Friday, November 21, 2014

Conclusion of the Maynard Lehman Interview


Most cowboys didn't race for the nearest saloon to spend their paychecks, Maynard Lehman said. "It was during prohibition and there were speakeasies in town, like Brown's had a big one under the Metropolitan Cafe, and pretty much all the cowboys, when they went to town, had a couple of drinks. Beer mostly, but they were not traditionally drunks. Most of 'em had other plans for the little wages they got. Like maybe buying a new saddle, or they were saving to buy some cattle. I might add that Montana was one of two states that never ratified the eighteen amendment. Local and state police had nothing to do with prohibition but the state was crawling with federal agents.

Lehman remembers when Van Venable furnished the bucking horses for a Miles City Montana rodeo. "We were bringing in a couple hundred horses to town for the rodeo. We had lots of help: Patty Ryan, Bob Haskins, both world champion saddle bronc riders. And Irvie Collins, Pete Knight, the  Canadian champion; and Booger Red, who was a bull dogger from Oklahoma. They were all helping us bring horses in along with the regular crew. We got to Miles city where we had to go through the outskirts of town. Then, as usual, Van put a man or two at each street to keep them from scattering. But somehow they got away from us.

"We had at least one horse in every garden on that side of town. One of the cowboys rode very carefully so as not to damage the gardens when a woman came out of her house swinging a broom. His horse started to buck down a row of tomatoes and cabbage. By the time we came to his rescue, he had the garden pretty well plowed up."

There are a lot of misconceptions about cowboys, which Lehman attributed to what has been written or seen on the scene. "The cowboy has gotten a bad rap," he said. What bothered him most is the "long duster. I've  never seen a real cowboy wear one. Or watching a cowboy ride into a herd of cattle or horses swinging a big loop. It makes me wonder if he's trying to catch something or run them out of the country. I just hope nobody judges the cowboy by what is seen in "Lonesome Dove."

Maynard Lehman worked at a number of jobs after his cowboying days were over, but it wasn't until he was 75 that he decided to write about his experiences. More than twenty of his books sold to an audio company, Books in Motion, and his wife, Marietta, of  more than sixty years, edited his work. They combined their names as the author: M.M. Lehman.

(Excerpted from Westerners: Candid and Historic Interviews.)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cowboy-Author Maynard Lehman, Part III


Spring and fall roundups were the best of times. "Riding fence and checking on the cattle at calving time, but it was not all work you did in the saddle, There was hay to put up and feeding the cows in the winter, but I didn't mind that too much. I enjoyed breaking in the new saddle and work horses. When I worked at Venables, he's buy a bunch of horses and a lot of times there would be saddle horses. If it looked like there was a saddle mark on a horse, you'd grab it and ride."

Grooming them was a hit and miss practice, whenever the men had time. "We'd trim their hooves and pull a long hair and cockleburs out of their manes and tails. If we were riding in the dust, like working a herd, there would be a ring of muddy sweat around the saddle blanket that we would rub off. That was about the extent of grooming."

While Lehman worked the JK ranch he received $60 a month. After the financial crash of the Great Depression in 1929, "that changed things," he said. "Before the depression the going wage was forty to sixty dollars a month. After the crash you were lucky to find work at any wage. During the early thirties, cattle wasn't worth enough to ship to market. I broke horses for five anda ten dollars each and I broke horses for hay to feed my own horses. The JK Ranch was owned by some people who had a steel mill in Pittsburgh, and when the steel mill went broke so did the ranch in thirty-one. My  job went with it and they still owed me money, the only wages I ever lost. So from then until about nineteen-thirty-seven, it was whatever you could find  to do."

The cowboy worked two winters feeding sheep and hunting coyotes. "And I worked for twenty-five dollars a month. When I worked for CBC I got forty to forty-five a month, but they figured it by the day."

Feeding sheep was a cowboy's anathema. "My dad had a band of sheep, which is one of the reasons I left home," he said laughing. The CBC job was the only job available so he took it because it included hunting coyotes. He also managed to work cattle. The JK, located on the Tongue River, ran a thousand  head of cattle as well as Shire and Morgan horses. "We had one Shire that weighed twenty-four hundred pounds and a couple of other [heavyweights]." There were no real quarter horses. Most were range horses, Morgan and Arabian blood among them. The short-legged range horses, regardless of their bloodlines, were a cowboy's favorites. They were less likely to stumble over their own feet, and made better cutting horses, much like current quarter horses.

Lehman and his cohorts worked long hours during the depression. He worked for the CBC outfit, "and they always said, 'Sell your bedroll and buy a lantern,'" because we'd get in about ten o'clock at night and were up at four-thirty. I worked for them until they cleared the range of all their horses. They ran over two hundred thousand head in seven states, with headquarters in Rawlins, Wyoming. Most of the horse meat was shipped overseas."

The CBC was owned by the Chappel Brothers, who ran a packing plant in Rockford, Illinois, "And their horses were nothing by scrubs. They didn't have a decent horse on the range. Same way with our saddle horses." Most spreads, he said, like the LO and larger ranches, had 75-100 saddle horses available and each cowboy had seven in his string. Most of them, including the CBC, had no strings at all, and "you rode whatever you could catch, whether it was broke, wind broke, it didn't make any difference. You rode it. That was the general rule around most horse ranches.

