The day Lou Aronica offered me a job editing Westerns, one of my protests was, “I’ve never read a Western novel.” He’d swatted away the others, but now he said, “That’s something you’d have to fix right away.” Cowboys I knew, just like any other Fifties/Sixties kid: we were too young to remember radio drama, but Westerns were all over movies and tv. In 1959, the genre’s peak year, there were 26 Western series on television every week, including the longtime #1 program, GUNSMOKE, and I was right there watching. But my boyhood taste in reading tipped more toward science fiction and fantasy, and now those shows are all gone, every single one. The only recent Western tv series I can think of is Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY, and that one’s set in outer space!
Western literature went through similar cycles of popularity. Ned Buntline’s silly “dime novels” notwithstanding, Owen Wister’s THE VIRGINIAN (itself made into a long-running tv series) in 1902 was probably the first real classic: that’s where we get the famous line, “When you call me that, SMILE!” (Over the years, it’s been misquoted as often as “Play it, Sam!”) Now the stuff was viable as a genre. Authors who worked in the ensuing era of serialized novels and pulp magazines made their rent by writing as fast as they could, essentially selling their words by the pound. Look at Robert E. Howard. He wrote fantasy, horror, mystery, Westerns, boxing stories – there seemed to be a pulp fiction magazine for everything — but most people had a specialty, his being “swords & sorcery.” And Howard had plenty of colleagues, one of whom still bestrides the Western field, even though he passed away in 1988. Nowadays, Western stories aren’t exactly at the top of mind any more. But they never really die. If, say, Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy aren’t writing Westerns, then Michael Crichton wasn’t a science fiction writer either, and no matter how strenuously one may try to deny it, if it walks like a duck…
As the new editor in charge of Westerns at Bantam Books, I had three potential strikes against me when Lou shoved me out of the nest and said I’d better start flying pronto. One, I was replacing Greg Tobin, an editor well loved and respected by the community, and deservedly so. Two, I knew far less about editing than they knew about writing, a fact which Lou and I never particularly emphasized (I think I caught on pretty fast, but still). And three, I supervised Bantam’s ongoing publishing program for Louis L’Amour.
Louis, along with Zane Grey, Max Brand, Elmore Leonard (yes, he’s widely admired for and rightly proud of his Western novels, several of which have been made into movies), and others – certainly looking back to Wister – created a fictional version of the old West, abetted by movie producers and stars (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, at 12 minutes arguably the first long-form film, was a Western; this genre and the U.S. cinema go way back), who found their apotheosis in John Wayne. They defined the stereotypical ramrod-straight, aw-shucks-ma’am hero we kids were watching on tv, the trope which lasts today. As the most successful Western writer of them all – and a particular favorite of Ronald Reagan’s – Louis L’Amour personified this interpretation of the American frontier. With more than 100 novels under its belt, Bantam rotated the L’Amour backlist, re-publishing a couple in paperback every month to great success, and I watched over the process, acting as “editor.” (I did this even before I became a real editor, working closely with Louis’s widow Kathy and their son Beau.) Meanwhile, we were still finding short stories and essays in Louis’s trunk – remember, he wrote for the pulps too, and he had a varied and interesting young man’s life, the kind you’d create in a novel for a writer character – and publishing them for the first time since their original pulp-magazine appearances. Louis was big business. He still is.
But by my editorial debut in the early Nineties, a creative backlash had developed among quite a few talented Western authors. The elevating euphemism used back then was “historical/frontier novelists,” as with “thrillers” for horror novels and “speculative fiction” for science fiction, whenever a marketer wanted to try and escape the various genre ghettos. In this case, however, the euphemism was perfectly accurate: the new breed of Western writers were serious historians who conducted exacting research and strove to tell compelling stories about the genuine frontier, the way it really was. There was even a pop-culture hiccup tracking their point of view: the movies DANCES WITH WOLVES and UNFORGIVEN, each of which deconstructed the prevailing Western stereotype, were critical darlings and huge popular hits.
