Renaissance Man of Western Novels
Interviewed by Hank Nuwer (and published in Nuwer's Rendezvousing with Contemporary
Having led a life as exciting as that of
any character in his fiction, and blessed with a born
story-teller’s talent for narration on boot, Louis
L’Amour is the world’s best-selling Western
writer—“the General Motors of Westerns”
as the Washington Post refers to him. Interviewed at his hacienda in
Los Angeles, L’Amour still looks fit enough to send pirates
scampering for safer waters, as he did in his youth. With his
broad-brim Stetson and a hoof-sized turquoise medallion on his chest,
L’Amour looks as though he’s stepped out of a
Frederic Remington painting. The author frequently taps his green and
black thermos for coffee during the interview. His eyes are on the
kidney-shaped pool to his right, except when he wishes to make a point.
Then he looks hard at his interviewer to make sure the guest had been
This one-time hobo is now a celebrity.
His fans include Dallas football coach Tom Landry and country-western
singer Charlie Daniels. In fact, the interview is interrupted by a
florist who brings long-stemmed roses from Daniels as a thank-you gift
for L’Amour’s wife, Kathy.
sparking days, he courted Hollywood starlets. He once was engaged to
actress Julie Newmar. Now, he is every
inch the family man—a father to Beau and Angelique, both now
His latest personal battle is not over
how to conclude yet another Western, but how to win a battle with a
Colorado power company that is trying to stretch a 345,000-volt power
line across his thousand-acre ranch in Hesperus, Colorado.
serves his interviewer a snack of fresh fruit, L’Amour puts
his soul on tape.
* * *
L’AMOUR: Any way you want to go.
NUWER: I’d like to open by discussing your travels. Your own
life seems to parallel Jack London’s—if
you’re familiar with [his books]?
L’AMOUR: Yeah, I covered three times the country he did.
Yeah, I like Jack London; I’ve read his books and like him
very much. But London mostly was located around Northern California and
Alaska; he made a trip as a correspondent over to Japan. But, oh, I
rode freight trains across the country two or three times, and then, of
course, worked in mines and labor camps and in construction jobs all
over. I took any job that was available, basically.
NUWER: What was the reason for your travels?
NUWER: What was the reason for your travels?
L’AMOUR: My two brothers and sister went to college. My
sister became a teacher and later a writer; my older brother a
newspaperman, and another brother was for a time a manufacturing
chemist. But as I came along, North Dakota had had several crop
failures in a row, and stock, horses and cattle. He also had a farm
machinery business; he sold engines, separators, plows and that sort of
thing. This was before the days of combines. Suddenly, everybody was
broke. Sixty-five banks were broke in North Dakota in two months, which
was not at all unusual in the Depression period-banks all over the
United States, and it was a terrible situation. There were no jobs
available, and my father’s business was with farmers, and all
the farmers were broke. The ones he would do business with were either
broke, or they owed him money already. So the only thing he could do
was pick up and start his life all over again somewhere else. I was
halfway through the tenth grade at school [when] we pulled out. We came
south and ran out of money.
NUWER: South? Where?
L’AMOUR: To Texas. I had a very rough time. We moved into the
Panhandle. We came into Dallas-Forth Worth first. At first, when my dad
has some cash, he was looking for a place to locate, and we
didn’t find a good place. Money began running out. My dad was
going to have to start over, and rather than to stay on and be a burden
to him, I decided to strike out and find a job myself. At first I found
myself a job skinning cattle.
NUWER: Your father’s reaction?
L’AMOUR: Oh, it was OK with him. He understood perfectly. He
had done the same thing as a boy.
NUWER: And your mother’s?
L’AMOUR: Not too happy, but she understood also. There was
never any friction about that; it wasn’t a question of
running away from home. I was going out looking for work.
NUWER: What was her background?
L’AMOUR: My mother came from Minnesota. She went to what in
those days was called a normal school; it’s a teachers
college now. She got a good education; she was widely read-very widely
read, and so was my father, for that matter. Mother read more along
literary; my father was very into politics in my hometown. We had a
library full of poetry, and Dickens, Scott and Thackeray, much of which
I read. The kids back in my hometown in North Dakota used to say that I
had read every book in the library. I hadn’t but
I’d done a fair job of trying. One of my great discoveries
was Alexander Dumas. They had a complete set of his works there, 48
volumes, and I’d read them all, one after the other. Read all
of Victor Hugo that they had most of Charles Dickens. I read some of
Thackeray, Richardson, Fielding, and several others. For some time
before leaving school I’d become disconnected. I thought the
school was interfering wit my education, because I was reading in the
library, and I’d found that in many ways I could educate
myself faster than I was getting in school. School was made for a
certain type of student and no other; they didn’t have much
leeway one-way or the other in those days. Although I will say that the
school I attended was better than the school my children attend now. We
studied more seriously and were taught more seriously, taught better
subjects. Many kids today grow up with no knowledge of literature at
all, no background about the history of the country’ either.
But I was very interested in all that. So when I started knocking
around, I just kept on reading. In those days they had something
that’s gone now, but I’m tempted to buy the whole
set just for nostalgia’s sake. In Kansas there was a
publisher who published s number of what they called Little Blue Books.
They were then but they were all classics. They published a lot of
things by Clarence Darrow, extracts from Karl Marx, The Wealth of
Nations, all different kinds of things, but all classics. They had a
book on the history of music; education. They sold for only five or ten
cents apiece, and they were on blue paper. I carried those literally
all over the country, sometimes five or six in each pocket.
NUWER: What other possessions did you bring along?
L’AMOUR: Very little else. An extra pair of socks, a
handkerchief, a razor and a comb was all I had for quite awhile.
NUWER: One set of clothes?
L’AMOUR: Yeah. I had no place to carry it, no place to pack
it. I got around and worked where I could. After I was there for a
while baling hay, that job ran out, and my brother was sick in Oklahoma
City. I went to visit him. I stayed with him as few days, and then I
was going to rejoin my parents [who were then in New Mexico]. But I
told them that if I was coming back by a certain time, I’d
drop them a card. But I was a kid and preoccupied looking for a job, so
I didn’t send them the card until too late. Thinking I was
staying with my brother, they pulled out for Phoenix, Arizona. So I
came to this little town in New Mexico and found them gone, and I had
but ninety-five cents in my pocket. I had a choice of wiring my brother
for money, but I knew he was pretty well strapped, because
he’d been sick. Or else, go out to Arizona. I thought,
“OK, you’ve been on your own for a long while;
let’s see how you make out.” So I got off the train
about five minutes after three, I found out that my folks
weren’t there. They’d left one morning, and my card
had gotten there in the afternoon. By 3:30 I was walking out of town.
It didn’t take long to make up my mind. I hitchhiked about 14
miles, and a storekeeper let me sleep in the back of this country
store. Next morning I walked about 15-16 miles and was picked up in a
godforsaken place in New Mexico. Two young fellows picked me up and
said I could ride all the way to Phoenix with them. Unfortunately, my
folks had stopped in Roswell, New Mexico, and they like the place and
thought they might locate there, so they stayed. And I arrived in
Phoenix before they got there. I had twenty-five cents in my pocket
when I arrived in Phoenix. I bought an apple with part of that, a cup
of coffee later. I looked for a job but didn’t find
anything. I slept in a cotton wagon the first night, and the next day,
I looked for a job again as soon as I found my folks weren’t
there. By the time the next night arrived I was very tired and very
hungry. I sat down at the city hall lawn, and I saw a policeman go by
with a prisoner. I figured he’s seen me about town, so I get
up and go to the police station. I told them my circumstances, and they
let me sleep on a cot there. So I stayed there a few days, sweeping and
helping out a little, and I believed they were getting suspicious
although they didn’t say anything. My folks still
hadn’t arrived. I didn’t know what had happened.
