Thursday, 21 July 2011

Interview: Phil Dunlap

My latest interview is with Phil Dunlap, who saw the first in his new series about Sheriff Cotton Burke, published in June by Berkley.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I started out as an illustrator, drew comic strips, and did story illustrations and covers for children’s magazines, then got into advertising. I started writing ads and ad campaigns, then graduated to magazine articles. I worked for a number of years as a freelance journalist for a large daily newspaper. So, I guess you could say, in one form or another, I’ve always been a writer. Comics, for instance, are as much about the word as the drawing. Although, today I only write novels and short stories.

Did anyone encourage you to be a writer, and if so whom?

No one specifically encouraged me, although I always got high grades in school English, which led me to believe I was going in the right direction. But, I did get a lot of encouragement from the folks who saw my work and read my articles and seemed pleased. I guess you could say it was a general feeling that I was in a good place and one in which I was accepted. As I also seemed to excel in History, the two came together well in the field in which I find myself, today.

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

My first published novel was a Western: The Death of Desert Belle (Avalon Books 2004). In fact, all my novels have been Westerns. The whole thing came about in a strange way. During a plane ride from a visit to Arizona back to my home, I’d picked up a Western novel from the airport bookstore. By the time I got home, I was so incensed by how bad that book was (and that it got published), I decided to write a better one and submit it. That novel ended up being my first published book. The second publisher to whom I sent it bought it.

Which writers influence you?

Elmer Kelton was one of the best Western writers I’ve ever read. And I guess all the traditional writers have had an influence. But not all of them have been Western writers. I read many mysteries and as a result, most of my books have a mystery in them, a fact not lost on most reviewers. That said, I also read contemporary Western writers and, in my humble opinion, there are many wonderful Western writers out there today. It’s too bad more readers don’t take a chance on a good Western. Folks I’ve convinced to try one have almost always become new fans of the genre. And of course, we shouldn’t overlook those writers that have crossed over the genre lines to write in both the mystery and the Western fields. Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker come to mind. Two extraordinary craftsmen that are favorite reads. 

Which western writers would you recommend?

There is a trend in publishing today that perpetuates the republication of writers who’re deceased. Now I don’t have a problem with getting the opportunity to re-read the greats, but I do object to having the same ones published over and over with nothing but new cover art. To me, that’s cheating the reader who may think he’s getting a new novel, but isn’t. So, I guess I’d promote the many writers today who keep coming up with new material, new stories, and they do it consistently. Johnny D. Boggs, John Nesbitt, and Larry D, Sweazy–to name a few. There are many others, of course, but space prevents me from boring your readers with a plethora of authors. 

What appeals to you about the western genre?

The time, the place. The general insanity that pervaded the frontier. It seemed to me that the motivations for going West in the first place were less about making a ‘better life for the family’ and more about the riches that many perceived were to be found under nearly every rock. And of course, the gunfights, the dangers, the risks everyone took just to stay alive another day. It has always been mystery to me that so many often-written-about lawmen also trod the opposite sides of the legal fence. They received all the notoriety as opposed to the lesser-known lawmen who stayed on the right side and achieved great success in putting a stop to many bad actor’s lives. Bill Tilghman, Heck Thomas, Commodore Perry Owens–three of dozens who made their marks without much fanfare, to their great credit.

How much importance do you place on research?

Research is very important if you’re trying to let readers get a feel for time and place. Especially if you want to have reviews that sense your accuracy as to weapons, clothing, building materials, flora and fauna, etc. Also, if you’re writing about Arizona in 1869 and you mention a Colt .45 Peacemaker, you’re toast. Any reader worth his salt will jump on a statement like that like a cat on a mouse. Knowledge of the area about which you write is also of the utmost importance. Knowing what cactus is in what area, what type of scorpion you’d find, or which trees, bushes, flowers and critters are native to where your book is set, can only serve to place the reader where you want him: In your story and believing every word. Even if the story is all made up.

How important is historical accuracy in westerns?

If you’re not careful, too much historical accuracy can get you into trouble. I like creating towns that didn’t exist. All my characters are fictional, as well. I do mention some real-life gunslingers, gamblers, and the like as being in a nearby town at the time, but only to serve as another time anchor to believability. In fiction, you have a dual role as an author. The first is to bring a credible, exciting and interesting story to the page. Also, be careful not to break rules about going overboard with your research. Too many facts and too much information about specific guns, for instance, will make you appear to be a show-off. Don’t let the historical accuracy get in the way of the story. Sometimes you have to bend the truth a bit.

What is the biggest challenge in writing a western?

