"[Cotton's] works incorporate...pace and plot in a language that ranges from lyric beauty to macabre descriptions of bestial savagery." - Wade Hall, The Louisville Courier-Journal
"Gun-smoked believability...a hard hand to beat." - Terry Johnstone
"A storyteller in the best tradition of the Old West." - Matt Braun
"Gun-smoked believability...a hard hand to beat." - Terry Johnstone
"A storyteller in the best tradition of the Old West." - Matt Braun
First I want to thank you for agreeing to answer my questions Ralph:
It's my pleasure, Steve. Thank you for inviting me.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
As far back as grade school I wanted to be a writer. Reading and writing always seemed to be among my favorite past-times and the two have always been closely linked for me. In reading a good book I always came away with the desire, or the inspiration to write a book of my own. But becoming a professional author was a dream that would be a long time in coming.
What was the first novel you had published and if this wasn’t a western what was your first western?
My first novel was a western titled: While Angels Dance. (The first in My Jeston Nash Series.) I ghosted some work outside the western genre in order to make ends meet until my work became more popular. But westerns have always been my preference in both reading and writing, and by the time my third or fourth book came out I was able to pull away from ghosting and apply myself full time to my westerns.
Which writers influence you?
I tell myself I'm not greatly influenced by other writers, but of course I am. When I read something that is well done, it influences me try to do just as well on my own work, if I can. So while I realize that I don't write like Cormac McCarhy, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard or Ron Hansen, their style or cadence or dialog makes me want to do a good job. When I was trying to get a western to stick together, two western authors whose work helped me get my bearings were Cameron Judd, and Bill Brooks. A couple of their books, one titled Moon's Blood and another titled Bitterroot helped me develop what would become my style of putting my reader into the character's boots. It's important to me that a story be simple, but that it be well told. Those two books are examples of what I think a good western must do. They are neither one what the industry would call a "Big Book" but are good solid stories well written. That's how I try to do it.
Which western writers would you recommend?
Those same two, Brooks and Judd, with them Matt Braun, Charles West and the late Ralph Compton, and of course any author who recommends me. There's many others that I know I'm going to fail to mention, so I apologize in advance. As lean as the genre is today it's probably safe for me to recommend just about any western author who's making it to the shelves these days. Mediocre work doesn't get published at all. Unfortunately, neither does a lot of the really good work.
Which past western would you like to see back in print and why is this?
I miss the Giles Tippette novels, and a lot of those movie-to-book novels like The Good The Bad And The Ugly, by Joe Millard, The Wild Bunch, A Gunfight, which was taken from the old Johnny Cash, Kirk Douglas movie by the same name. I liked those thin quick-read books, and as both an aspiring author and a self-taught author, I learned a lot from them. I'd also like to see books like Macy's Prairie Traveler and Matt Warner's Last Of The Bandit Riders on the shelves. Praire Traveler might be in some special print, but I'm certain Bandit Rider is not. Matt Warner's biography (some of it questionable I'm told ) of his days riding with Butch and Sundance and Hole-In-The-Wall Gang is good reading for a western fan. I'm fortunate to have a copy of each of these books. I'm always going back and rereading them.
Please tell us a little about how you go about writing a book such as how much pre-planning you do, how much time you spend per day writing?
Between books I spend as much time away from the keyboard work as I can. I do other things, sailing, fishing, traveling, playing music. But while I'm doing other things I'm getting some mental notes down, some ideas of who's going to do what, and why, for my next book. I'm always watching people, listening to what they're saying, and more importantly, why they're saying it. At the same time I'm searching old historical accounts, bank robberies, train robberies, hangings, shootings, weather conditions and whatnot. I try to keep a foot in the 1800s Victorian era social mores and customs, so I keep my story sounding authentic. Once I settle in to write, I have the story pretty much done, I just need to write it down. That's about six to eight hours a day or more until I get the satisfactory ending. Of course the story throws me some surprises in the actually writing. A character I had all set to die will become so good or so bad that I decide to keep them around for a book or two, or in some cases a whole new series. Sometimes, at the end I realize that the story took on a whole different focus or slant or meaning than I had in mind. Generally that's when I recognize that I've done my best job.
Do you work on more than one book at a time?
Yes, but my current novel always gets priority. I might get an idea that won't work best for that particular story, but it's so good that I want to put it in my next book. I'll jump over and get it started, enough to sort of keep it on the warm burner for later on when I've finished my current project.
Your series about Jeston Nash was written in the first person whilst all your other westerns have been written in the third person, which approach do you prefer?
I miss writing in First Party, even though for me it's harder work. Writing as Nash I was limited to his knowledge, to his perception, vocabulary and intellect. I had to dig deeper and find more simple ways of expressing through him than I would have had to by telling his story in Third Party. But it is matter of what you want the story to do. I wanted no great understanding from his character, just his day-to-day depiction of what life was like for him and his cousins, the James and Youngers, during and after the civil war. I'm proud of the work, in fact I'm proud of that whole six book series and hope to do more someday, but it was much harder for me to write than the Third Party work I do now.
You’ve written four stand-alone westerns, do your prefer writing these or series books and have you any plans to turn any of these stand-alone novels into a series?
