Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Richard S. Wheeler: SHANE by Jack Schaefer

This post is the second installment in our series on Western classics. These contributions by Western master Richard S. Wheeler will provide an in-depth analysis of key works, including the circumstances of publication and the author as well as a discussion on what went into these stories and why they are now ranked among the best. Our first first installment in the series examined Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass. This week, we will take a look at Jack Schaefer's Shane.

Shane, by Jack Schaefer, is easily the most famous of western novels, and the one that made the most history. It was first published in 1946 as a three-part serial in Argosy Magazine, under the title, "Rider from Nowhere." Houghton Mifflin published it in book form in 1949 under the Shane title. It eventually went into seventy or more editions and sold twelve million copies (in a nation with half of today’s population). It also appeared in thirty foreign languages. It became the watershed novel that changed western fiction into men’s literature featuring the gunman hero. Its success was so phenomenal that publishers thereafter wanted gunman stories and little else.

The novel is narrated by Bob Starrett, son of Joe and Marian Starrett, who are nesters in a valley of the Big Horn mountains, a day’s ride from Sheridan. The boy first spots Shane riding along the road, a person so remarkable that passing riders turn to stare at him. There is something unusual about the approaching man:

"He would have looked frail alongside father’s square, solid bulk. But even I could read the endurance in the lines of that dark figure and the quiet power in his effortless, unthinking adjustment to every movement of the tired horse.

"He was clean-shaven and his face was lean and hard and burned from high forehead to firm, tapering chin. His eyes seemed hooded in the shadow of the hat’s brim. He came closer and I could see that this was because the brows were drawn into a frown of fixed and habitual alertness. Beneath them the eyes were endlessly searching from side to side and forward, checking off every item in view, missing nothing. As I noticed this, a sudden chill, and I could not have told why, struck through me there in the warm and open sun."

As Bob gets to know Shane, he realizes the man is also lonely and apart, and there is an inner sadness in him. Joe Starrett hires Shane as a hand on Starrett’s farm, and Shane puts aside his handsome clothes and buys dungarees. Both Joe and Marian are aware that Shane is different and dangerous, and yet both welcome him. Indeed, Marian flirts with Shane, and as the story grows, so does a deep, if platonic, love between them.

There is trouble afoot in the valley. Luke Fletcher, the major landholder in the valley, wants more land to expand his cattle empire, and has tried fruitlessly to drive out the nesters, using bullying, intimidation, and open threats. Starrett, the strongest and most courageous of the nesters, refuses to budge and encourages the other nesters to resist as well. It doesn’t hurt that the stranger called Shane, who says nothing of his past or his future, is firmly committed to the Starretts.

In the daily toil, Joe Starrett and Shane become friends and rivals. In a famous scene in which the pair attempt to reduce a huge stump, they vie with each other to hack it out of the ground, each trying to prove himself the better man– worthy of the other’s esteem and also Marian’s affections.

But this is not a story about a love triangle; it’s a story about worth. Near the end of the novel, with Shane on his way into town to defend the Starretts against a killer named Stark Wilson, Marian asks Shane whether he is plunging into deadly danger just for her.

"Shane hesitated for a long, long moment. ‘No, Marian.’ His gaze seemed to widen and encompass us all, mother and the still figure of father huddled on a chair by the window, and somehow the room and the house and the whole place. Then he was looking only at mother and she was all he could see.

"‘No, Marian. Could I separate you in my mind and afterwards be a man?"

Shane is the smaller physically, but even more forceful than Joe, and Bob Starrett is awed by the fierce bloom of life and purpose in Shane whenever he tackles an impossible task. And the impossible tasks do come along, as Luke Fletcher hunts for ways to break Shane and the Starretts. One of the worst of these occurs in the town saloon, when five of Fletcher’s biggest brutes swarm in and nail Shane. Schaefer’s depiction of the barroom fight is one of the most brutal ever put on a page. The Fletcher men gradually overwhelm Shane, breaking a bottle over Shane’s skull and stunning him, until Joe Starrett wades in and evens the score. Starrett himself is big and tough, and no pushover, and all the hard toil of his daily farming life pays off when he mauls Fletcher’s cowboys.

