The Western writer Dusty Richards passed away this morning, January 18, 2018, from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Dusty, a nickname he gave himself as a boy, was born November 11, 1937 in Chicago, Illinois. His first novel, Noble’s Way, was published by M. Evans in 1991 and in the 27 years since that first sale he published 150 books.
Dusty was a great writing teacher, he wrote a quarterly column for Storyteller for many years, and his love for the west—its people, geography, etc.—is evident in everything he wrote. He won the Spur Award three times: Best Western Traditional Novel (The Mustanger and the Lady, 2017); Best Paperback Original (The Horse Creek Incident, 2007); and Best Western Short Fiction (“Comanche Moon”, 2007).
Dusty’s love for the West and the written word are evident in this 2007 interview he did with me at Saddlebums. The questions are italicized.
Dusty is a terrific name for a western writer. Is it your given name, or a nickname?
I guess I was always into Westerns. When we moved from Mesa to Phoenix I just told everyone I met my name was Dusty. I was about 14. It stuck.
Before I get too far I want to congratulate you on the two Spur Awards you received earlier this year. You won the best paperback original category for your novel The Horse Creek Incident and the best short fiction of the year for your novella “Comanche Moon”.
I don't know a greater honor for a Western writer. Spurs are the Oscars of the Western book. I can recall going to my first Western Writers of America Convention in San Antonio over two decades ago when I was trying to break into the New York market. I met those Spur winners that year and all the old hands that I’d read. I never thought this old cowboy would ever collect one of them. I was lucky to be writing and doing what I liked and had dreamed about.
If you asked me January first last year, did I expect to win a Spur? No. My close writer friends kept saying you'll win one. It went over my head like a jet and I had no idea or even inkling I'd have two of those lovely awards on my table at home. I have never written a book in my life, and that means under pseudonyms or my own name, that I said “Oh, well this will be a Spur.”
I have studied and taught fiction writing for the last three decades. Books I have written total 76; lots of short stories and articles, but I wrote each one with one thing in mind—tell a good story the best I can.
I want to talk a little about your publishing history, what is the first novel you published? Was it a long time coming, or did you hit print pretty quickly once you decided to write it?
I always wrote “books” in long hand like Zane Grey did, only I never had “Dollie” to edit them. I read stacks of paperbacks and every hardback Western in the libraries. I even sat on Grey’s cabin porch on the Mogollon Rim and promised his ghost I’d join him some day on the bookshelf.
When my girls were teens they wanted me to do something with them. I told them they had Louie and did not need me. In the eighties I was involved with a small publisher in Missouri. He had three books of mine and was supposed to publish them—after messing with him for two years I demanded my books back. He sent them back but he published them, and I’ve been looking for copies since then. There have been some show up on eBay. I had no idea for 20 years he had done that.
I wrote and I sought experts. Dr. Frank Reuter, who is a great editor, line-edited a novel [I wrote] that I thought was wonderful. There was hardly a page [without] red lines and written all over. I went home sick but I knew that if I was going to sell in New York I had to meet his standards. Book two that he did had whole pages with no marks. Reuter lived about 40 miles from me so each time I drove over after work and we’d discuss the book. Book number three he apologized and said he was so busy reading it he might not have edited as tough as the others. That was Noble’s Way, my first sale in New York. That took a decade from me deciding I wanted to really be a writer and publish—I teach folks short cuts on that time.
When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Probably in high school, but I had no idea which end to start on, and the fact I read so much didn’t help me because reading books is a seamless way to learn what is inside them. Now if you want to dissect a writer read only the 3rd page—3-6-9 [and] so on. Then take colored high liters and began marking him up after that—learn internalization, narration, dialogue. Learn point of view and write a million words until your words create paintings. Basketball players who become pros shoot millions of baskets. Writers must do that—they must study poetry and simplicity; poetry is a whole other deal—but there are lessons there: word images. Not a thesaurus but small words in the vocabulary of your reader. Use senses and understand body movements and facial expression. Use the seasons, the time of day, become a geographer, a plant expert, walk the ground, read the history and old newspaper accounts, diaries, and any accounts you can find. Then write what you love and it will show in the pages—they say.
I wrote one contemporary book about Rodeo called The Natural. It was well accepted by the rodeo people. They are hard to please and they called it authentic. That gave me lots of pride. Maybe someday I’ll write more when I find the right editor. The Westerns are my children. I love them all.
Most writers are voracious readers, and I’m wondering what you read for pleasure?
