Saturday, September 10, 2011

Western Writer Troy D. Smith

1.   What was your first Western novel or story and was it published?

My first two Western novels, Riding to Sundown and Brothers in Arms, were written in 1990... purely for my own entertainment. In those days I buffed and waxed floors for a living, and would be locked in Wal-marts and K-marts alone for up to twelve hours a night. I wasn’t paid by the hour, and it only took about half the time to do the work, so I wound up writing to occupy myself. It never even occurred to me at the time I could be published. A few years later I got serious about writing, and decided to do a few short stories to see if I could get them published and at least have something on my query letter when I tried to sell my novels. My first short story was accepted at Louis L’Amour Magazine; they took several others too, and I thought I’d found my gravy train, but then the magazine folded right after my first story appeared. I kept selling stories, though. In the past year a lot of my older stuff has been reprinted by Western Trail Blazer, and those first two short novels I wrote while my wax was drying twenty years ago finally got into print for the first time.

    2.   What Western writer or writers of the past were the biggest influence on your work?

Louis L’Amour was a big influence; I’d been reading his novels while locked up in those stores before I ran out of books and started writing my own. I also loved Elmer Kelton, and often paraphrase his great quote: he didn’t write about a bad guy in a black hat versus a good guy in a white hat, he wrote about two guys in gray hats, one trying to institute change and one resisting it. I like that. I was also influenced by Larry McMurtry; I like the way he plays with history, and how he uses humor to endear characters to you before he suddenly visits horrific death and destruction on them, making you care deeply about their fates. Beyond that, I could name a whole slew of writers active in WF right now as big influences, and dozens of classic writers –from Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, and Steinbeck to Stephen King, Robert E. Howard and Stan Lee.

     3.   What's the first Western you remember reading from cover to cover?

Bowie’s Mine, by Elmer Kelton. I read it in 1976, when I was eight… it was the first “grown-up book” I ever read. I read it over and over, in fact, and can still remember the opening scene in great detail.

     4.   Who is your favorite historical Western figure, and why?

This one is a tie. Crazy Horse is inspirational; he fought for his people and culture, and in innovative ways, even when many of them abandoned him. I am also quite fond of Bill Tilghman; he saw it all. Serving as a lawman in Dodge City with Earp and Masterson, federal deputy marshal in Oklahoma Territory, and still taming oil boomtowns when he was an old man in the 1920s. He had a sort of quiet efficiency that got the job done while more boisterous attention-seekers got all the fame and glory.

     5.   How much historical research do you do, and how do you go about it?

It helps that historical research is my day job. I spent several years familiarizing myself with 19th century Indian Territory / Oklahoma for my dissertation, and I plan to use that in future fiction works. Generally speaking, though, it depends on the project. If I am writing about a historical figure like Champ Ferguson, I want to get all the details down right. For Bound for the Promise-Land I spent six months doing nothing but research, filling up several notebooks and poring through slave narratives before I wrote my first sentence of narrative. I spend a lot less time on a typical adventure story, but I still read a lot to make sure I know the difference between point and drag, gee and haw.

       6.  Who is your favorite fictional character that you have created?

This one is a tie, too. Both my favorite creations were supporting characters in Civil War epics, and each served as a conscience for the hero. As such, they were intrinsically good people, and therefore (to me, at least) very lovable. The first is Lonnie Blake, ex-slave-turned-soldier-turned-preacher in Bound for the Promise-Land. I wanted my hero, Alfred, to be a sort of everyman, and torn by conflicting emotions about life and about racial issues. His two best friends, Lonnie and Chamas, played the roles of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, each trying to sway him to their perspective. Lonnie was the MLK figure, and –while a flawed human being –approached life with love, compassion, and faith. My other favorite was not quite so saintly –Rains Philpot was the sidekick of Champ Ferguson, the notorious Confederate guerrilla that I wrote about in Good Rebel Soil. I wanted to structure Champ’s story like a Greek tragedy: a brave, and likable, hero who has a fatal flaw (in Champ’s case, his angry passions) which draws him inexorably to a doom that he knows he can’t escape no matter how hard he tries. Rains is kind of simple-minded, intensely loyal to his friend, and –despite the band’s violent activities –kind of an innocent. It’s his voice that tries to pull Champ back from the abyss when he goes too far. I had a soft spot for him –although his positive qualities were entirely of my own invention, for the sake of a good story. I’m pretty sure the real Rains Philpot was just as ruthless as Champ.

