Monday, April 23, 2012

Troy D. Smith, Cherokee Winter

Review and interview
Troy D. Smith puts the story in history. Figures from the history books often emerge in his western stories, but not until you’ve been totally swept up in the imaginative world Smith has invented. There’s western myth enough in them, but you realize that this writer really wants you to know the past as it was.

The West of the past begins earlier in these stories than it does in most westerns, and lasts much longer. It begins where frontiersman first crossed the mountains, to explore, to meet the natives, and to get the hell away from civilization. Where Smith’s West begins, the Civil War is still many decades in the future. And where it ends is less than half a century ago.

Who walks the pages of this book? Big Foot Spencer, Little Big Man, Crazy Horse, Jesse James, Sitting Bull. Meanwhile, Daniel Boone, Ira Hayes, Bill Cody, and the Apache chief Victorio get mentions. There’s a company of Buffalo soldiers, some Texas Rangers, a Pinkerton detective, and an eye witness of the Fedderman Massacre.

What’s deceptive is that you often don’t realize you’re in the company of men you know until well into a story. The narrator of “Being American” turns out to be Sitting Bull, reflecting as he wanders the streets of New York, while traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.

Many of the stories, in fact, are about Native Americans, and often from their own point of view. One of the most compelling of them is Little Big Man’s recollections of Crazy Horse. Recounting incidents of the great chief’s life and death, it captures well the charged emotions of pride, guilt, and defeat.

It’s been said by scholars that the American frontier is best regarded as a boundary, a place of contact between different peoples, cultures, and social systems. These may be forces that collide roughly, even perilously. But many times there’s also a blending in those borderlands, where meeting points take on a fluid identity of their own.

Troy Smith’s characters often find themselves in these borderlands. They’re caught between one thing and another. “Romulus Jones” is a Civil War story set in Tennessee, a border state torn in its divided loyalties. And it’s about a man drawn into the increasingly bloody world of marauders and raiders. A Confederate sniper in “The Hunter’s Snare” discovers that the Union officer in his sights is his brother-in-law.

In the title story, “Cherokee Winter,” a man inhabits the mountain frontier between white settlements and wilderness. “Casualties” takes place in the boundary between two kinds of law enforcement—an old-style sheriff and a Pinkerton detective. In “God Bless Our Home,” Jesse James pauses for a lingering moment between life and eternity. In “The Day They Got Frank Burns,” there’s the boundary where a man’s past life seems to catch up with the one he lives now.

Westerns often sidestep the matter of real pain and suffering. Smith’s stories do not. He often puts us in the company of the walking wounded. Shame and guilt may haunt their lives. They may carry the weight of betrayals, atrocities witnessed, and secrets untold. Only occasionally is there healing, as in “The Purification of Jim Barnes,” where a returning Vietnam veteran undergoes a tribal purification ceremony.

No surprise that Troy Smith’s stories are up for this year’s Peacemaker Awards. His work gives real stature to the western short story. Cherokee Winter is currently available at amazon for thekindle.

Troy D. Smith
Troy Smith has generously agreed to answer a few questions about writing westerns and about Cherokee Winter, and I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.

On the subject of a writer’s inspiration, William Faulkner once said, “I don’t know anything about inspiration, because I don’t know what inspiration is—I’ve heard about it, but I never saw it.” Has that been your experience?
I’m not sure how to answer that one. Sometimes I write a story purely because there is an opportunity, or need, to write a particular kind–what’s that? A Christmas anthology? Okay, I bet I could do that!

Every once in awhile, though, I write a story or a novel because I have something very specific that I want to say. I know it sounds pretentious, but I believe art should be an attempt to frame a human truth in an illustrative way, and in that sense fiction or poetry can be more “true” than nonfiction. So some of my stories are written by necessity or opportunity, and some are written purely for fun (“Hey, what if I did Julius Caesar as a western!)… but some of them are my efforts to answer—or at least ask—questions. What is duty? What is freedom? How does a human being gain redemption? How can men and women heal each other?

And other times I just think it would be cool to see vampires in the Civil War.

I’m not sure if any of that counts as inspiration or not.

The other day, in an interview with Jacquie Rogers, you said, “I don’t want to write about things that happen to people, I want to write about the people that things happen to.” Did you know this before you started writing or learn it after?
I definitely learned that along the way. I love the old quote by Elmer Kelton—“I don’t write about a good guy in a white hat versus a bad guy in a black hat; I write about two guys in gray hats, one trying to institute change and the other resisting it.” I suppose I may have been on my third novel before I realized that my real interest was examining my characters’ motivations and relationships with one another, and their relationship with their worldview, more than I was interested in a series of events.

Stan Lee
I think that two big influences on me in that regard were Larry McMurtry and—my hero since childhood—Stan Lee. His superhero characters have become ubiquitous on the big screen, and it’s easy to forget that—before him— “alter egos” existed solely as plot devices, and four-color heroes all had the exact same personality (roughly that of a banana, without a peel.)

