Friday, 10 July 2009

Interview: Ralph Cotton

"[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

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.


Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Steve,
My thanks to you and to Mr. Cotton. Another enlightening interview with a man whose works take up much shelf-space at my house.

Keep up the good work--both of you!



Agree - where else would we see interviews like this but on the web. Thanks Steve and Ralph for a great read. I too have several of Mr Cotton's book on my shelves - I recently read Riders of Judgement and bloody well enjoyed it.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Steve and Ralph: Mr. Cotton is my favorite writer of fiction working today. I have read nearly all the Sam Burrack novels, and find them all excellent. I think his work is some of the finest Western stuff ever written - thanks for this great interview. We don't hear enough from Mr. Cotton! -- Mykal Banta

Steve M said...

Glad you all enjoyed this interview.

Western Fan said...

Thanks, Steve, for the interview with Mr. Cotton. He has been my favorite western author for some time now. His stories and art of characterizations are top-notch. Recently, as I read 'Showdown at Hole in the Wall' I kept thinking what a great movie this would be. Some of Cotton's earlier works I don't have and are out of print. I would urge his publisher to release these older titles on Kindle and other e-book formats, at least.

Radiation Cinema! said...

Western Fan:

It isn't as good as getting them in print, I know, but I found the complete Sam Burrack Ranger series through Amazon third party sellers. They were used, but often in great shape.

But I agree, this author is due for re-issue. Maybe in nice hardbacks with two or three novels in each volume. Man, that would be great. -- Mykal

Anonymous said...

Mr. Cotton,

I love reading your books. I wish your publisher had a better proof reader since there are numerous misspellings and word ommissions. That happens when printing so many books - speed counts. However, those pale with the horrendous mistake made in "Black Valley Riders". Page 192, Chapter 19, Paragrph 2, last line which states,"strewn with saguaro cactus and mesquite". There simply are NO SAGUARO CACTUS IN NEW MEXICO. They are in Southern Arizona, a very tiny area of Southern California and down into Mexico - PERIOD. I just thought I would bring this to your attention. Maybe someone else did. In that case I am sorry to repeat it. I REALLY do love reading your books. Keep up the great work.

Bob Sheldon

Anonymous said...

Just read Robert Bell's Cold Trail From Fort Smith, which featured a deputy U.S. Marshall recruited by hanging judge Isaac parker to track criminals. Now I've picked Ralph Cotton's Blood Money which features a federal deputy from Fort smith recruited by hanging judge Isaac Parker to track criminals. Cotton says he's never written under other names. What's the relationship between these two books/writers?

Steve M said...

I don't know of any relationship between the two writers and I doubt there is one linking the books either. There are lots of westerns that have their hero working for hanging judge Isaac Parker the same as many fictional western heroes ride alongside other real people from the era. How many westerns feature Billy the Kid, the Earps, etc?

Marilyn said...

I have read all of Ralph Cotton's books except the Jeston Nash series. Most of them I have read more than once. The stories are always good. The dialogue is great. The language is gritty but not vulgar. The sexual content is relevent to the story not just thrown in for no reason and is not too graphic. The main character usually treats women with respect even when they have reason not to. This is why I will read Ralph Cotton's books as long as he writes them. No other western writer does it better.
We learned Sam Burrack's story in Blood Rock. Now I would like to see Maria's story in one of Ralph's books.
Thank you Ralph for enriching my life and taking me on so many adventures with some of the greatest characters !

Herb Greenwell said...

I have just read Crossing Fire River. In several places in it the author refers to horse's traces as if they were reins (lines, usually leather, attached to the horse's bits by which the horse is guided and controlled). Traces are a part of the harness, usually chains, which connect the hames around the collar to a single tree attached to the wagon or whatever conveyance the horse is pulling. Mr. Cotton surely knows this and just got the words mixed up in his writing, but his proofreader apparently does not know the difference. Thanks for allowing me to air a gripe.

K said...

We wrote to Mr. Cotton years ago and dropped in a business card...He called. We will be in his part of the country soon and would like to hold him to a promise of autographing all of our dog-eared, beat-up, re-read Jeston Nash books but don't know how to contact him. Help anyone? Mr.(if that is your real name) Cotton? Thanks!

Mykal said...

K: You want help in "holding Mr. Cotton "if that's his real name?" to a promise"? Good luck with that. You sound like a bill collector.

Hg Rising said...

I want to start reading the Sam Burrack series and want to check if reading them "out of order" is OK or if reading "in order" of publication (series #) is better.

Steve M said...

You can read them out of order as they are mostly self-contained stories....but, like all good series, characters and events do carry over into other books (at least one character got his own series) so you may prefer to read them in order. To date there are 25 Burrack books.

Auctioneer said...

I have every book Ralph Cotton has written. Some of mine are also autographed. I also, believe it or not get a Christmas card from him and Mary lyn every year. I look forward to getting thier card each year. I some day hope to meet Ralph Cotton and hopes he keeps writing these great books. Thanks Ralph for your great work. Randy

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed many of Cotton's books, as well as many of the authors he mentioned.

Lawrence Shaw is my favorite ongoing character. The last book in his series was published in Feb, 2011. It certainly left the storyline open for future additions to the series. Any idea when that might be forthcoming. I'm anxious to learn if Shaw finds the witch with the trained sparrows!

Anonymous said...

Really enjoy the ranger series, featuring , Sam Burrack, but im also waiting for the next book , with Laurence has been awhile since the last book, was published. When we will see the next one?

Nelana said...

Several months ago I stumbled upon book one of the Sam Barrack series, and after a few pages of the first chapter I was hooked. Mr. Cotton, your writing has so many layers and details that bring the story and characters to life. After wolfing down the first book, I proceeded to "Badlands" (I literally just finished it less than an hour ago). Your ability to sell (? not sure if that's the right word) certain characters is mind-blowing. I find myself absolutely in love with Maria, and I am utterly gripped by the word choice and dialogue between the characters. I am by no-means a big reader because of my already short attention span and busy life, but this Western series has really touched my life. THANK YOU for the time and effort and dedication you put into the details, research, etc. I am even prematurely paranoid that your other series will not be as meaningful to me as this one. Would love to have a signed copy of a cowboy hat or other paraphernalia to keep in my home. I'll be forwarding my hard-earned cash to obtain the remainder of the treasures you have dug up in the Barrack novels. God bless you and your loved ones. -Michael