James Reasoner is a highly regarded western writer - his books are tightly plotted with realistic characters and engaging plots. His writing style is pacey and the author is always sure to satisfy anyone looking for a well written western novel to pass away a few hours. As well as westerns he's done crime, thrillers and historical fiction. In fact he's currently responsible for 227 books but that number will probably increase before you've finished this article.
He has written under many different names and you may have read him without realising it - I did - I loved Elmer Kelton's Sons of Texas series and I later discovered James wrote the sixth book in the series, Defiant. Chances are you may have a western lurking in the collection written by Reasoner.
He is a man of many names. A true modern version of the pulp writer.
That's not to say Reasoner's work is light weight - far from it. Everything he writes is the result of a consummate professional at work and he has gained many gleaming critical reviews. He has written at least a couple of crime classics - Dust Devils is amazingly good and stuck around in my mind for weeks after reading and his early crime novel, Texas Wind enjoys cult status with paperback collectors. However for this feature it is his westerns of which we are primarily concerned - His recent series of Deadwood novels, not based on the stunning TV series but on the actual history of the illegal town, are excellent semi-fictions that add more flesh to the characters we've come to know from the TV series.
The series currently numbers four books with maybe more to come. I read the first two before I realised they were by Reasoner since they're published under the name of Mike Jameson. I put it to the author that the books were , although obviously linked to the TV version, in fact totally separate entities.
"The publisher specifically asked for something different, and while the TV show may have influenced the tone of the books to a certain extent, I’ve tried to stick much closer to the historical details. I also try to point out, in the notes at the end of the books, which parts are historical and which are fictional."
Deadwood, the TV series, was infamous for it cursing, but besides that visually it was a very accurate representation of the time and place. I wondered how much of the TV series Reasoner was familiar with?
"I haven’t seen all of the episodes, but I enjoyed what I have seen. Despite its claims of authenticity, it’s almost entirely fictional, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s still well-written and well-acted, and the writers told the stories they wanted to tell, whether they stuck with the actual facts or not. That’s certainly a valid approach. It’s historical fiction, after all. All of us who write fiction veer away from the truth. It’s just a matter of degree."
Point taken and although the show took artistic licence with the facts - for instance Bullock didn't arrive in Deadwood until after Hickok was killed. However the TV's representation of Calamity Jane is the most realistic ever seen on screen. I put this to him
"Good point about Calamity Jane. I think that by and large the TV show got the characters right. It just had them doing things they didn't do or rearranging the chronology of how things really happened. For example, the epidemic that occurred during the first season on TV, in which Calamity nursed the sick, actually took place two years later in 1878. And as you mentioned, Hickok and Bullock are friends in the TV show when in actuality Bullock arrived just after Hickok was killed. But the personalities of all the characters are pretty accurate as far as I can tell."
James Reasoner the western novelist has been responsible for so many classic westerns that he must know the ingredients that go towards make a great western.
"I’m pretty much of a traditionalist. I like a strong plot and plenty of action. That’s the pulp reader in me. But I also think a Western needs good characterization, and I don’t want everything to be cut-and-dried, black and white, good guys vs. bad guys. I also think a Western should be set west of the Mississippi (most of the time; this isn’t a hard and fast rule with me), and the time frame shouldn’t be later than, say, the 1920s. I’ve read numerous stories set post-World War I that I would consider Westerns. Much beyond that, though, and I have a hard time accepting a book as an actual Western."
So what writers does he particularly admire? Who has influenced this one man writing machine?
"Robert E. Howard is my all-time favorite writer, not only for what he wrote but how he did it, forging a successful career as a professional writer in circumstances not favorable to that at all. Favorite Western writers: Frederick Faust (aka Max Brand and a horde of other pseudonyms), H.A. De Rosso, T.T. Flynn, Fred Glidden (Luke Short), Lewis B. Patten, Leslie Scott, probably many others from the pulps. Paperbackers like Ben Haas (who wrote mostly as John Benteen and Richard Meade), Gordon D. Shirreffs, and Merle Constiner. I’m also a fan of many current Western writers, but I’m also friends with most of them and would hate to start naming names because I’d forget someone. Other genres: Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Leslie Charteris, Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, Harry Whittington, Mickey Spillane, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov. Some of them wrote Westerns, too, of course. Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Irwin Shaw (my favorite short story in any genre is Shaw’s “Main Currents of American Thought”, the best story about being a professional writer I’ve ever read). I’ve recently become a big fan of John O’Hara’s work. But as you can tell, the pulps have been a big influence on me."