       7.   Who is your favorite fictional character that someone else created?

Oh, hands down, Augustus McRae from Lonesome Dove. They just don’t come any better than Gus. Although I also have a soft spot for Hewey Calloway, Elmer Kelton’s great cowboy character.

       8.    Do you make a living writing? If not, what is your day job?

I am a history professor, currently teaching at Tennessee Tech. My dissertation, which I hope to publish soon in book form, is about the Five Tribes of the Southeast (and later Oklahoma –Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks and Seminoles) and the process by which, in the first half of the 19th century, they adopted plantation slavery and developed racial concepts unknown to previous generations in their leaders’ quest to become “modern,” eventually allying (for complicated reasons) with the Confederacy during the Civil War. I explore what that whole process says about the connections between racial identity and national identity, and how each is formed. This pulls together my three fields of research: American Indians, slavery, and Southern history (Western history, too.)

       9.    What do you plan to write in the future?

My next big fiction project will be a crime novel. I plan to write several short stories before that, though, to be included in various series of ebook shorts. I’ll do a couple more tales for the Blackwell Western series being published by WTB, as well as a couple of mystery series which should be available in the next few months. One stars a 5th century Irish chieftain, Conor Mac Cormac, who has a tendency to get involved in political intrigues in the days of the late Roman Empire –where the murders are never as simple as they seem. The other series will be called “Dead Rednecks!” and centers on an ex-con in Knoxville, Hoss Qualls,  whose efforts to keep his nose clean are complicated by his many crazy relatives, especially his semi-delusional brother who has opened a detective agency and constantly needs Hoss’s help. Right now I am working on a story for an upcoming Lone Ranger anthology.

       10.   What made you decide to write Western fiction?

       I actually write in various genres: Western, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror. What success I have had, though, has mostly come from Westerns, and I don’t think that is an accident. I like to write about characters who face their most primal emotions. A story set on the frontier is very conducive to that; the veneer is stripped away, and the primordial comes to the surface. You can cut through the crap, in other words, and pretty darn quick. 


  1. Good interview Troy. I always wondered what Ivory Tower profs did with their spare time. When I was in college, we were determined to change the world. We did, for the worse. Ideology can be a bad thing. I do hope that, as a historian, you find something that someone or some people did well. It seems to me sometimes that historians like to pick up on the flaws. (Mind you, I majored in History and did Japanese and American history in grad school, so I know where you're coming from.)

  2. Really a fine, informative interview. Glad to find another academic at play in the fields of historical research and the western novel. Look forward to reading the book on your dissertation subject.

  3. Thanks, amigos! @Chuck- I too did both Japanese and American history in grad school, and they go together a lot better than folks might think.

    So far as positive vs negative when teaching history- those comments actually remind me of some of the things I tell my students on the first day of class. Such as:

    We can't hide or gloss over the bad stuff. Then we are practicing wishful thinking, not history; we also run the risk of being like those old Chinese dynasties who would literally rewrite history with each government change, so that after a few generations no one would know what actually happened.

    BUT. On the other hand.

    I don't want to give the impression that American history is just one long litany of bad and/or embarrassing things. I don't want to give the impression that America sucks. Avoiding that requires A) as you said, being balanced, but more importantly B) looking at the long range narrative of US history. MLK said "The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice." I believe that American history is a story, and the story is this:

    It's the story of some very noble ideals being applied over time by very imperfect, very human people. And throughout that story, change has come from the bottom up- concerned citizens taking action and working to correct what was wrong. Some of that bad stuff in our history has stayed in the past, others we are still working on, and must continue to do so.

    At this point I tell them that, no matter what their major, the 2-part US history survey is one of the most important courses they will ever take. Because I predict, at some time in their lives, something in the world around them is going to piss them off and they're going to want to ss it changed- and no matter what it is, or whether they are liberal or conservative, right wing or left -the first step to making a difference is understanding how things got to be the way they are and how things work.

    I heavily stress looking past what other people, even historians, tell you and looking for ultimate answers to the original, primary source documents. I warn them that some of the things I will say over the course of the semester will challenge them, and force them to think about things they thought they already knew or understood in new ways. I urge them to not even take my word, but read the original documents, something that the internet has helped make possible for everybody.

