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For writer Dusty Richards, the character that inhabits the best western novels is the austere, sometimes alienated man who weighs the scale of consequences inside his mind before taking decisive action.
Richards' almost classic character of ex-rancher Herschel Baker is featured in his latest book, The Sundown Chaser. Baker is steeped in the wide open spaces of the West and he faces villains who "can't be bad enough." "You've got to have a character bigger than life," Richards said from his home in Springdale, Ark.
For writer Craig Johnson, the best characters of western novels echo with silent complexity, never lapsing into mythic types or the typical gunfight. He writes contemporary westerns, he said during a phone call from Philadelphia. Humor is expected, no one is perfect, but his stock character, Sheriff Walt Longmire, stares down death and hardship with steely resolve.
"I like to lampoon what people think they know about the American West," Johnson said. "Maybe my books are a little subversive in that sense."
On this much the two might agree: The cowboy character always carries the torch of everyman but is unlike anyone else.
The two well-known authors of western novels will discuss the tenets of "Creating Western Characters that Come to Life in Fiction" on Saturday, Nov. 6, as part of the Western Writers of America schedule of events at Heber City's 16th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Buckaroo Fair. And if things get testy, there may be a showdown to follow figuratively speaking, of course.
From Louis L'Amour's Sackett family to Charles Portis' Mattie Ross, the 14-year-old heroine of True Grit, the fictional characters of America's West hold the imagination. Especially that of readers who found Huckleberry Finn's charm too forced, or the Alcott sisters of Little Women too ideal in overcoming their character flaws. The American West, by contrast, is a place of mystery, struggles, long searches through big spaces and, perhaps most of all, doing what must be done.
For many fans of western novels, the archetypical character of the western novel reached a high point in Shane, Jack Schaefer's 1949 novel about a soft-spoken gunfighter with a heart of gold as seen through the eyes of a young boy, Bob Starrett.
"He was the man who rode into our little valley out of the heart of the great glowing West and when his work was done, rode back whence he had come and he was Shane," Starrett narrates in Schaefer's book.
Shane's a fine book, Johnson said, but not as good as Schaefer's lesser-known title, Monte Walsh. That book reveals the core of the cowboy character through ranch life.
"One of the big myths of the genre is that the western is about individuals standing up for things," Johnson said. "I try to explain to people that, actually, where there's less civilization people tend to rely on each other a lot more to get things done as a group."
A former rancher himself, Johnson, 49, started writing contemporary westerns six years ago. His first published book, Cold Dish, premiering his character Sheriff Longmire, did so well that Viking Penguin asked him to follow up with a series of books.
The aging, slightly overweight sheriff, widower and Vietnam veteran who overseas vast stretches of Wyoming has since appeared in five other books by Johnson. His books have won the Western Writers of America's Spur Award and Mountains and Plains award for fiction.
The writer said he tires of westerns, whether in film or book, that treat characters as somehow less than smart as if, he said, "they'd just fallen off the turnip truck."
He also revels in demolishing stereotypes about American Indians. When Sheriff Longmire wonders what kind of wine to bring along to a dinner date, he's treated to a half-page monologue about selecting a proper vintage from his Cheyenne friend, Standing Bear.
"The one thing any western really requires is honesty," he said. "So many of my characters and their traits are drawn from real life, including Standing Bear. I don't think there's ever been a group of people more unfairly maligned in fiction than American Indians."
Richards, 73, said he provokes howls of derision from some of his writing colleagues when he insists on characters that commit to causes and carry the air of the heroic throughout a narrative. Echoing the famous line from the film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Richards said it's almost silly to write as if the American West doesn't lend itself to myth and legend.
"Anyone who writes westerns has a great number of good friends," Richards said. "You want to know why? Because the West is still a great adventure."
Heber City's 16th annual Cowboy Poetry Gathering & Buckaroo Fair
When • Through Sunday, Nov. 7. "Creating Western Characters that Come to Life in Fiction," with Craig Johnson and Dusty Richards, will be part of the Western Writers of America presentation, Saturday, Nov. 6, at 2:30 p.m.
Where • Western Writers of America events will be held at the Campfire Stage at Wasatch High School, 930 S. 500 East, Heber City
Info • Call 435-654-2352 or visit http://www.hebercitycowboypoetry.com for complete schedule. Admission to Buckaroo Fair, including continuous music and poetry, is $10 at the door. Cowboy barbecue lunch and dinner is $15 for adults and $7 for children. Concert tickets from $14-$45. Craig Johnson's five favorite western novels
1. Shane and Monte Walsh by Jack Schaefer • "Schaefer never wrote enough books for as good a writer as he was. He understood that there weren't enough aspects of the West that were being explored. He can give you one or two sentences of dialogue that let you know right off the bat where the character stood."
2. The Ox-Bow Incident and Track of the Cat by Walter Van Tilburg Clark • "From the golden era of westerns in the 1940s and '50s. Here's a writer who really understood the psychological underpinnings of dire acts."
3. Anything by Dorothy Johnson • "She wrote so many great books that everyone knows by name The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Man Called Horse, et al. that everyone forgets they were written by a humble little schoolmarm from Missoula, Mont. She was a master of brevity. Her characters didn't say much but, by golly, they meant what they said. She really destroyed the myth that westerns had to be written by grisly old men."
4. Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry • "He's just a phenomenon. Lonesome Dove is the obvious pick for most, but this was written in six weeks when McMurtry was just 26 years old. It just makes me want to hit him in the side of the head with a rock that he wrote so well when he was so young."
5. The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig • "About a young woman hired as a home helper in Montana of the late 1800s, and the romantic interests that ensue after her arrival. Like most of Doig's books, it's difficult to encapsulate. It's brutally honest of the period, about how dirty and difficult it was to raise a family and keep a town together."
Dusty Richards' five favorite western novels
1. True Grit by Charles Portis • "The Huckleberry Finn of the western novel, and I don't care what anyone else says. You expect everything from these characters, and Portis gives you even more. I've probably read it more than 20 times."
2. Nickajack by Robert Conley • "About a Cherokee man who shoots another man and has just one year to put his family in order before he hangs. You hear so much Cherokee thinking, and thinking out loud, in this book. Amazing."
3. The Searchers by Alan Le May • "Powerful writing from a newspaper man. It's as if God is telling you a story from above. I just hated the way they changed the names of the characters in the John Ford movie."
4. Any novels of Will Henry • "He's got a voice that's different from anyone else's. I've tried to copy it many times, only to find that I can only learn from it."
5. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry • "I don't like all his books, but he's a great storyteller. It's too damned long he could have lifted at least 150 pages and I don't like his villains. But in this book, he really excels."