The wilderness of writer’s block is vast, dangerous, and difficult–if not impossible–to cross.
Or is it just the packaging that makes everything look so vast?*
(*Image used with permission from the delightful Toy Soldiers Collecting blog, where adventure awaits after a click on the link…)
A writer never expects to get seriously lost in this wilderness; like the pioneers in their wagons imagining adventures they can safely escape from and tell their spellbound grandkids about, you picture yourself awesomely epically overcoming weariness, discouragement, boredom, frustration. And you will look damn-hot good doing it, like Wagon Train‘s Flint McCullough (Robert Horton) overcoming whatever has wounded him, from fire ants to dehydration to razor-sharp arrows. One after another challenge will waver and give up before your gimlet gaze.
Or just give the danger a killer grin, perhaps…
But know this: writing is a savage business, full of blood and gore although planning to write a novel often starts out in a civilized place. Inspiration takes you far along that civilized, hopeful trail, for some people as far as the Promised Published Land. But for others, it’s easy to get take a wrong turn…
“I need to work on the first chapter again…and again…”
“I’ll just finish this job and then write the book when I’ve made enough money to get by…”
“[insert excuse here]”
(BTW, the excuses aren’t always lame—don’t ever get down on yourself for them; they are worthy reasons. Some are even necessary reasons—it takes a special brand of insanity to turn down a job to work on a novel that may or may not ever see another reader’s eyes.)
But before you know it, you’re lost in Death-to-Novel Valley, with the dreams of publication (and forget about completion), like the lemon-scented groves of California, far beyond your mortal reach.
During my own sojourn in the wilderness, I ride on other people’s novels. I edit their ideas and help them hone sentences. I listen to their campfire stories of finding an agent, completing several chapters in a rush of exultation, living their dream.
I could be an extra on that series, maybe the guy sitting in the shadows, scheming for the sweet, earnest pioneers to fall under a savage knife. Maybe the devil-may-care saddle tramp—there is no writing care in the world, if you don’t write–who rides in to share the warm fire then rides out, fast, as soon as someone starts mentioning they have this idea for a novel, it’ll get published, sure…
To counter the wilderness, I’ve been watching Wagon Train episodes as regularly as some people go to therapy.
I want Major Seth Adams (Ward Bond), wagon master, to care for me in whatever darkness I’m in. He’s crusty as well as trusty, and as John Ford used to pick on him (so rumor has it), I feel a special, er, bond with the big lug. He’s not the stellar John Wayne, but he is the guy who will put up his dukes to protect someone in his train–me, the loser! at the end!! who is about to get picked off by my own defeatism!!!!
Every moment buckskin-clad scout Flint McCullough swings by makes the long days a little brighter. He’ll find the pitfalls of the trail before I do and warn me to steer clear of them or get the rifles ready. He’s the fit-and-trim trail-savvy guy who will buy me a drink to cheer me after a bad writer’s group critique or take me to bed–whatever, as long as I don’t keep him from doing his job, helping Major Adams keep me safe.
Or he could go shirtless.
I want to be wined and dined by Frank McGrath, the curious but brave coot of a cook who doesn’t care if I can’t finish–he just thinks it’s cool I started. And maybe I’d able to steal Terry Wilson as assistant wagon master Bill Hawks away from his wife, just for on more distraction on the yippi-yi-ki-yo trail.
He’s just a regular guy…with a gun.
I’m not the only WT convert out there, although most people with a fondness for the hit series are a couple of generations older than I am. TV’s Wagon Train left St. Louis in 1957 and got the wagons to California (for the ninth and final time) in 1965, changing from black and white to color, like Dorothy’s POV in the Land of Oz, in the process. It was a hit with TV audiences, a long-lived morality play that would one day be turned into a space opera, Star Trek. Each episode told an different story of the member of the wagon train, from stalwart men who persevered to cowardly ones who learned their lesson, from sultry vixens who had it coming to good girls who found their husbands and, somewhat surprisingly for the time, Latinos and Native Americans who just tried to maintain their dignity in a world of prejudice. Sure there may have been, like, one or two black people in the first season, and you could always tell when a woman would die at the end of an episode (hint: she had sex with men she was not married to), but at least it was a start for mid-century families tuning into tales of melting-pot community.
Flint McCullough and Major Seth Adams to the rescue!
I’ve got one episode left; having just viewed an earnest take on post-Civil War society wounds, with Robert Vaughn as a maybe-bitter Southerner and someone else as maybe John Wilkes Booth. Now it’s just the final episode wherein they will make it to California.
I’m assuming they will–much like when you start writing a novel and you’re supposed to finish it and get to the land of Milk and Honey and Hollywood. But really, who am I kidding? All throughout the episodes, the wagon train has moved through the same mountain pass, circled up in the same sunny meadow, crossed the same raging river. I wouldn’t be surprised if the California they make it to is the same as the land they left behind. Maybe it’s all because of a tight budget and sound stages and stock footage. Or maybe you end up where you started, circling the wagons.
Cue Robert Horton’s Flint again, the big-shouldered-trim-waisted scout who will rouse me from echo-chambered, blinker-visioned navel-gazing, even if he has to escape outlaws with a bullet wound in his handsome shoulder, drag himself over cactus for miles, inevitably leaving his shirt behind to show his pecs and brawny arms.
I remember this episode–it was a totally gratuitous and random bathtub scene. But a welcome one.
Then, once again, as Major Adams would say, “Wagons, ho!”
The novel of the homestead cabin writes itself.
It was a prologue of possibilities, of quails and tarantulas and Joshua tree groves and sunshine. Since then, its chapters, experienced at a 2,500-mile distance, waver between comedy and tragedy and tearjerker, with the love of my life, the cabin, being both beautiful and ugly, stoic and needy, a magnet and a caution.
Every western film or novel usually settles into its trail of conflict within the first scene or page of a chapter. Shane rides from the hills, buckskinned glory upon a horse entering farmers’ lands, signaling a story of the West versus civilization. A stagecoach and cavalry gallop beneath the wide skies of Monument Valley in Stagecoach, tiny under the vast skies of the West. Patrick Dearen’s To Hell or the Pecos centers on a man wracked with guilt for having caused the death of his wife, the scent of the desired/feared Pecos River territory dust sharp in the air, the weight of a gun heavy in his hand.
This new chapter in my life–West Coast pilgrim, landowner, glam writer’s cabin retreater–already explores a cornucopia of conflicts. But only one can be the primary conflict. Which will it be?
Human vs. Nature
“I was here first,” he hissed…
It’s a fire zone, near the San Andreas fault. Water washes across property lines and roads during flash floods. And I gotcher venomous arachnids and Crotalus scutulatus. Surely there is something here! But all this–except for the critters–had to be quantified and listed and accounted for for insurance purposes. It transformed into Human vs. Insurance Company, less a cinematic conflict than a tiresome faxing of documents. (Or was, until more efficient avenues of insurance were supplied–thank you, Farmers.)
Human vs. Human
A have-to-share novel–a modern western vampire story that will scare the boots off you
The possible conflicts of western-character-initiated themes run the gamut from traditional (cattlemen vs. sheepherders) to genre-busting (humans vs. vampires) to modern (there are meth houses in them thar hills). But knock on wood and potential threat of vandalism aside, there has been little to fear from surrounding and visiting humans. No cattle/sheep issues that I know of. No undead. No drugged-out thugs waiting for the East Coaster in the dead of night. Call this theme a no-go. The neighbors are OK. Can I say how happy that makes me? I may say.
Human vs. Self
Loves me, loves me not…
And here the flippant commentary dies out. The typing falters. Deletions ensue. After all, has a western ever NOT been about Self?
- Shane puts on the accouterments of the farmer but he has to decide what kind of man he is–the live-among-the-farmers type or the ride-alone-into-the wilderness-forever type.
- All of the passengers of John Ford’s Stagecoach must face their own demons, from whiskey (Thomas Mitchell’s Doc) to daring to hope (Claire Trevor’s Dallas).
- The aging cowboy Tom, riding through the hell of Pecos River territory, must rouse himself from the depths of self-pity to save a woman from bandits.