    Maybe I will read to them from Columbus's diary, where he tells about meeting the peaceful Taino Indians and reflecting on how easy it will be to enslave them, and of how he cut off the hands and feet of every native who didn't supply him with the required amount of gold. And I will also tell them about the priest Bartolome de las Casas, who led a campaign to stop Spanish cruelty to Indians.

    Maybe I'll tell them about the Philippine Insurrection, of how it was such a national embarrassment that it was edited out of history textbooks for most of the 20th century until it virtually disappeared from American memory. And I will also tell about how Mark Twain spearheasded a national protest of such US expansionist policies.

    This is my long winded way of saying that historians have a duty to tell the truth. They should neither condemn America nor paint it in romanticized, rosy hues. As well as be aware that the truth is hard to nail down, and ideologies are hard to sift through or ignore -but that's what makes it hard work. Hard work that ultimately tells us who we are and why, and gives us hints about how to get where we want to go.

    All that being said- as a western writer and a Japanophile, I'd love to hear your take on comparing and contrasting American Indians and Ainu, and especially the Yayoi invading and supplanting the Jomon with European settlement of North America! I find the parallels fascinating!

  4. Wow! I want to see your disseration when it's done. Sounds fascinating (don't be an ABD). I started writing western novels after retiring from the Univ. Georgia in ecology (do you know my old pal Henri Willard there at Tennessee Tech?). Entirely self-published but enjoying every minute of it.

  5. Haven't met your friend Dr. Willard yet- I just joined the faculty this semester- but I probably will. I have several friends at the University of Georgia history dept. Dissertation is defended and deposited, currently working on a book proposal. Shoot me an email!

  6. Excellent interview! I'm glad you decided to go back to school, Troy. I look forwad to reading your books.

  7. Just a quick comment on your answer to my comment, Troy. I said to a friend who wanted to know if, being as I plan to die and have my ashes scattered on the Pacific from Japanese shores, I was going to become a citizen of Japan. I said: to be an American, all you need is citizenship papers (or the equivalent) to be a Japanese, you must have the blood lines. Yes, I could become a Japanese citizen. No, I could not become a Japanese.

    Japan is good at rewriting its history. Been done a few times over the centuries. Japan doesn't want to recognize that the Emperor comes from Korean stock. Japan doesn't want to recognize that all of the area hit by the recent earthquake and tsunami was Ainu land in bygone centuries.

    Japan is not good at recognizing minorities. It also does not want hordes of "refugees" on its shores. It doubled its refugee number (those they let in because they were in extreme danger in their homelands) in 2010 to 13.

    Japan always looked down on the Ryukyu race (Okinawans) and discrimination during WWII was so intense that many Okinawans moved to Taiwan (where the Japanese discriminated against native Taiwanese). The strange thing is, Japanese to this day do not recognize their discrimination as discrimination.

    Displacement of the Jomon by the Yayoi? Much akin to the displacement of any group of people by another group. In the US, it was those of European stock displacing those of Asian (over the Bering land bridge?) stock. If you're interested in that part of history (US, that is) you'll be interested in the book 1493.

    The Japanese as you know would like to forget what happened in the years preceding and including WWII. (My thesis is that for Japan WWII began in September 1931 with the Manchurian Incident, which was completely set up by the Japanese. No Chinese were involved at all.)

    I'm sure the same kinds of movement of people happened throughout the world. The Anglo Saxons vs the Celts, the Franks vs whoever was there before them, the Islamic peoples moving what is now Israel, into Spain, Turkey, etc. Ever has it been so.

    Wow. A short comment . . .

  8. Chuck- my primary research field is "Race and Ethnicity"... I love Japanese history and culture, as of course I love my own (Southern U.S.)... Nevertheless, I use Japan as evidence that racial hierarchy is not exclusively an American, or English, or white thing.

  9. Absolutely. Race superiority may have started with the Chinese, who knows, in Marco Polo's time, at least, they considered themselves leagues above the lowly Europeans.

    If you read Japanese (??), try Motohiko Izawa's series on The Paradox of Japanese History. There are several volumes. If now, you might want to look at Toshihiko Abe's Japan's Hidden Face. It will show you where a lot of Japan's racism came from.

    How'd we get this far off Westerns?