Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Author interview: Lee Clinton

Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to meet Black Horse Western writer Lee Clinton, a man who is genuinely enthusiastic about the western genre and the craft of writing. He has been an inspiration to me and I attribute the fact that I am writing again after a lengthy lay off, solely to him. He never fails to motivate me with his gentle nudges and helpful writing links. Whenever I see an e-mail from him in my inbox, I know I'm in for a treat.

Enjoy.

Tell us who you are.

I’m an Australian hobby writer of pulp or popular fiction with a keen interest in the Western. In particular, I like stories of the flawed or compromised hero who struggles to do the right thing in a lawless or hostile land, and I like stories that are told with a touch of menace, pathos and humour. Into these situations and settings can be thrown crime, violence, guns, outlaws, vice, obsession, greed, deceit, dirty deeds and beautiful women. So what more could you possibly want from a story, except that it is well told.

I would like to add that I view the Western as an American phenomenon, a little like Jazz. It is a distinct but universal genre that allows for a wide variation to the type and style of the stories being told, while still remaining true to the traditions of the outsider battling against the odds. While I have a love for period Westerns, I also enjoy how it has been successfully reworked over the years into great contemporary stories, from Bad Day At Black Rock, made over 60 years ago, to No Country For Old Men and Breaking Bad set in the here and now. My small contribution to the canon is a little like fan fiction that wishes to be both respectful and true to the origins of the Western.


How many books have you written?

This next release in July will be my sixth published Black Horse Western, but I have another six or so written that have either been rejected or yet to be submitted. My goal has been to have a BHW released each calendar year, which has occurred since 2011. However, the Western isn’t my only genre of interest. I like adventure stories and noir thrillers where a strong plot is essential; and I also like workplace and courtroom dramas that allow for character and personality to lead the story.



What is the name of your latest release, what’s it about and what inspired it?

The July release is titled The Mexican and it contains a mystery element to the story. It follows the misfortunes of Frank Nester, a smalltime outlaw, who is found guilty of a crime that he didn’t commit, although, it is strikingly similar to a train robbery that he had staged two years earlier. The one significant difference between the two crimes, apart from the sums of money taken, is that the second robbery resulted in the death of a Mexican by the name of Don DeLuca. Frank is now facing a murder charge, however, the body of the Mexican has vanished. A woman, who reads detective magazines, encourages Frank to find out what happened to the money and the body.

The story came from a very small place and could hardly be called inspiration. But let me make a short story long. I was playing around with names and trying to compile a list that would suit different types of characters for future stories. I tend to get stuck when trying to match a name to a freshly created character and it can stop the writing process dead. So I was scanning names at random and mixing and matching.

David Webb Peoples used the name William ‘Will’ Munny for the Clint Eastwood character in his script for the 1992 movie Unforgiven, as a shout out to the 1968 movie Will Penny. The name of the protagonist in my first published BHW Raking Hell is Sherriff Will Price, as shout out to both Unforgiven and Will Penny. I like connections and it seemed to fit OK for Raking Hell. On my mix and match list popped up the name Don DeLuca, which sounded like a cross between the Godfather and a Mexican or maybe a Mexican Godfather like Don Corleone. This then led to the question, what would someone with the name Don DeLuca be like?

My initial thought was to tell the Don DeLuca story, but that’s not what emerged. It became the Frank Nester story, and Frank who is a small time crook, derives his name from Frank Nitti who ran Al Capone’s bootlegging operations in the 1930s. Once I get that little spark of a possible story, I need to get the first chapter down to see where it might lead. If I can find a half-decent inciting incident to grab a reader’s attention, then I will continue writing until I’m forced to stop, which is usually because I haven’t got a clue where the story is going. That is when I am forced to do what I should have done in the beginning and plan the story out, so that it has a beginning, middle and end. That first chapter of the Mexican led off in an entirely different direction, so I just went with it to see where it would go. The result was a mystery character with Frank trying to find out (like me) where Don DeLuca actually fitted into the picture.


Who is it published by and where can we buy it?

