Friday, December 12, 2014

Chris LeDoux Interview Conclusion

“There was a lack of rodeo songs," Chris LeDoux said. “There were songs about truck drivers, love, barrooms and every other doggone thing, so I figured that with all the rodeo fans and cowboys out there, I’d give them some rodeo songs. And it worked.”

LeDoux’s father at first recorded the tapes, one at a time, on a small device in his home. They were distributed at rodeos by his son from the back of his pickup truck. Later, they rented a recording studio in Nashville and hired backup musicians. “They were so good that you just had to sing the song to them once and they got it,” he said, grinning. “It’s amazing. Sometimes it didn’t come out the way you wanted but it was good.” His albums took three to four sessions of three hours each to record without rehearsal to save money.

By 1982, country music fans had purchased over a quarter million copies of his self-published recordings. His renditions of songs such as “A Cowboy Like Me,” “Too Tough to Die,” and “What More Could a Cowboy Need” sold surprisingly well in stores and music outlets, and were broadcast on country music stations across the nation. Radio station KSOP in Salt Lake City promoted the young “Roy Rogers” since his early recording days, and he staged concerts in the area on a regular basis. He also appeared twice on German TV in Munich, and earned himself an Iowa fan club.

His father, who served as his business manager, negotiated with several large recording companies and found that his son’s valued freedom would be severely impaired. "Shoot,” the cowboy said, “they would own me. They’d tell me which songs to sing and where to appear.  That would be terrible.”

Although he continued to write songs about his rodeo days, LeDoux said during his early thirties, “I hope I’ve got enough sense to never go back to it. I might consider it if rodeoin’ started payin’ anywhere near as much as other sports.”

He decided to give it up in 1980, while he was “down behind the chutes with this big snatchin’ horse—that’s one that really jerks on you like a hobo grabs a freight train. I was sittin’ there with both knees taped and my elbow and collarbone. And I thought, 'Doggone, what am I doin’here? I just wanted to get in my truck and go home. When I finally got there, I threw my glove away and tossed my riggin’ bag in the cellar.  I haven’t been back since.”

Still struggling to make it into the ranks of well-known music stars, LeDoux went on tour with Garth Brooks. Brooks then wrote, “I’m Too Young to Feel so Damn Old,” which mentions “Listening’ to an old Chris LeDoux tape . . .” The rest, as they say, is country music history.

During his mid-fifties, Ledoux headlined concerts and performed on stage like a much younger man. His music was still produced in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, home of Al LeDoux, his proud and supportive father. Sidelined with a life-threatening liver ailment, the former rodeo champ survived a transplant and was briefly back in the saddle before succumbing to cancer in 2005.

(Excerpted from Westerners, published by Medallion Press.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Chris LeDoux, Part II

Rodeo expenses are the worst part of the sport, Chris LeDoux said, “I remember when I first started, I thought, ‘Boy, if I just had enough money to pay my entry fees and buy a hamburger once in a while, I don’t care whether I win any money. I just wanted to get on them buckin’ horses and go.’ But when you get a little older, you think, ‘I’d like a make a little money and stick it away or buy a place or win the world championship.’”

Entry fees were $150-$200 per event during the 1970s, and cowboys looked forward to sharing in the prize money, which averaged between $2,500 and $4,000. But the odds of winning were high. “In my event, he said, “in a rodeo like Houston, there might be ninety bareback riders that you’re competin’ with. You’ll probably get three horses and you have to draw a good buckin’ horse. That’s mighty tough. The odds of drawin’ a good one is probably eighty percent against you. If you’re lucky enough to draw a good horse, you still have to ride  him, then the next ones. So it’s probably eighty percent luck and twenty percent skill.”

The young, six-foot, 170 pound cowboy averaged 80 rodeos a year. “I really didn’t go that hard, although a couple of years I did. Some guys work a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and thirty a year. They’re just goin’ all the time. Rodeo cowboys usually keep goin’ till they’re crippled by animals, run out of money for entry fees and traveling expenses, quit or get killed in the arena.

