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 WESTERN SERIESWhile writing two Western novels in the LONG RIDER series for Berkley circa 1986, I was enjoying myself so much, I felt a burning desire to create and write my very own Western series.
What would it be? The Old West offered unlimited dramatic possibilities. First I needed to come up with a character, then plots would follow. Who exactly was he? What would be the name of his game?
According to my research, the Old West was populated with many types seeking new opportunities on the great American frontier. Some were criminals running from police back east, others were farmers wanting inexpensive land, many entrepreneurs planned to start businesses, a great number of Civil War veterans hoped to forget the bloody mess they had survived, and innumerable adventurous types were searching for excitement which was plentiful in the new land, perhaps too plentiful.
After weighing various choices, I finally decided that my main character would be some kind of Civil War veteran, and the series would begin shortly after the end of that titanic struggle.
What side had he fought on? Gradually I was drawn to the notion of a Confederate cavalry officer who’d lost everything in the war and hoped for a new life on the frontier.
Why a Confederate instead of a Union officer? Perhaps because I often felt like I too was on the losing side of a war, in my case my war to achieve financial stability as a freelance novelist.
I perceived my ex-Confederate officer as a tragically romantic figure, something of an intellectual, emotionally sensitive beneath his rugged exterior, but whenever there was violence in his vicinity, as so often happened on the frontier, the old war craziness came over him and he became quite dangerous.
So who would he be already? I had to get specific and make a final decision.
I really can’t explain point by point how the creative process works inside my skull, but visions or hallucinations play a part. I was starting to visualize a big guy in his late twenties, around six-foot-four, broad shoulders, flat stomach, wearing a beat-up old Confederate calvary officer’s wide brimmed hat, walking into a frontier saloon in the first paragraph of the first page of the first novel.
What was his backstory? Because he needed a backstory in order for me to see him as a fully realized flesh and blood human being. Details of the backstory might not appear in any of the novels, but his backstory was necessary for my own understanding of him.
Gradually the pieces fell into place. I imagined that his father had owned a vast plantation in South Carolina with many slaves, but my protagonist never was involved with day-to-day management, never bought or sold slaves, never worked as an overseer, never raped slave women.
Instead he had been just another frivolous young Southern aristocrat who spent most of his time riding and racing horses, hunting on horseback, fishing, gambling, going to balls at opulent mansions, playing sports, attending a succession of private schools, and occasionally drinking more than was good for him.
Like many other Southerners including Robert E. Lee, he was troubled by the “peculiar institution” of slavery but couldn’t imagine how he personally could change anything, so preferred to look the other way toward his pleasures, devotion to his family, his love life, and his ambition to attend West Point.
Not everyone is a militant. Not everyone is an activist. Many dislike and avoid politics. He was one of them.
What was his name? Because names of protagonists are important. They’ve got to have a certain ring. I thought of many possibilities but had to choose one.
Somehow an old song by the Beach Boys was echoing through the tunnels of my mind at that time. It contained the lyrics:
Sheriff John Stone
Why don’t you leave me alone?
That’s it, I thought. I’ll call him John Stone.
I didn’t want him wandering the frontier aimlessly like a bum. I wanted his life to have purpose and meaning. What more than anything else gives men purpose and meaning?
I knew this for a fact personally because at that time I’d recently been involved with a young lady named Marie. After four years together we broke up for the same reason most couples break up - we became increasingly incompatible. But I think we really loved each other underneath it all. As I look back, I believe that no one ever loved me like Marie and I guess she was the great love of my life.
She left NYC and went West after we broke up. I missed her very much while I was planning my new Western series. She was in my heart and mind so often, she became part of the series.
I reinvented her as a young lady also named Marie who grew up on a nearby plantation. She and John Stone had known each other virtually all their lives and loved each other most of that time. It was taken for granted by them and their families that they would marry after John graduated from West Point. Their future appeared lovely except for one big problem: the impending crisis that became the Civil War.
John was in his last year at West Point when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter. Like many West Pointers he had conflicting loyalties. His close friend and classmate George Armstrong Custer from Michigan stayed with the Union Army, but John remained loyal to South Carolina. He simply could not go to war against his native land, and felt morally compelled to defend fellow South Carolinians from the coming Northern invasion, despite misgivings about slavery.
He returned home and enlisted in the Hampton Legion, a cavalry unit formed by Wade Hampton also from South Carolina, one of the wealthiest plantation owners in the South whom John Stone and his family knew personally. The Hampton Legion later became the Hampton Brigade.
Lieutenant John Stone became Captain John Stone during what Southerners called “The War of Northern Aggression”. He fought in the bloodiest battles of that great national conflict, numerous friends had been killed, he had been painfully wounded on several occasions, carried scars all over his body, and it was all for nought. The surrender totally demoralized him but the worst was yet to come.
He returned home after mustering out, and discovered that his parents had died recently, the plantation mansion burned to the ground, fields devastated. To make matters worse, if possibly there could be something worse: the family plantation has been deeply in debt and reclaimed by the bank. He had no money to speak of and no idea of what to do with himself.
What about Marie? She had disappeared. John was told she went west with a Union officer. John couldn’t believe Marie went anywhere with a Union officer. With nothing better to do, he went West to search for her. All he had was his Army horse, his Army revolver, his old Confederate cavalry officer’s hat, his love for Marie, and an old Daguerrotype of her which he will show people along the way, asking if they’ve seen her.
John Stone arrives in a Kansas town on the first page of the first novel in the series. Parts of his backstory will be told from time to time in memories, flashbacks and my exposition inserted whenever necessary as he journeys deeper into the wild frontier. Wherever he goes, he inquires about Marie and shows the Daguerrotype of her.
Sometimes unprincipled people purposely send him on wild goose chases for the hell of it. Others honestly believe they’ve seen Marie but are mistaken. John meets a rancher’s wife who looks just like her, and becomes disappointed again.
Working at odd jobs to support himself, he even becomes sheriff of a small town for awhile, works as a cowboy for a spell and rides the drag on a cattle drive from Texas to Kansas. Wherever he is, whatever he does, he’s always searching for the great love of his life. Sometimes he gets discouraged but never gives up. Naturally the series includes lots of gunfights, fistfights, knife fights and other action because the Wild West was not a peaceful place. John Stone even runs into his old friend George Armstrong Custer in an Army fort way out there on the frontier.
I decided to call my new Western series SEARCHER because it seemed the most accurate title. I was aware of the movie THE SEARCHERS starring John Wayne, which I had seen and enjoyed, but my series was so different, I didn’t think there’d be confusion between the two.
My literary agent Barbara Lowenstein sold my SEARCHER concept to Charter Diamond. My editor became Tom Colgan who seemed to really like the series. Eventually it became twelve novels by Josh Edwards. I became very emotionally involved with SEARCHER and was exceedingly disappointed when the final contract wasn’t renewed. I wanted to keep going for many more novels but the party suddenly was over.
The original twelve novels have been republished as ebooks by Piccadilly under my real name, Len Levinson, and presently available from Amazon.
SEARCHER was not the end of my Western literary career. I was too enchanted with the Old West to let that to happen. I wanted to invent another Western series that perhaps would gain a wider audience than SEARCHER. What would it be? For the answer to this intriguing and provocative question, stay tuned.