Saturday, February 25, 2006

Pro-File: Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler is writing his sixty-first novel. He began writing western fiction late in life, at age 50. He has won five Spur Awards from Western Writers of America, and the Owen Wister Award for lifetime contributions to western literature.

Pro-File: Richard S. Wheeler

1 Tell us about your current novel.

The Fire Arrow, out in a few weeks, is one of my Skye's West novels, which have been my bread and butter for two decades. Skye and his Indian wife Victoria deal with corrupt Indian traders who debauch villages with booze so they can clean up the pelts and buffalo robes for almost nothing.

2. Can you give us a sense of what you're working on now?

I'm writing another Skye's West. Skye and his two wives, Mary of the Shoshones and Victoria of the Crows, are guiding a wagon company of consumptives out to the southwestern desert, where they hope to heal. (TB was the scourge of the 19th century.) They discover they are the "Plague company" on the California trail, and subject to all sorts of troubles. I'm amazed at the way this story is blooming.

However, my primary work in recent years has been biographical novels. Genre westerns are extinct, give or take a few bimbo eruptions and Elvis sightings. So I have turned to writing fiction about real people, and it is a field I have to myself. I've done six: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Francis Meagher, Major Marcus Reno, Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and (forthcoming) William F. Cody. I have a contract for a seventh, about the Fremonts.

3. What is the greatest pleasure of a writing career?

I'm an uneven writer, but now and then I write something that delights me. It might be a character's soul laid bare, or simply a lyrical sentence. These are humble pleasures but they sustain me and help me feel I am worthy of my calling.

4. The greatest DIS-pleasure?

Sometimes I discover that people misconstrue what I intended to say because my prose was murky or I somehow failed to achieve the clarity and lucidity that are my constant goals. When I see reviewers or readers misinterpret what I intended to say but didn't, I know I failed. It's a bad feeling. The book is in print and I can't go back and do it better.

5. If you have one piece of advice for the publishing world, what is it?

Two pieces: The public buys authors, not titles. Yet all too often authors are treated with a yawn on the jackets or in the book's press releases and publicity. That hurts sales. Any time a publisher fails to present an author in the most intriguing and attractive manner, that author is losing sales, and the publisher is too.

In my western field it is commonplace to slap deceptive or even mendacious covers on novels. The titles and art and cover copy are all intended to deceive. When some guy forks out cash for a western and discovers that the story has utterly no relation to what's on the cover, he feels cheated, and is likely never to trust jackets again. One by one, after being snookered a few times, they quit buying.

6. Are there two or three forgotten mystery writers you'd like to see in print again?

Westerns, yes. W. R. Burnett wrote some distinguished westerns that were published by Knopf. And Gordon Shirreffs wrote great stories of the Southwest, which in fact drew me into the western field.

7. Tell us about selling your first novel. Most writers never forget that moment.

It was really my third. I had done a couple of Double D westerns and returned to book editing. Then, in 1982, at a Western Writers of America convention in Santa Fe, I met Walker and Company editor Sara Ann Freed, and she bought Winter Grass, my third novel. When that happened it was like walking through a golden gate into a joyous new world, and soon I was writing these stories fulltime. Sara Ann became a distinguished editor at Mysterious Press before her tragic early death.


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