“We loaned each other money to keep goin’ and we yelled for each other in the arena. It’s not like football or basketball where the guys are competin’ against each other. You’re competing against the animals and the [elements]. And you hope your buddies win enough so you don’t have to loan them money.”

LeDoux had second thoughts about his rodeo career during his second season. “I thought it was the worst mistake I ever made because I only won $250 all summer. And then I got crippled. I had a horse step on me while performing and I was messed up for a while.” Most of his injuries were confined to separated joints: knees, collarbone and an elbow, and the longest he was out of commission was from February until June in 1975.

Before his championship ride the following year, he and his wife rigged up a  harness to hold his collarbone in place. Shrugging, LeDoux said, “Shoot, every time you get on an animal, you take your life in your hands.”

The cowboy married Peggy Rhoads in 1972, in the minuscule town of Kaycee in east-central Wyoming. She had never been out of the state when she found herself on the rodeo circuit, living like gypsy. Her husband intended to leave her home that winter and return whenever he could, but Peggy attended a Denver rodeo with friends, and decided to travel with him. He had $15 in his jeans when they left Denver for Amarillo, where he won $800, which got  them as far as Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. There he won a little more. When his bank roll ran out, he borrowed enough to get them to San Diego.

“The tires were so bald on the truck that the air was showin’ through, and I had to drive fifty miles a hour all the way out there, because the vibration was so bad.” Fortunately, he won the bareback competition and they moved on to Phoenix, where they bought new tires, paid his entry fees, and stayed in a motel. They were then broke again.“

(The conclusion next week . . .)

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Remembering Song Writer, Rodeo Champion Chris LeDoux


Long before a Garth Brook's song helped to elevate Chris LeDoux to the ranks of country stardom, the young bronc rider was busy raising kids, dogs, horses, Columbian sheep and hay on his 500-acre ranch near Kaycee, Wyoming. He was then best known for his 1976 world championship rodeo title and songs about rodeo life.

The easy-smiling, laid-back cowboy did things his own way because, next to his family, freedom was his most valued asset. It was also the reason he left rodeo in 1980 to concentrate on his own record label, instead of  being "owned by a big company."

At the time he said, "I don't know what makes a guy want to write songs and sing, but if you've got a message, you want to get it across. When I come up with an idea about the way I feel, I can really state it strongly in a s song."

The shy guitar picker felt strongly about "family freedom and the West" as well as "cowboy ways." He was just as adamant about his dislike of farm machinery and refused to be photographed on his own tractor. By 1981, his feelings had been transformed into more than 50 songs, which he wrote, recorded and sang--more than 250,000 albums and tapes--from the back of his pickup truck while performing as a bareback rider. LeDoux and his father, a retired air force major, had formed their own recording company, American Cowboy Songs, in 1972, and recorded periodically in Nashville on a boot lace budget.

Chris began riding in junior rodeos while 13 and living in Denison, Texas. The air force brat and eldest of three children had previously lived in France, Mississippi, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania, before moving to Cheyenne, Wyoming, while a high school sophomore. He acquired a southern accent and love of rodeo while living in Mississippi and Texas, which led him to quit his college studies to take on the circuit full-time.

While performing in high school and college rodeo, he rode bulls and saddle broncs as well as roping calves, but his best event was bareback broncs. "I had to give everything I had to one event if I wanted to excel," he said. And excel he did. He won the world championship bareback title in December 1976, at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma City, the sport's "super bowl." The win made up for all the injuries and lean days on the road.

"I can remember sittin' in a cafe when I first started in rodeo, and waitin' until somebody got done so I could finish what they left," he said, laughing. "You get to where you kind of like it, and it's a habit that's hard to break. I still find myself sittin' in a cafe, like a pizza parlor, and thinkin' 'Doggone, they sure left a lot of food.'"

When the prize money ran out, he was forced--like other cowboys on the circuit--to "rough it" between rodeos. "Sleepin' in the truck wasn't so bad. Shoot, I kind of liked that, myself. And takin' a bath in the creek. That's the stuff that really made it worthwhile. Anybody can stay in a motel."

(Continued next week . . .)

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


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 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.