I lived and breathed Spider-man when I was a kid—and I think I actually enjoyed Peter Parker’s mundane problems and relationships (his crappy job, passive-aggressive aunt, girl problems, school pressures, and his circle of friends) more than I did the fights. And add to that the fact that the villains were often also someone you could identify with, and sometimes feel sorry for.

So I guess I may not have realized that was my focus, but it had always been there. Like other kids in the 1970s, I was into action figures—but when my friends and I would get together with our Johnny West toys, or our Mego superheroes, I would get enormously frustrated when some kid would just grab two figures by the feet and bang them together.

“What are you doing??”

“They’re fighting.”

“They can’t just start fighting! There has to be a story! What is their motivation?”

What does the term “traditional western” mean to you?
I think that the definitions of “western” and “traditional western” must by necessity be different. The latter term is more restrictive, narrower, yet even within its confines there is room for diverse approaches. Basically I’d say “traditional western” is the easiest to define: a story set west of the Mississippi between roughly 1830 and 1920. Within those confines, you could find a variety of different kinds of stories. Here’s just a few representative movies and TV series from the top of my head:

Jeremiah Johnson
Little House on the Prairie
The Professionals
Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

All set within a certain time and place, yet very dissimilar in construction, theme, and outlook.

Defining “western” is a lot harder. Though actually I think you did a very good job in your review, when discussing borderlands and frontiers. I think that, in that broader sense, “West” is a frame of mind as much as anything. I suppose you could boil it down somewhat, though, by several descriptions. A western is a tale of frontiersa place where cultures collide, and commingle; in particular as settlers expand westward into new territory.

And a western is a tale that reverberates with the echoes of that westward expansion, into the present, by playing on themes of the cowboy/pioneer as American myth, or the geographic West as the mythic and monumental symbol of America…or of the Native American Indians who were either displaced or deprived of land and sovereignty by that expansion, which is part of the “mythic saga” as well as the history (although the mythic saga requires that they be either obstructionist savages or romanticized and doomed to “vanish” before “civilization”–neither of which is true in actual history.)

So by those criteria, not only are the films and series I mentioned above “westerns,” but so would these be:

The Last Picture Show
The Last of the Mohicans
Daniel Boone
All the Pretty Horses
No Country for Old Men

I think you could even argue that West-as-frame-of-mind trumps time and place completely, and include some of these as westerns (although it is a tenuous connection, and I’m not sure I whole-heartedly agree in every case):

The Man from Snowy River (and all those other Aussie frontier stories)

Frederick Jackson Turner famously argued in his 1893 paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” that the American identity was defined by westward expansion, forged at the juncture between East and West, “civilization” and “wilderness.” The “western” thus began when the first English colonists left the safety of their settlements in Virginia and Massachusetts and pushed into the dark forest.

The big question of Turner’s day arose from the fact that, as of the 1890 census, there was no more continental “frontier” for Americans to push into—how, then, would they define themselves? I think it is no coincidence that, within a few years of Turner’s comments, we had the first western movie (1903’s The Great Train Robbery) and the first real western novel (contrasted with the dime novels that had been around for decades—1902’s The Virginian.) The mythic cycle of The West as the Essence of America had begun.

Jory Sherman can express all this much more eloquently than me, by the way.

Talk about “The Confessions of Little Big Man” and “Becoming American.” Are there any parts of those stories that a Native American writer might have told differently?
That is an excellent question. Of course, in those storiesand in “The Purification of Jim Barnes”I was trying to write from a Native American perspective. I did the best I could, but I am certain an indigenous writer would provide authenticity of voice, in many ways, that I could notthing is, I can’t specifically identify those things, or I’d’ve known what to do differently for verisimilitude! I was also very concerned about telling the Jim Barnes story, without being a Vietnam vet…I ran it by several combat veterans first, to make sure I didn’t make any glaring mistakes. I also got some good feedback on it from Indian friends.

The stories in Cherokee Winter were first published ten or more years ago. How has your writing changed since then?
I have mentioned often how I like to get at the essence of my characters, to strip away the veneer and artifice and delve into their deepest emotions. I used to have to work at that—there were some stories that I specifically intended to be such an exploration, and which I had to think deeply about, and others that were just plot-driven stories with no deeper ambitions.

Nowadays it seems that my voice and style have been trained to such an extent that, even when I am aiming at simplicity, the characters sort of come alive of their own volition without the need for much coaxing. Just the other day I finished a short story for the upcoming Western Fictioneers anthology Six Guns and Slay Bells: A Creepy Cowboy Christmas. My goal had been to write a scary story in a Tales from the Crypt sort of style, but from the outset it turned into something much more complex, and even powerful, at least to me, than I had originally intended.

