Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dale Walker's Progress

I heard from one of my closest and most treasured friends, Dale L. Walker. He was calling from his room in an El Paso hospital, where he is recovering from open heart surgery. I was very glad to hear his voice. He is my age, and has had severe health problems, mostly pulmonary. But he was able to speak with me a few minutes today, and asked me to let our friends know he is gaining ground.

I've known him since the early eighties. He has been my editor on many occasions, and is largely responsible for my success. His discerning eye caught the weaknesses in my texts and he greatly improved everything he edited.

He had been the director of Texas Western Press at the university, but he is better known as one of the finest popular historians of our times, if not the finest. His balanced studies of many western figures are legendary. He has written valuable and successful studies of the conquest of California and the arrival of settlers into the Pacific West. These include Pacific Destiny, Bear Flag Rising, and El Dorado.

He has written widely about such things as the Spanish-American War (The Boys of '98), the pioneering war correspondent Januarius MacGahan, and Calamity Jane, and has put together numerous anthologies of western literature. His prose is transparent, grounded, lucid, and balanced. He brings keen historical judgment to his work.

He is as fine an editor as ever lived, and brought his great ability to the formidable task of turning my prose into something publishable. He is the recipient of the Owen Wister Award, and is in the Western Writers Hall of Fame.

His friends and admirers will be damned glad to know he is gaining ground. He says he has a long way to go, and it will be a tough road, but I know he will make it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Personal Preferences

I've never had a nibble from the motion picture industry, and never will. That will not change, because it is the result of choices I made long ago about the sort of fiction I wanted to write.

What interests me most is the interior drama of my characters as they work their way through the story. I want to depict their fears or struggles, their moments of hope, their break-downs, their brave faces, their loneliness.

These things don't adapt to film. They are interior, first-person. Films are third-person, and film characters are observed from the outside. So the drama in my stories often is not visible in events, but only in the moments of revelation when a character reveals what is going on within.

A few days ago Margot Kidder called. If I had any more copies of my Butte novel about the copper kings of Butte around the turn of the century, The Richest Hill on Earth, would I give them to her? There's a film being made here, and the young producer and director are interested in Butte for its innate and dramatic story potential. Of course I signed and delivered the books. But they will not lead to any filming because they are about the interior lives of my characters, as always.

Still, it pleases me to know that the books are in the hands of people who might do a future film about the copper-mining city of Butte, once the wildest place in the country. It could be the setting for a dozen great historical films.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Revisiting the Past

I've been reading Richard Schickel's memoir, Good Morning, Mr. Zip, Zip, Zip, about growing up in a bourgeois suburb of Milwaukee called Wauwatosa. That is where I grew up. I was just two years behind him in school. He was born in February, 1933, and I was born in March, 1935. The memoir is actually intertwined with reviews of the wartime films he (and I) saw in the local movie houses. He was a little older and remembers them better.

He went on to become a Time/Life movie critic, a movie historian, a biographer of film people, and a producer of documentaries about Los Angeles film making. Wauwatosa was a rigorously proper community and we both suffered straitened lives in that overwhelming and oppressive milieu. We both went on to the University of Wisconsin, and he swiftly moved into the world of criticism, and made a name for himself, while I languished for half a lifetime trapped in prisons of belief before I started writing genre westerns.

Now, at 82, he is at the apex of his life, and had produced a new Knopf book called Keepers, about the films he deems worthy of deep respect. I am reading it, and enjoying its wisdom.

The memoir fascinates me because of the countless points where our lives intersected; places, teachers, events, the heavy-handed propriety of middle class people there. The book might interest other people less, though it does work back and forth between our beliefs and the war films, and propaganda that fueled the greatest war in American history. He was swift to abandon the town's cultural and political conservatism, while I took longer, finally tearing myself free midlife. I am independent now.

