Monday, September 24, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: James Reasoner

James Reasoner is a prolific writer who has written in several genres—including westerns, mysteries, thrillers, and historical fiction. He recently received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly for his private eye novel Dust Devils, and no matter if he is writing a house name series western or something under his own name, his work is dependably tight, well-plotted, and extremely readable.

He is married to fellow western writer Livia Washburn, and they live on a working ranch in Azle, Texas.

First, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat with us James.

I’m happy to do it.

“One of the biggest changes in the publishing world since I started writing has been the consolidation of publishers, with huge multinational corporations now owning half-a-dozen or more imprints that used to be independent publishers.”

I recently read that you finished your 200th published novel. Congratulations. When you typed “the end” on number 200, did it feel differently than your 100th, or 50th novel? How has the publishing world changed between your first novel and 200th? And if you can tell us, what was the title of number 200?

Reaching 200 novels was a milestone I enjoyed because it meant that I’ve been able to stay around in this business for quite a while. When I started out I thought writing 100 novels in a career would be pretty good, but I’ve had to revise that number upward over the years. Now I don’t really have a numerical goal like that anymore; I just want to keep writing good books, books that I enjoy, for as long as I can. However many that turns out to be is just fine with me.

One of the biggest changes in the publishing world since I started writing has been the consolidation of publishers, with huge multinational corporations now owning half-a-dozen or more imprints that used to be independent publishers. This has led to the shrinking of the mid-list, with lines that were still profitable being cancelled because they weren’t profitable enough.

From the technological end, though, things are much better now. My first two novels were written with a fountain pen in spiral notebooks, then typed up on a manual typewriter. Writing on a computer is so much easier, and the ease with which you can revise a manuscript makes for better writing in the long run, I think. Plus some of the publishers prefer that books be delivered to them via e-mail now, and I love that. Press a few buttons, and like it had wings, that manuscript is on its way to New York.

As for #200 on my list of books . . . it was a house-name Western (as was #100, but in a different series), so I can’t really get too specific about what it was.

While we’re talking about your publishing history, what was the first novel you published? Was it a long time coming, or did you hit print pretty quickly once you decided to write it?

My first novel was Texas Wind, a private eye novel set in Fort Worth. I’ve always loved mysteries, private eye novels especially, and wanted to write one. But I didn’t know anything about Los Angeles or New York or San Francisco, where most such books are usually set, so I decided to follow the old adage about writing what you know. I grew up in the Fort Worth area, so I decided to set my PI novel there.

The book was written (with a fountain pen, as I mentioned) between November 7, 1978, and February 14, 1979. I think this is the first time those exact dates have been mentioned in print. My wife Livia typed the manuscript, I revised it a little (based on some suggestions she made), and she typed up a final draft. Then we went to a drugstore with a coin-operated copy machine and copied it, page by page, so I wouldn’t have to submit my only copy of the final draft.

I began sending it to publishers I found listed in Writer’s Market. No luck. I sent it to a well-known agent and paid him a couple of hundred bucks to read it. (I know, never, ever do that, but I was young and ignorant.) No luck. I’d been buying and reading some paperbacks (mostly mysteries and action/adventure) published by a company in New York called Manor Books. I sent the manuscript of Texas Wind to them. This would have been sometime in late 1979.

They sent me a contract.

Once I got over the shock of seeing an actual publishing contract in the mailbox, I looked at the advance Manor planned to pay me for the book and said, “Is that all?” It wasn’t much. $600.00, if I remember correctly. I thought books earned a lot more than that. But I signed the contract anyway and sent it back. If nothing else, at least I would have a published novel to my credit. I’d sold quite a few short stories by then and was also writing some of the Mike Shayne stories in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine under the name Brett Halliday, but this would be a real book. And so it was, in October of 1980, when the book came out—exactly at the time when Manor’s distribution contracts collapsed, so that very few copies ever made it to the stands.

They never paid me the six hundred bucks, either.

You have had a long career—you have written in several different genres and published extensively in both novel form and short stories. Is there a specific genre or format you enjoy working in the best? If you could choose would you concentrate on shorter works or novels?

I started out as a mystery writer, so I guess that’s really where my heart is. I get bored easily, though, so I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to write in many different genres. They all have their own particular appeal for me. I love writing the occasional short story between novels, but if I had to pick one or the other it would be novels because I like having that bigger canvas to work on. Luckily, I don’t have to choose.

“The actual writing process is pretty much the same for me regardless of what name is going on the book. I take a lot of pride in the work and I have to entertain myself as I’m writing, first and foremost.”

You have written a great number of novels under house names such as Tabor Evans, Hank Mitchum, and Jon Sharpe, but you have also published extensively under your own name and pseudonyms. When you write under a house name do you approach it differently than your other work? Do you enjoy writing them, and if you can would you briefly explain how the series writing works? Do you have any responsibility for promotion, or does the publisher prefer you stay quiet about your authorship?

