You notice some things right away as you read through this excellent collection of western stories by John D. Nesbitt. The central character in each story is a man traveling alone across country, with an uncertain destination—and he runs into trouble. The trouble is typically life threatening, and getting out of it often means taking someone else’s life.
That’s especially true of the first stories, where a man is the object of some stranger’s vengeance. Caught in isolated and forbidding terrain, he has to kill or be killed. These stories are stripped to essentials. From paragraph one, Nesbitt has his character in the soup and fighting for survival.
Action. There’s rarely any back-story to describe these characters. Instead, they are revealed to us through action. We learn about a man by observing his behavior. He will show us how good he is with a rifle, maybe first by downing not one but two deer, from horseback. We’ll also discover that he is skilled at field dressing game.
Ambushed, he demonstrates how to outwit and outmaneuver an assailant. Waking to find himself a Mexican federale’s prisoner during a rough ride in a stagecoach, he shows he has the wits and strength to overcome his captor. Finding a woman alone at a cabin as he’s passing through, he senses her willingness to welcome a return visit from him, and he decides at story’s end to follow up on that unspoken invitation.
The stories are mostly set in the Southwest. Characters occasionally speak in Spanish, which gives readers a piquant flavor of the border country. And if you remember any of your high school Spanish (or as in my case, Spanglish), you can easily follow along without needing the simultaneous translation the author provides.
Favorites. The latter stories in the collection are longer and present complexities of plot that ring with an engaging originality. In them, a man still is what he does, and what he’s doing is the making of a new life for himself, having outgrown an old one like a snake shedding skin.
I especially liked “Spring Comes to the Widow,” about a man who comes upon a wagon full of travelers, all but one of them felled by drinking from a poisoned water hole. The survivor, an infant, leads him into marriage with a young Spanish-speaking widow, who has a secret unrevealed until the last paragraphs. What we observe in the story is a single man, assuming the responsibilities of a family man and leaving his past behind.
For me, the best story is “Stone in the Distance,” about a man attempting to rid himself of an old identity. We know that he’s been in a gang, but Nesbitt leaves us to fill in the blanks if we need to know more. The immediate need for the character is to put distance between himself and where he’s been. He doesn’t look back.
Assuming a new identity, even on the frontier, turns out to be more complicated than he expects. Taking a different name and trading his horse for a new one, he learns that the brand on the new horse has a story of its own that could throw suspicion of another kind onto its rider. Forced to kill the horse, he is still a fugitive at the story’s end, arriving in yet another town, and giving himself yet another name.
Wrapping up. This collection was first published in 1997, the stories in it dating from the late 1970s. Of the nine stories, six had seen print in various publications. On his website, Nesbitt identifies himself as a teacher of English and Spanish at Eastern Wyoming College.
He’s won Spur Awards for his fiction and other forms of recognition for his support of the arts in Wyoming. His most recent fiction includes Poacher’sMoon, a contemporary novel, and Not a Rustler, a traditional western. These and One foot in the Stirrup can be found at amazon and Barnes&Noble.
|John D. Nesbitt
John has generously agreed to be interviewed here at BITS today, and I’m turning the rest of this page over to him.
John, the stories in this collection date back to the 1970s. In what ways do you think your writing has changed since then?
I believe I have become more conscious of trying to carry the story more through narration of action and scene and to depend less on exposition.
How would you define the term "traditional western"?
I see the traditional western as set in the nineteenth-century West and having conventional elements of a clearly recognizable conflict (but not necessarily just good versus bad) that is resolved and not left hanging. The traditional western story meets expectations of the genre, and while it does not have to be formulaic, it is not radical or subversive to the form. If it is (as in The Kid, The Hawkline Monster, or Welcome to Hard Times), it is an ironic western and not traditional.
As the author of both contemporary and traditional westerns, what do you find is the chief difference in the writing of them?
In my view, a person writing contemporary fiction has more freedom to challenge widely held values of a broad audience. Contemporary fiction lends itself more to what I might call relative morality.
You grew up and went to school in California, and you've been living and working in Wyoming. Do you think your western fiction would be different if you'd lived your entire life in just one of those two states?
Yes, if I had lived all my life in California, I would not have had the contact I have had with the western landscape, from which my fiction derives much of its energy and meaning. If I had lived all my life in Wyoming, I would probably not have seen as much of the edgy side of life as I did when I was growing up doing field work. Also, going to universities in California in the 1960's and 1970's provided me with a wealth of experiences (and absurdities) that broadened my world view.
Your website says that you stopped watching TV in 1964. Would you say your storytelling has not been greatly influenced by movie and TV westerns?
No, I would not say that my storytelling has not been greatly influenced by movie and TV westerns. However, I have tried very hard not to write derivative stories in which my sense of western reality or western form would be based on movie and TV westerns. I have read plenty of material in which that seems to be the case, and I hope my work does not read that way.
When I say I stopped watching TV, I mean I shed the habit of watching programs out of habit. Many studies have documented that watching TV cuts down on creativity; it also cuts down on time available for working on one's own projects. I am proud to say that I never saw a single episode of MASH, Cheers, Seinfeld, Dallas, and many others that have been the rage. I cannot remember ever watching a complete Super Bowl game, although I might have in the 1970's when I lived with people who watched sporting events.
I have very good resistance to watching that stuff now. But I did not quit TV entirely. I still watch the news, and in recent years, I have watched some true crime programs such as Dateline and 48 Hours Mystery. My wife records all this stuff, so we can watch it and fast forward through the advertisements.
I also watch movies on television, mainly movies that I acquire (as on DVD) and watch when I choose. I watch westerns and others, mostly movies that I either saw a long time ago (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill) or did not see the first time around (The Days of Wine and Roses, The Postman Always Rings Twice).
