Thursday, October 4, 2012

Western Writer Michael Newton aka Lyle Brandt

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

Vengeance Ride, published by Carousel Books in 1979.

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

"George G. Gilman" (né Terry Harknett) and Elmore Leonard.

3. Is there a particular scene from a Western novel that was so powerful when you read it that it stuck with you? Perhaps has become a scene you've tried to live up to/equal in your own writing?

I'd have to go with a movie, actually: the climax of The Wild Bunch. Overall, I do try to write in a "cinematic" style, with various points of view to cover action from different sides. 

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

The Deputy, by Roe Richmond (1960), a novel based on Henry Fonda's TV series of the same title.

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

Doc Holliday. I first encountered him on a "famous gunfighters" postcard at Calico Ghost Town, and have been fascinated by his strange life ever since, both factual and fictional.

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

I strive for accuracy, relying on a fairly extensive reference library—and, since the late 90s, on selective research from the Internet. Research online saves long days and gas burned commuting to and from libraries, but discretion and double-checking are obviously vital. There's a lot of nonsense floating around on the Web that can make a writer look foolish if s/he swallows it uncritically. (I've been burned on occasion by print sources, as well—including those published by one so-called "Dean of True-Crime Writers.")

7. How important is setting? How important is it to get setting right? What's the best use of setting in a Western as far as you're concerned?

Setting is critical in fiction, whether the characters circle the globe or spend the whole story stuck in one room. Setting is key to atmosphere. Whether you're describing a well-known location or "world-building" in the realm of fantasy or sci-fi, consistency is vital. Detail can vary. I admire—but do not emulate—authors who can name every plant in a villain's flower bed. That said, you can go overboard in that direction, too. Tom Clancy's "thrillers" always read like hardware catalogs to me; I've never been able to finish one. My favorite Western in this regard is Elmore Leonard's Hombre.

8. How do you choose where to begin your story? Do you use prologues?

Most of my contemporary thrillers have prologues, usually introducing a threat or a villain, but on Westerns I normally jump straight in with Chapter 1. I was taught to "hook" readers with action as soon as possible, so I always try to open with something that will keep them turning pages. Nonfiction, on the other hand, often demands a preface and/or introduction, but once I get to the actual text, I still try to lead off with something exciting, frightening, amusing—whatever fits.

9. Do you do all your research ahead of time, or as you go along?

I've written so many reference books and how-to volumes for writers over the past 20-odd years that I pretty well know what I'm talking about (or, at least, I hope so). If anything's vague to me as I go along, Google is my salvation.

10. Which of your characters do you identify with the most, and why? Was there a role model for this particular character?

In Westerns, I like to think there's some part of myself in my protagonists, though my life experience is nothing like theirs. I've lived in the West and witnessed an execution in Nevada, but that's the limit.

11. Do you outline and plot your story or do you write as the inspiration or MUSE leads?

I always outline, both the overall story for starters and "slap-dash" outlines for individual chapters as I proceed, though I feel free to deviate at any point. My publishers generally want to know where a story's going before they cut a contract—and, of course, in series work they don't want me killing off the protagonist(s) unless they're already pulling the plug. I admire authors who work solely from inspiration—like my mentor, Don Pendleton—but when I hear them say their characters "took over the story and wrote it themselves," I frankly don't know what they're talking about.

12. Are you a conservative in your writing and stick with traditional ideas for your characters and plots or do you like to go beyond the norm and toss in the unexpected and why?

I'll try anything and see if it flies with an editor. In one recent episode of my "Lawman" series, Jack the Ripper popped up in Oklahoma Territory, circa 1893. For the contemporary action-adventure stories, anything goes, as long as its feasible in real life.

13. Do you need quiet when you write, listen to music, or have the TV on and family around?

I'm overrun with cats in my office on a normal day. My wife plays music in adjoining rooms, which provides nice background, but I don't have any running in my office itself. I tried a Walkman once, for about thirty seconds. It was a no-go.

