Thursday, December 6, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Win Blevins

Win Blevins has a passion for the West and it shows in his writing. He lives a conscious and vibrant life in the rural Southwest. His first novel, Charbonneau: Man of Two Dreams, was published in 1975 and since then he has produced thirteen more novels, sold five screenplays, written history, and even published a dictionary. He won the Spur Award for his novel Stone Song, and he has achieved both critical acclaim as well as a devoted readership.

His latest novel
A Long and Winding Road has recently been released in hardcover by Forge Books. The Publishers Weekly review reads, in part: Blevins is a master of mountain man lore, and he certainly knows the beaver and buffalo hide business, as well as the politics of the region and era.



First, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions Win.

You're welcome.

I want to talk a little about your publishing history, what is 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 CHARBONNEAU: MAN OF TWO DREAMS, way back in 1975. It was the story of the life of Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, the son of Sacajawea. It was bad luck—the publisher went out of business a couple weeks after it was published. Still in print, though.

My first book was two years earlier, GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE HAWKS: A TRIBUTE TO THE MOUNTAIN MEN. It's history told in the style of fiction, like Irving Stone’s MEN TO MATCH MY MOUNTAINS. I had a stroke of luck getting that first book published. The head of Nash Publishing, Ed Nash, heard me telling mountain man stories at a party. He asked me to turn them into a book, and I did. No struggles, no rejections, all too easy.

It turned out that the company didn't have the money to print enough copies to fill all the orders, and that hurt the book. However, it too is still in print. Best compliment a writer can get.

When I was a kid, my friends fantasized about being Superman. I wanted to be Clark Kent. Digging out stories and writing them for a newspaper, that sounded like fun.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

When I was a kid, my friends fantasized about being Superman. I wanted to be Clark Kent. Digging out stories and writing them for a newspaper, that sounded like fun. I got to do that for some years.

Is there a book, or a few books, that you have written and are particularly proud of?

I love all my children. Maybe my favorite is the one that (as with children) was the most troublesome. I worked on the story of the life of Crazy Horse for twenty years. He was an infatuation and an obsession. His way of seeing Mystery became mine. When the book came out in 1995, the reception was extraordinary.

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

I read mysteries and thrillers, and sometimes poetry. When I'm writing, which is always, it's difficult for me to read literature that has a superb style—the voice tries to creep into my own work. So I read for fun. And believe that fun is a splendid achievement in a novel.

I read a lot about the West, but not many traditional, action-adventure westerns. I prefer history, journals, and novelists who are unusual. I like Ed Abbey's THE BRAVE COWBOY, John Nichols's THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (yes, it is a western—it's a battle over water rights), Tony Hillerman (they’re westerns as much as mysteries), Rudolfo Anaya, Scott Momaday, Wallace Stegner, Ivan Doig, Cormac McCarthy, and the historical novels of Larry McMurtry. If I was stranded in the desert with only one book about the West, I’ hope it would be Norman Maclean's A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT.

I avoid books in the endless succession of western clich├ęs—the cavalry saving white folks from Indians, cattlemen vs. sheepmen, trail drive stories, tales of how AMERICANS CONQUERED THE WEST or TAMED THE WILDERNESS. Some of those books are terrific. However, it's been done, and to me it's not the story of the real West—it's just self-glorification. Also, it mostly leaves out women, Mexicans, Mormons, mountain men, and any genuine look at Indian people, in short the real West.

Your biography is impressive in its own right as an adventure story: You have climbed mountains, sailed, river-rafted, lost the use of your legs and then regained them. If you could, what was your most memorable adventure?

Most memorable? Well, there are two kinds—the ones that were the most fun and the ones that nearly got me killed. In the fun category—climbing Mont Blanc, my first big mountain; climbing everything I ever climbed with my two lifelong friends, Hooman Aprin and Leeds Davis; making the circuit around Annapurna in Nepal; floating the San Juan River a dozen times or more. Life-threatening? I took a fall into a crevasse on Mount Rainier and had a hard time getting out. And I froze my feet badly on Mount Jacinto near Palm Springs. Yes, Palm Springs, that's why I wasn’t expecting such a blizzard.