The Hagen, Beck and Wallace circus arrived, and so I joined the circus.
I went south with them to Tucson, Douglas and Bisbee, left them in El
Paso. I grabbed a freight train and rose to San Antonio and then to
Houston and Dallas. Then I went to New Orleans and worked in an amateur
boxing tournament there a little bit—wont several fights.
Then I shopped out to the West Indies. I was gone several weeks. Got
back with nothing and shopped out on a freighter to London and got my
folks’ address. So I wrote them from Liverpool. They had
thought all this time I was with my brother, because he’d
told them, “He’ll write; he’ll
write.” He hadn’t wanted them to worry.
L’AMOUR: The first they realized anything else had happened
was when I wrote from England—which was a shocker. But that
was the beginning of it, and for the next twenty years, I rambled about
NUWER: Until what age was that?
L’AMOUR: Oh, I don’t figure ages. I don’t
find them worth mentioning. I was drifting around. Then I came back and
started writing. I settled in Oklahoma briefly and became very friendly
with a group of professors at the University of Oklahoma. At that time,
it was a very interesting bunch of guys there. I came in out of left
field, of course. I got an advance copy of a book, and I wrote a review
of a page and they published it. That was my introduction, so to speak.
All the other reviewers at the time were professors at the university.
Although they were a very distinguished bunch of men, they were all
very tuned in to the Western picture. I at that time had not thought
much about writing about the West. I’d written a few Western
stories, but most of my writing was about the Far East. By this time
I’d been over there some.
NUWER: Were you writing for magazines?
L’AMOUR: No, I was just trying to write. I wasn’t
getting much published of importance, other than poetry. The first book
published was poetry, in fact, mostly sonnets. I was a pretty strict
constuctionalist, I suppose. Then the war [World War Two] came on, and
I spent four years there [as an officer on tank destroyers]. I got out
and found that the editors I had begun to build a confederation with
were all gone.HHhgshasdddddddd szxhchdshc sdchdscsdh coddvsc
Other jobs, other places, some of them dead. All the work I had done
before, I might as well have thrown out the window because they were
all gone. Nobody knew me. I had to literally start over. I had
published in a few of the quality magazines, an issue of a magazine
called Story. It’s largely forgotten now, but it was the
bible of short story writing years ago. Martha Foley [and Whit Burnett]
published it. It originally began in Vienna as a mimeographed thing;
then they were in New York for a while.
NUWER: Foley also edited Best American Short Stories.
L’AMOUR: Best American Short Stories, yes. They paid $25 for
a short story. They published everybody who was anything in the short
story world, even in the literary world: Ernest Hemingway, William
March [author of numerous short stories despite working a full-time job
as vice-president of Waterman Steamship Lines], Erskine Caldwell, and
many, many other names known to literary history. I got into that, but
the problem was you couldn’t make a living at it. Many of
those people writing were professors at universities and I
wasn’t I’d done some boxing, fighting
professionally some. I’d quit by that time, but I used to
slip away and go out West, or up North, [or] back east, to fight under
an assumed name to pick up a few extra dollars. I’d pick up a
few dollars and write until the money was gone.
L’AMOUR: It kept me going for a while. I have a list of those
fights, and I won most of them. But I never list any of those fights in
my record, because I was not in as good shape as I might have been and
wasn’t training, as I should have been. I was conditioning
myself all right, but I didn’t have a chance to box [spar] at
all. I needed all my time to write.
NUWER: Do you have any recollection of being in any dangerous
situations while on your travels?
L’AMOUR: Many of them.
NUWER: How did you react inside when you found yourself facing danger?
L’AMOUR: I think I describe such senses very well, and I
think that’s why I do it—because I know how you
feel while those things are happening. I’ve had a lot of
things happen. It’s hard, because I don’t really
like talking about myself. They’re [publishers] trying to get
me to write my autobiography, and I might do it, but with reluctance
and hesitation. I’d rather write about other people. One
thing that has impressed me a lot are the kind of people I write about.
They’re the kind of people I lived with for a while.
It’s the complete casualness with which they take saving a
man’s life. I’ve had my life saved by other people
on at least three occasions. One time I was on a ship, and I was caught
by a big wave and thrown over the side. As I was going over, I caught
hold of one of the stanchions.
NUWER: Was this in the service?
L’AMOUR: No, merchant marine. I caught hold of one of the
stanchions supporting the railing, and I hung on, [by] only one hand.
As the ship rolled back over, I was thrown against the side of the
ship, of course, and this sailor reached over and got a hold of me and
pulled me back on the deck and walked off away. He didn’t
make anything of it. He didn’t pay any attention to it; it
was just part of a day’s work. You just do those things, you
know. This is something that has impressed me time and again.
I’ve seen that happen myself with other people.
I’ve seen lives saved and men helped out of really desperate,
awful situations, and nothing made of it at all. The guy wants to thank
the fellow, and he’s already gone on about his business. This
is just part of his work; they do those things and that’s it.
He [L’Amour’s savior] wasn’t being
modest; he just didn’t think about it. It just
didn’t occur to him that there would be any reason for thanks
or anything. I have had situations like that [because] I lived a very
rough life for a while. I went to sea in the merchant marine. I worked
in the docks. I was in China for a while; I spent ten months in China
and a year on a ship in Indonesia. We had lots of situations like that.
You see, we had pirates in Indonesia; there are pirates in the Red Sea.
Right now there are, and there have been since the beginning of time.
We had several brushes with them while I was down there.
NUWER: You had brushes involving gun battles?
L’AMOUR: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we had gun battles—very
NUWER: They tried to board the ship and take it over?
L’AMOUR: Yeah. I have a knife—it’s a
machete that’s about that long [gestures to indicate a
machete long enough to impale the front and back of your belt at the
same time] which I took away from a guy on the ship’s deck
one time. This was on the harbor in Singapore. These guys came aboard
to steal some [mooring] lines from the ship, and I was the watchman. I
didn’t have a chance to call anybody; it was too late. I
moved in on them with a piece of broken oar. Earlier in the day someone
had dropped something on one of the oars and broken off about four feet
of it. I picked it up and went to work with it. And I managed to stop
them. Right now down there, every once in a while if you watch the
inside pages of your paper—in The New York Times, in
particular, you’ll see it—a lot of the pirates now
have low, fast dugouts with outboard motors. They’ll sit
there on the shore and raid a town; they’ll either capture or
kill everybody in the town and loot the place. Any ship that happens to
get crippled is in serious trouble. They’ll come
in—eighty, ninety, sometimes one hundred of them—
NUWER: Really? Pirates? At one time?
L’AMOUR: Yeah, in many small boats.
NUWER: That’s incredible.
L’AMOUR: In many small boats they’ll come in.
They’re low down, and, because of the horizon, you
don’t see them. You don’t see them until
they’re fairly close to a village. Then all of a sudden the
waves get low enough so you see them, and they run right up on the
beach and pour all through the town. This is nine or ten years ago. The
British made an amphibious landing to wipe out a nest of
them—with amphibious tanks and everything.