Human vs. Self sucks. You know what I mean: hubris, self-doubt, self-deception, greed, fear of death, fear of commitment, fear of love.
And windows. What sizes?
Water main or graywater? Compost or septic?
Solar or grid?
Good Lord and the Lone Ranger too.
A certain, beloved literary agent will recognize my age-old conflict: INDECISION vs. DECISION. If I can’t figure out if the villain dies or not at the end of my novel, how can I possibly decide where outlets go?
But what’s the big deal? Who cares if a window is there or over here? A sink drain is next to the west wall or the east wall? Epic possibilities begin to arise. Maybe I am like the drifting cowhand/gunslinger, happy to do whatev. That’s all right–plenty of emulation-worthy characters to choose from. Any character based on Billy the Kid. Kirk Douglas’s Jack Burns in Lonely Are the Brave. Charlton Heston’s Will Penny. Except all three end up dead or lonely. Dang.
But there’s a reason why novels are so long. There’s possibility for transformation even in the first pages and it might take a thousand more to allow it to happen.
When the plans for a bath house (yes, separate, for that sexy cold-night bathroom break) created a threat to cut down a grove of Joshua trees, something happened inside me. They are perfectly formed Joshua trees, probably sprouting when Frankie Sinatra was singing down the road at Palm Springs. Their very branches say “West.” Should they be cut down for construction needs? I said NO. The word welled up viscerally. It was absolute. It was a boundary that would not be crossed. And, sorry to all you visitors, the trees will stand while visitors will traipse a little farther for their shower.
So I went all Randolph Scott about Joshua trees on the long-suffering, patient contractor who should receive co-star billing in the film of this book. But all I want is to enter my house justified–or at least without having to miss Joshua trees.
No, the resolution of my conflict isn’t the high moral path of characters like Shane–a knightly refusal to accept unfairness and harm to others. It isn’t Patrick Dearen’s Tom’s dogged determination to save a woman and redeem himself. I’ve just got myself to work with after all.
Five acres and 280 square feet is a vast land to conquer. But not as big as one’s psyche.
To Hell or the Pecos, by Patrick Dearen, is a fast-paced western that had me flipping the virtual pages on my iPad as fast as my finger could swipe. (Oh, I was riding a bucking bronco at the time, and shooting at bandits to save a rancher’s daughter. Just so you know I’m not a total metrosexual-esque wuss. And obviously I have, like, five hands, but that’s a story for another time. And anyway…)
A page-turner! A galloping ride through desert landscape with tough-as-nails cowboy heroes!
Westerns can be that simple. They don’t have to be exercises in twisting the genre or retreads of stories that are better left in the nineteenth century. They can be adventurous and romantic and push aside the everyday world for a few moments (enough for me to miss my subway stop–a sure sign of total absorption for me).
Yes, westerns can be simple. But the best aren’t simplistic. And as soon as I started feeling the rhythm of the voice of this novel, I knew this western was good and maybe even in the best category.
West Texas Ruins (c) es 2007
Many westerns portray a man with no name swooping in out of nowhere to save the girl/town/farmers (almost any Clint Eastwood western) or a heroic figure rising out of the community to show uncommon grit and purity of heart (as in High Noon). To Hell or the Pecos brings both together in a story of pursuit and redemption. A young cowhand with a settled place in his community (and a name), Jess Graham, rides desperately in pursuit of bandits who have abducted the young woman he loves. His rash inexperience is countered and balanced by a sixty-something old-timer, Tom, who carries a heavy burden on his soul, a ready six-shooter, and the gimlet eye of having been-there-and-done-everything from the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Together they must find and save this young woman—a near-hopeless task but one made possible by their partnership: Jess’s headlong zeal is steadied by the older man’s wiser hand. Tom, struggling with crippling guilt over his wife’s long-ago death, is himself strengthened by Jess’s idealistic love. Through this story of pursuit, their father-and-son story finds its own bittersweet resolution. Both stories are familiar to readers and viewers of westerns, yet Dearen finds the human touches that bring both to life.
Wall of Hats, Pecos Museum (c) es 2007
Sharing the novel’s pages is the young woman who has been abducted. Liz Anne, beloved by Jess, has been kidnapped by bandits to be sold for sex. It’s not a pretty story; she’s raped and beaten but refuses to be the passive captive, striking off, when she can, to escape or kill herself to avoid her fate. She’s not the fainting female of many a western. Dearen based her situation and those of her rescuers on meticulous research into an actual siege, an abduction, and a pursuit in the Pecos area. Also based on this research are the antagonists, Mexican bandits. Usually they’re the stock bad guys in Hollywood westerns, but he strove to show how these men may have fallen into a depraved state through glimpses into their own stories.
Rattlesnake and River Mud, West Texas (c) es 2007
The western landscape, declares Jane Tompkins in West of Everything, is “both the destination and the way.” And truly the Pecos River country of To Hell or the Pecos is a classic western landscape—except not of the Promised Land variety but one of alkali wastes and crumbling bluffs, blazing heat and precious pockets of water scummed with dust. It’s an antagonist, beating back Tom and Jess and their troop of men, demanding sacrifices in blood, sweat, and tears before allowing them to catch up to the bandits at Horsehead Crossing and face death at their guns—and ultimately find love and redemption. The land is “hell,” rasps Tom. Yet it’s also a character whose features the author lingers on quite lovingly—and he’s explored that land extensively.
The “hero in landscape” theme is universal in westerns; the “author in landscape” theme needs to become as important! The book trailer (check it out here) is shot at the spot that the climax takes place–you can practically smell the mud and feel the heat on your shoulders. Author Patrick Dearen, a seasoned writing pro with nineteen books under his belt and with extensive historical knowledge of the Pecos River landscape, took time to answer a few questions about westerns, writing, and To Hell or the Pecos.
The bucko himself!
Bucko: What drew you to writing westerns and this western in particular?
Patrick Dearen: The western life has always been in my blood. My grandfather was a nineteenth-century cowboy, and my great-grandfather was a Texas Ranger. I’m a writer today because of my early, and lifelong, admiration for Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although best known for his Tarzan and Mars novels, Burroughs also crafted two of the finest westerns ever–The War Chief and Apache Devil.
My foray into writing western fiction stems from my research for my nine history and folklore books. Between 1983 and 1995, I interviewed 76 men who cowboyed before 1932 in Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona. They represented the last generation of cowhands who plied their trade exclusively on horseback. My transcripts ran almost a thousand pages, and I supplemented that vast reservoir of knowledge by studying hundreds of archival interviews with cowhands of the 1800s.
But that’s not all. In writing several books about the Pecos River country of Texas and southern New Mexico, I collected intriguing historical accounts of cowhands, early emigrants, soldiers, stage drivers, and outlaws. I came to know the land for its fascinating stories of an earlier era.
To Hell or the Pecos grew out of all this material.
B: Why integrate an intimate theme of camaraderie rather than hewing to the age-old western ideal of a rugged individual defeating all odds?
PD: From all the interviews I conducted and collected, I learned that cowhands were the most loyal of individuals. They had loyalty not only to their employers, but to one other. Yet, many of them left home in their early teens to seek out the cowboy life. Deprived of a father’s guidance at a crucial time in their lives, some young cowboys considered older cowhands as father figures.
Striving for realism rather than mythology, I decided to play on the relationship between a young cowhand and an aging one.
B: You balanced historical fact with fiction, traditional western archetypes (and stereotypes) with a more modern and complex sensibility. As a writer myself, and with many writer-readers, I’m always interested in the choices one makes to hone an inspiration to final, published result. Can you share any of that process?
PD: My cowhand characters are composites of the 76 pre-1932 cowboys I interviewed. These men were the real deal, not the mythologized Hollywood or dime novel figures. In crafting my characters, I wanted them to reflect the true-to-life, last-of-a-breed cowhands with whom I visited. They were complex men of simple honesty whose horse wrecks, draggings, and stampedes gripped me more than any romanticized account possibly could. I relate their actual stories in my books The Last of the Old-Time Cowboys, A Cowboy of the Pecos, and Saddling Up Anyway: The Dangerous Lives of Old-Time Cowboys.
