Matthew P. Mayo may be a new name to many western readers but he’s been contributing articles, essays and reviews to magazines for a number of years. He’s also edited a couple of anthologies and has had a few short stories of his own included in anthologies too, both westerns and other genres. Recently he has been behind two westerns for major publishers and has more on the way.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
I can’t recall a specific lightbulb moment of decision, but I’ve been a big reader for ages, and like lots of other writers I dabbled with making up my own stories as a kid in elementary school. I published a fair amount of poetry in high school and college in various anthologies and journals, all the while playing at short fiction, a couple of novels that petered out, that sort of thing. I got a BA in English and years later, while working as a magazine editor, I took an online novel-writing course. It was a great experience that spurred me into going back to school for my MFA in writing.
Did anyone encourage you to be a writer, and if so whom?
Growing up, the biggest encouragement I received in that direction came from my parents. Mom’s a teacher and Dad’s a dairy farmer, and they are both big readers. So my brother, Jeff, and I read everything all the time. I can tell you that fetching cows in from the pasture always takes longer when you have Edgar Rice Burroughs or Louis L’Amour in your pocket.
My wife, Jennifer, is my strongest daily cheerleader. Without her encouragement, I’d be stuck in a cubicle somewhere, gnawing my own limbs off.
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: Winters’ War, published in 2007 by Robert Hale, London, for its great Black Horse Westerns line. I was over the moon about that. I wrote two more for Hale: Wrong Town and Hot Lead, Cold Heart. It also led to great e-friendships with a number of fine established Black Horse writers, among them Ian Parnham and Howard Hopkins, who were helpful and encouraging as I worked to get that first manuscript up to snuff.
You’ve recently had a Compton novel published entitled Dead Man’s Ranch. How did this come about and can we expect more?
I got in the door there because of my agent, who sent copies of some of my other books, including my Black Horse Westerns, to the editor of the line. And yes, more to come: I recently turned in another Compton novel. I also contribute to the Slocum series of "action Westerns." And I’m always working on a number of other fiction and non-fiction projects.
What appeals to you about the western genre?
The 19th century in America was a time of raw possibility for a lot of folks. Many headed West of the Mississippi River with a handful of hope and little else, and ended up establishing lives on the frontier (much as people did in the hinterlands of New England a century before). Some of them built great fortunes, some of them failed miserably and headed back East, some died alone in rough conditions, many more worked hard and carved out solid, admirable lives. All of this and so much more makes for fascinating material to research and to use as inspiration to tell stories.
Which western writers would you recommend?
Reading Louis L’Amour is like slipping into a favourite old jacket—fits just right and feels good. I’m also a big fan of Ernest Haycox, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Dorothy Johnson, Jack Schaefer. Among writers working today, and in no particular order, I’ll mention some of the many I enjoy and learn from: Loren D. Estleman, Larry D. Sweazy, Peter Brandvold, Larry McMurtry, John D. Nesbitt, James Reasoner, Robert Randisi, Marcus Galloway, Dusty Richards, David Robbins, Ian Parnham, David Whitehead, Howard Hopkins, Charlie Whipple, Nik Morton, Gary Dobbs, Ray Foster, Jory Sherman, Joseph West, Johnny D. Boggs … I know I’m forgetting many—I could keep on going. It’s such a rich time for readers of Westerns!
How much importance do you place on research and how important is historical accuracy in westerns?
I research a whole lot, especially for non-fiction books. Also, much of what I use as the basis for research comes in through my regular reading. I’m always amazed at how a seemingly insignificant scrap will pop up again months or years later and provide a useful direction for an entirely new project.
What is the biggest challenge in writing a western?
My primary challenge when writing a Western—or any type of novel—is to make sure that readers are entertained.
Your Black Horse Westerns were to be published by Leisure as paperbacks and it must have been very disappointing that this didn’t happen, but I think you must be pleased Dorchester didn’t manage to put your books out before their collapse?
At the time I was very excited because the editors at Dorchester (Leisure) were keen on my writing. Then the reports began popping up about Dorchester’s seemingly imminent collapse. I was disappointed because ever since I was a kid, I’d wanted to see my name on a mass-market paperback. But the reports were such that my agent and I pulled my books from the deal and I kept rights to them, intending to release them myself. And that’s what I’m now doing with Gritty Press (see below).
Are you likely to write any more Black Horse Westerns?
As much as I love and support the Black Horse Westerns line, I make my living writing books (and editing magazines), so I head for the higher-paying gigs. I wish I didn’t have to base that decision on money, because I can’t say enough good about the line and the publisher. Hale has been great to deal with and the Westerns they put out are great reads.
Gritty Press have just put out a new version of Wrong Town, as an ebook and paperback, billed as the first in the Roamer series. When can we expect the next book and what can you tell us about Gritty Press?
My wife, photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo, and I have set up our own imprint, Gritty Press, and we recently released a revised version of Wrong Town, recast as the first in the “Roamer” series. It’s now out in ebook and trade paperback format. Winters’ War and Hot Lead, Cold Heart will follow soon. The next Roamer adventure is in the works, and I hope to release it in the fall. It’s a corker that will reveal more about Roamer’s past, a bit about his future, and throughout, I will endeavor to keep readers wondering how he’ll live through the predicaments he finds himself in.
Roamer’s mentor is a grumpy old mountain man named Maple Jack, who, chronologically, makes his debut in the story, “Maple Jack and the Christmas Kid,” in the new anthology Christmas Campfire Companion, by Port Yonder Press. In that story, he takes in the young greenhorn he calls “Roamer.” References to Maple Jack appear in Wrong Town, and Roamer pops up now and again in various Maple Jack tales. I’ve published several Maple Jack tales so far, with more on the way. People seem to like the old curmudgeon, so I’d like to collect his stories in a single book before too long.
