Louis L’Amour: Renaissance Cowboy
with Hank Nuwer [Citation: Citation: Rendezvousing with Contemporary Writers by Hank Nuwer, Idaho University Press, 1988]
Having led a life as exciting as that of any character in his fiction, and blessedwith 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 was paying attention.
This one-time hobo is now a celebrity. His fans include Dallas football coach TomLandry and country-western singer Charlie Daniels. In fact, the interview is interrupted by a florist who brings long-stemmed roses from Daniels to L’Amour’s wife, Kathy.
In L’Amour’s sparking days, he courted Hollywood starlets. He once was engaged to actress Julie Newmar. Now, however, he is every inch the family man—a father to Beau and Angelique, both now young adults.
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.
After waiting tolerantly while Kathy 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 him?
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. ButLondon 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?
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, horsesa nd 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 UnitedStates, 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 hewould 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. Iread some of Thackeray, Richardson, Fielding, and several others. For some time before leaving school I’d become disconnected. I thought the school was interfering with 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 allthat. 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 youngfellows 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 theplace 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 Iarrived 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 jobagain 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, andI 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 the world.
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. 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 wereall 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 serious ones.
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 without board 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 otherislands 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 yourselfwith 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 theequipment 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 fiveminutes 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, Isaw 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 theside. 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 hecould 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. Ifell 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 thrustwith it. It’s much better.
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 thesefellows 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 ofthings 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 ofBilly 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 aroundFort 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 verydifficult 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 whohis 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 beentreated 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 judgewho 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 nearlyall 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 beenskinning 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 SantaRosa 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 anexhibition 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 professionalring 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. Allthe 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 thehay 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’dbeen 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 whereBilly 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 OldTom? 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 minuteeating 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 oneof 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 outand 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, soI’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 Billywas 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] TipMcKinney 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 ofthe 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 PeteMaxwell’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 oillights, 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 preparingsome 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 haveanything 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 agirlfriend 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 alwaysbeen 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 througha 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. Herealized 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 soundof 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. Hewent 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 wouldhave 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. Theydidn’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 theground 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 awashstand. Somebody bought it; they found the bullet underneath the washstand. Deluvina heard the shots, and she ran next door. She was perhaps the second orthird 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 hisbody 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 ofinterviewing 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 quitefreely. 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 ina 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 thetime. 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 ofLincoln, New Mexico]; he was dealing monte [Spanish gambling game with 40 cards] here and there and undoubtedly he rustled a few head of cattle whenhe 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 wererunning 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 stockoriginally. But the Lincoln County War—the feud—actually developed with [L.G.] Murphy and [James J.} Dolan. Murphy and Dolan were former army officers whowere 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. Andthen 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 comeout 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 waskilled 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 anall-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 thebreaks 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 didhere 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 haveliked 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’retalking 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 inwhat 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 wellhave 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 weretalking, 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 hewas 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 nervessensitive 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 [foryou] 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. Iwas 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 whitemen 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 verylikely 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 fewMongols 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, whatnot. 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 asound. 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. Thiswas 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 outthere 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 loveto. 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 comeout 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 backinto your life?
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 travelwith 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 dosomething 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 thatanybody 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 tobe 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 knowwhy 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 couldwalk 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 willhappen.
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 placein 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 agroup 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 werewriters. 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 hadcome 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 abouthalf-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’sthe 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 troubleat 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 am now.
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’malways 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 alittle 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 littleinterior 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, lookingout 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 astranger, 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 almost anything.
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 reallyimitate 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 readaloud, 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’sfine, 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 thatI 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 thetime 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. Areal 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 aroundlooking 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 toget 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 scholarly type.
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 orsome 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 someoneshould. 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. Butyou 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. Butthen 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 socialistic preaching?