Fletcher heads out of town and returns with a gunman named Stark Wilson, whose reputation Shane knows and respects. Wilson begins by picking on the easiest target, the most hotheaded nester, and kills him. After that, it becomes plain that the nesters must either flee or perish, along with their families and all they possess. Joe Starrett doesn’t want Shane’s help; he tells Shane this is his fight and he’ll deal with Wilson his own way. Shane’s response is to cold-cock Starrett and leave him in Marian’s care.

The saloon gunfight is one of the most gripping written. The novel is so well known that I will spoil nothing by saying that Shane is the deadlier man, though Wilson wounds him. And Shane manages to kill the back-shooting Fletcher in the nick of time. When it is over, the wounded Shane rides quietly out of town and into the night, to the deep sorrow of Bob who is almost inconsolable. Shane soon vanishes into mystery and legend, his whereabouts unknown, just as his past is unknown. And the Starretts have their farm in the peaceful valley of Wyoming.

This was Jack Schaefer’s first novel. He preferred in later years to write stories less mythic and more attuned to the real West. He had grown up in Cleveland, an avid reader of everything he could get his hands on, and spent much of his life as a journalist. Although he is little known, and the volume of his work is small, he surely ranks as one of this nation’s greatest novelists.

- Richard S. Wheeler.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Saddlebums Interview: Dusty Richards

Dusty Richards won his first two Spur Awards in 2007 for his novel The Horse Creek Incident and his short story “Comanche Moon”. He has written more than seventy novels, and his work has been well received by readers and critics alike. His recent short story collection Waltzing with Tumbleweeds contains several of his short stories that, according to reviewer Debbie Haskins, “keeps readers turning pages and coming back for more.”

He is a lifelong fan of both the West and the Western story—his enthusiasm for the subject shines throughout this interview as does his kindness. Dusty’s most recent novel
Montana Revenge is out in paperback from Berkley.

Dusty is a terrific name for a western writer. Is it your given name, or a nickname?

I guess I was always into Westerns. When we moved from Mesa to Phoenix I just told everyone I met my name was Dusty. I was about 14. It stuck

“I don't know a greater honor for a western writer. Spurs are the Oscars of the western book.”

Before I get too far I want to congratulate you on the two Spur Awards you received earlier this year. You won the best paperback original category for your novel The Horse Creek Incident and the best short fiction of the year for your novella “Comanche Moon”.

I don't know a greater honor for a Western writer. Spurs are the Oscars of the Western book. I can recall going to my first Western Writers of America Convention in San Antonio over two decades ago when I was trying to break into the New York market. I met those Spur winners that year and all the old hands that I'd read. I never thought this old cowboy would ever collect one of them. I was lucky to be writing and doing what I liked and had dreamed about.

If you asked me January first last year, did I expect to win a Spur? No. My close writer friends kept saying you'll win one. It went over my head like a jet and I had no idea or even inkling I'd have two of those lovely awards on my table at home. I have never written a book in my life, and that means under pseudonyms or my own name, that I said “Oh, well this will be a Spur.”

I have studied and taught fiction writing for the last three decades. Books I have written total 76; lots of short stories and articles, but I wrote each one with one thing in mind—tell a good story the best I can.

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?

I always wrote “books” in long hand like Zane Grey did, only I never had “Dollie” to edit them. I read stacks of paperbacks and every hardback Western in the libraries. I even sat on Grey's cabin porch on the Mongollon Rim and promised his ghost I'd join him some day on the bookshelf.

When my girls were teens they wanted me to do something with them. I told them they had Louie and did not need me. In the eighties I was involved with a small publisher in Missouri. He had three books of mine and was supposed to publish them—after messing with him for two years I demanded my books back. He sent them back but he published them, and I've been looking for copies since then. There have been some show up on eBay. I had no idea for 20 years he had done that.

