Friday, 19 June 2009

Interview: John Paxton Sheriff

My next interview is with John Paxton Sheriff, who writes both crime novels and westerns. Of course I’ll be concentrating on John’s westerns but if you’d like to know more about his other work then click the link that can be found in Sites and Blogs of Interest, on the right of your screen. So without further ramble from me I’ll hand over to John, after saying thank you for agreeing to this interview.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It was 1959. I was twenty-two, a mechanic in the Royal Engineers, and living with my wife and two small children in rooms on the third floor of Café Central, Iserlohn, Germany. I went out and bought a Parker Slimfold fountain pen and began writing in a notebook. I've told this story many times: I had an idea for a gamekeeper walking into a moonlit clearing, and that's as far as it got; that gamekeeper is still there, and I often wonder what he's doing now!

A short while after that I did sell a short story to Soldier, the British Army magazine – but that was it for a long, long while. I wrote almost every night for the next ten years. Then, in 1969 and by then out of the army and living in Australia with my wife and three children, I began selling short stories to major glossy magazines. That was in New South Wales. When we moved to
Queensland I began selling crime stories to Adam, a pulp magazine published by K.G. Murray.

Over the years since then I've had general short stories published in major UK glossies, and crime short stories published by D.C. Thomson in Scotland and The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, New York.

What was the first novel you had published, and if this wasn't a western what was your first western?

The first novel I had published was indeed a western. I was working as a creative writing tutor for Writer's News (I stayed with their correspondence college, working on Fiction (novels), Short Stories, Articles, and several other courses, for more than ten years), and happened to see an article on westerns written by John Blaze. At time I was feeling frustrated as I'd had crime novels rejected by several publishers, including Robert Hale (yes, I know, part of a writer's life and something we all put up with!)

My namesake, John Paxton Sheriff was a doctor who hung out his shingle in Texas and died there in – I think – 1951. From his foster child, my father used to receive magazines: Popular Mechanics; Mechanics Illustrated; True, the Man's Magazine – and lots of westerns! I read them all and, years later when I glanced through John Blaze's article, I at once thought that I could do that.

I was right. My first western, Brazos Guns, was accepted (after I had cut it from 55,000 words), and was published in 1996. The large print edition, by Dales/Magna, came out two years later.

Which writers influence you?

Where do I start?

I'm a big fan of classic crime writers from both sides of the Atlantic, such as Raymond Chandler,
Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L Sayers, Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie. Modern crime writers I enjoy include Ian Rankin, Lawrence Block, Michael Connolly, Sue Grafton, and James Lee Burke. Burke is interesting in the context of this interview because, in my opinion, he writes lyrical crime novels that could be classed as modern westerns: they are set in Louisiana and Montana, and can be very violent.

As for western writers, well, I'm a big fan of Elmore Leonard, especially for his short stories. I read a lot of Max Brand, and I'm currently working my way through Owen Wister's The Virginian. One of Wister's short stories is a huge favourite of mine: At the Sign of the Last Chance; I recommend it to all western writers.

Which western writers would you recommend?

I think that's been answered. I'll add to those answers by recommending one book, The Ox -Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Did he write any others? I've no idea. But I do know that with that one he wrote a book that, if nothing else, sets the reader thinking very hard about many diverse issues.

How long does it take you to write a Black Horse western, and how do you go about it?

Mm. Well, on my web site I've said that I can write one in three weeks. By writing just a few more than 1,500 words every day, the Black Horse target of something like 115 double-spaced A4 pages can easily be reached in that time.

However, I don't often do that. I've written five since September 2008 – nine months – so that's nine weeks for each one.

As for how do I go about it, well, with the earlier books I simply dreamed up a simple situation – it might be nothing more than a weary rider letting his horse pick its way down a rocky slope towards a creek (Kid Kantrell, Jack Sheriff, 2000) – and began writing; the story would evolve from characters' actions and reactions.

Nowadays, since I began writing crime novels and my westerns have as a consequence become more complex, I do more plotting – but not much more!

Do you work on more than one book at a time?

A quick answer to that one: no, I don't. And then an immediate contradiction: yes, but only if one book is non-fiction, the other fiction. In other words, I never work on two fiction books at the same time.

Your westerns have been published under a number of pseudonyms: Jack Sheriff, Will Keen, Jim Lawless, Matt Laidlaw. How do you select your alias?

The names came out of the blue, obviously. As far as using them goes, I simply rotate them: use all four, then go back to the beginning. That's what I usually do. However, that leads me neatly into the next question:

Are all your westerns stand-alone titles, or are any part of a series?

I wrote a book called The Night Riders, which introduced Pinkerton man Charlie Pine. At the end of that book he told the main character, Jim Gatlin, that he would make a good agent. Recently, I decided to use that pair again – with Gatlin now an agent. That meant using a pseudonym out of sequence, so The Second Coffeyville Bank Raid (due out March 2010) was written by Matt Laidlaw, when it should have been Jim Lawless!

Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn't yet read any of your work, and why?

This is always a difficult question to answer, for any writer. I know my westerns have changed since I wrote that first one. Back then, in 1995/6, I used a lot of fancy (corny) western dialogue, a lot of clichés. So it would have to be something written, say, in the middle section of the past thirteen years.