NUWER: Are these like the townspeople in one town that band together or
a bunch of families?
L’AMOUR: Uh hmmm. Some of them are from the
Philippines; some are natives of Palau and other islands north of the
Celebes and that area. In the Red Sea you’ll find them, too.
NUWER: Let’s go back to the incident with the oar. How do you
find that your mind works in a dangerous situation? Do you find
yourself with an absence of thought, just meeting the situation?
L’AMOUR: Yeah, you don’t think about it at the
time. You don’t have time to be scared, either. Fear always
comes afterwards. At the moment things are happening too fast. In this
particular case, harbor pirates have been around since the world began.
They were on the Thames River back in Shakespeare’s time.
They’ve always been around. That’s why the ship
usually has a watchman when it’s in harbor. We
don’t have them here, not least that I know of; most stealing
here is done on the docks after the stuff has landed. But over there, a
ship is at anchor, let’s say, and it’s night. Every
watchman walks at night; usually there’s a gangway with an
anchor light over it. But the watchman will take a turn around the ship
every once in a while, and these fellows pull in under the stern of the
ship, and then they throw a heaving line up, which has a ball on the
end of it—
NUWER: —to pull them in.
L’AMOUR: Yeah. Then they climb up and board ship. These big
thick mooring lines are this thick around (uses both hands to make a
giant “O”]. They’re worth an awful lot of
money. I don’t know what they’re worth now, but
I’d suggest that a good mooring line is worth a thousand
dollars, maybe more than a thousand. It used to go for three or four
hundred [dollars]/ But they start uncoiling those and lowering them
onto their boat. They take the equipment from the lifeboat; they take
any tools that are lying around and anything else they can steal.
Usually, they’re not aboard the ship four or five minutes
unless there is no watchman or they incapacitate him. In this case, I
had been sitting down on the bow forward and started to walk out;
suddenly, I saw these guys. They were hoisting this new line out of a
rope locker. One fellow was pulling it out of the hole and one fellow
was passing it over the side. Then there was one fellow in the boat,
coiling it. Another guy, who I didn’t know about, had gone
around the end of the stern, looking for what he could find. When I
came up on these guys and said, “Get out of there,”
this one guy jumped at me, and I fell back and accidentally got a hold
of this oar. I fell on it and I heaved it up; my hand grabbed the
middle of it, of course, and heaved up and hit him. You should never
hit anyone with a club; always thrust with it. It’s much
NUWER: It’s like the principles of aikido.
L’AMOUR: Yeah, yeah. So I took it and went to work with it.
Of course the end of it was all jagged; it was a nasty weapon. One of
these fellows fell down, and another one scrambled for the railing. I
grabbed at his belt, and that’s when I pulled the knife
loose—I still have it. But lots of things like that have
happened. It’s always been rough in seaports.
NUWER: One interesting thing I heard about your past is that you had
talked with a woman who was present, I believe, at the shooting of
Billy the Kid. True story?
L’AMOUR: This was down in Maxwell [New Mexico]. She was a
Navaho woman. As a girl she had been raised by the Maxwell family. Of
course, Lucien Maxwell [former holder of the single largest tract of
land owned by one person] was dead and Pete [Pedro] Maxwell
[Lucien’s only son] was living around Fort Sumner. She was
raised by them and working for them. She was a friend of
Billy’s. A lot of my interpretation of people in the past
becomes very difficult after years have gone by, and you hear stories
to the contrary about what they were like. You hear stories good and
bad. I judge a man a lot by who his friends were and by his conduct in
things other than you usually hear reported. One of my deductions is
that Billy really wasn’t such a bad guy, because the Mexicans
all liked him. They were the people who were getting kicked around by
anybody who was a bully or of that nature; they had been treated badly.
And the Mexicans all liked Billy, and so I think he must have had some
very good qualities. It’s like the Clantons over in Arizona;
I judge who their friends were. A lot of people say the Earps were bad
people. Wyatt Earp and his brothers. But nearly all their friends were
good people and nearly all their enemies turned out to be hung or to go
to prison, so I figure they must be all right. (Chuckles) Anyway,
Deluvina [Maxwell] was an old woman when I knew her, and I
didn’t know such a person existed. I had been skinning cattle
over in West Texas, and I came into New Mexico hunting a job. I was
around Tucumcari two-three days and found nothing there. I stopped in
Santa Rosa and boxed an exhibition with a Mexican fighter. He was much
smaller than I was, but he fought 214 fights. I was just a kid, and he
wanted to put on an exhibition for his hometown people; he’d
been fighting mostly in Mexico. Nobody would box with him, so I boxed
him and picked up a few dollars.
NUWER: Did you win?
L’AMOUR: It was just an exhibition.
L’AMOUR: I was taller and heavier than he was, but he was
much more experienced than I was. I had never really been in a
professional ring before. I had done a little bit of boxing but not
professionally. I was only 15. I came on down to Fort Sumner, and I got
a job there baling hay. All the guys baling hay were young guys except
for the men who bucked hay up to the baler. In those days a baler was
run by a tractor with a belt. We pitched the hay into a hopper, which
packed it down into bales. I was tying and sacking baled most of the
time. But the man who was bucking hay was an old fellow who’d
been around there for quite awhile. He’d been gone and come
back in, and just got a temporary job. But one day we were baling hay
across the road from where Billy was buried. In the process we were
talking about him, and one of the fellows said, “Gee, if
you’re interested in Billy, why don’t you talk to
Old Tom? Well, it turned out this Tom Pickett who had ridden with
Billy, been arrested with him, and was wounded in a couple of gun
battles Billy was in. He’d been a pretty hard case in his
younger years. He was in the Tonto Basin Wars, as well as the Lincoln
County Wars. So I used to spend every minute eating lunch, talking to
him, listening to him, I should say, plying him with questions. He
liked me, and so, he loosened up and talked quite freely. In one of the
conversations he suggested that I should go down to the old court and
talk to Deluvina. So I did; she was an old Indian lady. She used to
come out and sit on a rocker outside, sometimes on a bench in the
sunlight to sew or something of the kind. I’d been introduced
to her by a couple of friends, so I’d go down, and
I’d sit and talk to her about Billy. She was the one who was
going to fix a steak for Billy the day he was killed. Nobody had
believed Billy was anywhere in the country; Pat Garrett got a tip
through John W. Poe, one of his deputies who was later, I believe, a
banker in Roswell [New Mexico]. Garrett had gotten this tip that Billy
was there, and he didn’t believe it, Pat didn’t.
But just on the chance that he might be, Pat and [deputies] Tip
McKinney and John W. Poe rode over to Pete Maxwell’s home. It
was a good-sized home for those days with a porch nearly all around it,
and the doors to most of the rooms opened onto this long porch. Two of
the men—the two deputies—sat down on the steps
outside; by this time it was dusk. Pat walked back into Pete
Maxwell’s bedroom. Pete was lying in his bed because he
hadn’t been feeling well. Pat went in and sat down with him.