(Next week the conclusion . . .)

Monday, November 10, 2014

Maynard Lehman, Part II


When Maynard Lehman was 16, he and two Indian boys his age decided to rescue horses from the Sioux Reservation. “Any horse not branded or not running with its mother was called a slick. It belonged to anyone who put a brand on it. That rule didn’t hold true on the reservation because slicks belonged to the agency. Every two years they held a roundup and the white guys who ran the roundup would take any horse that looked good for themselves. The Indians didn’t like the practice any more than I did, so we decided to hold our own roundup.”

Lehman paused to envision his small roan roping horse and the forty-five slicks they rounded up. Grinning, he said the three boys had first located an abandoned spread and repaired the pasture fence. Following the roundup they corralled the horses in the pasture until they learned that members of the Indian agency were on their trail.

“It was raining and dark as the inside of a boot when we got what we could out of the pasture. By  daylight we were across the state line, but we only had 36 head.“ The horses were driven to the Lehman’s North Dakota ranch where they were sold, and the Indian teens returned to the reservation. There they were arrested and placed in the county jail. Lehman wasn’t sure whether they were charged with horse theft and never returned to find out.

That spring the young cowpoke drove 12 horses on a triple plow to break up alfalfa sod that gone to grass. He said, “When we started I had four gentle horses and eight broncs. The boss rode alongside to keep them in line while I sat on the plow with a handful of reins.  After the second day the boss turned me loose with the outfit, so I learned to drive early on.”

That winter Lehman supplemented his meager income with coyote pelts. “The first winter we had pretty good luck. We got about 35.” The ranch owner had a pack of hounds “and we put ‘em on the front bobs with a rack on it. When we’d spot some coyotes, we’d open the rack and turn ‘em loose. Then they’d run the coyotes down. Coyotes weren’t that speedy but the dogs wouldn’t kill ‘em, so you had to have a killer among the pack, which was generally a Russian wolfhound. The dogs would knock the coyotes down and play with ‘em until the killer came along and grabbed ‘em.” The coyotes were skinned and sold to fur houses for $7-$8 apiece. “Pretty good pay in those days. If you could catch one a day, you were doing good.”

Good food depended on the ranch. “When I was working at the Venables, Herm had just married and his wife couldn’t boil water. She’d put on a pot of beans half an hour before dinner and they’d rattle on your plate. At the SY Ranch I was the cook so we ate pretty good. The ranch was 45 miles from town and I cooked for the haying crew, but we didn’t have bread or butter. We had syrup and I made sourdough biscuits all the time, but we had lots of good meat and potatoes.”

With abundant cattle the cowboys didn’t waste time hunting game animals, and there were always plenty of bacon and ham. “We had purtinear every kind of canned food and we’d butcher a critter, usually a two-year old and hang ‘em up at night, propped on a wagon tongue. Leave ‘em out overnight and wrap ‘em [the following morning] in a blanket or tarp  and put ‘em in the wagon. That meat would keep for a couple of weeks. It wouldn’t spoil and the older it got, the better it was.”
Lehman rode herd accompanied by chuck wagons several times before they were fazed out of cattle roundups. “Most of the ranches were smaller by then and didn’t use one. But the JK went together with the Birchers, and some others still used them for a couple more years. He knew a man whose lower arm had been blown off during the Johnson County War. “He was the cook for the LO outfit for a time. He made sourdough biscuits that would melt in your mouth. He showed me how to make ‘em but over the years I must have forgotten, ‘cause mine don’t turn out like his.”

The best part of cowboying, he said, was the comraderie among the men. “I really enjoyed it. In fact, I never enjoyed anything I’ve ever done as well. I would have chucked any job I’ve had since to go back on the range.”

(Continued next week . . .)

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Cowboy Author and Musician Maynard Lehman



Maynard Lehman missed the job he held in Montana in 1923. He didn’t mind the pay—$40-$60 a month—if he could hunt coyotes to supplement his income. He didn’t decide to write about his experiences as a cowboy until he was 75, but wrote more than twenty books well into his 90s.

Lehman grew up on his parent’s ranch in North Dakota, twenty miles south of the Canadian border. There his family raised and broke horses for the American Express Company in Milwaukee. His father was not “what you would call a regular cowboy,” he said, “but I guess I grew up with horses in my blood. I went to work as a cowboy away from home when I was thirteen.” Not exactly a tenderfoot, he had worked for a neighboring ranch the previous summer.

His first riding job was to help swim 300 horses across the Missouri River to Culberton, Montana. “I was a good-sized kid and could rope and ride with the best of ‘em.” Adding three years to his age, he told everyone he was sixteen. “I worked there until the horses more or less got used to the territory. Otherwise, they would have kept right on going. I then went to work for the Cantanio Ranch, downriver a ways, and I stayed there the rest of the summer.”

Cattle herds of 12,000 to 15,000 were not uncommon during the later years of the nineteenth century, but the Cantanio Ranch only ran 2,000 head, which grazed between the Red Water and Missouri River. The young cowpoke worked until the end of summer, then returned home to attend school. His classes were scheduled after his assigned chores, which included helping his father with thrashing and harvesting.

