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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

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?

The Big Sky

TA: Desert island western movie?

High Noon

Visit John's website HERE


Steve M said...

Excellent interview Gary.

Unknown said...

John Nesbitt is an erudite man who talks a lot of sense!

I can't entirely agree with what he has to say about the reader's stomach for "moral relativism and marital infidelity". A lot of it went on in Victorian times everywhere, including the Old West. The informed under-40 reader, to whom we are told the genre must appeal if it is to have a future, knows this. Sadly, some editors ARE prudes and no, they aren't simply being "market-minded". The part of the general public that is still reading wants the whole story. Why else does it ask for the restored, unexpurgated Riders of the Purple Sage?

I agree coarse language would not have been as widely used as in modern times. It would not, for instance, have included such prolific use of the four-letter words heard in every episode of TV'sDeadwood.

But interestingly, swearing was seen as a problem in the Old West, although it has not been allowed to be reflected in very many genre westerns. I like this passage from Isabella Bird's very useful A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, written in the 1870s:

"The driver never spoke without an oath, and though two ladies were passengers, cursed his splendid horses the whole time. Formerly, even the most profane men intermitted their profanity in the presence of women, but they 'have changed all that.'"

Anyway, a good, thought-provoking interview. Now I must get back to the latest adventure of the outrageous Misfit Lil. As well as bothering her fellow characters, this will no doubt horrify my conservative publisher in due course!

Regular readers will want to continue enjoying what one has called the Misfit Lil stories' "er - friskiness".

David Cranmer said...

Another good'un Gary. And Trouble at The Redstone is a very fine read.

Dan said...

Interesting interview. I have to agree with Chap's comment, however, about "moral relativism."
The western novels I tend to enjoy the most have characters who are flawed, but somehow overcome those flaws. I think westerns share a lot in commom with detective stories, characters who have a way of living that often clashes with the reality of life.
That said, I'll probably look up Mr. Nesbitt's book.
I'm a recent convert to western novels.
I would have been interested in hearing Mr. Nesbitt's opinion on why westerns are accorded so much less critical respect than other genres.

Keith said...

Great interview. I really enjoyed reading it.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Dan - that's an interesting question and maybe John could answer that in the comments section.

Craig Clarke said...

Great interview, Gary. I really enjoyed Death at Dark Water and have Rancho Alegre on my TBR pile.

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank these readers and/or writers who have offered their comments, not least among them the bits of praise for my work. I appreciate comments from people who "can't entirely agree," and I do agree with much of what Chap has said. My comments about what wouldn't wash well in traditional westerns are based on what I have heard from editors and readers, and not all of them have the same standards. The editor with whom I did my first three traditional westerns was diligent and meticulous about taking out potentially lurid content. One time I was brainstorming a story with her over the phone, and I came to the part where, after having sex with another man's wife, the protagonist finds out she is pregnant by yet some other man. The editor demurred right there and said, "Oh. I don't know what the readers might say about that." I could tell that that was the editor's way of saying that her standards were more straight-laced than mine, and she was expressing it in therms of readership. If she had the market in mind, I could have no quarrel. I wanted my books to succeed, and the ones I was doing with that house went to the library market, where many of the readers are in the older, conservative crowd. And one such reader did write me about a later book of mine, which she (the reader) returned to the library "pronto" when the girl went into the tent with the amiable protagonist. So if an editor says, this isn't good for our purposes, that's not the same as saying, this isn't good fiction material or even, I don't approve of it. I have plenty of other stories in which to express my worthy insights on topics such as these, and I did dare to write a western entitled "Lonesome Range," in which I exercise a bit of moral relativism when the main character falls in love with a married woman and has not one but two affairs with her. The editor, whose standards were not quite so tight as the previous editor's, was all right with my treatment, and even though I thought the novel was one of my best, it didn't get a lot of notice in the western line because (I think) it didn't meet the expectations of the genre (people saw it as a love story), and I am quite sure that one of the reasons it got passed over in the Spur judging was that one of the three judges didn't have the stomach for the story line and some of its details. In editing a subsequent book, the same editor let me know that using the "N" word, even for a character who was so named in real life, was not good business. He said that purveyors such as Wal-Mart would cease to stock works by writers (and even publishers) whose works received complaints from customers. Call it censorship if you wish, call it small-minded (as I consider it, and as my editor did), but it is a reality. I'm in this thing for the long haul, and I want my westerns in Wal-Mart and every other place where they can be sold. How to refer to one character is a relatively small matter, even when I thought I was using the name for what I thought was an artistic purpose. If I want to use gritty language and work with gritty subject matter, there are simply other places where I will have more freedom.