I read Cormac McCarthy—when he uses Spanish like too much salt I hate him. I don’t write like him but he has a way with words that deserve the writer’s attention. I won’t do anything that would make my books hard to read like lack of punctuation. I write my books with a fan in the room. I want that person to see what I see. Understand what I am telling him so he goes on reading long in the night.
I read McMurtry, some of his books are great—some I never finish.
I love Will Henry. I met him before he went to the big sky pasture. I tried and tried to mimic his style—no way
Tom Lea’s Wonderful Country stuck to me like dried oatmeal on a cereal bowl.
Elmer Kelton writes great books and is a good friend.
Max Evans wrote great novellas. He’s another amigo of mine and flatters me by buying my books for his friends
I have an extensive library of historical books and I read them—my books are fiction, but I attempt to put my characters in those scenes and not cut down any trees.
A man to watch is John Nesbitt. He teaches fiction writing at Torrington, Wyoming. He has a short story about Nat Champion, one of the men killed in the Wyoming range war in a collection of short stories currently on the racks from Kensington. I’d almost kill to have written that story. John also has several books from Leisure Books.
Jory Sherman [was] a great help in my struggle to get published when I was nobody. He writes with a pen that few can match.
Pete Brandvold. Here is a young man that will fill the gaps of the old men.
I have many friends I read. I hope they don't feel left out [because] I am writing this on the road.
Now I want to turn to the western genre specifically. What first led you to the genre?
Saturday matinee with Roy, Gene, and Hoppy.
You have written four novels—The Ogallala Trail, Trail to Cottonwood Falls, The Abilene Trail, and The Trail to Fort Smith—in conjunction with the late Ralph Compton’s estate. When you wrote these novels was there extra pressure to please Compton’s large fan base, or were you comfortable making these novels your own? Did you enjoy the experience?
When Dan Slater (then the editor) asked me to write some of those books, I was familiar with Ralph’s books—I’d read several but instead of reading more of his I read Robert Vaughn’s books in the series. I can’t write like Ralph or Robert, but I saw what they had done—they’d written good Westerns about the cattle drives: a basic main menu of the west. So I began to find characters who needed to make those trips and [then] built a life for them.
Jim Parker of Yukin, Oklahoma is a re-enactor for the Chisholm Trail and great historian. He helped me on my first one. I met him one day when I was invited to a dedication of a mile marker on the Chisholm Trail on the Express Ranch. It was a great day.
If you could bring back the work of one Western writer who would it be? Is there a specific title?
Will Henry had a wonderful style of storytelling [that was] seeped in history and geography.
What do you think about the Western genre today, and what do you think the future holds?
The west is part of our culture. It goes up and down with whims of publishers and the buying public. There used to be three networks on TV. Today there are 500 and they have diluted the entertainment mix—yes more choices, but we are all so busy making a living, or entertaining ourselves at many venues. I feel that there is no better entertainment than curling up with a real book and enjoying the story—the West is there. And goodness I love to write it.
Okay, now let’s get down to your current work. What is your latest novel?
My latest novel, Montana Revenge will be on the rack Sept. 7th. It is a Herschel Baker novel set in Yellowstone County, Billings, Montana. It is a mystery and a new challenge. You have all the facts that Sheriff Baker has and must find the killers.
Can you tell us about the novel—or any other projects—you are working on now?
I have a series in formation about twin brothers orphaned on the Texas frontier during the Civil War. Interestingly, I’ve studied identical twins, West Texas geography, vegetation, lifestyles and building structures.
I have one last question, and I must warn it is a little vague. If you could choose any project to work on, what would it be?
Ben, I have more of them scattered over my computer than I’ll ever write.
A series about a maverick Catholic priest in 1790 Kentucky; my agent loves it, no takers.
The series about the Twins in Civil War times in West Texas (still in infancy).
A series about the Texas Feuds. Doc Sonicson at the U of AZ wrote lots about Texas feuds. It is under-written, I think, in fiction. That one is being considered.
I still have a couple completed novels in a series that publishers backed out of that I think are powerful.
P.S. A collection of my published short stories called Waltzing with Tumbleweeds is available at AWOC.com. I have heard more comments on it than any other thing I have written.
“Comanche Moon,” the novella that won the short Spur, I wrote for a national magazine that publishes western serials. I felt they needed a good one. I got their guidelines and I really polished it, but when I submitted it they said they were not interested. Dan Slater asked for it on the kick off of Amazon shorts—if the magazine had taken it I might have missed the Spur.