The actual writing process is pretty much the same for me regardless of what name is going on the book. I take a lot of pride in the work and I have to entertain myself as I’m writing, first and foremost. Everything else comes after that. There is a certain sense of freedom in writing a book when you know your name won’t be on it. You won’t get any of the blame if it’s terrible. But that’s balanced out by the fact that you don’t get any credit for the good ones, either. And I don’t want to write terrible books, anyway. I want them all to be as good as I can make them.

Most of the contracts for house-name books specify that the author can’t claim them publicly, so those of us who write them do very little, if any, publicity or promotion for them. As time goes on, though, and series end, the need to keep quiet about such things loosens up considerably. A lot of the house-name books I’ve written in the past are now listed on my website ( I ghost-write books for other authors on a fairly regular basis, and those deals, by necessity, are pretty much a secret and are likely to remain so.

Most writers are voracious readers, and I’m wondering what you read for pleasure?

I read well over a hundred books every year and have for more than forty years now. I can’t imagine life without a steady diet of fiction. Most of my reading is genre fiction, with an emphasis on mysteries and Westerns, but really, I read a little bit of everything.

Now I want to turn to the western genre specifically. What first led you to the genre?

I’ve been a Western reader for as far back as I can remember, having discovered Clarence E. Mulford (the Hopalong Cassidy books), Max Brand, and Zane Grey at an early age. I also read a lot of Western novels from the pulp era that were reprinted during the Sixties, such as the ones about Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, the Rio Kid, and the Masked Rider. And I’ve always loved Western movies and TV shows. How could I not, growing up in the late Fifties and early Sixties, when they were so prevalent? One of my early, early stories (we’re talking fifth grade here) was a Western. I wrote about 25,000 words of a Lone Ranger novel when I was in high school. (The manuscript is long, long gone, I’m sure.) But I never gave much thought to being a professional Western writer.

Then, after selling Texas Wind and three novels written in collaboration with my wife Livia (a historical romance called The Emerald Land, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1983 under the pseudonym Livia James, a contemporary romance that a major publisher bought and paid for but never published for a variety of reasons, and a novel ghosted for another author that remains a secret), I hit a dry spell. I had gotten an agent, but that relationship never really worked out. I wrote proposal after proposal but couldn’t sell any of them. My short story markets had dried up to the point that I was thrilled to get $60.00 for a pseudonymous sale to a men’s magazine.

While looking through Writer’s Digest I saw an ad from a book packaging company called Book Creations Inc. that was looking for writers. BCI was run by Lyle Kenyon Engel, a book packager who had been around for a long time. I was most familiar with him from the Nick Carter, Killmaster series published by Award Books, which I’d been reading for years. Engel had put that deal together with Award back in the Sixties and hired numerous paperback authors to write the books anonymously. After seeing that ad I wrote to Mr. Engel, sent him copies of Texas Wind and The Emerald Land, and told him that I’d be interested in writing books for his company. He agreed to take me on, and the first assignment I got from BCI was for a book in the Stagecoach series, which they were currently producing for Bantam. That turned out to be #27 in the series, Pecos. I had no trouble with it and found that I really enjoyed writing Westerns. I got along well with all the editors at BCI, I had a habit of turning my books in early, and they gave me more and more work, so that I wound up writing around fifty novels for them, in half-a-dozen or more different series, mostly Western or historical. My work for BCI gave me enough credits and contacts in the publishing business that I was able to expand to working for other publishers on other house-name series, as well as selling quite a few books under my own name.

“Robert E. Howard, who wrote a lot of things other than Westerns, of course, has had a huge influence on my writing. A. Leslie Scott, Tom Curry, and Walker Tompkins, who wrote most of those Jim Hatfield novels under the house-name Jackson Cole, certainly had an influence on me. I went through a long period where I read a lot of novels by Luke Short (whose real name was Frederick Glidden) and Walt Coburn.”

Who are a few of the western writers who have most influenced your work?

In addition to the ones mentioned above, I’ve read practically everybody who was published in the Western pulps during the Twenties, Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, as well as all the authors of paperback originals from the Fifties on (and there’s some overlap in that group). Robert E. Howard, who wrote a lot of things other than Westerns, of course, has had a huge influence on my writing. A. Leslie Scott, Tom Curry, and Walker Tompkins, who wrote most of those Jim Hatfield novels under the house-name Jackson Cole, certainly had an influence on me. I went through a long period where I read a lot of novels by Luke Short (whose real name was Frederick Glidden) and Walt Coburn. In recent years I’ve become a big fan of Lewis B. Patten.

If you could bring back the work of one western writer who would it be? Is there a specific title?