Young Maynard managed to complete eight grades in five years, but by the time he reached high school, the horseback ride was twelve miles through North Dakota snow. The weather, however, was not the reason he quit his studies. Unable to start school until after thrashing season, he couldn't catch up with the other students. “And nobody offered to help.” Frustrated and discouraged, he decided his education was over. The following January he left school in 40 degrees below zero weather to find a job.

That spring he arrived in Miles City, Montana, where he went to work for Van Venerable, a horse buyer for the Hansen Packing Plant at Butte. There he worked on horseback in the area between the Mespaw and Pumpkin Creek, which later became the first BLM Project.

“Van bought three thousand horses from the roundup and turned them out on Laney Creek on the Powder River with the rest of his herd. I worked for him until there were no more horses to bring in to ship,” Lehman said. The cowboy then worked several ranches in the Powder and Tongue River areas for the next 18 years.

He soon learned that he couldn’t keep a steady cowman’s job if he returned home each fall to help with the family harvest. “That’s when I went to work for the Quarter Circle JK Ranch and only went home for a visit.”

His fiddle was his most prized possession. He also owned “a saddle, bridle, chaps, 35-foot lariat, spurs, bedroll, extra pair of socks, and enough Bull Durham to last two weeks.” The fiddle often accompanied him, “but if it wasn’t standard equipment, it stayed behind in the bunkhouse.” From the age of 12, he played the violin and accordion for dances and later performed on the organ.

“The winter I was fourteen, I hung up my saddle and traveled with a road troupe that showed movies along the Canadian border in North Dakota and Montana. Joe Alberts traveled with us and wrestled the big bear. But when spring came, I was back in the saddle.”


(Continued next week . . . )

Friday, October 24, 2014

Loren Estleman. Part II


The quiet, somewhat cynical writer occupied the second floor of his parents' ancient farmhouse where he lived and worked in an unheated bedroom and study for many years until he bought120 acres across the road, built a house and moved in with his bride.

"I didn't see much of my parents while living at home because I spent so much time up (stairs). I lived in my study and didn't have much of a private life. It revolved around my writing and other writers. I was a young man with a horn who lived and worked."

Estleman spent most of his time in the 1867 farmhouse, the youngest of two sons born into a working class family, with an interesting background. A distant maternal ancestor was a general in the Austrian army and a great uncle was hanged by Mussolini for helping downed American pilots during World War II. His grandmother was a gambler during her youth, and her daughter--Estleman's mother--was a frequent visitor to gangster Al Capone's gambling casino from the time she was an infant. His grandmother nearly married a member of the Purple Gang.

A few of his early novels sat for years in a stack between ancient stove uprights in his former study. He said, "I've left instructions to have them incinerated upon my demise." After his California Punk novel sold to Major Books, his editor suggested that he get an agent and write western novels. So he pulled a manuscript from his slush pile that had been written while he was a student at Eastern Michigan University, majoring in English. The Hiders was  rewritten and polished, launching his Doubleday western line.

The writer worked for twelve years as a news reporter while writing his novels. After working for daily and community newspapers in his home state, he tried cartooning for a while. "But I looked around and discovered how many better artists there were, so I went back to writing. I still doodle from time to time but I no longer paint. My artist's eye helps me polish my books.

Serving as a police reporter in the Detroit area while it was known as "Murder City," he never covered a homicide until he returned to  his hometown of Whitmore Lake, population 1,300. Two weeks after he had gone to work for the local newspaper, a supermarket clerk killed his neighbor over a borrowed chain saw. He later covered a lot of murders, trials and manslaughters "and they never quite looked like murderers," he said. "I'm not quite sure what a murderer is supposed to look like, which is why the killers I use in my mysteries, and sometimes my westerns, tend to look like the guy down the street moving the grass."    

Estleman is more attuned to this nation's past than he is to the future, "because western writing is going to be around forever. It's America's sole, unique contribution to literature. Where the western has to go is historical accuracy, and the term that I've almost coined is 'sense of reader,' which means entertainment.

Booksellers dictate  public reading tastes, he said. "They decide a book's shelf life and how long it will remain in print. This is where the bookseller decides whether it's literature, a classic, or not."

Loren Estleman's take it or leave it approach to selling his work may have had editors shaking their heads in the past, but they've been competing for years to publish his work. He writes entirely on speculation. "I'm probably one of the few writers who still do. I've never published an unfinished work, and I would have trouble selling from sample chapters because I don't work from an outline and don't know where the book is going. My book is a morphous organic thing that grows and derives from characters. And that doesn't happen to me in a ten or fifteen page synopsis. It's got to do that during the period of time it's growing in my mind.

(Excerpted from Maverick Writers, Caxton Press.)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Conversation with Loren Estleman


Loren Estleman is one of the most talented writers I’ve known. As a young writer of both mysteries and western novels, his work often created bidding wars among competing publishers. Although his novels have been evenly divided between both genres since he began publishing in 1976, Loren’s cops have paid off much better than his cowboys.

