Monday, September 17, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Elizabeth Fackler

Western and mystery writer Elizabeth Fackler is best known for her critically-acclaimed Seth Strummar series, which has been described as a saga of sexual politics on the American frontier. Her Westerns are characterized by a grittiness that owes to careful historical observation and realistic characterizations, making her novels truly groundbreaking depictions of the West.

According to
Ed Gorman, "Elizabeth Fackler has a unique approach to the novel and speaks in a voice all her own. She takes familiar elements and makes them seem startling and new through the dazzle of her prose and the humanity of her forgiving gaze."

Mrs. Fackler has also written several historical novels including Billy the Kid: The Legend of El Chivato and Texas Lily, both of which are set against the backdrop of the Lincoln County War. Most recently, she has authored a series of contemporary mysteries for Five Star Publishing.

You have alternatively written both mysteries and Westerns with similar critical success. In this, it seems that you are not alone as numerous authors from Elmore Leonard to Harry Whittington to Robert Randisi and several others have done the same. Are there any affinities between the genres that have led so many talented writers to try their hands at both?

The affinities are structural. The plots of both revolve around a protagonist at odds with the world. As the story unfolds, the protagonist subdues the disruptive forces and regains a sort of stasis that lasts as long as it takes the reader to close the book. By that I mean, the stasis is momentary, and if we could follow the story farther than the author allows, the stasis would soon be lost. Perhaps all this could be said of any novel; maybe it is the energetic drive to conclusion that distinguishes the two genres. In both mysteries and Westerns, no words are squandered on self-indulgent asides, each is a stepping stone on the protagonist’s path toward whatever he finds on the final page.

Your novels tend to have strong male lead characters (Seth Strummar, Frank James, Devon Gray) and yet they are usually counterbalanced by equally strong secondary female characters. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

A story arrives from behind the eyes of the protagonist. Like the melody and the lyrics when I write a song, the protagonist and the story arrive together. My male protagonists are attracted to women who are worthy of them and who interest me. Writing a novel requires many hours spent in your characters’ company, so I try to find entertaining people to hang out with.

What led you to start writing in the Western genre?

I love men on horses and women in long skirts.

The study of the historical West has undergone drastic changes in recent decades as academia has attempted to demystify supposedly entrenched preconceptions about this period of American history. This has resulted in innovative research on subjects such as the role of women in the West and history from the point of view of Native Americans. On the other hand, it has led to demonizing from some academics that see the expansion to the West as a particularly bleak episode in the history of this country. Would you agree with this assessment and, if so, do you think these new perceptions and attitudes have influenced modern-day Western fiction?

To paraphrase an Englishman, it was the best and worst of times. Maybe they all are. I can’t see that what we as a nation are doing in the world today is any kinder than what we did in the nineteenth century. I can’t think of any era that was less bleak. Are they referring to the so-called Revolutionary War, slavery, or the Civil War? Are they less bleak? Or the two world wars, the Great Depression, the Mexican-American or the Spanish-American War? The history of civilization is bleak. The acknowledgement of that has influenced all thinking. The beauty of the nineteen-century American pioneers is that they truly believed the future would be better. That’s an enviable attitude and imbues them with a buoyant optimism that keeps the story afloat.

What role does research play in your writing especially when it comes to novels such as Billy the Kid: The Legend of El Chivato and Texas Lily?

Both of those novels were based on thirty years of research. For Texas Lily, I did additional research on New Mexico cattle ranching in the late nineteenth century. I read everything available on the Lincoln County War before it ever occurred to me to write the story myself. I did so because I felt no one had told it the way it was meant to be told.

Although there are precedents for demythologized portrayals of the West, the grittiness of novels like Blood Kin and its frank depiction of violence and sex makes it seem in many ways a Western ahead of its time. What was the feedback from your editors when you first turned in the manuscript? What about critics and readers when it was finally published?

The publisher initially demanded that I delete all the “kinky” (their word) scenes. I protested and my editor went to bat for me and the publisher acquiesced. The reviews were amusing. One was by a nun who, although she called my writing “powerful,” took exception to my harlot comparing herself to the Blessed Mother. My favorite said Blood Kin took its inspiration more from Last Tango in Paris than Dry Gulch Ambush. I still use that in my promos. I know I offended many traditional readers of the genre, and I’m sorry they can’t see the value in my stories. Readers often have the same reaction to my mysteries — that the sex is too graphic — but I like writing about passion.

What are your thoughts about the present state of the Western genre and what do you think the future holds for the Western story?

The Western story will survive, if only as a peripheral genre with a small but loyal readership. The trick is finding publishers who will keep the work in print. People now are in love with technology and that leads authors to set their stories on the cutting-edge of progress if not in the future. Some of those stories are transplanted heroic plots that work well in any era. But there are those of us who will always enjoy horses and canyons, stars and mountains, and the flattering glow of candlelight.

