Friday, 29 January 2010

David Whitehead interview

Born on the wild frontier of East London, David Whitehead always wanted to write. As a child his father would pass on his old western books and also record stories he'd invented himself onto a tape for his young son to listen to.

These days that boy has become a man but that boyhood love of westerns is still with him and he has penned almost fifty westerns under a handful of names as well as many highly regarded works in other genres. His westerns are published under the Black Horse imprint from Robert Hale LTD.

So what is it about the western that attracts David?

In short, everything - the grandeur of the country against which the story's usually set, the idea that good can and does triumph over evil, that against all the odds justice can been done. Loyalty, honour, the idea that a man's word is everything, the opportunities for action - chases, gunfights, fist-fights ... I just love it all.

For a man with so many successful westerns under his belt David must have a good idea what ingredients are important to the genre?

First and foremost it needs a good, original plot. At this stage of the game, even the most die-hard western reader must have had his or her fill of range wars and vengeance quests. The plot needs to ring the changes, and yet remain traditional enough to appeal to fans of the genre. It needs characters who are more than just cardboard cutouts. The characters need to live and breath, to be credible and easy to identify with. They need to be as realistic as the author can make them, so that they hurt and love and get scared and dig deep to find the reserves they need to carry on, and that we, the reader, feel all of these things every step of the way. Most of all, however, I think the western needs to be told with style. There is very little left in the genre that hasn't already been done to death. The next step, I think, is to create a new variation on the old theme and tell it in the best and most original and entertaining way you can.

Which western authors have been a particular influence?

Many, and to mention even a few is to perform a disservice to the rest. However, the late, great Ben Haas probably had the most profound effect on me. When I first came to his FARGO and SUNDANCE series (written as John Benteen), it was a revelation. Here was the way popular westerns should be written. Fabulous, original plots, great set pieces, unusual locations and characters who were wholly believable. He influenced me more than anyone else.

For a writer so prolific David must have a strict writing routine. I ask him about this.

This is the code by which I always try to write. First, I check my ego at the door, then I stick your butt in the chair and write. I've never felt the need to impress anyone other than the reader. When I'm at the keyboard, he or she is all that matters. I take my work seriously, but never take myself seriously. I write, I care about what I write, and then I go back and refine it and add to it, until I can see and hear and feel everything in my mind. Also, I always try to think ahead. As Peter Watts once said, the western readership is thick with experts, some of them even more ill-informed than many of the writers. So I am forever thinking ahead, checking my facts so as not to get caught out, and finally I endeavour to write with such authority that, even if I do slip up somewhere, the reader will still believe entirely in what I've told him.

David writes under many different names and yet each name seems to have a distinct voice. For instance Ben Bridges reads differently to Mike Lockwood.

Very much so, at least to my mind. Ben Bridges has a tougher style. His plots are more action-related. Glenn Lockwood is different. The Lockwood books are more concerned with emotion, human nature, ordinary men and women put in extraordinary situations and how they deal with them.

The western genre at the moment seems to be on some sort of upswing. Where does David see the genre in a few years from now?

I think it will remain a minority genre for several years to come, until someone out there does something constructive to introduce the genre to a new and younger readership. We need to be at the top of our game so that we can produce original westerns aimed at a more modern market. That's not to say we need to have teenage cowboys telling each other to "Chill", or to create a squeaky-clean western version of Hollyoaks or Beverly Hills 90210, just that we have to convince people who've never read westerns before that it's not all "head-'em-off-at-the-pass" and "white-man-speak-with-fork-tongue."
The best way to do it is to start writing westerns for children. Most kids now have no idea what a western is, or the fun and excitement that can still be had from them. Introduce them to well-told, fast-paced stories and hopefully we have a western fan for life. But it's tough. Writers can't do it alone. We need open-minded publishers, promotion, opportunity.
Several years ago I was asked to write a booklet about westerns for the school at which my wife then worked. This formed the basis of a number of lessons, and by all accounts the kids were absolutely enthralled by the story of the west, and in next to no time the entire class could be found scribbling away at their own western yarns and studying reference books to see what a Conestoga was or to discover the different customs of the various Indian tribes. Kids really don't know what they're missing ... but how do we get them to give our genre the time of day? Answers on a postcard, please.

As stated in the introduction it has always been David's ambition to become a writer.
But how did it all come about?

