Tuesday, 30 June 2009

An interview with Gary Dobbs

Conducted by members of the Black Horse Discussion Group.

Welcome, Gary, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself?

My short stories a Man Called Masters and The Devil's Right Hand are on Beat to a Pulp. Also there's loads of my stuff at my blog Tainted Archive. And to get the ball rolling here is the first chapter of Tarnished Star by Jack Martin.

Hope this all goes well.

I saw echoes of Rio Bravo in certain parts of your book, and it was good to see one of my favourite westerns.

I've had it compared to both Rio Bravo and High Noon and I love both movies - it's nice to think that Tarnished Star occupies some middle ground between the both. So glad you liked it.

I especially like the old man, Em in your book and Stumpy in Rio Bravo. These are the men that built the Old West. The thugs laugh at them as being doddery old fools, but both Sheriff Chance and Cole in your book see their potential and don't laugh at them. The mark of a true man, I think.

Now that's perceptive. When I was writing Em I was very much thinking of the Walter Brennan type. Cole, I think, has some of Wayne in him but then I was thinking of a good man, a brave but not heroic man, someone who wouldn't look for trouble but would stand up to whatever was thrown his way.

There's a great tradition of an older side-kick - Roy Rogers often had one and then of course there's Clint Eastwood with the chief in Josey Wales. Physically though I'd say Cole was more your Jimmy Stewart type. There's also an older sidekick in my next novel Arkansas Smith but he is a lesser character, since Arkansas doesn't really have friends. But I think I'm drawing from the same well as in Tarnished Star.

That is the kind of hero that I like, one that doesn't look for trouble. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne play the kind of man that avoid troubles if they can. But, when it comes after them, they are much tougher and more competent than the troublemakers and dispatch of them pretty quickly.

I am fascinated to know what your acting colleagues think of your passion for the Old West?

I get teased some but that's okay since I'm always teasing back. It's not as if I walk around in a Stetson (only in the privacy of my own home) but I've had some great conversations about the west and westerns. David Tennent, Dr Who, for instance is a huge fan of Italian Westerns and every actor I've ever met thinks Clint Eastwood is a legend. And I think all directors would secretly like to make a western. The golden age of the genre is so far back now that there is a great respect and affection for the westerns that is growing.

Your work feels as if it's had a lot of research. Can you tell us how you do the research, how much and where?

I absorb a lot through reading other western fiction and I've read quite a bit over the years. I also have a decent library of factual books and of course the Internet seems to know everything. But I think much of the detail I use comes from the many western movies I have watched and books read.

I find the old west fascinating and if you've a passion for the subject then I think it is only natural that you will pick up details and facts. There is a very good monthly magazine that I get as an American import called WILD WEST MAGAZINE and it's great for small detail - things like most common coffee in the west, most smoked tobacco etc.

It's the little things that get me. Like you don't just brush a horse, you curry comb it first, and then brush. Do you ever worry if you have all of the facts straight or if someone who is reading your book and knows a lot about the Old West will spot a mistake?

I just dig up any facts as I need them. And I keep a filing system of old west facts.

Anything I'm not sure of I consult several sources - books, the net, my own files. It's the little details that are the hardest to find out but remember everyone has a basic idea of what the West looked like and felt like. Some of the best westerns - movies and books - wouldn't stand up to scrutiny from a historical west expert.

Getting gun details correct are the most important of all I think.

The canal system you describe sounds like the one in Arizona's Valley of the Sun. It was built by an Indian tribe now long vanished. I don't remember if it was the Hohokam or another tribe, but the canals served the invading white men well.

When I was writing the Tarnished Star I did base the canals system mentioned by those built by the Hohokam tribes. I think I read it in Dee Brown's excellent American West.

As far as I know, it's the only one of its kind. Phoenix was a late riser in the history of Arizona. The first capital was Fort Whipple. Prescott was the next capital. Phoenix came a lot later as it had nothing to lure people to stay before agribusiness got a good hold on the area. The Aztec Land and Cattle Company (Hashknife Outfit) ran about 80,000 head of cattle on the Great Colorado Plateau above the Mogollon Rim, but I think Pete Kitchen's San Bernadino ranch was the largest in central and southern Arizona but never came close to the Hashknife.