Well, those were the days of coal oil lights, you know. No lamp had
been lit yet; it was just early dusk. The only light on in the house,
in fact, was in the kitchen where they were preparing some food. Billy
rode up n ext door about that time, almost simultaneous with
Pat’s arrival. He rode up n ext door and Deluvina said,
“Billy, I don’t have anything in the house to eat,
but if you go next door, Pete’s got a side of beef on the
porch. You cut yourself a steak I’ll fix it for
you.” Billy knew a girlfriend of Deluvina’s
[thoughts by historians to be Manuela Bowdre or Celsa Gutierrez], and
that’s why he was in town—to see this girl. Her
name has always been kept pretty much a secret and probably always will
be. I know who it was, but I’m not going to say. Anyway,
Billy took a knife and went next door through a gate in the picket
fence, and he saw these two men sitting in the dark. He
couldn’t see who they were, but he had seen their horses tied
up out front. He realized they were strangers, so he said,
“Who is it?” in Spanish. He knew everybody around
was Spanish or Mexican. Neither of the deputies knew the sound of the
voice. They said, “It’s all right; we’re
just waiting for a fellow.” So Billy walked back along the
porch past the beef with some burlap over it. He went on by it, and
said, “Pete, who are those fellows out there?’ Pat
shot him. It was cold turkey, but if the situation could have been
reversed, Billy would have done it, too. They both knew the chips were
down, and there wasn’t any fooling around. Deluvina, of
course, heard the shot—two shots, actually. They
didn’t find the other one until many years afterwards. Pat
fired and hit Billy who was silhouetted in the door, of course. Then he
threw himself down on the ground and fired as he threw himself down.
That shot missed by eleven feet. They didn’t find it for
years, and many years later there were looking at a washstand. Somebody
bought it; they found the bullet underneath the washstand. Deluvina
heard the shots, and she ran next door. She was perhaps the second or
third person to see Billy. McKinney and Poe, of course, jumped up and
started back, but she probably got there the same time they did. She
helped prepare his body for burial, and so, was really on the spot when
all that happened. I talked to her, oh; I would say a dozen different
times. It wasn’t a question of interviewing her; I
wasn’t a writer at the time. I was just a kid who wanted to
know. I was friendly with people around there, and so she talked with
me quite freely. I had had a good talk with Tom Pickett earlier. Later
on, at Ruidoso, I talked with George Coe who also had been with Billy
and had a finger shot of in a fight [helping Billy the Kid] that killed
Buckshot Roberts [alias for Jesse Andrews]. Who actually killed him
[Roberts] was very much a question. Anyway, George Coe used to live
over here below Ruidoso. He ran a store over there for a number of
years before its big days. George wrote a book called Frontier Fighter,
which tells some of his reminiscences about Billy and the
times. Now you see a lot of people get the idea that Billy
was only an outlaw, and he was not an outlaw most of the time. He was a
drifter; he had no ties anywhere. The only job he ever had was with
[John H.] Tunstall [well-to-do English rancher who lived 30 miles south
of Lincoln, New Mexico]; he was dealing monte [Spanish gambling game
with 40 cards] here and there and undoubtedly he rustled a few head of
cattle when he needed steak, but not as a business. There were quite a
few ranchers who built their business that way, you know; on much of
the range, cattle were running loose and nobody knew who they belonged
to. The first one to get a brand onto them owner them.
NUWER: I see.
L’AMOUR: Finally, the big ranchers said, “Well, if
you don’t own breeding stock you can’t do
that.” They had their own breeding stock originally. But the
Lincoln County War—the feud—actually developed with
[L.G.] Murphy and [James J.} Dolan. Murphy and Dolan were former army
officers who were crooks, no question about it. They had a friend with
a ranch who was stealing cattle, and they were buying cattle from him
and selling the beef. Apparently for a while, Billy was helping them
steal cattle; although whether he did or not is open to question. He
undoubtedly sold some cattle to them. And then he ran into Tunstall who
is always played in the movies as an old man, when actually he was but
23-24 years old. He was a young fellow who had come out to invest some
money. He liked Billy, and he thought he had good stuff in him. He
hired him, and it was the only job Billy ever had. Then Tunstall was
killed under rather brutal circumstances [shot by a posse of
pseudo-deputies who were pursuing him after he’d been
framed], and that was enough to get Billy [by then loyal to Tunstall]
involved in that war.
NUWER: These memories of yours are priceless. But what about children?
Would you like them to experience some of the things you have for an
all-round look at life?
L’AMOUR: No. I lucked out. So many times I lucked out on
getting killed. I’d hate to have them under the same
circumstances, because the breaks might not go the right way.
NUWER: Are you glad that you endured and experienced all these things?
L’AMOUR: Yes, I wouldn’t change a thing, actually.
Although, yes I would—I would change some things. I worked
too long on some jobs I did here and there. I’m grateful to
them for all the experience they had to offer me. I stayed in them
longer than was good for me, really. I really would have liked to go
on. There were other times when I was in an area to learn a lot, and
didn’t know enough to learn it. A lot of times you
don’t know who you’re talking to until
it’s too late. Once I ran into a man down in Indonesia, a
Dutchman, an engineer. He’d been in China; he’d
been in India; he’d been in what is now Pakistan.
He’d been in Afghanistan and a lot of places. He’d
been through some extremely excited times. It meant nothing to him. He
might as well have stayed home and twiddled his thumbs and played
pinochle. He had been where everything was happening, and it has passes
him by just like a breeze. We were talking, and I’d say,
“Why, you were there when such-and-such happened.”
And he’d say, “Why, yes, I was.”
You’d begin mining things, and you could see he was right
there in the middle of it all, and it hadn’t touched him.
It’s strange about people. Some live with all their pores
open and all their nerves sensitive to things. Some walk on by through
it all without—
NUWER: --I get the feeling that even if you hadn’t written a
word, you wouldn’t have regretted having all those
experiences. Writing [for you] is just another experience.
L’AMOUR: They were all enriching and wonderful. Great
experiences, marvelous experiences. For a while I was ten months in
China. I was way in Sinkiang, miles away from anyplace. I
won’t get into the story of how I was there; it’s
too long of a story. Anyway, I was out there. No white men were out
there at all. This is a place where only five percent of the people
were Chinese; they were a mixture of races and peoples. This is very
likely where the white race originated. People like the
Tocharians—many of them had grey eyes and red hair. But
it’s a mixture of races. There are a few Mongols there, a lot
of Turks and people of that sort. These people I was with were a
hodgepodge of camel drivers, caravan people, drifters, ex-soldiers,
what not. We were sitting around the campfire at night, and you could
feel the breeze blowing. All of a sudden everybody stopped talking.
There wasn’t a sound. I started to say something and someone
reached out and put his hand on my arm. You could hear something way
out in the desert, something moving. This was the Takla Makan desert.
They believe there are ghost caravans out there who go to ghost cities
of many, many people. Now they’re all gone. That desert out
there is about 450,000 square miles. The Chinese are using it to test
their atomic bombs out there, so you can’t get into it now at
all, although I’d love to. They had all these stories about
lost cities of the desert, with all this gold just lying all around.
They say that if you pick it up, wildcats will come out of the
wilderness and claw you all to pieces. Fabulous stories.
L’AMOUR: I know. You’re in Never-never Land.
NUWER: Were you a loner at this time? Or did you feel connected to
people as you went along? Were there people who kept coming back into
L’AMOUR: I met lots of people, and I made friends with lots
of people. I wasn’t always a loner, although I never really
liked to travel with another person as a partner, because, usually, I
found it handicapped me very badly. They wouldn’t want to go
someplace, or they would want to do something I didn’t want
to. I made friends wherever I went; I always made friends easily. I
like people, and I enjoy them. And I’ve never thought that
anybody should be different than what he was. If a man eats a different
way from I, that’s his business. When I’m with
alien people, I don’t expect them to be different from what
they are. I accept them. So I always go along with everybody. I had
more trouble in semi-civilization than otherwise. I don’t
know why it is, but I probably could still do it, although I
haven’t done it in a long time. But there was a period of
about two-thirds of my life, when I could walk into any barroom, say
nothing to anybody, and within thirty minutes, someone would try to
pick a fight with me. I don’t know why, but it will happen.