Most writers are voracious readers and you are probably not the exception. What do you read for pleasure?

Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Wild West, The Sun are magazines we receive; I read most of each issue. Right now I’m reading The Life and Death of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain by A.M. Gibson. I was led to it by reading another book about Fountain, Corey Recko’s Murder on the White Sands. Before that I read N. Scott Momaday’s The Man Made of Words, and before that, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger. I am also sporadically reading from Sallie Tisdale’s Women of the Way, stories about women Buddhist teachers. All reading I do is for pleasure, unless it’s the instruction book for a new appliance or a contract or such.

Do you have any writing influences? How about influences in the Western genre?

The whole world, every word I’ve read, and every experience I’ve known is a writing influence. I read Zane Gray as a child but my landscape descriptions don’t compare to his. My favorite author and book of my formative years was Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Are there any Western writers you would like to see back in print? Likewise, are there any new writers that have caught your attention?

I would love to see my Westerns back in print. None of them are except El Chivato which I have to push constantly to keep available.

Are you writing anything right now? Can you tell us more about any other projects you are currently involved with?

I have a nascent publishing company called Western Star Books. So far we have published the first, never-before-published novel of my Seth Strummar series, Bone Justice, and A Calendar of the Lincoln County War. Both of them are available through my website. I have a mystery starring Elizabeth Garrett, the daughter of Pat Garrett, nearing completion.

What is the greatest satisfaction of your writing career? Is there anything else you still feel you need to accomplish?

The greatest satisfaction is that I did it. And I’m still here, still being published. I am working on achieving calm abiding at the moment of my death so I will have a good rebirth.


Chap O'Keefe said...

An excellent interview, Gonzalo, with a writer whose work has appealed to me since I came across the original hardcover edition of Blood Kin as an Evans Novel of the West (Remember those?)

Ms Fackler's comments on her publisher's reaction to that book have particular interest for me at this moment. My publisher has written to me that my latest book is "certainly a good story" but "Much of the violence has sexual connotations and this really ought to come out."

The question of sex/violence has come up before with the O'Keefe stories going back at least as far as 1994 and The Gunman and the Actress (based loosely on Sarah Bernhardt). In the event changes to the text, if any, have always been minor and made by myself. I've asked my publisher, or his editors, to indicate by page and line number which connotations are a worry in the new book.

Like Ms Fackler, I take care to see that the sex/violence in my books is woven into the fabric of characterization and storyline. Also, observations on the morality, the beliefs and social behaviour of the times are based on careful research.

Ms Fackler was right to protest. Too often, censoring is carried out according to purely subjective and arbitrary assessments by a person with no superior expertise in handling the subject matter.

Gonzalo Baeza said...

I wonder (and this is pure speculation, since I don´t really know much about this aspect of the publishing industry) how these attitudes have affected the development of the Western as a genre. It sometimes seems to me publishers are pretty reactionary and overtly fearful of anything that deviates from traditional storytelling. I can´t imagine why they wouldn´t trust proven writers to deal with certain subjects and why they submit their stories to outdated moral codes.

Chap O'Keefe said...

I'm sure the attitudes have affected the genre's development. It took more than 90 years before Riders of the Purple Sage could be published unexpurgated, as Zane Grey wrote it.

Ms Fackler wrote Blood Kin around 1990, yet even then repressed/repressing people in publishing were using terms like "kinky" for sex scenes.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Back in the 70s, Doubleday rejected my third western novel because there was too much heavy breathing in it, though nothing explicit. Since then I've learned that an author can write about anything at all, even in westerns, if one does it artfully.

Chap O'Keefe said...

The question, of course, is where does artfulness end and laughter-raising, foolish coyness begin.

Generally, I believe unfudged scenes are what an adult reader of fiction in 2007 expects to find. The old "show don't tell" imperative is stronger than ever and very evident in successful books, movies and TV programmes. Other comments I would make are: that the sex/violence in my latest western is not sadomasochism, bestiality or paedophilia; that in the past "banned" topics in fiction were usually descriptions of actions that in fact occurred regularly in the real world; that nothing in my book is so phrased that it could be readily understood by a minor, or indeed anyone without prior knowledge.

By the way, I'm not trying to mount a defence here for the so-called adult series westerns, where not so many years back sex scenes were thrown in every few pages, straining credibility and ruining some basically good yarns.

For an example of what I would call a well-written, completely appropriate sex scene, turn to the last page or so of Chapter Twenty-Two of Elizabeth Fackler's Blood Kin.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I'm rooting for Ms Fackler. She's expanding the boundaries of western fiction, and from all I've heard, she is a fine novelist.

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