When the call went out for interviewers, I leapt on the opportunity to have a chat with Stone Wallace. Although we had just 'met' in an online writer's forum, I had a inkling I wanted to know more about him and his new western, The Last Outlaw, for Avalon Books. I'm glad I went with my inkling – I would not have wanted to miss talking to him as we have over the past few weeks.
You say in your interview with Quinten Mills-Fenn for Style Manitoba, you had a fascination for gangster movies and television series. You've also written non-fiction and horror. Where does your western fiction find its inspiration?
Before I decided upon writing Denim Ryder as a Western, I was actually playing around with the idea of creating a series featuring a female secret agent simply called "Denim". What I think happened was one night I was interviewing actor John Agar and we got to talking about the Westerns he'd made and something in our conversation got me to thinking that possibly I could develop Denim into a frontier female. Had never written a Western before, so that offered another challenge. Plus it gave me the privilege to honor John Agar, who was simply the sweetest, greatest guy, by basing a character on him.
John Agar's films are legendary, including the horror films and I remember them well. Denim was transformed into a frontierswoman as a tribute to Agar. You went on to write another female character in Montana Dawn. Is there a reason you chose to write these books from a female point of view?
Not really. "Denim" and "Montana" both just happened to develop with female leads and I went from there, groping my way through the actions, emotions and complexities of these two characters. Again, this resulted in a creative challenge to see if I could make these characters believable. Females, of course, had featured in my past novels, but central to these stories was always the male - be he protagonist or antagonist. Most of my female characters up to that point had pretty much been window-dressing.
What were some of the creative challenges you met while writing Montana Dawn? Was there a specific event in the novel that you had to dig deep to find her reaction?
Interestingly, I found Montana Dawn to be an exceptionally easy story to write. Of course it required some research into the time and the locale, but it seemed as if the characters themselves propelled the narrative. They became real to me - real, breathing people - who ended up taking me along on their adventure. When that occurs, writing becomes pure pleasure.
Has there ever been a character who point blank refused to play by your rules?
I suppose the best answer I can give is when I wrote my first book, a horror novel. While most of the characters were rather naive to the supernatural occurrences happening around this young, withdrawn girl, there was a most capable psychiatrist who gradually began to fit the pieces of the mystery together. I fully intended to have him stick around to the end of the book and to some degree have him be the savior of the situation, but about midway through the plot took an unexpected detour and the poor fella got himself killed. Really didn't see that coming, and his death put me in a bit of a quandary as to how to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion.
But I must confess I like those types of unexpected plot developments. I feel that if it surprises me, it may do likewise to the reader.
You have said you think The Last Outlaw is 'noir'. Without giving away any of this gripping story, can you tell me more about this book or how you came to write it?
Thanks for the nice words. Yes, The Last Outlaw is quite different from my previous two Avalon Westerns. Yes, it can best be called a noir Western, in that it has a darker storyline, some pretty dark, if not downright nasty, characters. Again, because I'm a fan of gangster dramas and film noir, I thought it might be interesting to combine both into a Western. Most of the noir I've seen or read is a gradual descending into darkness, usually through circumstances over which the hero has no control. And that certainly is what occurs to my story's protagonist, Cash McCall. Despite his strong and honest efforts to rehabilitate after his release from prison, his situation just becomes bleaker until he has no other choice but to return to the life he'd hoped to leave behind. Again, once I knew what the plot would be, it's a story that unfolded almost by itself. I just followed Cash through those dark alleys on his attempted journey to redemption, really not sure of the outcome. I believe that uncertainty helps to create suspense. I hope that suspense element comes through to the readers.
In Montana Dawn, you mentioned you based a character on John Agar. When you create characters, do they also evolve from other creative sources - art, history, films, novels or from 'real life', your own experiences and imagination?
Outside of John Agar inspiring the character of Jason Cole in Denim Ryder, I really don't use any source other than my imagination - although unique characteristics or personality traits may be "borrowed" from real life. It's usually after I've completed writing a book that I allow myself the luxury to visualize actors and actresses who would be my choice to play characters - if a movie were to be made of one of my books… and if the performer were still around, whichis not the case since I prefer the older actors from the 30s, 40s and 50s. For example, for Montana Dawn I envisioned Rhonda Fleming as "Montana" and Ben Johnson as "Walt Egan". Thought they would have been great - if the book had come out some decades ago.
I can see Rhonda Fleming in that role. The Last Outlaw is in the tradition of the hero against the forces of evil. This is a recurring theme in your three westerns. When you knew the plot for this or your other books, were you aware you were voicing the universal angst of the artist?
Here's where I'm probably going to disappoint you. My sole motivation when I write a book (fiction, naturally) is simply to tell a good story. Not to educate or necessarily edify, but hopefully, to entertain. I don't care if people think I'm a “great” writer; I'd much prefer to be known as a good storyteller. If people can put down a book of mine and feel they've had an enjoyable read that maybe took them away from themselves for a while, having become immersed in the characters and situations, then I'm satisfied.
What do you read, besides your day job work?
I spend most of my workday (the dreaded day job to which, unfortunately, most writers must succumb) reading and editing trade and association publications, which, frankly, is deadly dull, affording virtually no creative stimulation. Often by day's end I can't bear to look at another printed word and, at that point, will usually watch a good movie instead. On weekends, though, and on those weeknights when my brain needs a jump-start of literary stimulation, I generally read biographies and histories. Definitely read some Westerns, of course. There are a lot of talented, dedicated Western writers out there whose books I enjoy and from whose styles I can learn. Avalon, in particular, has a terrific stable of authors, among whom I am now immensely proud to be included.
