Author, John D. Nesbitt
I had the privilege to visit with award-winning author, John D. Nesbitt a couple of times over the last few years, and found him to be a genuinely nice, humble fellow. John has won multiple Spur Awards for his western novels, and in my opinion, had the greatest title for a western ever — One-Eyed Cowboy Wild. He is a an avid hunter, outdoorsman, and lives in Wyoming where he is a college instructor. John’s latest book is Blue Horse Mesa, a collection of western short stories. If you like westerns, about the Old West or the contemporary West, check out John’s books at johndnesbitt.com.
John is so danged nice that he let me con him into participating in an interview, despite his hectic schedule. He was courteous enough to take the time to give some really insightful, lengthy answers. Pay close attention to John’s advice for aspiring writers.
So, without further ado, here we go:
1) How did you first get published?
[John] – My first two publications came close together in 1978. I had an article on Louis L’Amour published in Western American Literature, an academic journal that I subscribed to (and still do), as I have been a student and teacher of literature of the American West. At about the same time as the appearance of that article, I had a short story published. I was not yet a member of Western Writers of America, but I subscribed to Roundup, and I saw a call for submissions for western short stories. The magazine was called Far West, and it lasted for two or three years. The editor accepted my story and sent me a contract with an offer of $250. That was a lot of money in those days, especially to me, and I was elated. So those two publications were very auspicious to a fellow starting out in a career as a college instructor and a writer.
2) How would you describe your style of western novel?
[John] – I think of my work as straddling the line between literary and popular western writing. I try to write for a serious, thoughtful audience. I try not to be esoteric or exclusive, but I also try not to depend on pure physical conflict and action. People who have read my work and commented on it tend to classify my work in ways similar to the way in which I think of it. They say that I write character-driven stories and literary traditional westerns, and there is often a comment in there to the effect that I do not write straight shoot-’em-ups. As for my characters, they are usually every-day people who work for a living. I do not heighten my characters by giving them a huge ranch, a huge herd of cattle, or a long trail of dead enemies.
3) What novel or short story are you most proud of?
[John] – Naturally, I’m proud of all my work, and especially the work that has gained me some recognition. If I had to single out one novel, I would say my best achievement is Poacher’s Moon, a contemporary western mystery. For short stories, I will cite my new collection entitled Blue Horse Mesa.
4) As a Wyoming resident, what do you most like to write about, western people or western settings?
[John] – My first impulse, both times I read this question, was to say “both.” As I re-consider it, though, I think I tend to write about human nature that is not always identifiable as or limited to being western. Very often I will take an aspect of human character that I think I have a sense of, and I will bring it out in a western setting. As for setting itself, my tendency is to set my stories in landscapes that are composites of places I know and have some feeling for. I rely on place much more than on historical figures or events.
5) If you only had one piece of advice for aspiring writers, what would it be?
[John] – Don’t kid yourself. No one is going to come knocking on your door asking for your work. No one is going to make you rich for your awesome ideas. No one is going to fix your grammar, punctuation and sentence structure. You have to do it yourself, and you have to find people to help you. Usually, the people who are going to help you are people who owe you nothing and have little or nothing to gain by helping you. The world of writing is not waiting for you to show up, and if you lose heart and drop out, no one will miss you. So, the one piece of advice, once again, is: Don’t kid yourself.
6) Often in your writing you mention the school of hard knocks and the trials and tribulations of our attempts at romance. What do you find poignant or captivating about those subjects?
[John] – The school of hard knocks kind of goes along with my answer to the previous question. For the average person, like my characters and like my humble self, no one owes us anything. We have to work for what we get, and we have to face up to and learn by our mistakes.
As for the trials and tribulations of our attempts at romance, I say in jest that I once read a book on the subject. Actually, I wrote a book on the subject. It is called Lonesome Range, and it is about a man who gets into an ill-fated love affair in Wyoming in the 1890′s. He is a literate fellow, and he has read a few novels about love and love affairs, which makes for a nice serious joke, but he has to learn it for himself in his own terms. I think that’s the way life is, and love affairs that allow us to fly with the eagles do not always turn out happy.
