A Conversation with James Reasoner
Lowestoft Chronicle interview by Nicholas Litchfield (September, 2012)
He is the author of close to 300 novels, some of which have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, as well as over 100 short stories, and every year for the last eight years he’s written more than a million words of fiction …James Reasoner is not just one of the most prolific authors around, he’s also one of the most revered. His crime novels, TEXAS WIND and DUST DEVILS, have both been hailed as classics, the ten-volumes of his acclaimed Civil War Battle Series are noted for their historical accuracy, rich-detail, and excellent pacing, and HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY, the first book in the Gabriel Hunt adventure series, received glowing reviews, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
Despite his success as a writer of mysteries, historical romances, adventure yarns, science fiction, and horror, he’s more familiar to readers as a writer of Westerns—his books usually carrying somebody else’s name! Many of his most popular novels were written under house names such as Tabor Evans, Hank Mitchum, Jon Sharpe, and Dana Fuller Ross.
Recently, Lowestoft Chronicle tracked down James Reasoner, the man with a dozen names, to find out more about his life and his works.
Lowestoft Chronicle (LC): I read somewhere that after graduating from university you did some freelance newspaper work. What sort of articles did you write, and did you consider a career in journalism?
James Reasoner (JR): I wrote a regular movie review column for our local weekly newspaper. I believe it was called “Inside the Movies.” I wrote a few feature articles for the same paper as well, but I don’t recall what they were about. I did the column because I liked movies and I was friends with the editor of the paper, but I never seriously considered making journalism a career.
LC: You’ve said that your professional writing career started in December 1976 with the sale of your first short story. What was the story and what was it about? Was that for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine?
JR: No, my first sale was to a confession magazine, Intimate Story. I had read an article in Writer’s Digest by an author named Bill Pippin who was writing confession stories, and I decided to give it a try. I had never read a confession magazine in my life, but I picked up a few issues, read them, and wrote a story I called “The Voice on the Other End.” It was about a woman plagued by an obscene phone caller. I had no idea if I’d hit the mark or not, but I sent it off to Intimate Story (because the publisher paid on acceptance, not publication), and a few weeks later, on December 27, 1976, there was an envelope in the mail from Ideal Publications, with a check for $167.50 inside it, along with a note saying it was for “The Voice on the Other End.” The story appeared in the April 1977 issue of Intimate Story, anonymously, of course, as all confession stories were published. It had a mystery angle to it, which the editor ruined by changing the title to “Forced to Listen to My Boss’s Dirty Phone Calls!” So much for that plot twist. And to follow this thread to its end, I immediately wrote another confession story, which I called “I Paid My Husband’s Debts With My Body!” (I had learned from having that first story retitled). Intimate Story bought it, too, for $175. I don’t recall when it appeared, but the title was changed to “Housewife Hooker.” With those two sales I thought I had that market nailed. Over the next few months, I wrote at least a dozen more confession stories. Never sold a one of ’em, and they’re all long since lost.
While I was trying to break into the confession market, though, I was still trying to sell mystery stories to Sam Merwin Jr., at Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine [MSMM]. Sam always responded with personal rejections and offered me a lot of great advice. I wrote a police procedural story called “Haven” and sent it to him, and instead of rejecting it, he asked me to make a couple of changes in it. If I did that, he said, he would buy it. Naturally, I started rewriting immediately. Before I could send it back to him, though, he bought another story I had sent him, “Comingor,” without any changes. It was a small-town Texas mystery and appeared in the August 1977 issue of MSMM, the first story under my name. Merwin bought the rewritten “Haven,” too, and it appeared in the October ’77 issue. (Both of these stories are reprinted in OLD TIMES’ SAKE, a collection of my mystery stories published by Ramble House.)
LC: Your first novel, TEXAS WIND, was your first finished novel, and you sold it within a year of starting it. And yet it took almost a year for the book to come out in print, and when it did, it had very limited circulation and the publisher didn’t pay you the agreed sum. What effect did the publishing experience have on you?
JR: It was a little disheartening. I was surprised when the contract came and Manor offered me such a low advance, and then when they didn’t even pay me that, well . . . But it never made me doubt for a second that I could make it as a writer. When the author copies of the book arrived, that lifted my spirits even more. I might not have been paid, but I had written a book, sold it, and now I could hold a copy of that book in my hand. That was plenty to keep me going. Plus, by then, I was ghosting the Mike Shayne stories in MSMM as Brett Halliday, my first regular writing job, so I didn’t have time to get too discouraged. I had a deadline for a 20,000-word Shayne novella every month.
LC: Like a lot of mystery readers, I get excited when I see a Fawcett Gold Medal Books title. What is the story behind the publication of THE EMERALD LAND? This was only your second novel, and as TEXAS WIND was not a success at that point, how did the novel end up as a Fawcett book?
