Rod updated me a few days ago with the news that he has been asked to be Guest Poetry Editor for 2008 for American Cowboy magazine. He also just signed a publishing agreement with Caxton Press for a nonfiction book he wrote, Bear River Massacre: First, Worst, Forgotten. It’s about the January 29, 1863 attack on a Shoshoni winter camp in what is now southern Idaho, just a few miles outside of Preston. United States Army troops killed no less than 250 people there, including women, children, and old folks. It set the pattern for later atrocities, including Sand Creek, and—despite its relative obscurity—was much deadlier than any other Indian massacre in Western history. The book is scheduled for release next fall.
“Ranch” is an overstatement. I grew up in Goshen, a small Mormon town typical of those settled up and down Utah in the late 1800s. Like all of Brigham’s settlements, everyone lived in town and the crops and livestock were raised out of town. We had alfalfa and meadow hay fields and pasture for cattle, but only kept as many cows as we could feed through the summer as granddad’s government grazing permits went elsewhere in the family. We usually had thirty or forty beef cows and four to six horses, our own plus some to break, along with the usual mix of barnyard critters. Also, dad worked for many years as a cowboy and cow boss on a large farm and ranch operation owned by the Mormon church, and that often involved our help in gathering and moving cattle and other cow work.
I rodeoed through high school and on the Utah State University rodeo team with some success. Most summer weekends would find me competing at a pro rodeo somewhere in Utah or the surrounding states, and I worked for a stock contractor at a lot of rodeos.
Writing was something I found I could do as early, I guess, as junior high school. Essay questions were always my favorite on tests, because even if I wasn’t sure of the answer I could make a compelling case and fake my way through. I wrote for the school newspapers in junior high, high school, and at college and earned a degree in journalism with emphasis in broadcasting, and a minor in agriculture. My intention had been to become an ag journalist, but I became enamored with broadcasting in college and veered off into radio and television production. I got roped into writing commercials for local advertisers at a small Idaho television station, which led to an interest in advertising, which led to a job as a copywriter at an ad agency, which I have been doing now for almost 30 years.
How long have you been writing? When did you sell your first work?
If you count advertising copy, I have been earning a living by writing since coming of age. But until ten years ago, it was all advertising copy except for a few opinion pieces, columns, and articles for advertising and film production magazines, some of which I was paid for.
I did nothing at all in the way of “creative” writing, which I know nothing about so far as formal education or training, until I wondered, one day in 1997, if I could write a poem. That led to others. American Cowboy magazine published one of my poems that year (and several more since). A few other “slick” magazines, such as Range Magazine, Cowboy Magazine, and Western Horseman soon accepted my poems, and have published my work on multiple occasions over the years. The pay for poetry isn’t much, but most of the magazines pay something.
What type of writer are you? Do you plan ahead/plot or do you simply fly by the seat of your pants?
Both. I’ve written with some success and been a dismal failure using both methods. My best work, I believe, results when I think about what I want to do with some thoroughness. I’m not much of a storyteller, so I often rely on gimmicks like an unusual story structure, and that requires forethought. The beginning, end, and big changes along the way are usually planned, but everything in between just sort of happens.
That said, some of my best poems showed up unannounced and seemed to happen without much help from me. Short stories, and certainly books, are too complex for that to happen on a large scale, I think—but it does sometimes happen for certain passages or parts.
You’re a respected and much-published Cowboy Poet, but you also write nonfiction, short stories, biographies, and novels. Which is your favorite form, and why?
Most cowboy poets I know would laugh at the idea of “respected” as a description for any of us. It’s a folk art, and we tend to be a pretty folksy, down-home bunch.
The curiosity that led me to try my hand at poetry later led me to try short fiction, and eventually a novel. Nonfiction, the same. I like all of them for different reasons, and plan to write more of everything.
Poetry lets you really play hard with words, experiment with rhythm, and write off the subject to get to the point. The effort is intensive. I have a short attention span, so I can usually complete a poem before I’m completely sick of it.
Short fiction is enjoyable for me, again, because of my short attention span. You can write about an interesting incident or character (or both) with some depth, but you don’t have to maintain it for long—you can get the readers in, do something interesting to them, then get them out again—hopefully, taking something unforgettable or memorable with them as they go.
Novels are probably the most difficult for me. It’s that short attention span again, partly. But it could be, too, because I don’t know anything about all those things writers talk about in writing groups, such as “story arc” or “characterization” or “voice” or “subtext” and all that. The only thing I know about novels is what I have absorbed from reading hundreds, thousands, of them. It’s hard for me to think about lots of secondary characters, subplots, and all that other stuff, let alone hold it together and weave it into some reasonable form. I suppose that’s why the one novel I’ve had published (I’ve only written two) is more a collection of twelve linked stories than a traditional structure.
Nonfiction is enjoyable because I like history and have always enjoyed reading it. The requirements are more in line with my training and experience, so it isn’t as difficult for me to write. The hard part is being interesting.
My least favorite form has to be movies. I was hired a few years ago to adapt a children’s novel for the screen—which required the invention of a main character and considerable expansion of the story. Bug Off! appeared on the Disney Channel, HBO, and other cable networks, and is in video release. It was kind of fun, and not completely foreign to me given my experience writing and producing commercials. But movies are, by nature, too much of a group activity for my taste. Some writers like that, but not me.