My other characters (and the plot of To Hell or the Pecos) were drawn from actual events in the nineteenth-century Pecos country in Texas. In 1867, Apaches attacked the Joel D. Hoy party at Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos. The Hoy group took refuge in the abandoned stage stand and endured a multi-day ordeal, with one person dying and four others suffering wounds. In the early 1880s, a cowhand abducted a teenage girl from a West Texas ranch and fled to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos. The girl’s father, in the company of several other men, overtook the perpetrator at Horsehead, killed him, and rescued his daughter. And in 1890, two cowhands on horseback pursued four Mexican bandits across the same country of which I write. In an ensuing confrontation, bandido Lorenzo Porez killed one of the cowhands. The next year, Porez was hanged for his misdeed.
B: Some people drive by old adobe ruins and river crossings without noticing them. Other people find their muse at these locations. Does the landscape of the Pecos River country have a particular resonance for historians, artists, and novelists?
PD: To me, the Pecos River country epitomizes our modern perception of the mythical Old West better than almost anywhere else. Cattle drives, Indian fights, stage journeys, cavalry charges, outlaw shootouts – it wasn’t just myth on the Pecos; it really happened. Although the Pecos has long resonated with western novelists (see Zane Grey’s West of the Pecos), such has not been the case with historians and folklorists. In the foreword to my nonfiction book Castle Gap and the Pecos Frontier, the great western novelist Elmer Kelton said the region has been “unjustly neglected in the state’s literature.” For thirty years now, I’ve tried to do my part to alleviate that oversight.
B: And, specifically, of the places mentioned in your novel, such as the fabled Horsehead Crossing, how did they inform your writing?
PD: I’ve come to know the land intimately. With backpacking as my favorite pastime since 1975, I understand and appreciate the outdoors in all respects – from the sweeping expanses to the soaring mesas to the alkali dust collecting on my boots. When I tell of characters desperate for water in a brutal desert, I write from personal experience.
To Hell or the Pecos takes place along the driest stretch of the Butterfield and Goodnight-Loving trail – the 79 miles between the Middle Concho River and Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos in Texas. Not only have I explored every mile of that section, but twice I’ve hiked the old Butterfield and Goodnight-Loving trail between Castle Gap and Horsehead Crossing. My intimate knowledge of the route has given me a connection with the past that I couldn’t otherwise have gained. Horsehead, in particular, has drawn me to it countless times, and whenever I walk its banks, I think of all the sweat and blood with which our forbears painted its waters. I know the loneliness of the Pecos country, but also its harsh beauty, so I guess it’s only natural that the land itself became a vital character in my novel.
B: Tom seeks to right the great wrong he inflicted, first by planning to take his own life as a kind of Old Testament–style retribution, and then by joining forces with Jess to save Liz Anne. He is disillusioned but not so far gone that he can’t find his inner (grizzled) white knight. He has a strong “all I want is to enter my house justified” Randolph Scott vibe (Ride the High Country) as well as a touch of the world-weary, psychologically fragile William Munney of Eastwood’s Unforgiven. If you could cast To Hell or the Pecos as a western film, whom would you choose for your major roles? Who would direct?
PD: For my old cowhand Tom Rawlings, I don’t think there could be a better choice than Robert Duvall – even today. For my mid-20s cowhand Jess Graham, I would choose a young Tommy Lee Jones, a West Texas native who’s at home on a horse. And for the kidnapped girl, Liz Anne, I would summon up a young Sissy Spacek, a Texas gal who would have given the role the proper depth.
As director, I would select Clint Eastwood, who handled Unforgiven with the kind of realism that To Hell or the Pecos demands.
B: And the last: what westerns inspired you as you wrote To Hell or the Pecos, either novels, stories, or films?
I dedicated To Hell or the Pecos to Elmer Kelton, a Pecos country native who was voted the all-time best western novelist by Western Writers of America. I came to know Elmer not only as a superb writer, but as a personal friend. As I drove home from his funeral in 2009, I asked myself how I could best honor this special man. I decided that nothing could be more fitting than to write a novel about the land he and I both loved, and to dedicate it to him. To Hell or the Pecos is that novel.
A fitting tribute! To Hell or the Pecos can be purchased via Texas A&M University Press (If you’re not a western lover–quelle horreur!–think of it as perfect gift for anyone who loves westerns, romance, action, historical fiction.)
VERY pleased to announce an excellently fun gig with History Channel–the daunting task of recommending a series of westerns to savvy history buffs. Check out my recs at their History Shop (oh, and buy some westerns for holiday gifts, especially if you or your friend/lover/pard is the laconic hero type!).
As a special bonus for this roundup of the good, the bad, and the fugly, an interview details my who what where when why of being psyched about this genre, as in why these westerns above and beyond all others?
“A tumbleweed crosses the road, and inevitably someone whistles the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Westerns have that power—just the ching of spurs evokes the age-old struggle between good and evil. Westerns are socio-political commentary on gender and community packed in gun-totin’, wide-vista entertainment with explosions and kisses and handsome heroes standing tall, shooting straight, and getting the girl (or guy). But westerns didn’t start with John Ford and end with John Wayne. With this selection I want to share the scope and depth of the genre, from classic beginnings to today’s gritty renaissance.”
With special thanks to Le Femme Geek for the logo!
What that gobbledygook means is that I wanted to show the range of westerns through a chronological lens. This genre started simply and built to classic heights with directors like Ford and Boetticher setting the vocabulary of westerns for years to come. Even before the tumult of the 1960s, westerns were toying with stereotypes and frontier myths. A few westerns kicked the genre in its dusty ass in the 1990s and ever since then, there have been acid westerns, feminist westerns, and any number of beautifully evocative homage westerns that slyly manage to drag the genre into the twenty-first century.
Not all the westerns made it to the list–I guess there’s a limit to how many people would appreciate the kung-fu western My Name is Shanghai Joe although must-sees such as Shane and Sergeant Rutledge should be considered included. But my spurs are a-tingling at the thought of stars like Barbara Stanwyck and Linda Stirling getting new viewers, as well as off-beat westerns like Keoma and Tears of the Black Tiger!
In an case, the ones left off are included below; on the History Channel site, to read my, ahem, expert reviews, click on the title of the flick. I’ve linked a few of my faves below. Enjoy and happy virtual trails!
Tumbleweeds (1925; rerelease 1939) Silent film star William S. Hart’s best oater, Tumbleweeds sweeps through the expansion of the West with Hart’s cowboy racing to get his piece of God’s country and keep his lady love. Set during the 1889 Oklahoma land rush, the film’s signature scene shows wagons, horses, and even bicycles charging across the prairie at the boom of the cannon. Beneath Hart’s stagy performance beats passion for the West; his films brought authenticity and gritty realism to the genre.
The Phantom Empire (1935)
Destry Rides Again (1939) In a town run by crooks and a dance-hall queen, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), Tom Destry (James Stewart) is the lawman charged with finding who killed the previous sheriff. When he orders milk at the bar and gets sidelined by Frenchy’s no-holds-barred catfight, everyone knows he’s a pushover…until he outfoxes every man—and woman—in the town. The taming of the west theme gets shaken up by Dietrich’s sultry turn as a bad woman turned good, Stewart’s sly performance as the gunfighter who believes in the rule of law, and the sparks that fly between them.
Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)
Shane (1953) Knightly gunslinger Shane (Alan Ladd) is the enigmatic man who rides down from the hills and sets aside guns and troubled past to stay with a pioneer family. But too soon he must defend them against vicious ranchers who will kill to take their land. Shane’s antagonist, the gleefully lethal Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), is a taunting, malevolent presence, and Shane, once he dons his buckskins and holster, is the mythic force that can defeat him.
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
The Searchers (1956)
The Tall T (1957) In the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott canon, The Tall T stands out for its tense love/hate standoff between Scott’s Pat Brennen and the villain played by Richard Boone. A crisp Lone Pine landscape is the setting that this terse Elmore Leonard story deserves. The cheerful opening splinters into tragedy—and as soon as Boone steps from the shadows, the film becomes one long showdown between the two men, played like a stylized bullfight between equally matched opponents.