To these folks, Louis’s continuing posthumous dominance over the field presented two problems: it romanticized a mythical West to yet another generation of readers, and Louis’s many backlist titles crowded younger writers off the category’s bookstore shelves. From Bantam’s viewpoint, there were two obvious responses: we wouldn’t print ‘em if people didn’t buy ‘em; and without Louis there might not even be a Western category, hoss. (Dedicated Western sections are harder to find these days, but they did once exist, even in New York City.) But I never said that out loud, because it isn’t nice, nor is it good business, to deliberately hurt someone’s feelings, not even when you know you could shut up the whiner with a few astringent words. Besides, the more market-savvy authors and agents knew all this already. Just the same, when I stepped into the rodeo, not only was I the new kid, I was Louis’s kid too.
Once Lou appointed me as an editor, I followed Ian Ballantine’s advice from Part I and began to read my tits off. Among my very first reads was CARRY THE WIND by Terry C. Johnston, who was one of my “inherited” authors. (See the forthcoming Part III for a candid discussion of this phenomenon, which will eventually affect every author who’s nestled at any big publishing house.) I was blown away! Terry had invented a “mountain man,” Titus Bass, who lives by fur-trapping and his own wits most of the snowclad year and then descends to a warm summer “ronnyvoo,” whereupon he sells his pelts to fey Easterners, gets good and drunk, escorts a woman or two, and buys enough supplies to do it all over again. What caught my breath in my throat were the visceral descriptions Terry managed to conjure. When Titus is cold, you’re cold, too, because Terry’s artistry can make it super-cold. When he’s starving, you’re starving. When he finally lands a “buffler,” you really feel like saying, “forget the fire, son: let’s just eat!” Titus knows more about living through a mountain winter than you ever will. Never, never have I been more fully flung into a strange new world, and I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, d00d. It was like reading in 3-D when other novels were 2-D. Well, as it turned out, for my maiden voyage I had to tell this particular guy what I thought of his latest manuscript. Plus, I had a few small problems with it.
For my first “editorial letter” (itself edited by Lou), I adopted a policy from which I’ve never wavered after scores of the dadburn things: the first sentence is always a compliment. Even when I was facing “pre-pubished” authors one-on-one at writers’ conferences, I always found something positive to begin with. As I wrote in Part I, authors are nervous enough just handing in their material, even fully seasoned pros. I believe you need to calm that anxiety down, starting with syllable 1. Another point I always emphasize is that anything I say is only a suggestion. A writer who doesn’t listen to hisser editor is acting foolishly, in my opinion, but a tie goes to the author. Has to: after all, that ain’t my name on the book. I heard about one author – maybe this is apocryphal; it’s almost too good to be true – who had carefully written country dialect, dropped Gs and all, and the copyeditor, trying to be helpful, had “fixed” everything. The script came back with a huge scrawl on page 1: STET THE WHOLE DAMN THING!
Terry wrote two series for us, the Titus Bass books (which I couldn’t wait to get my hands on) and paperback originals about the Army’s tribulations with Plains Indians, the latest of which was sitting before me. I wrote as carefully and politely as I could – for Terry had done a swell job – but I had a few questions about the motivations of the central character, Army Sgt. Seamus Donegan, and then some more specific notes to go along with the marked-up manuscript. (I’m old-school. I can’t edit on a computer. I have to have the printed-out script in front of me, even the one I’m working on right now, by a former Bantam author. Sorry, but this marking-changes business in Microsoft Word is just too clunky for me.) I packed it all up and sent it out to Terry’s house in Billings, Montana.