It ‘s published by Crowood Press, who recently took over the Black Horse Western series from Robert Hale. It is available through online book outlets or in the UK and Australia, via the library system.


What’s your latest writing project?

I’m currently doing an edit on a future BHW submission that started life as Wayward Wind and is now called Firecracker. I’m currently at the fed-up stage of the process and will put it in the bottom drawer for a couple of months after this edit. Then hopefully, when I pull it back out, I’ll be able to spot and fix the flaws in the final edit.  


What unusual writing ritual do you have?

None. I don’t have any lucky underpants to wear when writing, and I don’t have to be in any particular mood, place or time to write. I think this is because I only see myself as an average writer, and have learnt not to be too precious about it all. I tend to focus on developing the story above all else. If the story is compelling and the characters engaging, then it can hide my lack of artistry. Therefore, I am happy to overwrite, rewrite and reconstruct as I go. Initially, I don’t fuss about what is going down on the page as I know that whatever I write can be stripped back, improved and reshaped. And that is why I spend so much time on the re-writing/editing process. I like to get the first complete draft of a BHW story down on paper/doc in four to six weeks. After that I will spend six to eight months developing and polishing it to an acceptable standard for submission.

As an amateur, I see myself a little like a one-man garage band. I want to write the song, sing the lead and harmonies, and play all the instruments. But I’m not looking for a pure and perfect sound. I’m searching for a Rocket 88 or a Loui Loui where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I also hold the view that on occasion pulp can transcend into art, much like the odd two and half minute pop song. Not that I will ever get to that level but that’s beside the point. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett is a case in point. It was originally published in the pulp magazine Black Mask as a serial in 1927-28, and is now the blueprint for every story about the lone hero who sets out to clean up corruption. It is a great story well told by a master storyteller – and in my mind an ageless classic. So, I’ve been to the top of the mountain and seen what great pulp looks like – and I dream.


What’s the best piece of advice you’ve heard about writing westerns?

There is no end to the amount of advice now freely available in print or via interviews by famous and successful authors, and all of it is relevant depending where you are on the writing journey. Good storytelling is not genre specific, so what is applicable to one is applicable all, including the Western.

What I would pass on to someone who is about to or has started their first BHW, and I hope there are many, is, just finish that first draft. Without that completed first draft you have nothing. Once you have a story with a beginning, middle and end, it can then be developed and polished. Half a story, even three quarters of a story, is of little value until you type THE END. Even if it is rough and ready, it doesn’t matter. Rewriting and editing can fix it.

I would certainly recommend Nik Morton’s Write A Western In 30 Days. I just wish it had been available ten years ago when I was trying to figure out how to write a Western.


How many books do you generally read in a month and what are you reading now?

Depends as writing and editing sucks time from reading, which I sometimes resent, especially when I’ve found a book that I don’t want to put down. But I like to have one book on the bedside table all the time. When I go on holidays, reading takes priority, be on a flight or lying besides the pool. It just makes the holiday so much better.

I have just finished Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles, which I can recommend. Custer’s courage and tactical ability on the battlefield during the Civil War was second to none, but so was his ambition. Maybe the two went hand in glove. His wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer is also a most interesting character. She did her best after his death to guard his legacy. Unfortunately, he is often remembered just for Little Big Horn and that was at the very end of an amazing if short life at 36.

When reading for pleasure I tend to be drawn to non-fiction and like history a lot, especially from about 1850 to 1950 as it was a period of great modern industrialization. All that we know today came from then, be it rail, car, airplane, phone, telegraphy, electricity, refrigeration or the repeating rifle. It was the start of modern times as we now know it.

Other books that I have read recently and enjoyed have been, The Big Short by Michael Lewis, which I stole from my wife on a trip to Singapore, and The Martian by Andy Weir. I can recommend both. They are very well told with Andy Weir changing points of view on occasion, which I found most interesting. I didn’t know you could get away with that, but he did. I’m glad I read Michael Lewis’ book before I saw the movie, otherwise I wouldn’t have known what was going on. All those derivatives, hedging and taking short positions can be really confusing, but it also makes for a great story as it has hubris and greed at its core. I love stories that include the deadly sins. 