Yes I wrote and I sought experts. Dr. Frank Reuter, who is a great editor, line-edited a novel [I wrote] that I thought was wonderful. There was hardly a page [without] red lines and written all over. I went home sick but I knew that if I was going to sell in New York I had to meet his standards. Book two that he did had whole pages with no marks. Reuter lived about 40 miles from me so each time I drove over after work and we'd discuss the book. Book number three he apologized and said he was so busy reading it he might not had edited as tough as the others. That was Noble's Way, my first sale in New York. That took a decade from me deciding I wanted to really be a writer and publish—I teach folks short cuts on that time.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Probably in high school, but I had no idea which end to start on, and the fact I read so much didn't help me because reading books is a seamless way to learn what is inside them. Now if you want to dissect a writer read only the 3rd page—3-6-9 [and] so on. Then take colored high liters and began marking him up after that—learn internalization, narration, dialogue. Learn point of view and write a million words until your words create paintings. Basketball players who become pros shoot millions of baskets. Writers must do that—they must study poetry and simplicity; poetry is whole another deal—but there are lessons there: word images. Not a thesaurus but small words in the vocabulary of your reader. Use senses and understand body movements and facial expression. Use the seasons, the time of day, become a geographer, a plant expert, walk the ground, read the history and old newspaper accounts, diaries, and any accounts you can find. Then write what you love and it will show in the pages—they say.

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

I wrote one contemporary book about Rodeo called The Natural. It was well accepted by the rodeo people. They are hard to please and they called it authentic. That gave me lots of pride. Maybe some day I'll write more when I find the right editor. The Westerns are my children. I love them all.

“I read Cormac McCarthy—when he uses Spanish like too much salt I hate him. I don't write like him but he has a way with words that deserve the writer's attention.”

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

I read Cormac McCarthy—when he uses Spanish like too much salt I hate him. I don't write like him but he has a way with words that deserve the writer's attention. I won't do anything that would make my books hard to read like lack of punctuation. I write my books with a fan in the room. I want that person to see what I see. Understand what I am telling him so he goes on reading long in the night.

I read McMurtry, some of his books are great—some I never finish.

I love Will Henry. I met him before he went to the big sky pasture. I tried and tried to mimic his style—no way

Tom Lea's Wonderful Country stuck to me like dried oatmeal on a cereal bowl.

Elmer Kelton writes great books and is a good friend.

Max Evans wrote great novellas. He's another amigo of mine and flatters me by buying my books for his friends

I have an extensive library of historical books and I read them—my books are fiction, but I attempt to put my characters in those scenes and not cut down any trees.

A man to watch is John Nesbitt. He teaches fiction writing at Torrington, Wyoming. He has a short story about Nat Champion, one of the men killed in the Wyoming range war in a collection of short stories currently on the racks from Kensington. I'd almost kill to have written that story. John also has several books from Leisure Books.

Jory Sherman [was] a great help in my struggle to get published when I was nobody. He writes with a pen that few can match.

Pete Brandvold. Here is a young man that will fill the gaps of the old men.

I have many friends I read. I hope they don't feel left out [because] I am writing this on the road.

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

Saturday matinee with Roy, Gene, and Hoppy

You have written four novels—The Ogallala Trail, Trail to Cottonwood Falls, The Abilene Trail, and The Trail to Fort Smith—in conjunction with the late Ralph Compton’s estate. I also should mention that your name is included on the cover. When you wrote these novels was there extra pressure to please Compton’s large fan base, or were you comfortable making these novels your own? Did you enjoy the experience?

When Dan Slater (then the editor) asked me to write some of those books, I was familiar with Ralph's books—I'd read several but instead of reading more of his I read Robert Vaughn's books in the series. I can't write like Ralph or Robert, but I saw what they had done—they'd written good Westerns about the cattle drives: a basic main menu of the west. So I began to find characters who needed to make those trips and [then] built a life for them.

Jim Parker of Yukin, Oklahoma is a re-enactor for the Chisholm Trail and great historian. He helped me on my first one. I met him one day when I was invited to a dedication of a mile marker on the Chisholm Trail on the Express Ranch. It was a great day.

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

Will Henry had a wonderful style of storytelling [that was] seeped in history and geography.

“The west is part of our culture. It goes up and down with whims of publishers and the buying public. There use to be three networks on TV. Today there are 500 and they have diluted the entertainment mix—yes more choices, but we are all so busy making a living, or entertaining ourselves at many venues.”

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

The west is part of our culture. It goes up and down with whims of publishers and the buying public. There use to be three networks on TV. Today there are 500 and they have diluted the entertainment mix—yes more choices, but we are all so busy making a living, or entertaining ourselves at many venues. I feel that there is no better entertainment than curling up with a real book and enjoying the story—the West is there. And goodness I love to write it.