Forty Guns (1957)
Wagon Train (1957)
Sergeant Rutledge (1960) Woody Strode’s broad shoulders carry this story of a cavalryman accused of raping and murdering a white woman. Rutledge runs away to avoid court-martial but returns to his troop to warn of imminent renegade attack (cue skewering arrows). Set up as courtroom drama and framed in flashbacks, the film exposes the racism of the west while highlighting the decency, honor, and bravery of a classic western hero—who just happens to look damn good in uniform.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Will Penny (1968) Charlton Heston plays the aging cowhand Will Penny, who’s injured after a run-in with a vicious preacher’s gang. Finding his way to a lineshack, he is nursed back to health by Catherine (Joan Hackett) and her son. Love blossoms, but the gang interrupts and Will and Catherine must fight and scheme for their lives. Heston is perfect as the grim, stoic cowboy hero who earns his happy-ever-after ending but—in a bittersweet, modern western twist—can’t change his drifting ways.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
Shanghai Joe (The Flying Fists of Shanghai Joe) (1973) Immigrant Chin Hao (Sessue Hayakawa) wants only to be a cowboy but finds that in the West the pursuit of happiness is barred to anyone who isn’t a white man with a gun. Then he sees Mexican peasants being sold into slavery, and his fists break loose in high-flying kung-fu glory. A psychopathic Klaus Kinski and an age-old nemesis from China try to stop this western-hero paragon, but Chin Hao metes out stern justice before riding into the sunset.
Lonesome Dove (1989)
The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) Director Maggie Greenwald doesn’t whitewash the machismo and racism of the west. Josephine (Suzy Amis) gives birth out of wedlock and is kicked out by her family. A lone woman is easy prey so she disfigures herself and dresses as a man, finding work in a rough frontier town. Against the backdrop of the cattlemen/sheep herder war, “Jo” must hide her identity from those she calls friends, then falls in love with a Chinese immigrant who has his own secrets.
Dead Man (1995)
Tears of the Black Tiger (2000)
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Don’t get me wrong. I would recommend Clint Westwood’s Unforgiven (1992), even if it was just because people who don’t like westerns say they like this western. To them, I’m like, um, this is a total western, so I don’t get what you’re saying, but whatever–it kicked the genre in its dusty ass at a time when silver-screen oaters were pale imitations of themselves.
The plot is like many other westerns, especially those starring Eastwood’s squint. Will Munney (Eastwood) is a one-time killer-turned-farmer/teetotaler who takes one last job—shooting both a man who assaulted a prostitute and his partner, who didn’t. He’s started down that path by a vicious-seeming punk that goes by “Schofield Kid,” on account of the brand of his gun. He’s so mean he makes Munney, who is shown covered in pig doo-doo, look like a pathetic has-been. Maybe that’s what gets Munney moving; maybe it’s the reward money that would give widower Munney and his kids enough of a stake to start over.
This is one aspect of the film that marks it as a modern western: Is Munney a bad bad man? A good bad man? A bad good man? While other westerns take a stand on this issue for their heroes–whether the hero in question is eeeevil to the core or a nice guy deep down–Unforgiven rides Munney all over the map. He shows a somewhat courtly side as he consoles the scarred prostitute, saying he would totally want a “free one” from her, but for the memory of his wife. And a cold, murdering side (spoiler alert) when he gut-shoots the hapless partner who had tried to make amends to the assaulted prostitute. Munney’s as ambiguous an antihero as one can hope for in the era of reclaimed history.
But back to the plot, buckos. Munney brings along his longtime partner (Morgan Freeman) and they travel with the Schofield Kid to the prostitute’s town, which is controlled by Little Bill, played by the always brilliant Gene Hackman. The killing goes as planned, but when Munney’s partner is whipped by Little Bill, Munney downs his demon whiskey and goes on the rampage. So far, so business as usual. Bang bang.
Little Bill Daggett: Now all you gotta do is pull the trigger, mister.
But what makes this a modern western worth seeing is how it portrays how little the legend of the West resembles reality. Rain douses the picturesque western landscape and turns it to cold mud. Like us, the writer W. W. Beauchamp, following the aging English Bob (Richard Harris, looking both noble and ravaged) to document his escapades for posterity and make some money, is drawn away from glorious, heroic myth into real violence, which, being real, is neither glorious nor heroic. I’d piss my trousers too if I were faced with Gene Hackman’s cold eyes.
Here’re some MAJOR spoilers below so avoid if you haven’t seen the flick.
The Schofield Kid: It don’t seem real… how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever…
No one is who they seem. English Bob is a blowhard who gets kicked nearly to death like a tramp. Munney’s partner freezes and can’t finish the job. The boastful punk can’t see to shoot and has never shot anyone ever–his moniker is as makey-uppy as a little kid’s pretend game. Once the writer finds out that Little Bill is a real gunslinger of legend, he also discovers–with Hackman’s smile that doesn’t quite get to his eyes–that dangerous gunslingers are also psychopaths.
Will Munney: I’m just a fella now. I ain’t no different than anyone else no more.
All along, Munney swears he is no longer a killer. His wife changed him. He’s stopped drinking. He gets nightmares about the men he’s slaughtered. Yet when the guns do get strapped on–he needs to to revenge his friend–he doesn’t spend much time thinking about it. He doesn’t talk about what he’s going to do–he just does it.
Blam. Blam. Blam. Blood. Brains. Intestines.
Repulsive, yet I cheered like a vengeance-seeking eye-for-eye Old Testament prophet. Turns out that this mild-mannered pig farmer is the most dangerous man in the West. (Although the story says, as a sort of epilogue, that he might have left the high plains to have a successful life as a grocer with his kids. But that’s all nicey-nice denouement that pales in comparison with the fire and brimstone of his “Any sumbitch takes a shot at me, I’m not only gonna kill him, but I’m gonna kill his wife, all his friends, and burn his damn house down.”)
Strawberry Alice: Just because we let them smelly fools ride us like horses don’t mean we gotta let ‘em brand us like horses. Maybe we ain’t nothing but whores but we, by god, we ain’t horses.
The only people who stay the same from start to finish are the bewildered and helpless townspeople; they’re the deputies who get drawn into a bigger fight than they imaged; they’re the shopkeepers who allow Little Bill to whip a man like a dog; they’re the working women who have to live with the fact that they’re worth less than a horse. You know, people like us, who just try our hardest to make it through the workweek and get a little surprised when things turn to crap.
It’s a western about about how myth is a pussy compared to reality.
So when the end scene arrives, with guns blazing and killing off every single bad guy, with the townspeople cowed and the prostitute whose face was cut up and avenged swooning at Munney in St. Theresa ecstasy–you understand why I was a little disappointed?
All that ambiguity. All that chasing down the mystical legend to scary, hard truth. And in the end, all we get is the same old superhero on a horse.
Okay, I can’t fault that, I suppose. At least Eastwood always looks good on a horse.
I’m often asked how I got into westerns–sometimes with a tone of disbelief, as in how could one possibly like this hoary, cardboard cutout genre??
I barely know myself: I was always the one who insisted on playing the Indian in Cowboys and Indians because cowboys were just so not interesting to me. And watching movies where every plot turn was telegraphed several scenes in advance? Ho hum. Those silly western shirts? Ugh. And cowboy boots? Way too two-step.
So I sat down to trace this insane western-loving development–and found the most surprising source.
I am too young to have experienced the heroes of the early oaters, although a good cliffhanger now and then does my heart good. But even if I had seen those magical maestros of the early twentieth century, I’m not anything like the buckos who coldly dismiss post-Roy Rogers cowboy heroes or anyone who wears a flamboyant western shirt, saying, “They’re not Tom Mix.” [insert spitting of tobacco juice here]
I completely missed out on the classics–it took me forever to connect to the strong, silent macho types and the women who loved them. Although now I have several pinups of James Stewart and Gary Cooper and have a sincere respect for the Duke, their films didn’t spark the interest first.