The last Western I read was The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout, which is outstanding. And yes, I admit, I had a little weep as I really became fond of Mary Bee Cuddy. The movie is good but the book is fantastic.


What authors or books have inspired you and why?

In regard to Westerns, I’m going to pick and name just one, or I’ll waffle on all around the houses on the merits of Lauran Paine, Elmore Leonard, Robert B. Parker, Patrick DeWitt, Louis L’amour, L.J. Martin, Nik Morton and many others. The book that stopped me in my tracks, but not immediately as it took me two reads to figure it out, but hey I’m a bit slow on the uptake, was True Grit by Charles Portis.

It was only after the second reading and a lot of thinking that I was able to figure out what the story was really about. While it looks like a tale of adventure, with a fourteen year old girl setting out to revenge the murder of her father with an aging, one-eyed, overweight, drunkard marshal, and a smart mouthed Texas Ranger, it is much, much more. The penny dropped when I realized that the storyteller, Mattie Ross the aging spinster, was actually an unreliable narrator who was embellishing the actions and characters to fit long ago events. She may have thought she was telling the story accurately, but it was an exaggerated fantasy. She had elevated Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn to the status of a knight in shining armour, a man of true grit. He was her unrequited love. It is clever and wonderfully told. The use of language is superb. The two movies are good but not as good as the book. True Grit is a true American classic.


Which of your books would you recommend to a first time reader and why?

I’ve done my very best not to repeat myself, and in doing so, some stories may appeal to some readers but not to others. The first Western I wrote was called Reins of Satan. I wrote it in 2008 when trying to develop a particular writing style, but never thought it would be suitable as a BHW due to the content and tone. Yet, surprisingly in 2014 when I submitted it on a whim, it was accepted without the call for any changes. It was released last April and maybe the Hale publishing house felt that the BHW series could handle a little more grit and noir. It is written in the first person and tells the story of a Civil War veteran and enforcer who loses his nerve at a time when he needs it most. It is the shortest of my published Westerns, so maybe that might be a good place to start, without inflicting too much pain on the reader, and it is still available in print.


If you were stranded on a desert island, which book, song and film would you like to have with you?

Bookwise, then I think it would have to be the great white whale – Moby Dick by Herman Melville. It’s a book about manic obsession to the point where it destroys not just Captain Ahab but all the poor sods that happen to be stuck on the Pequod with him. Scary stuff. Second choice would be Gatsby. It is also about obsession and its consequences, and was once considered to be pulp fiction. It is the most beautifully told story I’ve ever read. The prose reads like poetry. That F. Scott Fitzgerald could also write the Pat Hobby Stories is an illustration of his cleaver versatility. If I could sell my soul and write one book in my lifetime, it would be The Great Gatsby.

Song, then my current listening would say the Cactus Blossoms You’re Dreaming CD. The Everly Bothers live on. These country harmonies from two brothers are sanctifying.

And Western film, then I think it has to be High Noon. A masterpiece of tight and compact storytelling, with a timeframe measured in minutes – a location contained within a small frontier town with no sweeping landscapes – and no rampaging savages. It is mostly played out within the head of an ageing sheriff who is seen by the town’s people as part of the problem and not the solution. They want him to go and therefore take the problem with him. It could well be the perfect Black Horse Western story template that meets the demands of tight and dramatic storytelling. Of course, on reflection the plot sounds so simple, but I’ve come to the conclusion that these are hard stories to tell. They are grim and lean to the point where there is no relief from the drama, so they have to grip and hold you. The ending, with Sheriff Will Cane tossing his star on the ground as he leaves is perfect. The town doesn’t deserve him as their sheriff, just when they realize his true worth. Yes, I know Unforgiven is a masterpiece, but High Noon was made forty years earlier on a shoestring. And then you have Grace Kelly and Kathy Jurado! Every young boy’s dream who wanted to grow up and be just like Gary Cooper. Frozen perfect in time. Ageless.

Thank you.