Friday, May 28, 2010

J.T. Edson

by Jean Henry Mead

Of the hundreds of people I’ve interviewed over the years, J.T. Edson was the most entertaining. The prolific writer of Old West escapist fiction wrote from his home in England. During my interview with him at a Western Writers of America convention in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he complained that his work was considered third rate by some, although he was published by Corgi, a “posh” UK publisher.

He had no literary pretensions and said he wrote for money and didn’t care who knew it. But his tongue had been stuck in his cheek for so long that he was rarely taken seriously. He insisted that writers are "a bunch of bone-idle layabouts who have found a good way of making a living without working.” And that “I have no desire to have lived in the wild West and I've never even been on a horse. I've seen those things and they look highly dangerous at both ends and bloody uncomfortable in the middle.” He laughed uproariously, often in a high-pitched giggle.

He did have his moments of introspection. “I can make more money and do less work writing than any other job I’m capable of doing,” he said. “I’m a damned good dog trainer, but there ain’t a lot of jobs for training dogs to bite people these days. I learned to train them during the army for twelve years.” He served in the British military during “the dirty little bushfire wars in Malaya and Kenya.”

Edson turned out a novel every six to eight weeks, his fastest to finish was eleven days working eighteen hours a day. “I read Nelson Nye and other escapism-adventure authors before starting to write. I also read various classics such as Shane, and to be frank, they left me cold. I far preferred the virile stories which [British] middle-class management snobs refer to as ‘the pulps.’ One of my pet hates is that they regard all western novels as being substandard and unworthy of their superior intellect. “

He believed that he was successful in this country as well as the UK because his roots were from the same working class stock as the majority of his readers. “Unlike practically all my contemporaries and various newcomers to the field, I don’t regard writing westerns as beneath my dignity, and am willing to have my own name, not a pseudonym, on my books.”

Edson first supported his western writing habit by composing the text for British comic books. “They don’t call them comic books, they’re ‘boy’s papers.’ You write and tell the artist what to put in his little panels. It’s a very demanding and interesting style of writing. You must comprise a 3,000-word short story in forty frames while keeping the limitations in mind.”

The burly novelist worked as a postman while writing part time. Edson had gained considerable weight as a cartoonist and decided to walk it off while increasing his western sales. “At fourteen pounds to the stone, I weighed twenty stones, twelve, and my doctor was giving me hints like sending the undertaker round. I didn’t want to work in the first place, so as soon as I gathered enough money to stop working, I did. “ Not working meant writing full time, from 1961 until his death.

No matter what he wrote, it tied into his fictional family, members of the OD Connected Ranch’s outfit. His sergeants Alvin Fog, Ranse Smith, and Mark Scrapton of Company Z, Texas Rangers are the grandsons of his original characters, Dusty Fog, Mark Counter and the Ysabel Kid. Those and related continuing characters allowed him to plug various titles in his books by means of footnotes and other references. He insisted that it was simply good business but many of his peers disapproved.

Although he made many trips across the Atlantic for research, he was more concerned with entertaining his readers than providing them with accurate history. In his Calamity Jane series, he had his heroine tied to a log in a sawmill, which prompted a call from his editor. He quoted her as saying, “John, I wouldn’t have believed that any writer would dare to do this.” To which he replied, “I’ve got another marvelous idea that’s never been done before. The nasty is going to fasten Calamity Jane to the railroad track.”

(Excerpted from my book, Maverick Writers. I'm giving away five copies of the book at my Facebook site, June 10. To be eligible, go to: Maverick Writers and click on the "like" icon at the top of the page)


A man called Valance said...

Good article. Interesting fella. Thanks Jean.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thanks, Valance. He was, indeed.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Only a solid fiction writer could create such solid settings and characters without having experienced them him (or her) self.

Jean Henry Mead said...

J. T. swam against the stream and I admired him for that. But he did miss his calling as a comedian. He kept me laughing throughout the entire interview. A very entertaining chap!

Bill Kirton said...

What a character. Sounds like a fun interview. I like the notion that he didn't take life too seriously. And, if he made a living out of writing, he must have been bloody good at it.