie was probably a strong influence with THE BIG SKY and certainly Jack London.
How important is historical accuracy in westerns?
Certain aspects of history are important, such as dates, but history itself is not always accurate. So, I am not a stickler for retelling the exact stories which historical writers have collected and retold. I do not write history, but use it as a backdrop to my fiction. We will probably never know the truth or accuracy about the O.K. Corral, nor the Kennedy Assassination. That’s just the way things are. History can be very slippery when it comes to either accuracy or details.
I would be a poor source for recommendations of western writers since I am legally blind and must listen to books on audio, most of which are not westerns. But, I do enjoy the work of my friends, Elmer Kelton, Loren D. Estleman, Richard S. Wheeler, Max Evans, Tony Hillerman, Terry C. Johnston, Jack Schaefer, Gordon Shirreffs and Charles Portis. Portis’ TRUE GRIT is the most perfect western I’ve ever read. I like Cormac McCarthy’s writing very much because he has a great ear and a strong sense of the power of the English language.
I don’t know. A good chunk, certainly, over the past 20 or 30 years. That’s probably because, for several years, westerns were in demand, and I still love to write them. But, my interests are wide-ranging. I am taken more seriously as a western writer because there have been a lot of western books in my recent past.
I’ve recently seen the news that your Savage series is to be continued, is this likely to happen with The Vigilante series too?
SAVAGE GUN was supposed to be only 3 books, which have all been published. Recently, Berkley bought 2 more and I’m writing #4 at present. I haven’t heard of any interest in continuing THE VIGILANTE books, which wound up as a trilogy, not a series. To me, a series is at least 8 books, and that is becoming a rarity in my case.
I long ago gave up trying to figure out what readers want or don’t want. A good title and a good cover illustration probably help to sell books, rather than the frequency of publishing. Yes, some readers keep track and get frustrated when too much time passes between books, and yes, they will move on to other titles. My main concern is when a trilogy or a series is cut off before it has a chance to catch on. I still get a lot of mail about my trilogy, THE BUCKSKINNERS, but Tor/Forge wanted me to work on THE BARON saga, so dropped the third book. Incidentally, Forge (Tom Doherty & Associates) has had THE BARON HONOR for over 2 years and has not yet published it. I still have one more to write in that series, the BARON LEGACY, which I’ve started, but set aside until I get further word on the fate of that series.
You came up with the idea for the Rivers West series, how did you decide which authors to ask to write for the series?
I didn’t create the RIVERS WEST series for myself, but for the best writers in Western Writers of America. My first calls were to Louis L’Amour, Elmer Kelton and Will Henry. Elmer was too busy, Will was almost totally blind and had all but given up on writing, and Stuart Applebaum would not allow Louis to write for me. Since I envisioned the series to go on for years, if not centuries, I was lucky to get such fine writers as Win Blevins, Richard S. Wheeler, Gary McCarthy, Frank Roderus and Don Coldsmith. Again, Bantam would not let Don write for me after that one book. The series took off right out of the box and my editor, Greg Tobin, asked me to step in and write some of them. I sold the series with a single page overview that I took to New York. It was a very successful series as long as it lasted. There are still over 2000 rivers west of the Mississippi (and we never did get to that river, even), and I was sorry to see the series die.
When Pocket Star stopped publishing westerns with only the first of your Owlhoot Trail series being published I was wondering what became of the announced second book Journey of Death, did you rewrite it and get it published elsewhere?
Pocket paid me the advance for the 2nd and 3rd books in THE OWLHOOT TRAIL. I had delivered the 2nd one, which they returned. I did rewrite it, but have not tried to sell it. It’s still on the shelf.
Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read any of your work yet and why?
I don’t like to recommend any of my books to people I don’t know because my tastes may not be anyone else’s. However, if someone wishing to write westerns asked me which of my books I think might help them, I’d mention SONG OF THE CHEYENNE, first published by Doubleday, in hardcover, and later by Tor, in paperback. This, because the novel is from the Cheyenne point of view and does not use white man’s terms to describe the Cheyenne world. And, perhaps THE MEDICINE HORN, which won the WWA Spur Award for Best Novel, because it represents an entire movement westward at a time when such travel was technically illegal. And, finally, I might recommend GRASS KINGDOM, because it involves three ranching families in the Rio Grande Valley and shows how a large cast of characters affect one another’s lives. That book was the first published in the Baron series, but will wind up being the last, since I went back 100 years to explore the settling of that region of Texas, a harsh, unforgiving environment not particularly suited to raising cattle or any other kind of livestock.
THE MEDICINE HORN, won the Spur in 1995, much to my surprise. I was writing that book when I had triple bypass heart surgery. The anesthetic stayed in my brain for a year, and it was like wading through quicksand. It took me a year to write because there were huge gaps between moments of lucidity.
I did write 2 books for Ralph Compton’s estate. I liked Ralph very much as a friend and fellow writer and so I took on the assignments. As long as credit is given to the actual writer, I’m comfortable with that. There are no royalties, however, so I declined writing any more such books. When a writer has a winning series, such as the Trail Drive series, it seems a shame to let it die. Bill Johnstone was a friend, but he wrote very few of his books even when he was alive. When he became ill, he didn’t write any of the books that came out under his name. While he has a large following, few people probably realize that he didn’t write most of the books appearing under his name.
Have you written any westerns under a pseudonym and if so can you tell us which?
Yes, I’ve written several westerns under various pseudonyms. At one time I was Zebra’s only western author, so I wrote under the name of Walt Denver. I can’t recall the other pseudonyms. My memory is like a sieve and much of my past has seeped out through the holes.
RIVERS WEST, and SHADOW RIDER. The latter was published by Harper Collins and only lasted 3 books. I liked the character, Zak Cody, and thought he should have had a longer life in print.
Which past western would you like to see back in print and why is this?
I’d like to see SONG OF THE CHEYENNE back in print and I’d like to see it marketed to a young adult audience. So far, all of my attempts to do this have failed. For all the others, they’ve had their day and probably do not need nor deserve a second chance.
What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?
Since I can no longer read printed books, I don’t know much about the genre of today. I know we have some fine writers out there, Johnny Boggs, Bill Brooks, Jimmy Lee Butts, Pete Brandvold, Mike Blakely, Bill Crider, Cameron Judd, and many others. They are keeping the western alive and infusing new energies into the genre. I’ve seen many genres go through cycles and I believe, since the western is our native literature, that it will live on in some form or other. We’ve seen vestiges of it in such movies as OUTLAND, STAR WARS and others, so my hunch is that somewhere down the road, the genre will not only be refined, but achieve classical status that will rival all other so-called genres.
Finally, what is your favourite western movie and why?
Steve, I would probably say THE WILD BUNCH, since I knew Sam Peckinpaugh and respect his genius. I also saw the complete director’s cut where many good scenes were deleted. A close second would be JEREMIAH JOHNSON, because I hunted with a .50 caliber Hawken, trapped when I was a kid and have spent much time in the wilderness areas of the Rocky Mountains. That’s where my heart is, nearly 200 years too late.