From Magna cum Murder. Interview by Austin Lugar
Larry D. Sweazy had his big break when he won the Spur award for his short story "The Promotion." He has published more short stories in a variety of anthologies, but his fanbase grew with his Josiah Wolfe series about a Texas Ranger in the 1800s. The first in the series, The Rattlesnake Season, was a finalist for one of the Best Books of Indiana; the fourth, The Cougar's Prey, will be released on October 4th and his first mystery novel, The Devil's Bones, will be out in 2012.
And just this month, the Indiana State Library announced that Sweazy was the winner of the Best Books of Indiana literary competition for The Scorpion Trail, published by Berkley Books (Penguin, New York). The Scorpion Trail is the second book in the award-winning Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series. The novel previously won the 2011 Will Rogers Medallion Award for Western Fiction.
1) Westerns find their audience from a wide variety of people. Yet there seems to be a natural connection between western fans and mystery fans. What makes them so compatible?
If you look at westerns closely they almost always revolve around justice being served in the end, which is extremely important in mysteries as well. Mattie Ross in True Grit teams up with a U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger to find the man who killed her father. In Unforgiven, retired gunslinger, William Munny, is recruited to kill two cowboys who disfigured a prostitute. Munny, of course, is initially motivated by reward money, but in the end, it’s about justice, restoring order and what’s right, as much as possible.
There’s also a good chance there’s going to be a crime in a western, or at least some type of law enforcement involved in the story. Loren D. Estleman’s long-running western series features Page Murdock, a U.S. Deputy Marshal. Ed Gorman’s Leo Guild series features a former lawman turned bounty hunter. My own series features a Texas Ranger, Josiah Wolfe. Though it’s early in the creation of the Ranger organization, and long before law enforcement is an expected duty, Josiah ultimately gets involved in a crime-solving situation in every book.
2) Your Josiah Wolfe series is located in a very specific time and place. How do you go about creating this world for the reader?
I approach my western novels just like I would approach writing a historical novel. I see no difference, just a designation on the spine. Research is extremely important to me. Each of my books typically has a historic event that involves the Rangers. The Lost Valley Fight, the first official engagement the Rangers had with the Kiowa and Comanche, and Cortina’s War on Corpus Christi, for example, are huge events in my books. My fictional character interacts with historic characters, so I have to get the details correct, right down to their beards. I read a lot of journals. Newspaper archives are extremely helpful to get the cadence of language and the attitudes of the time, as correct as possible. Nothing beats boots on the ground, breathing Texas air, in my case, but since I live in Indiana, those trips are limited. I study the flora and fauna as much as I can. I have to get bird migration patterns and blooming seasons in the right month. So, I have built my world from the ground up, and it’s a continual education. One thing always leads to another, which is why I love research. The hard part is making research seamless so the reader isn’t pulled out of the story with facts instead of setting, character development, or overloading on gun details to prove I’ve done my work.
3) There are plenty of thrilling moments in all of your books. What are your tricks for creating a great action scene?
I think readers of westerns expect adventure and action, so I don’t hesitate to get right to it. But the key to creating a successful action scene, I think, is ensuring the reader has an emotional connection with the character. Without a heart on the line along with a life on the line, action is just action for action’s sake. My readers know that Josiah Wolfe will always survive, his name’s on the cover of the book, but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to face danger, or death, for that matter. His survival isn’t a question, but how he will survive is always a question. That’s a great challenge for me, especially as the series goes on. But there are consequences to survival, too. In the latest Wolfe novel, The Cougar’s Prey, Josiah makes a bad decision that gets someone important to him killed. He has to figure out how live with that. Emotional depth is as important to me as research is. Readers might not expect that in a paperback western or mystery, but it’s the element that puts them in the saddle, or driver’s seat, right along with the character they’ve, hopefully, come to love.
4) What is your favorite memory of Magna cum Murder?
I have a lot of great memories of Magna. I was at the first and second one, and more after that, though not every year since. I found myself sitting next to James Crumley in the bar. I was green behind the ears and tongue-tied, but it’s an encounter I’ll never forget. The Last Good Kiss remains one of my favorite novels. I met my first agent at Magna. I’ve made friends that I have to this day at Magna. I remember Sharyn McCrumb saying to aspiring novelists that there were no secrets to getting published, “You just have to write the damn book.” I did. Over and over again. I sat on my first panel at Magna, along with Michael Z. Lewin, who remains one of my favorite Indiana writers. Hugh Holton gave me sound advice, and Michael Allan Dymmoch always had an encouraging word for me along the way. No memory would be complete without Parnell Hall’s humor or Terry Faherty’s kindness in there somewhere. And of course, there’s Kathryn’s sweet Southern hospitality. No one is a stranger at Magna. That will always be my favorite thing about this conference.
5) What's the best book you've read recently?
That’s easy. Devil Red by Joe R. Lansdale. I love the Hap and Leonard series. Lansdale is another one of those writers who has written all over the genre-spectrum, including westerns, and he just keeps getting better and better.