Great & Timeless Themes of the Human Experience: Susan K. Salzer on Writing the West

“An appreciation of the American West and its literature is not a genre—it’s a state of mind,” said Susan K. Salzer.  “I lose myself completely when researching, reading or writing a Western story. It’s a wonderful escape from the grind of everyday life.”

Susan K. Salzer is a journalist by training and a character-based novelist by inclination.  Her debut novel, Up from Thunder, takes place in Missouri during the Civil War.  The protagonist, 16-year-old Hattie Rood, must take care of a wounded 17-year-old Jesse James.  If Hattie Rood is the heart of the book – her losses, her courage, and her growing love for young Jesse James – then the state of Missouri is the ravaged body of the book.  Despite the horrors being waged around them, Salzer remains focused on the characters.

As a result, Up from Thunder is an achingly beautiful book.

“I think Susan Salzer will be a voice and a force to be heard and recognized in the coming years,” said Johnny D. Boggs, author of Northfield and for president of the Western Writers of America. “Susan does her homework, and can tell a great story. Besides, she’s a strong writer of fiction as well as nonfiction. A lot of writers get caught up in the blood and guts when they tackle Missouri during the Civil War, but her first novel was deeply human, quite moving, just a really wonderful read.”

Below, Salzer and I talk about the West, writing historical fiction, and sense of place.


And what is the biggest challenge in writing the West?



Susan K. Salzer: Convincing editors and publishers that Western writing, fiction and nonfiction, will appeal to readers. A good story is a good story, no matter where or when it is set. But for some reason publishers nowadays are reluctant to take on anything that might be considered “a Western.” It’s frustrating.


What kind of Westerns do you write?


Susan K. Salzer: I write historical fiction, sort of “what if” stories based on actual events. For example, my novel Up from Thunder is based on an event that occurred in Ray County, Missouri, when the 16-year-old Jesse James first started riding with the bushwhackers. I get all the detail I can about the episode–the people involved, daily life at the time, other related events–and then spin my own story within that framework.

I’ve always been interested in Civil War history but I thought good Civil War stories should involve great clashing armies, uniformed officers, antebellum mansions—the whole Gone with the Wind thing. For that reason, Missouri’s Civil War was disappointing to me. And I was not especially interested in Jesse James, either. I knew he was from Missouri, had a brother and they robbed banks and trains. But then somewhere along the line I came to understand that if you want rich, haunted history, huge, vibrant personalities and tales of suspense and horror, you really can’t do better than Missouri’s Civil War. And Jesse James is an integral part of that story. He could have come from no other place, at no other time. T.J. Stiles’s 2002 book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War was very illuminating in this regard. I recommend it highly.

My next novel involves the 18th Infantry’s 1866 march up the Bozeman Trail to the doomed Fort Phil Kearny. This research was especially fun and exciting because several officers brought their wives and families along and some of these women kept journals and wrote memoirs. This was a particularly rich field to mine.


What can a writer who doesn’t usually read Westerns learn from reading within the genre?


Susan K. Salzer: Oh, there’s so much. Sense of place is vital to good Western writing—any writing really but especially Western writing. Think of Tony Hillerman’s books. Could Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee live on the page the way they do without the dramatic and somewhat menacing Southwest behind them? Think of Wallace Stegner’s freezing cowboys in the story “Genesis,” or the arrogant trekker in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” In these and all classics of the genre the land is a living, breathing character, sometimes benevolent, sometimes not, but always a force to be reckoned with. And she will not suffer a fool or a pantywaist!

Much of Western writing is about competence and testing, about the individual’s struggle to find a place in the natural world. Men and women go West in search of freedom or some other reward and in so doing discover what they are made of. How will I measure up against this enemy, against this brutal cold, against this crushing loneliness?  Am I equal to my surroundings?

I once heard Kevin Costner say Westerns are America’s Shakespeare. I’d agree with that but I’d go one step farther. Like Shakespeare, all the great and timeless themes of the human experience are present in Western writing but—unlike Shakespeare—they are easily accessible. Give me a Jack London story or a Larry McMurtry novel over Will Shakespeare any day!


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magazine.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.