Thursday, 19 February 2009

Interview: James Reasoner

My next interview is with James Reasoner, author of over 200 published books, a writer most western fans will have read at some point, if not a book carrying his own name, then one of those written under one of many pseudonyms.

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

You’re welcome. I’m always glad to talk about writing.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I’ve been interested in telling stories for as far back as I can remember. When I was growing up, playing cowboys with the kids who lived on my street, I wasn’t content for us to just run around pretending to shoot at each other. I had to come up with a story to go along with it. I’ve always loved to read as well, so I guess it was a natural progression that someday I would start to write down my stories. That day came when I was ten years old and started scribbling stories on notebook paper, a practice I continued all the way through school.

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 mystery, a private eye yarn (despite its Western-sounding title) called TEXAS WIND. I’d always loved private eye fiction and by that time had been writing the Mike Shayne stories in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE under the house-name Brett Halliday, so when I decided the time had come to try my hand at something bigger, my goal was to write the first private eye novel ever set in Fort Worth, the city closest to the little town where I grew up.

My second published novel, a historical romance written in collaboration with my wife, was partially set in Kansas before the Civil War, so it’s almost a Western, but not quite. My first actual Western was one of the books in the Stagecoach Station series, PECOS, published under the house-name Hank Mitchum. I’d always been a reader and fan of Westerns and had written some proposals for Western novels that didn’t sell. Then I went to work for a book packaging company called Book Creations Inc. BCI produced quite a few Western series and my first assignment for them was the Stagecoach Station book.

How many books did you write before the first was accepted for publication?

TEXAS WIND was the first novel I finished, and the first novel I sold.

Which writers influence you?

My wife Livia (who has written Westerns herself under the name L.J. Washburn), first and foremost, because she’s had a hand in almost everything I’ve written in the past 30-plus years. She’s helped plot many of my books and has edited every one of them before they were ever submitted.

Another huge influence has been Robert E. Howard, not so much his writing itself (although anyone who writes adventure-oriented fiction would be well advised to study Howard’s work closely, because he’s probably the best ever at pacing and action), but more because of the way he conducted his career and became a successful writer even though he lived in a small town in Texas and faced numerous obstacles in what he set out to do.

The list beyond those two would be long indeed, because I’ve read so much over the years. I’ve read most of the Western writers who were published in the pulps and in paperback originals, and I suppose they’ve all had an influence on me, because I tend to write the same sort of stuff I like to read.

Which western writers would you recommend?

I enjoy most of the pulp Western writers, but some stand-outs for me are T.T. Flynn, H.A. De Rosso, Luke Short and Peter Dawson (who were actually brothers, Fred and Jon Glidden), Walt Coburn, Tom Curry, Leslie Scott, and Walker A. Tompkins. I have to be in the right mood for Max Brand and Zane Grey, but I’ve read many of their novels and liked them. Lewis B. Patten and Gordon Shirreffs started in the pulps but are best known for their later novels, and they’re favorites of mine as well. I know most of the current crop of Western writers, so I hate to start naming names because I’ll probably forget someone. I will say, though, that the level of the writing in the Western field today is as good as it’s ever been, if not better. You can pick up any current Western novel and see what I mean.

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

Not really. I might start a book and have to set it aside for a while to work on another project, then come back and finish it later. I might stop for a day on the current manuscript and write an outline for another one, or something like that. But that’s the extent of it.

You wrote most of the Cody’s Law series but four of them are attributed to both yourself and Bill Crider. How did you go about writing these books with another author?

Working with Bill was very easy. I came up with the outlines for those books, Bill fleshed them out and wrote the first drafts, and then I went back over them and did second drafts, although I didn’t really do much rewriting on any of them. I guess I’ve known Bill longer than anybody else in the business except for Livia, so it was great fun to work with him.

For what it’s worth, there have been other instances in my career where I’ve done a first draft from another author’s outline and then turned it over to them, so I’ve been on both sides of that equation. As long as you’re working with a fellow pro, it’s never a problem.

You’ve also written a few books alongside your wife, Livia, is this a good idea for peace and harmony leading to martial bliss or do you end up arguing over plot direction or who should live and die?

As I said above, when you’re working with a pro, it’s not a problem. I can honestly say that in more than thirty years of working together, I can’t recall a major disagreement we’ve had about writing. When we don’t see things exactly the same way in a book, we’re able to work it out and come up with a solution that pleases both of us. I think we’re on the same page most of the time.