At the moment the western genre is in one of its quiet phases but there always something going on, some movie in production or some novel coming out. So where does Reasoner see the future of the genre?
"I’m a little more optimistic about the survival of the Western than I was a few years ago. Sales have dropped drastically over the past fifteen years, but the numbers seem to have bottomed out now and have even climbed a little in the past couple of years. Westerns were once the most popular paperback genre, and while I don’t think they’ll ever see that sort of popularity again, I think Westerns will still be around ten years from now, being published for a small but still devoted audience."
Of course the western is a fluid genre and is not always confined to the period we think of as the old west. No country for old man was very much a western.
"As I mentioned , I’m a traditionalist. I can see that a book or a movie might have some Western elements, or be structured like a Western, but if it’s not set in the Old West or the first couple of decades of the Twentieth Century, I have a hard time accepting it as a Western. I have a little problem, for example, with a present-day mystery set in the West, or a literary novel set in the West, winning a Spur Award for Best Western, because to me, those novels aren’t real Westerns. They’re certainly not marketed as Westerns. It’s not something I lose any sleep over, though. Nor do I mind admitting that my own feelings are sometimes contradictory, because I love those Roy Rogers movies that have cars and airplanes in them and have no trouble accepting them as Western movies. (Although Roy Rogers movies are really a genre unto themselves . . ."
Of his own novels, very much traditional westerns, which does the author hold as particular favourites?
"UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS. As far as Westerns go, it’s one of those borderline cases because it’s set in 1917 and 1918, and a lot of it takes place in Europe during World War I. And it was nominated for a Spur Award, so there I go, shooting down my own argument in the previous question. I never claimed to be consistent. But I like UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS because I think it’s good, pure adventure fiction, and because I appear in it as a character in the framing sequence. I’m also very fond of THE LAST FRONTIER, one of the Stagecoach Station books I wrote under the house-name Hank Mitchum. It’s centered around one of my areas of interest, Western movies, and yeah, I’m in it as a character, too. STARK’S JUSTICE, the first of the Judge Earl Stark books, came about because of some things that happened at the Western Writers of America convention in Jackson, Wyoming, in 1992, which is still my favorite WWA convention. DUST DEVILS, which came out last year, is about as good as I can write hardboiled crime fiction, I think. And I’m still fond of TEXAS WIND, my very first novel, a private eye yarn set in Fort Worth. I’d do some things differently now, but I reread it not that long ago and was pleased by how much raw energy and enthusiasm it has in it."
What future projects would the author like to tell us about?
"I have quite a few house-name books lined up, so I plan to stay busy writing. The only thing I have coming out under my own name is one of the books in the new Gabriel Hunt adventure series, sometime next year. This series was created by Charles Ardai, the publisher of the Hard Case Crime series, and is intended to do for adventure fiction what Hard Case Crime has done for hardboiled and noir fiction. Each book will be by-lined Gabriel Hunt, who’s the main character in the novels, but the actual authors will be identified, too. There are six books lined up, and the others authors besides myself are Charles Ardai, Christa Faust, David J. Schow, Nicholas Kauffman, and Raymond Benson. The covers by Glen Orbik are beautiful and very much in the pulp spirit. I’m looking forward to seeing my entry in the series and reading the other books."
And finally for all us writers out here what advice does the prolific author offer?