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

My latest novel, Montana Revenge will be on the rack Sept. 7th. It is a Herschel Baker novel set in Yellowstone County, Billings, Montana. It is a mystery and a new challenge. You have all the facts that Sheriff Baker has and must find the killers.

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

I have a series in formation about twin brothers orphaned on the Texas frontier during the Civil War. Interestingly, I've studied identical twins, West Texas geography, vegetation, lifestyles and building structures.

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

Ben, I have more of them scattered over my computer than I'll ever write.

A series about a maverick Catholic priest in 1790 Kentucky; my agent loves it, no takers.

The series about the Twins in Civil War times in West Texas (still in infancy).

A series about the Texas Feuds. Doc Sonicson at the U of AZ wrote lots about Texas feuds. It is under-written, I think, in fiction. That one is being considered.

I still have a couple completed novels in a series that publishers backed out of that I think are powerful.

P.S. A collection of my published short stories called Waltzing with Tumbleweeds is available at I have heard more comments on it than any other thing I have written.

"Comanche Moon," the novella that won the short Spur, I wrote for a national magazine that publishes western serials. I felt they needed a good one. I got their guidelines and I really polished it, but when I submitted it they said they were not interested. Dan Slater asked for it on the kick off of Amazon shorts—if the magazine had taken it I might have missed the Spur.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Saddlebums Review: Camp Ford by Johnny D. Boggs

Win MacNaughton is an aging—99 years old—former baseball player, umpire, and coach, who is invited to attend the 1946 World Series by The Sporting News. A reporter asks him how he thinks the two participating teams—the Red Sox and the Cardinals—compare to the best team he has ever seen. Win doesn’t hesitate, and quickly names two teams.

‘Easy’ I said. “Mr. Lincoln’s Hirelings and the Ford City Gallinippers. Played one game at Camp Ford, Texas.

The reporter gave Win a confused look and walked away. He didn’t mention either of the teams in the newspaper the next day, and Win MacNaughton spends the rest of Johnny D. Boggs’ Camp Ford explaining his answer. He begins his story as a boy in Rhode Island where he is introduced to the game that would shape his life. His moves with his parents down to Jacksboro, Texas, where his father gets involved with the anti-slavery movement, and then when the Civil War breaks out, his parents take him back North where, in 1863 he joins the 3rd Rhode Island Cavalry.

It isn’t long before Win finds himself a prisoner of war at Camp Ford, Texas. And life in that place is hard, cruel, and surprisingly filled with talk and love of baseball—even the Southerners are learning the game.

Camp Ford won the Spur Award for best novel in 2005, and it is the best Western novel I have read in a long time. Mr. Boggs adroitly weaves two storylines—the aged Win MacNaughton watching the 1946 World Series in St. Louis, and Win MacNaughton as a boy growing up in a changing and violent time with the new game of baseball. The prisoner of war scenes are harsh and realistic with vivid descriptions of the place, the characters, and, most importantly, the inner thoughts of MacNaughton as he tries to survive captivity.

The characters are richly created—they populate the novel with a sincerity and richness that is often lacking in genre works. The ideals of friendship, love, and hate are explored, and Mr. Boggs leaves just enough ambiguity in the narrative to allow the reader to judge the actions of the characters. The storyline is refreshing and original—it has just the right mixture of baseball folklore and Civil War history to satisfy both readers of historical fiction, and anyone who enjoys the sport.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Movie Review: Tombstone

(This is the third installment in our series of reviews on classic Westerns inspired by the Gunfight at the OK Corral. We encourage you to read the first and second installments)

The third of our movies taking the gunfight at the OK Corral as their inspiration is also the latest one, Tombstone from 1993, considered by many fans to be among the best western movies ever made. I’m skipping over John Sturges’ 1967 Hour of the Gun. This sequel to Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a fine film and James Garner and Jason Robards are a good team as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I recommend the picture, but Sturges had already dealt with these characters and the story is actually about Earp’s vengeance killings after the fact.

