Many of the readers of Laurie's Wild West have heard me speak of a fellow blogger, Gary Dobbs, and his blog, the Tainted Archive. Gary is a writer based in Wales, and his first novel, The Tarnished Star, written under his pseudonym Jack Martin, was released last summer to very good reviews and even better sales.
Since The Tarnished Star was released it has continued to sell strongly and for quite a time was one of the best selling Westerns on amazon.com in the UK. Quite a feat, considering that its publisher, Robert Hale Ltd., and its western imprint Black Horse Westerns mainly distributes their westerns to libraries in the United Kingdom.
The Tarnished Star took Britain by storm, but Gary is a whirlwind all on his own. Besides writing two novels right now and maintaining the Archive, he is also an actor and has appeared in such shows as Doctor Who and Torchwood. All that and a day job too. I managed to get him to sit down for a few minutes and answer some questions for us.
What is it about the western that attracts you?
I’ve always had a leaning towards westerns in film and books. There’s something about the period that I can’t quite put my finger on but it fascinates me. Sometimes I even think that my interest is on a spiritual level,as if I’d been there before, but of course that’s wish fulfillment…isn’t it? But the western I feel offers a broad canvas upon which you can explore the eternal conflict between good and evil and get away from modern day psychology. I also think the western allows us to indulge our imagination and in some small way become children again.
Your grandfather was a huge influence, and your pseudonym is in tribute to him. Tell us about your grandfather and how he influenced you and instilled in you a love of all things western.
My grandfather was a wonderful man and as a child I thought he was ten feet tall. He’d tell me wild stories of his own adventures in the Wild West and of course I bought it all in those days. Some of my fondest memories are of watching westerns with him on the television and reading his library books after he’d finished with them. I was reading Louis L'amour and Zane Grey as a ten year old and them moved onto the wonderful George G Gilman westerns. So when I was looking for a pen name for my western novels it was natural to adopt my grandfather’s name. He was called William John Martin but everyone called him Jack and thus Jack Martin, western writer was born.
Tell us about your other western influences. What western writers do you look at as mentors or inspirations, and why these writers instead of others. What is it about their work that strikes a chord with you?
Louis L'amour, Elmer Kelton, George Gilman, Larry McMurtry – all these guys have one thing in common; the ability to tell a damn good story. L'amour especially, I think, created a west that was uniquely his. It may not have been that much like the real thing but it certainly feels real enough.
When did you start writing westerns, and what was the reason? Why did you pick the western genre?
I think the western picked me. My western interest remained with me into adult hood and when a friend suggested I try a western for Robert Hale LTD, I quickly banged something out and it was promptly rejected. There were some helpful notes with the rejection though and so I went back to the drawing board. I wanted to give Tarnished Star the feel of the 1940’s/1950’s westerns as that really was the golden age for the genre.
I didn’t want to go all revisionist but wanted to provide a damn good fun read and from the reviews I’d say I achieved that. I’m proud of the fact that Tarnished Star could be read by both adults and children and hopefully is an entertainment from more innocent times.
You've written a lot of short stories as well, including some with a crime or noir genre rather than western. Is this the first novel you've tried? What was it like making the transition from short stories to this longer format?
I find short stories far more difficult to structure as you’ve only a limited canvas to work upon. That said, I’ve written maybe half a dozen unpublished novels before striking it lucky with Tarnished Star.
I particularly liked how Tarnished Star seemed to be fashioned after the 50s and 60s westerns, and a lot has been written about their influence on you. What is it about the 50s and 60s westerns, as opposed to earlier years such as the 30s, that you find appealing.
As I’ve said, that was the golden age before we got too far into the darkness of the western. I love all of those Clint Dollar films and Anthony Mann’s psychological oaters but at the same time I also adore those fun John Wayne movies like Rio Bravo – I think Tarnished Star rests somewhere between those tow extremes. It is maybe literature’s answer to the B-western.
Do you feel isolated writing westerns in your locale. Do you find it a hindrance? What do you do to bring you closer to the West? What kind of research have you been doing?
Well other than checking the odd fact I don’t do that much research since I’ve read so much about the Old West that I carry a lot of the basic information around in my head. I also feel that too much research tends to produce a stilted narrative with the author trying to get all that period detail in at the expense of carrying the story along. And of course most readers have their own image of the time and place so I concentrate on the basic story rather than over rely on period detail.
What do people in your town think of your writing a western? Have you been getting any feedback on the book?
An acting friend keep asking if there’s gonna’ be a movie and if they can have a part. My father’s thrilled and keeps selling copies to all his friends. But I’ve not been mobbed in the streets yet. Ahh well, GARYDOBBSMANIA can’t be too far away
Now that Tarnished Star has been out for four months, have you had a chance to take stock of the whole publishing adventure? What about it was a surprise to you? What were disappointments? What would you have done differently in your approach to the marketing of the book?
I think it was all pretty much as expected but it was a thrill to go into my local library and find there was a twelve week waiting list to hire the book. I often give chats about the Old West at the local hospital and a few weeks ago several patients were waiting with copies of the book for me to sign. That was a very special thrill.
