Friday, 13 November 2009

Interview: Keith Hetherington

My latest interview is with an author who has had a very impressive number of books published (with more to come), mainly in his homeland of Australia, some of which have been published in America too. These days Hale, in England, publishes his westerns under their Black Horse Western banner. The man in question is Keith Hetherington, so over to Keith…

First I want to thank you for agreeing to answer my questions.

Thanks for asking me to do the interview.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Always liked writing little vignettes, trying to describe 'action' sequences I saw in a film or the Saturday Afternoon Serial at local cinemas. Used to 'make' my own books when I was about 12, pasting the pages together (no office staplers in those days, though sometimes I removed staples from old comics or books I didn't want and used them.) Had a few essays read out to classes and one went the rounds of the entire school - something called The Dahlia, as I recall: I was amazed, for the last thing I was interested in at that age was flowers and gardening - used to bust a boiler trying to get out of mowing the lawns at weekends. It was wartime, so most stories I wrote were military-oriented, with lots of blood and guts.

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

Had an accident at work in my early teens and spent a week at home. Read a story called "Jailbreak Justice' in a book of cowboy stories and thought I could write as good or better yarn. Filled a dozen or so pages in an exercise book, called it THE TEXAN (very original) and mailed it away. To my surprise (not to mention delight) a couple of months later I received a cheque for six pounds fifteen. Thought I was made: didn't bank that cheque for ages, pinned it to my bedroom door. Anyway, that was the start, they wanted more stories and I began writing fairly regularly and Cleveland Publications bought out the original company and asked for 'novelettes' of about 20,000 words. These gradually got up to 48,000 words though dropped back progressively down to about 40,000. Meantime I wrote short adventure stories for 'men’s magazines', honing the writing skills.

Being Australian what made you choose to write westerns of all the genres out there?

I always liked the bush stories of our famous Aussie author Ion Idriess, full of outback action and bush-craft. I used the Aussie bush for background to my adventure yarns but, influenced by the many Saturday afternoon serials at the local cinema, mostly Westerns with heroes like Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Dick Foran and so on - if you don't recognise the names it only means I'm older than you are! But I had a Daisy air rifle like most Aussie kids at that time, and it became a Winchester, knocking off the Injuns in every spare minute I could get into the bush with Our Mob - a gang of larrikin Aussie kids out for blood.

Which writers influence you?

At the time, I was influenced by Zane Grey and Walt Slade/Jackson Cole - house names of authors of the Jim Hatfield yarns in the American Western magazines - which we couldn't get enough of. My father was a Zane Grey fan and also influenced me - by way of encouragement to keep on writing.

Which western writers would you recommend?

Which writers would I recommend now? Well, I like Elmore Leonard, both his thrillers and his Westerns - he's got a style all his own, laconic, tough, knowledgeable. I used to read a lot of Frank C. Robertson in the old Collins White Circle Westerns - Dad and I would toss a coin to see who got to read the current one first. Norman Fox and, of course, the Master, Luke Short. Luke constructed his stories extremely well, could make his characters come alive, and wasn't afraid to give his hero a short temper, resulting in some brutal fights. I credit him with saving me from sea sickness in 1953 when I was sailing to see the world: we hit seventy foot waves in the Great Australian Bight - or they hit us, more accurately - and my mate was pea-green (but not with envy) and I happened to be reading HIGH VERMLLION by Luke. There was this tremendous fist fight - went for pages - I parked in a tight corner on deck, nearly freezing, concentrated on that fight and what came after and escaped being sea sick...Thank you, Luke!

Which past western would you like to see back in print and why is this?

Luke Short's stuff is still eminently readable, though mostly out of print. As I mentioned earlier, Elmore Leonard usually comes up with a good yarn. Zane Grey is very dated now though I liked his SHADOW ON THE TRAIL immensely (the book a gift from my father, incidentally).

Les Savage Jnr. wrote a good one called TREASURE OF THE BRASADA, which would probably be worth a re-run, but I can't really nail down any particular title right now.

How many westerns have you had published to date?

I believe I've published over 600 (Keith Chapman thinks it might be closer to 1,000), but I don't really know. Let's just say 'lots'! Sorry if that's a cop-out.

Having written so many books how easy is it to keep coming up with new stories and where does your inspiration come from?

I've never had much trouble coming up with a new storyline. Can't sat HOW, or WHY, but it must just be the kind of mind I've got. I really like constructing a yarn, fitting the pieces in to make it not only readable and coherent but LIKED (or a stronger word if you like!)

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

I don't intentionally work on more than one book at a time, but more often than not, while writing one, something will strike a spark for another idea and I quickly make a note (has to be MIGHTY quick, now I've turned 80!) and I may start developing it a little more after I've done the day's work on the other.

Have any of your Cleveland characters appeared in a Black Horse Western?

I don't think I've used any of my Cleveland characters in books I've written for Hale. Maybe used the same name unintentionally, but I never carried forth any series character.

You’ve written stories about Bronco Madigan under two different Black Horse Western pseudonyms, and fans of Madigan may not realize there are other books out there under a different authors name. Why did you decide to put them out under two names?

The two different names for the Bronco Madigan series came about through my own laxity. I picked the wrong one to head up the title page (twice!) but there was no real reason for it.

Over the years what changes have you seen in what you can or cannot include in a western?

