Ageless Tales & Scratching the Surface: Charles T. Whipple/Chuck Tyrell on Writing the West Part 1

Charles T. Whipple’s Westerns are written with an old man’s wisdom filtered through a child’s wide-eyed sense of wonder. His stories ripple with the feel of folk tales and local legend, without losing the immediacy and realism of someone who’s been there. Whipple grew up in the American West, in a time when the pioneers had aged but were still living—at a time when a child dreamed as much of the 19th century as 20th.

Whipple is an award-winning American journalist living in Chiba, Japan. His articles have appeared abroad in magazines such as Tokyo Journal, Boating New Zealand, and Honolulu Magazine and a bit closer to his native country in Time and Newsweek. Whipple also writes book-length non-fiction, in English and Japanese, with titles such as Seeing Japan and Inspired Shapes.

To get a taste of Whipple’s writing check out his brand new collection of short stories, A Matter of Tea and Other Stories. All proceeds from the book go to relief efforts in Japan following the recent earthquakes.

Charles Whipple doesn’t always write under his own name. For 300 or 400 words a day, he becomes someone else—Chuck Tyrell–and he returns to the land of his childhood—the American West. Mostly, Whipple’s Chuck Tyrell novels have appeared in Robert Hale Ltd.’s Black Horse Western line. Recent titles include Guns of Ponderosa, The Killing Trail, and Hell Fire in Paradise. His most recent novel, Snake Den, is his first with Solstice Publishing, while a $0.99 short, “The Prodigal”, is available on SmashWords.

Below, Whipple and I talk about Japan, growing up in the American West, and writing Westerns. Whipple will be back around tomorrow to talk some more about writing the West.

How’re things going where you live in Japan?  How are you and your family doing?

Charles T. Whipple: For a while, things were dicey. I was at the hospital down by the bay shore when the quake hit at 2:46, March 11. My checkup was over and I’d just put in my prescription for meds when the first shakes came. I paused for a moment, waiting for the trembling to subside, but it didn’t, so I sent outside on the smoking deck between the two 3-story wings of the hospital. In moments the earth was shaking so hard I had to hold onto an upright to stay on my feet. Two vans parked in front of the smoking deck danced like some giant puppeteer had them on strings. Fortunately, neither tipped over. The iron trusses of the second story walkway between the wings shrieked at the torture they were being put through. I wondered, seriously, if the hospital building would fall over on me.

My guess is the quake lasted about two minutes. It seemed like half a century.

When the temblor stopped. I went back to the pharmacy. Meds all over the place. I waited for 20 minutes or so for the prescription to be filled. I wondered if my car was in one piece.

I tried to call my wife. Cell phones didn’t work. For some reason, Japanese cell phone service providers cut off the cell phones whenever a disaster hits. In the aftermath of the Kobe quake in 1995, cell phones were put to very good use. I was there, helping where I could. Now, though, you can’t call anyone after a quake. Internet connections, however, were still up and I was able to contact my wife by email. She, too, was all right.

My car was in one piece. The engine started with no problem. Water gushed from a broken main in the driveway. Fuel leaked from a tank near the hospital. Crews were already on it when I drove out of the parking lot.

As I headed for my home on the high ground about 3 miles away, I saw signs of liquefaction in the low-lying areas, and just as I was about to go over a bridge over the railway, a strong after-quake started. I pulled off the side of the road rather than have the bridge come tumbling down with me on it. The bridge didn’t fall, and I drove home without further incident.

Nothing was broken at home. The dog seemed to take it all in stride. We had water and gas and power, though people on the flats two miles away had neither water nor power. 10 miles down the bayshore, an LPG tank farm burned, tanks exploding, jets of flame shooting out and licking up new tanks. The fires burned for two days.

Through the night, TV carried footage of tsunami eating up towns and villages along hundreds of miles of coastline. It also carried footage of the crippled nuclear power plants at Fukushima. At first, despite the hours of TV time expended on the nuclear plant, little hard information came. Even after the first hydrogen explosion, not much information came. Data still only comes in dribbles.

I live roughly 200 miles from the reactors and chance of a Chernobyl-type explosion is very very slim, they say. But even with a big explosion, little of the fallout would hit our home. That said, because there is so little known about the effects of low-level radiation, an explosion might cause a mass exodus from the Fukushima area.

The quake itself caused relatively little damage. The resulting 15-meter (50 feet) high tsunami crushed entire villages, lifted 20-ton fishing boats into rice paddies and onto the top of three-story buildings, and carried away an estimated 17,000 people. One man was found sitting on the roof of his house, nearly five miles out to sea. A dog was found in the same situation, three weeks after the quake.

My publisher, Rebecca Vickery, and I have put together a volume of my stories, A Matter of Tea and Other Stories, set in Japan. All proceeds from its sale, hers and mine, will go to the victims of the Tohoku–Pacific Ocean earthquake. I promise to see that every penny goes to the victims and not to pay the expenses of some charity organization.

If you have questions about what’s going on in Japan, just contact me. If I don’t know, I’ll find out.

Does something like this–the tragic disasters in Japan—inspire you to write or… something else altogether? What sort of impact does it have on your work/career?

Charles T. Whipple: Other than my regular daily slice of time spent writing the current WIP, nothing in that vein has changed. I have spent a lot more time helping people put their needs into English. And I’ve spent some hours at volunteer work. The week of April 13 I drove up to the quake center area with a van full of food and water. By the time we left, we had a dozen vans full of stuff.