I’ve written books with no outline at all, and I’ve written books from very detailed outlines that were really condensed versions of the finished novel. My preference is to have a four to six page outline that gives me a good general structure for the book. I like to know where I’m going. But I also like having the freedom to be creative as I go along and add and subtract elements as needed. Some of the best supporting characters I’ve created weren’t in the original outlines; they just walked into the books. I nearly always know how a book is going to end before I start writing it, and I’ve varied from that only once or twice. Occasionally I plan really far ahead. For example, in the WIND RIVER series, where I had a six-book contract, I knew what the ending of the sixth book would be before I ever wrote any of the first book. I enjoy planting the seeds for plot developments that won’t take place until three or four books down the line. Of course, sometimes that backfires on you when you don’t get to write as many books as you’d planned (because a series isn’t renewed when you thought it would be) and some plotlines are never fully developed. In that case, all you can do is apologize to the readers and move on."
To end the interview I decided to satisfy my love of lists and asked the author for his top ten western movies:
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Magnificent Seven
Once Upon a Time in the West
Ride the High Country
Novels by James Reasoner
TEXAS WIND, Manor Books, 1980.
TIE A BLACK RIBBON (Skeeter Barlow Mystery), By James Reasoner & L.J. Washburn, Five Star Mystery, 2000.
STARK'S JUSTICE, Pocket Books, 1994.
THE HAWTHORNE LEGACY, Pocket Books, 1994.
THE DIABLO GRANT, Pocket Books, '95.
WIND RIVER, Harper Paperbacks,1994
#2 THUNDER WAGON, 1994.
#3 WOLF SHADOW, 1994.
#4 MEDICINE CREEK, 1995.
#5 DARK TRAIL, 1995.
#6 JUDGMENT DAY, 1995.
THE WILDERNESS ROAD, Harper Paperbacks,'96.
THE HUNTED, Harper Paperbacks, May 1997.
UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS, Berkley Books, May '98.
WALKER, TEXAS RANGER:
THE NOVEL, Berkley Books, April '99.
HELL'S HALF ACRE, Berkley Books, July '99.
SIEGE ON THE BELLE, Berkley Books, Sept.'99.
DEATH HEAD CROSSING, Pinnacle, August 2007.
DUST DEVILS, Point Blank, August 2007.
Civil War Battle Series: Book 1 MANASSAS, Cumberland House Publishing, Spring '99.
Book 2: SHILOH, Fall '99
Book 3: ANTIETAM, Spring 2000.
Book 4: CHANCELLORSVILLE, Fall 2000.
Book 5: VICKSBURG, Spring 2001.
Book 6: GETTYSBURG, Fall 2001
Book 7: CHICKAMAUGA, Spring 2002
Book 8: SHENANDOAH, Fall 2002
Book 9: SAVANNAH, Spring 2003
Book 10: APPOMATOX, Fall 2003
THE LAST GOOD WAR: Book 1 BATTLE LINES, Forge Books, May 2001
Book 2: TRIAL BY FIRE, May 2002
Book 3: Zero Hour, May 2003
THE PALMETTO TRILOGY: CALL TO ARMS by Livia Hallam with James Reasoner (Civil War Historical written with Livia), Cumberland House, 2005.
THE PALMETTO TRILOGY: WAR DRUMS, Cumberland House, 2006.
DRAW: THE GREATEST GUNFIGHTS OF THE AMERICAN WEST, Berkley Books, December 2003
Novels As J. L. Reasoner (with Livia Reasoner)
RIVERS OF GOLD, Jove, 1995.
THE HEALER'S ROAD, Jove, 1995.
HEALER'S CALLING, Berkley Books, '96.
COSSACK THREE PONIES, Berkley Books, Feb.'97.
Bantam Books As Dana Fuller Ross
WAGONS WEST-THE FRONTIER TRILOGY
: WESTWARD, 1992.
: EXPEDITION, 1993.
: OUTPOST, 1993.
WAGONS WEST-THE EMPIRE TRILOGY
Novels As Jake Foster
HELL-FOR-LEATHER RIDER, Zebra Books, 1991.
RAMROD REVENGE, Zebra Books, 1992.
Bantam Books As Hank Mitchum
STAGECOACH STATION #27: PECOS, 1987.
#29: PANHANDLE, 1987.
#32: TAOS, 1987.
#33: DEATH VALLEY, 1988.
#35: BONANZA CITY, 1988.
