Richard S. Wheeler is the author of more than 60
books. His first novel, Bushwack, was published in 1978, and the majority of
his work is set in the nineteenth century American West. His early novels
tended to be short traditional Westerns, but as he grew as a writer, his work
did to. In his quiet manner he has transcended genre, and at his best he is a
chronicler of the westward expansion. He avoids the rough and rowdy mythology
of the West, and instead writes about people, and places. He writes characters
that are recognizable—flawed, admirable, frightened, vain—with a kind,
understanding empathy. The settings are vivid, real, and capture the beauty,
desolation, and wonder of the West.
Mr. Wheeler has won six Spur Awards and the Owen
Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Western Writers of America. He
has been called “One of the best Western writers around today,” by Publishers
Weekly, and “a master storyteller,” by Library Journal.
Mr. Wheeler was kind enough, and showed an amazing
amount of patience, to answer a few questions. The questions are
were raised in urban-Wisconsin, but you spent the majority of your early adult
life either living in the Western United States—Arizona, California,
Montana—or, when you were living away from the West, trying to get back. What
is so appealing about the West in general, and Montana, specifically (where you
The vistas, the empty land, the romance, the stories.
I discovered all that working as a newsman in the West. By some miracle, my
first jobs took me west.
your memoir, An Accidental Novelist, you candidly discuss your early work life—working as an opinion
editor, beat reporter, book editor, etc.—your trouble staying employed, and the
late decision, you were in your early-forties I believe, to write fiction. Why
do you think it took so long to turn to storytelling, and how did the long journey
help shape your fiction?
No money in fiction! A guy needs a steady job and
paycheck. Also, fiction instructors insisted that a story must be shown, not
told; dramatized, not reported. (They were wrong, but I didn’t know that.) They
said a good novelist should be a playwright at heart, not a newsman.
sold your first novel, Bushwack, to Doubleday in 1978. What was more gratifying, receiving the check,
or holding the printed copy of your first novel?
I got a thousand dollar advance and it was gold to me.
Could I possibly turn it into a living, writing on my own, free from bosses?
Cash was incredible to me.
of Bushwack, in your memoir you briefly discuss the
misspelled title. Did you take much grief from readers, or other writers, when
it was published?
None at all. Doubleday editors left the title as it
was, making a westernism of it. Bushwack is how it’s pronounced in the West.
were the editor of Walker and Company’s Western line in the mid-1980s, and
charged with acquiring a certain number of titles each year. Are there any
specific authors or titles you “discovered” that you are particularly fond, or
even proud, of?
I am proud indeed to have helped Michael Zimmer, Sam
Brown, and Gary Svee, put their great talents to work. Each brought uniqueness,
authenticity, and courage to the field. There were others I launched, and they
all made my editing career rewarding.
did the experience of editing a Western line change your attitudes towards your
own writing, or the genre as a whole?
The gunslinger western gradually alienated me. The
plot is roughly the same in all of them: who will be the last man standing? The
high-body-count shootout stories are southern in nature, set in Texas and the
Southwest, and still sell largely to southerners. Their heroes are
ex-Confederates. You rarely see shootout stories set in the Dakotas or Idaho.
Western stories set in the north are closer to actual frontier experience, and
less mythic. Typically they involve the Indian wars, or vigilante justice, or
mining rivalry, or cattlemen versus nesters. My experience editing mythic
gunman stories set me to writing about the real West, and eventually historical
or biographical westerns.
early novels were more traditional—Bushwack was about rustling, Dodging Red Cloud was about the Bozeman Trail—than your later
work, which can be grouped into three broad categories: biographical, historical,
and mining camp tales. What was the impetus for the change from a traditional
Western writer to a historical writer?
People. Characters in romantic westerns are barely
sketched out. Gunfighter stories pile up the corpses, but they are barely
names: they don’t have histories, family, spouses, children, dreams, beliefs.
Neither do they suffer. How many of these stories depict a slow-death wound,
pain and gasping and agony, and fear? So the reader doesn’t care. Joe and Bugs
and Sammy croak, but who cares?
