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 italicized.
You 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 settled)?
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.
In 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.
You 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.
Speaking 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.
You 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.
How 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.
Your 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.
Of your early traditional Western novels do any stand out as particularly good or memorable?
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.
I 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.
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.
When 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.
Do you have a favorite, or two, of the historical figures you have researched and written about?
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 their widows.
Your 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, characters?
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.
Speaking 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.
Why 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.
Barnaby 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 interesting?
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.
In 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.
Your 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.
You 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 around him.
I 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.
The 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?
Sun 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.