Tuesday, June 5, 2018


Do you mark or write in your books as you read, or does the idea horrify you?

I try not to write in research books I’ve checked out from the local library or through interlibrary loan, but if it’s a book I own and am using for research or have to review for a magazine, there’s a good chance I’ll mark it up here and there. I also remember a professor in college who said he would make “B.S.” notations where deserved. I’ve been known to do that, too.

How do you keep your place in a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?

Yes. I have no preference. I’m a bookmark-dog-ear-flat-open kind of place-keeper.

Do you have a favorite snack to eat while you read?

I don’t eat while I read. I eat when I eat. I read when I read.

Do you read mostly fiction or nonfiction or an even mix?

It’s usually more nonfiction. A lot of that’s for research, of course. But I’m also hounded a lot to read a pre-published novel to blurb, so if you’re considering asking me to blurb your book you should know how much I absolutely HATE to be asked to blurb books. And when I read for pleasure, I’d prefer to read something outside of my recognized genre. Right now Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is on my nightstand and Tolstoy’s War and Peace is on my Kindle. I’m also reading Ron Cherow’s Grant and taking my sweet time because it’s so brilliant.

Do you always read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?

Usually, I make it to the end of a chapter. Actually, before I start reading a book, I’ll typically see how many chapters are in the book. Then I can ballpark it to figure out that if I read X chapters a night I can have this book finished in roughly Z days. Of course, math was never my strong suit.

Do you stop reading to look up unfamiliar words?

Not only do I do that, I also keep a notepad handy so I can jot down cool words that I’d like to use in a novel.

How do you organize your books—by genre, title, author’s last name, random stacks?

The nonfiction books are on shelves according, more or less, to subject matter. All right, let’s be specific: In my office, the shelves across from my desk and the shelves to the left are Western, frontier, Revolutionary War and Civil War nonfiction books, with miscellaneous fiction and nonfiction on the highest shelves that need a ladder to reach. Except for the books I’ve tossed onto the shelves till I can find a better place to put them. The shelves behind me and to my left house reference books, Shakespeare, Milton and Malory. Immediately behind me are more reference books, dictionaries—including an 1861 Webster’s Unabridged and an 1876 Common School—an 1883 Roget’s Thesaurus, and more history books. Usually piled on my desk are books I need for my current project or projects. The books behind me and to my right are first-edition Western titles that might help finance my son’s college education. There are several books piled on some shelves in the closets, a lot of fiction, mystery, pulps, science fiction, maybe some miscellaneous nonfiction, plays and books I tossed in there because I was in a hurry. I try not to open those doors.

The shelves next to our home’s front door hold autographed books, special books, books like that. The bookcase in the living room houses my Max Evans collection, a set of Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln volumes, more autographed books, first editions and other books I cherish. The cookbooks are in the pantry.

If you make it to the den, the bookcase facing the hallway holds Western fiction. Mostly paperbacks. The giant shelf next to the entertainment center is where I keep my film histories, most of my nonfiction baseball books and some books on art. Yes, there is a shelf of titles I’ve written in the den, too. Then there’s the nightstand in the bedroom and the storage shed out past the coyote fence. Plus, boxes in the garage shelves. And some in the back of my Jeep. And the glove box or underneath the seat in case I’m waiting for my son to finish baseball or jazz practice.

What is the last book you read?

Fiction: In The Distance by Hernan Diaz. Nonfiction: Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music by Peter Cooper.

What is the last book you bought?

Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. When he died, I was reminded that I loaned my copy of that book, a Quality Paperback Book Club edition, to a friend who promptly left it on an airplane. So I decided to forgive her 30 years later and reward myself with a first-edition, first-printing hardcover.

What was the last novel to make you laugh?

Norwood by Charles Portis. I had to speak on Charles Portis’s True Grit at a library program in Texas in 2017, so I went on a Portis binge-read.

What was the last novel to make you cry?

Jack Schaefer’s Monte Walsh. I reread it a year or so back and the ending tears me up every time.

Do you read one book at a time or have several on the go at the same time?

There’s a pile on my nightstand and several on my Kindle. Some for research. Some for joy. Some out of curiosity. Some for a paycheck. Some for education.

What was a book you loved as a child?

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I was 12, had just gone to see director Richard Lester’s movie. But instead of being wowed by the swashbuckling adventure and humor that made the movie such a success, what kept me reading were the political intrigue and 17th Century cloak-and-dagger stuff. I mean, few 12-year-olds were reading dense fiction originally written in French over summer break in 1974. That was the first novel that really transported me from the tobacco fields and swamps of South Carolina and showed me how powerful fiction could be.

What book made you want to be a writer?

Well, it likely started with The Hardy Boys, Johnny Tremain and Treasure Island, but a couple of short story collections, The Hanging Tree and Other Stories by Dorothy M. Johnson and The Collected Stories of Jack Schaefer, seriously turned me into writing. Schaefer and Johnson showed me that Western fiction could be literate and character driven and just so dang real. And when I read A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky, my fate and career path were sealed. Johnson, Schaefer and Guthrie were not the first to make me want to write, but they taught me what kind of writer I wanted to be.

What is your favorite classic?

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Tom and Becky. Aunt Polly. Huck. Injun Joe. It was the first Mark Twain novel I had to read, and it hooked me on reading everything by Mark Twain that I could find. He remains my favorite author even if To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel. And while I know Huckleberry Finn is his masterpiece, I always come back to Tom Sawyer. That said, I tick off many people when I say that Twain’s best book is Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.

What classic have you never been able to read?

There are plenty of classics I’ve never read, many I’ve read and forgotten, but I am president of the I Hate F. Scott Fitzgerald Anti-Fan Club. I finished The Great Gatsby—because I had to in high school—and, as an adult, managed to get through Tender is the Night and This Side of Paradise, so now I refuse to even crack the spine on The Beautiful and Damned. I despise his work. There are only two members in this club, and I’m sworn to secrecy not to reveal my friend Nancy Plain, a brilliant writer of nonfiction for young readers, as my co-conspirator. We do, however, welcome new members. Our motto: Fitzgerald sucks.

What classic have you pretended to have read?

Let’s see how far I get through Tolstoy.

Do you have a favorite time/place to read?

Not really. I’m an ex-newspaper journalist. I can read and write anywhere, anytime.

Do you prefer series books or standalones?

I tend to prefer standalones. That said, I’m a big fan of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe novels and Tony Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries. But when I’ve written continuing characters, along around Book 3 I’m ready to kill off everyone.

What genre would you read if you were limited to one?

Post-apocalyptic science fiction. But only from the 1950s and 1960s. Plus Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

For fiction, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and William P. McGivern’s 1950s hard-boiled mysteries. For nonfiction, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War and everything by Hampton Sides or Michael Wallis.

Is there a book you’ve returned to again and again?

Everything by Twain and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

What is your favorite book to movie adaptation?

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Perfect novel. Perfect movie.

What book would you like to see as a movie?

Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained. But keep in mind that long ago it was Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline and then Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. Then they made those into movies. Then I saw those movies.

What imaginary place from a book would you want to live?

Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.

What fictional character(s) would you like to have a beer with?

Philip Marlowe (but only if he acts like Dick Powell). Falstaff. Rooster Cogburn (providing he has checked his weapons with Judge Parker). Tina from A Bell for Adano. And Long John Silver from Treasure Island.

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