7) Did you always want to be a writer? And if not, what did you want to be?
[John] – I don’t know if I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything else to the exclusion of that. When I was about fourteen I identified my career goal to be an educator, but I was already writing things that the teacher picked out (along with the work of others) and posted on the bulletin board in her classroom. That was my sophomore year, and I was getting small recognition for fiction and non-fiction. In eighth grade, I was known among my classmates for the poems I wrote. So when I identified my career goal, I just assumed that it would include writing.
8) How did you come up with the title for One-Eyed Cowboy Wild?
[John] – As is seen in the story, it is the name of a card game. Those of us who play poker, especially dealer’s choice, are familiar with games in which the dealer calls this or that card wild. The one-eyed cowboy, of course, is the king of diamonds. I had not seen the movie One-Eyed Jacks when I wrote this novel, but I hit on the same idea of a person (or people) having one side visible and one side hidden. The title applies to the main character’s brother, Zeke, who has a hidden side in more ways than one, and who goes wild in a fight when his opponent tries to gouge his eye out. If someone is interested in reading this book (my first published western novel), I’ll also mention that the title applies to half-brothers as well. I had a nice complex idea to work with, and although the editor had me suppress the idea about the half-brothers, it’s still in there, and, I think, it’s a nice bit of irony. Well, I guess I’ve talked about my cleverness enough. I did have a reader come up to my table one time and have me sign a copy of the large print edition for him. He was an old cowboy and had one bad eye, and he said, with good humor, that he was a one-eyed cowboy and wanted to read this story. That was fifteen years ago, and I don’t have much contact with him, but we are still friends, and every once in a while he sends me greetings through one of his grand-daughters.
9) Is effective writing purely a talent, a learned craft, or a combination of the two?
[John] – I think it’s a combination of the two. People inherit artistic tendencies. My three brothers and I all liked to draw when we were growing up. My oldest and youngest brothers were the best at it, and my youngest brother settled on a career as an artist. A couple of us also liked to write. I turned out to be the one who stuck with writing. We all did creative work of one kind or another, but none of us got anywhere with any of it without practice, study, and learning. I have known people who claim to be self-taught, just as I have known people who believe that it is a matter of talent that merely needs to find its outlet, but for writing, at least, I am rather skeptical of those claims and beliefs.
10) A lot of western writers either come from an urban background or live in an urban environment. Do you know what a sweaty horse blanket smells like?
[John] – Yes, I do know what a sweaty horse blanket smells like. The same goes for gutshot antelope and a lot of other things, including sagebrush, alfalfa fields, cedar trees, and the cold winds coming out of the north. This question goes back to # 6, about the school of hard knocks. For my purposes, at least, it is best to write from some kind of personal experience. I am a little flexible here, because we can’t go back to an earlier era and know everything at first hand, but we should know some of those things well enough at first hand that we can approximate some of the others. We pick our topics, and we had better be convincing at them. I don’t write about truck drivers or police officers, much less spies and millionaires, and I don’t drop my characters down into places I know only from a trip to a website. I have lived in the country and have been around animals almost all my life (I did have to go to some evil cities and large towns for my education, which I value very much), and I have been blessed in Wyoming to be able to live in the landscape every day and to be able to make frequent trips to other locales. It’s nice to be able to look out the window and see my horse, and it’s nice to see deer in the fields down the hill and to see geese flying low overhead when the sun goes down in the winter. It’s also nice to live in a place where a person can get more than one permit for antelope, for deer, and for elk. That makes for more time hunting, more excursions, more impressions. A great many western writers lay claim to authenticity in one way or another, and even though some of those claims may be a bit exaggerated or even spurious, I think the tendency shows that having experience in and feeling for the subject really does matter. As for those who don’t know-how to wear a hat (and it does take some know-how if a person is going to wear one for something other than looks) or saddle a horse, they can lay claim to other areas of expertise, like firearms. And some of them are good at incorporating material from historical sources. So I try to be relative in my judgments. At the same time, I am thankful for being able to live in the West day in and day out, and I am glad to be able to draw on my experience with confidence.