In Tombstone, Kurt Russell stars as Wyatt and Val Kilmer is Doc. Both men turn in the performances of their lives and the fact that they didn’t win Oscars is explained somewhat by all the Gumping that was going on that year. The fact that neither of them was even nominated is less understandable. Taking this praise one step further, Russell has been unofficially credited with ghost directing over half the picture when original director Kevin Jarre (who wrote the script) was fired and before credited director George P. Cosmatos came onboard.

“Tombstone” covers the same ground as the two earlier movies, and then some. The big shootout scene comes with over an hour of running time left. The bushwhack shooting of Virgil Earp (Sam Elliott) and Morgan Earp (Bill Paxton) are still to come, followed by Wyatt’s vengeance ride as he and four friends—Holliday, Sherman McMasters (Michael Rooker), Texas Jack Vermillion (Peter Sherayko) and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson (Buck Taylor)—go after the cowboy gang.

The movie comes closer to historical accuracy than did either of the others we’ve looked at. When the three Earps arrive with their wagons, wives, and dreams of fortune, none of the men want anything to do with maintaining law and order. Wyatt immediately runs a bullying gambler (a chunky Billy Bob Thornton) out of the Oriental Saloon and talks himself into a job as Faro dealer.

The brothers—at least this time James isn’t portrayed as a teenager and the weak branch on the family tree; in fact, he isn’t even in town this time, joining Warren Earp, the perennially missing man, among Hollywood’s unnecessary characters—meet old acquaintance Doc Holliday on the street. Wyatt and Morgan are glad to see him. Virgil doesn’t like him, but does tolerate his presence.

This time out the cowboys are not just thieves, rustlers and killers; they are Satan’s emmisarries on Earth. The first time we see them, they kill everyone in a wedding party, including the bride and priest. They are led by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Booth) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) and abetted by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan (Jon Tenney). Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) is portrayed as a hanger-on and coward.

The Earps and cowboys hate each other but manage to co-exist for over a year; and then with great power comes a great lack of responsibility. When Curly Bill drunkenly murders the town marshal, beating the rap in court, and other cowboys shoot up the town and endanger the lives of women and children, Virgil has had enough and goes to the mayor (Terry O’Quinn) and accepts the marshal’s job. Morgan follows, but Wyatt, still wanting to do nothing but make money and carry on an extramarital affair with the actress Josie Marcus (Dana Delaney) refuses to be deputized.

He will soon change his mind.

Tombstone blends thematic elements from the first two OK Corral movies, but they are traditional themes from the history of western fiction: the fact that sooner or later freedom will have to be exchanged for progress, and the strong bond between men, whether they be brothers or friends.

And the friendship between Wyatt and Doc is much stronger here than we’ve seen it before. During Wyatt’s vengeance ride one of the men on the posse asks the obviously ailing Doc Holliday why he’s endangering his health by going along. “Because Wyatt Earp is my friend.” “Friend?” the man says, “Hell, I got lots of friends.” “I don’t,” Doc replies.

You breathe a sigh at the end of Tombstone and feel like what you’ve just seen should have been history, and that maybe it was. It isn’t, of course, but it comes close enough for the casual viewer. So close, in fact, that if you follow up a screening of the movie with a book about the events surrounding the gunfight, you’ll feel like you’re in familiar territory.

And if you ever visit Tombstone, AZ, you’ll feel something like a lover of the King Arthur legends feels when visiting Tintagel Castle. You can walk through the Bird Cage Theater and the OK Corral and know just why it’s so important to print the legend.

- Doug Bentin

(Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul).

Monday, December 10, 2007

Movie Review: Gunfight at the OK Corral

(This is the second installment in our series of reviews on classic Westerns inspired by the Gunfight at the OK Corral. For the first part of this series, click here)

The second of the three movies we’re looking at that chronicle the events leading up to the gunfight at the OK corral is, well, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. That makes it easy to remember.

Directed by John Sturges in 1957, the picture stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp, and Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday. John Hudson, DeForest Kelley (yup, Dr. “Bones” McCoy from “Star Trek”) and Martin Millner tag along as Virgil, Morgan and James Earp. Lyle Bettger is Ike Clanton and Dennis Hopper is his little brother (son in real life) Billy. John Ireland, who played Billy Clanton in the 1946 My Darling Clementine, is Johnny Ringo. Rhonda Fleming is Laura Denbow, the gal Wyatt will love and leave behind, and Jo Van Fleet is Holliday’s sometime girlfriend (Big Nose) Kate Fisher. The script is by Leon Uris, who will later gain fame as the author of the bestsellers “Exodus,” “Topaz,” and “QB VII.”

