Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Questions at Curiouser and Curiouser

Amanda Gowin, author of the story collection RADIUM GIRLS, asks me some weird questions over at Curiouser and Curiouser today.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Four more Westerns from Elmore Leonard

Not long ago, I shared my thoughts here on four Western novels from Elmore Leonard, and promised to do the same with the remaining four once I finished up with them. Well, here they are, then:


Paul Cable, having fought on the Confederate side during the war, has returned with his family to his homestead on the Saber River, only to find that his land has been taken by the Kidstons', two wealthy brothers loyal to the Union. Cable thought he'd left the fighting behind him, but it seems he's now in the for fight of his life, not just for his home, but for the lives of his family as well. He has a possible ally in Southern sympathizer and gun-runner Janroe, but Janroe, who would like to see the Kidston's dead, may turn out to be Cable's worst enemy in disguise.

This one is very strongly about the concept of honor and family; Cable is reluctant to kill, even though Janroe makes an argument that it's STILL a war that's being waged, only without uniforms. LAST STAND AT SABER RIVER has a somewhat relaxed pace for the first 3/4s, even though there are some startling moments of action and violence. It really gets moving, though, in the last fourth, when revelations come to light and loyalties shift.

There are three female characters-- Cable's wife Martha, Luz, the girl who works at the store Janroe has taken over, and Duane Kidston's bored daughter Lorraine-- but all of them are remarkably well-drawn and believable for a Western written in the 1950's. Especially Martha. That was pretty refreshing. Yes, a rescue of Martha and the children takes place at the climax, but Martha has a hand in rescuing herself as significant as her husband. 

Not my favorite Leonard Western, but very solid nonetheless.


Seasoned scout Dave Flynn is partnered with the young, inexperienced Lt. Bowers on a covert mission across the border to hunt down Apache bandit Soldado. But once in Mexico, the pair find themselves in the middle of an unfolding crisis-- corrupt rurales, under the command of Duro, have subjagated a small village where Flynn has old friends, and Duro is making money off so-called Apache scalps brought in by a blood-thirsty band of bounty hunters. But the scalps don't necessarily belong to Apaches; in fact, some of the the villagers themselves have fallen prey to the nasty scalp hunters. Flynn and Bowers must set things right before they can carry out their own mission.

This is Elmore Leonard's first novel, but it's not the work of an amateur by any means. Leonard had already honed his chops writing short Western stories, and the careful structure of THE BOUNTY HUNTERS gives testament to that. It's a fine piece of work, although not really replete with a lot of the things we would come to think of later as Leonard hallmarks. The dialogue doesn't snap the way his later work does, but instead performs a function at all times. The influence of Hemingway is very obvious. 

Like many of his other early Westerns, the last chapter is really thrilling and action-packed, with our heroes seemingly against the wall and in dire trouble, and the whole thing ends on a very satisfying note.


Framed and sentenced to hard labor at the prison at Five Shadows, Corey Bowen isn't about to serve out his time quietly, even though every escape attempt ends in disaster. Until two different women take an interest in freeing him-- one, a woman longing for escape herself, and willing to go to any lengths to achieve it; she offers Bowen a way out if he will kill her spineless alcoholic husband in the process. And two, a lovely young girl who believes in Corey's innocence and may have the legal connections to get him out... if he's patient. But Corey is NOT patient, and when an opportunity to bust out presents itself, he sees no other option but to take it.

The characters in this one are finely-drawn and compelling, although not quite as meticulous as his later work. Despite that, ESCAPE FROM FIVE SHADOWS is a thrilling, tightly-plotted western with lots of action and unexpected twists. The ending is maybe a bit too convenient, with everything lining up nicely for Bowen in the last couple of chapters, but you know, that's just the kind of novel this is. Not on the same level as say, FORTY LASHES LESS ONE or GUNSIGHTS, but still a very enjoyable read.


HOMBRE was a huge leap forward for Elmore Leonard, in my opinion. His first four novels were all solid, well-written Westerns, but with very little that made them stand out from the hundreds of other Westerns at the time. I'm a fan of those early ones for their remarkable compactness and directness of style, but HOMBRE is the first one that feels really different, not just in its themes but in the way Leonard approaches the characters.

It's unique also in that it's the first (and only) one written in first person. Later, Leonard would vow never to write in first person again, but it works really well in this one. It's narrated by a former stage coach company clerk, riding along on an emergency journey with a disparate group of people-- his former boss Mendez, a fiery tempered young woman who has just been rescued from captivity by Apaches, a shady Indian Affairs agent named Favor and Favor's wife, an even shadier gunman with dubious intentions named Braden, and the "Hombre" of the title: the taciturn John Russell. 

Russell is a source of anxiety for the passengers, being a white man who was raised Apache but is now about to give a shot at living in the white man's world. He is barely tolerated by the bigoted Mr. and Mrs. Favor, until the gunman Braden reveals his true intentions; he is part of a gang lying in wait to steal the money Favor had embezzled from his post as an Indian Affairs agent. With their lives on the line, Russell must lead the group to safety across the hostile landscape of Arizona, with the outlaws in close pursuit.