“For me,” he said, “a good mystery places story and character ahead of all else, yet never loses sight of the simple truth that in order to be a mystery, a question must be asked. It needn’t be a whodunit, and might be something as simple and maddening as why the murdered man had three left shoes in his closet and no mates. If the writer has done his job well, the reader will forget the question as the story draws him in. But there had damn well better be a mystery involved if he’s going to call it one.”

Loren wrote six Amos Walker mysteries for Houghton Mifflin and nearly a dozen Double D Westerns before he was discovered by other New York publishing houses. His novels had been selling moderately well while critics raved about them. It wasn’t long before sales caught up with the reviews.

His biggest project was an in-depth look at the shootout at the O.K. Coral, a novel titled Bloody Season, which he wrote “without the blinders of folk-heroism.” He said, “If some cherished myths fell along the wayside, that’s secondary to my intention to examine the late Victorian morals at odds with a wilderness on the defensive.” Three major publishers expressed interest in the book before it was begun, with Bantam the winner in the bidding war. The novel was released in hardcover in 1988.

Loren had never been west of his home state of Michigan until he traveled to Santa Fe to accept a Spur Award from Western Writers of America. He had always been fascinated in the westward expansion, particularly the era he called “the death of the West, the period between the closing of the frontier and the beginning of World War I, when progress for good or ill was making its way westward.” He said there was then no place where a man could go to prove himself, or redeem himself, because the East had taken over the West.“There’s sadness and pathos to that period and locale that moves me to this day.”

Shy as a child and an avid reader, he remembered devouring the works of London, Poe, Chandler, and western authors O’Rouke, Short, and Shirreffs. He wrote his first short story after he was expelled from his high school band. A gangster yarn called “Mad Man Wade,” it returned with a printed rejection slip from Argosy magazine. Loren said he was “crushed, disappointed, and mad,” but he sat down and wrote another story. For years Argosy was the first magazine he submitted stories to “before it folded. I just wanted to crack it,” he said, “because that was the place to start.”

He worked as a news reporter for twelve years while writing his first novels. Eventually working as a police reporter in Detroit, he said, “I covered a lot of murder trials and manslaughters, and [the defendants] never quite looked like murderers. I’m not sure what one is supposed to look like, which is why the killers that I use in my mysteries, and sometimes in my westerns, tend to look like the guys you see mowing the grass down the street. They’re ordinary people, and we’re all potential murderers. That’s the theme in my writing that I work with.”

(Continued next week . . .)

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Jory Sherman Remembrance

1933-2014

The nephew of B. M. Bower and author of more than 500 published books, Jory Sherman was one of the West's most prolific novelists as well as one of the most helpful. Dusty Richards said of the Pulitzer nominee: "Jory Sherman is a walking encyclopedia on how to write fiction. He helped more folks become successful writers than any living man I know . . ."

Jory, which of your many books do you consider your best?
I think my favorite is Song of the Cheyenne, originally published in hardcover by Doubleday.  Tor published it in paperback. I liked it because it told a true story of the Cheyenne and I did not use any white eyes terms to tell the story.
 What’s it going to take to bring the Western genre back into vogue?
If publishers realized that Western writing is exclusively American literature and promoted western fiction and nonfiction as mainstream books, there would be a change for the better.  Even our language is circumscribed by uniquely western terminology.  But, the Western has always been a bastard child of the publishing industry.  Yet, the writers of westerns are among the most accomplished artists and offer great stories that deserve to be read by the general public.  Westerns should be labeled American and promoted as such. 
Are you writing in other genres?
Yes.  I’m writing a mainstream book now, in fact.  Over the years I’ve written in several genres.
Who, in your opinion, was/is the best Western writer on the planet? Were you influenced by his/her work?

I think Loren D. Estleman is right up there at the top, past or present.  I am impressed with his use of language, the power of his characterizations, his gritty use of imagery.  I am influenced by a number of writers, living and dead.  I read a great deal and study how writers portray a time, a place, a history of fictional lives.  I am legally blind, so I can no longer read printed books.  But I subscribe to audible.com and I get a lot of audio books from Books for the Blind.

Which novel was the most difficult to write and required the most research?

For some reason, I had trouble writing the prequel to Winter of the Wolf for Walker, a book called Horne's Law.  I had written Winter as a single title and it was difficult to create a backstory and flesh it out into a full-length novel.  Grass Kingdom and the subsequent novels in the Baron saga required a great deal of research into such ranches as the King, XIT and others.  The series, for Forge involved 3 ranching families  and had no central hero.  But it was the book that launched the Forge imprint and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Literature.  Annie Proulx won it that year.

Why the Western genre? Were you influenced by your background? 

My dad, Keith, was born in Pierre, South Dakota, and broke horses as a kid and knew many Lakota people.  He learned their signs and some of their language.  My great aunt, Bertha Muzzy, was a western writer who wrote under the name of B.M. Bower.  We had all her books and my father used to read them to me and my sister, Kay.  We also had The Virginian by Owen Wister and many Zane Grey novels.  Later, I read Louis L’Amour and began a correspondence with him long before we met and became friends. 

