C. Courtney Joyner is a great fiction writer. Beyond that, he's a talented filmmaker, accomplished nonfiction writer, and a whole host of other roles that are too numerous to name here. So, let's get right to the interview. Oh wait... I am happy to say Mr. Joyner has agreed to a second round once his new book, Nemo Rising, is released late this year. There are plenty of questions I did not get to this time around. The man worked with Vincent Price! That right there gives me about fifty to ask.
He was more than gracious with his time and I'm very appreciative. A great guy and a great author. Okay...let's get to it!
I want to discuss your two western novels, Shotgun and Shotgun: The Bleeding Ground. I love these books! You took a traditional plot and gave it a new, unique hook with your hero John Bishop. Where did the inspiration for Bishop, and the story, come from?
Courtney Joyner: “The Edge” books, Franco Nero, DC comics, Elmore Leonard, ROLLING THUNDER, more comics, and my father – but, certainly, not in that order. My father was a prominent cardiologist, and very interested in the history of medicine, and somehow we ended up with some field supplies from a Civil War medical kit, including a guide to amputations, which was the 1863 solution for pretty much every battle injury. It was rough stuff – and he’d been an Army doc – so I’d always wanted to write about that world – but I certainly didn’t think it would be with an Army doctor who ends up with a shotgun for an arm!
The fuse for all this was lit probably 20 some-odd years ago, when I was working on a movie project with the director, John Flynn. I loved John; he was such a talent, and a wonderful guy, and it was a true education to work on a project with him, although, unfortunately, it was never made. But, during one of our many lunches, I mentioned I’d love to see ROLLING THUNDER done as a western, and he piped up with, “That’s great! I’d love to do it that way!” Nothing ever came of that, of course, but the idea – the obsessed, one-armed avenger in the West - hung in the back of my mind for a long time, even after John died, mixed in with a bunch of my other influences and enthusiasms.
I love the movies, and comics, and paperbacks. I remember my 7th grade school edition of TREASURE ISLAND was a paperback, with a great, bloody cover. Stevenson brought me to the world of classical adventure fiction, and growing up in the era of the Tarzan and Conan re-issues - with the Frank Frazetta and Neal Adams paintings – and Doc Savage, and The Exterminator, and on they go. Adventure writers - Stevenson’s distant cousins - were everywhere in paperback. I knew it was officially summer if I saw a dog-eared Mickey Spillane in my father’s hip pocket. So, my first “adult reading” were the books I was thumbing at the spinning racks, usually with a FAMOUS MONSTERS or some Marvel comics tucked under my other arm.
Of course, in the 60’s and 70’s, westerns were going super-strong on TV and in the theaters, and Marvel and DC had their catalog of western titles. As much as I loved RAWHIDE KID and OUTLAW KID, to me, the Marvel titles seemed more like old Republic programmers, rather than being patterned after (then) current movies like THE PROFESSIONALS or RIO CONCHOS. We all loved Jack Kirby’s living totem pole attacking THE KID, but I liked the western comics that were tougher – with a more parched feeling - which is why I was drawn to Joe Kubert’s FIREHAIR and “Weird Westerns” for JONAH HEX, and the amazing SCALPHUNTER. They hit some pretty serious topics, all framed in these wonderful action stories. Do you remember Dell’s JUDGE COLT, with those great painted covers? Everything was always exploding at once. Great stuff.
Also, on the paperback racks were the western movie and TV tie-ins. I’d eventually read THE WILD BUNCH, CAHILL: U.S. MARSHAL, A TOWN CALLED BASTARD, “The Man with No Name” books by Joe Millard, and all the KUNG-FU’s, but most important for me, Elmore Leonard’s VALDEZ IS COMING. It cost a dollar at a South Carolina grocery store, and was the first western novel I ever tackled; the movie edition, with the silhouette of Burt Lancaster on the cover, but the writing knocked me out. Of course, this was the work of a modern master, but it was my introduction to the West on-the-page, and has stayed with me ever since.