JR: My wife Livia and I decided to try writing a book together, and since historical romances were really popular then, we read a bunch of them and then wrote three chapters and an outline for one. We sent that proposal to an agent who’d been recommended by a writer friend of mine, and she agreed to represent it. I think Fawcett was the first place she sent it, and they bought it from that proposal. We finished it fairly quickly, and it was published under the pseudonym Livia James in 1983. Not a very original pseudonym, but it got the job done. That’s the only time we’ve ever used it. That was during the final days of the Gold Medal imprint. I’ve always been glad I was able to write a book for Gold Medal, even if it wasn’t a hardboiled mystery or a Western like I would have preferred.
LC: Your collaboration with Livia produced two further novels around that time, but on the whole, you’ve described it as a dry period for selling stories. Considering you can turn your hand at all genres of fiction, what made those years so challenging?
JR: Even though our first agent sold THE EMERALD LAND for us, she wound up not being a good fit for us, and we parted ways after a year or so. We tried to sell more novels on our own, but didn’t have any luck at it because we didn’t have enough of a track record and didn’t really have many contacts in the business yet. But we did manage to land a job ghosting a historical romance novel for a well-known author. We got another agent, and he sold a contemporary romance proposal we’d done. We wrote the book and were paid for it, but it was never published. The manuscript may still be in a file cabinet somewhere in New York. If it is, that’s where it needs to stay.
LC: When you approached Lyle Kenyon Engel at Book Creations Inc. (BCI) to hire you as a writer, did you have in mind what book series you wanted to write for him? Your first assignment was an entry to the Stagecoach Station series, but you hadn’t written an actual Western at that point in time. What persuaded him to employ you and assign you to that series?
JR: I saw an ad that Lyle Kenyon Engel had placed in Writer’s Digest looking for writers and took a chance, sending him copies of TEXAS WIND and THE EMERALD LAND. I was familiar with Engel from his involvement with the Nick Carter series (I was a fan of those books) but didn’t really know that much about what his company was producing then. A few weeks later, he actually called me on the phone and said he wanted to sign me to a contract. I suppose he liked what he saw in those books. I wasn’t selling much at the time—some mystery and men’s magazine stories and a couple of ghosted men’s adventure books—so, of course, I was agreeable. He said one of his editors would be in touch with me. That was my only direct contact with Lyle, who was already in poor health and passed away not long after that. A couple of months went by before they had a slot open up in one of their series, which happened to be Stagecoach Station, the only one (I think) that used a rotating stable of writers. I hadn’t written an actual Western, but I’d been reading them practically all my life, so when the editor called, I told him I’d be glad to take a shot at it. (The freelancer’s motto: “Sure, I can write that.”) After reading some of the other books in the series, I wrote an outline and worked with the editor on it (the editors at BCI were always pretty hands-on), got the go-ahead, and wrote the book. They liked it well enough to ask me to do another one right away. I had finished it well before the deadline, but hadn’t sent it in yet, when the editor called and asked me to send him whatever I had so they could get started on it, because another writer had failed to turn in a book and they needed something in a hurry to replace it in the schedule. He was really relieved when I told him I had the whole thing done. After that, they started giving me a lot of work and kept me busy for several years.
LC: You’ve said that every long-running series you’ve worked on, you were a fan first. Are there any characters or series of books you were a big fan of that you didn’t get to work on, but wish you had?
JR: I would have liked to have written one of those Nick Carter books I mentioned above. I wrote a proposal for one—I believe it was called THE MONDRAGO STRIKE, but don’t ask me what it was about—but it didn’t sell. Over in the Western field, for a long time I wished I could have written some of the Raider and Doc books under the J.D. Hardin house-name. Then I was asked to write some of the Longarm Giant Editions, so I revived the original concept of those longer special editions and made them team-up books. I was able to use Raider and Doc in a couple of those and enjoyed getting the chance. I’m sure there are others, but those are a couple that spring to mind.
LC: With almost fifty adventures starring Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long under your belt, you must have written nearly as many as the series creator, Lou Cameron. I confess I haven’t yet read the ones you consider your best (LONGARM AND THE BLOODY RELIC, LONGARM AND THE VOODOO QUEEN and LONGARM AND THE PINE BOX PAYOFF), but I plan to do so shortly. Did you have a favorite among them prior to working on the series? And with the series surpassing the 400 mark, the demand for Longarm is still there, so will you be writing more of these books?
JR: My favorites from among the earlier Longarm novels I’ve read are LONGARM ON THE HUMBOLDT and LONGARM AND THE GOLDEN LADY (both by Harry Whittington), along with LONGARM AND THE WENDIGO (Lou Cameron) and LONGARM AND THE DRAGON HUNTERS (Will C. Knott). But there are plenty of really good ones in the series. I don’t have any plans right now to write more of them because of all the other projects I have lined up, but you never know.
LC: I don’t know if you’re allowed to say, but did you write any of the Slocum books as well?
JR: I wrote one Slocum novel, SLOCUM AND THE TEXAS ROSE. I enjoyed it and would have written more, but the timing never worked out.
LC: Your ten-volume Civil War Battle Series received good reviews from readers and critics alike. Much has been written about the plots and characters, but nothing concerning the back-story to these books. How did the books come about? Did you intend for the saga to span ten volumes? And did you write two volumes per year, or did you begin work on these books long before Cumberland House published the first one?
