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Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Virtual Campfire: Talking heads with Terry Harknett (George G. Gilman)

Come on and sit down besides the virtual campfire. Take the weight off your feet and grab a cup of java. This time we’re sharing the virtual campfire with Mr. Terry Harknett, otherwise known as George G. Gilman, author of many fine westerns and creator of that evergreen loner, Edge.
And so with the Edge series about to make its explosive debut in eBook format, I thought it was a good time to chew the fat with Terry. We both invite you to share in our conversation.



Cowboys and 'injuns - not likely!
GD: Before you decided on the name Edge were there any other choices you considered?

TH: As I vaguely recall from the dark and muddy depths of my memory, the first name I came up with for the main character in my first ever Western was... Hell, I can’t remember! Because I was so immersed in American private eye fiction rather than riders of the range it was probably a variation on Hammer or Marlowe or Shayne etc. Whatever it was, Laurence James who was the commissioning editor at New English Library told me in no uncertain terms that it would not do and to come up with something more ‘Western’.
And over one of many alcohol fuelled lunches that took place in the creating of Edge, the hero’s name and most famous weapon were decided upon. Although, on second thoughts, I now seem to recall that in the initial synopsis I wrote for the first book in the series the character was called something along the lines of The Tornado Kid! Remember, a great deal of my Western knowledge came from the serials I watched as an ABC Minor at the Saturday morning picture shows

God, thank you Laurence!!!



GD: Thank you Laurence indeed!  The Tornado Kid: The Loner - doesn’t really scan.
From my understanding when the series was decided upon you outlined four Edge books at a time. Do you think this pre-plotting gave you some advantage in developing the character book from book? Even though you were only working on one book at a time in the actual writing - during the initial outlining you were working on a much bigger canvas. I imagine you must have set stages of character development you wanted to reach with each book?



TH: At the outset NEL commissioned just two books and of course nobody who was involved at the time envisaged what was to happen down the line. So the first two titles were written with no idea about developing the characters beyond how they shaped up in each of this pair of stories.
When the books were published and became instant successes the next and subsequent contracts specified four books. But even then I looked no further ahead than the end of each book in terms of where Edge was going and what he was going to do to get there! The stories just kind of built themselves up out of the bare bones of the five or six pages of each synopsis. I cannot bring myself to be so pretentious as to claim that Edge and other major characters took over the narrative and I simply reported their exploits and conversations.
So maybe I was just lucky and possessed a natural flair for storytelling that flowed from my brain with little effort on my part. I certainly never came up against what some authors term ‘writer’s block’.  Until the creative juices ran dry and I realised I had to call a halt. 



GD: That’s interesting - because there is a very definite character development with Edge from book to book, something that stopped him feeling stale. Even today the books read fresh. I would say you do indeed have a natural flair for storytelling and obviously book buyers must have felt the same. You say the stories came from your brain with little effort - maybe great work is often created in this way. It like’s when Paul McCartney dreampt the song Yesterday; it was written with no effort or work at all and yet it is as beautiful as any slaved over piece of music. And Conan Doyle often claimed to just bash out the Holmes stories. And in the field of pulp style adult westerns, George G. Gilman is the undisputed king. And, I suspect, always will be - when taken as a whole it’s an impressive body of work, and as worthy of the tag,  “literature” as any of the pulp classics.

The Edge books sold in phenomenal numbers and influenced many imitators - thankfully The Tornado Kid was not among them. Indeed you even became something of an imitator yourself with your own Adam Steele series. I’m not saying Steele was the same as Edge, he wasn’t and is an entertaining series in its own right. But the books were ploughing the same furrow pioneered by Edge. In fact in many ways Steele is a more rounded character and although successful, he never quite reached the heights of Edge. Who did you prefer writing - Steele or Edge? And don’t say Jubal Cade!