I like writing either way, equally, but for different reasons. The stand- alone is not bound by some regular character's ethics, beliefs, or temperament. So, it's easy to make it up as you go along and it's almost like reading someone else’s book. Most movie deals are made for stand-alone novels, so that's a plus also. But writing a series novel is good because you already know the character, how they will most likely act, their past, their other experiences, their mannerisms, even the clothes they wear, their horse's name. Most important, you already know your readers like the character. I just finished a book that brings a character back from one of my stand-alone novels titled: Webb's Posse. The fellow is a young school- teacher named Sherman Dahl. My readers liked him, so he's coming out in in a few months in a book titled; Fighting Men. My gunman series character, Lawrence Shaw made his debut in a Ranger series novel titled: Blood Rock. Shaw has been such a good character, I can't kill him off. He has two new novels coming out this year, Crossing Fire River, and Escape From Fire River. All of my series have started out as a stand-alone, including my first, While Angels Dance. But either my publisher or I have felt the work to be strong enough to warrant it becoming a series.
You seem to have two books in the Ranger series published each year along with a couple of other books from different series. Is this a requirement of Signet or are you free to choose which series you write the next book for?
My publisher, The Penguin Group wants the best book I can write every time out of the chute. Other than that, they give me all the room I need, and they trust me enough to know that my interest always dove-tails with theirs. We are both in the business of selling books. We rely on one another to do what we do to make that happen.
The first three books in your Ranger series are often referred to as the Big Iron Trilogy, why is this, and if there were originally plans to just write three books about Sam Burrack, how did the decision to continue the series come about?
I think originally it was meant to be a trilogy, but the first three did really good in the marketplace, so we sort of doubled-down and let it ride, as it were. In order to keep writing the Ranger series I had to neglect another series that was originally a trilogy called Dead Or Alive. That series also did well, and was approved for a series beyond the first three books. But time never permitted. I hope to someday get back to it. It had a regular character named Quick Charlie Simms who is a Roma, a pool hustler and a golf hustler, among other things.
You continued Ralph Compton’s series about Danielle Strange, how did this come about and did you find it as easy to write about someone else’s characters as those of your own?
At Compton's demise, he had signed on to do three books about Danielle Strange. The first was Death Rides A Chestnut Mare, which I believe he wrote. I was asked to do the other two books to complete the contract for his estate, so I did, although I if I hadn't someone else would have. I happened to be available and Ralph and I were both ole Nashville pickers and songwriters, so I felt like I could carry his thoughts on to the story. The other two books did exceptionally well, so the publisher asked me to do a third. I did, but by then my books had started taking off, so I couldn't do any more without neglecting my own work. I had no problem writing about his characters. We were from the same background, wrote pretty much along the same line. I wish Ralph had stuck around to see how well his books have done. He was a big ole country boy who loved what he was doing. I did book signings with him, you could see the light shine in his eyes talking about the old west.
Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read any of your work yet and why?
That's a hard one. The Nash books are always going to be my personal favorites, being my first series. I try to keep my quality of work consistent book to book, and so far I think I have. But if pressed for some current titles I'd have to say Jackpot Ridge, Webb's Posse, and Riders From Long Pines are about as good as I've got. If a reader doesn't like those three, they're probably wasting their time reading anything else of mine. I say these three, because I remember working pretty hard putting layer upon layer of story, depth and humanity into them. Out of those three, two are stand-alones, one is a Ranger Sam Burrack series novel.
Later this year you have two books coming out with “Fire River” in the titles, is this a new series or are they part of an existing one?
These are two books in the Lawrence Shaw series. The first in the series is Gunman's Song. Shaw is the proverbial fastest gun alive. He's a gunman from Somo Santos Texas who turned Samuel Burrack from being a buffalo hunter into an Arizona Territory Ranger. Shaw has gone from book to book as a sad pathetic figure mourning the loss of his beloved wife who was killed by what amounted to be fans of his who had only come to Somo Santos in order to meet him. In Crossing Fire River, on a drinking spree he ends up a with a wild and complex woman very much like Calamity Jane. They are still together in Escape From Fire River, but Shaw has been shot in the head while in a drunken stupor, and he has no idea who shot him.
Have you written any westerns under any other pseudonyms and can you tell us which?
I have never published a novel under another name. I have ghosted books, done work for hire, written articles, sermons and songs. But Ralph Cotton is the only name I've gone by so far. It's easy for me to remember.
Do you think paper produced books will ever be replaced with electronic books?
I used to not think so, but lately I'm starting to change my mind. My generation is used to the printed page, the feel of a book, the familiarity of the reading process. But future generations will have been more and more weaned away from that process. They might not be able to concentrate as well or as comfortably with a paper book as they will be with a familiar glowing screen. I know young carpenters today who still own a hammer but only get them out of their toolbox on rare occasions. They use nail guns. Mechanics use air tools. I can see readers going electronic.
What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?
I think the western will rebound in the future; but how distant in the future, that's hard to call. Not everything in the industry looks bleak. I commend a writer like Robert Parker for sticking some westerns out there. He didn't have to, but he took a chance and it appears to be paying off. I know he's a best selling author in his own right --but he is selling westerns. I know he has a successful detective series --but he is selling westerns. No matter how we want to look at it, he is doing what so many authors and publishers think can't be done today --he's selling westerns. I think it's great, and I'm glad he's doing it. It helps all of us.
Finally what do you read for pleasure?
I read the authors mentioned above, and for pleasure I also read some older books over and over. I never tire of them. One in particular is Elmore Leonard's, Killshot. I also catch myself always going back to Mario Puzo's, Godfather. Wm. Blatty's, Exorcist, Webb's, Fields Of Fire. Hemingway, Kerouc, London. I know I'm leaving out some of my favorite authors. I enjoy all sorts of good fiction.