There's some very good action in HOMBRE, but more than anything else this novel is a character study. Of all the central characters, but most especially of John Russell. He is an enigma to the others, a silent and stoic presence who refuses to submit to the opinions of the others or to placate them with false pretensions. They hate him, they fear him, but they NEED him. And by the end of HOMBRE, they finally learn what kind of man he actually is. And it's something none of them could ever even aspire to.

Mark this as one of my favorites of Elmore Leonard's Westerns. Looking at his bibliography, it seems he took a break from writing fiction for several years after this, some eight years, and when he did return to fiction he concentrated mostly on modern day crime thrillers. But between 1970 and '79, he wrote three more Westerns, all far superior to his earlier work in the genre. That great streak started with HOMBRE.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why I Don't Care.

When it comes to promotion and all the ins-and-outs of publishing, I have a confession to make. I have no idea what I'm doing.

Every once in a while, I'll make an effort to get myself acclimated to the bigger picture, I'll try to pay attention to the latest news in the world of publishing-- i.e. that Amazon-Hatchett thing that was all over social media a few months ago-- but within minutes I'm monstrously bored. Even worse, I still haven't formed an opinion. I'm supposed to have an opinion, right? Damn me, I can't seem to care enough to get one together.

But, more relevant to what I want to talk about, my skills at promotion are minimal.

Okay, that's not the whole truth. The whole truth is, I'm not terribly interested in promotion anymore.

I think there's a mid-line involved in being a writer who is effective at promotion, a sort of point where the needle starts clicking over to the far end and people notice. Anything below that point, you can be rumbling and making your low-level noise, but unless you top it into the red and start beeping obnoxiously, you're just background ambiance.

I don't want to start beeping. I don't like it much when other writers do that (hello, Twitter, you fucking obnoxious whore!). I'd really rather just write, okay?

Here's what I've noticed: when I have a new work I want to make people aware of, I DO announce it, here at the blog and on social media, mostly Facebook, and initial sales will be fairly decent, usually. Not staggering or anything, but enough to make me happy. But if I decide to promote something that's been around for a while and has begun to flat-line a little, the result is usually... well, not much.

And yet... on a regular basis, older works will suddenly and inexplicably spike a little, without any reason that I'm aware of. It has nothing to do with me. I put it down to readers maybe spreading the word a bit, or someone just sorta stumbling across me on Amazon, or someone who maybe read one thing of mine and liked it enough to invest in some of my other stuff.

I'm just guessing. I don't really know. And that's my point. When you work exclusively in the small presses, there often doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to sales patterns. They go up, they go down, they go up again.

I suspect, too, that this ties in a bit to my newly-discovered lack of interest in bad reviews. We've all seen the news lately about a rash of "writers behaving badly", obsessing over bloggers and reviewers who have rightly or wrongly trashed their work, engaging in on-line flame wars, and one even going so far as to stalk his (her?) reviewer. I can't even get my head around that. When my very first bad reviews started coming in (for THE BASTARD HAND; there was a free promotion at one point that put the novel into the hands of thousands of people, some of whom had no business reading a book like that), I was bummed. But I guess you could say I had an epiphany about it not long ago, and that epiphany was that not everyone is going to like what I do, and what's more, it would SUCK if everyone loved me. That would mean I'm doing something really wrong and I'm not pushing myself into unexplored territory the way I want to.

So when I say I don't care about bad reviews or readers who hate what I do, I hope you understand that I'm completely serious. I honestly don't give a fuck.

I DO like your good reviews, though. You have good taste.

I got some great advice a long time ago from a writer I admire greatly, Vincent Zandri. Bear in mind, Vin and I have completely different situations-- he has some pretty strong promotional resources behind him, having a nice deal with Amazon-- but what he told me is still true: Keep putting quality work out there. Develop a catalog of solid books and stories, be dependably good. An audience will find you, eventually.

James Reasoner told me the same thing (I'm a name-dropping sonofabitch today, aren't I?) and he should know. James has written over 300 books. He writes for a living. And you almost NEVER see him promoting his work on social media. He's too busy doing the work.

It took me a little while to really understand what Vin and James were telling me. But I get it now. They are absolutely right.

You're not going to see me going all out on some promotional blitz, unless I have something brand new I want to bring to your attention, or some freebie or something like that. Anything beyond an initial heads-up, I've found, is an enormous waste of time. And non-stop self-promotion, the kind you find on Twitter, is just obnoxious as hell. I'm not saying it doesn't work, maybe it does, I don't know, but it seems like too big a price to pay.

I think I'll just keep writing.

P.S.- That cat picture up there? It seemed relevant at the time. It isn't, really. But people like funny pictures of cats. Sorry 'bout that.