Sunday, 28 March 2010

Interview with Jack Martin

Conducted by members of the Black Horse Discussion Group.

Welcome, Gary, AKA Jack Martin.

Thought I'd get the ball rolling. I'm filming tomorrow but I'll have my laptop with me and will be popping back and forth as much as possible. So I thought I'd kick things off a little early. Here is an extract from my current Black Horse title to start us off. I'm very much looking forward to this.

I liked this excerpt. It does the key things of attracting the reader's attention and raising questions. I want to know what happens next and how Arkansas gets out of that situation. Where in the novel is this excerpt?

This comes from the latter section of the novel and is the last flashback sequence which collectively flush out the character's past. There is still a lot unsaid about the character as I intend to build him up over a series of books.

Do you have them all mapped out in your head already, including character development?

I have some kind of loose arc worked out and if the character is a success, the final book will hit readers for six. I love it when I read a book or watch a film and you think you've got it all worked out, think you know the characters inside out and then the final denouncement makes you question everything you thought you knew. I like the character of Arkansas and although I intended him to be a cold fish, I found that he developed a warmth as I wrote him as displayed in the sub-plot between the character and Rebecca. I think I can do ten books before I'm ready to lay Arkansas to rest - one down and nine to go but my current western in progress is a stand alone novel, so it will be, realistically, 2012 before another instalment in the Arkansas Smith story.

And that's the way I plan to continue with him with a standalone in-between. But I am trying to create the sense of a single universe for my westerns and Arkansas Smith will be mentioned in the next book and there's even a cameo from Cole Masters of The Tarnished Star. I think that comes from reading the Marvel and DC comic books as a kid - you'd be reading Spider-man but you would be aware that The Fantastic Four were out there somewhere. And besides there have been dime novels written about Arkansas Smith, the name is familiar across the country, the world even, so it is only natural for men sat around a camp-fire to mention him from time to time.

How much research did you do, and what kind?

Research for this one was quite minimal since the story was mostly contained in its own time and space. That said I did have to check out what varieties of coffee and tobacco were most popular at the time. Saying that I did use powdered milk before it had been invented but someone at Hale thankfully spotted this.

Having had such a big hit with Tarnished Star, are you nervous about how readers will receive Arkansas Smith?

No not really. The book is out there now and as a second book I think it is naturally more confident than my d├ębut. I mean it would be great to have the same level of success each time, but these things take time I suppose. I do hope readers are buying it and enjoying it and the first of the reviews should begin to appear soon. So I'll have some idea of how Arkansas Smith is being received. I very much like the character and his world and he will return in another book before too long. I tend not to worry about success and gaining loads of readers and just do what needs to be done. Still it would be super duper smashing for thousands of Arkansas Smith fans to suddenly pop up.

Did you feel any pressure to top The Tarnished Star with this one? Did it affect your writing choices at all or did you let it ride?

I did feel pressure but I just let everything ride. I mean what could I do about it, except hope that Arkansas Smith was a similar success? And I think it's done OK. It was in Amazon's pre-order charts for months anyway. Tarnished Star was my debut and whilst I stand by it as an exciting fun read I think Arkansas Smith is much more confident. But I suppose it is only natural for us all to improve as we go along. Although, as it turned out, Arkansas Smith the published version had much taken out.

I'm curious as to what kinds of things were chopped from Arkansas Smith.

The novel on sale is at least 90% new work- the original draft, which took place entirely in a fort under siege by the combined forces of several Indian tribes, was rejected as the Indian wars are not acceptable. I managed to salvage three chapters which are in the current Arkansas Smith and the rest of the book is on my hard-drive and may be worked on again one day.

Never throw anything away. Not many instances of tribes working together. Take the Apaches -- Mescalero, Jicarilla, Chiricahua, White Mountain, that I can think of right off, and I can't remember an instance of them fighting together. There were some alliances in the eastern states, and some on the west coast, and I think some of the northern tribes -- I'm thinking Cheyenne and Sioux during the 7th Cavalry campaigns. So, I'm wondering what your grouping is based on (not saying it could not have happened).

