“A writer of extraordinary originality and promise” – Robert Olen Butler
“I look forward to many years of entertainment from Joseph West” – Loren D. Estleman
First I want to thank you for agreeing to answer my questions Joe.
You’re most welcome, Steve. It’s an honor to be here.
You’re originally from Scotland, how did you end up in America and becoming a writer?
I was working on Fleet Street as a reporter for the Daily Mirror and was recruited to work in the United States for an up-and-coming supermarket tabloid named The National Enquirer. My plan was to spend a year in the U.S., see the country then return to Britain. But two things happened: I fell in love with America and, around the same time, my wife. Emily is a stern, 23rd generation Michigan Yankee, but without her I’d never get a novel published. She’s my inspiration and a wonderful, if heartless, copy editor.
What was the first novel you had published and if this wasn’t a western what was your first western?
The first book I had published was the non-fiction, BADGE OF VALOR, about “hero cops in the front lines of danger.” My first western was ME AND JOHNNY BLUE, a comedy novel about two hapless, not-too-bright punchers trying to survive in the changing west.
Which writers influence you?
Early influences were Dickens and Walter Scott, then, later, Louis L’Amour. I read GUNS OF THE TIMBERLANDS as a teenager and all his novels since. Louis had his faults, but as a storyteller he is first rate.
Which western writers would you recommend?
I don’t read much western fiction, but Kirby Jonas impresses me as a wonderful writer who knows what he’s talking about. Ralph Cotton and David Robbins are good too. For a while I tried to be Elmore Leonard, but I set that bar way too high. Now, sink or swim, I just try to be myself. I realized a long time ago that I was not the greatest writer in the business, nor was I ever likely to be, so I concentrate on doing the best I can and giving the reader value for his or her hard-earned money.
Which past western would you like to see back in print and why is this?
Easy – all those novels of mine that have already bitten the dust, yanked from the shelves, and gone to book heaven. Or should that be purgatory?
How much time do you spend on researching your books?
As much as I possibly can. Terrain and weather are always major elements in my books since they influence how my characters think and act. If a writer gets the rivers, mountains, streams and trees right, he’s half-way there. Guns and horses I already know about. Often, I only get eight weeks to write a work-for-hire novel, so adequate research can be difficult.
Please tell us a little about how you go about writing a book, such as how much time you spend per day writing?
I never work from an outline. I put my hero in a dangerous, impossible situation and let him battle his way out of it. Given free will, characters take you on a wild ride you never imagined and take the story in directions you never anticipated. This is especially true of women. I’m not a great hand with female characters, so I give them free rein to do whatever they want. They never cease to amaze and charm me, just like in real life. As for my work day, I usually start about 10 in the morning and work through until three in the afternoon, seven days a week (well, six during football season). I find that after five hours my brain just seizes up and begins to sputter and smoke. Anyway, I aim for 1500 words a day, but usually fall a little short.
Do you work on more than one book at a time?
Hell, no. I have enough trouble writing one.
You’ve been writing under the Ralph Compton name for some time, both series characters, such as Buck Fletcher, and stand-alone titles. Please tell us a little about these.
The Ralph Compton books are all work-for-hire, and I write them because I like to eat. I can’t write in Ralph’s style, nor do I try. I do the best I can, send the novel off to New York and keep my fingers crossed. Touch wood, they’ve never bounced one back to me for a rewrite, so I must be doing something right. At the moment times are hard for writers, and I appreciate any work I can get. In a way, a work-for-hire is a great compliment from the publisher. Three or four times a year, I get an email from my editor that says simply: “Joe, write me another Compton, due XXXX.” I never hear from him again until the next assignment. I guess he knows I always send him a professional product on time.
You’ve written a trilogy of books about Johnny Blue, are we likely to see him return in another book?
The three books in the ME AND JOHNNY BLUE trilogy were my first westerns, written when I was new to the business. They are raw, poorly constructed and unsophisticated. I’d love to be able to recapture their naive charm but I have moved on since then. The short answer to your question is: No, Johnny Blue has hung up his guns and spurs and he ain’t never coming back.
You wrote a six book Gunsmoke series, each having a forward by James Arness. Did you get to meet or speak to him, or was this done after you’d written the book?
I never spoke to big Jim while I was writing the GUNSMOKE SERIES. I had to deal with the Hollywood studio that owned the rights, and at times that was a nightmare. Example: “Mr. West, you can’t put false-fronted buildings in Dodge. They are a Hollywood invention.” And: “I’ve been around cows and they don’t cause flies.”
Have you written under any pseudonyms, and if so, can you tell us which?
No, I always use my own name. Vanity, I suppose.
Three more Compton books are listed for publication, one later this year and the other two in the first half of 2010 – the books being, Bounty Hunter, Stryker’s Revenge, and Death of a Hangman. What can readers expect from these?
Their money’s worth I hope! BOUNTY HUNTER takes place in San Francisco and the Barbary Coast and involves pirates, pitiless gunfighters, a serial killer slasher, hard-eyed whores, mysterious Celestials and luxury steam yachts with big guns mounted in the bows. I enjoyed writing that book! STRYKER’S REVENGE is my first attempt at a U.S. Cavalry versus the Apaches novel. Stryker is a badly disfigured cavalry officer who saw his dream of a dazzling military career in Washington disappear and now grinds out his days at a dusty outpost in the New Mexico territory. DEATH OF HANGMAN is the story of a hanging judge who breaks the very laws he executed men to uphold.
Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read any of your work yet and why?
I would recommend ME AND JOHNNY BLUE for his sheer entertainment value. For a more traditional take on the western, any of the Buck Fletcher series. And, of course, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, the novel I currently have on sale.
Do you think paper produced books will ever be replaced with electronic books?
Right now the e-book is a fad and it remains to be seen if it has legs. I don’t think there’s enough money to be made by authors of original works for electronic publishing to replace the royalties of traditional paper books. We’ll always have e-books of course, but I predict their importance will diminish over the next couple of years.
What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?
Right now, westerns are better written than at any time in the past, and they are constantly changing, addressing 21st century problems in 19th century terms. But the audience for the western novel will remain small into the foreseeable future. I don’t see TV returning to the genre, the engine that drove the western novel boom of the 50s and 60s. No, I think right now the western market is probably as good as it’s going to get.
What is your favourite western movie and why?
Without doubt, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Henry Fonda as a bad guy, Claudia Cardinale at her most beautiful, Jason Robards, Charles Bronson, the superb and evocative background music…can’t beat that. I have to say this movie was director Sergio Leone’s masterpiece.
Finally what do you read for pleasure?
I love James Patterson (when he was writing the books himself) for his bam-bam, in-your-face style. Right now I’m reading RELENTLESS, Dean Koontz’ latest novel, and up next is RAIN GODS by James Lee Burke. Oddly enough, I don’t read much western fiction and, after the book is published, I can’t even bear to look at my own, makes my hair stand on end!