There's not much that hasn't appeared in Westerns over the years, including clinically described sex and graphic violence. I think Cleveland toned-down a couple of my more violent descriptions but I haven't really noticed any big taboos - you can still find Westerns with a sex scene or two (and why not? Those guys were 'real men' and anyone knows real men have sex! ) Who with, is maybe another thing - recall BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN? Didn't believe a word of it. Incest would be out, I think, but I don't know: it's just that I haven't encountered it in any Westerns I've read. (And wouldn't want to.) Hell, in this day and age you never know what you'll find in print, but on a personal note, I just try to stick to the fist fights and shootouts, but I have been known to mention the odd rape or two...I don't feel that's a very satisfactory answer to your question, but don't seem to be able to come up with anything else.

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

LONER FROM LARAMIE was my first Western for Hale. It's more or less an indication of my style and content and, even if I do say so myself, it's not a bad yarn. (But I never think what I write is anything out of the ordinary - I just enjoy doing it, and maybe what comes across is my enthusiasm.

Is there still a big market for westerns in Australia?

There is no market for publishing Westerns in Australia that I know of. Cleveland still run mostly on re-issues (some of mine as far back as the late 60's or early 70's) with an occasional 'new’ one - which I suspect is a manuscript Cleveland bought from one of its writers some years ago and had been filed away and finally unearthed. They still sell well here - but there's no other Western publisher that I know of.

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

I'm optimistic: I truly believe the Western genre is one genre that will keep on keeping-on (as they say in a certain TV paint commercial). That and Romance - I think both will always find a ready audience - mind, I'm not so sure it'll be the written word (on paper, that is) maybe only electronically. How that will affect writers like you and me and our other compadres I'm not sure.

You haven’t just written westerns, can you please tell us a little about your other books, both fictional and non-fiction.

I like to write thrillers, always have, the 'private-eye' type. Heavily influenced by Raymond Chandler or course, and I like writing the occasional adventure story. Hale have published some of mine over the years. A few come to mind JUDAS COAST; DRAGON OUT OF THE SOUTH; THE NAKED NEMSIS, HAMMERHEAD REEF.

I wrote one boys' adventure book way back in 1966, was published in England and the U.S. as well as Australia: THE SCUBA BUCCANEERS under the pen name of James Keith. My Christian names reversed. I've done a lot of short stories as mentioned earlier, worked as a TV scriptwriter for 5 and a half years, all Aussie shows: HOMICIDE; MATLOCK POLICE; DIVISION 4; SOLO ONE; THE BOX; THE SPOILER; CHOPPER SQUAD, ETC. I did one film script for a spy yarn set in the Philippines, but the company went broke before it was filmed.

Also wrote a book about metal detectors when I was treasure hunting for a while, mostly on beaches, but some outback stuff; as well. BEACHCOMBING WITH A METAL DETECTOR. Sold pretty well, but too dated now what with all the high-tech machines around.

Worked as a journalist for 11 years for the Queensland Health Education Council, writing weekly articles for newspapers on health subjects and Radio Plays dramatising same. (Must have been mad, but can still remember belting out a series on Smoking and Lung Cancer with a packet of cigarettes beside my typewriter - and going through them mighty fast!)

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

I don't think electronic books will ever completely replace printed books, but they're bound to have a wide appeal - and it might not be so easy to make a crust, as we say in Oz, because the whole deal will be changed: copyright will be up the spout, for sure; publishers won't get much of a look-in - so where does that leave the author? Poorer than bloody usual! Just hope the idea never takes on in stampede mode!

What is your favourite western movie and why?

WESTERN UNION was my favourite Western movie for over forty years and is still way up there - but it has company now, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW. Both star Randolph Scott (my favourite cowboy - and I'm still occasionally guilty of describing my heroes as having some Scott attributes) But SEVEN MEN FROM NOW has a terrific opening, great dialogue and editing - and facial expressions, also attention to detail, like Randy, casually changing the coffee mug from his gunhand to his left hand and nudging back his rain-drenched slicker.... Not a 'big' western, budget-wise, but a tough story and great characters - including Lee Marvin doing the honours as a likeable villain.

Finally what do you read for pleasure?

I read just about anything I find interesting - fiction, true adventure, historical - I can always enjoy a 'good' book of whatever genre as long as its well written and has a plot that interests me.


Jo Walpole said...

Very nice interview. He sounds like a really genuine guy. Based on what I've read here, I've ordered a copy of Rio Gringo and, if I like it, I'll post a review on my blog when I've read it. Thanks, Steve.

Mister Roy said...

Interesting interview. I have one of Keith's books beside me now, + a glass of malt and a warm fire - weekend bliss!

Thanks to the article I'll be rounding up some more Hetherington - cheers.

James Reasoner said...

I've read only a few of Keith's books but enjoyed them all, especially the fast pace and the action.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

I've read a few of his books (some I didn't know were his until now), and like Mr. Reasoner, I dig that fast pace and fine action....


Unknown said...

I count Keith as a friend -- we're always exchanging emails -- so you could say I'm a bit biased, but whenever I've interviewed him myself for the Express or the Extra, I've always wondered why, with such an impressive CV, Keith isn't much, much more widely recognized. Then again, I was wondering that years ago whenever I picked up a Kirk Hamilton Cleveland book, which was certainly long before we had any correspondence.

A great guy, a great amigo, and another great interview, Steve. And I don' think I've ever seen such a fine array of Hetherington covers in one place!

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

A great interview - a very interesting man and a dedicated writer.

Katt K. said...

Nice interview Steve.

When you think of lifetime achievements in various professions, how can there not be one for a man who has provided decades of entertainment for readers?

Very interesting man.

Thanks, Steve.

Duane Spurlock said...

Very enjoyable interview--well done!

There are several nice-looking cover paintings on many of Keith's books. I particularly like the one for Red River Riot.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

Good interview, thank you.

Staples said...

Seriously? No staplers back then!?