#51: WILD WEST, 1991.
#52: THE LAST FRONTIER, 1991.
Pocket Books As Justin Ladd
ABILENE #2: THE SHARPSHOOTER, 1988.
#3: THE PURSUERS, 1988.
#4: THE NIGHT RIDERS, 1988.
#5: THE HALFBREED, 1988.
#6: THE HANGMAN, 1989.
#7: THE PRIZEFIGHTER, 1989.
#8: THE WHISKEY RUNNERS, 1989.
#9: THE TRACKER, 1989.
#10: THE GENERAL, 1989.
#11: THE HELLION, 1989.
#12: THE CATTLE BARON, 1990.
#13: THE PISTOLEER, 1990.
#14: THE LAWMAN, 1990.
#15: THE BARLOW BRIDES, 1990
#16: THE DEPUTY, 1990.
Zebra Books as Terence Duncan
POWELL'S ARMY #4: ROBBERS ROOST, 1988.
#5: ROCKY MOUNTAIN SHOWDOWN,'88.
#6: RED RIVER DESPERADOES, 1988.
Bantam Books As Matthew S. Hart
CODY'S LAW #1: GUNMETAL JUSTICE, 1991.
#2: DIE LONESOME, 1991.
#3: BORDER SHOWDOWN, 1991
#4: BOUNTY MAN, 1991.
#5: MANO A MANO, 1992.
#6: RENEGADE TRAIL, 1992.
#8: EAGLE PASS, 1993.
#9: THE PRISONERS, 1993.
#11: RED MOON'S RAID, 1994.
#12: COMANCHE CODE, 1995.
Berkley Books As Jim Austin
FURY , 1992.
FURY #2: BLOOD RANSOM, 1992.
FURY #3: RIVER WAR, 1993.
FURY #4: LAST CHANCE CANYON, 1994.
FURY #5: NEVADA GUNS, 1995.
Bantam Books As Adam Rutledge
PATRIOTS #1: SONS OF LIBERTY, 1992.
#2: REBEL GUNS, 1992.
#3: THE TURNCOAT, 1992.
#4: LIFE AND LIBERTY, 1993.
#5: THE CANNON'S CALL, 1993.
#6: STARS AND STRIPES, 1994.
Berkley Western Novel as Mike Jameson
TALES FROM DEADWOOD, November 2005.
#2: THE GAMBLERS May 2006.
#3: THE KILLERS, January 2007. #4: THE TROOPERS, March 2009
Jove Books As Tabor Evans
#178 LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN DEATH
#185 LONGARM AND THE DRIFTING BADGE
#192 LONGARM AND THE MAN-EATERS
#207 LONGARM AND THE BRAZOS DEVIL
#208 LONGARM AND THE ANGEL OF INFERNO
#214 LONGARM AND THE RACY LADIES
#222 LONGARM AND THE BACKWOODS BARONESS
#228 LONGARM AND THE VOODOO QUEEN
#229 LONGARM AND THE BORDER WILDCAT
#242 LONGARM AND THE RED-LIGHT LADIES
#245 LONGARM AND THE VANISHING VIRGIN
#250 LONGARM AND THE CHAIN-GANG WOMEN
#253 LONGARM IN THE VALLEY OF SIN
#256 LONGARM AND THE DYNAMITE DAMSEL
#258 LONGARM AND THE PISTOLERO PRINCESS
#261 LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN GODDESS
#266 LONGARM AND THE WAYWARD WIDOW
#272 LONGARM AND THE SIX-GUN SENORITA
#277 LONGARM AND THE YUKON QUEEN
#279 LONGARM ON A WITCH HUNT
#281 LONGARM AND THE LADY LAWYER
#283 LONGARM AND THE OZARK ANGEL
#287 LONGARM AND THE BLACKMAILERS
#290 LONGARM AND THE DESERT ROSE
#294 LONGARM AND THE ARIZONA FLAME
#301 LONGARM AND THE BANK ROBBER'S DAUGHTER
#302 LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN GHOST
#306 LONGARM AND THE PIRATE’S GOLD