The Deliverance of Judson Cleet was published in 2003, and dedicated to that namesake of mine I've mentioned who lived in Dallas, Texas. I think I tried to get a spaghetti western feel into this one: arid small town, the main character a loner with a past, and for the first time a young woman in the story who I thought actually fitted in and played a vital part. It was also quite thoughtful, philosophical: the deliverance in the title refers to Judson Cleet getting to know himself.

So, yes, that one, I think.

You write crime novels, do your westerns include elements from that genre?

Definitely. And that's one of the changes that's occurred as my writing has evolved. I think of my westerns now as crime novels set in the west, and of course that's why, lately, I've been doing more plotting than I did when I started out.

You've also written a number of non-fiction books to do with the craft of writing, and one on modelling toy soldiers. Tell us a little about those books.

These came directly from my newspaper work. For many years I was a freelance feature writer for two newspaper groups in North Wales – also doing new car tests and taking photographs.

It seemed to me that a book on writing advertising features might be acceptable to a publisher. I tried Allison & Busby, because I'd seen their writers' guides, it was accepted, and How to Write Advertising Features was published in 1995.

From there I naturally moved to a book on short story writing; as mentioned earlier, that's the way I began my writing career. Again, the book I came up with, Practical Short Story Writing, was accepted at once, this time by Robert Hale. That too was published in 1995, the second revised edition for Hale came out in 1998, and in 2000 a hardback edition was published by Barnes & Noble, New York.

My other books on writing technique followed on quite naturally: Writing Crime Novels (before I'd had one published!), and Creating Suspense in Fiction. The book, Modelling Toy Soldiers, was based on my own experience: I designed, manufactured and marketed toy soldiers from 1983 to about 1996. Many customers at that time said they were the world's best toy soldiers.

Do you think paper produced books will ever be replaced by electronic books?


I see them as a novelty (an expensive one, and being heavily marketed by major firms) and, although I know some people will love them, I cannot see them replacing traditional books printed on paper. They're too wonderfully convenient, too easily picked up in casual spare moments, too easily dropped harmlessly when you fall asleep reading in bed.

What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?

In answer to the second part of the question, I believe there's an electronic computer game out now – and it's a western! That creates endless possibilities. Youngsters (and oldies) could get hooked on westerns through that computer game, and start looking at, and buying, western books.

As for what do I think of the genre today, well, I can't answer that with authority because I read authors from the past. I know another western writer, Tony Lewing (Mark Bannerman), and his books are fine. I like my own books (wow), but as I mentioned earlier I enjoy Max Brand, Elmore Leonard and others... which doesn't really answer your question.

What is your favourite western movie, and why?

Winchester '73. Because I've always been a sucker for any western starring James Stewart and featuring Dan Durea. Second favourite's probably The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

Finally, what do you read for pleasure?

Anything and everything. As Stephen King said in his excellent book, On Writing, if you don't read, you stand no chance at all of becoming a writer.

I read books on writing technique. I've got Writing Horror, Writing the Private Eye Novel, both by Writer's Digest Books of Cincinnati, another book on writing crime by H.R.F. Keating. On my shelf as I write this I'm looking at Body Trauma, Deadly Doses, Cause of Death, Armed and Dangerous and Just the Facts, Ma'am, The Crime Writer's Handbook and The Crime Writer's Source Book, which are books on various subjects especially written for writers. Naturally, I'm also looking at Dictionary of The American West, and American Slang.

At the moment I'm buying, from Amazon, the crime novels of Georgette Heyer. She wrote twelve. I've got six. I chose them particularly because I read a lot of American crime novels and I believe that, over time, osmosis will change the way I write English – and I don't want that. So, currently I'm reading quintessentially English novels – and enjoying every minute.

Ask me again next month, and I'll probably be back with Michael Connelly and the Harry Bosch novels he sets in and around LA.



An excellent interview - I've not read John yet but have just ordered one from Amazon.

Ray said...

I have 'Bitter Range' by Jim Lawless on my shelf. I have read it and stands at the start of the collection for this author.
And I agree with him about computer games. There are three westerns currently available for various consoles and two more - that I know of - due out this year.

Joanne Walpole said...

Very indepth, Steve. Nicely done as always. :-)

Liz said...

This interview was so interesting I don't know where to start with my comments! First, I didn't know Georgette Heyer wrote crime novels! I saw a book on tape of hers yesterday at the library and assumed it was a romance, and couldn't figure out why she's so popular suddenly. (Unless I'm mixing her up with a long-ago romance novelist. Hmmmm, I'll have to check that theory out.)

I love the various covers depicted with the books, and found his approach to writing interesting -- that he just started with a scenario and then let things progress from there. I also found his remark interesting that his Westerns have now become more complex as a result of writing the crime novels. Makes perfect sense -- I wonder if he feels they're BETTER now?

And as for computer games, you just have to look at the popuariyy of that old chestnut "Oregon Trail" (a favorite of my kids many years ago) to see that Westerns will always be around. They simply appeal to too many people, for too many reasons. I'm going to look up a few by this author and give them a try. And I'd like to recommend a series I'm sure others know well, the Steve Dancy books by James Best. "The Shopkeeper" is the tale of the former city slicker who sells his New York shop and now is out taming the West. In the Old West, everything starts at the General Store -- plus there's the gun slinging and politics -- plus some romance, which of course I enjoy.