As for marketing, I think the Tainted Archive’s done that. If I can provide interesting content and keep folk coming back then a few of them may even try my book. Judging by Tarnished Star’s sales a lot of people did just that.
Why Black Horse Westerns?
In the UK for westerns it’s Black Horse or not at all. They are the only major publisher still doing original western fiction. They also produce handsome looking books too with an almost pulp style which appeals to me.
What would you think are the best things a newly published author can do?
Write that next book.
What about marketing? What can a writer do, especially one who doesn't have a following?
People keep asking me about marketing like I’m some sort of guru but I really never think that clinically. I mean I run a blog that’s become popular and I often push my own work via it, trying to get readers to notice. But I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules. I mean, it would be great to have a publicity budget and see ads on the television and in major newspapers. But most of us don’t get that and so we rely on the Internet and word of mouth to spread the word. Get involved with forums, blogs, review sites that cover your particular genre and hope that some of the likeminded people there will buy your books.
You've done a lot with your blog to generate interest in the western. One of these initiatives is Wild West Mondays. Tell us about those.
Well there are so many western fans out there and yet most book stores don’t stock westerns and so I though if we could immobilise ourselves via the Wild West Web then we could make our wishes felt. And so on Wild West Monday fans around the world badger book shops, libraries, publishers etc about westerns. It’s working too with several publishers reporting an increase in western sales. The next Wild West Monday is in November so I hope more and more will take part. And of course there is a petition on the Tainted Archive for anyone to sign in support of the genre.
Together we can do it.
At the same time, you've been broadening your themes on The Tainted Archive. Recently you dedicated an entire weekend to The Saint, and you've also spent time recently on the remastering of the Beatles catalog. Those are just a couple of the many subjects you've been covering. Tell us what where you think The Tainted Archive going. What do you see it being a year from now?
I’ve always thought of the Archive as an online magazine. I just want to continue to cover subjects that you don’t usually find anywhere else and certainly not together. Variety is the spice of life. Westerns, thrillers, The Beatles, The Saint are just some of the subjects I’ve looked at recently. I guess readers don’t know what to expect next and I like that.
A lot of people wonder how you do it all - right now you're writing two books, you act, you work driving a cab, you do book and movie reviews on your blog very frequently - to the point where some people have accused you of not being human. How do you do it all? Do you find being so active in so many areas has hurt your abilities to really excel in one, like writing?
Not at all. Whilst the Tainted Archive does take considerable time, I think it is separate from my professional writing and it often helps when I’m blocked on something in my fiction. I’ll just fire up The Archive and find that by writing a few posts I get those creative juices flowing.
As for not being human – well I won’t argue with that. I’m not human, I’m Welsh. But seriously, I love writing and am never happier than when sat before the keyboard.
Your favorite western book and movie.
This can change from day to day – but I usually say The Searchers for the movie because I think it’s a beautiful picture and one of John Wayne’s best performances. For the book I’d opt for Lonesome Dove merely because it is such an epic tale with character that really do live an breathe on the page.
Where do you see Gary Dobbs a year from now? And what other books can we look forward to?
Well Arkansas Smith is out in March 2010. This is intended to be the first in a series of western adventures featuring the mysterious man known as Arkansas. And I’m just about to hand in the first draft of a TV tie-in novel I’ve done for BBC Books. At the moment I can’t say too much about that. Then I’m hoping to finish a crime project I’ve been working on for most of this year called A Policeman’s Lot which is a historical crime novel set in South Wales during Buffalo Bill’s visit with his circus in 1903. The policeman featured is named Inspector Frank Parade and again I’m hoping to develop him as a series character.
I don’t know where the name Frank Parade came from but recently I was reading a short story of mine in Peeping Tom Magazine from 1989 and in the narrative it is mentioned that an old lady watches an episode of Inspector Frank Parade Investigates on the television. So I guess he’s been in my subconscious for a little over twenty years.
And where do we see Gary Dobbs in a year?
Stateside maybe. Mostly traveling. I just want to see as many of the western states as I possibly can and take as many photographs as possible. Of course some of the trip will be research but for the most part I’ll just be content to be there and take it day by day. I’ve never been one for major planning which is why I’d like to get there, rent a vehicle and just drive. See where I end up – it’s as haphazard as that but then that’s my way. When I was in my twenties I went on a weekend to France and ended up traveling for more than a month, existing from my backpack. I even did a couple of days fruit picking and slept in a barn. Maybe I’ll end up in California picking grapes. Hey, that wouldn’t be too bad as long as I got to drink the end product.
Thank you, Gary, for spending some time with Laurie's Wild West. We look forward to reading Arkansas Smith next year.
For more information on Gary, go to his blog, The Tainted Archive. Gary's on sabbatical from the Archive right now (remember those two books he's writing), but he'll be back next Wednesday, and you can find plenty of interesting subjects now by going into the blog archive. You can find The Tarnished Star on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, and The Book Depository. (The Book Depository ships for free worldwide, regardless of the purchase amount.)