Coming up with a story that hasn’t been told a hundred times before. Finding a fresh approach is tough, but absolutely necessary. And the greatest challenge. But I like challenges and when an editor says, “wow, that was different,” I know I’m headed where I should be. Besides, Westerns are a wonderful opportunity to create characters that are so bizarre, they take on a persona that can’t be considered even possible in a contemporary shoot-em-up, like a police detective or private-eye novel. Not that we don’t have weirdoes running around today, but some of the strangest people I’ve ever read about populated the frontier after the Civil War. And they were real.

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

I have before, but really don’t like to. Dividing one’s mind between several projects detracts from the deep concentration that I find is necessary if my stories are going to find wide appeal. Sloppy writing often comes about as a result of inattention to detail. Even though I have a couple of accomplished readers that get to read and critique the whole thing before I dare send it out, having two books going simultaneously is a hindrance, both to them and to me. This is especially true when writing two Westerns at the same time. Remembering where you are, and which characters are populating the story, can be a real stretch.  

Your recently published book Cotton’s War is the first in a new series, how many of these can we expect?

Well, I have been contracted for a total of four in series. Don’t have any idea whether there will be more or not. My fingers are crossed, however. I tend to fall in love with characters that are more than the stereotypes you usually read about. I like to stretch as much as possible. Hopefully, that lets an editor know I’m serious about what I do and consider me for more books.

Most of your Avalon westerns feature U.S. Marshal Piedmont Kelly, which leads to the question do you prefer writing series novels or stand-alones and why?

I love writing series novels because it enables me to concentrate on building multi-dimensional characters. I also prefer to write in such a way as to make readers expect to see one story morph into other scenarios in later books. For instance, in the Avalon books I’ve introduced an Apache that continues on in the next books. As I build more characters that I like, they tend to give me more story possibilities, too.

One of your Avalon books, Call of the Gun, was reprinted by Leisure. Did you approach Leisure or did they ask Avalon, and why was this book picked instead of one of the others?

Interesting question. In this case, Leisure approached Avalon. Avalon had the contract and one of the rights they held was the right to sell paperbacks, movies, foreign rights, and the like. Call of the Gun was the first Western I ever wrote and I felt a particular kinship to it. Leisure did a lousy job designing the cover and the book didn’t sell well. A huge disappointment to me. The editor admitted they hadn’t come through for me. Soon after that, their covers began to get better and the writers benefited by that fact. Covers are very important in getting someone to pick it up and read the jacket copy. You have two quick chances to make the sale, if either is unsatisfactory to the potential buyer, you’re failed to reach the finish line.

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

Well, obviously I’d prefer they start at the beginning of either series. That would, I hope, entice them to continue on with the series. Cotton’s War is the first in the new series, with the second one, Cotton’s Law, coming next January. Pretty easy to get in on the beginning there. With the hardcover Avalon books, there are presently five in the Piedmont Kelly series, with a sixth in the series, Apache Lawman, coming next June. I know this won’t come as a huge surprise, but I actually like both, and would love to see them continue.

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

Folks say the traditional Western is dead. I don’t agree. I see new readers coming on board all the time. Some of the biggest surprises are how many women read them. I also notice every time someone has the interest in bringing out a new Western movie or TV special, books sales shoot up. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to Cowboys and Aliens. I know, I know, the premise is more than strange, but, considering the actors and the producer, hmmm, I’ll give ’er a shot.

What is your favorite western movie and why?

Boy, do I have a bunch of favorites. Open Range, Unforgiven, Rio Bravo (virtually ANY John Wayne flick), True Grit, The Searchers, 3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa. The truth is, if it’s a Western, I’ll go see it or read it. If it turns out to be garbage, I won’t recommend it to anyone else. I can watch a John Wayne Western a thousand times and never tire of it. For some, once is too much. But I do believe in giving them all a chance to win me over.

Finally what do you read for pleasure?

Anything and everything, as long as I’m promised a good read. I like mysteries, Westerns, thrillers, historicals, almost anything but romances and multi-genre titles like: Supernatural-romantic-time travel-zombie-vampire-love stories. Believe it or not, there is a lot of that kind of thing out there (although mostly self-pubbed). During a small conference I attended some years back, a lady was trying to find interest in her new novel which was a paranormal-vampire-mystery with autobiographical chapters interspersed. Her grandmother was one of the main characters. I don’t think it sold. Thankfully.


Larry D. Sweazy said...

Nice interview. Phil has worked really hard to become a popular western author, and it's a thrill for me to see that journey bear fruit and success come his way. Long past due, and well deserved.

Joanne Walpole said...

Good interview. I liked a lot of what he had to say. I'm off to find one of his now.

Matthew P. Mayo said...

I like this interview, gents--informative and to the point. I wish Phil continued success with his newest series.