Friday, January 21, 2022

Who Is This Guy, and How Did He Get In Here?

I’m not particularly new to Western Fictioneers, but I might be new to a lot of our members, so I thought my first blog post might serve as a kind of introduction. I’ve been a member for a few years now, originally invited by Troy Smith, to whom I remain indebted for letting me know about this great organization.

The story actually begins decades earlier, though, in the late 1950s, when I watched Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy and all the other TV cowboys. I did my best to emulate them (see photo in full Hoppy gear, with my late big brother Michael). But when I was six years old, my father, a defense department civilian, was transferred to Paris, France—which he’d wanted to get back to since WWII.
And it was there that the story takes off. In Paris, my dad, brother, and I all had our hair cut by a Russian barber who had a shop inside the DOD building my father worked in. It was Paris in the early 1960s, Cold War days, so he was probably a spy, but he was also a barber. And for the kids and the GIs, he kept comics in the shop along with magazines. In his shop, I picked up the first comic book I can remember having my hands on, featuring my favorite cowboy star, Roy Rogers.

That was one of the events that set me on the trail my life followed. I started reading and collecting comics, and I’ve done so ever since.

The trail led me to Virginia, where I discovered the book that truly changed my life: Mystery of the Haunted Mine, a 1962 juvenile novel by Gordon D. Shirreffs (originally titled The Haunted Treasure of the Espectros). I got the Scholastic Book Club paperback edition in 1965 and devoured it. This book had it all—western action and adventure, suspense, seemingly supernatural horror, and puzzling mystery. Even at that age, I knew that Shirreffs’ “Espectros” were a stand-in for the Superstitions, and that the treasure Gary, Tuck, and Sue are hunting for was really the Lost Dutchman Mine.
Historical aside: on January 10, 1932, the headless corpse of Adolph Ruth was found in Arizona. His head had turned up in December of ’32, with what looked suspiciously like a bullet hole in it. Ruth had disappeared while hunting for the Lost Dutchman Mine. I never met Shirreffs to ask him about it, but these events made national news, and I’m convinced that they’re what planted in his head the seed for the story that would become Mystery of the Haunted Mine.
A short while later I read my second western, Clay Fisher’s War Bonnet. I was hooked for life.

After Virginia, I lived briefly in Worms, Germany, a city with a huge Roman wall still standing in the middle of it—real history you can reach out and touch. From there I headed to San Jose, CA, where I saw my first comic shops (and worked in one, briefly). At San Jose State University I won third place in a regional short-story contest and made $30—my first money from writing.

A few years after college, I got into the book biz, as a bookseller at local chain Books Inc. Our store was the South Bay hot spot for sf, fantasy, and mystery books and author events, but we had other genres well represented, too—one of these days I’ll tell you about our Louis L’Amour signing and the Louis L’Amour complete works box set we created.

Books Inc. had a few stores in southern California, and after three years at the San Jose store, I was sent down to manage the La Jolla store. La Jolla’s a beautiful and pricey resort town on the coast, and our store was a regular stop for visiting celebrities. On one occasion I sold a huge volume of Western art paintings to Phoebe Cates, as a birthday present for her father, Gil Cates—the man who produced more Academy Awards telecasts than anyone else.

While working there, I made my first fiction sale, to a prestigious science fiction anthology called Full Spectrum. I also met superstar comic artist Jim Lee—his then-wife had become my assistant manager. When Books Inc. closed its southern California stores, Jim hired me at his new publishing company, part of the fledgling Image Comics brand. It was there that I started writing comics and graphic novels, and then actual novels—my first being a collaboration with a friend on a novel about one of our company’s superhero teams.

At one point, after we started an imprint of non-superhero comics, Jim—knowing of my fondness for westerns—asked me to create a western comic series. But he wanted it to have a supernatural angle; to be what’s now called a weird western. I happily obliged and came up with Desperadoes. That’s the work that brought me to Troy’s attention, and it’s still my most popular comics creation more than 20 years later.
I became a pretty prolific novelist, with more than 50 novels published in the last 23 years, and more than 70 books altogether. Many of those novels were tie-ins—licensed fiction based on existing characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Superman, Spider-Man, Conan, or properties like CSI, Star Trek, and Narcos. But I was also writing original novels—all of them in the genres suggested by the Shirreffs book I’d loved so much. But my then-agent told me now to bother with westerns, because they didn’t sell. So I shied away, despite my ongoing love of the genre.

But thanks to Desperadoes, I got the occasional chance to write some western short stories—some weird, others not—and to appear in anthologies with such personal heroes as Elmer Kelton, Loren Estleman, Louis L’Amour, Johnny Boggs, and others. I was also introduced to the weird western role-playing game Deadlands and wrote a story for one of its earliest fiction anthologies.

Much later, I was able to broker a book deal between Deadlands owner Pinnacle Entertainment, Tor Books, and Visionary Comics, which had the Deadland print license at the time, for three novels. I wrote the second one, Thunder Moon Rising, and that became my first published western novel, albeit a weird western.

