Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Randy Denmon

Writer/engineer Randy Denmon is a lifelong resident of Monroe, Louisiana. Prior to publication, his first book, The Lawless Frontier, was a finalist of the National Writers Association’s annual novel contest. After being picked up by Kensington, the title was eventually shortlisted for the 2007 Spur for Best Original Paperback Novel. Seven-time Spur Award winner Elmer Kelton called The Lawless Frontier an "impressive debut" whereas National Book Award laureate Tim O'Brien hailed it as "well-written and engrossing."

The author, a US Army veteran of the Gulf War, has also written two more novels that are presently awaiting publication. One of them tells the story of two Texas Rangers during the Mexican-American War while his third novel deals with a Marine in Central America during the interwar years.

Did you ever write or publish anything before The Lawless Frontier ?

The Lawless Frontier was my first novel, no publications prior. It started out as a collection of short stories that I eventually turned into a novel.

What led you to start writing fiction in the first place? Why did you choose a Western or historical novel if you will to make your debut?

The Lawless Frontier started out as historical fiction. That was the intent anyway. It was eventually turned into a western because the editor at Kensington, Gary Goldstein, liked the story, but wanted to publish it in the western genre. I was then required to make the appropriate changes to have the novel conform. I guess you could say that the publishing industry and market turned my first book into a western. But it turned out fine.

Can you cite any authors as influences or inspiration for your work? What authors are you presently reading? How about writers in the Western genre?

There’s so many, I don’t know where to start. With some writers, I really like their stories, but not their styles, with others, it’s just the opposite. For a good combination of both, I’d say Elmore Leonard.

The writing in your novel is very polished and showcases a self-assured prose that is not always usual for authors making their debut. Did you place lot of emphasis on crafting the perfect sentence or were you more concerned with your writing being serviceable to the fast-paced nature of The Lawless Frontier?

Don’t think I’ve ever crafted a sentence, at least not from conception, but I do try to be bold – put the words down exactly as they flow from the mind, sometimes with a lot of disregard for the grammar rules. Terse, with a lot of quick stop and starts is always good for me. Though, I do find myself going back and cleaning up a lot of sentences after the fact.

"I try to go out of my way to depict this and point out the parallels and ironies with the past. Much of what has happened in the past is relevant and parallel to things today: current problems and concerns, both on a grand scale or on the personal level."

How much research into the history of the Mexican Revolution went into your novel? Does research play a large role in your writing?

I do a lot of research, and the research does aid in the writing. It gives me ideas about what to put on paper that will correctly reflect the time and setting. The first person narratives from a certain time and place are the best. They tell me what the people were actually doing, thinking, worrying about, etc. I always seem to pick up ideas from these.

Throughout your novel, characters like Stewart Cook make comments about foreign entanglements and life in countries with politically volatile situations. What led you to write about Americans caught in the middle of the Mexican Revolution? Did you consciously set out to draw some parallels between that historical episode and current events?

I lived in Mexico at one time and have always been fascinated with the place. It is, like America, a land of contradictions, good and bad. This is true with all of us also.

I try to go out of my way to depict this and point out the parallels and ironies with the past. Much of what has happened in the past is relevant and parallel to things today: current problems and concerns, both on a grand scale or on the personal level.

Could you describe the critical reception that your first novel garnered? How about National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien’s words of praise for the novel? After all, it is pretty unusual to see a so-called mainstream author raving about genre fiction.

All of the awards and accolades are just great. They are one of the few bonuses you receive in this business that is much more work than rewards. For me, they’ve seemed to motivate me as well as provide me with some satisfaction that my work is being enjoyed.

Tim O'Brien is a great guy. I met him at a writers' event in San Angelo, Texas. It [is] a conference they have there every year that Elmer Kelton is a part of. I talked to Tim about the book and other things. [H]e agreed to read the book and give me a blurb if he liked it, which he followed through on.

"I’ve (...) learned that publishers are not in the business for awards and acclaim, but to make a profit. They would rather publish something that is bad that sells than vice versa. Actually, if [I] had any advice to aspiring writers it would [be] to grasp this concept and not fight it – which we all have a tendency to do."

The Lawless Frontier is being ostensibly marketed as a Western. Did you have any say in this? Did you come up with the title and/or have any say about the cover illustration? This is not to say there is anything wrong with either, but I am asking you this in view of how many good novels (such as yours) are often overlooked by critics and even the public at large because they happen to be associated with a non-mainstream genre such as Westerns, mysteries, etc.

As I mentioned before, I had no say in the fact that the novel was marketed as a western; no say in the title or cover. No say in the marketing at all. I would have liked to have had a more mainstream title and cover. But I was essentially told it would be marketed as a western. In today’s climate and marketplace, first novelists have little clout, and they generally have to do as the publishers request if they want to get into print. I have learned since that it is easier to get genre fiction from lesser known writers into bookstores – probably why the publishers take the routes they do. I’ve also learned that publishers are not in the business for awards and acclaim, but to make a profit. They would rather publish something that is bad that sells than vice versa. Actually, if [I] had any advice to aspiring writers it would [be] to grasp this concept and not fight it – which we all have a tendency to do.

Every few years or so there is talk about Westerns making a comeback, comments that usually revolve around the success of TV productions such as Deadwood or recent films like 3:10 to Yuma. What is your assessment of the present state of Westerns and, more specifically, Western fiction?

Westerns are definitely making a comeback, both on screen and in print. The national sales numbers are in an upward trend, and many more bookstores have plans to create western sections. I’ve been lucky in this regard – hitting the market at the right time. And only recently, The Lawless Frontier was optioned for a movie by a Hollywood production company. There’s probably a 50 percent chance it will get made in some form. I have my fingers crossed.

Is your second book also a historical novel? Could you tell us more about it and also when will it go out on sale?

My second book is about two Texas Rangers fighting in the Texas Revolution and Mexican American War. In some ways, it’s similar to The Lawless Frontier, at least in its attempt point out many of the ironies of the past and their relevance to today. The publisher is still working on the title and publication date. Hopefully, sometime next year. I’m still not getting much say in the title, but it probably will be The Savage Breed or Legions of Vengeance. I’m hoping for the latter.

Are you planning to write more novels featuring the characters from The Lawless Frontier? Are you planning to keep on writing Westerns or historical novels or do you see your writing going in other directions in the future?

No more stories based on The Lawless Frontier, but my third book, now complete, is about the Marines fighting in Central American during the 1930s. I’m going to hold out to have this published as mainstream fiction – I hope. I’ll probably always only write historical stuff. It’s what I like, but I certainly plan to write more westerns, hopefully more contemporary westerns like what I consider The Lawless Frontier.


Anonymous said...

Interesting how the publisher was the one that had the final word when it came to the title and the cover illustration (thus perpetutating the problem of bad marketing of Westerns). Is this the case with most authors, or only the younger ones?

Gonzalo B said...

I'm not sure I could answer that one better than some of the writers that visit this blog. Thoughts, anyone?

Chap O'Keefe said...

In my experience, the publisher has control in this area. You'll find more background in the article Judging Books by Covers in the current Black Horse Extra. (There's a link to the left here under Publications).

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