Naturally, I was always grabbing a book with a movie slant, but started to explore, not only the titans like A.B. Guthrie, but I found George Gillman’s THE EDGE series, and loved it. Also, STEELE. They were such fast, expert reads, and also completely captured the feeling of The Spaghetti Western, and not just Leone, but also the SARTANA series, or any of the knock-offs with Klaus Kinski. They were fun. Of course, I had no idea at the time that Gillman/Terry Harknet was British, and the icon of the Carnaby Cowboys, the writers who were churning out these westerns at a furious pace; that was all history to come. All I knew was that he could make me feel like I was watching a western while I was reading.
Somehow, that Euro influence was what I wanted to capture with SHOTGUN. That felt right to me – it was already an outrageous concept that seemed like a Spaghetti western - and I was carrying around all these enthusiasms from all of these various sources – maybe not the most elegant inspirations, but unpretentious, and fun. And, I hope I captured some of those impressions. After the first book was published, I had a very nice correspondence with Terry Harknet, and he was very kind about the work, and it felt like being given a badge of Paperback Honor.
RF: I know you’ve done quite a bit of work in the film industry and with screenwriting. When I read Shotgun, it played very cinematically in my mind. Was that by design? Did the story start as perhaps a screenplay?
CJ: With all my love of the movies, actually SHOTGUN never was a screenplay. I think that approach just comes from my training of thinking visually for the movies. I actually tried at one point to get it done as a comic book, and then, as the first animated Spaghetti western for “Adult Swim,” and failed at both. But, all the prep was there – treatments, story outlines, including some wonderful graphics – when Pinnacle editor Gary Goldstein first spoke to me about it. In fact, before SHOTGUN, I’d never written a novel before, even on spec. It all came about because the screenwriting – especially for B films and TV – started slowing down for me, crawling, and then, stopping. I just decided to try a new direction – writing prose, and specializing in westerns. I told my agent, and they couldn’t drop me fast enough, as this was all before the remake of TRUE GRIT, or the success of DJANGO UNCHAINED, and TEXAS RISING. I’d actually made my way into the Western Writers of America organization, and met some remarkable writers – including some of the real titans. I was amazed at how encouraging and patient they were with me, and put me on the road to prose, which I’d only fooled with, and never really published anything of note. Lots of articles about film, etc. but no fiction.
Gary Goldstein was at the very first convention I attended, and he knew about some of my old horror movies and my film journalism, and we just clicked right away. He was a big editor, so I was quite flattered when he asked me to work on a book for Citadel, DUKE, WE’RE GLAD WE KNEW YOU, and that started our relationship, but not in the world of fiction. Spur Winning author Matthew P. Mayo helped me get me first story in print in a great anthology, FISTFUL OF LEGENDS, and that led to Gary asking me to contribute to a collection Pinnacle was putting out, called LAW OF THE GUN. There were some huge writers in this book – Elmer Kelton, Loren D. Estleman, John Jakes – and I was thrown in with them! That was the deep end of the pool for sure, but it showed Gary’s amazing faith, and when he was looking for a “different” western series, that would be a little less Louis L’Amour, and little more Jonah Hex, I showed him all that I’d done – and failed with – for SHOTGUN, and he responded with a contract. Just incredible circumstances, that unfolded over a period of about six years, but, as they say, we got there.
RF: So far we’ve only seen two Bishop books. Can we look forward to more?
CJ: The third book, THESE VIOLENT TIMES, will be released in 2017, followed next year by a fourth, BULLET KISSED (!), and also the re-release of the first two SHOTGUN books in a single volume. All of these will be coming from Pinnacle in the U.S. and Random House internationally.
RF: Beyond the Shotgun series, do you have any other western novels in the works?
CJ: Nothing concrete, although after the wild world of SHOTGUN, I’d love to try my hand at something completely naturalistic, dealing with the real life of the frontier, without the shoot-outs and crazy action of my other books. It would be an enormous challenge, given my background, but the reward would be the test, and the effort.
RF: So many traditional publishers have cut their western novels. I know there are still a few being published by the “big guys.” Do you think there is a large enough fan base, and enough up and coming authors, to keep the genre alive for a while?