In historical and biographical fiction, I found the
chance to create real characters, and put their suffering into the unfolding
drama of their lives. I’ve come to prefer stories that cover an entire life,
and often end with an epilogue telling how it all worked out. Most of my
later-life novels have followed that preference.
your early traditional Western novels do any stand out as particularly good or
My Santiago Toole novels, which are about a doctor in
Miles City who finds himself filling in as a part time sheriff between treating
patients, have richer qualities than most genre western stories.
Editor’s note. The
Santiago Toole titles include The Fate, Incident at Fort Keough, Deuces and Ladies Wild, and The Final Tally.
especially enjoy your biographical novels where you develop a story around a
historical figure. The first I read was An Obituary for Major
Reno (2005) where you tackle the life of
Major Marcus Reno who was widely and popularly blamed for General Custer’s
defeat at the Little Big Horn. I was amazed at how well you pursued Reno’s
complexity, contradictions, and flaws while still making him an empathic
character. What type of research do you do for these stories?
Site visits, and any authoritative reading I could trust.
The Custer nonfiction is so fraught with blame-mongering that it is hard to
separate scholarly work from propaganda.
do you think causes the passion, blame-mongering, and propaganda in the Custer
There is a certain white-man arrogance in this. It
doesn’t matter that the Sioux and Cheyenne had over 1,500 fighting men, maybe
many more, many better armed than the soldiers, and that they easily separated
Custer’s divided forces. You could have put General Sheridan or General Grant
in Reno’s boots, and the result would not have been much different. How do you
control a couple hundred green troops fleeing to the cliff in fear of their
lives? For some reason, those involved in this blame-mongering can’t accept the
reality that the Indians were a vastly superior force, and there wasn't a thing
that Reno or Custer could do about it. It is simply closer to our frame of
reference to blame Custer or Reno, i.e., white soldiers were the superior
force, no matter the numbers, so it is all the fault of one commander or other,
than to look at the reality. This is a distortion of life through the lens of
history. We are the dominant world power, so we must have been vastly superior
to the Sioux in 1876.
you are researching a particular historical figure, have you ever been
surprised by who the person actually was versus any preconceived notions you had
when starting the research?
I thought Reno would be an anti-hero, but the more I
read about him, the more variable he became to me. As a young bachelor he was
an indifferent soldier, barely qualified for command. But when he met and
married Mary Hannah, everything changed. He became a competent commanding
officer. And when she died at a young age, he began to deteriorate. He was one
of those men who are incomplete without a woman, without a home, without loving
arms reaching for him. That topic makes some men itchy, so it isn’t widely
discussed. But Marcus Reno was that sort, and I embedded it in the story, and
feel I came close to the reality. In the end, I knew I could empathize with him
in spite of his numerous failings. His grave at the battlefield is always
decorated with flowers or a flag. I believe I know why.
you have a favorite, or two, of the historical figures you have researched and
William Clark, of the expedition, who was a grand,
balanced, capable man this country can be proud of. Marcus Daly, the Butte
copper king, who arrived penniless on these shores and built the Anaconda
Copper Mining Company, always generous and caring about his fellow Irish and
biographical novels humanize, and often de-mythologize, major figures of the
westward expansion; Eclipse: A Novel of Lewis and Clark (2002) deals with Meriwether Lewis’s
suicide, and ultimately finds blame with his contraction of syphilis; Snowbound (2010) focuses on John C. Fremont’s
cold—almost sociopathic—ambition; An Obituary for Major Reno (2005) enhances Marcus Reno’s reputation at
the expense of General Custer’s. Do you ever get kickback from readers and
critics for humanizing these real-life, yet popularly mythologized,
The Lewis and Clark “Establishment” didn’t like the
idea that Lewis may have contracted syphilis. That Lewis was ill no one
doubted, but it was more commonly believed he suffered from ague, a recurring
form of malaria common in Virginia. In my novel, Lewis uses attacks of ague as
a way to conceal his true disease. That did not make me popular.
of mythology, you have been critical of the New York publishing houses’
treatment of the Western genre—it narrows the field, rather than broadening it,
by categorizing it as fiction for middle-aged men; focusing on gunfights, and coarse,
hard, men. What do you think the genre—writers, fans, and publishers—can do to
better market itself?
