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Monday, December 4, 2017

BRIT—WEST: WRANGLING WORDS WITH ANDREW MCBRIDE

BRIT—WEST: WRANGLING WORDS
WITH ANDREW MCBRIDE

Andrew McBride is another of the stellar writers continuing the tradition of popular western novels written by British authors. Following the trailblazing efforts of J. T. Edson, Matt Chisholm, the Piccadilly Cowboys and others, Andrew has seen six of his Westerns published, all featuring Calvin Taylor as the central character. Happily, Andrew has taken the time to step out of the saddle and join us around the campfire for a chat...
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If it was tacked up in the Sheriff’s office, what information would be included on a Wild West wanted poster with your picture on it? 

Andrew McBride. Aged about 63. Last seen in Brighton, England. Wanted for writing 6 published western novels: Canyon Of The Dead, Death Wears A Star, Death Song, The Arizona Kid, Shadow Man, and The Peacemaker.

What was your introduction to Westerns—movies, TV, or books?

TV. I made a schoolboy friend in 1967 and his family had the new TV channel BBC 2, so I used to go round to his house to watch. One of its signature shows was the new TV Western series The High Chaparral, which immediately impressed me with its grittiness, authenticity and location photography—I fell in love with the physical beauty of Southern Arizona. I’ve blogged about my appreciation for The High Chaparral. My latest western The Peacemaker is partly based on an episode of The High Chaparral. It’s my homage to the show, a mere 49 years later. The High Chaparral kicked off my love for Western movies, particularly those starring John Wayne and/or directed by John Ford.

What was the first Western you read?

I’m probably remembering this too neatly, but watching The High Chaparral with my schoolboy pal sparked an interest in Western history and Native American culture. He also got interested in the historical background to the show and was reading a novel called Broken Arrow, which was a junior version of Elliot Arnold’s great novel, Blood Brother. This is all about the great Apache chief Cochise. I read it and nearly half a century later finally wrote my own novel with Cochise in it—The Peacemaker. When I was in my early 20s, another pal turned me onto the McAllister westerns by Matt Chisolm and started me reading westerns regularly—people like Gordon Shirreffs, Will Henry, Fred Grove and Robert MacLeod. 

What was it about the genre you found compelling enough for you to want to write a Western?

I've always been drawn to adventure stories set outdoors. I can’t see myself writing an urban novel. I like having my characters tested by the struggle to survive in a wilderness. For me westerns ticked every box—they not only have conflict and action aplenty, but also strong dramatic tension because they’re essentially morality plays about the fight between right and wrong.

They deal with a broad range of moral dilemmas, which the settlement of the West intensified. How do you tame a wilderness without destroying it? How much violence is necessary—and how much is excessive—in creating a law-abiding society? How can diverse cultures—for example the white man and the Native Americans—co-exist? All of this is painted on a canvas of physical beauty and diversity.

There’s a lot of tragedy in Western history—what happened to the Native Americans, for example, and to the basic environment. It’s the stuff of high drama. There’s also beauty and poetry in the language, not only the laconic speak of everyday Westerners but even in real names—when I first read about the Alamo, and people called Travis, Crockett, Bowie, Santa Anna, and others, I was hooked! 

Had you written books before, or was your first Western your literary debut?

My western Canyon Of The Dead was my literary debut. I’d written a couple of earlier books, which have yet to see the light of day—another western and a novel on the Arthurian legend. I’ve also written some contemporary thrillers since, but oddly enough, it’s the westerns, which I would have thought were the least commercial of my output, that have been published.

How do you see the current state of the Western genre?

I don’t really know. Based in Britain, I’d assumed Western publishing was pretty moribund—the only UK publishers I was aware of doing westerns was Robert Hale (since taken over by Crowood Press). But since starting on social media a year ago, I’ve become aware there’s a lot going on with Piccadilly Publishing and a bunch of publishers over in the States. So, it appears a lot healthier than I’d thought. 

And despite being written off 40 years ago, Western movies and TV shows keep popping up and occasionally succeed. I can’t say I’ve been too impressed by most of the recent re-makes of classic movies. I haven’t gone for some of these hybrids either—Such as Cowboys and Aliens. I’d like to see an original Western film succeed on its merits—as Unforgiven did—not just because it’s some kind of whacky novelty. However, whilst I can’t see the Western ever coming back to the heights it commanded in the 1950s and ’60s, there seems to be plenty of life left in the old dog yet! 

What was your journey to getting your first Western published?

In 1982, I submitted a western called Shadow Man to Robert Hale. They rejected it—quite rightly, as it wasn’t good enough. A dozen years later an author friend of mine—Philip Caveney—mentioned Hale were still looking for westerns. So, rather than writing a new one, I dug out Shadow Man from the bottom of a drawer, dusted off the cobwebs and looked at it again. I re-wrote about half of it, re-submitted it to Hale and they accepted it. The only problems was they had another book called Shadow Man coming out. I re-titled mine Canyon Of The Dead. It came out in 1996, 14 years late. As a sort of post-script, I later wrote another one for Hale—again called Shadow Man—and they published it in 2008. So, getting one form of Shadow Man out there took 26 years! 