When you sit down to write a good story, what are the things you enjoy about writing?Good, interesting characters, of course, whose lives, loves and adventures you enjoy exploring along with them. Most of all, I love surprise. I like to suddenly veer into an unexpected direction in the narrative and thereby, hopefully, throw the reader off course. I really am not a fan of formulaic fiction, where you know from the first chapter exactly how the story is going to develop and how it will be resolved. I think I tossed a pretty good curve ball at the end of Denim Ryder, which at first even Avalon, I'm told, questioned. But I didn't want readers of that story simply to put down the book at the end and say maybe that it was a satisfying read, nothing more. I wanted to leave them with a “kicker”, as it were. Something they did not expect. And from comments I've received from readers of that book, I believe I succeeded.
When that good story isn't going well, what keeps you working?
Ah-hah, the dreaded writer's block - or when you have those days when you sit down to write and later you take a look at the day's results and think your five year-old daughter had composed it. Had many of 'em. Those terrible periods when you say to yourself: "What makes me possibly think I'm a writer?" Fortunately, what I've learned is simply to chalk it up to just having a bad day, forget about it and try again tomorrow. Don't get discouraged, just keep at it. Usually (at least in my case) the next day you write "gold". You stumble, get back up again.
If you know the story isn't going to work, what do you do with the aborted effort?
Boy, that's something else I've experienced. I've submitted partials which (even after I'd established something of a publishing track record) were rejected numerous times by various publishers and finally gave up on the book and moved onto something else. But fortunately (or not), I've never started a story that part- or mid-way through I realized I couldn't finish because the narrative strayed or I simply lost interest. Such has happened, but I've stubbornly stuck through it and eventually finished the book. It's only when frequent rejections hammer it into me that the story is not marketable that I'll give up the ghost and not finish the book - after all, writers don't necessarily want to write in a vacuum. For me, at least, I write to be read. I confess I own a writer's trunk of incompletes and rejected manuscripts. Don't visit it often, though.
In your trunk of backlist manuscripts, is there one book you regret letting go?
If you'd asked me that maybe ten years ago, I'd probably say 'yes'. But now, not so much. Some of the stuff hidden amongst the mothballs is pretty raw. But I certainly don't regret having written them. You learn by writing, whether your stuff is published or not.
I'll tell you a funny story, though. After I'd somewhat established myself as a horror writer back in the mid-80s, I wrote a teenage vampire novel, which, in many ways, was quite similar to "Twilight". Submitted it to my publisher, who rejected it, commenting that there just wasn't a market for vampire fiction at the time. Same thing when I submitted another manuscript about a vampire hitman. Two strikes and I was out when it came to bloodsuckers. Who would have guessed the market turnaround. Yet that's encouraging. Because even though the Western genre might be in a bit of a slump at the moment, a turnaround could be right around the corner.
If you had the chance to begin your writing career over, is there anything you would want to change?
Oh God, Leigh, is there a writer alive who wouldn't want one last crack at a published manuscript. We're our own worst critics, though the reality is, even if we could make those final, final changes, down the line we'd probably want yet another shot at it. I can definitely say that about myself. I'm a nagging perfectionist and confess that errors that got through in books of mine published twenty years ago still irk me.
And maybe one more thing. After my third horror book was published, I'd decided to tackle other genres; the market seemed to be slowing and I didn't want to become typecast. I wrote and submitted a gangster book to a publisher who, though not interested in that particular book, somehow knew of me and asked if I'd consider writing horror books for their company. Like the twaddle I sometimes am, I refused their offer and ended up not writing another book for almost 15 years. I look back now and contemplate the "what if . . . " scenario.
You've written non-fiction and fiction, westerns and horror. Is there another genre waiting in the wings for you?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier I'm currently working on completing a gangster novel called The Chicago Boys. It's a fictional telling of what happened to the Chicago mob after Al Capone was sent away to prison on an income tax rap. It deals with the internal power struggle among the Outfit and their attempted extortion of Hollywood studios during the 30s. There's lots of facts and real-life characters, but it is a novel so I can use my imagination to create situations or creatively expand upon stuff that really did happen during that era. As you know, I'm a gangster addict, and this has been something I've been developing for a long time. Fortunately, I also have a publisher interested. There always seems to be some market for these types of books. And the interest in Capone never really seems to waver.
Now that The Last Outlaw is published, is the party over?
I hope not. I do have ideas for other Westerns that I'd like to write, including a sequel to Denim Ryder. I'd love to do some promotions for all of my Westerns, but that's somewhat difficult with them not available in Canadian bookstores. That's always a handicap when it comes to author publicity, as I've unfortunately discovered. I've experienced some local media who are resistant to do an interview BECAUSE a book of mine is not in stores. I suppose they may feel that any book that is not in stores is not a “true” publication and maybe a “vanity” effort, which can be a bad rap. Personally, I feel that, shelf competition aside, it is vital for books to be placed in brick-and-mortar stores - for visibility and to give potential readers tangible evidence of the book's worth. But that's probably best for another story another day.
Thank you, Stone, for this opportunity to talk with you. It has been a pleasure to become better acquainted. My copy of The Last Outlaw is on its way to me and I'm anxious to follow Cash McCall into his dark world.