And it wasn’t the Viet Nam-era films either, although I squint my eyes like Clint Eastwood when faced with a dumbass (pre-empty-chair-at-convention Eastwood, I mean) and I used to so totally sneer at the crisp good/bad morality of the golden age of John Wayne, etc.
My western birth can be traced to decidedly alternate takes on the genre.
Roadrunner and Wile E.–the classic!
The strange, Martian landscape of the Southwest first became familiar to me through the antics of these frenemies. These vistas were imprinted on my retinas from an early age–if Looney Tunes showed it, it was true. And what the episodes taught me has since been both confirmed and debunked.
Fact–what experience has confirmed: There are coyotes out West. (Actually, in NYC, too. OK, every freaking where in North America.)
Ditto: Those unearthly rock bridges and spires exist–in their purple, maroon, yellow, and blue glory, depending on the light and the time of day.
Amazingly ditto: Roadrunners absolutely have jerky, goofy kinds of gestures.
Total fiction: Roadrunners do not go “beep beep.” They make a clicking sound.
Big hats and big guns make the showdown with Bugs Bunny’s and Yosemite Sam’s iconic scene.
The number one rule of a showdown was made clear to me at an early age: If you have a bigger gun, use it. Bugs’s loping grace and quick wits were a natural match for the savvy western gunslinger. Even now, when I see James Stewart standing up to the blustering bad guy, I know what will happen, because if Bugs Bunny won, so will the hero.
Fact: Big hats were worn out West. They still are necessary to keep the sun off tender skin. Also, holsters are important for ease of gun use.
Ditto: Thin, rangy gunslingers look better in a holster than overweight ones. Even if the gunslinger is a rabbit. (see James Stewart, Gary Cooper, et al)
Fiction: Do not go barefoot in the West. Fuzzy chollo spines are hurt like Hades. Scorpions abound. There be rattlesnakes.
Fiction: A real showdown between enemies would not have had the carefully choreographed moves of a ballet. Fuhgeddabout the “middle of the street,” “whoever is fastest wins” joust. Many gunfighters weren’t averse to bushwhacking their enemy if it meant they would live a little longer. And faster wasn’t necessarily better.
Star Trek at the OK Corral
And then it hit me. This was the moment. Star Trek. “Spectre of the Gun.” When history, legend, violence, and fantasy collided in a glory of western weirdness.
I had the kid version of a WTF moment when I first saw these stylized villains striding across the TV screen. The skies–so stark yet the bright color of jujubes. The spare sets that indicated “western” with signposts of “tree” and “corral” and “weathered sign.” I knew these items, put together with the spare garb of the bad guys meant something significant…something crucial…something…
…inexplicably awesome. It was the big-bang moment for me–my universe had just expanded.
Fact-what experience and much viewing of westerns has shown: All it takes–truly–is a tree, a corral, and a weathered sign, and you’re in the West.
Ditto: Believe deeply in your reality–alternate or otherwise–and it can become true. (To understand this requires a viewing of the episode. If you haven’t ever seen it. Do so now!!
Fiction: The Clanton/Earp fight was less a tale of good vs. evil than politics between the business elites and the populist ranchers. The West is way more complex than the simplistic legends would suggest.
Fact: I heart those simplistic legends, even with their white hat / black hat morals. And I very much wish to play Cowboy now.
Believe in your reality and you too can be shot at and come to no harm.
Spock: Captain, since we have seen that death is the one reality in this situation, I seriously suggest that you reseat yourself immediately, without moving a muscle of either hand. If I remember correctly, that would involve you in what was called the Fast Draw. It initiated unfortunate events.
I type these very words on land I recently purchased. “Land” is the glint in the eyes of Glenn Ford in Cimarron. The glow on the faces of pioneers racing their wagons to stake their claim. It was both a glow and a glint in my heart for a year and a half–and I couldn’t stand to do any writing while the final paperwork played out–and now I can finally touch the soil and lift my eyes to the heavens, tears in my eyes, and say “At last!”
Or whatever–the moment of stepping on the property will not be as epic as when I write my novels in it–which will happen after water, electricity, and a toilet appear, and I no longer have to be looking over my shoulder for the deadly mojave green snake that someone saw sunning itself on the property.
Ponderosa Ranch (Autry Collections Photo)
Where is it? The new West–Joshua trees and Pioneertown movie sets. Homestead cabins standing abandoned on wide swaths of land up the street from Home Depot’s busy intersection. Meth houses in the desert and modernist cube houses in the canyons. The cowboys here join the Cowboy Action Shooting association or they raise palominos for Rose Bowl parades. There are scorpions and tarantulas just a few miles from the pampered lawns of Palm Springs. Muffled booms from military war games sound on the horizon while a family of quail march in formation a few feet from my trusty rental steed, which, being so well trained, waits for me without complaint to complete this story so we can ramble in the hills.
Two months ago, I stood on this 5 acres (sans mule) + one homestead cabin and felt a “yes.” The kind of yes that seems to come easily in California–the land of possibility and romantic visions of John Wayne swaying in his saddle with an easy smile. A checklist appeared in my head, swaying alongside the Duke with its own easy pace.
Where the skies are not very cloudy all day…
And check, night version.
Night, looking northerly…
Some neighbors, not too far and not too close. But not too way out on the middle of nowhere. Check. (This is where my own western heroism falls short–I’d suck as a pioneer.) Far from being like Van Heflin’s stoic, do-it-yourself farmer in Shane or Joan Crawford’s tough-as-nails saloon keeper in Johnny Guitar, I require some amenities. And friends. And family. And that Home Depot has already come in way handy.
A roof. Check. (It even comes with four windows and two doors!)
The best abandoned homestead cabin shell money can buy!
A rectangular plot of land was yours for the taking in 1955, if you improved the land by living on it. So 5 acres were signed over to a Ms. Friday, and she and her sister built/caused to be built/magically grew a well-made cabin that stood for fifty years, locked up, until I in my craziness bought it and started cleaning out birds’ nests (nasty).
Insecticide: another sign of the modern West
Whoever built it took their time to make sure the building will last. There is a lot to be grateful for, namely a saintly cousin and his saintly aunt, whom I now am happy to call “neighbor.” They have big plans for the abandoned outhouse. I would like it to be beamed up by aliens, frankly.
The best Joshua tree grove money can buy…
A prologue is supposed to give a sense of what’s coming up in the novel, but right now this story could go lots of different ways: Is this a tragedy in the making or a comedy?
Clouds gathering on the horizon and bumpy washouts hint at drama fit for any B-western.
Big plans seep up from the ground unlike the water that’s locked up far beneath it.
Conflicts loom–the whole man vs. self and man vs. nature thing.
But right now it’s a sunshiny singing-cowboy kind of flick. Yippie-yi-ki-yay!
We’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth. —Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), The Searchers (1956)
The Meaning of Life was easier to know before World War II. They were bad; we were good. Since 1945, it’s been harder to maintain the line in the sand between the good guys and the bad guys. And for those of us who grew up post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-AIDS, post-Iran-Kuwait-Iraq-Afghanistan, post-WMDs, post-Great Recession, that line has gotten redrawn so many times it’s a blur that has long since obscured the crisp black-hats and white-hats of earlier generations.
These black-hats and white-hats, and other western film conventions like their showdowns on silver-screen main streets, continue to delineate the parameters of what is right and what is wrong. They define gender roles and leadership expectations. They map the journey from child to man (even if it means the occasional woman has to wedge herself into the jeans cut for a male form).
Martha (2012) by Tim Neath
Courtesy of the artist
I’ve already described my own fumbling for the meaning of life, suckled as I was on pop culture throwaway lines that I slowly came to understand were rooted in classic dialogue of westerns, film noir, and the like. And so imagine my fascination when Tumblr recently revealed another searcher, Tim Neath, artist and student, whose rough constructions seemed so akin to my own prose searchings. I immediately recognized a like-minded pilgrim, just in time for his degree show in conjunction with the Creative Spark 2012 exhibition at Sheffield Hallam University.