What type of writing schedule do you have?
Since I enjoy and rely on a day job to pay the bills, and much of that job involves writing, I don’t make any formal schedule. The writing I do outside of work is primarily for fun, so I want to make sure it stays that way. When an idea heats up to the boiling point I will write for a few hours every evening and several hours on weekends. But, even on the many days that I don’t write a word (outside of work), I always do something in the way of research, marketing, planning, or something.
How do you handle life interruptions?
When I’m really concentrating and deep into something, everything else sort of disappears and it takes a bit of effort to break through the shell I’ve surrounded myself with. When that happens, I tend to get testy, as my wife will be glad to verify.
Do you get blocked? Any hints on how to stave it off?
No. I think working in advertising, with deadlines staring back at you from every project, eliminates the luxury of writer’s block. You have to produce, and it has to be good.
A bigger problem for me is motivation. I can always write if I have to, or if I want to, but I don’t always have to or want to, so I don’t.
Something really, really good.
What one thing do you like most about writing? Least?
I like that it doesn’t involve any heavy lifting. I worked for a living in my youth, and am better equipped to hold down a chair.
I don’t like the difficulty of getting published. While I have been fortunate, and have seen most of the limited amount of stuff I’ve written in print, I’m not so hopeful for the future. Some friends I’ve met through Western Writers of America and other writing organizations are excellent writers, sometimes with a history of successful publications, and they are unable—through no fault of their own and for no logical reason—to get any more of their work published. I hope my luck and good fortune continue in getting things published, and that the market grows for everyone.
What is your next project?
For years I have been fascinated with Porter Rockwell, a Mormon gunslinger who was known and feared from Illinois to California in his time but is largely forgotten today. He is the main character in a couple of my short stories, published in the anthologies White Hats, where I painted him a good guy, and Black Hats, where I painted him a bad guy. Both rely on actual incidents and events from his life, and both are probably true.
Anyway, I’ve toyed with the idea of a popular biography or a novel, but could not figure a way to make either distinctive or of interest to a publisher. After a lot of research and considerable thought, I believe I have an approach to a novel that just might work. Any minute now I plan to dive into it, and expect to be in over my head soon.
What is your advice for other writers?
Make it good. Then make it better. Sweat the small stuff. Enjoy every word.
Tell us about your new Amazon Short story, “Just Like Tully Said”.
The setting is a campfire on a trail drive in the Old West. Tully, a drover with more years on him than is typical, regales his saddle pals with yarns of his adventures on an earlier cattle drive and other exploits. He’s a straight-faced liar who simultaneously entertains and aggravates his audience with his stories. It’s all in good fun. With the story, I attempt to capture the campfire storytelling atmosphere and recapture the enjoyment of tall tales, which have largely faded from written literature.
No, but the folks over at CowboyPoetry.com have a nice page about me.
Gallows for a Gunman (Pinnacle Books/Kensington Publishing, November 2005)
“Just Like Tully Said,” Amazon Shorts, 2007
“The Nakedness of the Land,” Out West #4, 1018 Press, 2007
“A Border Dispute,” Lone Star Law (Robert J. Randisi, Editor, Pocket Books, 2005) (Spur Award Finalist, Western Writers of America, 2006)
“No Luck At All,” Texas Rangers (Edward J. Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg, Editors, Berkley Books, 2004)
“The Darkness of the Deep,” Westward: A Fictional History of the American West (Dale L. Walker, Editor, Forge Books, 2003)
“The People versus Porter Rockwell,” Black Hats (Robert J. Randisi, Editor, Berkley Books, 2003)
“Separating the Wheat from the Tares, Being a True Account of the Death and Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell,” White Hats (Robert J. Randisi, Editor, Berkley Books, 2002)
“Good Horses” Literally Horses, Spring/Summer 2002 (Winner, 2001 Remuda Award: Best in Western Themed Fiction)
American Heroes: John Muir, Magnificent Tramp (Forge Books, June, 2005)
“Bill Cody Gets Buffaloed,” The Way West: True Stories of the American Frontier (James A. Crutchfield, Editor, Forge Books, 2005)
Book Review: West River Waltz (Rope Burns, September-October 2006)
“Backcountry Explorer” (Western Horseman, June 2006)
Book Review: The Bear River Massacre and the Making of History (Utah Historical Quarterly, Spring 2006)
“Writers of the Twentieth Century: Wallace Stegner” (Roundup Magazine, February 2005)
“Decommissioning San Francisco” (opinion piece, Range Magazine, Winter 2002-03)
“My Love Affair with Rejection” (opinion piece, Roundup Magazine, February 2003)
Cowboys and Cookouts (cookbook by Lewis Esson, Barron’s Educational Series, 2003)
The Big Roundup (Margo Metagrano, Editor, New West Library, 2002)
Cowboys Are Part Human (Ellen Schmidt and Dona Schreur, Editors, Southwest Whispers, 1998)
Recent poetry in periodicals:
“Nothing Extra”– Western Horseman – February 2006
“Semi-Retired”– Western Horseman – June 2006
“Hot Time”– Western Horseman – October 2006
“The Second Book of Job”– American Cowboy – November/December 2006
“The Staff of Life”– Range Magazine – Winter 2007
“Looper Blues”– American Cowboy – September/October 2007
“Running Barrels?”– American Cowboy – September/October 2007