Your recent Longarm giants have all included long gone characters from other series – something I’ve enjoyed very much – but what made you decide to do this and how did you decide which past heroes to bring back?

I was a fan of the Longarm series long before I started writing for it, and I always enjoyed the Giant Editions that crossed over with Jessie and Ki from the Lone Star series. I wrote the final Lone Star novel, and that was the only chance I got to work with those characters. So when I was asked to write one of the Longarm Giants, I thought that would be the perfect opportunity to revive the crossover tradition. I also like coming up with story arcs that span several books, so I decided to bring back the villainous Cartel that played such an important part in the early Lone Star books, figuring that if I wrote more Giant Editions, I could use the ongoing battle against them as a backdrop for those novels.

Once I had brought back Jessie and Ki, I seized the chance to revive some other long-gone but well-remembered (at least by me) characters in Raider and Doc, the Pinkerton operatives who starred in more than a hundred novels under the J.D. Hardin name. I never wrote any of the J.D. Hardin’s. I was strictly a fan of that series, although several of my friends wrote for it at one time or another. So it was another case of doing something that was fun for me and hoping that the readers would enjoy it as well. That was true the next year, too, when I used characters from the Easy Company series. I’m sure some of the current Longarm readers never read these old series, and I tried to write the books so that those readers would be entertained, too, with the nostalgia value added in there for long-time fans. I also put in a cameo appearance by John Fury in the third Longarm Giant I wrote, since he was the star of the first series I wrote for Berkley and I thought some of the readers might enjoy seeing him again.

Jessie and Ki are back again in the Longarm Giant that will be published this fall. I haven’t made any plans for the Giants beyond that, assuming that I continue to write them.

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

A lot of the pulp authors I like have enjoyed a comeback in recent years with novels and collections of shorter work reprinted by Five Star and Leisure. One who hasn’t is Harry F. Olmsted, whose work was prominently featured in many Western pulps. Unfortunately, Olmsted never wrote any novels, but he authored more than 1200 novelettes and novellas, and I’d love to see some of them in print again since everything of his that I’ve read has been of uniformly high quality. Another, more recent Western writer who’s largely forgotten today is Ben Haas, who wrote many Westerns under the names John Benteen, Richard Meade, and Thorne Douglas. He was an excellent writer and deserves to be back in print as well.

What is your opinion on keeping dead authors alive by having someone write new books under their name, such as is happening with Ralph Compton and William Johnstone?

That practice doesn’t bother me at all, as long as the books are good. And all the new ones I’ve read under those by-lines have been excellent. When you have David Robbins or Dusty Richards or Peter Brandvold writing a Ralph Compton book, why wouldn’t it be as good as anything those writers would produce solely under their names? They’re top-notch professionals and can be counted upon to do fine work.

When writing books such as your Civil War Battles series did you ever find it restricting having to follow the events of history or did you find it easy to weave fiction and reality together?

I really enjoy the process of writing historical fiction. I like having the framework of history and finding a way to bring in my fictional characters without violating what really happened. If the story dictates a little dramatic license, I don’t hesitate to employ it, but I try to stick as close to the facts as I can.

That’s a little easier than it sounds, because for any major event in history, you can find a dozen or more different interpretations of what really happened. So if I need to fudge a little bit . . . I can.

Is it easier to write a series about a hero who drifts from place to place than a series such as Abilene with multiple characters that are tied to one town?

They both have their advantages and disadvantages. Town books with large casts give you lots of characters to work with, and you can develop those characters over a longer period of time, so that there’s some actual change and growth in them. But a drifting hero gives you much more variety in the settings and in the types of stories you can use. I’ve written plenty of both types and enjoyed them all.

Of all the characters you’ve written about under your own name or a pseudonym, which have you enjoyed writing about the most?

I’m closing in on having written fifty Longarms over the past seventeen years, so I’ve written more about ol’ Custis than any other character. And I still find writing about him to be thoroughly enjoyable. I love his sense of humor, his integrity, his intelligence, and his determination. The fact that most of the books are mysteries as well as Westerns helps me enjoy writing about him, too, since I started out as a mystery writer.

When starting to write for a long established series such as The Trailsman or Wagons West how do you go about ensuring you get the hero’s characteristics and plot style correct as some writers seem to just jump straight in without having given this any consideration and the books might as well as been about somebody else and this, to me, is insulting to long time fans?

