Monday, November 6, 2017

A Conversation with James Reasoner

If you don't know James Reasoner, you're in for a treat, if you do know him and his work, well, it's still mighty enlightening. 

A lifelong Texan, James Reasoner has been a professional writer for more than forty years. In that time, he has authored more than four hundred novels and short stories in numerous genres. Writing under his own name and various pseudonyms, his novels have garnered praise from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as appearing on the New York Times, USA Today, and Publishers Weekly bestseller lists. He lives in a small town in Texas with his wife, award-winning fellow author Livia J. Washburn, five dogs, and thousands of old books and pulp magazines. His blog can be found at

Mr. Reasoner, I’ll be honest with you I initially didn’t know which direction to take this interview, as on one hand I want to get into your prolific work as a Western writer, and on the other I wanted to pick your brain about some thoughtful observations you offered about other Western writers a few years back. But fortunately, you have been gracious with your time and allow us to do both.

Today we’ll talk you, another day we’ll talk about your tastes.

First things first, how many Western novels do you have under your belt? I know of your work under your own name, but I believe you have also written under the Hank Mitchum byline for the Stagecoach series, as William Grant for the Faraday series, and Justin Ladd for the Abilene series. Have I missed a few?

I was Matthew S. Hart on the Cody’s Law series, Jim Austin on the Fury series, Terrence Duncan on the Powell’s Army series, and Mike Jameson on the Tales From Deadwood books. Also, I wrote 47 Longarm novels as Tabor Evans, 22 Trailsman novels as Jon Sharpe, and one each in the Slocum, Lone Star, Sons of Texas, and McMasters series as Jake Logan, Wesley Ellis, Tom Early, and Lee Morgan, respectively. I’ve also written dozens of Westerns under various names that I’m contractually obligated not to divulge. I don’t have an exact count, but I know I’ve written upwards of 200 Westerns.

Allow me to say that often prolific authors move from author to writer, that is from starting out wanting to say something then moving to assembly-line story-telling. But in your case, I never detect that boredom with the process. Every title of yours I pick up there always seems to be an engagement with the material. Do I have this right, that you still love what you do, or is this pure skilled craftsmanship? Either way it works for this reader.

There’s some craftsmanship involved, but if I ever get to the point that I don’t love what I do, that’ll be the time to pack it in. I always write to entertain myself first, and if I’m having a good time, I figure the readers will, too. I hope I’ll always be learning new ways to do things, new techniques to try, new bits of history and Western lore to work into the books. A week or so ago I got a note from a reader correcting some terminology I used in one of the books. I’ll tuck that away in my brain and make use of it in the future.

You have referred to your work as heavily influenced by the pulp fiction of the 30’s and 40’s and the paperback authors of the 50’s and 60’s. I definitely get that feel. What is it about these authors that attracts you, that makes you want to emulate them?

It goes back to what I said above about writing to entertain myself. Those authors knew how to tell colorful, fast-moving stories with lots of action. That’s what I like to read, so that’s what I like to write, too. When I was in high school, I always made sure I had a study hall period every year, not so I could work on assignments and such, but so that I’d have some time during the day to read paperbacks and library books. College was much the same. I spent as much time reading paperbacks as I did studying. (Probably quite a bit more time, actually.) But I realize now that I was just preparing myself for my career, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Your love of the pulp era comes through in your fresh takes on pulp-fiction reviews that you feature on your own excellent blog. Leaving Western writers to another day, what pulp-fiction writers still give you pause for thought and reading enjoyment? People you would direct us to so we could see what the best of the pulp-era was all about according to James Reasoner.

Most of these writers also wrote Westerns, but they’re best known for other things. Robert E. Howard is my all-time favorite writer. I feel a real kinship with him and he’s been a real influence on my work, not so much his style or subject matter as the way he carved out a career for himself when he grew up in a small town in Texas and wasn’t really around any other writers until much later in his life, the same as me. I’m also a big fan of H. Bedford-Jones, who wrote a lot of pure adventure fiction and historical swashbucklers, along with mysteries, spy stories, and a little horror. Edgar Rice Burroughs, of course, was one of my favorites growing up, and I read dozens of his books sitting on my parents’ front porch, which was my usual reading spot then. Over in mystery fiction, you can’t go wrong with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. This is very much just scratching the surface.

Something that I love about your work is the terse “Let’s get this thing started” feel to all of your novels. You open scenes with lived-in characters, and often there is an implied question of “What’s this all about.” I compare it to a non-Western author, Ross MacDonald, who opened practically all of his Lew archer novels with the same propulsive skill. Do you take great pains to get these openings just so, or are we just seeing a good craftsman doing what comes naturally?

A lot of it is that pulp influence. Many of those stories started in the middle of the action and kept it up until the end. Over the years I’ve realized that I like to burn powder as close to the first page and the last page of a manuscript as I can. Get in, tell the story, get out. That doesn’t mean I have the characters in the middle of a gunfight at the beginning of every story, but I definitely like to create some tension right away. Somebody’s moving, somebody’s talking, something is either happening or is about to. That keeps me hitting the keys and I hope keeps the reader turning the pages.

