Monday, January 13, 2014

Ben Bridges, Draw Down the Lightning

Review and interview

For starters, Ben Bridges is the pen name of writer David Whitehead. This year, 2014, marks his 30th as a published writer of western fiction. His first novel, The Silver Trail, featured a character named Carter O’Brien, and it was the start of a series that reached #14 with this one, Draw Down the Lightning

Originally published in 2007 by Robert Hale Ltd., it has now been revived as an ebook and can be read on your kindle. London-born and British enough to have worked for the BBC, Whitehead has an ear and a feel for the genre that are estimable.

Character. His Carter O’Brien is a likable protagonist pushing middle age, his lumpy ears showing signs of having lived a rough and bruising life. He throws a good punch and carries a .38 Colt Lightning, which he uses as needed to discourage villainy on the 1880s frontier.

Given to offering his services to others in trouble, he refers to himself, with amused self-deprecation, as “Old Dependable.” Helping others get out of jams seems to be what he does best. When a sheriff says to him, “A man has to do what he does best and do it as long as he’s able,” O’Brien concurs.

He doesn’t enjoy violence, and after putting a bullet through an assailant, he is likely to feel “quivery” inside. Physical pain doesn’t slow him down—at least not so much that it sidelines him for long. He gets a beating and kicking that leave him unconscious, but in no time he is on a horse and riding off after the villains, broken ribs and all.

O’Brien doesn’t look for trouble. It just naturally seems to find him. The instigator in this novel is a nightmare of a villain. A one-armed bad guy, Grandee is just a mean sonofabitch. He kills his boss, a ranch owner, and steals a herd of “cattlo” (Herefords crossed with bison) from a widow. The herd is nearly priceless because it is the only one around that has not been infected in an outbreak of hoof and mouth. (This detail may carry more weight for readers in Britain, where mass exterminations of herds to stop hoof and mouth have occurred in recent memory.)

The Horse Rustler, William "Buck" Dunton 
Narrative style. The plot elements are standard, which is not to say they aren’t marshaled to the telling of an engaging and entertaining story. In Whitehead’s hands, they seem freshly minted. There’s a tone in the storytelling that has the easy, comfortable fit of a well-worn pair of boots—the ones too good to finally throw away, and you find them along ranch roads turned upside down over fence posts.

In other words, it’s a style that knows its manners, but they are ranch manners that don’t stand on formalities or take themselves too seriously. When a road agent is killed trying to waylay a young traveler, his body gets wrapped up in a “seen-better-days blanket.” That choice of words captures a western attitude of making-do that you don’t often find in the western. Here it is being applied, with the right irony, to the disposal of a corpse.

His characters can be well worn and weathered, as well. One man’s voice is described as sounding like dirt shoveled onto a coffin lid. A deputy is a “tall, undernourished man about thirty years old, whose spare, sallow face was dominated by dark unblinking eyes and a thin, unsmiling mouth.” A sheriff in his 60s is overweight and talks with an easy affability. Like others, he jokes with O’Brien: “Heard tell you found yourself a fat Mexican woman an’ settled down someplace around Nacozari.”

There’s some history underlying the novel’s story, so we know it’s taking place in the actual rather than a mythical Old West. We hear mention of Gen. Crook, Fort Abraham Lincoln, and Indian fighting on the Rosebud in 1876. Everyday details ground the story in a lived-in setting. O’Brien watches as a lamplighter illuminates the gas street lamps of a frontier town, and he notes his hotel room wallpaper, “depicting a series of grapevines upon which perched various birds of plumage.”

At the End of the Day, William "Buck" Dunton, c1915 
Romance. While there are two attractive women in the novel, they first have to overcome a deep distrust of O’Brien. Despite a polite and respectful manner, his chief fault seems to be that he’s male. They are not exactly helpless. One of them actually comes to O’Brien’s rescue when he gets in a tight spot with Grandee and his gang.

Finally saving the women’s herd, he gets not only some respect but ignites a flicker of romantic interest in the widow. Putting herself at his bedside, where he lies recovering from wear and tear, she says she looks forward to nursing him back to health. “Ma’am,” he says, “I never argue with a woman who wants to treat me like a hero.”