Have you seen any western movies that you especially liked?
Oh, yes. I have seen quite a few western and suspense movies I have liked. Westerns I have especially liked are Treasure of the Sierra Madre, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Along the Great Divide, and Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven--just to name a few. There are many that I have liked and have watched a few times.
What are you reading right now?
Right now I am not reading anything because I am working on a manuscript. In my usual sequence or rhythm of things, during this time of the year, between projects, I might be reading mystery and/or suspense.
In the past few months I have done quite a bit of proofreading and editing of my own work for e-books and CreateSpace, which has given me less time to read other work. Other than that, and work by friends which I read in order to review or blurb, I think the last complete book I read was Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Do you recall how you settled upon the title, One Foot in the Stirrup?
Oh, yes. It came from the last two sentences of the last story in the collection, in which a good-natured deadbeat tells of how weary he is after making a mess in the last town he has been in.
He says, “I put a foot in the stirrup, and as I swung my leg over the cantle, I told myself for the first time in two days, I sure have a knack for making a mess wherever I go. Then I thought of Deke Maginnis, and how hard he must be laughing back in the Silver Gila, and I smiled to think how nice it was to bring a little sunshine into the life of at least one fellow human.”
I remember when I wrote this story, in 1979 or so, and how much I cracked up when this character came to life so well and made such a good comment (and whimsical justification) about his half-assed, one-shoe-on-one-shoe-off, actions.
So I wanted the reader to finish this story, close the book, see the title, and appreciate the suspended moment in which the character made that observation.
To that end, I got two separate artists to do a drawing for the first and second editions of the book (which I self-produced), in which the character on the cover has one foot in the stirrup and one suspended in mid-air. Here are the two drawings. As you can see, I had quite a definite sense of what I hoped to do with this image and idea.
What have you learned from your readers?
I have heard mainly from readers who have liked my work, and they usually like the aspects that I work on most consciously. I have read a couple of strange comments on online reviews, but I figure that is my punishment for reading those things.
I believe you have taught fiction writing in your occupation as a teacher. What have you learned from that experience?
I haven't taught much fiction writing beyond the beginning and intermediate levels, and that is somewhat like teaching composition (essay writing). I used to do all of the writing assignments along with my classes, on both essay and fiction writing, and I learned that I was working on that level.
So I had to learn to recognize that what I was teaching was just reinforcing what I was confident in as far as good methods go, and that for my actual work I needed to rise above that level and think more ambitiously.
What western writers have you and your students enjoyed studying in your courses on literature of the American West?
A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Frederick Manfred, Conrad Richter, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Owen Wister, Willa Cather, John G. Neihardt, Mary Austin, Elmer Kelton, and Robert Roripaugh.
You have a doctorate and wrote a dissertation on the western novel. What was the thesis of your dissertation?
My thesis was that writers of traditional westerns could be assessed on the degree to which they adhered to or tried to improve upon conventions of the genre.
One of the stories in this collection involves a poker game. Are you a poker player?
I have been a poker player. My father and my older brother were also poker players, and on a couple of occasions I was in partnership with each of them in running a card game for a business. I still have my professional wooden chips, or checks, as they are called. My first western novel, One-EyedCowboy Wild, depends on the image of the king of diamonds, and the characters in that novel play poker.
Besides the dissertation, which of your projects has required the most research?
My booklet on Robert Roripaugh required more actual research, proportionate to the length of the product, than any other single work I have written. The project that has required the most work has been my Blue Book of Basic Writing, a textbook I have written for my basic writing classes and have edited and updated for more than twenty years.
To what extent do you follow or contribute to scholarly research on the literature of the American West?
I am sorry to say that little by little, as I have devoted more time to writing my own fiction, I have kept up less and less with scholarly research. Also, the research in that field has migrated into areas (topics) that do not interest me as much as the research did when it was more oriented to individual authors and individual works.
Is there a novel you've been wanting to write but so far have chosen not to?
Not exactly. I would like to write more mystery, and there is one story line about murder in a small college that I would like to have some fun with, but that is not the big story still out there. I don't think there is a big story that I haven't worked myself up to yet, and, no, there are not any stories that I have avoided or postponed. Not in fiction. I have hemmed and hawed for several years on how to get the best angle on a memoir or autobiography, but that is a different problem.
How do you hope to influence other writers of western fiction?
I hope to set a good example by writing intelligent, serious fiction in a genre that is not always known for that quality.
Have you ever written or wanted to write a story entirely in Spanish?
Yes, I have written a couple of things entirely in Spanish, but I do not have the range of language that I have in English. Eventually I wrote those things in English, not exactly translating but using the same content and putting it into better sentences. One was a short story, and one was a personal experience essay. Both of them have appeared in print, so I was glad I did them again in English.
What can your readers expect from you next?
Another western short story collection, entitled Blue Horse Mesa, just released. More traditional westerns, I hope, when I get on track with another publisher (or two) since the failure of Dorchester Publishing / Leisure Books, who was my main publisher for fourteen years. I have two novels out with publishers and another in progress, and I have to remain optimistic that those things will get into circulation.
I have recently released a collection of mystery/noir stories and a pair of novellas in the same vein. Both of these books are set in the farm country of California in the 1960's, where I did field work and saw some pretty interesting parts of life. Also, I hope to do more work with life in the contemporary West, as in my novel Poacher's Moon, a serious novel that is also a mystery.
Anything you'd like to add that we haven't covered?
I do a little poetry, and perhaps some day I will have collection of western poetry. I include poems and songs from time to time in my story lines, and some readers have an interest in that sort of thing.
Thanks, John. Every success.
Coming up: James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Duel at Diablo (1966)