Wednesday 8 April 2009
Under western skies - John D Nesbitt interview
Seventeen traditional westerns, three contemporary novels and several short story collections - John Nesbitt is a prolific writer and a truly authentic sounding voice of the Old West - recently his novel, Trouble at The Redstone was awarded the 2009 Spur award, given by the Western Writers of America, for best mass market paperback. He is a resident of Wyoming and teaches both English and Spanish at the Eastern Wyoming College.
The Tainted Archive gathers around the campfire with John D. Nesbit to talk all things western.
TA: What is it about the western genre that appeals to you?
JDN: There are lots of things about the western that appeal to me. For one, the subject matter is very much part of my life. I grew up in a farm and ranch family and was imbued with a sense of western heritage. I have tried to live in the country for as much of my life as I have been able to, and for the last twenty-five years I have been fortunate to live in the Wyoming countryside where I can observe nature and keep my own horses and dogs. As an art form, the western appeals to me because it has a conventional form (like a sonnet, but quite a bit looser) within which one tries to do something original. I enjoy that challenge. Also, the western lends itself to treatments of imperfect characters who often have to face their problems alone, and I think I have an aptitude for that approach.
TA: Was it a long road to becoming a published writer?
JDN: It was not a terribly long road to becoming published, but it took a while to get into book publishing. I started writing short stories in my mid-twenties, and I had a couple of short stories (a commercial western story and a literary story set in the West) and a significant literary article published by the time I was thirty. That wasn’t bad for a student in graduate school. I continued to write short fiction, reviews, literary articles, nonfiction pieces, and poems for several years, and I had my work published in all sorts of magazines and anthologies. However, it took me until I was forty-five to see a book of mine in print. I felt I had lost some time in there, and since then I have tried not to let time pass me by.
TA: How would you describe your books to new readers?
JDN: I still write short stories as well as novels, and I write material set in the Old West, the new West of rural California in the 1960’s and 1970’s (where I grew up doing farm and ranch work), and the contemporary West of Wyoming. I have had five short story collections, three contemporary novels, and seventeen traditional westerns appear in book form. I think I am a mid-level writer in that my work is not commercial to the point of being formulaic, but it is not purely literary, either. One reviewer described me as a writer of literary traditional westerns, and I think that is pretty accurate for my westerns. For my modern and contemporary fiction, I would say I write work of a literary inclination that I hope is thought-provoking but not inaccessible. In all of my fiction I write about everyday characters, usually people who work for a living, and I put them into realistic problems or situations, with the exception that in mysteries and westerns, characters confront physical conflict and murder more than the average farm or ranch worker does. I do not write about larger-than-life characters who have flamboyant adventures, and I don’t write about down-and-out, morally paralyzed, self-loathing wretches. Other writers have more talent for that than I do, and I like a great deal of that material for my own reading.
TA: Using the current state of the western genre, where do you see it heading in the future?
JDN: Right now, I think the western is stable. I don’t think it is growing, but I don’t think it is dying (as so many people like to trumpet). I think it will stay stable for at least a while longer, until the world sees whether people now forty and under will sustain a readership. Western fiction has a great deal of possible appeal, not limited to stagecoach robberies and gunfights, and even if the genre western shrinks to a smaller market than the one to which it has already shrunk, I think it will still survive as a genre. The test will be whether there is still a viable readership. I don’t know why so many people are so quick to declare that the western is dead. I think it is perverse of them to say so if they don’t write or read westerns; it is often just a way of demeaning something that they don’t want to be associated with but are close to, either as writers or as producers. If people who do write (or publish, or promote) westerns persist in saying that the product is dying (i.e., not a good business prospect), I think they should just shut up and turn their talents to something more worthy. For my part, I write westerns because I believe in the art form, and people read them for some similar reason. I don’t know what other people hope to gain by demeaning that transaction.
TA: Which writers do you particularly admire?
JDN: As a lifelong student of literature, I have read many, many writers who have influenced me. In the mainstream literary novel, I have never tired of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the like. In short fiction, I have continued to admire Katherine Mansfield, Hemingway (again), Alice Munro, and Richard Ford. In western fiction, I always find inspiration in A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Conrad Richter, Frederick Manfred, and Louise Erdrich. If I don’t read Owen Wister, B.M. Bower, or Ernest Haycox too often, their work is rewarding as well. I would also like to mention poets such as Alexander Pope and Robert Frost (just to mention two out of many), plus songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Ian Tyson.
TA: What is your writing routine?
JDN: I write whenever I can. As I have a full-time teaching job at a community college, I write in the evenings, on weekends, and during vacations. If I have a stretch of time, as during summer vacation, I try to start by eight in the morning and work until early afternoon. I write fiction by hand and then type it up on the word processor, so sometimes I do the typing later in the day. The manuscript I submit is usually a third draft or later.
TA: Upcoming projects?
JDN: I hope to write more short stories as well as longer works of fiction in each of my above-cited areas: Old West, rural California, contemporary West. I have story plans for short and long works in each of these areas. I recently finished a traditional western novel that I sent to the publisher, and I am expecting to work on another as my next project. I hope to work on other pieces as I can fit them in.
TA: You write both traditional westerns and contemporary western based novels. Are there themes and ideas that would work fine in a traditional western but not in a modern setting and visa versa?
JDN: I think there are some topics that don’t wash well in traditional westerns, as the genre is somewhat conservative in form and in readership. For example, many people in real life swear a great deal more than in most westerns, and they use politically incorrect language. I am not squeamish about language use, but I would tend to use indecorous language as a characterization technique in contemporary fiction more than in stories set in the Old West. There are other topics as well, many of which I don’t write about, such as drug-dealing or sexual perversion (please don’t ask me how to define that or draw the line), that would be better off in modern fiction if the author felt a need to write about them. Other topics, such as marital infidelity or moral relativism, which should be fair game for genre fiction, will not gain vast readership in westerns because the treatment might wander a little too far from what readers (or editors) are comfortable with. Editors are not prudes, but they are market-minded.
TA: Desert island western book?
JDN: The Big Sky
TA: Desert island western movie?
JDN: High Noon
Visit John's website HERE
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