When you get to be my age, you do everything you can to get another book or story out. There’s only so much time left. My hero Robert B. Parker died at his writing desk at age 77. If I do the same, I have only a few years to go. Still, I can’t write a million words a year like James Reasoner does, nor can I put out a book a month like Robert Randisi does. My pace is slower, but I still want to finish up as much as I can before the grim reaper comes.

Why Westerns? What is it you enjoy about writing the West?

Charles T. Whipple: I missed the hey-day. I wrote my first western in 1979, when Louis L’Amour was at his peak and many writers were seeing amazing success. People like Ray Hogan, Gordon Sherrifs, Clair Huffaker, and even Brian Garfield and Elmore Leonard got their starts writing westerns.

My first western, now available from Western Trail Blazers as an ebook and POD, was written for a Louis L’Amour write-alike contest. I didn’t win, so I figured I couldn‘t write fiction. The MS stayed in my bottom drawer (written on an IBM Selectric, by the way) for the next twenty years while I wrote magazine articles and advertising copy and corporate literature (annual reports, CSR reports, etc.).

I don’t remember where I heard of Black Horse Westerns, but I dusted off the MS and sent it to Mr. John Hale of Robert Hale Ltd. These were the days before electronic submissions. The letter from Mr. Hale said the book was publishable, but that it was 30% too long. Edit and resubmit, he said. I did, and the book was published. It reached the end of its contract with Black Horse Westerns last year, and Hale reverted the rights to me. Rebecca and I republished it under the Western Trail Blazers imprint late in 2010.

So why westerns when I live in Japan, a place that has intrigued millions with its unique culture and exotic history and background?

Born and raised in Arizona, my boyhood was spent in a subsistence situation. That is, we raised our own grain and vegetables and corn for house and silo and alfalfa for hay to feed horses and cows. We always had three milk cows, two milking and one pregnant. As the oldest boy, I got more than my share of milking chores. We always had pigs. We always had chickens. And we ran enough cows to add a few thousand dollars to the family coffers at auction time. I say thousands because my calf Sunday Shirt sold for $104 when I was in the 6th grade. We probably sold a dozen or so two year olds then, so our income from the steers was a little over a thousand dollars in 1953 or so.

My grandparents were pioneers. Of course, Corydon Cooley, who owned the original ranch and worked as a guide for the Army at Fort Apache, came in the late 1860s or early ‘70s. My granddad came in 1876 from Nevada, where he’d worked at the silver mines to earn a nest egg.

My father wanted nothing more than to be a cowboy, and he was a cowboy almost until the day he died. He was also a school teacher and administrator.

So as a boy, I was steeped in the west. Not the west written by Owen Wister or A.B. Guthrie, but the west as it was in the 1940s and 1950s in Show Low, Arizona. The west in which a boy had his own horse that he was free to ride anywhere (I think I could ride before I could walk), in which a boy could catch mud cats and perch with a willow pole and 10 feet of line. Earthworms were for the taking so bait was no problem. I churned cream into butter. I helped fill the silo with ensilage. I drove the tractor (big John Deere) from age 9 and the pickup (when we were loading hay) from age 12. I held down calves while they were earmarked and castrated. I wielded branding iron and pocketknife alike. I helped butcher steers and pigs, and I’ve wrung the necks of more fryer roosters than I want to count. And when the season rolled around, the .30-30 came off the rack and my friends and I went out after mule deer. Or turkeys.

So I’ve lived the life. I’ve heard the stories from the pioneers. Stories of Chief Ptone of the White Mountain Apache tribe. Stories of Commodore Owens and the Snyder Gang in Round Valley. Stories of John Payne killing Mormon farmers when he rode for the Hashknife Outfit. Stories of Houck and Stott, who were models for The Oxbow Incident.

But they’re stories. Not bona fide history. And I want to leave a record of those stories behind. So I make new stories up. Blending in things I’ve heard and experiences I’ve had, and hope that my stories ring true to the reader.

How did your experiences growing up around Native-Americans and Mexican-Americans shape your vision of the West?

Charles T. Whipple: I met Johnny Gonzales again at our 50th high school class reunion in 2009. He was the best-dressed guy in school, with penny loafers and smooth sharp-crease charcoal-gray trousers, pink shirts, and a ducktail hairdo much like Elvis’s. Today, Johnny is the same Johnny, but without the pink shirt and ducktail. In fact, he’d make a good priest. He’d not have to shave his head and leave the sides. It’s naturally that way. You see, Johnny is just like any other member of the class. And that’s how I try to portray the Mexican Americans, who were in Arizona long before any Caucasians came along, and Native Americans.

Both hyphen-Americans have cultures that can be used as story elements. None has to be an antagonist because of his or her race. In “A Man Called Breed,” the protagonist is half-white, half-Comanche, a survivor of the Sand Creek Massacre. His troubles come because of his racial background. But in the end, he gets an apology. In that story, a Native-American who will get his own story comes on stage. His adult name is Sparrow. Watch for him.

We should not allow people to forget about the West. We’re only scratching the surface of the stories there are to tell. The drama covers the spectrum. The settings cover the spectrum. The people cover the spectrum. And the tales are ageless. Help me carry the standard. Please.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  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.


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