Wrapping up. O’Brien is a man you enjoy spending time with. He has strength of character, wits, and both the nerve and the willingness to go after malefactors who deserve a good butt-kicking. David Whitehead has a fine and informative author’s website. There you can read his official biography, and be sure to have a look at his overview of western fiction, which includes British, Australian, and other writers. Draw Down the Lightning is currently available in large print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble. 

David Whitehead

David Whitehead (Ben Bridges) has most generously agreed to spend some time here at BITS to talk about writing and his Carter O’Brien series, so I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

David, talk about how the ideas for your O’Brien novels suggest themselves to you.
Each book starts with the glimmer of what, I hope, is a very original idea, a seemingly impossible job which stacks all the odds against our hero. Sometimes the solution comes first, as it did in Cold Steel, and then all that’s required is to present the problem and add as many obstacles to its satisfactory conclusion as possible. I’m always on the lookout for unusual ideas, little-known facets of the west that can add originality and freshness to a plot.

Does a story come to you all at once or is that a more complex part of the process?
I think all writers develop a knack for recognizing and then expanding upon ideas. The entire premise of Squaw Man suggested itself to me after I read one single, throw-away sentence in a book written by someone else. Cold Steel came from a desire to rewrite history and give the Donner Party a happy ending.

Draw Down the Lightning owed much to a documentary I happened to watch, quite by chance, that was all about divorce. Again, there was just one seemingly throw-away scene in the show that started me thinking. Overall, I would say that the construction of a story is a little like a recipe for a cake. You get all the expected ingredients and then you mix them together in different orders and quantities until you get something much, much different.

Talk a bit about editing and revising. After completing a first draft, does it go through any key changes?
In addition to hopefully presenting a good, original story, I believe it’s also important to adopt an entertaining style and to create a flow to the words that keep the reader turning the pages. I work hard to create that flow, and to use words in an entertaining manner.

Does anything about O’Brien, a story, or its characters surprise you as you are writing?
For sure. When a character takes on a life of his own, he or she will dictate what they do, what they say, how they say it, everything. You can throw any situation at me and I will happily leave it to O’Brien to find a way out of it. I simply cannot believe that he is just a figment of my imagination. He’s as real to me as real can be. And often I’ll deliberately throw an obstacle in the way so that I can see how he deals with it. Input from me is minimal. He does it all.

The Cowpunchers, William "Buck" Dunton
To what extent is your style of storytelling influenced by TV or movie westerns?
I guess there is an attempt to make it as visual, and as visually exciting as I can. I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that reading a story was like watching a film being shown on the movie screen of your mind. As a writer, you need to present the story in such a way that the reader can see it all, feel the heat, or the cold, or the fear, the tension of fighting for survival. If you can’t bring that to the reader, he or she will never care about what happens next.

Are you ever thinking of any other writers while you have been writing the series?
Not really, but there have inevitably been some writers who have influenced me more than others, principally Ben Haas, who wrote westerns as John Benteen, Thorne Douglas, Ben Elliott and Richard Meade. I remember reading him for the first time and realizing that this was the way westerns should be written, with believable and yet larger-than-life characters, realistic historical settings and attention to history.

How has O’Brien evolved for you as a character?
It seems hard to believe it now, but I originally intended him to be a boozy, fun-loving, doesn’t-give-a-damn character who fell into one scrape after another just because it was something to do between hangovers. But from the moment I put him on the page, he became his own man, and there was nothing I could do about it.

So he became a man who did give a damn, who liked a drink but was way too professional ever to drink whilst on a job. Essentially, he was a hero, someone we all wish we could know, who will never betray our trust and never break his word. He’s tough, determined, he has compassion and humor. But he’s not a superman. When he gets hit, it hurts. It’s like the title of the book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.

Where do the O’Brien stories take place?
There's never any set location - O'Brien goes wherever the work is. So in one book he'll be in Arizona, while in another it'll be Alaska. One minute it's Montana, the next it's deep inside Mexico.