Despite my lifelong love of western fiction, comics, movies, and TV shows, I kind of thought it would remain my only published western novel. I was able to write weird westerns and had developed somewhat of a reputation in that area, but nobody was clamoring for traditional westerns from me. Then Livia Reasoner issued a call for stories for the Western Fictioneers anthology The Untamed West. I had recently written a somewhat offbeat novella called “Byrd’s Luck”—not a weird western, but not entirely traditional, either. I didn’t know what to do with it, but when I saw that call, I submitted it, and it went into the book. In fact, it was the lead story, and it wound up being a finalist for both the Peacemaker and Spur Awards.

That was the moment when I thought maybe I could make a go of this western thing, after all.

Last fall, Sundown Press published my first actual, straight western novel—the doorstop-sized historical epic Blood and Gold: The Legend of Joaquin Murrieta, which I wrote with Peter Murrieta, a fifth-generation descendant of the Gold Rush-era bandit. It has, to my great relief, been well received and earned attention in such disparate places as True West Magazine, Deadline: Hollywood, People en Espanol, and the Los Angeles Times.

And on January 26th, Wolfpack Publishing is releasing O’Meara’s Gold, the first in a traditional western series featuring Cody Cavanaugh and Freeman Douglas. I had more fun writing these than any other of those 50-some novels.
All these years and moves later, I’m living with my wife and occasional co-author Marsheila (Marcy) Rockwell and our family, in a home from which we can see my beloved Superstition Mountains. I’ve finally made my way into the world of writing westerns, and I’d like to stay for a while.

But it’s a safe bet I wouldn’t be here—or part of this esteemed organization—if it hadn’t been for Mystery of the Haunted Mine. If there’s a book that you feel changed your life in a significant way, please let us know in a comment!


  1. WOW, JEFF! Your life story should be a book! So interesting! When you mention life-changing books we read as kids, I would have to say mine would be When the Tripods Came by John Christopher. That was the first sci-fi book I ever read and so much different than so much of what was being read by girls back then at my age--I must have been about 11 or so when I read that, and it fired up my imagination in ways I never even knew existed--for a book! When you think about it, at that point, books and movies are two separate things. So I guess what I was able to see and enjoy on the screen in the way of fantasy and sci-fi (Wizard of Oz, Star Trek and so on) was just totally separate from my thoughts about READING material. When I read that story, I just couldn't wait to see how it turned out! And oh, joy, it was a trilogy! I included the link below but don't know if it'll come out right in a blog comment--anyhow, it can be found on Amazon, and I am going to go look up Mystery of the Haunted Mine because I remember having a little 45 rpm record by Walter Brennan called "Dutchman's Gold" where he told the story about the Lost Dutchman Mine.

    Loved your post, and it was so good to learn more about you and your life's journey up to now!

  2. I enjoyed reading about your road to writing the westerns you loved since childhood, Jeff. When I was in 3rd grade, the teacher would often read a story to us after recess, and we had our heads on the desk resting. When she read the book, COWGIRL KATE, I was hooked. (Not to be confused with the Cowgirl Kate children's books that are available now. My Kate was published in the 40s and was for middle grade readers.) It was after this reading that I knew I wanted to write books one day. A few years ago, I found the book in an online used bookstore and paid 30.00 for a 2.98 book. It's one of my most prized possessions. Thank you, for your interesting post.

    1. Agnes, that book sounds great, and its influence profound. I'll have to track down a copy one of these days and take a look. Thanks!

  3. That trilogy is such a classic work, Cheryl! Generation after generation has been turned on to sf by it.

  4. A single book that changed my life? The closest I can come to that is THIS IS IT, MICHAEL SHAYNE, a private eye novel published in 1952 that I checked out from the library bookmobile that came to our small town once a week, sometime in the early Sixties. That made me a fan of the Mike Shayne private eye series and I read many of them over the years. So, fifteen or so years later, after I'd started selling mystery stories to MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE and the editor, Sam Merwin Jr., asked me if I wanted to write one of the Shayne novellas that were published in the magazine under the house-name Brett Halliday, I knew the series and the characters extremely well already. I wound up doing several dozen of them, and that was the first regular writing job I had, as well as my introduction to house-name work. Made me believe that maybe I actually could make a living at this stuff.

  5. That definitely qualifies, James! If it were me, it would've been Hardy Boys books, which I cut my teeth on. But I've never had a chance to write those.

  6. Nice to 'meet' you. What an amazing journey through life you've had so far.

    I was trying to think about what books impacted me, and there is not one that stands out. I remember reading the Farley 'stallion' books, Marhy Stewart and John Hershey's "Hiroshima" book. For those who knew me back then, if I wasn't out walking I had my head buried in a book. I even made people read to me before I started reading myself.

    I look forward to future posts by you. Doris

  7. Thanks, Doris. As a former bookseller, I can tell you that Farley's horse books remain popular, and new generations of horse lovers are always being born. I think those books have a lot to do with it.

  8. Thank you for sharing your fascinating story, Jeff! I thoroughly enjoyed it. I lived most of my life in the Midwest, but after being snowbirds for 8 years, my wife Susie and I moved to Apache Junction. When I stand on our front porch, I'm looking at the Superstition Mountains. Beautiful country!

    1. Mark, the views in Apache Junction are second to none. We're out in SE Gilbert, so the mountains are in the distance--visible, but not like they are out there. Lucky man.

  9. I read so many books as a child that I can't really put my finger on any one that changed my life or made me want to write my own. Seems I was always drifting away into fictional worlds one way or another ... with another writer's tales or my own imagination. Thanks for an interesting post!