Which of these stories would you consider expanding into a novel?
Well, “Sergeant Mann” is actually an excerpt from a novel, Bound for the Promise-Land, which won a Spur and is my favorite of all my works. Beyond that, many of the stories in this collection are limited to sort of a snapshot in time, vignettes almost, and would be difficult to translate into a longer medium. A few, though, would probably make good novels as well: maybe “The Stealing Moon,” “Casualties,” and “Mister Maitlin” (the latter was an attempt on my part to write a western using all the classic elements of noir.)

Which of your stories would you like to see made into a movie or TV series?
I think any of the three I mentioned above could also work as a movie. For a series, I could definitely see “Sergeant Mann.” Actually, my fondest dream would be a season-long HBO or Showtime miniseries based on Bound for the Promise-Land, a la Band of Brothers or The Pacific. That book is very special to me—it is essentially my magnum opus about the meaning of freedom, following Alfred Mann from slavery to the Civil War, then Reconstruction, a career as a Buffalo soldier, and reaching a crescendo at the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba.

While your stories move easily across racial boundaries, they stay pretty exclusively on the male side of the gender divide. Any reason for that?
So far, the West of my creation has been a very masculine place. Some folks have pointed out that my novels, also, tend not to focus on female characters. I think part of the reason for that is—unconsciously—my forays into the Mythic West have also been explorations of what manhood means, probably influenced by my early life.

As a kid, I think that unshaven, cigar-chomping guys (from Eastwood’s Man with No Name to Nick Fury) sort of symbolized to me the Man in Command of Himself, something I’ve aspired to without realizing it… hence my own unshaven cigar-chomping leather-and-flannel approach to life. Part of it, too, is that my Mythic West is a place to wrestle with father issues—something which is very obvious, for example, in my novel Caleb’s Price.

I am planning to try a new approach, though…the next full-length western novel I write will have a strong female protagonist. I have the first chapter done, but with so much on my table now I have no idea how long it will be till I finish it.

How did you settle on the title for the book?
At last, a question with an easy answer! I looked over the titles of the stories in the collection, and picked the one that sounded catchiest.

How would you hope to influence other western writers?
First, I’d like to be influential in the sense of encouraging folks to get inside their characters more—not to get lost in the minutiae of technical terms, historical details, etc. to the point that their characters don’t come alive. And that takes courage, in a way—you are not showing the world your expertise about saddles or battles, you are showing them the vulnerabilities inherent in opening up your heart and pouring out a little of your soul on paper.

In your review you remark on the pain and suffering, guilt and shame, and emotional weight carried by the folks in my tales; that requires the writer to experience all those things as well. Sometimes I finish a story or novel and feel emotionally drained…but I always hope it shows through in the story.

Second, I would hope I might influence other western writers to, not only engage their characters, but consider making those characters (especially the protagonists) something beyond the standard Anglo-Saxon self-confident heroic type. Become the town drunk, the village idiot, the haunted traitor, the shamed coward…the ex-slave, the Chinese miner, the German or Irish immigrant. Stretch yourself.

What can readers expect from you next?
I have quite a bit in the chute or on its way. First off there is the other half of this collection, Red Trail: Tales of the West, Vol. 2. I have a series of short stories on its way, as individual ebooks—it’s a redneck noir mystery series called Dead Rednecks! Later this year one of my traditional western novels, The Trail Brothers, will be re-released by Western Trail Blazer.

I have a story in the upcoming Moonstone anthology The Lone Ranger Chronicles—they asked me to put the cowboy boy scout in a setting reminiscent of HBO’s Deadwood, and I had a great time doing it. There’s also the WF anthology I mentioned above, full of Christmas-themed western horror stories.

One of the things I am most excited about is the new Western Fictioneers series I am editing (and contributing to), Wolf Creek. The first volume will be out in August, we hope to produce several per year. We’re sort of sitting on the exact details right now, till the release date gets closer, but I honestly don’t think anything like it has ever been done in the western genre. I’m not sure if anything exactly like it has been done anywhere.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to showcase my work and ramble on a bit. I appreciate it, and always enjoy your insightful reviews.

Many, many thanks, Troy, for the great interview. Every success.

Coming up: Mary MacLane, The Story of Mary MacLane (1902)


  1. This was incredibly interesting to me as I am very interested in writing westerns now. I like the idea of having an historical element to a story. Trying to research one on Catholics nuns in the West.
    Stan Lee surely inspired thousands of writers.

  2. Love history too, Troy -- your stories sound fabulous! Huzzah on the Peacemaker and more success to you!!

  3. Thanks to you all, and big thanks to Ron for letting me ramble.

  4. Always good stuff when you read a Troy D. Smith interview! I'm so delighted to hear you talk about character-driven stories because that's what I love. There has to be a strong plot as well, but every action must tie to character for a story to be truly great--a story that sticks with me for three weeks after I've read it, and makes me want to read it again. Thank you, Troy!

    And Ron, thanks for mentioning Troy's feature on Romancing The West. I'd love to have you over there, too!

  5. He is a formidable author and one of the most knowledgeable. I wish him every success.

    1. That means a lot coming from an author whose work I have admired for so long- many thanks.