I recently had the great pleasure of talking to Avalon author John M. Sharpe about his latest book Hobbs and the Kidd (published February 2012). An excerpt from this book can be read on the Avalon website. His first book for Avalon, One Step from Hell, is also available.
Below are the questions I asked John along with his answers. As well as going into detail about his books and his writing, he made me laugh. Thank you John for such a fun and interesting interview...and keep enjoying those naps!
Your book sounds really intriguing John. A black cavalry sergeant playing nursemaid to a spoiled racist white orphan is a demanding storyline. What made you think of it?
Actually, the story line for Hobbs and the Kid was rather easy to work with since it gave rise to so many opportunities for conflict, which is the heart of most any story. As for what made me think of it, the answer is simple. I stole the idea from Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. Or, more accurately, from the film version of that story. The movie came out in 1937 and starred Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew. Tracy won the Academy Award that year for his portrayal of Manuel, a Portuguese fisherman who rescues a spoiled brat of a rich kid who fell off a ship in the Grand Banks. I just changed Manuel to Hobbs, had Mac, the kid, fall off a stage coach, and the rest was pretty simple. Actually I wrote the story many years ago as a screenplay. It won a couple of contests but I could never get it produced. I did option it once and some money changed hands but the deal went nowhere, so I eventually decided to rewrite it as a novel. My first Avalon book, One Step From Hell, was also adapted from my own screenplay.
Your main characters sound fascinating, especially Sergeant Daniel Hobbs. Where did you find him?
Years ago when I lived in Los Angeles, a Buffalo Soldiers' group held a kind of reunion/meeting in town and I got interested. An article in the LA Times spoke about a Buffalo Soldier who had been requested as a scout by General Custer, even though Custer was supposedly a serious racist. Anyway, this particular soldier wound up at the Battle of the Little Big Horn which was not a particularly good place to be –– unless you were one of the Indians. I thought that would make a good twist to the story, i.e., having Hobbs leave at the end to head for Montana and the 7th Cavalry after he and Mac got past their troubles and had learned to love one another. And if I live long enough (I'm 81), there might be a good sequel there when we find that Hobbs got to the Little Big Horn too late and the battle was all over. Anyone reading this who wants to grab the story and run with it be my guest. I'm not making any long range plans these days.
I imagine that the reader is going to dislike J. Wentworth 'Mac' McAllister III at the beginning of the book. What is it in his background that has made him spoiled and racist? And why is he an orphan?
Yeah, if you don't really want to beat the snot out of Mac for the first third to half of the book, I've failed miserably. As to his background, rent a DVD of Captains Courageous. I shamelessly copied this character after Harvey (Freddie Bartholomew) in the movie. Although you never see Mac's father in the book, we learn that he is wealthy, owns a railroad, had little or no time for his son, and gave him everything he wanted –– except his love. As to why Mac is an orphan, the sarcastic answer is because his parents are dead. The real answer is we never find out how, why or when his mother dies. His father is in the hospital when the book begins but dies soon after, leading to Mac's being sent to live with his uncle. But he never makes it.
This is your second book for Avalon. Your first, One Step from Hell was also a Western. What is it that draws you to the genre?
I've always liked the West, and "cowboy" stories, ever since my days at the Saturday afternoon movies –– which at that time cost a dime. Plus there seems to be something basic and simple about the genre: good vs. evil. (And for me simple is good.) There are probably thousands of variations on the theme, but early on you have a pretty good idea who the good guy is and who the bad guy is and you know that by the end of the book they'll have a showdown. How you get to that point in an interesting way is the writer's problem. I'm speaking here about Louie L'Amore type Westerns, not Lonesome Dove type epics. And in one sense, I don't consider Hobbs a Western as much as it is a story of relationships set in the West. In fact, when I first submitted it to Avalon they turned it down because it didn't fit their concept of a Western. So I rearranged some chapters, changed the title, and resubmitted it. Bingo.
There is a lot of history in this book. I imagine you had to research Geronimo. Did you have to research all the detail about riding, roping and reading Indian signs as well, or are any of these things a regular part of your own life?
I did some research on Geronimo and the Apaches in general but not a lot. As I said, I wrote this story years ago when information sources consisted of the printed word and not the Internet. The other things you ask about came from my own experiences. My wife and I used to ride a lot when we lived in California and Arizona. The Indian signs, roping, etc. mostly came from reading other authors and, believe it or not, from the Saturday afternoon movies. Don't tell anyone I told you, but I'm not too fussy about the details. If the story is believable I don't really care too much if it's 100% accurate. I don't really think anyone cares whether an Indian drumhead is made from rabbit skin or fox skin as long as you can beat the damn thing and it makes noise.