I was born wanting to write. And since my Dad took me to see all the western movies that were still being made during my childhood (the 1960s) and we were forever watching westerns on TV, and since he used to make up western stories for me and then read them into a reel-to-reel tape recorder so that I could listen to them while he was working evening shifts as a security man, the western seemed a natural genre for me. I grew up with an understanding of the history and geography of the west, an ear for the dialogue, a respect for the themes that play such a large part in the genre. It didn't matter that I was just a poor kid from the East End of London. The American West was my second home.
Initially, and like so many of us, I wrote for my own entertainment. Then, when I was sixteen, I decided to write specifically for publication. I wrote a horror novel called VAMPIRE SCOURGE and that brought me the first of many, many rejection slips.
Undaunted, I went on to write about nineteen or twenty books before THE SILVER TRAIL was accepted for publication in 1984. I came close to publication a few times, but never quite made it. When Granada Books cancelled the JUBAL CADE series, for example, they expressed interest in a series I submitted to them about a black gunfighter named JASON DEAL. Sadly for me, right at the eleventh hour (and after I had written the first three books) there was a change of editor and the new guy decided to reinstate JUBAL CADE.
Then I came close to scoring an acceptance with a series about a crotchety one-eyed Pinkerton man named LOGAN TYREE. He was aimed specifically at the Norwegian western market, and was very much in the embittered, short-tempered style of MORGAN KANE. But the western was undergoing one of its periodic downturns in Norway, so nothing came of that.
In between all this, I joined the Western Writers of America and that gave me an address list through which I began to correspond with a number of writers. With two exceptions (whose names I won't reveal), they were all unfailingly kind and encouraging. I counted among my correspondents at that time such luminaries as Ray Hogan, Louis L'Amour, Matt Braun, Brian Garfield, Will Henry, a whole bunch of them. I also started the George G Gilman Appreciation Society after becoming a fan of the EDGE and ADAM STEELE books, and through that I met and got to know the likes of Terry Harknett, Angus Wells, Laurence James. That also gave me an understanding of how publishing worked at that time.
Then one day I was bemoaning my bad luck to Peter Watts/Matt Chisholm, when he suggested that I send him what I considered to be my best book at that time. He would then read it and, if possible, tell me where I was going wrong. I did, he did, and his observations really showed me how it should be done. I still owe him for that, and indeed for introducing me to Mike Linaker, who remains a wonderful friend to this very day.
Anyway, having taken all of Peter's criticisms on board, I rewrote the second LOGAN TYREE book, SHIMMERING SILVER, as THE SILVER TRAIL, and sent it to Hale. I was asked to cut a few thousand words, did so and then received an acceptance. Later still I rewrote the first TYREE story, THE HIGHBINDERS, and it was eventually published as HELLER. The third, never-written TYREE yarn, THE DEADLY DOLLARS, eventually saw print as an O'Brien western.
Short answer, then: determination, luck and ability. Bang your head against a wall for long enough, and eventually it will crumble. The wall, that is, not the head.

David has also penned romance stories as Janet Whitehead as well as comic strip stories. How different are these disciplines to the western work?

I believe that writing is writing. Before any of us became western writers, we were simply writers. There are certain similarities between westerns and COMMANDO stories: a typical BHW is about 45,000 words. A typical COMMANDO story has to be wrapped up in about 135 pictures. So in both cases you're writing to a specific limit. Both genres rely on pace and regular bursts of action. To an extent, they are both formulaic, and rely on the writer to ring the changes and yet retain the traditional flavour. Scripts are easier in that you can introduce a nasty Nazi and put words in his mouth, but you don't have to stop and research the kind of uniform he's wearing, or the gun he's carrying. That is the job of the editor and the artist. So you're reasonably free to just introduce characters and situations without the need to research historical detail or "choreograph" action scenes, because that will be done by the artist. When you write a western, it's a solo effort. Everything relies on the author. But researching uniforms, weapons, Indian customs, war paint etc is a perk of the job in a way, because I really enjoy it.

Another important thing, I think - and this applies equally to both the western and the romance - is that the events that make up the story should flow naturally from the plot. It's no good trying to shoe-horn in a sudden burst of action or a passionate clinch if the plot doesn't call for it. Readers aren't so silly that they can't see that it's contrived. So the construction of plot should ensure that whatever it is, whether it be a bank robbery or that first meeting of our lovers' eyes across a crowded room, it should stem naturally from the plot.

What are David's fave western movies?


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