The Six-Gun Justice Podcast blog is delighted to saddle up and ride along with top western wordslinger Robert Vardeman for a quick interview along the trail...
SIX-GUN JUSTICE: Your bio at Wikipedia calls you a science fiction writer, but you’ve written in a variety of genres. The first time I saw your name was back in 1982 when I read The Klingon Gambit, a Star Trek novel you wrote. Since then, you’ve penned a good many books, including almost 200 westerns under various pen names. What’s your history with westerns?
ROBERT VARDEMAN: This may seem odd but I've never read my bio on Wikipedia (and don't think I'll start now–their accuracy on people and things I know isn't very good. Why add frustration to my already hectic world where secondary sources trump primary ones?) The way I got into westerns was a little backwards. When I lived in El Paso as a kid, I read sf and mysteries till my eyes blurred. It took only a couple weeks for me to get through all the kiddie titles at a really good Carnegie grant library. The librarian realized my mother was more inclined to read Zane Grey and J Frank Dobie than Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein (my mother would check out the "adult" books for me) So the librarian issued me an adult card with the strict instructions to check out only sf. Hog heaven! But somewhere along the way I wondered about that Zane Grey fellow and all the books he'd done.
Jump forward to 1983 or so. I had switched agents and my new one asked if I was interested in writing westerns since a slot on the Jake Logan series had come open. My western reading was limited to Zane Grey and Max Brand but, hey, Leigh Brackett wrote westerns and I loved her as a fantasy and science fiction writer. I wrote Slocum And The Hatchet Men, liked it and the editor did, too, so I was offered a couple more. I read more and found several sf writers also did westerns, so felt in good company. Westerns also paid a *lot* better in those halcyon days. My advance for the first one in 1983 was three times what I got for the final one in 2014, when I got to do the series finale, Slocum And The Silver Burden. I averaged about every 4th title in that span.
I branched out and did some epic westerns around 1990, based on real events (with the protagonist my invention). These were in the 150,000 word range and I put them under a pen name, Karl Lassiter (Zane Grey influence there, just a little). Later for another publisher I did more traditional westerns. They didn't want me using the Lassiter name so I invented Jackson Lowry, a name I still use. (Karl got retired about 20 years ago).
SGJ: One of your most recent works is The Tin Star, an entry in the Ralph Compton Western series under the name Jackson Lowry. How did your ideas evolve for The Tin Star? Did you have an outline or notes to work with, or did the story come full blown from your imagination?
RV: I was approached to do some titles under the Ralph Compton banner and was given free rein to suggest stories. The books didn't require me to mimic (or emulate or copy or whatever word you like) Compton's style, which suited me just fine. I proposed four titles, they chose three and I was off to the races. The Tin Star combined bits and pieces of a story that has been kicking around in my head for years about a fake lawman. That idea wasn't quite right but I'd read a history of Allan Pinkerton a long time back and details stuck in my head. Mixing it all up, thanks to fading memory and a need to sensationalize, I came up with the skeleton of the plot.
I always work from a complete synopsis, even for short stories. When I'm doodling notes, it doesn't matter where I start, beginning, middle or end. If in the middle I work out in both directions. If I have a nifty ending, it's easy enough to figure out what came just before. Usually a grabber of a first sentence or situation suggests itself and I write the synopsis from that. Tin Star's protagonist gets himself shot up and left for dead. From there, the story of revenge unfolded, with a few twists thrown in along the way because he uses a fake Pinkerton badge after people refuse to talk to him otherwise.
The synopsis is detailed, but only for the character's motivations. The action is put in as I write, which keeps me interested as a writer (and hopefully, works that way for readers, too). In other words, my synopsis gives a lot of what goes on in the character's head and the action might be described only as, say, Sand Creek massacre occurs but hero escapes.
The internet has vastly improved researching. Before, I read the source material, took lots of notes, culled them, did the synopsis and always came smack up against a detail I'd missed. So, write it down, back to library, look it up, back to writing. Now google lets me track down the information I need and I don't have to leave the keyboard.
SGJ: Does your home state of New Mexico inform the setting of your western work?