I stumbled onto writing westerns when I was sitting in the editor’s office at Major Books in North Hollywood.  The art director came in with a book cover. The book was Gun for Hire and he said that the writer had a block and couldn’t finish the novel.  The art director, Wil Hulsey, had painted the cover.  I jokingly remarked that I could write the book just by looking at the cover.  I went home to Big Bear Lake in California and forgot about it.  Two weeks later, the editor called me and asked if I were serious when I made that remark. I didn’t recall that I had said such a thing, but she said she’d send me the cover and asked if I could write the book in two weeks.  I wrote it in a week and a half and that book went through multiple printings for higher and higher cover prices, launching me as a writer of westerns.

Describe your writing schedule? Do you outline and meet a word quota each day?

I don’t have much of a schedule now that I think about it. I don’t write much each day nor for very long.  But, I’m a fast typist.  I see a book as completed and in print with a cover and title long before I start to write.  I use my subconscious a great deal and meditate a couple of time s a  day and at night before I go to sleep.  I think of a title and a main character and a first scene, then just let the story unfold.  Publishers wanted outlines for many years so I wrote them, but seldom followed them to the letter.  These plot summaries, outlines, or synopsis served as a skeleton or a guidebook to the novel.  I do not adhere to a quota each day, but usually write five to ten pages in less than an hour and when pressed, I have written 25-35 pages per day and taken somewhat longer to do that many pages.  I’ve never missed a deadline. My mind knows where to go with a book and I never question my writing.  Nor do I rewrite or edit my novel after it’s finished.  Most of my editors have left my prose untouched except for time conflicts, character ages, etc. 

What’s the worst thing a writer of the West can do? And the best? 

To me, the worst thing a western writer can do is set a novel in a real town that did not exist at the time of the story.  I have seen this occur more than once in novels I’ve read.  The best thing a writer can do is to capture the feeling of the land and the people in a bygone era, to make the reader see and feel and hear and smell whatever occurs in a given scene.  I feel the writer of westerns must take the reader back in time and paint the truest portrait of the people and the landscape as he or she can with the power of language.  English is the richest language in the world and the best writers know how to bend and shape the words into a special language that conveys the majesty and grandeur of the West and bring their fictional characters to life.

Advice to aspiring writers?


My advice to aspiring writers is to read and to write.  Write every day.  Don’t read books on how to write a novel or short story.  Instead, read Christopher Vogler’s book, based on research by Joseph Campbell, The Writers Journey.  Read the masters, all the way back to Homer, and get a feel for the music of language from Shakespeare’s plays and by all means read Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and most particularly, Vladimir Nabokov.  Read contemporary authors, too, but retain the magic the great writers bring to their prose.  Finish each book or story and do not ever give up the dream of becoming a  writer. Persistence overcomes many obstacles.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Remembering Louis L'Amour


1908-1988

Louis Dearborn L'Amour (La Moore) was not only the West's best-selling storyteller, he was the consummate Western man, a pattern for the white-hatted heroes he wrote about. Hardworking and soft-spoken, he was proud of his accomplishments, yet despite rumors to the contrary, he was often shy in his remembrances. L'Amour literally elevated himself by his proverbial boot straps, and in the process, left footprints in the marketing landscape that few writers will be able to fill.

Luck had nothing to do with his success, he said not long before his death in 1988. "Nor have I had any connections or breaks that I did not create for myself. I just tried to write the best I could about things I knew."

There are realities that writers must consider, he was quick to add. "No publisher is going to do anything for you that you don't earn. They simply can't afford to. Once a writer proves he can make money, they will often extend themselves. There's no magic, just hard work."

The work ethic was instilled in L'Amour as a child by his parents in Jamestown, North Dakota. His father, a veterinarian and farm machinery salesman, was involved in local politics. He served as alderman of Jamestown's largest ward for many years as well as deputy sheriff, but he lost his mayoral race. "People in small towns doubled in brass, you might say."

Young Louie enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians, and roughhoused in the family barn, which doubled as his father's veterinary hospital. He did more than his share of reading, particularly G. A. Henty, an Englishman who wrote of wars through the nineteenth century. L'Amour said, "It enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn't have about wars and politics."

 The L'Amour family library encompassed some five hundred books, among them the works of Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, and Poe, as well as popular American and English writers. The youngest of the L'Amour children, Louie remembered reading a five-volume Collier's History of the World while he was small enough to sit in his father's lap.

 "I think all things you read influence your writing to some degree. And if you don't learn anything else, you learn something about living and the use of words."

 His serious reading began at twelve with a collection of biographies titled The Genius of Solitude. "The only one I remember is Socrates, the first chapter, but I remember it well." A book of natural history followed, which he tried unsuccessfully to locate years later for his children. During adolescence, L'Amour immersed himself in books of chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the history of aircraft.

 His concentrated self-education resulted in boredom with school. "I was just spinning my wheels," he said, "so it was no real hardship for me to leave. I had to go to work to find myself a change." L'Amour left school and Jamestown at fifteen, after completing the tenth grade. Since crop failures were common in North Dakota, and his father's livelihood was linked to the farming community, he decided to find his niche elsewhere. By hitchhiking and riding the rails, he arrived in Oklahoma City to visit an older brother, who was the governor's secretary, but he soon moved on.