The movie opens with one of those terrible songs that will make your kids roll their eyes when they hear it. Sung by Frankie Laine, it’s the kind of thing Mel Brooks parodied so mercilessly in “Blazing Saddles.” There’s no way not to grin at lyrics like “If the Lord is my friend, I’ll see you at the end of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.” Once it gets revved up, though, you can tell the score is by the great Dimitri Tiomkin.

Like the earlier “My Darling Clementine,” GOKC is a legend western that takes bits and pieces of actual western history and mixes them with pulp and romance to create a story that might look like it’s true but wouldn’t fool anyone who’d seen a 30-minute TV documentary on the affair.

The picture opens 10 years before the events in Tombstone as lawman Wyatt Earp is chasing cattle thief Ike Clanton through Ft. Griffin, Texas. Against his better judgment, Wyatt saves Doc Holliday from a lynch mob. Back in Dodge City, Doc loses Kate to Johnny Ringo and helps Wyatt arrest Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia), who really has nothing to do with the story (nor did he in real life) but has such a great western name Uris just had to use it.

And speaking of nothing-to-do-with-it, Wyatt meets and falls in love with gambling lady Laura Denbow (the gorgeous Fleming). When he gets word from his brothers in Tombstone that they need his help, he tells the gal he loves her but he has to go to his family.

As it is with so many western movies, friendship and loyalty among men is the central theme here. Sturges would continue to mine this vein in years to come as the director of “Last Train From Gun Hill,” “The Magnificent Seven,” and “The Great Escape.” The film admits that the civilizing influence of women is necessary, but secondary to the responsibility imposed on a man by the willing acceptance of male friendship.

Unlike the case with “My Darling Clementine,” this movie pays at least lip service to the city/county politics at play in Tombstone. Wyatt asks for an appointed as U.S. Marshal so he will have jurisdiction over the entire county and can thus pursue the Clantons to their ranch out of town.

Since Wyatt has been chasing Ike Clanton for years, tempers flair when the two clans of inseparable brothers clash, resulting in the ambush death of James Earp, once again played as the baby brother of the family. His murder is the catalyst that causes the big shootout.

Douglas makes a far more believable Doc Holliday than the husky Victor Mature. We can see more clearly in this man the “too-lateness” and world-weary despair that pushes Doc into deadly situations. Our sadness at the waste of such a person is heightened by Lancaster’s holier-than-thou reading of Earp’s character. He’s constantly lecturing Doc on the evils of drunkenness, and while Doc goes out of his way to stand by Wyatt, when the gunfight is over and Earp sees plainly that Doc is dying, he still saddles up and rides away, leaving the consumptive gunman to find his own way.

The movie tries a little too hard to be an epic—a fault that would be noticeable in much of Sturges’ later work--but it is mostly enjoyable. Just remember that you can’t merely check your sense of history at the door—you have to lock it away in a trunk in the attic.

- Doug Bentin

(Doug writes film reviews for eFilmCritic! and book reviews (mostly Westerns) for Bookgasm. His personal blog is The Long Saturday of the Soul).

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.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

THE SEA OF GRASS by Conrad Richter

This post marks the first in a new series here at Saddlebums: an occasional piece dealing with the finest western fiction ever written. These contributions will examine the circumstances of publication, the author, and discuss what went into these stories and why they are now ranked among the best. Richard S. Wheeler prepared the first in the series, and it examines Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass.

Richard S. Wheeler is the dean of the modern western story. His novels are tender, tough, critical, and original—he has tackled expansive historical dramas, such as Aftershocks, a masterful portrayal of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906; biographical novels like Trouble in Tombstone; mining camp stories, such as his Spur winning novel Vengeance Valley. He is also the author of the well-received Barnaby Skye series—the most recent title in the series is The Canyon of Bones—and his recently released autobiography, An Accidental Novelist, has been praised by readers and writers alike.