Life in an Abandoned Town 2012 by Tim Neath
Courtesy the artist
In Neath’s rough cardboard and
clay plaster models is the evocation of films such as John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, a western commonly described as the perfect mesh of classic and revisionist, with a masterful John Wayne being both the stalwart cowboy protagonist and the damaged anti-hero. These models were constructed with a cinematic eye (think John Ford’s framing) and a deft ability to pull from a densely packed scene a shorthand “code” that reads W-E-S-T-E-R-N and all that the genre entails. We see the abandoned cabin, the empty hitching post, the poignant color of sunset and, even if we have never seen the films before, we know the images are of loss, change, and defeat.
The constructions, more like sets, really, seem hastily done, but the point isn’t in the craft but instead in the uncanny accuracy of placement. Even if all you’ve seen is Bugs Bunny Rides Again, or Tarantino’s homages to westerns, recognition is instant, proving that the West is a big state of mind.
Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave (2012) by Tim Neath
Courtesy the artist
Neath creates these models and dioramas and photographic studies almost as records of his search for meaning through the lens of westerns, from Martha (2012) with its respectful tribute to the homestead that Ethan returns to after the war, like a moth to a flame; to the more experimental/experiential Life in an Abandoned Town (2012); to the looser, more thematic Did the Duke Take the Myth to the Grave (2012), which explores the emblematic actors and scenes from the genre apart from their narrative threads, and with its large format indicating the “construction” of myth, from booms to soundstages to low-tech effects.
Why westerns?” probably has come up a great deal for Tim Neath, so I asked about his inspirations and goals, and he was kind enough to share.
Martha (2012) by Tim Neath
Courtesy of the artist
Bucko: Your work depends on the “visual codes” of westerns and, in fact, when I was viewing the piece inspired by Ethan’s return to the homestead after it’s been destroyed in The Searchers, I felt as if I was “peopling” it with my memories of the film. Yet I imagine that people who don’t know the film will still respond to your dioramas/stage sets by “filling in” what they recall from glimpses of westerns—whether classics or parodies. Why are the western genre’s visual codes so powerful? How can small details—the stance of a gunslinger, for example—continue to remain so fantastically iconic a century after the first westerns were filmed?
Tim Neath: I choose to use visual codes as that allows for images to be created but not to attached to a particular film. This can reduce the familiarity to just one film, when the imagery has been found in countless westerns. Our imaginations and memories, as you mentioned, are more powerful, so why not use them to complete the work? The piece is titled Martha (2012), from Ethan Edwards’ implied love, who is killed in the ranch, and the name he calls out [when he sees the ranch has been destroyed by Indians]. Yet at the same time viewers who are unfamiliar with the work will be able to consider a whole host of meanings.
The visual codes of the Western are so powerful, as they have been engrained into our popular culture; even here in the UK, the iconography is very distinctive. The longevity of the genre in its evolving forms relies on the same imagery that was used at the birth of film. Another point is that the myth that is created is the main resource to understanding frontier America. The power of these images created clichés that are recycled and reformed in other genres and aspects of popular culture; the gunslinger is a very strong image of masculinity, which has been appropriated by society.
Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave (2012) by Tim Neath
Courtesy the artist
B: The scale of your work is unsettling—the photos (from Martha) make the scale strangely/wonderfully ambiguous yet the objects/sets themselves are small in scale. How do you see the relationship of the viewer to your work—are we gods viewing the scene in much the same was as John Ford might, or do your viewers tend to come close to the sets, almost putting themselves into the action as if actors in the scene? (Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave, I’ve noticed, is quite different, however; its “vitrine” is big, although the scale of the scene it holds is small. Can you elaborate on that choice?)
TN: The choice in scale is one that goes back to my childhood, always making models at home. This naturally translated into my work. In one respect the models are sets, in both pieces that have been made this year. Martha (2012) was a constructed world that was filmed and photographed with that thinking in mind. I have always liked the idea of the viewer having a godly experience, looking over a miniature world, which produces a sense of power and wonder.
Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave (2012) has more of the film-set thinking and is not hidden from the viewer. The scenes are more contained, as they are when exposed on film; we are only shown what the camera decides to show us—our view is restricted. I am very aware that films are a construction and an illusion, which I choose not to shy away from.
Did the Duke take the Myth to the Grave (2012) by Tim Neath
Courtesy the artist
B: And lastly, a basic question that is always illuminating, as many people really can’t abide the genre (at one point I didn’t, before a gradual transformation over many viewings of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart cycle). How did you become interested in westerns as an inspiration? And you mention John Fords’ work in particular. Are there other westerns and/or directors that you return to again and again, and why?
TN: To be honest I find the Anthony Mann/James Stewart work very interesting, if you come from a film-noir thinking, the more psychological angle. I really need to revisit those films.
Returning to your question, however, my interest in the Western came through an exploration of classic films—finding the roots of popular culture references. This I knew from watching a Martin Scorsese video on YouTube, saying that he was heavily influenced by The Searchers, amongst other films, and also from George Lucas referencing the “return to the ranch scene” in Star Wars, Episode IV. I love finding the connections in the visual world. The draw of westerns and John Ford in particular is that human touch, the need to show the group as important. The earthiness of the characters in his films makes for very engaging movies. Westerns as a whole are films that transport you to a simpler world, with all the complications of the twenty-first century: it’s great escapism. The role of the man in the West has come to be a guide for me as a young male trying to find my place in the world influential. (Obviously taking out the gun part, which has evolved with society.)
The Creative Spark can be viewed through June 23rd, but Tim Neath’s work can be seen here on Tumblr, with his artist statement here. And hopefully, his work will soon be seen in many more venues to come.
(And for you western image stalkers out there, all images copyright 2012 by Tim Neath!!!!)
Writing a novel is hard work. Writing a good western can be even more daunting: westerns, which tend to have plotlines so well traveled you can drive a wagon train through them, nonetheless require historical specificity and a protagonist who typifies rugged individuality—laconic and gimlet-eyed from the start or in a dude-to-hero arc.
So whenever I read a western that takes the well-worn themes of the West—cowboys vs. settlers, wild frontier vs. banks and churches, flamboyant historical figure vs. stolid community—and adds texture and complexity and humanity, I stop skimming and begin reading.
Wide Open, the debut novel of Larry Bjornson (Berkeley Trade Paperback Original, published June 5, 2012; www.wideopennovel.com) is set in 1871 Abilene, Kansas, at the beginning of the end of the Wild West. It’s an epic—i.e., a lot of small stories that trace the greater story of a shift in society—that mainly follows a protagonist, a young “townie” named Will Merritt, as he and the infamous cowtown Abilene grow up. Will and his townie comrades idolize the rowdy cowboys and their cattle-driving life, but as Will befriends a family of settlers, he finds his loyalties tested and must choose between the Old West of adventure and the New West of settlement, between cowboys and winter wheat, between being accepted and making his own way.
While farmers struggle to bring their fields to harvest on the outskirts of town, Wild Bill Hickok is hired by Abilene to bring law and order—of a sorts—inside Texastown, the town’s “wrong side of the tracks,” as the cattle herds begin to arrive from Texas. Will’s father is the catalyst for change, introducing winter wheat that can be harvested in the late fall, which would allow farms to be profitable, bring more settlers in, and tilt the balance away from the seasonal drifting cowboys toward stable, year-round citizens.
Our hero begins as the city-kid version of a Westerner—with pulp-novel-inspired dreams—but the reality of a grimmer, more violent West and a budding love (a must-have in a western!) confront him with opportunities to change. In a true-to-life story of adolescence the boy backslides a bit (for example, to keep his place in the city-kids gang, he helps humiliate a drunken farmer who has fallen into their clutches) yet he does find the strength to act against violence when his conscience—and love—force him to choose when the stakes are highest. In so doing, he reveals himself as a true western protagonist: he creates his own story (one of the themes of westerns–the ability for someone to reinvent him or herself by crossing the Mississippi) and changing from a callow youth to a man (gimlet-eyed or not).