L’AMOUR: I think he was all right there. I think it was later that he went bad. I think he lost himself at theend, 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 ofthings 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 tocome 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. Ithink 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 thinkif 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 beless 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’dlike 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 ofduplication 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 theworld 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 yearsago. We have a greater variety of entertainment. There are a greater variety of hospitals and schools of education. Everything around us is of enormousvariety. 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 daredwalk on the streets at certain hours of the night without a bodyguard around you. Shakespeare in England—a time of tremendous violence. Every great creativeperiod 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 wideopen 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 areinfinite. 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 fromscratch, 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 tobe. 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 toschool. 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 everyplace 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 allkinds 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 theirreleases. 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 flowingthrough; 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 whatthe 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 goingfor 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; Ilike 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 theworld. 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 writea 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 thingshappened 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 forestover 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 atthe Sorbonne and other places, Cambridge and what not, is a careful, observing man. He happens to know something about forest progression, and he knows therewouldn’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 beena 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. Butthe 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 thespruce 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. Sothis 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 thatsort 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 ofbirds. 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 tellthe 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 atall. 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 spottersfor 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. Itjust 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; beforethem, 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 werea 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 brokenmarriage, 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 itisn’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 alot about people. I learned a lot about people from men I worked with and knocked around with.
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 firststarted 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 Iwas 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 that time.
L’AMOUR: Some of them would be, but I kind of doubt it. The time has changed, you know? At that time, a goodpart 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 thetramps. 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 towork—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, amigratory 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 harvestall 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’thave 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 itwas 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 harvestseason. 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 laborinto 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 theseasonal 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 inthose 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 goinggreat—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 offour 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 intothe 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, shiftingaround 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 toParis. 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 ofcountry 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 TheSaturday 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 publishedsome 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 ofthe 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 wentthere 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, wellgee, 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 itunless 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 youcut 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 gotashore 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, whenall 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 hundredstories 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 justwrote 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 mefeel 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 saidthat for years after, all he could remember about them was their five brown packages that kept coming back postage due. Anyway, I finally decided thatsomething 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 abunch of short stories that I liked, some from the classics – de Maupassant and [Robert Louis] Stevenson, and some from popular magazines. I studied andanalyzed 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, withoutfail, 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 liketo 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 ofthe 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 allkinds of things going on.
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 rightin 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 theway 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 theUnited 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 statedepartment 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. Ican 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’thad a letter from a single man or woman that I haven’t wanted to sit down and talk with.
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 tome, “Yep, they’re the worst books I ever loved.”
L’AMOUR: [Laughter] There is an attitude that has developed in this country—that’s peculiar to this country—that any novelwritten 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 differentcategory. 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 Westernwriters 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 aboutthe 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 herdedthe 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 thelittle 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 askingquestions 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 themdidn’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 matterwhat 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 takeoff 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 ofthis 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 atleast, 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 thesame 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. Iwouldn’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 somethingdifferent. 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 workingon. 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 gearedthis 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 UnitedStates; maybe you want a nice little vine-covered cottage. Either achievement is complete and is fine. But you’re working toward something; you’re buildingtoward 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 accomplish?
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. Ofcourse, 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 waythey 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 EastCoast. 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 thesettling 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. Ihave 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 highit 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. Mywhole 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 theywere 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 theprotagonist 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 takingplace in terms of pollution. Does that enter into your books when you write about the settling, say, of New Mexico or Texas?
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’mnot 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 tosee 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 soonyou 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 littlesacks 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 youwon’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 itsplace. 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 witha 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 duston 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 lookaround, 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 importantthat 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 takestoo 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. Thething 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 Iwould 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, mychildren, 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 outthere. 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 specialpeople; 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 thereside-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 toAmerica; 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 hisgenes, 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 findany 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 werepoor 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, theirstock 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. Youcould 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 takeeverything away from you.
NUWER: You live in Tinsel town [Los Angeles]. Do you see American values changing?
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 toTinsel 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 whatthey’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, atleast 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 akid 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, forexample; 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. Butsupposing 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 voice.
* * *