It is the only book that will ever be written about a sedate suburb which called itself The City of Homes, on the west side of Milwaukee. I feel that I have discovered a friend and mentor, and also a person who has shown me the nature of my own upbringing, which was rigid and troubled but very much a part of the 1940s.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Hinges of Fate

I grew up before television. Late in high school, the first sets appeared, with ten-inch black and white screens. Programming was local; there were no coaxial cables connecting coast to coast. Movies were mostly black and white because technicolor was expensive. Radio was ubiquitous, and my entree to the world.

I describe all this by way of contrasting my youthful world to Broadway. Once a year my middle class parents would head to New York to see the shows. About 1948, when I was thirteen, they took me along, and I saw my first Broadway musical play. It was Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, original cast, and a moment that changed my life. I can hardly describe the impact it had on me.

The lights dimmed, the orchestra plunged into the overture, which was a medley of the songs we would soon hear, and then the curtains rolled open upon a world I could scarcely imagine, a world so bright and riveting I was entranced, a world as far from my quiet suburban neighborhood as the world could get. It was magic, beginning to end, color, lyrical music, costume, performance, wit, tenderness, sly chuckles, and sometimes something a little risque. My parents laughed, so it was okay for me to laugh too.

In the years that followed, I saw several great musical plays, such as Damn Yankees, South Pacific (Mary Martin had left, but Ezio Pinza sang), West Side Story (original cast), My Fair Lady (Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison), and others that elude my memory. This was a world so magical I could think of nothing else. In my sixteenth or seventeenth year I wrote the book and lyrics of my own musical, and sent it off the agents, who politely turned it down, but not abruptly, and sometimes with a word of encouragement. I had plunged into a new world. I also wrote short stories and sent them to The New Yorker. Of course none were accepted.

Thus began a life far afield from the life my parents anticipated I would pursue. There were hard turns, losses, failures, and then some surprising successes, and somehow, in some improbable way, I ended up writing western fiction, and then historical novels. But it all stems from that world that was opened to me when I was an impressionable boy in my teens.

Last year, illness pretty much shut down my writing of fiction, but something lingers on, like alpenglow. I drew upon my youthful memories of Rogers and Hammerstein, and began writing lyrics. A friend, a gifted pianist well connected to the modern world of pop music, has been setting some of them to music, suggesting changes, and placing them before artists. Who knows? Maybe at the age of 80, in some odd way, I might produce a song that is sung under bright lights.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Artisan, Not Artist

I've been thinking, these days, about my roots as a novelist. I am not comfortable with the idea of writing as a fine art. I am more at home with the idea that fiction is the work of an artisan, or journeyman, and that what we do is largely craft. I suppose there are writers who do believe their work is fine art, the product of genius, the fruits of rare skills and inspiration.  I am not one.

When I first began writing, I joined Western Writers of America because I was producing genre westerns. The organization was a professional guild, similar to other genre societies, such as Mystery Writers of America. The guild was all about advancing skilled labor. We had apprentices, called associate members, and journeymen, called active members. To join, we needed professional credits.

We did not discuss art. I remember, during the conventions, many an evening spent with editors and colleagues, discussing our craft. How to write a grabber of an opening. How to bring a character to life in a few words. How to end a story memorably. I listened to those experienced and wise people, and blotted up what I could.

Mostly we regarded ourselves as storytellers. We wanted to capture a reader, keep him absorbed right to the last page. We didn't discuss American literature, or significance, or any of those lofty things. Few of us had ever heard of advanced university degrees for certain types of fiction, or hoped to win a master of fine arts degree in fiction.

We were by nature more journalists than artists, and treasured economy of language, moving our narrative along as swiftly as words permitted. Elegance of language was important, but not primary. The story was the thing, along with the characters who were engulfed in troubles, characters the readers needed to care about and root for to the last page. We were not literary. Our heroes were people who captured readers and sold a lot of books. The joke was, when we heard the word "literary," we reached for our revolvers.

