Make ‘Em Quirky: Joseph A. West on Writing the West

Some books put you to sleep.  Some prompt the grimace-shrug.  The glorious few elicit a physical response.  Joseph A. West writes that kind of book.  I read most of The Last Manhunt standing, pacing around, and wondering out loud, “How does he do that?”  The characters are peculiar, the dialogue is both clear and quirky, and the plot is… rollicking?  Spontaneous?  Down-right weird?

The name across the top of the cover of The Last Manhunt might be Ralph Compton, but the story inside is pure Joe West.

West has written the Johnny Blue novels under his own name, more than a dozen novels in the Ralph Compton line, and original novels based on the television series, Gunsmoke.  He’s a Scottish journalist who came to the United States to write copy, fell in love (with the country and his future bride), and stayed here to write novels set in the West.

Below, we talk about writing Westerns, kicking kitties, and killing the bad guy slowly.

What is it that inspires you about the US and the West?

Joseph A. West: First let me say that you do me honor inviting me here, and I hope my words will be of some small help to other writers.

The West–its plains, mountains and rivers–has inspired me since I was knee-high to my Ma. I believe that this love of the West is something a man feels deep inside him and for which there is no logical explanation.

As far as Western novels go, I love the battle between good and evil and the triumph of good in the end. When I was growing up, to me Roy and Gene and Hoppy stood for everything that was good, noble and decent in men. Roy taught me that a cowboy washed behind his ears and kept his fingernails clean. Gene showed me the proper way to treat women, old people, and animals. As for Hoppy, he explained the way of the gunfighter– shoot straight, talk true and never buckle down to a bully.

And the United States… it is a great privilege to live here, in the greatest country in the world. I’ll always be grateful that Americans accepted this Scottish immigrant and over the years have given me more help and respect than I no doubt deserve.

From other interviews, it sounds like you and your wife make a pretty good team.  In what ways does she support your writing life?

Joseph A. West: My wife is a stern, 22nd generation Yankee, and without her I’d probably never get a book published. Emily does all my copyediting and proofreading and makes every manuscript a sight better than it was to begin with.

I’m quite capable, in the first third of a book, of calling my hero Joe Green. By the middle, he’s become Bill Brown, and in the final third, for no apparent reason, Archibald Jones. Emily never fails to catch those little mistakes.

I also forget characters, which leads to many a husband/wife confrontation as follows:

Emily: “Hey, you, what happened to the guy who was hanging from the cliff by his fingertips in a lightning storm with Apaches above him and a pack of hungry wolves below him?”

Me: “Oh, shit. I forgot all about him.”

Emily: “You’re a lunatic.”

Women…you gotta love ’em.

What are the pros and cons of working in the Ralph Compton line?

Joseph A. West: Pros: I don’t have to send a manuscript over the transom and hope for the best. Three or four times a year I get an email from my editor that says something like: “Joe, I need a novel due December 1. Regards…”

Another pro is that work-for-hire comes with a built-in readership, and this has been a great help in establishing my own name. Western readers are a conservative bunch and seldom take a chance on a writer they’ve never heard of.

Another good thing is that I’ve got an excellent editor, who once told me: “The only rule you have to follow is that there are no rules.” As a result, he allows me to take off into unexplored Western territory. I’ve written about ghosts, ha’ants, vampires, zombies an’ sich, and my editor has never called a halt.

Cons: A dead guy’s name goes on my book, always a bummer.

The Ralph Compton is a work-for-hire, so I get a flat fee and no royalties, movie rights… etc., another bummer.

But all in all, I must say that the folks at Penguin Putnam have been very good to me, and I have no real complaints on that score–except I wish they’d pay me faster.

Your novels are so wonderfully character-driven, I have to ask…  how do you, um, do that?

Joseph A. West: Here the old writing saw applies: Show, don’t tell.

I let the characterization build gradually, a bit at a time. For example, if my hero steps out of the saloon and stops for a moment to pet a little kitty cat, it tells the reader a lot about the guy’s character without spending half a chapter describing how kind he is to animals.

I try to let the personality of characters come through in how they talk. Nothing establishes character more than dialogue, and it can be done in very few words. For example:

“You ought not to slap around a lady like that, Mr. Brewster,” Sam Smith said.

“You planning to do something about it?” Karl Brewster said.

“No, just sayin’.”

“Then don’t say it again. Keep your damned trap shut.”

If my math is right, in 37 words we’ve established that: Sam is a decent man, respectful to his superiors, but he’s not willing to fight for his beliefs. On the other hand, Karl Brewster abuses women and is an arrogant bully, a typical bad guy.

Another thing that guides me is that every human being has flaws.

I don’t make my hero all good. Sure, Roy and Gene and Hoppy were 100 percent good, but it didn’t make for compelling characters.

I try to show throughout my novels that at times my hero can be scared, none too brave, and willing to swing his horse around and head for the hills. Reveal his flaws, and when he does something gallant or noble, it will come more sharply into focus.