You obviously enjoy writing action stories. Do the battle scenes come easily or do you have to research them?
I've been married for 43 years, the battle scenes come easy; and there's a never-ending source of material to draw on. I'm joking of course. I'm not necessarily enthralled with action stories. It just seems to be a requisite for most Westerns. Two of the five novels I've written have virtually nothing in them that you would likely consider "action" as it's usually thought of. A third one, a medical crime novel, has a couple of fairly intense action scenes but I would not necessarily call it an action story. Since I've been unable to sell these three maybe I ought to consider writing in some explosions and car chases.
What is your favourite scene in the book and why?
I've got two favorites. One is where Hobbs sticks up for himself and essentially tells his commanding officer that he shouldn't have to take a bunch of crap just because he's black. This took guts because Hobbs knew he was running the risk of being charged with insubordination. My other favorite is near the end when Hobbs tells Mac he's leaving and Mac pleads to go with him. Two somewhat interesting stories here: When I first wrote the story in script form, I was able to get Richard Walter, head of UCLA's film school, to read it. He gave it rather high praise and commented that the scene in question "brought him to tears." Closer to home, I gave a copy of the book to my 10-year-old granddaughter who is a voracious reader. She called me a few days later to say how much she enjoyed it. I asked her if she had a cold because she sounded sniffly. She said no, but that she had been crying at the ending. For me that was much greater praise for my writing than the comments from the UCLA prof. I'm a real softie at heart.
I know that Hobbs is eventually posted to Montana but where does the bulk of the story take place?
Most of the story takes place in Arizona, with a few brief opening scenes in Boston.
I believe that you were in the army yourself. Do your army experiences influence your writing?
Not really. It possibly gave me a little better understanding for military procedures (and stupidity) than I would otherwise have had, but I'm not conscious of any impact on my writing.
Tell us a little bit about your writing style. You worked as an advertising copywriter before you became a freelance writer, so I guess words come easily to you. How does your writing background influence your writing style?
I don't really know what my style is. If I had to pick a word I might say "simplistic." I'm not a fancy writer. In fact I don't consider myself a particularly good writer. I think my "style," whatever it is, tends to point me toward Mickey Spillane style writing –– if anyone remembers who he was. Yes, words do seem to come fairly easily to me. Unfortunately, they don't seem to be the words many publishers are interested in buying.
Do you always know how your characters are going to behave or do they sometimes surprise you. In Hobbs and the Kid, Mac eventually learns about honesty and integrity, and the resentment he and Sergeant Daniel Hobbs feel turns to begrudging respect and, finally, to love. Was this always your intention or did your characters change as the book progressed?
It was always my intention that Hobbs and Mac would get together. Remember, I saw the end of the movie. The challenge was to get them out of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland and into the Arizona desert. Of course the characters changed over the course of the story in terms of their feelings for each other but my ultimate plans for them never changed.
And before we get to my quick fire questions John, one more thing. What books do you enjoy reading when you are not writing?
As I grow older I have turned more to the literature of politics and the state of our country. It's a damn mess. Which is to say I don't necessarily enjoy a lot of what I read. As a foreign-born American I am deeply saddened that we have turned into the bully of the world –– an aggressor nation. I fear for my children and grandchildren. Enough tub thumping.
And finally, five seconds getting to know you:
- Deceased celebrity you’d most like to meet
Jesus Christ. And a distant second, Ernest Hemingway. From much of what I have read he appears to have been a pompous ass, obviously a nutjob who blew his brains out. But perhaps I judge him too harshly. It would be interesting to meet him and really see what he was like.
- Favorite activity
Naps after lunch.
- Can’t live without…
Naps after lunch.
- Would love to try…
Naps after breakfast too.
- One word to describe you
It's been fun talking to you John. Thank you, and I hope that you find the time to write that sequel to Hobbs and the Kid.
A bit more about John:
I was born in Canada in 1931 and moved to Boston in 1946. After college and a stint in the US Army I tended to move around a little. From the Pacific Northwest, to the Midwest, to New York, to Los Angeles, Arizona and finally Virginia. I started writing seriously in Los Angles. After a few failed attempts at short stories I switched to screenplays. Everybody in Los Angeles has a screenplay. I wrote 12 of them and had four optioned; nothing produced. I've written five novels. Two have been published by Avalon. One of the others, a crime story, is being looked at now by a small publisher in Arizona. The other two are being shopped around as the mood strikes me. Meanwhile, I take a lot of naps and enjoy my five (soon to be six) grandchildren. And write when I feel like it.