The Beauty & the Terror: Jory Sherman on Writing the West

Jory Sherman started out as a poet. Half a century later, he is a legend known for taking readers on heroic journeys across the West.

Sherman is the author of more than 400 books, including the recent novel The Amarillo Trail (as by Ralph Compton), which came out today.  Death Rattle and Savage Vengeance are due out later this summer.

I’ll hold off on talking about his excellent new book on writing, Master Course in Writing (High Hill Press).  I want to save Master Course for a full-length review.  Suffice it to say that Sherman is a highly respected teacher known for changing whole careers with a bit of well-timed advice or gentle wisdom.  And in Master Course he lays it all out in a straightforward and compelling writing “course”.

Though Sherman is legally blind, his vision of the writing process has never been clearer, never sharper. He is at the top of his craft.  His prose, whether non-fiction or fiction, has never been fiercer, has never been more elegant than it is today.  So, grab a seat at the master’s knee and listen up while Sherman talks about writing fiction in general and the western in particular.

I almost don’t know where to start! You’ve been a full-time writer for more than fifty years.  What do you enjoy about writing?

Jory Sherman: There are so many things I enjoy about writing, but I think the most enjoyment I get from writing is the feeling I get from using language, the English language, which is the richest in the world.  I love seeing ideas take shape in my mind and then using language’s powerful symbols to convey those ideas.  I have an almost mystical feeling about language and words, as if a sentence is a secret code that can unlock the mysteries of the human mind, can reveal ancient myths and stories that have lain buried in the human subconscious since man came into being on this earth.  I believe that, in the beginning, there was the thought and then came the word, the logos.  Language brought me to writing and sustains me even after more than 50 years of putting thoughts into words.

How has the writer’s job changed in the last half century?

Jory Sherman: The writer’s job has not changed much except in form and content.  The writer still must tell a compelling story, and if he or she uses mythic structure, the underpinnings of myth, then the story can enter the deepest part of a reader’s consciousness and seem almost real.  I believe that each person is a born storyteller, that storytelling is in our DNA.  The writer must plumb that subconscious, that ancient part of the mind, to find not only the story, but a way to tell that story to any reader now living or to those yet unborn.

Writing has remained the same, despite the labels assigned to the craft over the ages, such as romanticism, realism, or any number of like designations.  In fact, I learn a great deal from reading a wide variety of writing by such authors as Turgenev, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Celine, Dostoevesky, Faulkner, Hemingway, Flaubert, Dickens, Thoreau, Emerson, Jack Kerouac, Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Loren D. Estleman, John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Pat Conroy, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarme’, Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen or James Lee Burke.  Some peculiarities of language usage have fallen by the wayside, but the essentials still exist that spring from observation and the author’s ear for human speech.  It is a complex process, but the writer of today can learn not only from his or her contemporaries but from the masters of the past, beginning, perhaps with Homer.

Where does a Western novel usually start for you–image, plot, character, historical event, somewhere else altogether?

Jory Sherman: I usually start with a scene.  Then I imagine a character in that scene.  This is after I have written down a number of titles and chosen one for my story or novel.  To give a story a name removes all obstacles, all fear.  If there is to be some reference to history, then I will have done the research and will fill in my background from that information.  I no longer plot a novel as was once required by publishers, but just develop a story from characters in a certain time and place.  This works for me because I believe that the act of writing itself is a self-propelling process.  The key to every story is in the story itself, that theme, action, plot twists, and ending all occur naturally by the very process of writing.  I never question what I write and do not edit my own work.  I know the story will come out the way I have envisioned it as I write it.

How do you turn words into nearly human characters?

Jory Sherman: I use an age-old simple formula, which is “an appealing character struggles against great odds to achieve a worthwhile  goal.”  Each word in this sentence is important, and it springs from Joseph Campbell and it’s called “the hero’s journey.”  Some event brings a character into the foreground and that character is asked to leave his or her comfort zone and take on a dangerous task fraught with many perils.  The hero enters the deepest darkest cave and slays the dragon which has interfered with normal human life.  The hero returns from the final battle with both experience and, perhaps, a boon to mankind.