JR: That series came about because Ed Gorman asked me to write it. Ed was working with book packager Martin Greenberg, and they hatched the idea for a series about a family during the Civil War. I developed it from that point. I think the original plan was for the series to run for eight books, but when the first few novels were successful we decided to expand it by two volumes. I wrote two books per year, as they were being published, and had a great time working on them.
LC: Your crime novels, TEXAS WIND and DUST DEVILS, have earned high accolades and have become cult classics. The ten-volumes of your acclaimed Civil War Battle Series are noted for their historical accuracy, rich-detail, and excellent pacing. The part Western part WWI novel UNDER OUTLAW FLAGS was nominated for the Western Writers of America Golden Spur Award. HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY, your contribution to the Gabriel Hunt adventure series, also received glowing reviews. You’ve managed to achieve huge success across various genres. Which of your books do you feel didn’t received the recognition it deserved?
JR: I wrote a Texas-set private eye novel with Livia called TIE A BLACK RIBBON that I’ve always thought was a wonderful book. Five Star published it in hardback, and I believe there was a large print edition, too. But we had to cut it quite a bit to make it acceptable to Five Star, which sells primarily to libraries, the book didn’t sell well, and the few reviews it got were negative. I don’t care. I still like it a lot and think that people just didn’t get it. There are used copies available on-line if anybody wants to check it out for themselves. I wish the original version of it still existed, but it’s gone, unfortunately.
LC: In terms of commercial success, which of your books are bestsellers? I’ve read that the Dana Fuller Ross books have sold close to 30 million copies, but that includes Mr. Engel’s series entries.
JR: My all-time bestselling book is WESTWARD!, the first book I wrote under the Dana Fuller Ross name and the first book in the Wagons West prequel, The Frontier Trilogy. The other two books in that trilogy also sold very well, better than anything else I’ve done.
LC: I was excited to discover that you contributed a Kolchak tale for Moonstone’s “Casebook” anthology. As a fan of the character, I’ve read a lot of the spin-offs, including the “Chronicles” anthology. Any chance you’ll do another Kolchak?
JR: No, I probably won’t be doing any more Kolchak stories, although I never rule out anything. Except for a few writers, though, Moonstone usually brings in a whole new crop of writers for each anthology. I’ve done four stories for them, I think: Kolchak, The Avenger, The Green Hornet, and The Lone Ranger. Don’t have anything else lined up with them at the moment. They asked me to do a Sherlock Holmes story, but I couldn’t work it into my schedule.
LC: Last year, DIAMONDBACK, written in the Eighties, was published for the first time. Are there many finished unpublished manuscripts in your vaults, and are you tempted to seek publication for them?
JR: Most of my manuscripts were destroyed in a fire that burned down our house and my studio in 2008, but I salvaged several novel proposals (usually about 50 pages plus an outline) that I could finish and publish someday, and I may just do that if I can find the time. DIAMONDBACK exists today only because I had sent copies of the file to some friends of mine to read, and they emailed it back to me after the fire. I have a completed fantasy novel that I was able to salvage the same way, through the kindness of friends, but it would take a lot of rewriting to be in publishable shape and I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.
LC: I enjoyed your recent post-war story “The Greatest Generation” from PROTECTORS: STORIES TO BENEFIT PROTECT. Great dialogue, and I liked the way you handled the subject matter. The fight scene at the end is tremendous—made even better by the handicapped nature of it. Will you be writing more short stories in the near future or are you concentrating on novels?
JR: Thanks for the kind words on “The Greatest Generation.” I liked the way that one came out. I just had another short story published in an e-book anthology called BEAT TO A PULP: SUPERHERO. It’s a Revolutionary War story, but it does have a superhero in it. Another one that was a lot of fun to write. I also have a story in a Western anthology called SIX-GUNS AND SLAY BELLS that will be out at the end of October. This is a Christmas anthology, but all the stories have supernatural or horror elements, as well as being Westerns. Sort of a kitchen sink book!
LC: From your first novel onwards, you’ve had the ability to produce quality fiction very quickly. (You once completed a 57,000-word story in just 7½ days!) Having written more than 280 books and dozens of short stories, has there ever been a period in your life when you’ve experienced writer’s block or a loss of enthusiasm?
JR: Early on, before I ever sold anything, I certainly had doubts, and then when I had trouble selling anything in the early Eighties, my confidence definitely took a hit. But I never stopped writing. Now I have what I call slumps, where I’m still producing a decent amount of work, just not at the pace I usually do. I think they’re due to sheer mental fatigue as much as anything. This will be the eighth year in a row I’ve written at least a million words of fiction, and that starts to take a toll on the brain after a while. But I keep plugging away at it, and after a few weeks I get a second wind and start producing pages at a normal rate again. I never suffer a loss of enthusiasm. There’s still too much I want to write!
About the Author
James Reasoner has been a professional writer for over thirty years. He lives in a small town in Texas with his wife, award-winning fellow author Livia J. Washburn.
About the Interviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of Lowestoft Chronicle.