Military presence in Arizona was fairly limited, probably only a few thousand soldiers. Biggest push was under General George Crook (famous for refusing to ride anything but a mule). So with Arizona's few thousand residents and few thousand soldiers, I imagine your city of Squaw is located where it can act as shipping centre for beef. Takes a lot of people to eat up 150,000 head of beef in a year (my family butchered one beef per year to feed six people) so I imagine that the animals were shipped to Eastern markets such as Chicago, New York, and so on. I could be wrong, but I imagine the Army bought more horses than it did beef. The Indian agents took a fair number to feed their charges, but again, a few thousand a year and at government prices.

I've saved your response - I'll use some of those facts one day.

You are probably right about Squaw's position on the map - I didn't specify in the book because it was easier not to. But I think it does have a Arizona - hot, humid - feel to it. And Yeah the Squaw Cattle Company would have been a massive operating sending beef out in every direction.

The Chicago Stockyards were the only major slaughterhouse operations in the mid to late 1800s. Two million head of beef were processed there in 1860 and seven million in 1890. If Gary's town of Squaw has rail links to Chicago, 150,000 head a year would be no problem. And he'd have powerful cattle barons to play prominent roles. Good bit of research on your part. Congratulations.

My question may sound banal, but does that pipe-rack in your study actually belong to Cole Masters? Or put it another way, are you Cole Masters?

I am a pipe smoker yes and maybe every character we create has a little bit of us in them. But I confess I did steal two of the pipes from Cole while he was hiding in Squaw caves - but don't tell him.

Is Cole Masters related to 'A Man Called Masters' - or is that just coincidence?

I just like the name Masters. Though seriously I think the character in the novel and short story are two sides of the same coin. Maybe they are related - maybe I'll discover that because I plan to use Jake Masters in a novel one day.

What made you decide to write westerns?

Westerns chose me. I live and breathe westerns.

Considering the well worked out framework of the story how did the idea for the story come to you? And what was your thought process?

Tarnished Star came from the Robert Hale guidelines and the fact they turned down two previous novels. And so I tried to write something that if it were a movie it could be shown on Sunday afternoon. There was no framework other than the fact that I knew Cole would win out in the end. Originally I had intended for the Em character to survive but the story didn't go that way.

How did you feel when your first novel was rejected?

Rejection ain't nice but you've got to shrug it off and start off all over again. I think the difference with TARNISHED STAR was that I decided to not worry too much about being totally original and wrote to the required formula. Once you set yourself boundaries then I think you can move about within these and find a voice that is yours alone.

What changes did you make to your approach?

I think it was easier to work in the 45,000 word limit the second time around. And from the first you come across some problems, like structuring the second act that by sticking with it, some understanding develops and then by the time you are writing another mind your subconscious is aware of the coming lull and you can prepare for it. I hope that makes sense.

Now that 'The Tarnished Star' has been well received. How do you feel about the future for 'Arkansas Smith'?

Although I'm mighty proud of Tarnished Star, I think Arkansas Smith is better. But only because I learned so much writing Tarnished Star that I carried that over. It is only natural in all crafts to improve as you go along. Reading Tarnished Star now - the only thing I would change would be the middle section which I think dipped slightly. But I'm proud of it and am over the moon with the reviews and the personal congratulations I've had from people that know me. The biggest kick of all this is seeing the Jack Martin name on a book - my grandfather would have been so proud of that.

I have to admire the massive belief that you had in your book to have rolled out months of publicity - and it worked - but for a first time writer it must have been a big gamble. Was there any stage where a doubt crept in?

I do have a massive about of self belief but yeah there have been doubts. Particularly when I kept getting rejections - I began to think I was deluding myself with this writing lark. But having a short story taken or an article would buck me up and I'd be going at it like a maniac again. I think that anyone who writes must have a belief in their own abilities. I know I'm not the best there is but I do one day aspire towards becoming the best I possibly can.

What have you learnt about the publicity game over the last year?

I set out to sell both myself and the book and I have been daunted by the amount of work and time my blog now takes. And there are times when I struggle with something to write about but thankfully those are few and far between. I have a passion for the West and love interviewing these writers - for instance when talking to other writers I feel like a ten year old kid given the freedom of the sweet shop. My blog does two things now - it creates publicity and gets me readers and also when I'm blocked with whatever story I'm working on I'll do a blog post which helps gets the creative juices flowing. And of course there' a great community among bloggers of which I enjoy very much.

It''s also easy to be cynical - for instance some have said my WILD WEST MONDAY campaigns are an attempt to push my book but that's not so. I love westerns and want to see the shops full of them.