The fundamental idea in traditional westerns is that progress is inevitable and desired. Recent nontraditional westerns portray the West as a dark place, where society is opportunistic and violent and conflicts remain unresolved. (Compare classics like The Virginian and Shane with The Sisters Brothers and No Country for Old Men.) In the traditional style, Wide Open describes a West where ultimately agriculture and its winter wheat win, and the protagonist takes his place as a productive member of society. What I truly, dearly loved is what caught my eye, my nose, and all the rest of my senses–the period flavor to this arc, the vivid descriptions of the fording swollen rivers, the cattle pens’ stink, the raucous nights in Texastown, the smell of sod freshly ploughed, and more.
Randolph Scott understood Abilene makes a good story, too. Abilene Town, 1946.
I asked Larry Bjornson a few questions about writing Wide Open, and he graciously answered with descriptions of his writing process—inspirational reading for any kind of writer—as well as the truth behind the myth of the Wild West and Wild Bill Hickok.
Bucko: What was especially compelling about Wide Open was that while you showed a conflict often found in traditional westerns, that of the cowboys/cattle barons versus the pioneers/farmers—portraying the greater conflict of “every man for himself” versus “act for the greater good”—you took pains to keep from picking sides, showing both the Texas cowboys and the farmers as part of a bigger society. You even chose to “center” the action in the town of Abilene, a place that both stood to gain and lose something in this conflict. But it’s also a simple (though not simplistic) coming-of-age-story, that of Will learning what it takes to take a stand for his principles. What inspired you to explore this kind of historically fraught conflict in such a way? And the end result seems very cohesive and complex. As a writer myself, and with many writer-readers, I’m always interested in how the original inspiration transforms and is honed to final, published result. Can you share any of that process?
Larry Bjornson: Almost everyone involved in creative endeavors wonders about “the process” of bringing a project to a successful conclusion. How is it done? I suspect that the question is essentially unanswerable. My book is approximately 100,000 words long, and I estimate that in writing it I probably made over a million decisions large and small. So, how did I do it? To a disturbing degree, looking back, I have no idea. And even more disturbing, I have no idea how I will do it again. In the end, I simply have to have faith. Many of the story elements in the book that I like the best simply popped into my head, seemingly out of nowhere. I frequently got out of bed in the middle of the night, or pulled over to the side of the road, to write down ideas that had abruptly appeared.
Oddly, I’ve found that music can bring on a creative storm. On a number of occasions I would lay on the couch with one particular song playing over and over in the background and write an entire chapter in my head. That, by the way, is how the book’s prologue was written.
As to the more workaday aspects of writing, here’s the routine I followed. I began by doing a tremendous amount of reading, mostly source material written in the book’s historical era or in later years by people who had lived through the era. Additionally, I read a good number of scholarly works, such as Robert Dykstra’s The Cattle Towns. During this time of unfocused reading, I kept my eye open for “the one,” the idea that could drive a book and strongly capture my enthusiasm.
I also took notes–pages of notes, reams of notes, piles of notes. Eventually, my notebooks stood two feet tall when piled up. They mostly contained facts about life in the mid to late 19th century, often seemingly inconsequential facts, facts about how something was done, lifestyle, customs, habits, attitudes, dialect, slang, anything that struck me as even remotely useful or interesting. I then created a filing system that allowed me to access the facts I needed on almost any topic or situation.
In time, after I had settled on the general story that you see in Wide Open, my reading became much more specific. I went to the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka, where I read the 1871 issues of the Abilene Chronicle, city council notes, and personal recollections. I also went to Abilene to get a feel for the place and terrain.
Perhaps there is an insight into the creative process in this long academic slog. Saturate yourself in the material long enough, and eventually you begin to live in it and make creative connections that are new and exciting.
In the end, what drew me to the story of 1871 Abilene was the political complexity of the place. It was a divided hotbed of three distinct and fairly cantankerous groups–transient Texans, county settlers, and townspeople–each one highly prejudiced against and mistrustful of the other two, but locked together by mutual dependencies. They disliked, even hated, each other but were inescapably held in close contact by the things they needed and wanted (money, land, railroad access, supplies, etc.).
But what clinched the deal for me was a rather obscure statement in a rather obscure source, which mentioned in passing that Abilene’s teenage boys were divided into two informal gangs, membership being determined by the occupation of the boys’ fathers. These warring teenage gangs were a youthful reflection of Abilene’s adult society. If your father’s business catered to the Texas cattle trade, you were in the pro-Texan gang. If your father made his living from commerce with the local farmers, you were in the smaller pro-settler gang. This, combined with the extraordinary finale to Hickok’s tenure as marshal of Abilene, was enough for me to settle on this time and place as the historical basis for Wide Open.
Finally, on your observation that I avoided picking sides (thanks for noticing!). Yes, that was one of my guiding principles–no pure heroes or villains, either among the individual characters or among the three major factions of Abilene society, the Texans, the settlers, and the town dwellers. Everyone in the book, even the best of them, at some point behaves badly. And even the worst are capable of honorable actions.
As for Will Merritt, he has to discover what his principles are before he can stand up for them. At the beginning of the story, he has no idea. He’s a teenager and hasn’t given it much thought. By the end, though, he knows exactly what his principles are, and it sets the course for his long life.
B: Louis L’Amour once said that “for one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived.” I would say this holds true for one who writes as well. Your details are incredibly rich, from the dangerous crossings of the Kansas rivers to the rough-and-tumble of cowboying to the drudgery of farming. Apart from the historical details, which you bring vividly to life, what details came from your own direct experience and what came from research?
LB: Well, I was bucked off a horse once when I was twelve, something I was enormously proud of (if I’d broken my neck, I’d feel differently about the matter). To be honest, it wasn’t much of a horse. “A swayback nag” to be accurate.
More to the point, for the past three generations my family has owned, and sometimes operated, a farm in North Dakota. My father’s grandparents immigrated to Canada around the time period of Wide Open after their farm in Iceland had been buried in ash by one of that island’s periodic volcanic eruptions. No sooner were they settled in Manitoba than a diphtheria epidemic swept through the area and killed all four of their children.
Unwilling to stay in such a sad place, and now alone, they moved to North Dakota. Here their luck changed dramatically. They had four more children, among, them my grandfather, all of whom survived to old age. My grandfather bought our current farm during World War II while my father was overseas. There are definitely some echoes of this family history in Wide Open.
My grandfather met and married my grandmother in Cody, Wyoming, a town founded by Buffalo Bill Cody. On one occasion, grandfather, who was a member of the town’s band, played a violin solo for Buffalo Bill. And, of course, Buffalo Bill was a close friend of Wild Bill.
Probably the most important factor of my personal experience relative to the book, however, was my parents’ love of reading and history. That, truly, is where Wide Open began.
B: Wild Bill Hickok is so famous and infamous it’s hard to discover something new about him. In Wide Open, you bring out a possible kinder, gentler side by having Hickock befriend Will; in addition, as I was reading about Hickock’s interest in Shakespeare, I couldn’t help but think of him as an actor in his own tragedy, aware of his fate yet unable to stop himself from rushing toward it. In your research about the man, what struck you about him that you feel has been overlooked?
LB: As I like to say–he wasn’t Wild, and he wasn’t Bill.
Most people who know anything about him understand that his given name was James, not William. But they probably assume he was called Wild because of wildness. I would say, however, that he wasn’t particularly wild by the standards of the westerners.
He certainly wasn’t a sociopath (as a number of the West’s gunmen were) or even someone who picked fights or looked for trouble. Generally speaking trouble came to him. Mostly this was the natural consequence of the places he frequented and the types of men that inhabited those places. Hickok was not the loud, obnoxious, swaggering type. He was clean, well dressed, style conscious, and someone who was happiest when left alone to play poker. But, anyone who has a big personal presence and frequents tough saloons and gambling dens is going to have problems. The same is true today. Imagine you’re a big guy who spends every night in biker bars. What are the odds that you’re going to run into trouble?