A few days later, the fax machine started humming. Out came four, five, six, seven pages from Terry C. Johnston, ostensibly written to his agent, Richard Curtis, with this copy for me. Did I not understand that Seamus was a multi-book character and that readers would get to know him over time? Had I read all the previous books? I’m very concerned…my career…new editor… Terry wore his heart on his sleeve – that’s one reason he could pour so much juice into his writing – and some of it was a tad maudlin, but it still hit hard. After a few mortified moments (your life really does pass before you, mate!), Richard called up and said, laughing, “Show me your back.” (In other words, let me see the scars.) Of course, I was still in shock – I thought I must have done something horribly wrong, and I couldn’t figure out what it was! – but Richard’s calm voice assured me, “Don’t worry, that’s just Terry.” My first author had a perfect right to be skittish: he’d just signed a huge hard/soft deal for six new Titus Bass novels, a prequel trilogy and sequel trilogy to the three books already out there, the masterpieces that had made his reputation, and these “Son of the Plains” paperbacks as well. We were going to be in business together for a long ol’ time. He had a great relationship with my predecessor, Greg Tobin, who had personally acquired all this stuff. Now comes some kid (I was only a couple years younger than Terry, but you get the idea) screwing with Seamus; it was like the rug was being pulled out from under him. He was nervous, maybe a little scared, and he had to take it out on somebody. We made up a day or two later during a long phone conversation – he was a bit of a paper tiger and actually the sweetest guy in person – and over five years or so we earned a great deal of mutual respect, to the point that even when I moved on from Westerns (see Part III), I greedily retained two major frontier authors for my own, and Terry was one of them.
The other was Don Coldsmith, an M.D. (in the army in the Pacific theater, one of his patients was Tojo!) and rancher/horse breeder from Emporia, Kansas, who wrote hundreds of folksy newspaper articles before turning to fiction in the late Eighties. Don was the Indians’ white man: he wrote authoritatively about their lives on the Great Plains from their point of view. That represented a sea change in frontier fiction, for Don’s depiction of the hypnotic cadences of their speech (rendered in English, but you absolutely believed it) and the proud serenity of their culture has a soothing, not warring, effect on the reader. It’s a simply stated portrait of complex people, but once you get hooked, you just can’t let go. Don’s most famous work is the multivolume, multigenerational “Spanish Bit Saga,” which begins before any of his fictional tribe has ever seen an “elk-dog,” their wonder-full term for a horse. It was through Don that I got to know Harlan Ellison, one of my longstanding literary idols; while I was still working in the publisher’s office, I found out he was a big fan, so I made sure Harlan got his own copy of every Spanish Bit book we did. Once I became Don’s editor, they started to arrive inscribed. Harlan doesn’t forget favors like that, and he has returned the kindness many times over: that’s probably why I got to visit Ellison Wonderland on my next L.A. trip.
Here’s how sweet Don was. When he saw the galley proofs for Don’s first novel, Greg Tobin realized the typesetter had made an embarrassing mistake, and the “running heads” (the lines that appear at the top of most two-page spreads, usually the author’s name on one page and the title on the other) read, “Dan Coldsmith.” Greg decided to have a little fun. Though the error was actually fixable with a single keystroke, Greg phoned Don to say that it would cost so much to change it on 200 or so different pages that his bosses had elected to do something cheaper and just change the author’s name on the title page and the cover: he was now “Dan Coldsmith”! As Greg tells it, there was a pause while Don considered the situation, and then he said, “Okay, I guess, if you really have to.” Friends, do you not just love this man already?