If I've learnt anything about publicity it's that you've got to keep on top of things. And always be positive even if you don't really feel like it. I think that in the future more and more writers will have to self publicise in order to be noticed. At the moment I'm trying to develop into podcasting and my goal is to eventually create a weekly show that is totally professional. I will get there - but it will probably end up being a monthly.

I feel the BHW line is not served as well as it should be and it should be reaching out to extend its current reach. A lot of western fans in say the US had never heard of the BHW's - now that's crazy. I'm proud of the fact that I've prompted a lot of folk to sample the books and think that my efforts, and those of others, will be good for us all. Several authors perked me up no end months ago when they wrote me to tell me they supported what I was doing which helped, at that point, as I was getting a certain amount of criticism. So I figure that if I turn anyone off they'll come back when I come up with something even they can't ignore.

We're all in it together.

You should indeed be proud of your book, Gary, and rightly so - yes, I've just finished it this afternoon! There are thousands of aspiring novelists out there who haven't finished writing a book, and there are probably as many who haven't had a book published by an established publisher. You've done that twice!

And I agree, you improve with each book; a writer should always be improving his craft by writing, writing and writing. I found that contributing and sub-editing a magazine in UK helped my writing enormously; simply by writing I found my narrative flow improved - as you perhaps have found with your amazing efforts on your blog.

What's your writing schedule?

I write every day - usually working on a couple of projects at once.

Do you outline or just have a story idea in your head when you write BHWs?

I do outline a story but only loosely. I have to have an idea of the end of a story before starting but other than that I let things develop as I write.

Do you plan to be a single pseudonym BHW writer, or get yourself a bunch of names and put out a dozen novels a year?

I only use the one pen name - Jack Martin for westerns but I have thought of maybe using another. I don't think I could manage a dozen books a year, though.

How much revision do you do? And what is your process for doing this?

I tend do major revisions twice - once after finishing as I don't worry in the actual writing and try and fly through the first draft. Then I toss it aside for a week or so to distance myself from it and revise once more. Then it's off to the publisher and in their hands until the proofs come.

But I guess there's no correct way and no wrong way - different ways work for different writers.

Who are your writing influences, western or otherwise, are.

On the western front - L'amour, Zane Grey, James Reasoner, Ralph Compton, George Gilman, Elmer Kelton and BHW writer B J Holmes really impresses me. I'm a huge fan of Ian Fleming because of his pacing and Stephen King for his characters. I read many genres and have influences from all over - Tom Sharpe, Clive Barker, Richard Stark, Spillane, Chandler - this list would be endless. But I think my overall influence would be for Louis L'amour because he churned out good character driven adventure novels. I've always felt character is more important than plot.

That's a great list of influences. Nice to see Richard Stark in there. I agree about character being more important than plot. Interesting characters in tough situations kind of create plot, don't they?

This has got me thinking and it's interesting. But the best worked out, most devious plot in the world would fall flat without realistic characters. A book like that would be more of a narrative puzzle than a novel. But good, well flushed characters can dictate plot and take the story down new roads that the writer, himself - herself, will be surprised by. That's what I like about Stephen King - I have found one or two of his books disappointing but generally I can read them all day because his characters are generally so good. And Elmer Kelton often writes sections that are nothing more than character sketches but then when things get going it's all the more real for the reader.

If I could ever create a character as rounded, as real and as complex as Ethan in The Searchers then I think I'd be a happy bunny.

I think that character traits should be consistent throughout and that a character shouldn't suddenly become heroic in times of danger when previously he/her has been passive.

Right you are. The character-based novel is about the growth of the character, I think.

I agree. I think as the character develops then the readers knowledge of that character goes right along with it. It allows the reader to better empathise with characters if they feel real rather than cardboard.

Thanks Gary for your replies. So what's next for young Clay from 'The Devil's Right Hand'?

I think he's on his way to becoming legend - but that's another story.

Ok all - the author weekend has been great fun. I'm signing off now and hopefully we'll do it again some day.

Thanks all, Gary

Next Interview 24 September - Ian Parnham



Ian - you have done a great job and arranging the rambling rants into a readable interview. Thank you for the time and energy it must have taken.

Keep riding
Jack Martin

margaret blake said...

Lovely interview. Really enjoyed it and you are pipe smoker too, like my husband!!!

I have to read this book. Ri Bravo is my favourite western of all time. When I first saw it I went three more times in the same week.
It has everything. Can't wait now to get hold of your book.