The world has changed now. Lore and craft are gone. Art prevails. Literature is straitened by academics who apply criteria I never heard of. I was comfortable in the older world of fiction, less so in the modern one. My world supported and blessed and fulfilled me for almost four decades.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Livingston Now

Livingston's literary heyday is long gone, and many of those writers and actors who flocked here have left. But this railroad town was changed by all of that, and the aura lingers on. Tom McGuane has bought a costly home in Florida. Peter Fonda moved back to California. So did Russell Chatham. Jeff Bridges still has a place and so does Michael Keaton, but they visit here only briefly. Sam Peckinpah is dead. So is Warren Oates. Margot Kidder stays on. Various writers are retired or semi-retired. Richard Brautigan is dead. Tim Cahill is living quietly after a narrow escape during his last adventure. Some of those who visited regularly, such as Peter Matthiessen, are gone. Nothing written here during the literary heyday has been added to Montana's famed literary canon by academics.

The parade of news people, publicists, editors, agents, publishers, autograph-seekers, and pilgrims has all but vanished. The film-makers have returned to California. You don't find stories about Livingston in national papers or literary journals now. The town has moved away from fiction and film, toward nonfiction and music. Scott McMillion produces an exceptionally fine quarterly here. The fire-scarred mountains endure, and the clear, clean Yellowstone River water follows its eternal trip to the sea. The black bears still look for apples in the fall. I've lived here longer than any other place, including my childhood home, and I am content. So are my writing friends. We flocked in, and found a good life and good company.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Livingston Period

Almost half a century ago, various novelists and actors discovered the small Montana town of Livingston, north of Yellowstone Park, and settled here. Through the seventies and eighties, and into the nineties, Livingston was a unique locale. That was so long ago that generations have passed that have barely heard of the period and what happened here, and Livingston's reputation has largely faded away.

These people did not arrive all at once, but drifted in and out, finding a camaraderie here that created friendships among people who had little in common. I was among the last to arrive, and least connected to the main interests of others. My own background is pulp and genre fiction, not literature. Even so, I was warmly welcomed by people with larger ambitions and abilities.

Among those who came here and made literary or film careers out of their lives here, one of the earliest was Tom McGuane, from Michigan. He writes comedies of manners, New Yorker short stories, and nonfiction about our trout fishing and country life. His brother-in-law, Jimmy Buffett, visited here and wrote a memorable song, Livingston Saturday Night. Jim Harrison, also from Michigan arrived, and produced fine novels, some of them celebrated abroad. His daughter, Jamie, wrote numerous novels using a fictional Livingston as the setting.

William Hjortsberg showed up, wrote various novels and screenplays and a biography of his friend Richard Brautigan, who also moved here and spent a large part of his later life in Paradise  Valley, south of town. Diane Smith arrived, and wrote some fine Viking historical novels. Walter Kirn showed up, and continues to write fiction that is good fodder for Hollywood filmmakers. Doug and Andrea Peacock arrived, and added formidable nonfiction to the literature erupting from this place. Peter Bowen, gifted satirist of the old West, found a home here.

Tim Cahill arrived, and began writing his famed travel and adventure stories for Outside magazine. Maryanne Vollers and her husband Bill Campbell have greatly expanded the nonfiction literary and TV output on Livingston. She has authored or coauthored notable books, including one of Hillary Clinton's, while he has photographed PBS documentaries.

Movie people settled in, including Peter and Becky Fonda, Jeff and Susan Bridges, Margot Kidder, and director Sam Peckinpah. but there were many others, including Warren Oates and Dennis Quaid, who bought Sam Peckinpah's ranch. Harve Presnell made a home in Paradise Valley. Another was Michael Keaton, who bought a ranch nearby. Some stay on. Artist Russell Chatham arrived, produced stunning lithographs, and eventually became not only an artist but a publisher and restaurateur. His Livingston Bar and Grille  became a gathering place for authors from all over the world, including Carl Hiaasen, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Matthiessen.

In recent times, Livingston has also attracted musicians and a few rock stars. 

For everyone I've named here, there were a dozen more, who showed up occasionally and helped turn Livingston into an absorbing literary town. These people are largely gone now, but a few have made this northern outpost their home. If there is one thing in common about these literary people, it is that they made their entire living from writing. Maybe that is why Livingston has not yet caught the attention of academics.