Most of the really good Western authors from the pulp era have had work reprinted in recent years—Walt Coburn, T.T. Flynn, Peter Dawson (who was really Jonathan Glidden, Fred Glidden’s brother), H.A. De Rosso, and others I’m sure I’m forgetting at the moment. But they were so prolific back in those days that there are still plenty of good stories that haven’t been reprinted. So I hope more of their work continues to show up in new editions.

You also write mysteries, and it seems there has been—both historically as well as today—a significant amount of authors who do good work in both genres. Do you think there is a relationship between the mystery and the western that promotes this crossover, or is it simply the economics of professional writing?

I’m sure economics has something to do with it, but the private eye genre supposedly grew out of the Western dime novel tradition, so if there’s any truth to that theory—and I think you can make a case for it—the two genres are naturally intertwined and always have been. Plus there’s nearly always some sort of crime or mystery element in Western novels, so people who can do a good job in one genre are usually a good fit in the other, as well. One of my favorite writers, for example, is Ed Gorman, whose Western novels are, if anything, more noirish than his mystery novels and always concern crimes of some sort.

The mystery genre is thriving, but many believe the western is in decline. What do you think about the western genre today, and what do you think the future holds for the western story?

The Western genre has been hurt more than any other by the consolidation of publishers, the shrinking mid-list, and the best-seller mentality. There are also problems in the distribution system that keep Westerns from getting out there into the discount stores, grocery stores, and drugstores, where they’re most likely to sell. A considerable number of Westerns are still being published, they’re just harder to find than they used to be. And with Western readers generally being older, they’re probably less likely to buy their books on-line. But Westerns are still out there if you make the effort to locate them, and as far as I can tell, their sales numbers seem to be in a sort of holding pattern, having fallen considerably during the second half of the Nineties but staying fairly steady since then. Publishers who have done all right with Westerns continue to do so. New lines start up every now and then, and while none of them have caught on and been really successful, they give the genre an upward bump for a while. So, while there is a continuing gradual decline in the popularity of Westerns, it’s slow enough so that I don’t think they’ll ever go away completely, at least not in our lifetimes. That’s certainly my hope, anyway.

As for the quality of the Westerns being written today, well, I’m not sure it’s ever been higher. I’d start naming names, but practically everybody in the field is a friend of mine and I’m afraid I’d forget somebody. I think you can pick up just about any new Western and be confident that you’ll get a very well-written, entertaining story.

Okay, now lets get down to your current work. What is your latest novel?

I’ve had two novels published under my name this year: Dust Devils, a crime novel published by Point Blank Press that received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and excellent reviews from some of the leading websites; and Death Head Crossing, a Western with strong mystery elements that’s just been published by Pinnacle Books.

Can you tell us about the novel—or any other projects—you are working on now?

It’s one of those ghost jobs that has to remain top secret as far as title and by-line go, but I will say that it’s a big contemporary thriller.

Beyond that I have a number of house-name books and ghosting projects lined up, plus lending a small hand to the plotting and editing of the novels my wife writes.

I have one last question, and I must warn it is a little vague. If you could chose any project to work on, what would it be?

Another Texas-set crime novel along the lines of Dust Devils. I’ve got my title and some of the plot, now I just need to find the time to write it.
Also, I wrote three novels about World War II—the Last Good War series, published by Forge Books—and I would love to write something else about the war, probably an espionage-oriented thriller. (So if there are any editors reading this who are looking for something like that, give me a call!)


Randy Johnson said...

Good interview. I've become a fan of Mr. Reasoner's work and look for them. Texas Wind and Dust Devils are good stories. We need to see more. Death Head Crossing was a well done western/mystery. The combination worked, but publishing being what it is today, we may not see those characters again. A shame.

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Thanks!

Gonzalo Baeza said...

What an excellenet interview. Reading James Reasoner's replies and knowing how many good books he's authored I can't help but wonder why isn't he more popular. I only discovered him a few years ago and even though a sizable part of his output has been written under pseudonyms, he has enough good novels under his own name to merit inclusion into anyone's Top 10.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

James Reasoner is a phenomenon, along with Bob Randisi. How they come up with stories after writing so many novels is a mystery to me. Both continue to sell under their own and house names. They'll be writing western stories long after I've gone to other pastures.

dgb said...

I've got a review (very positive) of Death Head Crossing waiting in the slush pile over at Keep an eye out for it. If anyone ever puts together a Midlist Hall of Fame, James Reasoner will be one of the freshman class of inductees.

Anonymous said...

Ah, James and the working ranch again! He himself would be the first to tell you that bit of fiction is merely the imagination of one of his editors! Unless you consider a spread with a couple of dogs, a few cats, and a goat a "working ranch". Always good for a chuckle to see that line. Doesn't matter, though... James is still a darn fine writer of Westerns, the man who kept urging me to write until I finally listened to him, my mentor, and my friend.

Jim Griffin

Howard said...

Let me add too that I really enjoyed James' work and also that of his wife. May he (and she) have many more years of fine tales and easy rides!

Opal said...

Interesting to know.

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