Regarding Gritty Press, Jen has lots of experience designing books, magazine layouts, billboards, bus signs, CD and DVD covers, you name it, so we’re lucky that we can work in-house on our own covers and logos. She’s come up with snazzy new covers, typeset the interiors, and we’re even working on “Gritty Gear” (T-shirts, mugs, etc.) because we think the logo’s so nifty. I’d like to eventually release work by other writers. I’m a big fan of the men’s adventure genre, both fiction and non-fiction, so that’s the direction we’re headed with Gritty Press (www.grittypress.com).
You’ve had a number of short stories published in a variety of Western anthologies. Do you find short stories as easy to write as a full-length novel?
I do find short stories are easier to write, primarily because they are usually simpler, more straightforward plots. I also like them because they allow you to try things you might not get a chance to in something novel-length. I’ve written dozens of short stories in lots of genres, so I hope to rerelease them soon, as well.
You were listed as a finalist in the Western Writers of America Spur Awards and also in the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Awards. Which stories were nominated and where can readers find them?
One of my shorts, “Half a Pig,” from the Express Westerns anthology, A Fistful of Legends, was a 2010 Spur Award finalist for the Western Writers of America. That was a big honor (and ego boost!) for me. And the next year, my steampunk Western story, “Scourge of the Spoils,” from the DAW Books anthology, Steampunk’d, was nominated for a Peacemaker Award by Western Fictioneers, another big thrill. The stories are available via links at my Website: www.matthewmayo.com. They will also appear soon as ebooks via Gritty Press.
You have four non-fiction books that collect stories from different areas of Western History, how easy was it to find enough tales for these books and do you have anymore of these books planned?
I enjoy writing historical non-fiction books and though I’ve written about various regions, the books about the West are especially fun for me. The first, Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of the Wild West, was written when we lived outside of Bozeman, Montana, and much of it during the winter looking out at the snow-covered mountains, right along the Bloody Bozeman Trail—amazing! The book was first published in 2009 and continues to sell well. In fact, it’s been optioned for film, so we’ll see how that comes along.
The second in my “Grittiest Moments” series, Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Hardscrabble New England, is similar in vibe, but about the older history (beginning in 1620) of my native New England, in the northeast of the US. For the third, I headed back out West and North: Sourdoughs, Claim Jumpers & Dry Gulchers: Fifty of the Grittiest Moments in the History of Frontier Prospecting. That one’s due out in early June, 2012.
And in August, I have a slightly different Western history book coming out: Haunted Old West: Phantom Cowboys, Spirit-Filled Saloons, Mystical Mine Camps, and Spectral Indians. Collecting stories for these books is the fun part. The difficult part is narrowing the selections down to those I can use. I’m working on a couple more such books right now, some about New England history, and I have a number of Old West topics I plan to tackle next. My publisher has a big presence out West, so it’s great exposure—and a grand excuse for me to travel there for, ahem, research purposes….
You’ve been involved with helping your wife, Jennifer, put out three photo books covering different areas of New England. Could you tell us a little about these, such as how you decided what subjects should be included in them?
We were hired as a writer/photographer team to write and shoot a series of coffee-table books for Globe Pequot Press. The first, Maine Icons: 50 Classic Symbols of the Pine Tree State, was released in May, 2011, and continues to be a big seller.
We followed it up with New Hampshire Icons and Vermont Icons, both of which will see release in July, 2012. We had the same difficult decisions when it came time to reduce the list of hundreds of potential iconic items, people, places, foods, etc., in each book. We’re long-time residents of this region, and we take every opportunity to get out and about in it, so we felt reasonably certain that our choices would be well received—and so far they have been, though the only guarantee with these books is that we’ll never please everyone. But we try! And the good news is that there’s plenty of material for follow-up volumes.
Which of your westerns would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read any of your work yet and why?
I do believe I’d steer a newcomer to Wrong Town (Roamer Book 1) (Gritty Press edition!), since it continues to generate lots of positive reviews and fan mail. I think in that one I did a decent job in capturing some of my favorite themes and elements: a self-reliant attitude, overcoming adversities, grim situations—though not without a bit of humor, too.
If you could write a sequel to any western (not your own) which would it be and why?
Wow, I’d never thought of that before, but wouldn’t a sequel to Jack Schaefer’s Shane be fun to tackle. Or better yet … a prequel! Now that sounds like fun.
What do you think of the western genre today and what do you think the future holds for the western?
I believe the Western genre is brimming with promise, as evidenced by the number of exciting writers of Westerns working today (look no further than to the members of Western Fictioneers, Black Horse Westerns Group, or Western Writers of America). The future for Westerns looks great, especially considering the recent cool crossover work with other genres: Western horror, steampunk, romance, and more.
What is your favourite western movie and why?
I’ll wimp out and choose two instead (for this week): “Will Penny” with Charlton Heston, and “Open Range” with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner. “Will Penny” is like a big short story. It’s filled with great acting, believable situations and characters, and doesn’t end how you think it might. And “Open Range,” altered somewhat from the book by Lauren Paine, also offers top-shelf acting in an engaging story about characters who are all too human. And then there’s “Seven Men from Now,” “Ride the High Country,” “Tombstone”….
Finally what do you read for pleasure?
I read lots of stuff—comics, novels, non-fiction books. I spend a lot of time reading books for review and for research, so when I tuck into something for pure pleasure, it’s a real treat. Right now I’m reading Larry D. Sweazy’s mystery novel, The Devil’s Bones, and enjoying it immensely. I’m also dipping into a short stack of Joe Lansdale’s older stuff, Westerns and horror, and loving it. Those I’m reading on my Kindle and on my iPod Touch. The convenience and storage on such devices is amazing.