RV: I did (and still do, though not as much) a lot of travelling. Every time I get back to NM I think, "Home again." There are places I love to visit but NM remains home after almost 60 years. The history is peculiar and exciting and different. Even the state's name is different–most states are derived from Indian names. Our Spanish heritage is foremost (to the extent that we are the only state that has USA on the license plates since most everywhere else thinks we are a foreign country. Really). Rich history from the conquistadores, the various native American tribes, Anglo incursions–NM even has its share of Civil War sites. Longstreet resigned here to join the Confederacy. Sibley and Canby were brothers-in-law (I'm on that side of the debate) and Canby was the only US general killed during the Indian Wars by the Indians. (Yup, wrote about this, too, in Battle Of Lost River). And the aftermath brought in buffalo soldiers. NM has an incredible variety of influences. And poking around for a very long time, I still haven't scratched the surface.
For instance, Ollie Reed (a fine feature writer for the Albuquerque Journal) and I used to drive down together to the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium. He's been about everywhere and done everything in the state as part of his job. Coming back he'd always regale me with stories of White Oaks, NM, and the No Scum Allowed Saloon.
I finally checked it out a few years ago. The bar exists and the town has a fascinating mining history and David Jackson (look him up–what a towering figure he is!) and the center for a huge ranch and refugees from the Lincoln County War—and it's only one small (ghost) town. NM is the site of the silver spike, where the 2nd transcontinental railroad was completed and Trinity and the Stallion Gate and Spaceport America...so much more. I am enthralled by the state.
SGJ: You received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award from Western Fictioneers in 2017. Share with us your history with the organization? You’ve contributed to some of the Wolf Creek stories?
RV: I was one of the charter members of the Western Fictioneers. Unlike most organizations, Western Fictioneers doesn't charge any yearly dues to belong (it does have an initiation fee). To keep the organization going, members contribute a short story to a Western Fictioneers anthology every couple years. (Thanks for taking my The Night the Stars Fell for Under Starry Skies to be published in a couple months). I love this idea since it helps Western Fictioneers members feel a sense of community, plus delivering a whale of a lot of fantastic stories. Early on another money maker for the organization was a series created by Troy Smith.
Wolf Creek was a mythical town populated by a lot of strange residents. Troy would sketch out the chapters and we'd build stories using our own characters around his general plot to create a mosaic novel. My character was Wil Marsh, a truly reprehensible photographer. Troy accepted four stories, of which three were published (the final story was destined for a book that never saw the light of day as the series died a much lamented death).
Wil Marsh developed a complicated background in my head. He'd throw rocks at one church and leave anonymous donations at another, his money coming from blue photographs and blackmail and even more diabolical doings. There was so much I knew about him that never got into the stories, that I might one day launch him in his own book. I had proposed a novel with a different character, also a photographer, but the editor rejected it because it was too creepy. Years later, even considering what does get printed these days, it might still be too creepy.
To help out, I've been the head judge for the Peacemaker Award once and short story judge three times. This is a bit selfish on my part to get tons of great stories for free and keep up with cutting edge westerns and their writers. But as fun as it is, I am passing the baton to someone else for next year. After all, it's not right I should have all the fun
SGJ: Are you still active In Science Fiction fandom?
RV: I grew up reading sf and became a fan (active in sf fandom) in 1965 while still in high school. I was working my way down a row of old Astounding magazines in a second hand bookstore and ran into a guy working his way in the other direction. Roy Tackett (Horrible Old Roy Tackett–HORT) started the Albuquerque SF Society and I was a charter member. There were four of us and, alas, I am the only surviving one. Roy convinced me the Albuquerque SF Society needed a sf convention. We kicked off Bubonicon in 1969. I was the chairman for three years and named it. That year we had a bubonic plague outbreak and Egypt refused visas to anyone from NM. This struck me as funny and, looking for a name people wouldn't forget, I came up with Bubonicon (now it'd likely be Hantacon, for Hantavirus). I had to fend off bland suggestions like New Mexicon, and did so successfully. At first we picked guests of honor who were up and comers rather than established names. Over the last 40 years this has changed and well established writers (usually two now) are GoHs. Bubonicon 1 had 29 people. The biggest one in recent years has been close to 1000 attendees. We've always drawn fans from all over the world but now it usually requires them to fly in rather than drive.