"By then I was broke and I got a job in West Texas skinning dead cattle that died from a prolonged drought. They had been dead a while. Some fellow was trying to save the hides and it was the most miserable job, but I learned a lot." The young man's boss was a seventy-nine-year-old wrangler raised by Apaches, who had ridden on war parties with Nana and Geronimo. "He was a very, very, hard old boy but I got along with him fine. He was the first to teach me about tracking and using herbs."

L'Amour left his odorous job, after three months sleeping on the ground and staying downwind from passersby. He had helped skin 965 head of cattle by staking their skulls and tying their hides to the bumper of an early model pickup truck.

 His next job was baling hay in New Mexico's Pecos Valley, across the road from Billy the Kid's grave. He visited the Maxwell home where Billy had been killed, and talked to the woman who offered the outlaw his last meal. L'Amour remembered her as "a pretty sharp old lady who still had all her buttons." He then talked to Judge Cole in Ruidoso, and got to know some thirty former gunfighters, rangers, and outlaws in the area. He regretted not knowing about a number of others.

While wandering about the West, he joined a circus in Phoenix, leaving three weeks later in El Paso. He then hoboed his way to Galveston, Texas, where he hired on as a merchant seaman. His first cruise was to the West Indies, his second to the British Isles. He tried his hand at writing during his travels, but his scribblings didn't include events as familiar as his Western heritage.

 L'Amour's family history is rich in frontier adventure. His maternal great-grandfather was scalped by the Sioux while a member of the Sibley Expedition, following the Little Crow Massacre in Minnesota. Both his grandfathers served in the Union army during the Civil War, and his maternal grandfather taught him military tactics by drawing battle plans on a blackboard.

    The novelist was especially proud of his mother's ancestry, beginning with Godfrey Dearborn, who arrived in this country in 1638, an antecedent of General Henry Dearborn, who marched with Arnold to Quebec. He also took part in the second Battle of Saratoga, Monmouth, Sullivan's raid on the Iroquois villages, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the surrender of Cornwallis, among others. Some of the general's diaries were published, and he and his wife corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, exchanging garden seeds.

General Dearborn's son, of the same name and rank, published half a dozen books, but L'Amour was only able to locate one of them, a biography of William Bainbridge, commander of "Old Ironsides." The book was published posthumously by Princeton University Press.

 L'Amour stressed the fact he had never taken a creative writing course, and that his post tenth-grade education had been earned from voluminous reading. While in Oklahoma City, L'Amour assisted Foster Harris and Walter Campbell in their creative writing courses after he began to publish. He later lectured at more than forty institutions of higher learning, principally the University of Oklahoma. He was also a featured speaker for the National Convention of Genealogists in San Francisco.

"I get many questions about people mentioned in my stories—people looking for relatives or family histories—or about conditions at the time, or to clarify some point on which they lack understanding. Few people realize how much language and word usage have changed. Half the nonsense written about Shakespeare would not have happened if people knew more about the language and customs of the time. For example, they write of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which in those days meant bawdy men."

L'Amour's constant research turned up the little known fact that Wild Bill Hickok's ancestors were tenant farmers on the property owned by Shakespeare. He insisted that credit for the factual unearthing go to English writer, Joseph Rosa.

The novelist's first published story sold to True Gang Life, and a few of his poems were featured in The Farmer's Stockman, an Oklahoma-based magazine. He also wrote boxing articles for a newspaper, sans payment, after meeting two pretty young news reporters in Oregon, who gave him a byline. He was fighting professionally at the time, and knocked out thirty-four of fifty-one opponents during his light heavyweight career. He first stepped between the ropes at age sixteen, and fought more heavyweights than those in his own weight division.

His first short story sales concerned the West Indies, football, rodeo, "detective yarns," and a few Westerns. "I'd grown up in the West and absorbed live background, but I was too close to it. I wanted to write about something far away, you see." He spent ten months in China, and bicycled across India during his twenty years in the merchant marines.

 L'Amour's first big sale was Hondo, originally published in short story form by Collier's Magazine. "Dick Carroll of Fawcett Books asked me to come in, and he said, 'There's a novel here, and I'll buy it.' So I wrote it, and he bought it. Then John Wayne made a movie of it, and suddenly, everyone wanted Westerns."

 The writer had an important decision to make. "Westerns have always been regarded in this country as second rate literature. I didn't agree with that. I never have. The paperback book was regarded as third or fourth rate, and I didn't agree with that either. So I sat down and had a very serious talk with myself. "Do I take the ball and run with it, or do I stay the same course I'm on?

 "I decided to hell with it, that I was going to write damn good Westerns and I would make them accurate. I would show them that Westerns could be history, that they were important. Because to me, this was the most important phase of American history. The Western period, the pioneer period, did more to form American character than anything else done in this country. It should be taken seriously, and more attention should be given to it." The main difficulty he encountered was Eastern prejudice—those in the publishing business raised in the East, with little understanding of life west of the Mississippi River.

 L'Amour did not come into his own as a writer until mid-life, much like English novelist Joseph Conrad, who also spent years at sea before settling down to write. While L'Amour lived in Oklahoma City, he realized "there was something drastically wrong" with his writing. "The short stories I sent out came back like homing pigeons. So I got a bunch of short stories and studied them to see how they were written. I found what I had been doing wrong and that's when I began to sell."