CJ: I really do, yes. We’ve seen the spurt of interest in the last two years, which has been quite gratifying. What happened, when Penguin and some others decided to leave the mass market westerns behind, was that there was a sudden interest in western movies and TV mini-series. The timing to discontinue some books was off, I think, leaving a few “big boys,” like MacMillan and Harper Collins, to take over the hardback market, while Pinnacle dominates the paperback world with the Johnstone series, etc. Of course, I don’t have sales figures in front of me, but editors say westerns are coming off the shelves – not the way they did in the paperback heydays – but the genre is on the upswing, and when shows like WESTWORLD hit, it impacts book sales even more, all of which is to the good, as readers gravitate towards westerns again, including folks who’d never sat down and read one before. The only part of the genre that’s really been left behind are the Adult Westerns like Longarm, but that market could come back, also.
RF: I want to go back to your writing in a bit, but I’ll shift to films now. Have you ever done a western?
CJ: I have, and they all ended up as “spec doorstops.” I wrote a biography of Belle Starr that I’m quite proud of, written as a feature that’s now been re-tooled as the pilot for a cable series called WANTED. That piece has gotten some genuine, and serious, studio attention so it might just see production, which would be terrific. So, I’m hopeful, as it would be my first western to go in front of the camera.
RF: Westerns seem to be popular when they are released. The Magnificent Seven remake was profitable and popular, True Grit was hugely successful, and 3:10 to Yuma did pretty well. Why are studios so weary to make more westerns?
CJ: That’s always been the contradiction – that when Westerns do well, there seems to be some odd reason for it, instead of audiences wanting the films. Some have bombed, but so have movies of every stripe, so it’s unfair to brand westerns as movies that don’t make money because the films listed did great. It’s a tricky maneuver – getting around that thinking – but it does happen. Unfortunately, what we are missing is a “western star,” who can shoulder the box office burden. We’ve got some terrific actors – like Kurt Russell and Jeff Bridges – who’ve found a home in the genre, but the sure-fire star, that guarantees the cash to the studio – those days are gone, so westerns are often seen as a risk for the big screen, but as more and more perform – like THE REVENANT, MAG SEVEN - the execs are loosening up in their perceptions a bit. At least, for now, since the movie of DEADWOOD is in development.
RF: The above mentioned films are all remakes or new adaptations of previously adapted works. Are folks just not writing new westerns or are the studios not interested? (I know we have the Tarantino films that I won’t go into here.)
CJ: I think the evidence is on the tube. Westerns have become a staple of cable TV, thanks to the enormous out-of-the-gate success of Walter Hill’s BROKEN TRAIL on AMC. That mini-series changed the network’s direction to original programming, and they haven’t looked back. These last years, with hits like AMC’s HELL ON WHEELS, and now – a cross-over to be sure – WESTWORLD for HBO, which was DEADWOOD’s original home when cable was struggling, and a western saved it. JUSTIFIED became an instant classic of a modern western during its run on FX, and LONGMIRE’s in a new season. Also, the modern western-comedy of THE RANCH with Sam Elliott, and the adaptation of Joe Landsdale’s glorious HAP AND LEONARD. I know those aren’t traditional westerns, but cable networks are still willing to take the risk with period epics and mini-series these part years: KLONDIKE, TEXAS-RISING, and now THE SON, starring Pierce Brosnan. Plus, isn’t Jonah Hex now finding his way back into the DC universe? That’s Warner Brothers, and network, so you never know where it’s going to come from!
So the westerns, and westerners, are there – maybe hiding a bit, away from the theaters – but someone’s giving westerns the green light, and they’re making money, and that’s what makes the studios pay attention.
RF: A lot of readers on this blog are huge western fans. I have to ask, what are some of your favorite western films? Also, which new westerns have you enjoyed in the last two decades?
CJ: Favorites? Good Lord, that would be a long list! But some movies I return to over and over: MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, THE SHOOTIST, RIO CONCHOS, THE NAKED SPUR, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, HOMBRE, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, ULZANA’S RAID, THE OUTLAW-JOSEY WALES, NEVADA SMITH, 7 MEN FROM NOW, RED RIVER. Those are the one right off the top of my skull – in another minute, it would be entirely different list, I’m sure. Think I could narrow it down to my top 100.
