Peter Brandvold is a hugely popular author of action-packed Westerns. He has written dozens of books, under his own name as well as the pen name Frank Leslie. He also has written under the Ralph Compton banner and has done a number of titles in the popular Longarm series.
Recently, Peter graciously agreed to do a Q&A interview with yours truly. I think you will find what he had to say enjoyable and quite informative.
WD: Peter, you have quite a varied background, growing up on ranches and farms in South Dakota, later attending college (earning a B.A. in English), took a Creative Writing course at the University of Arizona, and taught English at the Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation in Montana. All the while you dabbled on and off writing articles and some fiction, eventually settling on penning rousing, wildly adventurous Westerns which have become quite successful. Please expand on this, in your own words, for our readers.
PB: I didn’t grow up on farms or ranches, but lived around friends and family who had them so I spent a lot of time in the country. I lived in little towns that could probably qualify as “country,” even more so today when most of the little towns in the Midwest are going the way of the wooly mammoths. I lived all over North Dakota because my dad was good at his job—he was a soil conservationist for the Dept. of Agriculture—and got promoted a lot. But I loved the small town life, especially visiting friends and family on farms and ranches; riding horseback a lot, and driving grain trucks when I could just barely see over the dash. Getting into all kinds of “country” trouble. But I’ve always had a very vivid and dramatic imagination, and from a very early age I knew I was going to be a writer. I was in the 5th grade when I read several Jack London, John Steinbeck, and Ray Bradbury stories, and a great story by Roald Dahl called “Beware of the Dog”. It's about a British fighter pilot recovering in a German hospital, though he doesn’t know it’s German because they tell him he’s in England. But then he sees this German sign that says, “Beware of the Dog,” etc. Just a great story, and the vivid way it was written, creating that whole world with all the sights and smells and horrors ... Man, I knew I wanted to do that myself. Everything leading up to it was just paying the bills in the most efficient way I could. But living and teaching on that little remote Montana Indian reservation for five years was great experience for a Western writer. And that’s what I always knew I’d write—Westerns; because those were the only movies I really loved from a very early age, and those were the first novels I read for fun. My God, I had a toybox full of pistols and shell belts and neckerchiefs and battered hats. In my head, I was always a cowboy. I think I still am, though I haven’t ridden a horse since Montana. I’d like to have enough acreage again to run a few in a big pasture, and ride up around Horsetooth Mountain, close to where I live now in Colorado.
WD: You strike me as what I would call a "natural" storyteller. How much did the English and Creative Writing courses—versus your life experiences and what I suspect was this very strong natural gift—impact on what we see in your work today?
PB: English and creative writing courses were great at opening up my world for me, my world of literature and writers. I mean, I’ve read a broad range of folks—Harry Crews to Graham Greene, John Updike, Saul Bellow. I love Tolstoy, and A Sportsman's Sketches by Turgenov is probably my very favorite book of al time. I’m always flipping through it to re-read passages here and there, though I think I have to whole thing memorized. I like poetry—Ted Kooser, Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, James Galvin, who writes about the country here in northern Colorado. All this was grist for the mill. A writer needs to read anything he can get his hands, be curious about everything you see, and all the books and movies out there. It’s strange and wonderful how when you’re writing and you’re entire unconscious is completely opened up what things from your past or what you've read and heard will drift into your mind and somehow flavor what you’re writing at that very moment. So to answer your question in a nutshell: Those classes introduced me to things to read and taught me how to go about finding them. They made me more curious and aware of the whole wide world of literature out there. But they did very little for me, practically speaking, as far as learning how to write. That’s something you really can only teach yourself with a lot of hard agonizing.
WD: You cover a wide range of the West in your numerous books, and generally use a large cast of characters (many of whom end up dead when they tangle with your protagonists)—how do you keep track of all the places and character names you have used so as not to unintentionally repeat any of them?
PB: Yeah, new characters and plot ideas turn up in my head all the time while I’m writing, and I just go with it. I censor nothing. Writing is such a blast for me because it’s all about discovering what my unconscious is going to throw at me next, and I often really have no idea. It’s even happening as I type this—holy shit!! I do have a hard time keeping track and I usually write too fast and hard, working up a sweat, to be able to slow down and write things down. So I usually jot names or places or the type of horse a particular character is riding after I’m done with that sprint. I sometimes screw up, however, and I’ll get emails telling me this guy fired nine shots from his six-shooter and this gal was riding a paint on p.32 but the paint was suddenly a coyote dun on p.102, and I really hate doing that because it’s sloppy. I should catch it in the galley proofs, which I usually try to read very carefully. I hate sloppy editing. Seeing one typo in one of my books will really make me wince. Or a flub like the one in my second book, BLOOD MOUNTAIN, where I have a one-armed man pushing himself up off a wagon bed with “both hands.” Oh, man ...
WD: You have several series going—Sheriff Ben Stillman, Cuno Massey, Gideon Hawk, Yakima Henry, and Lou Prophet. All are hard, tough men on the Western frontier. I find it very commendable, however, that each is a very distinct character with mannerisms and qualities all his own. Can you give us some background on how you created each of these memorable hombres and how you maintain their individuality?