Does the series get fan mail?
Not to any large extent, but the reviews, of which there are now a great many, almost all sing O’Brien’s praises. That’s something else that helps, I think – he’s a likeable guy.

Has O’Brien ever had a romance?
The closest he came was in a book called Gunsmoke is Grey, and I was surprised by the reaction of the readers, all of whom were so disappointed when it didn’t happen.

Open Range, William "Buck" Dunton
What about the series has given you the most pleasure to write?
As corny as it sounds, just the sheer pleasure of renewing acquaintance with this man who has now been with me for the last three decades, and knowing that the readers will share that pleasure in seeing me put him through his paces again.

If O’Brien were to find himself on screen in a movie or TV series, who would you like to see in the role?
Tom Selleck would have been good, or Sam Elliott. Scott Glenn, back in the day. Anyone with a bit of bark on him, really.

Does Ben Bridges have a persona that’s different from the other authors whose names you write under?
Well, everything now comes out under the Ben Bridges name, but certainly Ben had a tougher, more action-oriented style than, say, Glenn Lockwood, whose westerns were more about ordinary folks caught up in extraordinary situations.

Will large print westerns continue for long with access to e-readers that allow users to adjust font size?
I think so. Western readers, by their very nature, are traditionalists. I think for a great many readers, especially here in the UK, and predominantly among the older generation, the ritual of getting out of the house, of visiting the library and selecting half a dozen westerns is as pleasurable as settling back and actually reading them when they get back home. It’s all part of the experience. Younger readers are less resistant to change, but right now it’s older readers who make up the majority of western fans.

Do you sense any differences between British and American readers of westerns?
I think American readers are more likely to show their appreciation than their British counterparts. I’ve had many very touching emails from readers who have taken the time to write and tell me how much my books have entertained them … but they’re nearly all from Americans.

When did you write the western fiction overview on your website and how would you update it today?
The overview was originally written for a book that, as it turned out, never saw publication. Rather than let it go to waste, I posted it at I think if I updated it now I would have to chart the emergence of a whole new generation of talented writers, who are far too numerous to mention, and also of course the digital revolution, which has breathed new life into the genre.

For example, Piccadilly Publishing, the company I co-own and operate with Mike Stotter. We could never have realized our dream of becoming a predominantly western publishing house without the advent of the e-reader. It has enabled us to bring back a lot of material that might otherwise never have seen the light of day again.

Are there any women western writers in Britain?
Yes, there are several, not the least of them Diana Harrison, whom we have published at Piccadilly, under her pseudonym ‘D. M. Harrison’. Gillian Taylor is another, and from way back Eileen Pickering, who used to write as ‘Mark Falcon’.

What are you reading now?
Right now I’m actually re-reading a western called Dakota Territory, by the aforementioned Ben Haas/John Benteen. A fabulous story.

What can your readers expect from you next?
Well, 2014 marks thirty years as Ben Bridges. To commemorate that, I hope to write a new book in every series … O’Brien, the Wilde Boys, Jim Allison, Judge & Dury … but we’ll see. There are certainly some exciting plans ahead, all presently classified at an above top-secret level!

Thanks, David. Every success.

Image credits:
Wikimedia Commons
Coming up: John Wayne, The Train Robbers (1973)


  1. I love that title. Great interview. I haven't read any of these books so will have to check it out.

  2. A fine review and fine interview of a gifted novelist of the west. One caveat. In western fiction, gas lamps keep showing up in frontier towns, and I have spent decades trying to find even one 19th century frontier town that had coal gas piped into businesses and homes from a coal gas plant. (Natural gas was in the future.) The one possibility might be Leadville. Maybe someone can enlighten me.

  3. Somehow I have missed him, think I will take a look and try one on his novels. Another great interview.

  4. Ron, thank you the interview with yet another fine author of westerns. Your interviews offer keen insight into the art of writing western novels. I remember, long before I started blogging, I visited David Whitehead's site and read his overview of western fiction and his list of top novels in the genre. The covers tell their own story.

  5. Thank you for a great interview Ron. I appreciate your interest in my work and also everything you do to keep promoting the western!

  6. My hat's off to you, men. Good review, good conversation.