NUWER: In small towns?
L’AMOUR: [Nodding] In small towns. But it’s never
happened here. The last time it happened was at The Brown Derby, the
last place in the world you’d expect trouble of that kind. I
haven’t been out in a long time now, so I don’t
know if it sill would happen. But it probably would.
NUWER: Maybe it’s your size.
L’AMOUR: I don’t think it is. The [Brown] Derby is
a good case in point. I used to go in there before I was married.
I’d meet with a group of guys. One of them was a director of
television. A couple of them were writers. One of them was a director
of television. A couple of them were writers. One was a comedian, Joe
Frisco. We used to gather there at the corner of the bar and tell
stories. But I was in there one night, and none of them had come in
yet. The bartender knew me very well. I never was a drinker.
I’d take one drink, and the bartender was going down the
line; there were only about half-a-dozen people in the place. There was
a guy down at the end of the bar, and I could see him look at me.
Pretty soon he calls across the bar, “What’s the
matter with you?” I could see it coming; I could have read
you the book. I’d been through it so many times.
NUWER: But you had no trouble in foreign countries?
L’AMOUR: Very little. In bars, waterfront
places—yes—but not away from the waterfronts. Not
back in the country. I didn’t have any trouble at all.
NUWER: Now you have a nice safe life with a family. Do you have an
appreciation of both the lives you’ve led?
L’AMOUR: I have very much appreciation for both. I
can’t say I was born wary, but I certainly became so, and I
NUWER: Well, you had to survive.
L’AMOUR: Yeah. I’m a careful man; I believe in
being careful, or as careful as you can be. When I walk down the street
I’m careful. I’m always aware of what could happen
or might happen. Here, at night, I am. I’m very alert at
night. When Kathy and I first were married, we lived over at a little
Spanish place, a very nice place, not far from Schwab’s
Drugstore. We had an apartment there. There was a wall with a gate in
it, and a little interior court with some garages off it. Then there
was an archway and a little interior garden with a patio and fountain.
We lived beside the gate, looking out at the court. If anybody walked
onto the court at night, a stranger, I’d wake up. The
regulars who lived in the apartment house, I wouldn’t. If it
was a stranger, I’d wake up immediately.
NUWER: As a writer, you have to have an eye and ear for the unusual,
for being in a bar and listening above the din for the story.
L’AMOUR: Yeah, I’m very tuned into that. You get
story-minded, because you have to. That’s the matter of a
writer’s survival. Some people are very ripe story material;
others are not, although I think a good writer can make a story of
NUWER: How about dialogue? Is your dialogue as accurate as any of your
settings? Or do you think the dialogue a writer uses can’t
really imitate what is said in real life?
L’AMOUR: I think my dialogue is natural and
right—at least for the people who are doing the talking. All
my writing is meant to be read aloud, whether it ever is or not,
because I am, basically, a storyteller. I vocalize my stories as I go
along. No, my dialogue, all of it, could be spoken. Some
writers’ dialogue cannot be spoken. You can read it, but you
can’t say it. But all mine can. Some particular actor might
want to change a word—that’s fine, because if it
suits him, fine. But mine can be spoken, and it’s direct and
to the point. Most of the movie writers haven’t experienced
the things that I have, and so they don’t realize something
that I was told a long time ago that’s very true: talkers
don’t fight. What I mean is, people who talk at the time of
the fight. If you’re going to have a fight, you fight. If a
guy starts talking too much, he doesn’t want to fight,
really, at all. He’s a talker. A real fighter probably has
three or four words spoken, and that’s it. The chips are
down, and he knows it’s going to happen. Really tough men
never go around looking for trouble, never. They’re ready for
it; they meet it quickly if it comes, because they know it
can’t be avoided in all cases, and it’s better to
get it over with. But they don’t go looking for trouble.
NUWER: Do you think there are a lot of writers like you left who have
had thrilling life experiences?
L’AMOUR: Not too many, no. There used to be
some—Jack London and a few others, but most now are the
NUWER: I wonder if this will have an effect on literature. Few people
are coming off the streets now and writing out of experience.
L’AMOUR: I think you’ll find one every once in a
while coming off the streets, though. I think some of these are
kids—Puerto Ricans or some other kids—will come up
who can write and who have something to say. Someone who knows the
language of the streets. It’s very important someone should.
During the 1930’s, there were a number of good writers of
that ilk; some of them, unhappily, didn’t last too long. A
lot of them went Communist, which made them dead as writers, because
once you start talking propaganda; you kill yourself as a writer.
NUWER: Like Richard Wright, you mean?
L’AMOUR: Yes. Wright, I think, killed himself as a writer.
Wright had great, great promise and great beauty in some of his
writing. But you can’t be a propagandist and a writer, too.
What a writer has to do is just write. Whatever he feels will come out.
He can’t keep it back; it’ll show. But then
it’ll come out all right, you see. IF you try to sell a bill
of goods, people feel they’re being preached to and they
won’t like it.
NUWER: What about Jack London in Martin Eden? Do you recall his
L’AMOUR: I think he was all right there. I think it was later
that he went bad. I think he lost himself at the end, and
it’s one reason why he killed himself. The Iron Heel and that
sort of stuff was straight propaganda. But even in Martin Eden he was
just a storyteller; he was doing a fine job. It’s better to
let those kinds of things come out in your writing, you see. You
can’t do both. You’re either a propagandist or
you’re a storyteller. Like I say, what you feel is going to
come out; you can’t hold it back. If it comes out naturally
and easily, people are going to accept it. They don’t argue
with it because it’s part of you. I think a writer should
stick to what lasts; I don’t believe in writers getting
involved in politics, for example. I’m very interested in
politics, but I think if I took and active part in it, it would, in the
first place, alienate my audience; in the second place, it would
influence me as a writer, so I’d be less effective than I am
now. That sort of think I have to leave to other people. I have no
causes. I believe in good government, sane government. I’d
like to see our government cut out a lot of the bureaus, and
we’re spending a lot of money needlessly that might be spend
better other ways. There’s a lot of duplication in
government. I think it should be taken care of; I think it will. I
think the American people, basically are very sane. People often ask
me, “When would I like to have lived.” This is the
best time, right now. People think it’s a bad time; it
isn’t at all. This is by far the best time in the world in
which to live. We have a greater variety of food available to
us—even to the average man. The average poor man eats better
than a kind did 150 years ago. We have a greater variety of
entertainment. There are a greater variety of hospitals and schools of
education. Everything around us is of enormous variety. The
possibilities are endless in the particular period. People talk about
violence in the world. This is an important thing that people forget.
Every great creative period has been a time of great violence. In the
Renaissance, for example, people were murdered on the street every
night. You hardly dared walk on the streets at certain hours of the
night without a bodyguard around you. Shakespeare in
England—a time of tremendous violence. Every great creative
period has been this way, because it’s the only expression
some type of people have. Everybody is trying to express themselves;
the world is bursting wide open all around them and they want to be
part of it—subconsciously at least. They don’t
realize it. The opportunities to make a success right now are infinite.