#309 LONGARM IN THE TALL TIMBER
#311 LONGARM AND THE DEVIL’S BRIDE
#315 LONGARM AND THE LOST PATROL
#320 LONGARM AND THE TEXAS TREASURE HUNG
#323 LONGARM AND THE SCARLET RIDER
#329 LONGARM AND THE RESTLESS REDHEAD
#332 LONGARM AND THE OWLHOOT'S GRAVEYARD
#342 LONGARM AND THE BAYOU TREASURE
#345 LONGARM AND THE HELL RIDERS
#350 LONGARM AND THE HANGTREE VENGEANCE
#352 LONGARM AND THE PINE BOX PAYOFF
LONGARM GIANT #25: LONGARM AND THE OUTLAW EMPRESS
LONGARM GIANT #26: LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN EAGLE SHOOT-OUT
LONGARM GIANT #27: LONGARM AND THE VALLEY OF SKULLS
LONGARM GIANT #28: LONGARM AND THE LONE STAR TRACKDOWN
Signet Books As Jon Sharpe
#245 TRAILSMAN: BLOODY BRAZOS
#248 TRAILSMAN: SIX-GUN JUSTICE
#254 TRAILSMAN: NEBRASKA GUNRUNNERS
#256 TRAILSMAN: HIGH COUNTRY HORROR
#259 TRAILSMAN: WYOMING WOLF PACK
#266 TRAILSMAN: SIX-GUN SCHOLAR
#269 TRAILSMAN: DEVIL'S DEN
#273 TRAILSMAN: MONTANA MASSACRE
#276 TRAILSMAN: SKELETON CANYON
#279 TRAILSMAN: DEATH VALLEY VENGEANCE
#282 TRAILSMAN: KANSAS WEAPON WOLVES
#286 TRAILSMAN: TEXAS TERROR TRAIL
#290 TRAILSMAN: MOUNTAIN MAVERICKS
#293 TRAILSMAN: OZARK BLOOD FEUD
#297 TRAILSMAN: SOUTH TEXAS SLAUGHTER
#302 TRAILSMAN: BLACK ROCK PASS
#309 TRAILSMAN: CALIFORNIA CARNAGE
#313 TRAILSMAN: TEXAS TIMBER WAR
#320 TRAILSMAN: OREGON OUTRAGE
#325 TRAILSMAN: SEMINOLE SHOWDOWNLone Star series (as by Wesley Ellis): #153 LONE STAR AND THE MOUNTAIN OF FIRE
Slocum series (as by Jake Logan): #229 SLOCUM AND THE TEXAS ROSE
McMasters series (as by Lee Morgan): #2 SILVER CREEK SHOWDOWN
THE EMERALD LAND, by Livia James, Fawcett Gold Medal, 1983.
FARADAY #1: IRON HORSE, by William Grant, Lynx Books, 1988.
SONS OF TEXAS #6: THE DEFIANT, by Tom Early, Berkley Books, 1993.
Margaret Weis Presents CRUSADE: #1 LYRON'S LAMENT, Pariah Books As James & Livia Reasoner, 1995.
JUR: A STORY OF PRE-DAWN EARTH, by Tom Johnson and James Reasoner, NovelBooks, Inc.,2002.
CHILDREN OF THE LION #19: TRIUMPH OF THE LION, by Peter Danielson, Bantam Books, 1996.
MURDER IN COWTOWN, by Tom McCloud, [Audio], Spellbinder, 1995.
LEGEND by Elmer Kelton, Judy Alter, Loren Estleman, James Reasoner, Jane Candia Coleman, Ed Gorman, & Robert J. Randisi, Leisure Books, 1999.
HIGHWAY TO FEAR, by B.J. Conners, [Audio], Spellbinder, 1995.
NOAH'S RIDE by Elmer Kelton, Judy Alter, Carlton Stowers, Phyllis Allen, James Reasoner, Mary Rogers, Mike Cochren, Mike Blackman, mary Dittoe Kelly, Jane Robers Wood, James Ward Lee, Carole Nelson Douglas, & Jeff Guinn, TCU Press, 2006.