Last week’s GalleyCat report about actor Gene Hackman selling a Western to Pocket Books got me thinking about this rather dusty genre. The Oscar-winning actor’s name no doubt will attract readers to Jubal’s Bounty, a novel set in 19th-century New Mexico that will be published next summer, but I did wonder if this was also an early sign of a Western revival both in print and on screen. Trailers of the Coen brothers’ gritty remake of True Grit, based on a Charles Portis novel, is already generating great buzz on the web, and Red Hill, a contemporary Australian Western starring True Blood‘s Ryan Kwanten and making the film festival circuit, will be released in the United States in November.
As Ken St. Andre noted in his August collection development article, “Not Ready for Boot Hill,” there is still life in the old genre, and a number of major publishers still maintain extensive Western lists. Among them is Penguin’s Berkley Books. In an email interview, Berkley editor Faith Black explains why she continues to publish Westerns and identifies some promising authors.
I don’t think it’s dead at all. Our Westerns continue to be popular, and they’re of the traditional, historical variety (though we have at least one Western by a new author, Jackson Lowry, coming out soon that will definitely be a departure from that). The Western as a genre remains popular in movies (3:10 to Yuma, Appaloosa ‚ based on the Robert Parker novel, etc) and similarly in books, and there’s a lot of crossover, as for example with the Robert Parker. Berkley does at least one lead historical Western every month. We continue to do them because they continue to have a readership and to be successful for us. They’re a lot of fun.
What do you look for when you’re acquiring Westerns?
I look for what I look for with any book‚ a good story that grabs my attention and doesn’t let go. Of course there has to be a good deal of action, but I also have to be drawn in both by the characters and the setting. A lot of our Westerns are rife with historical details and fantastic imagery. These things can really transport you as a reader. Realistic characters and dialogue are always important. I have to have an investment in the story, to care about the outcome.
With the death of Elmer Kelton earlier this year, Loren Estleman is probably the biggest name in the genre these days. Are there any promising authors that librarians keep on their radar?
I think all of my authors are fantastic of course. Peter Brandvold is probably one of the most prolific, and his series (the Lou Prophet series, the Cuno Massey series‚ .45-Caliber) are fantastic. His writing is really rich and just pulls you right in. Jory Sherman is a long-standing author for us and is really terrific as well. And I have two brand new debut authors coming up: first, with a trade paperback coming out in the fall of 2011‚ Rod Thompson‚ who is one of the strongest voices I’ve come across in a while. I’m really excited about his book, The Black Hills. Then, Jackson Lowry has a really exciting and ground- breaking Western (title to be determined) coming out in January 2012. It will be a paranormal Western, a first for us, but after success with paranormal in every other category, why not the Western? These are definitely guys to have your eye on.
Do you get a sense of who your readers are? Do you also publish Western romances?
I do get some feedback from readers and in general they’ve always tended to skew more towards older men, but I think we’ve started to pick up a slightly younger generation of readers now and we’re trying to capitalize on this a bit more. The Westerns I deal with sometimes do have a bit of romance involved. Any romances with a Western bent tend to be published as romances rather than Westerns and thus fall outside my purview, but there is often an overlap in the genres.
Do you think the new film version of True Grit and video games like Red Dead Redemption will revive interest in the traditional genre?
I think this is absolutely happening. In fact, I’ve been getting pitches based on the appeal of these new developments. There was also the movie, Jonah Hex, based on the DC Comic. The movie didn’t do well, but it did bring the character to a more prominent light. All of these things are helping to keep Westerns in the spotlight more than they’ve been in past years,and I think this is definitely helping promote the genre as a whole.