I've only missed one of the 51 conventions, so in this respect I'm still active in fandom. But I no longer publish a fanzine (fan magazine–I was nominated for a Hugo as best fan writer in 1972) or go to many sf conventions. MileHiCon in Denver is one still on my occasionally attended list and lately have been a regular attendee at Wild Wild West Con in Tucson, a steampunk convention. I regularly autograph at the AZ Renaissance Faire but have drifted away from World Fantasy Convention and others in the sf and fantasy arena.
SGJ: I know you’ve got a steampunk project underway that blends SF and westerns —what can you tell us about Millard Fillmore?
Weird westerns continue to fascinate me. I had a short story in David Boop's Straight Outta Tombstone anthology and have several more weird westerns in anthologies. And The Punished trilogy is a dark western take on more traditional zombies, racism and good old shoot-em-up westerns. About three years ago a longtime friend in California and I came up with the idea of an entire steampunk world set in Monument Valley. Airships and pirates and western characters and about any off the wall situation we could think of. Martin "Bucky" Cameron was a top-flight artist (he'd worked for George Lucas and did video game design–while he worked at Skywalker Ranch, my wife and I got a great tour and even saw Lucas himself).
Bucky said he'd illustrate steampunk stories if I'd write them. We launched off Air Pirates of the Golden West with an incredibly ambitious premise. I was writing a short story a week and we were doing a full length magazine a month. The most improbable steampunk character I could think of was Millard Fillmore. He became Millard Fillmore, Master of Steam trying to find why he was blamed for an explosion that destroyed the White House. The quest led him to Monument Valley where he encountered Virginia Dare (a shady, possibly immortal character and, yes, that Virginia Dare, as she tries to find the meaning of croatoan), a Doc Savage character, Tesla and the guy who discovered superconductivity and samurai and Chinese invaders in monstrous airships, Winston Churchill and luchadores and Millard's robot dog Fulton and a plethora of historical characters you'd likely never heard of. Judge Roy Bean shows up and...it was a lot of fun.
Until Bucky died of a heart attack. We did three issues of the monthly magazine and a couple dozen short stories. I talked to him on a Sunday afternoon and sometime during the night he died. That was a bit more than two years ago. I still miss him and his enthusiasm and wild, unbounded imagination. Somehow, the project wasn't worth continuing without him penning his great illustrations.
Since his death, I've done seven westerns I probably wouldn't have, a few short stories and come up with a new idea that I will launch in a month or two (I'm waiting for a cover blurb from a completely unexpected source but otherwise everything is ready to go). The idea is a new sf universe, space opera, rich and deep with lots of aliens and humans and robots and bad guys. I intend to publish a book a month. To do this I have completed the first three books (other than copy editing), so it won't be as killer as it might appear. The Dust Of Stars will be out for a month when Shatter Time is published, followed by The Crown Joule and Crystal Virus (this one will be written during the three month time the others are being put on sale). These are full length books, ranging from 65k to 105k in length with the bookkeeping of details from book to book most challenging. If this isn't enough to keep me off the streets, I have two more westerns due before October, working titles Trickshot and Flames Of Silver (about firefighters in the Comstock Lode)
There's another potential sf project in there, but it's still in the what if stage with gamers revamping an old RPG from the '90s and wanting a trio of books to launch their line.
It's a good thing I've been locked down for the past few months, only it hasn't been too onerous since the only real change in my lifestyle has been the inability to go to restaurants or movies. Or see friends. (I had just returned from this year's Wild Wild West Con when the lockdown started.)
SGJ: Thanks for visiting with us today, Bob. Anything else you’d like to add?
RV: An unabashed plug since selling stuff is the way I survive.
On Patreon: www.patreon.com/robertevardeman has levels of participation from free posts on writing to paid subscriptions that get you a short story a week or serialized fantasy and science fiction novels for a bit more. Plus you can give me feedback and participate in polls and generally enjoy writing as much as I do.