TH: I have often told fans, not entirely with my tongue lodged firmly in my cheek, something along the lines of I was never sure if I had written over a hundred westerns or the same western more than a hundred times. For in writing book after book in double quick time to meet the publishing schedule I was always wary of the danger of sub-consciously repeating myself with certain scenes and using clichéd characters in what it seemed to me was a somewhat formula based genre. So I think I did make an effort to develop the characters of my protagonists as I related their adventures over the years in an attempt to ring the changes. This said, I certainly recall as the number of Edge books moved toward double figures abandoning the attempt to adhere to strict chronology as he aged against a backdrop of actual events and this is the reason that, apart from the Civil War stories I hardly ever incorporated such events in my books.
All of which brings me to putting forward the suggestion that maybe the character development readers are aware of is the reason for the fresh element they find in the stories. What I suppose I am saying is that this all came about naturally in the creative process without me having to think too hard about what I was writing – so lucky me, I guess! I did have to think more deeply and work harder on the Adam Steele and Jubal Cade series, always conscious of the dangers of cloning them out of the raw material provided by my experience of creating Edge. And maybe because of the blood, sweat and tears I was required to expend on the creative processes of producing these two series was the reason they lacked the magic ingredient that led to Edge being so phenomenally successful?
So, to answer the direct question you posed I always preferred working on the Edge books above all others since they were relatively easier to write. And when the spinning coin has an easy and a hard face a basically lazy feller like me has always called easy and hoped it was a winner! As I am sure you have discovered, Gary, ‘relatively’ is a word with something of an elastic meaning in terms of fiction writing.  


GD: Your wrote three team-up novels in which Adam Steele and Edge shared the limelight. Were these your idea or did the publisher suggest these? Personally I enjoyed the three books but never found them as successful as the stand-alone series featuring the characters. Do you think that with the team up’s you might have over-milked the pudding?
Even the birds dug Edge

TH: If anyone from NEL’s Editorial Department is still around and maybe paying attention to this area of cyberspace I guess they could argue the point. But I’m pretty certain the Edge-Steele team-up books was an idea that that emerged from a brainstorming session held at the publisher’s office. They had one and a half bestselling series on their hands and a tame writer ready to write anything (outside of science fiction, romance or porn) so why not lay this wheeze on him?  And it worked in terms of me signing the contract and crouching over the keyboard to provide what was required.
But my agreement was against my better judgement since I thought then (as I still do today) that ‘buddy’ stories featuring men – or women, I guess - who are supposed to be equal in prowess do not work. One of them has to be better at some skill or other. Of course, they can switch superior roles from time to time, but how can the writer divide the kudos? I never did discover how to do this with two characters so well established in their own series.
And since I have been asked this same question many times in the past, I have wracked my brain over the years trying to come up with a pairing by other writers that succeeded in being a ‘matching pair’ and have always failed. I am, of course open to suggestions that will prove me wrong!

GD:      You’ve said that you started off writing mystery fiction and that you maintained that ambition even after the westerns took over. Did you in any way resent the success of your westerns and feel that they stopped you working on your first love, the mystery novel? Did you ever think of Edge in the way Conan Doyle thought of Holmes - that he was diverting your attention from what you really wanted to write? Yes I know that’s the same question asked two different ways but you sure know what I mean...

TH: Here we return to my contention that I am a hack in the true definition of the word that implies somebody who writes for money – and I cannot accept that there are many writers who do not! Certainly I would have preferred to write private eye mystery fiction in the same style as Chandler. And I tried in ten books to do this. Probably halfway through this attempt I came to the conclusion that my ambition was for many reasons doomed to failure.
For starters, I did not attain his level of education and certainly did not have his  talent for prose writing. Also, I was not American and had little chance of living in the US. So I lowered my sights and reverted to simply wanting to be a professional writer in whatever genre (with certain exceptions) would make this possible. This genre turned out to be Westerns that on reflection was a fortunate turn of events since it meant I was able to the best of my ability to write in an American style against a US backdrop – albeit in a different century!
No, I never resented the success of my Westerns that provided me with a pretty decent living doing a job that I loved. Remember, I was a hack! But even when the success of Edge was demonstrating which side of my bread was spread with butter, I did once attempt to revert to the American mystery in the regrettably short-lived and unlamented Chester Fortune series!
It was not to be but no tears were spilled!