Have you been to the West, and if not, how do you do your research?

Yes, I’ve been to the west, although not to some of the areas I write about. I think my first Western experience was when we were driving southwest from San Antonio, Texas, towards Mexico. San Antonio was great, but it seemed more southern and Mexican than Western. We stopped at a place called Cotulla, Texas, on the Nueces River. Getting out of the car, I suddenly felt the wind blowing warm desert heat and a peppering of dust on my skin. That’s when I knew I was in the West

To me the West starts with two things: When it gets empty, and there’s wide open spaces and big skies; and when it gets dry. But I don’t think you need to have been there to write about it. When he started writing westerns, Elmore Leonard, who wrote classics like Hombre, was living in the Midwest and had never been west of the Mississippi. As I’m interested in the history of the West, I’ve accumulated a library of reference books, such as The Old West Time Life series. And the internet is fantastic. If 20 years ago a Brit writing a western wanted to describe say, Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers, he’d have to go to his local library and hope they had a book about them—otherwise he’d have to order one and wait a month until it arrived. Now, in five minutes, you can Google Apache Mountain Spirit Dancers, read about them and watch a YouTube video of them.  

Is there any difference between Westerns written by British writer’s and Westerns written by homegrown American writers?

I don’t think so, if they’re skillful enough to hide their Britishness. I’m a great fan of Elmore Leonard, but I noticed, reading some of his westerns, he’d get little facts wrong—names of plants etc. So, I wasn’t surprised to discover when he started writing westerns he was living in the Midwest and had never been west of the Mississippi. On the other hand, I read The Buffalo Soldiers by John Prebble and the McAllister westerns by Matt Chisolm and thought both authors had totally authentic American voices—so, I was pretty surprised to discover both were British.

Do you currently read Westerns, and if so, who are your favorite Western authors?

I’ve always read widely, not just Westerns, but I still read them. In the past, alongside the authors I’ve already mentioned, I read Jack Schaefer, Glendon Swarthout, Dorothy M. Johnson, Thomas Berger, Charles Neider, Louis L’Amour, Louis B. Patten, A. B. Guthrie jnr. etc. Since engaging with Facebook I’ve become aware of and FB friends with authors like J.R. Lindermuth, Robert Vaughan, and Ralph Cotton—all of whom were kind enough to give good reviews to The Peacemaker. I reviewed Ralph Cotton’s novel While Angel’s Dance, about the James Gang, and gave it 5 stars—which is a very rare thing for me to do. And there’s lots more I intend to check out.
  
Do you have a writing mentor?

I did have. I started reading out my stuff at writing groups in the 1980s. At one of them, a guy called Philip Caveney suggested I seriously consider writing for a living. That impressed me because he was the first person to take me seriously as a writer. I valued his opinion because he was also the first published author I’d met. He’s been successful writing thrillers and now children’s fiction. I reckoned he knew what he was talking about. So, it’s all his fault! I still go to a writing group, a small band who critique each other’s work. I think getting constructive criticism and positive (but not fawning) feedback is essential to mastering the nuts and bolts of how to write well.

When you start writing a new Western, do you pick a standard Western plot (I think there are about six) and look for a way to turn it on its head, or do you look to history or some other source for inspiration?

You can argue until the cows come home about how many basic plots there are to anything. I do think it’s better to try a new wrinkle on things rather than re-cycling clichés. Plotting’s not my greatest strength, so I often look to history for inspiration. Death Wears A Star was a fictionalization of the Earps in Tombstone story, and The Arizona Kid fictionalized Billy the Kid’s story. There was something of Lt. Howard Cushing—a cavalry officer who fought Apaches—in Death Song. I also have a friend I nickname Dr. Plot who’s good at helping me out when I get stuck about what happens next. Western author Thomas Rizzo, one of my Facebook friends, keeps a wonderful blog and almost daily posts little vignettes of historical frontier escapades. Anybody stuck for an idea for a novel only needs to visit his blog and they’d find material for 20 Westerns.  

Where do you stand of indy versus small press versus traditional publishing?

I haven’t gone into it in depth, but if I had plenty of money and time, I might consider self-publishing. It cuts out the middle man, but I suspect it requires a huge amount of time and effort on social media and self-promotion just trying to attract an audience. For me, the best model is still a publisher who pays you a fair advance and does most of what we in Britain call the donkey work for you—e.g. promotion, advertising etc.—and leaves the writer to mostly write. It may be an increasingly impossible dream, but it’s what I hanker for. 

What is your latest Western and what are you currently writing?

I have two novels with publishers—one about Robin Hood, and another western. I’m finishing up a project  so different from what I normally do, I’m keeping very quiet about it. Sorry about the mystery. It wouldn’t fit the Andrew McBride canon, so I’d have to publish it under another name. I’ve started another western, which I hope to launch into properly by next February. It’s going to have an elegiac, Wild Bunch-y end of the West feel. That’s the plan anyway, but you know what Robbie Burns said about plans…[The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley, An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy]
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Thx to Andrew for taking the time to chat. 

TO VISIT ANDREW ON THE WEB CLICK HERE

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Paul. Keep producing fine books and blogs!

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