In the last two decades – that’s a lot of ground - there have been quite a few, actually. I loved what the Cohen Brothers did with TRUE GRIT, and had a hell of a good time with the remake of 3:10. I think I’m in the majority with liking DJANGO better than HATEFUL EIGHT, and THE REVENANT was pretty amazing; visually, if nothing else. THE HOMESMAN certainly had moments, but never found its dramatic engine. THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES, JANE GOT A GUN, FROM DUSK ‘TIL DAWN: HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER, OPEN RANGE, BLACKTHORN, THE PROPOSITION, THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADAS ESTRADA, SERAPHIM FALLS, APPALOOSA, and for me, the little movie that could: BONE TOMAHAWK. Not for every taste, but I thought, a grand job. That’s a long list, too, and I could make it longer!
RF: Is there a particular screenplay of yours that you are most proud of? Do you have a favorite?
CJ: I’m really proud of BELLE STARR, and also a piece I wrote about boxing in the hobo jungles of the 1930’s, THE BOXCAR BOYS. Maybe someday, we’ll see them made! Of the movies I’ve had produced, I like a lot of my old horror films, like PRISON, and THE OFFSPRING (FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), because I got to write dialog – over the top, to be sure – for Vincent Price.
RF: Do you find it easier to work on screenplays or novels?
CJ: Screenplays, just because I’ve had more practice.
RF: A complete side note here. I knew I’d chase rabbits on this interview. You did a movie with Vigo Mortensen. Wasn’t he great as Hitch in Appaloosa? He really embodied that character and I picture him and Ed Harris now when reading those novels.
CJ: Viggo is terrific, and also a terrific guy. When he was cast in PRISON, we could tell – he’d had a small role in WITNESS – but he just leapt off the screen, and he was wonderful in that film. He really crawls into the skins of the characters he plays.
RF: You’ve done a lot in horror. You seem to shift between horror and westerns, or whatever genre, effortlessly. Is it hard? Do you prefer one genre over the other?
CJ: I always say that horror brought me to westerns in the first place. As a kid, I watched HIGH NOON one rainy afternoon because Lon Chaney was in it, and was hooked. Lon also pointed me to the A.C. Lyles’ westerns, and SPRINGFIELD RIFLE. At the time, all of the Sergio Leone films were the big deal on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, so it was a wave I couldn’t escape – and didn’t want to. So “shifting” is just following a passion. I think each genre has its own rhythms, of course, and you get into an appropriate mind-set when you’re working on something – and right now, my focus is westerns and period adventure, but if a great horror idea suddenly came to me, I’d jump right in, and shift again. Hopefully, without too much trouble.
RF: How about roles? You’ve been an author, script writer, you’ve done non-fiction, and you’ve even directed. You’ve appeared in a few films too. Is there one role you prefer or feel the most home in?
CJ: Always writing.
RF: Going back to your writing, what does a typical day look like? When you’re working, do you have a word or page threshold you try to cross each day? Do you write five days a week? Seven?
CJ: When I’m working on something – a novel or a script - I write every day – or try to, or else suffer a great case of the guilts. But I also love down-time, because that’s when some great ideas can come along. I wish I was more consistent; some days you’re just staring ahead, with blood in your tears, trying to come up with something – and the next day you’re soaring through pages.
RF: Do you have any advice for new authors? Is there anything you wish someone would have told you early on in your career?
CJ: My advice: take your time. By that, I mean to take the time you need to work on your manuscript, and know your markets. Publishing has changed so completely in the last ten years, as we know, and there are so many avenues and chances, with e-publishing, etc. that didn’t exist before. But don’t just throw your work out there. If you’re going to self-publish, work with an editor, then take it out. And, with submission marketing the way it is, at least be familiar with all of the types of writing that companies are looking for. If you sell a novel, the question might come up if it’s good for a movie sale or gaming or graphic novel. You don’t have to be a master of all these forms, but understand them, because writers have to wear more creative and business hats than ever before, and you’ll have to make decisions based on that knowledge.
CJ: I’ve done a number of commentaries on blu-rays, that have been great fun, and recently did THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO. and Henry Hathaway’s RAWHIDE for the UK company, Signal One, and also Don Siegel’s EDGE OF ETERNITY for Twilight Time. I’m finishing up on SHOTGUN III, and have some script – and I hope – some comic book work coming up. And this Christmas, my novel NEMO RISING will be coming out through Tor Books. It’s my first hardback release, – and it’s a big, period adventure, so I’m very excited, and hope everyone finds it great, throw-back fun.