 L'Amour's long-term association with Bantam Books began after his disillusionment with Fawcett, his first publisher, which only produced one of his novels a year. He said, "I have had, all the way along, to lead my publishers, sometimes by the nose. It hasn't been easy."

 Saul David, a Bantam Books editor, told L'Amour he could write three books a year, but it took some persuasion on the writer's part, who liked "to write fast." He admired David's courage and his ability to "swim against the tide. If you told him something could not be done, he'd do it."

 L'Amour maintained the schedule he had worked for years until just before his death, at 81. "I'm not rigid about it," he said. "I work every day, seven days a week, and that's not a problem. However, if something comes up and I want to take a little trip, I do it. I come back and go to work again."

 Rising at 5:30 or 6:00, he'd read two Los Angeles newspapers and The Wall Street Journal before breakfast. His work day then began. At noon he sometimes stopped for lunch, often meeting friends at a restaurant. He said he occasionally went alone at an off-hour to make notes for a forthcoming novel, although he was rarely known to use them. "But, I can discuss it with myself, and the direction the book will follow."

He usually returned to his IBM Wheelwriter after lunch for an hour, or he used that time to read. He would also file mounds of research material crowding his large office. Three-foot stacks of paper neatly flanked three sides of his desk. He had no secretary and didn't want one, because "it would keep me busy finding work for her to do." Only he knew where to file research material so that he could find it. He also answered his own mail, but only a small percentage of some 5,000 letters that arrived annually.

His personal library contained more than 10,000 books, with hinged bookcases revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the visible ones. He also left behind map drawers, much like those on ships, with geographical charts of every country on earth. The world was literally at his fingertips.

 Little physical research was done during his latter years because he had already been there. "Usually I write about places I've been," he said. "I knocked around the world for twenty years, and one of the things I did was file a claim on a mining camp where I had to do a hundred hours work a year to hold it. Sometimes I hired somebody to do it, or miss out on a good job."

Although he only two-finger typed one draft, he admitted to rewriting on occasion. "Usually if I find something wrong, I rewrite the whole page. Occasionally I reread the previous day's work, and that's only when there's been a break in continuity. My feeling is that if one plans to rewrite, one is careless, figuring to pick it up the next time around. I wrote for the pulps and to make any money, one had to produce a lot. I drilled myself in getting it right the first time."

His wife Kathy proofread his work, checking for typos and redundancies. She rarely found misspelled words and no one changed his work, "not even editors. They never have, not since that first sale when the editor sent my story back and said to cut 1,500 words. I thought, 'Ah baloney, I just don't know how I could possibly do that. I hate it." Chuckling, he added: "Now when I look at it, I wonder where all the words went."

 During the mid-1980s, his novels crowded book store racks along with adult Westerns that he hated. "Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Brontes, Checkov, Thackeray, and many others, who used sex, did it with wit and charm," he said. "Sex in current books is clumsily done, indicating that most writers really know very little about it. They write like a bunch of small boys out behind a barn. They are crudely lewd. There's no fun in their sex and nobody appears to be having a good time."

 L'Amour advised fledglings to read and write "everything you can. Keep writing, putting words on paper and learn to express yourself. One difficulty I find of people who write is that they don't read enough. And our schools aren't giving enough background in American literature. I think you should have a pretty good idea what's been done before you try to do it. And you can learn some valuable things by writing. I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant."

 A sentimentalist, L'Amour adopted a white dove before his first novel sold. The dove had taken up residence in the novelist's garage and was brought into the house and named Rama-Cita after two deities of East Indian mythology. The name was later shortened to Rama when the bird was found to be male. The dove could be heard throughout the L'Amour's large Spanish-style home as though in an echo chamber, and outlived most of its species as the writer's "good luck mascot."

 Louis L'Amour was visibly proud of his children. His son Beau, at the time of the interview, was a film producer's creative consultant, who wrote in his famous father's wake. His pretty younger sister Angelique also writes. Both L'Amour offspring planned at the time to produce biographies of their father, in addition to the one he was writing at the time of his death. L'Amour wanted to be remembered as a storyteller—a man who told the American story, or one version of it."

 Among his legion of books, Walking Drum, a twelfth century adventure, was the most fun to write. When asked which had been his favorite, he said, "I like them all. There's bits and pieces of books that I think are good. I never rework a book. I'd rather use what I've learned on the next one, you see, and make it a little bit better.

"The worst of it is that I'm no longer a kid and I'm just now getting to be a good writer. Just now."