O.K. Take a breath. The other point is about why westerns don't receive as much critical respect as other genres. Well, I've studied the western quite a bit, and I've judged for the Spur awards a few times, and I have to say that a lot of westerns (past and present) just aren't well written. Many of them are derivative in story line, faulty in syntax and grammar, and petty in idea. If a person writes in the genre, she (or he) has to admit that he (or she) is joining some often-not-distinguished company. I like to think I rise above some of it, but I also have to remind myself that what readers think makes a good story is variable. For some, a trenchant story line with plenty of mayhem, property destruction, and salty language (such as "I reckon I seen some dead buffler on this trip") is mighty fine, and if the author gets the firearm details right, who in the hell cares if he gets his verb or pronoun forms right (and I mean in the narrative voice, not in the dialogue). So the genre tolerates a lot of what I see as stupidity but what others don't. Another reason, perhaps, is that America hasn't grown out of the idea that anyone who lives in the country is uncouth and that as soon as a person becomes enlightened, she (or he) will take up residence in a city, and preferably one in which the better (more cultured) people hang out. Many Americans have the idea that rural life is backward and obsolete, quaint at best, and that working with a shovel or trimming the intestines out of a deer is part of an inferior way of life and that fiction about that way of life holds little interest.

That's probably enough for the time being. Again, I appreciate the comments by the other participants here, and I would also like to thank those of you who have read my work and have found something nice to say about it.

Unknown said...

John, I'll keep this short by commenting on just one of your admirable points.

Sure, the readers of westerns who borrow them from libraries may well be older and conservative; a minority of the wider reading public, in fact, that is inevitably shrinking year by year. Publishers and writers with the genre's long haul in mind need to broaden the demographic.

Today, more widely educated people (probably the only kind among the younger set who read fiction for pleasure any more) do not accept that the moral standards exemplified in a Grey/Mulford-style western as published in the early 20th century, accurately reflected historical reality. Moreover, I don't think such stories strike a satisfactory chord with them. Their own lives and thinking have them geared to a more liberal, honest approach.

That's why, for example, an editor should allow drug use, which you mentioned yesterday, to occur when appropriate in a western. In one of my two dozen I had an actor character, traveling with a touring French group, who was addicted to morphine. I despair when I hear topics like this are banned for westerns but not other genres.

Anonymous said...

I'll try to keep mine short, too. I actually mentioned drug-dealing, not drug use, but I agree with your point. I also agree that the establishment morality in those early westerns did not reflect life or attitudes of the time but rather the decorum of publishing, and that modern-day readers do want something that has a texture of reality as they know it. In practice, though, I don't think an author is selling out if he or she tries to avoid problems. When I kick around ideas for contemporary story lines, I know that subjects matter like drug-dealing or marginally consensual sexual domination is not likely to get censored. But if I were to build a traditional western story line around some of that material, I could count on running up against conflict that I don't need. I could just write about that stuff (if I wanted to) in another kind of story, and try to work with some other kind of reality in the western story. There's plenty of opportunity for that, I think.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I too have come up against problems - for instance my publisher is not too keen on westerns built around The Indian Wars or The Civil War but that's not too much of a problem. With westerns I tend to enjoy the more traditional storylines in any case - though I do prefer if I'm using violence for it to be distasteful as I think the prensentation of violence should show it for what it is.

But there's nothing wrong with traditional themes and storylines and as long as sex or violence is central to the storyline then I think it is acceptable. I do agree with a lot of Chap's points and I think sometimes things can get too puritanical but when you're producing work for a specific market you've got to gear your work for that market.

Shauna Roberts said...

Apropos off John's comments of the appeal of the Western genre—in the romance genre, Western settings are quite popular, especially for contemporary romance.

Unknown said...

If an author is writing just for the money -- or maybe to see his name in print -- then he certainly isn't selling out if does the utmost to tailor his work to fit what the publisher perceives to be the exact requirements of a particular market. That makes complete sense.

But with the kind of genre writing I've been doing, the money rewards are low. You look to find satisfaction, if not pleasure, in the work itself. Part of that lies in the challenge of producing something you hope will enlarge your audience and offer variety for yourself. For example, as articles at show, I've recently been making something of a play for crime-fiction and "noir" readers. Judging by the quick sell-outs of the books concerned, this hasn't been unsuccessful.

My fear now is that a reader of, say, mysteries, won over as a convert after being tantalized perhaps by the freshness the western's wide open spaces, might find his keenness blunted when he finds the genre also has paradoxically narrow and narrowing boundaries.

By the way, in case anyone is mistaken about what we're discussing here, I'm not advocating a return to the sexual fantasy excesses of some of the early entries in the "adult western series" -- the kind instigated by Playboy magazine in the early '70s.

Read just about any recent Chap O'Keefe western -- e.g. Peace at Any Price, Misfit Lil Cleans Up, Blast to Oblivion -- and you will find content it's becoming ever more difficult to get past a western publisher. That, to me, is discouraging.

Dan said...

Thanks for your take on why westerns don't receive much critical respect.
I still, however, find it an interesting question since western movies are highly regarded. Any even casual movie buff could name a dozen westerns that are considered classics.
You are right that there are some badly written westerns, but there are badly written books in every genre.
I do think part of the answer is the snobbery of the literary elite and a feeling that "country" themes are simplistic.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Dan - but we know differently don't we. There are good and bad in all genres as you say. But who cares - we know the western can produce classic works of literature as can all other genres.


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