I can see, if I weren’t a writers, dozens of ways in which I
could become a multimillionaire in a short time—starting
where I am or starting from scratch, either one. This is a time when
the idea is the thing.
NUWER: You don’t think the time of opportunity is closed off?
L’AMOUR: Not at all. The opportunities are different;
that’s all. They’re different than they used to be.
It requires more knowledge in many cases.
NUWER: How do you keep up on so many things and still write? What is
your typical workday like?
L’AMOUR: I get up about 5:30 in the morning. I eat breakfast,
read the newspaper, and send my kids off to school. Then I go to work;
usually I work all morning. In the afternoon, I work part of the time
and I read part of the time. I carry books or magazines every place I
go. One year I kept track. I read twenty-five books while waiting for
people. I take a whole series of magazines. I take Pacific Discovery,
Natural History, National Geographic, Scientific American; I take
Chemistry, Technology Review, Science, Science News and To the Point,
which is about the Third world mostly—Latin America, Africa
and Asia nations. I take a whole variety of magazines of that type, and
I skim them all. I read the items that strike me as being the most
important, bit I skim them all. I try to keep abreast of
what’s happening in the world. I’m asked all kinds
of questions on television and radio, and I like to have the answers,
not to show off my own knowledge, but because people hop I have the
answers; they’re looking for them. Because of the life I live
I have access to more information than most people do; NASA, for
example, sends me all their releases. So the average guy is working at
his job, and he’s confined at how much he can learn. Even the
average university professor has become too specialized. This is an age
of specialization. But for a fiction writer, the world’s open
to him. SO I see myself as a kind of funnel through which all of this
is flowing through; I try to absorb as much as I can, so when people
ask me [something], I try to give them an intelligent answer or at
least a choice of answers or what the latest thought is. I’m
very much against positive answers, because I believe everything is in
transition. I think that if I’ve got one thing going for me,
both in my writing and other things, it’s that I love people.
A lot of writers despise people. They don’t want to be
social, they avoid it. I don’t; I like people. It’s
one of the things I’ve always had to guard against. You can
dissipate too many of your energies. I hope I have something to offer
the world. I’m trying; I believe I have a very perceptive
audience out there. But for that reason, I take it for granted that my
audience is intelligent. I write a book that appeals to their
intelligence. Sure, I’m writing about the romantic periods of
the West, but I try to tell not only how it was, but show how things
happened in those days—what kind of world they lived in.
NUWER: You certainly research every last detail in your books.
L’AMOUR: For example, in one of my stories, The Ferguson
Rifle, there is a treasure involved at one point. No on is able to find
it. It’s on a white cliff with an aspen forest over it.
Nobody’s been able to find it because they are always looking
for an aspen forest. Well, my lead character is a very bright man who
has lectured at the Sorbonne and other places, Cambridge and what not,
is a careful, observing man. He happens to know something about forest
progression, and he knows there wouldn’t be an aspen forest
after all those years. The aspen is a beautiful tree, one of the most
beautiful trees there is in the world. After there’s been a
fire or a landslide, the first thing that appears is firewood; the
aspen starts to grow up, and the aspen grows very quickly in very thick
clumps. But the aspen is a mother tree, and after it gets so high,
spruce trees start to grow up. They cannot grow up by themselves; they
need shelter in early years. The aspen gives it to them. After the
spruce trees grow up so high, the aspen begin to die out, and the
spruce trees take over. The aspen pass out, and the spruce trees take
over. The spruce is like a child being reared by its mother. He
doesn’t live off the aspen, but he can’t live
without the aspen at first. So this man knows that after all these
years, there wouldn’t be an aspen forest; it would be a
spruce forest. So he finds it. My readers are interested in that sort
of thing. They like that. I’ve told in two of my books how
beaver affect the country. Beaver will make a dam, a pond, and that
attracts certain kinds of birds. It attracts ducks and fish will get
into it; elk will come by. A few beaver will change the whole
ecological climate of an area. In my books I tell the reader how some
Indians thought the honeybee was a scout for the white man. There had
been no honeybees in America before the white man, no honeybees at all.
They went native in a hurry, and they reached the Mississippi areas
before the white man did. The Indians who had seen them thought the
bees were spotters for them. These things are interesting. In my
stories I talk about the Indian and the white man. There’s no
way what happened could have been avoided. It just was. Man since the
beginning of time has moved into any area that was open to him. He
always has. Before the Indians there were other Indians; before them,
there were other people.
NUWER: These stories make brilliant conversation, too.
L’AMOUR: Some of the most brilliant conversations
I’ve heard in my life were in hobo jungles. There were a lot
of drifters in those days, fellows knocking around, who either just
didn’t have any drive, or something had gone wrong in their
lives; a broken marriage, or maybe they’d been drinking too
much, and they lost out on whatever they’d been doing.
Everything loose drifts down to the sea eventually, and it
isn’t only driftwood, it’s people. Go down to the
seaports and you’ll see all kinds of odds and ends. I found
them and I learned a lot from them; I learned a lot about people. I
learned a lot about people from men I worked with and knocked around
NUWER: Did you keep notebooks all this time?
L’AMOUR: No. I put each story away in my head. I
didn’t have any place to keep a notebook. When I first
started out, I tried keeping a diary, but I threw it away a long time
ago. It was the most godawful thing you ever heard. I
wouldn’t want anyone to realize I was ever so stupid.
[Laughter of both men] Every kid has a right to be stupid, but I
certainly overdid my part of it.
NUWER: I wonder if bums on trains today would be the same as bums at
L’AMOUR: Some of them would be, but I kind of doubt it. The
time has changed, you know? At that time, a good part of men riding
freight trains were wandering workers—migratory workers. You
see, the original hobo drew a strong line between himself and the bums
and the tramps. In some of the songs of folklore they combined the
three, but actually, to them, a bum was a local man who
didn’t wander, but who didn’t want to
work—and who drank or begged for food and got along as best
he could. A tramp was the same kind of man who kept moving. A hobo was
a wandering worker, a migratory worker, and at the time I’m
speaking of he was still very much essential to the welfare of the
country. For example, he would work the harvest all the way from Texas
clear up into Canada. The seasons changed, and as they worked north,
they kept up with the harvest. Without those men they
couldn’t have harvested the grain. There wasn’t
enough local labor them to handle it. These men would come in and
handle the job there; then they’d go north to where it was
just starting and work again. When I was a kid, for some years the
freight trains used to carry them free of charge without complaints
during harvest season. Some times you’d see a train pull into
town with fifty or one hundred men sitting on the box cars, because it
was the only way you could get labor into the fields. These same men at
other times would work in the lettuce fields, or they’d pick
fruit in Oregon, or some other place. They followed the seasonal labor
wherever it happened to be. Some of them, throughout the course of a
summer, would work up a pretty good stake. They’d be sending
money home in those cases, and them they’d go back. The kind
of men I’m talking about it’s interesting to
note—some were just drifters but some were migratory workers.
But I have heard some brilliant literary conversations; these men read
a lot. I’ll tell you something else that’s very
interesting; they know the Depression was coming before it hit. All
those men did. While Andrew Mellon and the rest of them were saying
that prosperity was still with us, and everything was going
great—and believed it—these men knew it was a lit.
They knew it wasn’t true. But a peculiar thing happened. In
those days there were about three of four men in every job in the
country. Nobody realized this, because they were changing all the time.
