LEN LEVINSONLen Levinson is a master wordslinger. He is the blazing typewriter behind 86 of the best paperback original novels in the men's adventure/western genre to be written during the '80s and '90s. Two of his men's adventure series, The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards are considered by many as the best of the best in the genre. They are currently available as ebooks, but the original paperback editions are highly sought after by collectors. Len also wrote more than a few Westerns. Recently, he has been sharing the stories behind the writing of his most popular Western novels, which he has granted permission to be shared here on the Six-Gun Justice Podcast blog...
MY FIRST WESTERNIn 1985, after I completed the 16th novel in my THE RAT BASTARDS World War Two series by pseudonym John Mackie, published by Jove, the contract was not renewed presumably due to dismal sales. That rejection bothered me but more important than feelings and vanity, the rejection severely impacted my finances because I had no source of income other than writing novels.
Obviously I needed a sit-down with my literary agent Barbara Lowenstein ASAP. Her office at that time was on West 57th Street near Broadway. I lived a short distance away on West 55th Street between 8th & 9th Avenues in the neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen.
For the sake of context, I should mention that THE RAT BASTARDS was not my first World War Two action series. My previous series, THE SERGEANT, consisting of nine novels by Gordon Davis, also was a World War Two action series. Prior to THE SERGEANT, I wrote one standalone World War Two action novel called DOOM PLATOON by Richard Gallagher. So I had written a total of 26 land-based World War Two novels and was feeling kind of shell-shocked when finally I sat in front of Barbara’s desk.
Barbara was and remains a no-nonsense business executive. She probably was in her 30s at that time, petite, always perfectly dressed and groomed, correct posture; I never saw her slouching in a chair. After initial hello’s and how are you’s, she asked the most important no-nonsense question: “What do you want to do next?”
I told her that I didn’t know, but would rather not write more war novels.
She thought for a few moments, then said, “Would you be interested in writing Westerns?”
A desperate writer cannot be choosy so you know very well my response: “Yes.”
She replied with something like, “I’ll see what I can do.”
I walked home and resumed work on one of the standalone novels that I hoped would propel me to the very forefront of American literature, possibly becoming a best-seller, even winning the National Book Award. All eventually were published but none ever propelled me anywhere.
A short while after our meeting, Barbara called to say she had negotiated a contract for me to write two Western novels in the LONG RIDER series by Clay Dawson, to be published by Charter, a subsidiary of Berkley.
Thus did I become a Western writer although I lived in Manhattan, never rode a horse, never fired a six gun or owned a cowboy hat.
But I was not totally ignorant about the Old West because I loved Western movies, TV shows and novels since my earliest years.
Again for the sake of context I should mention that I was born in 1935, grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and usually went to the movies with my friends at least once per week. We watched “B” Westerns starring Hopalong Cassidy, Johnny Mack Brown, Sunset Carson, Lash Larue, Wild Bill Elliott and others.
As I grew older I saw many “A” Westerns starring the likes of John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, etc., including Westerns directed by the great John Ford.
Also during my early impressionable years I read Zane Gray, Frank Gruber, Max Brand, Ernest Haycox, and several other writers, including a series that I especially liked as a teenager, THE BAR 20 BOYS by Clarence Mulford, which introduced the character of Hopalong Cassidy. One of my all time favorite songs was and remains GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY. I still remember most of the words and can sing it upon request but never receive requests, which probably is a good thing.
I was given a copy of the concept for the LONG RIDER series but no plot outlines. I’d need to invent my own plots. That was fine with me. I’d rather write my own plots than try to follow someone else’s.
After studying and thinking about the concept, I sat down to write. The main character’s name was Gabe Conrad. In my imagination he was entering a hotel room at night. Naturally he needed to turn on the light. WAIT A MINUTE! Exactly what kind of light did he turn on? Did he light a candle with a match? Were there matches in those days? Did he light a kerosene lamp? Whale oil lamp? Certainly no electricity was available in a small frontier town circa 1870. Was there wallpaper in the room? A wash basin and pitcher full of water? What kind of gun did he carry? How did it work?