Finally, I must say that successful writers are creatures of instinct. Some have a sixth sense for characterization, others don’t. Happily, its something we can learn by reading how the better writers handle it. Hell, take notes if you have to, rip ’em off, base your characterizations on what the best of them do. Pretty soon you’ll make the people in your book come to vivid life.

And how about the making of great antagonists?

Joseph A. West: Remember the hero who petted the kitty cat? Well, the bad guy would kick the poor critter out of his way.

I like to make my bad guys as awful they can be. They abuse women, are unkind to children, hell on horses, and they don’t think twice about shooting somebody in the back.

But make ’em quirky.

I love bad guys who quote the Bible or read Homer in the original Greek or have a soft spot for his Ma who was a line shack whore with a heart of lead.

All that aside, the outlaw has no conscience, no pity, and less mercy. The only law he understands is the law of the gun; his one solution to problems, mindless violence.

Another thing: Any man who’d kick a kitty cat must come to a terrible end. I don’t just shoot my bad guy, hear him say, “Erk!” and die. That really disappoints the reader in my opinion.

My advice on the rogue’s demise? Flog him, burn him, brand him, crush him with rocks, blow his arms off, castrate him, skin him alive, let Apache women have fun with him… do anything but let him die quickly.  Remember, he has a lot of sins to atone for… make the son-of-a-gun pay.

What role does comedy play in your Westerns?  How do you make a reader laugh out loud?

Joseph A. West: One thing I can’t abide is the Western writer (unhappily, mostly self-published) who describes his novel as “action-packed.” That’s a dead giveaway that the pulp is going to be as boring as hell.

A novel needs pacing, violent or dramatic scenes contrasting with quieter ones. Comedy often fills the bill for the latter.

I like to play it straight, the comedy coming out of well-meaning statements, and I tend to avoid slapstick, the kind of funny scene that ended every Gene Autry movie.

For example, in the novel I’m writing now, my broken-down cowboy hero, at this point scared as hell, but nevertheless curious enough to ask the bad guy:

“Folks say you once et a whole Comanche, Dan. Why did you do that?”

“Because I burned my breakfast eggs and I was hungry.”

I don’t know if that piece of dialogue will make a reader laugh, but I really love dark humor.

Do you have any advice for writing action scenes?

Joseph A. West: I wrote a nonfiction book a few years back about “hero cops in the front lines of danger,” and spoke to officers about their gunfights.

The cops would tell me how it went down: “I moved here… The bad guy took cover behind a car… I moved again… He fired twice… I shot back… He tried to run again… I shot at him… He dropped… He shot at me and hit me in the shoulder… I fired again and this time he went down.”

The elapsed time from the first shot to the last: 4 seconds.

This is why I choreograph my fights. I describe in detail how the protagonists move, how they take their hits, the vocal exchanges between the gunfighters and how the battle ends.

I can take a whole page to describe a fight that lasted maybe 15 seconds.

One-shot stops from the black powder, slow-moving .45 bullet were rare in the West, so the chances are your characters are going to take multiple hits. The one that’s still on his feet when the smoke clears is the winner.

I also keep shootings to a minimum, a last resort when all the talking is done. Gunfights were relatively rare in Western towns, so don’t fill your books with mindless blood and gore and please don’t resolve plots with a pile of bodies.

Floods, stampedes, lighting storms, fires, and droughts can be every bit as exciting as gunfights, so spend some time on these.

Remember, weather should be a major character in your book. It shapes how men move, think and act.

Any parting words?  Words of caution or encouragement for writers out there?

Joseph A. West: Yeah, a few words of (I hope) wisdom I’ve picked up along the way.

Use whatever talent you possess to become the best writer you can.  I accepted long ago that I was never going to be in the same league as Elmore Leonard or Elmer Kelton, so I now I try to be the best Joe West I can possibly be.

Get over rejection. It happens to everybody. Think of it as a learning process, something that will make your next novel better. Besides, once you get your name established you can get all those books published that were rejected the first time around.

You don’t have to love writing to be a writer.

I really hate the writing process with a passion. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind enjoy sitting for hours at a computer seven days a week? That’s why all the writers I know are as crazy as me and have the same sore butt.

The hardest part of writing is applying the seat of the pants to the chair. Just sitting down in front of the screen is half the battle.

Don’t let people tell you that you’ll never make it as a writer. They’re full of BS. Hell, if an ink-stained wretch with minimal talent like me can make it, so can you.

Stay away from pessimists. They think the whole world is just like them.

Lordy, all this speechifying has plumb wore me out. Time for a large Black Jack I reckon.

Good luck to all of you. I hope to see you on the bestsellers list soon.


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.




3 thoughts on “Make ‘Em Quirky: Joseph A. West on Writing the West

  1. I've read a pile of Joseph West's novels and I've enjoyed every single one. For my money, he delivers some of the best Western fiction being written today. It's a fine bonus to get a peek at how he works. Thanks for the interview, gents!

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