I used fully fictional tribes. Although Comanches and Kiowas also worked together at times, as I understand.

Yeah. Web says the Commanches and their allies (Kiowa, Texas Apache) were located on a reservation in present day Oklahoma. The Caddo and Wichita tribes also inhabited the area at the time.

I did use the premise of what if the Apache and Sioux joined forces for the idea, but largely fictionalised the Indians. I would one day like to write something that looked at the Indian wars but I think it would be double the length of the average BHW title. And at the moment I don't think I'm up to the task. Maybe one day. Who knows!

Have you considered putting an actor into a western, perhaps as a series character? A sort of Paladin - have gun will travel - type character who is able to take on any role.

That's an interesting premise but not one I've considered. Actors are not the type of characters I dream about but I do see what you mean and I do like the off-beat. I think I prefer the strong silent types - drifters, men with no clear idea where they are going but very much led by a destiny they have no control over. It comes from my own favourite western characters I suppose - think the kind James Stewart used to play. I like them to be carrying some inner torture around with them.

When beginning the writing process, do you begin with a character in mind and develop the story around the character, or do you have a story in mind and allow the story to develop the character?

The main character usually comes to mind first together with a sketchy idea for what the conflict will be. In my current work in progress, Dead Man's Hand I sat down knowing the character of Delta Rose (love that name) quite well and I was familiar with a great deal of his past but the only other thing I had was, the idea of how the book will end. It was the same with Tarnished Star and Arkansas Smith. The story then will usually spring up as I go alone, though I often have a panic somewhere in the middle and have to go back and tighten the earlier more loosely sketched parts.

I'm with you on this. If you have the character and the ending, and start the novel somewhere in the middle of what's happening, you can write your novel. Starting in the middle of the action and writing to see what happens, with occasional flashbacks to fill in information gaps, gets the job done.

I gather you have written in other genres.

Yes. I don't think being prolific is the main thing, but keeping up the quality that matters. I am in awe of Howard Hopkins for instance who has done over thirty Black Horse Westerns and there is no sign of him slowing down. In fact his novel, Ladigan is still one of my all time favourites - I remember reading that in one sitting a few summers ago and being amazed by how suspenseful the story was. This book was my introduction to BHW'S and I've been reading them ever since. Now if one day someone picks up one of my westerns and develops a lasting interest in the entire line, then I will be one happy chappie.

Although westerns will always be my favourite genre, I would get mighty tired of them if that's all I did. It's good to place your imagination in a different milieu from time to time. I think it refreshes you creatively but my writing mirrors my own reading and viewing - for months I'll read and watch nothing but westerns and then all of a sudden I won't look at them for an age. But that fabled west always calls me back. For instance I was watching The Searchers - Arkansas Smith is loosely based on Ethan Edwards - the other day and it occurred to me that that I knew every line before it was spoken.

I feel sorry for the main character in The Searchers. There was no need for him to be that alone as he had a family there. He could have gone through the door and been with the rest of them. (Wouldn't have made for such a poignant ending though.) Do you think that sense of aloneness adds to the character, or the book/film they are in? I know there is a big western tradition of the "good guy" standing alone against the bad guys, but he is not always emotionally alone.

Great question. I think that by having the character a loner, someone standing on the periphery of events gives a far better perspective on what's happening, and it allows for the reader to feel for the character. The reader knows Arkansas would love to throw down his guns and become part of whatever community, live a good and solid life and put down roots. But at the same time we know he never can - there's something in his past that keeps him moving and of course he is being controlled by something we do not yet understand and the constant threat of his death sentence still hangs over him. And of course Arkansas was born into the world as his family were being slaughtered and the rest of his life reflects this.

The Ethan Edwards character in the Searchers is not a particularly endearing character, indeed he comes across as bigoted for most of the movie, but the viewer knows there is a strength in him and in the end of this quite wonderful picture he redeems himself. It would have been a totally different picture if he had been a family motivated man and yet, in many ways the fact that he is the outsider makes him all the more family orientated and the only man that can actually save the family unit. He spends years searching for his niece don't forget, admittedly for most of those years he wants to kill her. But to my mind this sort of character is always more interesting, the outsider, a man who has the freedom to go anywhere but deep down he knows the home fires are what's important.