While I was reading my first real manuscripts (i.e., the ones I already owned — they’re waiting for contractually-agreed decisions and the clocks are all fricking ticking), I was also having lunch with agents. That’s one of the perks of an editing job, which doesn’t pay all that much compared to other forms of “show business.” At least it used to be: I’ve heard that some belt-trimming houses have asked their editors to dial it back from full-blown meals to drinks dates. You read that right: the editor pays. It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it, since I’m actually the customer, but that’s how the game works. After my first agent lunch, I came back to the office and said, “Lou! You won’t believe what this cheapskate did! We were both sitting there staring at the check, and I finally had to pick it up myself!” He basically said, sit down, Grasshopper. I guess the thinking is that we’re dependent on competent agents for a steady flow of well-fitting submissions (the worst question you can be asked in an editorial meeting is, “Why didn’t we see that?”), and the big corporate publisher has a larger expense account than the poor struggling agent. (Can you smell what Tennessee Williams termed “the powerful and noxious odor of mendacity”?) At any rate, in-person (or phonely; I did business with some agents for years, even a few based in New York, without ever meeting them) two-way communication saves a lot of otherwise wasted time. It’s all subjective, and the better an agent knows you, the more appropriate hisser submissions will be. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but a near-miss is much better than something that never should have hit your desk in the first place, which reflects poorly on the agent and is definitely remembered. Smart agents can suss you out simply on the basis of the past books you’ve done, but at this point I was an utter tabula rasa, thus, it’s lunchtime!
Authors sometimes wound up in New York, and sometimes they’d have bashes thrown for them. We hosted individuals like “Freddy” Forsyth, whom I got to meet at a Bantam conference-room reception (we’d already realized, even that early, that “launch parties” at trendy downtown venues didn’t sell a single goddam book). Bob Pirsig, reclusive author of ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, a freakin’ textbook in my earlier college daze. Cathy Guisewite, the charming creator of the comic strip CATHY. Tom Robbins, another personal hero from way back. These and a few others had one thing in common: they’d each sold, or were about to sell, a decagodzillion books for Bantam.
I noticed that few of my guys (and gals: another burgeoning trend was frontier novels written about and by women – not romances, but more like the stuff the boys were writing) made it to the Apple. So I asked Lou to let me go to them. I made two sweeping trips out West (working on manuscripts all the time, as Lou demanded as penance) to see the background for myself. I went from town to town, even staying in my authors’ homes if they could accommodate me. Several of them had never seen an editor before.
I went to Tennessee to visit Cameron Judd (if you have a name like that, you’d better be writing frontier novels, my friend!). He was a veteran newspaperman, just like me. I adored meeting him face to face. Cameron had whispered to me that his wife, a lovely and genial hostess, didn’t particularly care for frontier fiction, so the next morning, I made sure to ask Rhonda how she thought the new novel was coming along. Cameron almost spit coffee through his nose before I let her off the hook; Greg Tobin’s playful influence dies slowly. I went to Talequah, Oklahoma, the end of the Trail of Tears and home of the Cherokee Nation, to hang with Robert Conley, the best Cherokee author/poet I have ever read (when he told me on the phone about the agony of walking through crowded Manhattan streets, hiding behind his agent’s coat and just wishing he could go home, that’s what gave me the idea of going out to them). I found myself sitting in a circle with a bunch of Cherokee. (One of ‘em later turned me on to Barenaked Ladies!) They pulled out some smokin’ weed (perfectly legal, don’t get me wrong) and handed me the pipe. “No thanks, I’ve quit smokin’.” “Tom,” replied Robert’s pal, “when an Indian offers a pipe to a white man, the answer should always be, ‘thank you,’ and you should take it and [bleeping] smoke it.” Har har har all around, but it truly is a matter of honor, of courtesy, so heck, I did it. By the way, the Indians I met don’t use that word much – you were more likely to hear “Cherokee” – but they hate the term “native American”: it was invented by pointy-headed, politically-correct sissies. Keep in mind, though, I was in freakin’ Oklahoma.