In those days there were a lot of men who worked no place very long.
They’d work at a place for seven or eight months and then get
fed up. A miner used to say, “Well, she’s deep
enough as far as I’m concerned.” They’d
quit and they’d go on to another one. These fellows would
keep moving. It became a game of musical chairs. Some men were working
all the time, so the economy was pretty fluid. But all of a sudden
things began tightening up. Suddenly we had a huge work force who
didn’t have anywhere to go. For the first time people began
to realize the economy wasn’t that good. The situation
wasn’t good. But the hobos knew that a long time before it
reached Wall Street and reached the businessman, because they were the
ones who had been hurt first. It was very interesting. I drifted around
for a while like that. Then I went into the war and was there for four
years and went overseas. I was first in the tank division and them went
into the transportation corps.
NUWER: Did you serve in France?
L’AMOUR: Yeah, I served in France and Belgium, Holland and
Germany. We were kind of a bastard outfit, shifting around from place
to place wherever they needed us. I was with the First Armored for a
while, then I was with Patton’s Third Army on his march up to
Paris. I was with him for a shot time after that. Then I was with the
Ninth Army in Holland; then I was back with the Third Army again. We
covered a lot of country and did a lot of good work, but as I said,
when I came back I lost out. All my [publishing] contracts were gone.
So I started writing for the pulps.
NUWER: Had you written for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post then?
L’AMOUR: No, not then. I did later. It was after the war. I
sold a serial called The Burning Hills to The Saturday Evening Post. I
started writing for the pulp magazines, mostly about China, and the Far
East. I’d written some of them before the war. I’d
published some stories about a captain on a tramp freighter in the
Dutch East Indies at the very beginning of the war. I foretold some
events that happened in the war, some prophesies that came true. I
didn’t know I was prophesying then but I did.
NUWER: For example?
L’AMOUR: I wrote about the use of midget submarines before
they were ever used. Then I wrote a story, interestingly enough, about
one of the Solomon Islands, and had a man shipwrecked on the shore. He
got ashore and found a Japanese base on the island. Shortly afterwards,
the American navy went there and found the base right where I said it
would be. I had been down there before, you see, and we had troops on
Guadalcanal then. I got to thinking, well gee, if I were going to
attack their lines of communication, what would I do? I wrote about
this island, which had a nicely concealed bay; you couldn’t
see it unless you were directly over it. It was a good place for a
flying field. There was a volcano there, which was split in two with
some trees on it, and if you cut down those trees, you’d have
a great flying field there. So I wrote about it. This was the same
island where Kennedy was washed ashore, and where he got ashore was one
of those little islands at about the same time my man landed on the
island. But as I say, I was beginning to branch out into other things,
when all of a sudden, the bottom dropped out. So again I had to start
over. It hasn’t been easy.
NUWER: Were you helped by anyone?
L’AMOUR: I’ve never had anybody help me with my
writing. I did it all myself. Nobody ever helped me. I sent out at
least two hundred stories before I ever sold one. I have no idea about
how many there were; it probably was more than that. I wrote articles,
I wrote short stories. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I was writing
more than I am now, but I wasn’t selling much. The stories
just kept coming back. The only thing that made me feel good about it
was that I remembered what George Bernard Shaw had said about his five
novels that he wrote when he first started to write. He said that for
years after, all he could remember about them was their five brown
packages that kept coming back postage due. Anyway, I finally decided
that something had to be wrong with what I was doing. The editors
weren’t all stupid. I sat down and tried to figure it out. I
didn’t get anywhere. Then I got a bunch of short stories that
I liked, some from the classics – de Maupassant and [Robert
Louis] Stevenson, and some from popular magazines. I studied and
analyzed them. Shortly after that, I began to sell.
NUWER: You think it was a matter of improving structure?
L’AMOUR: Partly structure, yes. Partly because [earlier] I
was doing what every beginning writer does. Every beginning writer,
without fail, will talk about the story for three paragraphs or three
pages before they get started telling it. Also, you should always bring
your people on in action, either doing something or [having] something
about to happen. This I hadn’t discovered at the time. We
live in a time when people are impatient. They like to read, but they
have many other things that they can do. They’re not locked
into reading. Years ago there was very little to do. After a certain
hour of the day, you’d go to the theater or you’d
go to the bar, and that was about it. Nowadays there are baseball
games, there are foot ball games, there are all kinds of things going
L’AMOUR: Of course, television and
movies—we’re surrounded by entertainment. So when a
man picks up a book, you’ve got to grab him right in that
first instant. You can’t let him get away.
NUWER: I read your books on planes.
L’AMOUR: Well, that’s a good place to read them. My
readers are the greatest cross section in the world. I have people
write to me all the way from nine to ninety-eight, all walks of life.
Presidents from some of the biggest companies in America have written
me fan letters. Presidents of the United States have written me fan
letters. Heads of foreign governments have. A lot of members of the FBI
are fans of mine; a lot of members of the state department are fans of
mine. I have a quiet audience; it’s a mutual love affair.
They like my books, and I like them. They’re the people I
write for. I can say this with all honesty. I have met lots of them at
autograph sessions. If I had to populate a new country, I’d
like it to be with my fans. I haven’t had a letter from a
single man or woman that I haven’t wanted to sit down and
NUWER: A friend of mine [Ed Ward] who worked for Rolling Stone said he
was a little embarrassed because he liked western novels. Finally, he
said to me, “Yep, they’re the worst books I ever
L’AMOUR: [Laughter] There is an attitude that has developed
in this country—that’s peculiar to this
country—that any novel written east of the Mississippi is a
historical novel. If it happens west of the Mississippi, it’s
a Western. Therefore, it’s supposed to be a different
category. Actually, in some of the Westerns there’s been some
extremely good writing. There has been a lot of bad writing, too. But
unhappily, some Western writers have believed that Western literature
is bad literature. I don’t at all. I think it’s far
more important to re-enter the world, tell a story about the settling
of a continent and the kind of people it took to settle it, the people
who came out and broke the sod for the first time, the people who
herded the cattle, who built the homes, who built the country that is
out here. I think that’s far more important than what two
psychiatric subjects do in bed, which is what a lot of other novels are
written about. I think all of us need a firmer grasp on the history of
our country. Right now I’m appalled at the little history
kids are getting in school. I was reading an article in the
paper—Jack Smith’s column, in fact—he was
quoting somebody who’d been asking questions of college
students. Most of them didn’t even know the rudiments of
government functions, or who was what, or anything about it. Many of
them didn’t know who was president during World War Two. Many
of them knew none of the facts about World War Two. It’s
appalling that this is the case. No matter what business you go into,
or what direction in life you want to take, you have to have firm
ground to take off. You can’t take off from sand; you
can’t take off from a puff of air. You’ve got to
find some place you belong, some place you fit. If you know the history
of your country, if you know you’re a part of this great
pageant, it helps a great deal. Now you’re well prepared, and
you’re going to do your bit to make things better or make
your own life better at least, which is the thing that basically ought
to be important to all people.
NUWER: You often have fictional families involved in historical events.
Do you find this is a learning experience for you at the same time
while you write?
L’AMOUR: Always, always it is. Frankly, while I write my
stories to be read by other people, I write for my own interest, too. I
wouldn’t write anything if I didn’t enjoy writing.