14. Have you experienced the "dreaded" writer's block and how did you deal with it?

I've been lucky in this respect, never suffering any significant writer's block. Sometimes I'm stalled for a few minutes on the opening line of a novel or chapter, but never for long. It helps that I work on several books simultaneously, both fiction and nonfiction, which allows me to switch off if something starts to feel stale.

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

Western-wise, I'm fond of Jack Slade, still alive and kicking from Berkley after 11 novels. He's  about to have some competition from Gideon Ryder, an early recruit for the U.S. Secret Service at its foundation in 1865.

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

I grew up reading Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, James Bond, Tarzan, and Bomba the Jungle Boy, among others. More recently, my favorites include Jack Reacher, Raylan Givens, Kay Scarpetta, Gretchen Lowell, Aloysius Pendergast, Virgil Flowers, Lucas Davenport, and the inimitable Hannibal Lecter. 

17. Do you address "modern" issues in Westerns? Racism. Feminism. Downs Syndrome. Mental disabilities. Genetic disorders. Sociopathy. Immigrant questions. Brutality. Pedophilia. Any more?

I've definitely dealt with racism and women's issues, (hopefully) drawing some strong female characters. My protagonists always encounter brutal individuals, on both sides of the law, and some of them are absolutely "mental." I've only touched on pedophilia (and human trafficking) in some contemporary thrillers and nonfiction; ditto for genetic disorders and sociopathy, examined at length in my work on serial killers.

18. Have you found that being able to self publish through Kindle and Nook, that you find yourself writing more of what you want rather than what the agent, editor, and publisher wants?

I've self-published five books, with very disappointing results: $11 and change, so far. My living still depends on traditional publishers, much of it under "house names." The nonfiction published under my own name, however, is always focused on topics that interest me particularly.

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

I'm fortunate enough to have been self-supporting as a full-time author since 1986, although our economic situation has caused some stress the past couple of years, along with belt-tightening or outright abandonment of traditional printed books by a couple of my longtime publishers. This time next year, I may be a Wal-Mart greeter!

20. What are you writing right now?

Two Western series from Berkley, written as "Lyle Brandt"; a four-book contract from Gold Eagle Books for the ongoing "Mack Bolan" action-adventure series; and a couple of nonfiction books for McFarland. One of those breaks new ground in the 1946 "Phantom Killer" case from Texarkana. I also have a continuing deal with Schiffer Books, my "Strange Monsters" series, touring the USA with a state-by-state review of unknown creatures reported by everyday folks.

21. What do you plan to write in the future

I hope to keep my two Western series going with Berkley, under the "Lyle Brandt" name. Beyond that, I'll write anything that has a hope of selling.

22. What made you decide to write Western fiction?

It was a fluke, in fact. While I've enjoyed Western films, TV shows, and novels since childhood, my entry to the field was suggested by an L.A. editor in 1979. A porn house I'd been writing for, run by Cleveland Mob associate Reuben Sturman, created Carousel Books as a way to "go legit"—and also, as I soon discovered, as a tax dodge. I'd done several XXX-rated books for them at the time, and got in on the ground floor with Westerns, thrillers, and police procedurals. Once they folded, in the early Eighties, I did no more Westerns until Berkley approached my literary agent, Nancy Yost, about starting a series under a pen name. They wanted something starting with a "B," to stand near the top of limited shelving in bookstores, and thus "Lyle Brandt" was born.

Writing under the pseudonym Lyle Brandt, Michael Newton has become a popular writer of Western novels. He has written a number of successful non-fiction titles as well, including a book on genre writing (How to Write Action Adventure Novels). His book Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida won the Florida Historical Society's 2002 Rembert Patrick Award for Best Book in Florida History. Newton's "Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology" won the American Library Association's award for Outstanding Reference Work in 2006. Newton is best known for his work on Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan series.

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