GD: Does it surprise you this continued interest in Edge? Are you ever shocked by the prices some of your books fetch on sites like Ebay?

TH: I’m one of those people who are very easily led and an American devotee who has been a fan of the series for many years directed me toward killing off Edge.  And I toyed with the idea of rounding off the series many times until I finally got around to stating to write the book, which had many working titles until I settled on ‘Detour to Destiny’. Maybe because I had not written any fiction since completing the six titles in the ‘Mini Series’ I became something of a dilettante as I worked on the book. And I only returned to the work in progress when the mood took me – a method of writing that was far removed from the professional attitude I had to adopt when I was tied in to contacts with their tight delivery dates.
And when I was getting close to the near 200 typescript pages that now exist - reading and re-reading them several times (a novelty for me!) I became increasingly dissatisfied with the material I was producing and it was easy to blame Edge for refusing to die while in my heart of hearts I knew the fault was mine because I had quite simply run out of creative juice. So the work I was doing was not up to the standard I had set myself and I thought it best to go out on whatever level I reached in ‘The Rifle’ and not push my luck any further. I am sorry if my fans – one in particular - feel let down because the series did not reach the conclusion I and my American fan had in mind for it, but that’s the way this cookie has crumbled I’m afraid. Sorry Trever.
When I see copies of ‘The Rifle’ selling for silly money on e-bay I am pleased for the lucky sellers and stunned by the enthusiasm of the buyers. Although I have a sneaking suspicion many of those involved are wheeler-dealers rather than fans seeking to complete their collections and the books that change hands are never read by their new owners. I also regret that I only have one copy of the final published book on my vanity shelf so am unable to make any extra loot myself!

GD: Ahh yes of course the six novels you wrote featuring an older Edge and then gave them away free online. I keep forgetting about those when I think of the Edge series – I’ve always been of a mind that only the 61 books in the regular series are really canon, but I suppose the six online books, given that they are written by yourself are very much a part of the story. Was there never any attempt to publish these later books conventionally?


TH: I had ‘retired’ from writing westerns (or so I thought!) and attempted to return to my first love in fiction. But after I struggled with total lack of success to come up with a half decent private eye mystery I had to face up to the fact that it was - as it always had been - not what destiny had marked me down for.
But at that time I still felt an urge to write and had the time to indulge the need so decided it would be an interesting exercise to continue writing about Edge as he aged and became even less of a violent character than he had developed into over the final few published books.
By this time the era of the Piccadilly Cowboys was over so I knew there was little or no chance of these books finding a publisher. But I thought, what the hell, I had a fan base of loyal readers who had stayed with me over many years, shelling out good money to read what I wrote. So as a thank you to all those people who had ensured there was always bread on my table and whisky in my glass over so many years, I decided to offer the ‘Mini Series’ for free on the Internet.  So that is what I did, without any sense of regret that no royalty cheques were going to roll in!
But I was rewarded in one way. For I was able to despatch Adam Steele in one of the final six books to neatly round off this Gilman series.  Which just leaves Edge to get his comeuppance (for did not Barnaby Gold go to a better place in the sixth book of The Undertaker series - or did he?)



GD: Somehow I think the day of Edge’s comeuppance will be a long time coming. The Edge mini-series is still available to read on the Internet – find them HERE. And later this month the first in the regular series, Edge: The Loner will burst back onto the western scene in all new eBook and print-on-demand paperbacks.
Edge is back – twice as mean!

4 comments:

madshadows said...

Excellent interview, nice to see Terry come out of the woodwork to talk about the fantastic EDGE series, interesting that he had planned to kill off the character but couldn't in the end, EDGE lives - hurrah :)

John :)

David Cranmer said...

Terrific, insightful interview. I'm looking forward to the return of the Edge.

Charles Gramlich said...

Enjoyed that. I'm really liking hearing from the author his ownself.

Anonymous said...

I waz googling for a review of Edge 50 and I found this blog. Cool and Edge is comning back. It's like the old days again. Thanks


Jim cane