I get a lot of fun out of writing; I enjoy writing. I enjoy putting
words together. I enjoy seeing them on paper. People often ask me if
there is anything I’d like to go back and rewrite. Well,
there isn’t. When I wrote it, it was good enough. Now I want
to write something different. Or they’re always asking,
“What’s my favorite book?” I have no
favorite book. If I do, it’s the one I’m working on
or the next one I’m working on. The past work is just a
foundation to take up new work. If there’s one key to all my
stories it’s that they’re stories of achievement,
because I’m geared this way myself, and I think most
Americans are. We want to build on to something, no matter what it is.
Maybe you want to be president of the United States; maybe you want a
nice little vine-covered cottage. Either achievement is complete and is
fine. But you’re working toward something; you’re
building toward something. You want to complete something. I believe
that’s the way it should be.
NUWER: Have you set goals for yourself that you still have to
L’AMOUR: Oh, many. Mainly now it’s just to write
better—to write better and to write more. I want people to
read my stories and say, “Yes, this is how it was.”
I get old-timers [who] write here once in a while and say mine are the
only stories they read because mine tell it the way it was. Of course,
I deal with dramatic moments. Nevertheless, woven all through that is
the way they lived, the way they worked cattle, the way they survived,
the way they got along. Of course, I don’t write only about
the American West. I write about the frontier wherever it is. Some of
my books take place on the East Coast. I hope that the solid core of my
work would be 40 completed books—they’re not done
yet—that would tell pretty much the story of the settling of
the United States. There’s no way you can do it in one book.
There’s no way you can do it in a dozen books. You
can’t really do it in forty, but I’m going to take
a healthy stab at it.
NUWER: What does the “Man of Action” in you do?
L’AMOUR: I go to mountains in Colorado or deserts in Arizona,
or Southern Utah, or wherever it happens to be. I explore a lot. I have
no interest in climbing mountains as such, but if there’s
something at the top of the mountain like Indian ruins, I’ll
climb up there, no matter how high it is or how hard to get to. I got
to places like that. Now I can afford it, so I take the easier way
sometimes. I used to have to just walk and climb; now, like last
spring, I got a helicopter and landed atop a couple of mesas in
southeastern Utah. I could never have gone there before, but now I
could. My whole feeling as a writer is to try and put the reader in the
story. I want him to feel what they were feeling, taste what they were
tasting, feel what they were doing. I want him to hear the sounds. I
want him to be right in the middle of the story. When I describe
something in the story, it’s nothing but what the protagonist
would see. It’s what he’s looking at. I’d
rather describe that than just be describing something. It’s
always what’s being seen [and] what’s there.
NUWER: You can look at what’s happening now in Utah and in
the Four Corners area in terms of the destruction of America
that’s taking place in terms of pollution. Does that enter
into your books when you write about the settling, say, of New Mexico
L’AMOUR: It can’t, because I’m writing of
a period, a time when they didn’t know all that. But
I’m glad you mentioned that, because I’m not as
appalled as a lot of people are. You see, one problem is that the media
is always with us, and it’s always dealing with
NOW—with a capital O and W. What we need is historical
perspective. You cannot understand any period if you look at now.
You’ve got to see it as it was a few years ago, and
you’ve got to see it as it’s becoming. What is
happening now is this. We are a people who’ve been climbing a
long stairway and who’ve come to a landing on that stairway.
We’re stopping to catch our breath and look around a little
bit. In the process of building anything, there’s debris. If
you want to make a table, pretty soon you have sawdust, pretty soon you
have scraps of wood and junk around. Always in the building under
construction, you see mounds of gravel or dirt, or little sacks lying
there. We’ve been building very rapidly; now we’re
cleaning up. We’ve stopped to clean up. In a little while, it
will all be cleaned up, and you won’t see this pollution. You
won’t see the junk; you won’t see the destruction.
It will all be gone. We’ll be building something worthwhile
in its place. This is just a process that we’re going
through, so we must not be distressed by it. We must be distressed by
it, yes, to an extent, but not with a feeling, “This is the
end.” We’re distressed by it because it’s
got to be cleaned up, just like a housewife is distressed when she sees
a bunch of dust on the floor. She wants to get it brushed away right
away. Well, we’ve got this cleaning up to do. Also,
we’ve got to stop on this landing, take a good look around,
and see where we are and find out where our destination is going to be.
See how we want our country to be. I think that takes a good looking
at, too, because, for example, we’re paving too much of the
country now—with malls and all kinds of things, you know. The
earth needs to breed. I think it’s important that we stop and
consider that. I think we need more areas with parks, more areas with
wilderness areas. I don’t believe in cutting trees down; it
takes too long to grow them. I used to work in lumber woods, and I quit
for that reason. I couldn’t stand to see big trees fall that
took so long to grow. The thing to remember is that we’re
just on the landing, and the future is ahead of us. We are a pioneer
people. Now I don’t believe in predestination. If I did I
would believe that we’ve been specially chose for the purpose
of going out in space. That’s the new frontier.
That’s where it is now. Your children, my children, and my
grandchildren or whatever will be settling in colonies up there.
That’ll only be the beginning, because there’s no
end to that space out there. It goes on and on forever. It sounds
chauvinistic, but there’s no other explanation for it. The
people who came to this continent were a special people;
there’s no other way you can look at it. Take, for example,
here are two people, two families, over in England, and
they’re sitting there side-by-side, talking around the
fireplace, maybe. Here they have the same economic situation; both of
them have children. But one man decides to go to America; the other one
doesn’t. Why” Why did the one come? The situations
were the same; the background was the same. I think it was something
buried in his genes, something that drove him on. Now, another thing,
after you get over here to America—I’ve read the
diaries, I’ve studied the background—and I cannot
find any sane, logical reason why most of the people came west. Many of
them, you see, were businessmen who were successful. Many of them had
good working farms; they sold them, put everything they had into a
wagon train and headed west. Most of the people who came west had
money. It’s a mistaken idea that they were poor people. Some
of them became poor going west. They put everything they had into wagon
trains and, of course, lots of times the wagons were lost, their stock
died, and they wound up on the West Coast with nothing. But there was
no way a poor man could come west in those days until the railroad was
built. You could get on a horse, get a packhorse and some supplies, and
try to make it. But there was a small chance of making it, because the
Indians would try to take everything away from you.
NUWER: You live in Tinsel town [Los Angeles]. Do you see American
L’AMOUR: Well, Tinsel town or Hollywood has many facets. We
live entirely away from a lot of what people talk about [when they
refer to Tinsel town]. We have our own circle of friends and spend much
of our time with them. We have friends who like their homes, like their
children, like what they’re doing. Some of them are actors,
some of them are businessmen [and] some are bankers. They’re
all kinds of people. As to values, I think there was, at least once, a
very substantial crumbling of values in this country. I think
it’s going to stop now.
NUWER: Do you have strong political interests?
L’AMOUR: I have strong political interests, but I
don’t take any part in politics. I come from a family that
was tuned into politics. As a kid I worked on a couple of political
campaigns. I am a registered Democrat, although I am a conservative
Democrat. I don’t believe in income taxes, for example; it
stymies a lot of people. It stops them from producing. Take myself. I
love to write; I will always write. I could not live without writing.
But supposing I were a different type of man. At this point it would
pay me to quit, to stop right now, because a good part of my work is
for the government.
NUWER: I hope you don’t stop writing ever, but perhaps this
is a good place to end the interview—while you still have a
* * *
Interviewed by Hank Nuwer/copyright Henry Nuwer