The following interview appeared on the blog The Tainted Archive, conducted by Gary Dobbs, in October of 2009.
A FRESH TAKE ON THE OLD WEST - LARRY D. SWEAZY INTERVIEW
1 - What does the western mean to you?
The western is my foundation, that part of me where I hold the belief that anything is possible. Being a child of 1960’s, theme songs to western television shows are the background music for that part of my life. Bonanza. Gunsmoke. Wild, Wild, West. The Rifleman. All of those shows were still in their first runs when I was a kid. John Wayne and Audie Murphy movies are like watching old family reels of black and white film. I grew up in the midwest (Indiana), and there are no mountains, no canyons, so those movies and TV shows were a great introduction to the emotional and physical landscape of the West. They gave me a much broader view of the country I lived in, and entertained me at the same time. Of course, I learned pretty quickly that the West really wasn’t that far away, because just beyond my backyard was a state park centered around a series of Indian burial mounds. Later, when I began to read, I discovered writers like Jack London, A.B. Guthrie (who was born in Indiana), and of course, Louis and Zane, and they added to that foundation.
2-Where do you think the genre will go over the next few years? Is there still room for growth?
The release of The Rattlesnake Season has been embraced with great enthusiasm by the local booksellers in my hometown. I think there is a tremendous amount of room for growth in the genre. I recently gave several presentations to school kids, grades 5 and 6, and their teachers are really frustrated that there aren’t westerns written for this age group. The desire is there, the books aren’t, and that’s the future—so we’re missing the boat. I also have people buying books for their dad or granddad, saying there just aren’t any new western writers like there used to be—they’ve read all of Louis and Zane and want something new, a fresh take on the Old West. I point them to Loren D. Estleman, Elmer Kelton, Richard S. Wheeler, all modern writers that I admire, and they are thrilled to find them. I have always thought that one of the reasons there is such growth and staying power in the mystery field is because there are devotees of the genre willing to open independent mystery bookstores and organize fan conventions like Bouchercon. Fantasy and science fiction does the same thing, at least as far as fan conventions go. When was the last time you saw an advertisement for fan convention for westerns? Probably haven’t. These venues develop a following among readers, a devotion to the genre that is unyielding. That devotion isn’t lacked among fans of westerns, it just isn’t organized. Even WWA (Western Writers of America) conventions are geared toward writers, and more and more, toward non-fiction and academic writers. Where does that leave the western fiction fan? Frantically searching the Internet for anything positive about the western genre. The Internet, as far as I’m concerned, has the potential to be the great salvation of the genre—at least writers, readers, and fans, can find each other little bit by little bit. So we need to do a better job getting the word out about our work—especially east of the Mississippi, and to young readers, if the genre is going to grow.
3-What can new readers expect from your books?
I sure hope I can entertain a reader. I’m not a historian, but history is really important to me. Even more important to me is the ability to tell a good story. My main character, Josiah Wolfe, is a fictional character, but I place him in actual events with historic figures, and that allows me some leeway to play with timelines and places. I don’t believe you have to sacrifice character to have a strong plot, and vice versa. In the end, I try to have solid mix of both character, plot, and history, that adds up to a satisfying story.
4- What amount of research do you do in writing your books?
I do a lot of research. I’m planning a trip to Texas later this winter, and traveling to the West at least once a year is paramount to me since I continue to live in Indiana. But beyond the physical research, I do as much as I as I feel I have to. One of the things that I don’t like in movies and books, is when the flora and fauna wrong. If you put the wrong kind of tree in the wrong place, then how can a reader trust the writer about the weapons, or horses, or history, in the novel? I pay attention to wildlife here at home. I usually know when the warblers are moving through in the spring, or what kind of hawk I see riding the thermals above my house…so I better get those things right in 1874 Texas, too. Texas history, especially Texas Ranger history is deep, and I still have a lot to learn. Which, of course, is one of the coolest things about being a western writer, learning right along with the reader. It’s easy to get a little overzealous with research, where it interferes with the story. That’s the tricky part, maintaining a balance between research and storytelling, but it’s also the part of writing I find the most challenging, and the most fun.
5-What is you own writing regime?
I write every day. I usually walk the dogs (two Rhodesian ridgebacks) first thing in the morning, then come back home and write my pages for the day. I try for four. I’m also a freelance indexer, so I try to get my writing done by noon, then tackle the indexing I need to do in the afternoon and evening. I work weekends and holidays, if necessary. But I don’t mind. I can’t think of any way else I’d rather live my life.
6-Authors that inspire and influence you?
Loren D. Estleman, Elmer Kelton, Richard S. Wheeler, Elmore Leonard… The list could go on. I think there are a lot of writers working in the field today that are at the top of their game. They have to be since the genre is not as large as it once was. I’ve been fortunate to meet most of those writers, and call some of them my friends. Elmer Kelton’s passing this summer was a great loss to the community. I still like Jack London quite a lot, A.B. Guthrie, too, but at the moment, I’m more interested in whose working at the top of their skills today.
7-Desert Island western - film and book?
I just watched Dances with Wolves recently, and I think it really holds up. If there was ever movie that drives home the message of second chances, which is another great aspect of the West, then this is it. Rio Bravo is my favorite John Wayne movie…and Seven Ways from Sundown is an Audie Murphy movie I really, really, like—it’s not a classic, well-known, movie, but it’s pure Audie Murphy, and hey, I’m a fan of the man (more so than of the actor). Any of the Murdock books by Loren Estleman would be welcome on a desert island. The Day the Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton, or The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie would be a good way to pass away the time, too. I’d probably write a novel of my own in the sand with a stick, too.
8-And for fun - Eastwood V Wayne - who wins?
It’s a tie. Then they go have a beer together.