The writer must keenly observe many real-life characters and listen to what they say, how they talk.  In each writer there are many characters and he or she will never use up all of them.  We are not only chameleons, we are actors with many masks and we find the depths of characters within our own complex selves.  E pluribus unum. From many characters within us, we find one and make him or her a hero.  The hero is always human with an Achilles heel.  The hero has flaws.  His character is shaped by life and the writing must convey this learning process, this journey through the maze of obstacles until the goal is attained. I try to capture the personality of each character. The word personality derives from the Greek, persona, which is the word for “mask.”  The personality is what a person presents to the world, not what is really inside.  So, a character wears a mask, but the writer must plumb the character’s thoughts and actions to portray the truth of a person’s true character.

How do you write compelling dialogue–dialogue that deepens character and propels the plot forward?

Jory Sherman: I wish there were an easy answer to this question.  To me, dialogue must advance the story as well as show character.  So, each character must have a different voice and a different agenda in the life of the story.  I depend on my ear to construct dialogue, and all written dialogue is a compromise. People do not talk the way a fictitious character speaks.  All of the uhs, and ahs, pauses and mispronunciations are usually absent in fictional dialogue.  But, we can give a semblance of human speech to our characters by careful attention to the rhythm of human speech, the meter, and match the character’s mind with the words.  Each real person has a distinct speech pattern.  So, too, should the fictional character.  You can further describe speech with adjectives or adverbs, or verbs that portray tone, shading, anger, defeat, gloating or any number of human conditions.  Speech often portrays a person’s station in life, especially in the Western novel or story.  So, the writer’s ear comes into play here.  Dialogue is one of the writer’s most valuable tools.

How on earth do you write such beautiful descriptive scenes?

Jory Sherman: Are you talking about those scenes which most editors want me to cut out or shrink to a smaller size?  I don’t know how beautiful these descriptive scenes are, but my argument to the editor who wants me to cut them down or eliminate them, is that I am writing about the West, and the West has a feeling to it. The landscapes can be spectacular and I want to take the reader to that place in the West where he or she can see both the beauty and the terror of a particular place.

While we may be writing about a time and place that no longer exists, we can breathe that time and place back into existence.  We roam the West and we go to places where few seldom go and some of the places and people are still there, off the back roads, living simply in uninhabitable places, close to the land, close to nature.  That is where I am most comfortable, most happy, and where I often take the reader when we are making our hero’s journey across this great land.

There may be music in some of those descriptions, and if there is, it is because that music comes from the land, from the West itself. I try to paint the imagery of the Great Plains, the might of the rivers, and the majesty of the mountains.  I have been to those places I write about and I paint those pictures with words, with language.

While many are just now experimenting with e-books, you got involved with them over a decade ago.

Jory Sherman: We are just now on the leading edge of e-book technology.  We have seen the publishers shut down their Western lines.  They have cut the amount of advances drastically, those that still publish Western novels.  No attempt has ever been made by the publishing industry to advance the Western.  Yet, this genre is our native American literature.  It is unique, because our West is unique.  Other nations have tried to copy it and failed.  The West represents so much of our nation’s past and its future promise that it will never die.  Yet the publishing industry is helping to kill it.  E-books hold out a promise for the Western to finally reach every corner of the earth and the idea of it will be just as compelling to foreign readers as Zane Grey and Owen Wister, James Fenimore Cooper, et al, were to our grandfathers and great grandfathers.

The e-book publisher does not make the writer wait 8 months to a year before deciding to publish a book.  They do not take a year to produce a book.  They can have your book digitally available to a worldwide market in a few weeks.  The cost is much less than a hardcover, usually, and with the new devices such as the Kindle, Nook, Sony, Ipad, and a host of other ereaders, the market will expand exponentially, in my opinion.  I have a Kindle and it can even read to me and turn the pages.  Since I am legally blind, this is a wonderful gift.  I can no longer read a printed book.  Instead, I subscribe to and get two audio books a month for a low price.  With the Kindle I can buy books at a lower price and read them as fast or faster than I could when I had my sight.  With e-books, the royalties are better than they ever were with traditional publishers. Granted, there are no advances, but when we got large advances, those had to be earned through mass sales and paid back before any royalties accrued.  So, I do not see this as a disadvantage.  E-books never go out of print.  There is no inventory to drain a publisher’s finances.  The future is here and e-books will open the world to many new readers.


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 “The Beauty & the Terror: Jory Sherman on Writing the West

  1. What a great interview. Jory, I share your love of description. I write fantasy and it's much the same – you have to put the reader into that place, so they're immersed in it as much as the character is, or they miss a vital part of the experience.

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