You could meet most of the rest of them with one trip per year: the annual summer “ronnyvoo” of the Western Writers of America. This is the one pro writers’ group with the most stringent membership requirements; check ‘em out and you’ll see. I’ve attended lots of conventions for science fiction, fantasy and horror writers in my time, but never have I been more warmly welcomed than at the WWA. Not just because I was the Bantam guy (I kinda paid for that by enduring earfuls from several tiresome Louis-haters), but when I noted that five or six people had already come up to me and asked if I was having a good time, the response was, “we do that for everybody. Every face we don’t know.” On the convention’s last day, certain folks would walk around and whisper conspiratorially, “Campfire. 233.” That meant that key members were about to gather in room 233, and one by one, they’d tell stories, recite poetry, sing songs, and share a virtual campfire. My fellow editors Gary Goldstein and Doug Grad performed a perfect Laurel & Hardy “Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Boy, did it feel good. A British writer who’d never been to America once wrote a novel in which he described coyotes soaring majestically over the plains. Ever since that colossal goof, veteran Western pros say goodbye to each other this way: “Don’t let your ky-otes fly!” If you’re WWA, that’s how I say ‘bye too.
Don Coldsmith was there at WWA, but I made a special trip to see him and his wonderful wife Eddie in his beloved Kansas “tallgrass” country. Don said the devil had bought a bunch of real estate in Emporia, and when one of his minions asked him why, he just smiled and said, “Location.” As the Coldsmiths drove me through the gorgeous, untouched plains, it was easy to imagine the scene a century or more earlier. I’d never understood how Indians could sneak up on a wagon train in the middle of nowhere until I beheld the graceful undulations of that beautiful landscape. And, of course, I went to Billings, Montana, for a couple of days with my man Terry C. Johnston. I watched the Al Gore/Ross Perot NAFTA debate (remember the “giant sucking sound”?) sitting with my author at his house. Terry sometimes affected a Buffalo Bill look, just perfect for him, and one night, while he was grilling “buffler” steaks for us outside, I asked him if he thought he’d been born in the wrong time. Nope, said the former roustabout and car salesman, I like my creature comforts. I just want to memorialize the people who handed ‘em to me. Terry was driving me through Big Sky country one day when a state trooper stopped us for speeding. I’d already noticed that my author carried a carton full of paperbacks in his back seat, and I was about to find out why. Fifteen or so minutes later, the last words we heard from the trooper, his arms now full of autographed books, were, “Take care now, Terry,” and there was no ticket to be seen. “You just gave that trooper a buncha free books!” He looked over at me and grinned. “That was an investment, Tom. Now I have another reader for life.” Besides, I thought, as Terry chose not to remind me: no ticket.
It’s my sad duty to inform you that Don Coldsmith suffered a stroke just after the 2009 WWA in Oklahoma City, and passed away less than a week later. Long before that, I edited Terry Johnston’s three Titus Bass “prequel” novels, then in 1997 I moved to another publishing company (after the events I will describe in Parts III and IV). It turned out that the very last book I edited at Bantam, CRACK IN THE SKY, was by the same author who wrote my very first. (For even more satisfying closure, it ends at the precise moment that CARRY THE WIND, the novel which had so impressed me years before, begins.) Terry once told a reporter that when he finally killed off Titus, he didn’t think he’d have much longer himself (Isaac Asimov said the same thing about Hari Seldon, the central character in his Foundation books), and that’s pretty much what happened. After completing the final Titus Bass novels, Terry succumbed to colon cancer, way too young, in 2001, but not before meeting and marrying his beautiful Vanette. My mom taught me never to brag, so I hope you don’t think I’m doing so now, but I want to share something of Terry’s. His agent faxed it over to me the week I was leaving Bantam. It’s the dedication page for CRACK IN THE SKY:
For all that he has
done to boost my career over the years –
for all that his friendship has come to mean to me
while we’ve ridden this wild frontier
of the publishing world together,
this tale of Titus Bass is
dedicated with deep admiration to
Still think an editor can’t cry?
To the memory of my colleagues and dear friends Don and Terry:
boys, don’t let yer ky-otes fly!
1/24/15: I wish Don could have lived long enough to see this exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. How much fun it would have been to walk through it together and have him instruct the docent, in his polite but authoritative way.