I love Westerners, who are the damnedest combination of savvy, plucky, bull-headed, thoughtful, ignorant, super-educated, maddening people on the planet. Their thinking doesn't run down the tracks laid by the NEW YORK TIMES—because it's original thinking (even when bonkers).

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

I am fascinated by the West. I love the landscape, and try to make it the main character in every book. I love Westerners, who are the damnedest combination of savvy, plucky, bull-headed, thoughtful, ignorant, super-educated, maddening people on the planet. Their thinking doesn't run down the tracks laid by the NEW YORK TIMES—because it's original thinking (even when bonkers).

This love affair started when I spent a summer in Colorado, camping and hiking. It blew up big when I moved to Los Angeles and spent my week ends in the local mountains and deserts. When I came to the Canyonlands of the Utah-Arizona border in 1976, my heart was captured forever. I still live here.

Though professional writers are a rarity in my region, I feel like one maverick among many—Navajos, archeologists, artists, river rats, desert rats, a comradeship of individuality.

Are there any Western writers who have most influenced your work?

Sure, Mark Twain, Mark Twain, and Mark Twain. He was an extraordinarily intelligent fellow who wrote stories that appealed to the entire community, not just the literati. He wrote in the language of the common man. He was a genius, and he's my hero.

I've also been influenced greatly by the books of Bernard DeVoto, especially ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI and YEAR OF DECISION: 1846. If you want to learn to write history, read DeVoto.
A director of westerns gave me something to emulate. I want to jam pack my novels with the passion and originality of Sam Peckinpah's movies. THE WILD BUNCH and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY are masterpieces.

I don't really have any models, though. I want to tell stories no one else has told. I'm trying to tell the biggest truth that I can see, and I have to see it for myself. I don't know whether this is a strength or a weakness.

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

I'd like more attention for some living writers who are underappreciated. Max Evans captures the contemporary West beautifully, and he's almost alone in that. Loren Estleman has a prose style that seethes with life. Richard Wheeler writes quiet, thoughtful, lovely novels. Craig Leslie and Jim Fergus are first-rate.

What do you think about the western genre today, and what do you think the future holds for the western story?

Write about the West and you'll be a pariah. Picture this: You're at a cocktail party with literary people in New York. An attractive young woman comes up and says, "What do you write?' You answer, "I write about the West." She makes her escape so fast you can feel the backdraft. She asks a nearby scribe what he writes. "Pornography," he answers. She smiles and says, "How fascinating. Tell me more."

Believe it.

I have no idea about the future of writing about the West. I know two things: 1) Every region of America is a first-rate subject for good writing, and in my opinion the West is the best of all, because the people are originals. 2) Good stories will always have an audience.

You not only write Western historical novels, but you also work as an editor for a New York publisher. Does this give you a different perspective on the genre?

I recently retired as an editor—clear sailing to do nothing but write from now on. During my editing years I learned that I can't predict what will sell and what won't, and that I love working with writers.

Different perspective? No. I'm not an ideal editor for westerns because my views about the West are personal and strongly held.

Everything I do in the West—drive, look at land forms, hike, swim a river in a life jacket, take my dog for a walk, visit ruins, listen to old-timers—everything finds its way into my books.

Your work is known for its historical accuracy. What role does research play in your writing, and how—if you do—do you compromise between the story and its historical roots?

Research is a big deal for me. In the mid 70s I was lucky enough to get some movie script money and could afford to spend a couple of years soaking up Western history like a sponge. I continue to read and read and check facts and check facts.

But that isn't the essence of research. For the Crazy Horse book I moved to Wyoming and stayed fifteen years (and am still in the rural West). I wanted to smell the air he smelled, wade the creeks he waded, make meat as he did, and so on. As it turned out, I also needed to do many sweat lodges, many vision quests, and other ceremonies. (His path is now mine; I became a pipe carrier.) The essence of research is experience, not book knowledge. If a writer hasn't been in a sweat lodge (and one celebrated Lakota hasn't), I can spot that within a couple of sentences. It destroys verisimilitude for me.

