A Month of Writing the West

My mother has lived her adult life surrounded by books. She is a folk artist who married into a family of writers and teachers. Books lined the walls of her married life and, therefore, of my childhood. Just as my wife’s family, all professional musicians, speaks a language filled with references to musicals and operas, rehearsals and performances, my family speaks in an odd code of fictional characters and storylines.

Before the advent of audio books, Mom often asked me to read aloud to her while she completed commissioned artwork. Later, she invested in a Walkman and piles of remaindered books on tape. There was no real pattern to what sort of book she listened to on tape. She grabbed what looked good, whatever piqued her interest.

Sure, Mom had her favorites, whether reading or listening. She loved the novels of a group of writers we, as a family, called The Four Johns—John Barth, John Cheever, John Irving, John Updike. But still, The Four Johns were authors whose books Mom shared with Dad and, later, with me. (I read many to her while she worked.) Yet mom also had her own books, ones that neither Dad nor I read.

And then there was Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor–the book that “got away.” In the pre-internet, pre-eBay era, Forever Amber became the object of much weekend questing. Mom looked everywhere for a copy of the out of print novel–every used bookstore, thrift shop, and flea market in South Florida. She never mentioned the plot, the characters, the sexually explicit content–the cover of the 2000 re-issue brags that it is the “original bodice-ripper”–because none of that was the point. She’d read the book and it had moved her, and now she sought out a return to that experience, however idealized over time it might have been.

The Westerns came late in her life. And they were different. They were her own. I don’t mean that she wrote them. I mean that they were a very private experience for her.

Mom and I discovered Western literature independently. I’d grown up watching Western TV shows and movies and playing Cowboys and Indians. I really fell in love with the literature of the West in college, under the guidance of the Legendary William “Wild Bill” Hedges (he was, frankly, neither “wild” nor a “Bill” but he is very much a legend to those of us who studied under him). Hedges, in an American Studies course called “The Land and the Imagination”, helped me connect the dots from my childhood summers spent exploring the woods of James Fenimore Cooper’s Cooperstown to the novels of Louis L’Amour to the Spaghetti Westerns of Clint Eastwood… to my image of myself as a man coming of age in the United States.

Mom’s path to Westerns was different. She’d grown up in Cooperstown, the land of the proto-typical American Hero, Natty Bumppo. She’d always leaned more toward Native American art and folklore than toward cowboy art or Westerns. Her art room was crammed with books on Native Americans and to this day if I see silver and turquoise jewelry I think of her. So, Mom’s mid-life fondness for Westerns wasn’t entirely unfounded, but it still surprised me.

A love of Western novels was not necessarily something we actively shared with each other. Certainly, we discussed her favorites–Zane Grey, William W. Johnstone, Louis L’Amour–as she devoured dozens of books by each and I tried to get her to read Elmore Leonard, Robert J. Randisi, and Loren D. Estleman (to no avail), but reading Westerns was still, in some unstated but clear way, her own.

Mom talked about “her Louises” (which became a catch-all for the Westerns she had read, regardless of the authors). She spoke of distant places and do-good heroes with a far-away glint in her eyes. She’d read so many of Louises that I typed up a list of L’Amour’s complete works. Mom checked off the books she had read and carried the folded sheet of paper in her purse, but I’m fairly certain she didn’t need the list. She knew the books as well as she knew herself.

During more than one difficult time in her life, Mom sank deeply into the West: for months on end she would rush home from work, no kids, Dad not home yet, and head out to a land of mountains, deserts, and plains. These days, she cares for Dad, who suffered a brain injury ten years ago, and for my grandmother, who is in her nineties. Last spring Mom was diagnosed with congestive heart failure on top of other health issues. She should be scaling back, taking it easy, resting up. She should be reading Westerns by the dozen. Instead, she speaks longingly of that box of Louises packed away somewhere.

Mom’s birthday is in April and this month at Booklifenow.com is dedicated to her. In addition to our usual content, I have arranged for a month-long celebration of writing the West. Each weekday in April, I will run an interview, roundtable, or essay that focuses on writing Westerns.

You don’t have to be a fan of Westerns to get something out of this. I will be talking to some of the finest storytellers working today about everything from characterization to plot to metaphor, e-books to freelancing to pen-names.

So belly up to bar or sit a spell or bookmark the page, whichever is more your style. Here’s hoping you, like my Mom, discover a few new Louises to read.

3 thoughts on “A Month of Writing the West

  1. Thanks, guys! Mom is quite a character. And she tells me that she is, indeed, reading again. Doctor's orders!

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