I agree with your assessment of the loner. Despite everything he wrote about the Sacketts, my favourite Louis L'amour character has always been Lance Kilkenny, a gunfighter who no matter how hard he tries to escape his reputation, is always drawn back into it. I grew up on these type of westerns and the type of characters in them are bound to influence my own characters. It's the same in other genres too - Phillip Marlowe is always the outsider, almost a guardian angel. In the real world a family and a big home fire is the ideal but in fiction, the odd-balls are far more interesting.

All my favourite western characters have always been the outsiders - the Clint Eastwood/John Wayne/ Gary Cooper/ James Stewart type of character. Think of the movie Josey Wales - he is the ultimate outsider and just wants to be left alone, and yet through the movie he can't help but find a family of sorts springing up around him. Now that's truly beautiful.

I hadn't thought of those aspects before. There was a series "How the West Was Won" back in the 1970s, and one of the main characters was exactly in that mould. He has a family and can't live with them, although he is only a young man and needs them. He was involved in a shootout, before he was 20, and killed some men in self defence but had a wanted poster hanging over his head ever since, which means he has to keep moving. There was one episode where he falls in love with this girl, and is great friends with her father, and the father finds out he has killed several men. He gently points out that, although he would love to have this guy in his family, he doesn't want his daughter marrying someone with a wanted poster hanging over him. That scene was so moving, especially where the father asks him to ride off without even saying goodbye to the girl, so she wouldn't follow him.

(Steve Hayes replying) I wrote that episode along with two others with a famous western dialogue writer named Rob Bishop. I think you’ll find what you’re looking for in “The Gunfighter” episode. Ron and I wrote it in homage to our buddy William Bowers, who was having a battle with alcohol at the time. Bill wrote the Gregory Peck masterpiece: The Gunfighter. And he needed to feel there were writers out there who missed him. Another episode we wrote was called: The Enemy. Both were two-hour episodes. That same theme you say you like is carried out in the mini-series I wrote called: The Seekers. I adapted it for Universal from John Jakes’ book of the same title. Had one of my favorite actors in it, Brian Keith, who played a mountain man.

Seems like ten lifetimes ago.

Where do you get all your energy? I've never seen a man do so many things at the same time. I'm insanely jealous.

Ha ha - I wish I did have boundless energy. I just don't sleep that much and whenever I get the chance I'm writing. Even when I'm working I'm still writing in a sense, since ideas are fermenting in the back of my mind. I think I'm a workaholic but some of this comes from all the years I was trying to be published. And now that I do manage to place most of my output with one market or another, I just can't stop. My blog - The Tainted Archive - takes up far less time than most people imagine, since 50% of the material these days is made up of new reports and so forth, kindly sent to me by Archive readers.

What about marketing? besides the blog and facebook, what do you do to market the books?

The bulk of my marketing is on the Tainted Archive and the social networking sites. But I do get interviewed in my local press and I've twice been on the radio. Sometimes I instigate this. I also play an active part in a heck of a lot of western related websites and forums - there are many out there. And getting the odd short story on the various webzines also helps. But this World Book Day (just gone) I gave a talk to a classroom of nine and ten year old about the wild west in movies and books, trying to get them to see the stories of cowboys and Indians is every bit as exciting as the latest zombie filled computer games. These little guys then all went home with fliers to bug their parents to get a Black Horse Western. Now I'm not saying BHW's are for children but I would have loved them when I was ten. I suppose I try and push a personality out there and hope readers spark off that and try the books.

Of course in the end it will all come down to the writing which is why people like Louis L'amour, Elmer Kelton and Zane Grey are still loved today. And this will sound arrogant and I don't mean it to. But you've got to think big with your stories and hopefully one day you will get there. Least I sure hope I do.

Ok all.

That's it for me.

Interview conducted 22-23 March 2010.

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