Unfortunately for challengers, he was “a bad man to fool with,” and once aroused, he would cut to the chase very rapidly with anyone who was stupid enough to confront him. He was physically huge, capable of crystal-clear thinking in dangerous, fast-moving situations, pretty much devoid of fear, and highly skilled in violence. Until the day he was assassinated (from behind), his challengers had always ended up dead or hurting.
There are a variety of tales describing how he became “Wild Bill,” some told by a straight-faced Hickok, daring the listener to believe him. Here’s the one I believe. For a time, before and during the Civil War, Hickok’s brother, Lorenzo, got a job driving for a freighting company. For unknown reasons, Lorenzo preferred to be called Bill. As was often the case in those days, the men of the freighting yard gave Lorenzo a descriptive nickname. Because he was a shy, quiet, introverted man, he became known as Tame Bill.
It appears that James also worked for the same outfit periodically. James, in contrast to his brother, was much more outgoing, ready to laugh, a practical joker, given to humorous stories, and certainly happy to have a drink with the boys (although he often assured his mother in letters home that he was not drinking). So, to distinguish James from Tame Bill, the men began referring to him as Wild Bill.
That has the ring of truth to me.
B: Do you have westerns that inspired you to write Wide Open, either novels, stories, or films?
LB: The conquering of the West was largely a commercial enterprise. Certainly, there were those that went west for freedom and adventure, but most went there to make their fortune. This was particularly so in the towns, and Abilene was an exaggerated case even relative to the hyper-commercialism that dominated the more typical prairie towns. The disdain held by Abilene businessmen for the spendthrift, partying Texas cowboys knew no bounds. To them, Texan behavior was a revolting waste of human potential and a hindrance to the quick, efficient advance of civilization across the wilderness. Texan roistering was seen as a temptation to the town’s youth, an infectious threat to general morality, and possibly a menace to physical safety. And yet, and yet, despite their feelings of disgust, the town was just making piles of money from Texas cattle and Texas cowboys. Morality versus business. What to do? This is the conflict behind the extraordinary developments of Abilene’s momentous 1871 cattle season.
As much as possible, I wanted the book to come from materials that have survived from the original place and time. To the exclusion of other influences, I tried to live in the source material–recollections, reminiscences, letters, newspapers, city council notes, historical nonfiction, and so on. I wanted to see things through the eyes of those that were there and avoid allowing anyone else to step in between the source and me. I hoped that this would make my work a reflection of the times and give the reader a feeling of being there. Consequently, I ceased reading all Western fiction, and to a lesser degree all other fiction, while working on Wide Open.
Still, there have been fictional works that had an effect on me as I was selecting the story I wanted to tell and the way I would tell it. To Kill a Mockingbird beautifully weaves the lives and personal issues of fictional characters into a larger moral dilemma of the community in which they live. I also admired the way the Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven showed the moral confusion of “the Schofield Kid,” (the youthful sidekick of Eastwood’s William Munny character), when the reality of his actions clashed harshly with who he thought he was and what he thought he believed.
“I want to be a cowboy.”
–Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, played by Sessue Hayakawa, aka Chen Lee, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, 1973
I’ve always said that Silver-Screen Western Heroes come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and nationalities. Whether SSWHs are male or female, from the East or the West, they share
- a certain stillness in their being,
- a matter-of-fact acceptance of their high-wattage charisma,
- a keen sense of epically awesome style,
- and kickass moves, from simple squints that become emblematic of showdowns to acrobatic gunfighting skills.
The Bible of SSWH wannabes, Reach for the Skies (ahem, being written by moi because I have so much to share on this topic, being marginally epically awesome myself and always in need of a good role model to inspire me to fake it till I make it), says that a steady diet of westerns will inspire you to step out with the kind of shiny badassitude that Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Barbara Stanwyck, and (one hopes) Jamie Foxx have from the spurs to hatband.
And may I add another to the pantheon of SSWHs: the mild-mannered immigrant with fists of steel, Shanghai Joe.
He can not only kill a bull with his bare hand–er, foot–but inspire a beautiful woman in the middle of a desert to wear glam makeup and face down Klaus Kinski and a sneering man with a cockscomb-style topknot. That, in a nutshell, is how to be heroic. But first, the who, what, where, and when.
The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (Il mio nome è Shangai Joe), directed by Mario Caiano and with a classic spaghetti wah-wah-wah soundtrack by Bruno Nicolai, is pure early 1970s glory. Poised between the decline of the popular western and the rise of martial arts flicks, the film combines the dirt and degeneracy of late 1960s westerns, the soft focus of 1970s love stories, and the slo-mo twists and flips and whack! whack! whack! of martial arts films in their heyday. And have I mentioned the bull yet? And the eyeball pulled out of a villain’s head?
Chin Hao travels to the land of opportunity but finds that most avenues to the pursuit of happiness are barred to anyone who isn’t a white male with a gun and a sadistic streak a mile wide. “Chinaman” and other epithets are tossed at him yet he keeps his cool until he sees a despicable group of men selling Mexican peasants into slavery. They come after him when he goes to the law–the law is on the side of the rich, white man, of course–and he must save himself and a Mexican woman (Carla Romanelli) who looks as if she’s just stepped out of a spa. The rich white man throws several villains at Chin Hao, who handily shows them what a disciplined fighter can do when not weighed down by six-shooters and spurs, but then he must meet his age-old nemesis, a fellow student of martial arts. Does he win that match? Does he stay with the beautiful woman? Have I mentioned that glistening eye yet? And how about the fist plunging into man’s chest?
Sessue Hayakawa, acting under the name Chen Lee, has the James Stewart thing going for him. Quiet and with a subtle sense of humor, he waits for racist bozos in clunky boots to rush him before he slaps them upside the head. One villain tries to trick him but Shanghai Joe doesn’t suffer fools willingly, revealing another truth about the Silver-Screen Western Hero: the villain’s the one who chitchats at the moment of conflict; the SSWH is the one who yanks the villain’s eyeball out of his head without comment.
Another villain actually brings Chin Hao to his knees with a few well-placed bullets. “Do you know who I am?” rasps a familiar Teutonic voice. Yes, you’re Klaus Kinski, and you’re eeeeeeeeeeviiiiiiiiiil as a psychopath who scalps his victims. But really, did you doubt the mastery of the SSWH? Kinski gets disemboweled by his own knives, to great audience cheering.
He's evil. Ask Werner Herzog.
The final villain is the real thing–a former classmate from a mysterious and deadly school of martial arts mumbojumbo. The guy looks out of place in ceremonial robes and starburst-style topknot in the middle of a western town with false fronts, but whatever, his death is perfect. Even the camera must have thought so, taking its own sweet time to focus on the pulsing blood around Chen Lee’s fist through his nemesis’s chest.
ZOMG! And then there was this bull chasing our hero around a bullring! And he slammed it to the ground with a hard right foot to the forehead! And there was–I could go on and on. This film was a cornucopia of luscious weirdness.
From this angle you don't see the barrette fastening his braid to his hair.
Shanghai Joe‘s post-1960s take on westerns suited a newly liberated audience. The villains are white men. The love interest doesn’t care what ethnicity Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome is. Her family in Mexico is the first to greet him by “mister” rather than some racial epithet. A seemingly casual aside from a bit player reveals “a woman’s got just as much right to be satisfied as a man does.” But, like our hero, it takes a bit of stillness to see those egalitarian op-ed pieces in the midst of eyeballs, pits of bloody stakes, and beatdowns.
So, why would I canonize him, along with The Coop and The Duke? Chin Hao believes the West to be a land of opportunity. A modern hero, he resists the fact that the real/reel West was a crummy, dirty, brutal place and makes his own story wherein good is rewarded with good and evil receives justice. He defeats men who sell human beings like cattle and kills men who seek titillation through cruelty. His mission is one of such importance that he can’t stay in Mexico with his lover but instead has to return to America. He doesn’t ride into the sunset but back into the fray. The movie was pretty bad, but for all voodoo that you do so well, Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, I salute you.
“Reward good with good and evil with justice.”
–Chin Hao, aka Shanghai Joe, played by Chen Lee, aka Sessue Hayakawa, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, 1973