The mass-market gunman western is going to continue to
sell well; people love myths and buy them. The realistic western story remains
in trouble. My own solution is to write biographical novels, or historical
novels, that depict the fabulous history of our frontier, primarily as
literature rather than mythology. But this is a niche market, at best, and I
harbor few hopes for anything more.
do you think American readers, and really Americans as a whole, prefer
mythology to reality?
The romantic west makes us feel good about ourselves.
I love some of those stories, such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. I just watched
the scene where the troops give John Wayne a watch inscribed to him, and he
fights back tears. High Noon, an abandoned and newly married sheriff seeking
justice and survival. Shane, a killer who rescues a nester from certain death
just because it was the right thing to do. Shane hates his trade, and bawls out
the boy for glamorizing what he does. I love those romantic stories that define
who we are, and interpret history to glorify ourselves.
Skye is one of the most original characters in Western fiction. He is a Brit
seaman, a former fur trapper with an ugly, mean horse named Jawbone, and two
native wives. I should also add he carries a belaying pin, and generally acts
as a travel guide to anyone who will pay the freight. How did the idea for
Barnaby germinate, and how have you been able to keep him fresh and
Pure commerce. A western hero with two wives and a
British seaman-deserter background looked like it might sell books. I wrote
nineteen in all, eventually carrying the story to three generations. It’s
confusing because my first novels were about a middle-aged Skye, but then I
went back to his youthful desertion at Fort Vancouver in the 1820s, and ended
up with novels about his son, Dirk, entering modern times.
the Barnaby Skye novels you effectively play off cultural differences between
Europeans and the native tribes. As an example, in The
Canyon of Bones (2007) you note how the
two cultures treat marriage differently—Skye’s wife, Victoria, is ashamed her
husband has only one wife, and while she is overworked—doing woman’s work—she
won’t let Skye help because it demeans him. It appears you have fun comparing
and contrasting the two cultures. What are some of the more interesting
differences you have found between the cultures?
In some Indian cultures men were hunters and warriors,
and sometimes spiritual leaders, while women gathered, cooked, nourished,
sewed, scraped hides, and tended children. Women did the scutwork, such as
moving lodges. It demeaned either sex to do the appointed work of the other.
That gave me endless opportunities in the Skye’s West novels to have Skye
suffer ridicule if he was a thoughtful and helpful husband. But the traditional
tribes were more tolerant of women who assumed male roles, who became warriors
or spiritual figures. All this formed a comic leitmotif in the Skye novels.
novels have a very strong sense of place; the mining camp stories feature the
noise, aromas, sights, and the biographical novels aptly describe the
terrain—mountains, deserts, elements—in a manner that adds credibility to the
story. What is it about place that interests you, and how do you research to
ensure accuracy? Do you visit the places detailed in your fiction?
These places whispered, sometimes sang to me. I was
able to stand at a western site and blot up not just the scenery, but all the
history and implications. Was there a river? Hard to cross? Dangerous? The land
became larger than imagines and sounds.
have achieved an enviable amount of accolades for your writing, including an
astonishing six Spur Awards, and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime
Achievement. In an interview with the late-Ron Scheer you said winning the
awards “made [you] more reckless” and created the opportunity to include ideas
in your fiction you would have removed before. Can you expand on this? Are
there specific novels, ideas, etc. that come to mind?
The walls of genre fell away. I could write about a
boozy Skye, with two wives, one of them a first-class cusser; a story about
Lewis and Clark that begins when the expedition returns and looks at what fame
did to them; a story about an American hero, Fremont, whose ego led to deaths
in his company; a book about Wyatt Earp that makes him almost tongue-tied
around his wife; a book about Bat Masterson in which the old boy, now a New
York journalist, heads into the west to puncture the myths that sprang up
heard this question in an interview on a BBC program a few years ago. If you
were stranded on an island and you had only one book. What would it be?
Most any novel about a protagonist who assumes
adult responsibility for his own
conduct, his own failures and successes, and learns that excuses, even valid
ones, are worthless.
opposite side of the coin. If you were allowed only to recommend one of your
novels, or stories, which one would you want people to read?
Mountain, a story that follows a man through his entire life,
and explores what he did once he arrived in the far west to make his fortune.