PB: Not really. I guess I just see each one as a person—and we don’t know any two people alike, do we? Unintentionally, I gave Gideon Hawk and Yakima Henry similar features—dark hair and green eyes, and they’re both half-breeds—but in my head they seem very distinct, not very alike at all. In fact, they’re almost polar opposites, psychologically speaking. Yakima tries to avoid trouble, as where Hawk goes looking for it.
WD: Do you move in sequence when writing about these characters—i.e., one book about Stillman, then one about Prophet, then one about Yakima, etc.? If not, is there any particular pattern that you follow?
PB: The pattern is pretty much dictated by my publisher. They offer me contracts based primarily what seems to be selling best at the time. I sort of like having the decision made for me. I really don’t have any favorites amongst my characters, don’t even mind writing to of the same series back to back. I just love getting into that world, saddling up, and touching steel to flank.
WD: You have lived and/or traveled extensively throughout most of the country where your stories take place. This, I expect, provides much of the necessary description, history, etc., that you need to tell your tales. Do you do much additional research? If so, please describe.
PB: I travel all over in my truck and trailer, and that’s fun because I can then set books where I am at any given time, and it just makes the writing so much more immediate. I can just look out the window and see a turning cottonwood and know exactly how to describe the sunlight playing on it. Or how a particular ridge looks or the way shadows slide across a mountain slope with the sun’s movement. I wrote The Guns of Sapinero up in the Wasatch Mountains, outside the little ghost town of Tincup, and since I was on open range there were cattle all over the place. They’d wander through my camp whenever they wanted, and I’d see them in the willows when I was fishing my favorite creek. One morning I woke up to my trailer pitching up and down. I rolled out of bed, looked out the door, and there was a big Angus heifer using the front corner of my trailer for a scratching post! That image went into Guns when my hero wakes up to a scratching sound outside his cabin.
WD: You spend much of the year "RV-ing" around the country—much like a roaming cowboy of old—stopping to camp and spend time where and when it suits you . Sounds pretty enviable. Can you expound on this lifestyle for our readers?
PB: It’s a lot of fun. When I get bored with a place, I pack up and move elsewhere. I spent one winter near Quartzsite, Arizona, and several summers in the Colorado mountains. I also spent a good part of last summer in North Dakota, staying in a couple of little towns I grew up in as well as one close to Minot, where I have an ill aunt, my Aunt LaVerne, who was/is like a second mother to me and certainly filled a big gap when my blood mother died in ’98. We had a good time touring the countryside together, LaVerne showing me where the old farm was and that sort of thing, and telling stories of the old days like what they did all winter and where they had to pick up coal. That’s what become available when you can travel a lot and at will. I love it. I’ll always have my trailer. I’m not going to say it doesn’t get lonely at times, though, because it does. It requires one to go out and make new friends and that’s always been hard for me. But you can’t beat the quiet time for writing.
WD: You write under your own name and also as Frank Leslie. I assume you chose that name after "Buckskin Frank Leslie", a gunslinger of some renown around Tombstone, AZ, during the time of Wyatt Earp. Leslie eventually shot and killed Billy Claiborne, one of the survivors of the OK Corral shootout, and very possibly also killed Johnny Ringo (despite popular claims via recent movies that it was Doc Holliday). Can you comment on this?
PB: Nope, you got it. I like the old-West baggage the name "Frank Leslie" carries. It’s the same thing with Fred Glidden calling himself "Luke Short". It’s kind pulpy, isn’t it? I love pulp and all it’s history so I guess the name is also a nod to that pulpy tradition.
WD: Finally, what does the future hold, writing-wise, for Peter Brandvold and Frank Leslie? I know you currently have a "weird Western"—entitled Bad Wind Blowing—appearing as an Amazon Kindle original, Peter. I also know, via our e-mail exchanges, that you soon will have a book series of "weird Westerns" coming out. Please tell our readers more about that and about any other news you care to share.
PB: Yeah, I’m working on a weird western series for Berkley tentatively called Dust of the Damned. I’m pulling out all the stops on this one. I have vampires and werewolves and beautiful Indian witches and even dragons. My hero is a bounty hunter who specializes in hunting a particular breed of werewolf that helped the North win the Civil War at Gettysburg, and the heroine is beautiful deputy United States Marshal, Aubrey Coffin. Together, they take on the weird frontier and also make the mattress dance a time or two. Ha! I have several other books done and they should be out over the course of the next year, including another Rogue Lawman called Gallows Express and two more Leslie books, Revenge At Hatchet Creek and Dead River Killer, respectively. Right now my Leslie book, Bullet For A Half-Breed is on the racks, as well as my latest Lou Prophet yarn, The Devil's Winchester.
WD: Thank you for your time and candor, Peter. This was an interesting, informative interview. I trust our readers—and your many fans, I'm sure—will enjoy it. And I urge anyone who's reading this and hasn't checked out any of Peter's exciting, action-packed yarns to get your butts in gear and give them a try. You'll be glad you did. You can find Peter's books at any full-service book store and also through Amazon and other internet outlets. You can learn more about Peter by checking out his blog at http://peterbrandvold.blogspot.com or visiting his web site www.peterbrandvold.com .
Persevere --- WD