Everything I do in the West—drive, look at land forms, hike, swim a river in a life jacket, take my dog for a walk, visit ruins, listen to old-timers—everything finds its way into my books.

Yet even that kind of research only creates the world where the characters interact. Characters doing things that show who they are, and what human beings are like—that's the soul of fiction. That takes good observation of people, a nose for telling details, a sense of humor, and imagination. My novels, whether historical or contemporary, are acts of imagination in a thoroughly real world.

Compromise? No need. Oh my, just take a walk in the history of the West, or the streets of your own Western town, and you'll find truths begging to be told. Tell the truth and tell it loud.

You have written a broad variety of western fiction—from your novel Stone Song about Crazy Horse, to your chronicles of the early trappers, to contemporary western stories like your novel ravenShadow. Is there a particular era of western history you are most interested in?

If it's Western, historical or contemporary, I'm interested. If it's a story that hasn't been told and re-told, I may write it.

Maybe one day I'll expand that to, if it's American, I'm interested. I want to know who Americans are, from the splendid to the repulsive, and to sing it all in story form.

Okay, now let's get down to your current work. What is your latest novel?

For the past few years I've been writing mountain man novels called the RENDEZVOUS series. They follow the life of a single mountain man from when he leaves home in the East to when he retires as a trapper and settles in California with his half-blood children.

I wanted to write a series of stories that would show a character's growth from boy through marriage and children to the end of one kind of life; to tell the story of the great twenty years of the Rocky Mountain fur trade; to draw attention especially to the relationships (most of them very good) between the trappers and the Native people; to dramatize the difficulties of being of mixed blood in an Anglo world; and to explore some aspects of the fur trade era that are relatively unfamiliar, like the Indian slave trade.

Four of these novels have been published (the first won the Spur Award); the next, A LONG AND WINDING ROAD, comes out in December; and the final novel, DREAMS BENEATH YOUR FEET, is due in autumn of 2008.

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

I'm off on something entirely new, a series of novels we're informally calling THE PEOPLE WHO WOULD BECOME THE CHEROKEE. The books are set in the mists of pre-history, like Jean Auel's and Michael and Kathleen Gear’s. I don't know how many books will eventually comprise the series.

This is a lot of fun. They're pre-history, but little is known about the people who would become the Cherokees. So I'm taking a hard look at the culture in the 1500s and 1600s, our earliest knowledge of it, and imagining it backwards a few thousand years. This ancient culture will feel to modern readers like fantasy—it's full of shamans who can travel to the worlds above and below, spirit animals, magic, talking buzzards, enchanted caverns, etc. I guess the term for it would pre-historical fantasy.

Why the Cherokees? More than fifty years ago my aunts told me the family secret—we're Cherokee, and gave me some details. Since then I've had an avid curiosity about my unacknowledged ancestors. This is one way of getting to know them, and to pay tribute to them.

I have more ideas for books than I could write in a zillion lifetimes, and I love it that way. Life is grand and nutty and glorious—I'd like to get all of that into stories.

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?

I'd like to write poetry every day, and may soon get going on that. I'd like to write songs. I want to write a non-fiction paean to the grand country I live in. I'd like to write a couple of novels about the contemporary West in the Southwest, a zesty mixture of Anglos, Navajos, Pueblo people, Mexicans trying to make good lives around each other and in a world that is getting crazier by the day. I have more ideas for books than I could write in a zillion lifetimes, and I love it that way. Life is grand and nutty and glorious—I'd like to get all of that into stories.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Win's great-hearted genius is present throughout this fine interview. May he be given the recognition that is his due. He is a national treasure.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

Wow, wow, and wow. What an amazing interview. I love the interviews here at Saddlebums but I must say this one is my favorite by far. Win, your enthusiasm for life is just inspiring. I can feel how excited you just to be alive, that is very contagious. After reading this interview I feel like getting up from my desk here at work and exploring a river, climbing a hill, watching a bird fly, reading something just for the fun of it. Thanks so much, you are truly an inspiring person.
-KB