(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and Weserners: Candid & Historic Interviews)

© 2013 Jean Henry-Mead

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Remembering Peggy Simson Curry, Part II


Peggy Simson Curry had no regular writing schedule because she taught in the Wyoming Poetry in the Schools Program, which she helped instigate in 1970. Traveling the state in her four-wheel drive Jeep, she taught primarily in outlying areas, dispensing juvenile verse and stimulating smiles, even from sixth-graders who considered poetry “sissy stuff.” She initially captured their interest by  reciting a silly poem about frogs and toads.
Adults attended her evening creative writing classes at Casper College for more than thirty years. She also taught a writing class each summer at the Blind Camp on Casper Mountain. Her students were told to write what interested them, because she felt there was nothing sadder than a would-be writer with nothing to say. She told them to “relate your inner world to the world around you.” Some of her advice must have rubbed off on her son Michael, who earned his living as a public relations writer in California.
Curry’s writing techniques have reached around the world with her nonfiction book, Creating Fiction from Experience. She wrote, “Writing is a way of life. At best it's a rewarding combination of creative experience and creative expression. One cannot exist without the other. Memorable writing can happen only out of memorable living. How much authenticity and vitality appear in the written word is directly dependent on the writer himself. He is the fountainhead of all his fiction.”
A.B. Guthrie was her favorite western author. She enjoyed his “realism and writing skill,” and shared “the feelings he has for the natural world.” Reading exceptional authors of varied genres in bed at night was the way she liked to end her day.
The imaginative, emotional author said she wrote whatever happened to turn her on, “when I ride in the car, get up in the night, walk by a lake. I do work hard hours at the typewriter when an article, poem, or story takes over my imagination. But writing is never a grind in my life. I find great pleasure in being inspired to capture meaningful existence in words.”
When the impulse to write arrived, she used pen, pencil or her typewriter, whatever happened to be on hand. “I carry notepaper everywhere I go whether I’m fishing, hiking or having lunch with friends. I simply follow my impulse to capture what excites me, regardless of time, place or dream.”
Often one draft was sufficient, but at other times she wrote several . “Sometimes I know the conclusion of a poem, article or short story but many times I don’t. Characters do take over in fiction and are as alive as people I meet, listen to and see clearly. I record anything and everything that interests me—scenery, aspects of people, vagaries of weather, voices of the wind, history . . . I enjoy just recording things I’m interested in. It makes me aware of the relationship of my inner word to the world around me.”
(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Remembering Peggy Simson Curry



Peggy Simson's western research began 95 years ago when she migrated with her parents from Scotland to North Park, Colorado, where her father had been hired by the Big Horn Cattle Company. By the age of twelve, she had learned to drive a hay rake and help her mother cook for a twenty-man haying crew. As a youngster, she was taught by ranch hands to hunt, fish and trap small animals along sandy river banks, and to appreciate the beauty of nature.

Long before she was honored as Wyoming's first poet laureate, she filled her novels, short stories, articles, and poetry with early experiences, written primarily from the male point of view. Two of her short stories won Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and the honors and kudos heaped upon her over the years--including "Peggy Simson Day" in Walden, Colorado, every April 13 until her death in 1987--could have easily filled the old barn in North Park.

When Peggy was nine, her father insisted that she leave the ranch to "get educated in town." She  said, "I wrote my first poem that first day in Walden School, expecting to be kicked out of class, but my teacher got it printed in the local newspaper, and I saw my name in print. The poem consisted of: 'I hate school. I hate school. I want to go back to the ranch, my horse and the red fox in the meadow.'" She felt she had been banished to the small town where she had been boarded with the local sheriff and his wife, who had no children of their own.

Later boarded with a number of Walden residents for her fourth through ninth semesters, she spent summers on the ranch, cooking and performing chores. Her last two years of high school were in Denver, where her short stories and poetry won her on-campus essay prizes and sales to various newspapers. Majoring in journalism at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, she wrote and performed in a play for her creative writing teacher. When her talents were discovered, the university staff went out of its way to help her by carefully reclassifying courses so that she could take advantage of them.

She made her first sale to a major magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, after she married Bill Curry, an English major at the University of Wyoming in 1937, and moved to Illinois for his first teaching assignment. At that time, unknown poets were required to prove they had actually composed their work by submitting character references. So the Currys trekked downtown to gather affidavits. During the years that followed, Peggy sold quite number of short stories and poetry to the Post without the verifying statements, and later understood the Post's policy when one of her poems was plagiarized on air at a Casper, Wyoming, radio station.

She submitted her first short story to Good Housekeeping magazine, and received a nice rejection letter saying that although it was well done, it was not a GH story. "They said I should send it to a romance magazine, so I sold it to one. It was a silly story about a cowboy, and it contained phrases like 'cows don't breed in too much heat.' The editor wrote back and said, 'We can use it if you will change some of the dialogue. There's nothing romantic about cows breeding.'" Peggy revised the story and was paid forty dollars. "Not bad in those days."

She considered her second novel, So Far From Spring, her best. Somewhat autobiographical, the protagonist is a liberated nineteenth-century woman rancher by the name of Monty. The storyline follows a young Scottish man as he leaves his homeland in 1830 to immigrate to North Park, Colorado, to work as a ranch hand. The writer interviewed a number of old-timers in her childhood territory, and based some of the characters on people she had known.

After her husband had begun teaching in Casper, and their son Michael was born, she wrote a novel aptly titled, The Oil Patch, which, with her earlier book, was translated into eight languages. Her juvenile book, A Shield of Clover, is an historical look at ranching and preceded Red Wind of Wyoming, a book-length poem of the Johnson County War.

(Continued next week . . .)

Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers, Caxton, 1989)