I want to throw a passage at you from the first page of your excellent Dust Devils. One of your contemporary Westerns. I love the tone and feel we get from this brief passage. It calls to my mind the recent work by Taylor Sheridan in the film Hell or High Water. Gritty, nourish, and point of view all nicely packed.

“The pickup came out of the haze, passed a sign that said LUBBOCK-76. In the passenger seat, Toby McCoy watched for the turn-off and pretty much ignored the country music coming from the radio and the driver’s attempts at conversation. The driver wanted to talk about the chances of his hometown football team once school started in a few weeks. Toby made polite noises from time to time. After all, the guy was giving him a ride and he didn’t seem the least bit gay.”

Gold. I lived in Texas years back and in five sentences we know where we are and a little something about Toby’s circumstances and point of view.

Again, skilled craftsman or do you put a great deal of sweat into what feels easy?

I wouldn’t say sweat, because I’ve never been one to spend a lot of time agonizing over what I write. I do two or three revise-and-polish passes over everything, sometimes more if it doesn’t ring true. But I rely a lot on my instincts, and if something sounds good to me, I’m satisfied. Dust Devils is something of a special case, because it began life as a screenplay. I’d written about a third of it in that format when I decided it ought to be a novel instead, so I backed up, novelized that partial script, and carried on from there. Another of my novels, the frontier historical Cossack Three Ponies, was a completed script that I novelized.

You have written a great deal of series work, that is, contributing to stable-creations. Do you find this challenging in working to the strictures of a character you did not necessarily create?

No, I’ve never minded that. I got started early in that part of the business. I’d only been writing a couple of years and had only done short stories when Sam Merwin Jr., the editor of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, who had bought several stories from me, asked me to write one of the Mike Shayne novellas that ran in the magazine every month. Now, I’d been reading the Mike Shayne novels for years and was a big fan, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to write about that character and to be published under the name Brett Halliday. Sam sent me the Shayne bible and told me not to worry too much about the details, to just get the story down and he could fix anything that needed to be fixed, but as it turned out, he changed one or two words in the story and that was all. I had a lot of fun with it, discovered that I was good at writing characters I didn’t create and didn’t mind writing under a house-name, and that’s been a big part of my career ever since.

Do you find your own creations more rewarding to work on, or are you equally sparked by working within the confines of a series?

This carries on from the previous question. I have enough of an ego that yeah, it is a little more rewarding in that respect to write something that I’ve come up with, that will be published under my name. There was a time in my career that I’d had one novel published under my name and dozens under pseudonyms and house-names, and people would ask if that bothered me. My standard answer was no, not at all, because my name was on the checks. That’s me being a little glib, of course, but there’s some truth to it, as well. Writing is a business for me, and I’m very proud that I’ve been able to do it full-time for so many years. But sure, it’s great to have books out there with my name on them. I don’t know how many there are now, 60 or 70, I’d say, and that’s very satisfying. However, from a day to day, creative standpoint, I approach everything pretty much the same no matter what it is. When I sit down at the computer, I just want to get the day’s pages done to the best of my ability, and I’ve always been able to take those series characters and make them my own while I’m working on them. My Longarm, for example, was a little different from all the other versions of Longarm written by the other authors on the series, talked a little different, thought a little different. Just not enough so that the readers would ever notice. I think that’s a natural thing, that every author will a slightly different slant on the character and the stories.

Since you are so prolific, if you were asked to introduce new readers to your work, what handful of novels would you point to to say “Here, read these; these tell you who I am”?

My favorite of all my novels is probably Under Outlaw Flags, which is part Western, part World War I novel. I think I did the best job of capturing the particular voice I was after in that one. Dust Devils and Tractor Girl are my best crime novels. Outlaw Ranger is the best traditional Western I’ve done. All these are under my name. The best house-name books I’ve done are Longarm and the Bloody Relic and Longarm and the Voodoo Queen.

How much research do you put into your novels. Do you immerse yourself in the history, visit locations, or simply put what’s in the head on the page?

I haven’t had the luxury of visiting many of the places about which I’ve written, so I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over research books or searching on the Internet, in the years since we’ve had that capability. When I was writing my Civil War books, I usually had a number of volumes stacked next to the computer and would refer to them often as I was writing. By this time, a lot of the stuff is in my head, but I still look up things on-line fairly often as I’m writing. I try to be careful about how I work the history into what I’m writing, so that the story continues to flow and doesn’t come crashing to a halt for a lecture. Flow and pace are very important to me in my writing. My dad gave me the best compliment I’ve ever gotten when he finished one of my novels and said, “You know, there really wasn’t a good place to stop reading in that book.”

What’s next from the pen/keyboard of James Reasoner?

I have house-name work lined up for the next two and a half years, and I expect to continue it for the foreseeable future after that. My wife Livia and I are writing a new novel in our Western series Wind River, which will be published under our names probably in 2019. I have another Texas-set crime novel outlined and would like to find the time to write it, but we’ll have to wait and see.

I want to thank you again for your time and consideration. It’s been an honor talking with you and I look forward to picking your brain about other Western authors in the future!

Thanks for asking me!

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