The Sea of Grass, by Conrad Richter, first appeared as a Saturday Evening Post serial in 1936, and was published by Alfred Knopf in 1937. It is still in print, from the University of Ohio Press. The novel might be called a traditional cattleman vs. nester story, but it is much more. It is narrated by young Hal Brewton, nephew of the story’s central figure, Jim Brewton, who runs cattle on a vast sea of grass near Salt Fork, which is probably in Texas but could be in New Mexico.

Jim Brewton’s enormous range is almost all public land; he owns only the water holes, and that makes him vulnerable to the nesters wanting to plow the lush grassland and plant crops, even though the land is arid. The opening lines of the novel introduce us to its theme:

That lusty pioneer blood is tamed now, broken and gelded like the wild horse and the frontier settlement. And I think that I shall never see it flowing through human veins again as it did in my Uncle Jim Brewton, riding a lathered horse across his shaggy range or standing in his massive ranch house, bare of furniture as a garret, and holding together his empire of grass and cattle by the fire in his eyes.

The fire in his eyes. There is the heart of the novel. At the beginning, with the arrival of Brewton’s mail-order bride Lutie, we discover a horde of nesters waiting to swarm over Brewton’s ranch. And supporting them is the federal attorney, and later judge, Brice Chamberlain, who sympathizes with the humble. Lutie does, too. She furiously tries to civilize the obdurate Brewton, adding graces to his home, bringing a son and daughter into the family, and taking him to Mass on Sundays, but there is no taming old Jim.

Eventually, she has a third child, a blond boy, as blond as Brice Chamberlain is blond, and soon after that she leaves Brewton, and her whereabouts are unknown for years. But Chamberlain remains in Salt Fork, calls in the army to defend the nesters, and soon the nesters are plowing up Brewton’s range. After a trial, when Chamberlain asks Brewton why his men ran off a nester named Boggs, Brewton has a surprising reply: "He was not run off because he wanted to settle those hundred-sixty acres but because of what he wanted to do with the land."

He goes on to say he has some charity for the nester. "But–"and his voice began to ring in the small, hushed courtroom, "when that nester picks country like my big vega, that’s more than seven thousand feet above the sea, when he wants to plow it up to support his family where there isn’t enough rain for crops to grow, where he only kills the grass that will grow, where he starves for water and feeds his family by killing my beef and becomes a man without respect to himself and a miserable menace to the territory, then I have neither sympathy nor charity!"

As the novel progresses, we learn that Brewton was right. At first, during a wet cycle, the nesters prosper, their crops bloom, and their life seems assured. But with the coming of a dry cycle, their hopes collapse and they flee, leaving a ruined grassland behind them.

The novel was written long before publishers narrowed the traditional western to men’s literature that resolves conflict through violence. And while there is some violence in the story, it is offstage and muted. More surprising was the veiled but unmistakable adultery theme in the novel, handled delicately for the Saturday Evening Post readership. Old Jim Brewton remains as obdurate and flinty as ever as he ages, and late in the novel it appears that he was defeated by his rival and enemy, Brice Chamberlain, after all. But then one day Lutie mysteriously reappears, as passionate and willful as ever, begins once again to civilize the old ranchhouse, and takes up residence as though she had never left. And not only does Brewton welcome her, he is triumphant, for her return marks the final defeat and disgrace of Chamberlain– but I will leave it to the reader to interpret the surprising conclusion.

Conrad Richter’s prose is lyrical and draws us into a world scarcely imagined by modern people. But even more of an asset is his gift of characterization. Lutie and Jim Brewton are as vivid as any characters ever set on a page. Brewton is harsh, rigid, and yet filled with his own code of honor, which he lives by at great cost to himself. Lutie is a visionary, wanting to better the world, not only the world of the settlers, but Brewton’s cruel world, and she sets out to do it in the face of his obdurate resistance. Brice Chamberlain, on the other hand, is an idealist and reformer– with a heart of clay. He’s not man enough to stand up to Brewton after stealing Brewton’s wife (he deserts her at the train station when she is leaving Brewton for him), and lives out his life knowing he is the lesser man.

Richter went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for another frontier novel, The Town. He had grown up in Pennsylvania, but spent much of his life in the place he loved most, New Mexico.
The Sea of Grass is at or near the top of most lists ranking the greatest westerns.

—Richard S. Wheeler