Every long-running series I’ve worked on, I was a fan first. I had read the books and knew the characters, at least to a certain extent. With both Longarm and The Trailsman, once I was asked to write for those series, I read as many of the current entries as I could. My Trailsman novels, at least starting out, were very much influenced by the books David Robbins was writing for that series. Even though he didn’t create the character, his version of Skye Fargo was the definitive one as far as I was concerned. Still is, for that matter. My Longarms were heavily influenced by the ones written by Lou Cameron (who created the series) and Will C. Knott. In fact, my first two Longarms were based on outlines written by Lou Cameron, who used to provide outlines for the other authors on the series as well as writing many of the books himself. I picked up on the little tricks they used and tried to incorporate those in my books, as well as developing my own voice on the series. To me, that’s all part of the fun of it.

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

I’m very fond of the Wind River books, six books published by Harper during the Nineties. They demonstrate that long-term storytelling and characterization I was talking about above. For that reason, they definitely need to be read in order. As a stand-alone, I’d recommend DEATH HEAD CROSSING, published a couple of years ago by Pinnacle, which I think does a good job of combining Western and mystery elements. LONGARM AND THE VOODOO QUEEN, LONGARM AND THE PINE BOX PAYOFF, and THE TRAILSMAN: HIGH COUNTRY HORROR are all good solid series Westerns. And my favorite of all my books is UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS, which is part Western and part World War I novel, with what I think is a very effective narrative voice.

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

It’s no secret that Westerns have declined in readership over the past twenty years. The sales numbers look a little better today than they did a few years ago, which may reflect several things: an increased Western presence on the Internet, as evidenced by this site and others; an embracing of more traditional values in uncertain times, something that has always worked to the Western’s advantage in the past; and the realization of the extremely high quality of work being produced by today’s writers. I doubt that Westerns will ever regain the prominence they once had, but they’re not going away any time soon, either.

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

Probably to a certain extent, but not completely, and certainly not in my lifetime. I still have to have a book I can hold in my hands and hear the rustle of the pages and smell the ink and the glue and the paper.

What is your favourite western movie and why?

At one time I probably would have said either THE SEARCHERS or THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE or ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, all fine films that I admire and love dearly. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that my favorite Western movie is THE COMANCHEROS, because my dad took me to see it at the Eagle Drive-in Theater when I was six years old and I still remember it like it was yesterday. When I’m writing and I get to a really good scene, that’s the music I hear in my head, the theme from THE COMANCHEROS. And I don’t care if it’s historically inaccurate. I love it anyway.

Finally what do you read for pleasure?

All kinds of fiction. I’m not a big reader of non-fiction unless it’s for research. But mostly mysteries, science fiction, horror, and of course, Westerns, and more old stuff than new. I also read a lot of graphic novels, primarily superhero stuff but some oddball titles as well. Just tell me a good story. That’s all I ask.


AndyDecker said...

Good one, Steve!

David Cranmer said...

Outstanding interview. James is the great pulp writer of our time and I appreciate his insight into writing, influences, etc. I've become a big fan of Luke Short and Eugene Cunningham thanks to his recommendations.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Again an excellent interview, most intersting - keep em coming.

Ray said...

Brilliant stuff, Steve - I like James Reasoner's books.

madshadows said...

Another excellent interview Steve, really interesting and informative, great work again Steve.

John :)

Chris said...

Nice work!

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent interview. James Reasoner is richly talented and always gives readers their money's worth. I'm amazed at his versatility as well. A genuine pulp writer for sure!

Scott D. Parker said...

Wonderful interview. Makes me want to go dig out the Luke Short books I have from my granddad's collection. Here's the irritating thing: I looked up Reasoner at my local Houston libraries: only about 22 books each, nearly all the Civil War battle series. Aggravating. But, now I have a list of Reasoner-penned books to hunt for.

Anonymous said...

Great interview, Steve. Also, the way you show book covers during your interviews is costing me money. I'm going straight to abebook after this one. James is a writer's writer and a hulluva good guy, as well. He and Livia are two of my most reliable recources for anthologies.


Anonymous said...

Hey Scott, if you put James' name in abebooks a lot of the stuff he did under pseudonyms will pop up. When I put my name in some of my Gunsmiths come up.


Lee Goldberg said...

great interview!

Steve M said...

Glad you all enjoyed it :)

Matthew P. Mayo said...

Hi Steve,
Thanks once again for bringing us a fine interview with a writer I continue to enjoy and learn from. The list in my wallet takes up more space than the money. Hmm....


Steve M said...

List. Money. I know exactly what you mean Matt :)