I realized to my dismay that I actually knew very few specifics about the Old West, therefore could not write about it with any degree of authenticity. What to do? The obvious solution was one of my favorite activities: research.
Every morning thereafter for about a month I walked to the public library on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, climbed marble stairs to massive room 315, which was the main reading room, requested and read historical works about the Old West, some quite rare. I lunched in the neighborhood, returned to the library until dinner time, then walked home.
While sitting in room 315 with college students, other types of researchers, guys reading racing newspapers, mentally disturbed stinky homeless individuals mumbling to themselves, and other scholars, I soon realized that many men in the Old West were Civil War veterans, so I needed to study the Civil War in greater depth if I wanted to understand them. But in order to understand the Civil War, I needed to study the Mexican War. And in order to understand the Mexican War I needed to study the War of 1812.
I finally accepted that in order to fully understand the Old West, I needed to go back to the American Revolution and understand how America came to be and what were its underlying assumptions. I was becoming increasingly aware that Westerns actually were historical novels. I couldn’t just wing it, because people who read westerns understood the territory and would spot errors instantly.
Thus began my love affair with American history which continues to this day. Some of those books that I read were really fascinating. I think my favorite was THE TRAIL DRIVERS OF TEXAS by J. Marvin Hunter who interviewed many old cowboys who had worked the cattle drives from Texas to the Kansas railheads, sleeping in the wide open, fighting rustlers, other types of outlaws, hostile Indians, tornados and other obstacles all the way, keeping their herds bunched and pointed north, butchering steers regularly for their diet staple, broiled or stewed meat.
I also especially liked ROUGHING IT by Mark Twain, his memoir of living in a Nevada mining town after the Civil War, and consisting mostly of amusing and sometimes even hilarious anecdotes about all the gold-crazed lunatics, swindlers and insane situations that he encountered there. I considered ROUGHING IT much better than HUCKLEBERRY FINN and TOM SAWYER. It inspired me to set my first LONG RIDER novel in a gold mining town.
I also read many other classics of Western history, and many Western novels. My favorite Western author became Louis Lamour whose characters had toughness, roughness and a sense of honor that I hoped to emulate.
Tribal people then known as Indians were part of the Old West, so I needed to study them also. I wanted in-depth knowledge but didn’t have time to research all Western tribes thoroughly, so decided to focus on just one, the most ferocious of them all, the mighty Apaches, and dig as deep as I could.
In pursuit of this goal, I read many books about Apache culture. The best was AN APACHE LIFEWAY by Morris Opler, an anthropologist from the University of Chicago who lived among the Apaches in the 1920s and 1930s and interviewed many old warriors, or children of old warriors who had fought under the leadership of Mangus Coloradas, Victorio, Cochise and Geronimo. Opler detailed much authoritative info about Apaches from birth to death, and was indispensable to my research.
Geronimo’s autobiography also was immensely useful. He was a medicine man in addition to warrior chieftain, and provided an insider view of the very strange (to me) Apache religion.
Finally it was time to stop reading and start writing. I decided against my original opening scene of Gabe entering a hotel room at night. Instead he was riding into a gold mining town on a hot summer day. Of course there would be shootouts, punchouts, horses galloping here and there, and all other accouterments of Western novels ,but mainly I needed to tell an interesting story because that was the goal of everything I ever wrote.
Opportunities for drama in Western novels appeared endless. I really enjoyed writing them. I went on to write a total of 26. They were happy days for me. I was riding the range in my imagination, while sitting in my funky Manhattan apartment in Hell’s Kitchen.
During my Western writing career I took several research trips to Western states, visited an Apache reservation in Arizona, hiked to the ruins of Fort Apache, walked the streets of Tombstone, wandered around the Sonoran desert with sandwiches and two canteens full of water in my backpack, bought cowboy shirts and even a cowboy hat.
I really got into writing Western novels. They were a great ride. I’m very glad that necessity forced me to write them. I never would have written any Westerns on my own. The notion never would have occurred to me. Thank goodness for necessity.
One could say accurately that all my 86 published novels were inspired by necessity combined with love of writing stories. In those days I felt confident that I could write virtually anything. And I did.