Larry Sweazy has written numerous Western novels. His titles include The Scorpion Trail, The Badger’s Revenge and The Cougar’s Prey. His first mystery novel The Devil’s Bones was published in March 2012. Larry met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about the American frontier and notions of justice.
You’ve written a few Westerns. How much do you think the idea of the frontier still applies to the American psyche?
The westward expansion was the only migration of its kind. So it’s an origin story, and as with most origin stories, ours does not sit squarely on the surface of everyday recognition. Noted Western author, Jory Sherman, puts it this way: “The West is like the Garden of Eden, a memory now embedded forever in our DNA. We, who write of the West, serve as memory keepers who pass along our indelible heritage to future generations as did the storytellers of old.”
The spirit of the West lives exists in our daily attitudes as we, as Americans, look to continually to expand our freedom, even at great personal cost. I think Westerns, and the ideas of the West, of starting over, of forging on in search of new opportunities, of reinventing one’s self, are still highly relevant in the modern world. Of course, there’s a dark side to the westward expansion, and I think that should be explored, and faced with honesty, as well. A society cannot grow unless it faces the sins of the past–and that, too, makes the frontier, and all that came with the pursuit of it–relevant.
Revenge is a key theme in Westerns. Do you think revenge is lawless justice?
I think our perception of justice is much different now than it was 130 years ago. Trials were often held in the matter of a day, with an hanging following the next day–or the same day–if it came to that. Revenge, however, hasn’t changed all that much. Revenge can be a motivation for a crime, and justice may have nothing to do with a legal outcome, so unless there’s a specific case, I think I’d be remiss in passing judgement, or giving you a yes or no answer. Do I use revenge as a plot device in my westerns and mysteries? Absolutely.
Do you think Zane Grey’s Riders Of The Purple Sage is still a classic? And if so why?
Honestly, I’ve never read it so I couldn’t really say. Zane Grey is certainly a most often the name associated with classic westerns. But writing, and books, were different when he was at his height as a writer than they are now. Our visual libraries are different. They’re much deeper than the readers of the early 20th Century. Writers like Grey are are often criticized for “purple prose” but I think that assessment is wrong. He was writing for his audience of his time. He was describing landscapes and people in deep detail because they didn’t have the details from TV or the movies to fill in their imagination like we do.
Do you think Star Trek is a sci fi Western?
Yes. Gene Roddenberry actually pitched Star Trek as a Wagon Train in space. Science Fiction is a natural companion to westerns, considering space is “the final frontier.”
Tell us about your latest thriller The Devil’s Bones.
The Devil’s Bones takes place in the tomato fields of Indiana, and the town that sits in the middle of them. Indiana is the third largest producer of tomatoes in the country, and the fictional town, Dukaine, is also home to one of the tomato canneries in the state.
The story starts out with the abduction of an eight year old boy, and spans 19 years into the future when a small skeleton is exposed in pond after a long drought. Everyone in town thinks the skeleton belongs to the boy who disappeared, Tito Cordova, who was half-white, half-Mexican. The marshal of the town is drawn to the pond by a note, and is shot, after he discovers the bones. His deputy, Jordan McManus, is with him, and becomes a suspect in the shooting. To clear himself, and find out what really happened to Tito Cordova, Jordan is forced to dig into the past of the town, and his own family, to clear himself. There are plenty of people with reason to stop Jordan, and keep the past hidden.
Is there a particular incident that has changed your life and influenced your writing?
When I was 37 I had a four inch blood clot in my right arm. The doctor said we had three possible outcomes–kind of like the old Let’s Make a Deal show, I had three doors to pick from. Door number one: They dissolve the clot, and I go back to my normal life. Door number two: The clot goes to my brain and I live with diminished capacities. Door number three: I die.
Happily, I got door number one, and after a long year of recovery, I realized that I didn’t have an infinite amount of time to try and make my dream of being a published writer come true.
Who are your literary influences?
It’s a broad range, I think. A.B. Guthrie, Jack London, Jack Schaefer are pretty obvious influences. But you could add Pablo Neruda, William Carlos Williams, and Raymond Chandler to the list of writers no longer with us who I admire and study. Currently, Loren D. Estleman is an influence. Stephen King, too, for the sheer force his career and output. And you can add to that list Dennis Lehane, James Lee Burke, and Joe R. Lansdale.
James Lee Burke writes great Southern Gothic. Do you see anything of the Western in his writing?
I think a lot of modern mysteries reflect western attitudes and sensibilities. This is not an original quote, I don’t remember who said it but, “the only difference between a PI and a gunslinger is that the PI drives a mustang and the gunslinger rides one.” Current thrillers with the lone wolf hero, I’m thinking of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, could also be western figures or gunfighters. So, really, I don’t think there’s any escaping the influence that the western has had on mystery fiction, or science fiction, or any of the other genres. I said this recently and it applies here. Westerns are very much like jazz: It is the only literary genre that America can truly claim as its own.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up on The Gila Wars, the sixth novel in the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Rangers series. It will be out May, 2013.
Do you mind being pigeon-holed as a western writer or mystery writer?
It never occurred to me that I was ever anything other than a writer until I started publishing. It never ceases to amaze me that publishers believe that a western writer can’t write anything other than westerns. I realize it makes it easy for them to fill a slot, but most of the writers I know and admire, can easily navigate between two or three genres. A.B. Guthrie wasn’t a western writer, he was a writer. Readers come to expect a writer to stay within a genre, too, and I also understand that. But as an artist, as a writer, I think it serves the reading public, and publishers, well if the writer is willing to takes chances with their work. That’s what The Devil’s Bones was for me. A chance. And the end of a journey. I wrote that novel before I ever sold my first western.
Thank you Larry for an informative and balanced interview.
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