Monday, October 22, 2012

Interview With Jean Henry Mead of "Writers of the West"

Reid Lance Rosenthal writes historical western romances. His Threads West, An American Saga series has won eight national awards including Best western (USA Book Review) Best Historical Fiction (Independent Book Publishers Association) and four awards in Romance--including Best Romance from the Indies. Few men write romance novels but the Wyoming rancher's Threads West series has been successful.

Reid, how did your Threads West series come about?

Perhaps what drives my pen is my love of land, perhaps a genealogy that goes back almost two-hundred years in land and cattle—including a goodly portion of that time by my ancestors in Europe. Perhaps it is the cowboy hat, the special feel and touch of a woman you care for, or the smell of horse leather and sweat. I love America and the West. I am enamored with romance, history, fiction, and all things western. They epitomize universal energies. So it makes sense that I love Historical Western Romance as a genre: the power of the land, the all-encompassing flow of steamy passion, heartfelt romance, and the intrigue of differing personalities.

I am penning the Threads West: An American Saga, a sixteen novel series, not only because I want to write and keep the promise a nine-year-old (me) made to himself many years ago, but because the series is ourstory and one we should never forget. It is the ongoing story of us. I hope the story entertains, and serves as a touchstone for troubled times, perhaps a guidepost moving us forward into the future.

How would you categorize your series?

It is American history through the eyes of fictional characters—strong men and independent women—the times, events, and changing landscape shaping their lives, personalities, relationships, bitter losses, torrid passions and exulting triumphs.

Combine these forces of land and love (or lust), mix in detailed historical fact, the West, the American spirit, and the interplay of powerful (though not all “good”), conflicted male and female impassioned personalities, and we have a historical western romance! It is not an oft written genre, and as far as I know, I am the only rancher/cowboy writing heated tales of the multi-cultural West.

I am intrigued by universal energies. As a rancher, I am drawn by the power of the land. As a man, I am intrigued by the energy of steamy passions and the enveloping flow of heart-felt romance. “But why Romance?” question some with a raised eyebrow. Who reading this has not had a love and has not had some aspect of their lives driven by that emotion? Obviously there are many shades of romance, the dastardly and forced, the purely physical and somewhat cold, the heart hot, sparking passionate—though temporary, and the true love—deeply sensual and long-lasting. Who of us has not experienced one or more of these? And, as we all know, romantic involvement has often driven both history and life.

As an American, I feel the unique spirit of America and her people, and the evolution of all these energies through the relatively short span of American History. Combining the major categories of Historical Fiction, Romance and Western is the unique combination of genre that allows such a tale to be told in full.

Running a cattle ranch is a full time job. How do you find time to write?

This author thing is akin to taking on a second full-time career. Phew! Time, energy, and focus are needed to run and operate the ranches, particularly when spread out over long distances and in the current economic tempest enveloping the county. Fortunately I love that business too, and if affords me the opportunity to intertwine my passions and love of the land with a vocation. Ironically, it also gives me great fodder for writing backdrop, scenes, and places in which the action of the novels transpire.

I muse at times whether I am a rancher who writes, or a writer who ranches. In the most simple terms, I am just me. As with all others who share this planet, I have my shining, and less illustrious sides. I am a Triple-A type personality and with that comes both the good and less than good, inherent to those who suffer the same 24-7 demeanor. Yes, I am driven. I believe dreams are but the precursors of reality. One has only to make them so. I love the land, its special energy, solitude, space, and soul succor. Alone and far from others, whispers of canyon breezes playin' oh so gentle ’cross my cheek, the smell of earth, sage, leaves and horse sweat might just be the only time I truly relax. It is those moments, high atop a windswept ridge, rifle nestled in the leather of the scabbard, that I am transported to ten thousand years ago where I am a native sojourner, clad in a hide loincloth and carrying a spear in quest of fresh meat for the clan. It is cleansing, and real, this time machine of earth energy. The hum of it brings me back full circle to my very roots as a human being. It often creates a synergy with, rather than a division from my writing. The land, its energy, moods, resources, and opportunities, always shapes the lives that play upon its stage, and that is particularly true in America, circa 1850’s. These are the feelings of which I write, and they are universal in their truth of any historical era, though unfortunately less realized today than at any other time in man's history.

Living that life has tremendous advantages in writing detail, too. I know, first-hand how the whispers of a Canyon breeze play gentle across my cheek. I am familiar with the smell of the earth, sage, last year’s leaves and horse sweat. I’ve heard the bawling of cows, smelled their sweet stench, and breathed their dust. The cool waters of creeks and streams have soothed me, the sun has kept me warm, the chill of windy winter nights have crept through my bones, and I have often experienced the wonder of stars that never end above the friendly crackle of a campfire.

And while that experience makes writing easier, and faster, it is still a boat load of work to run a ranch, and a boat load of work to write a novel. The two together invokes that famous line from Jaws, “I need a bigger boat.”

My schedule changes with the seasons. From October 15 –December 1 is hunting season. It is virtually inviolate, except for this year as I finish up the third novel, Uncompahgre– where water turns rock red. Those are special times with family and friends. It is primal tradition. Is meat for the table. 99% of our diet is game.

The other times of year each have their own peculiarities. In the spring the ranch comes to life, ditches must be cleaned, irrigation equipment checked, the all-important water – the lifeblood of crops livestock and wildlife and fisheries – must be tended to. From time to time there is farming – replanting fields, and no till drill to increase vegetative population within a transect. Summer is the time to make sure things grow, look after yearlings scattered in the high country munching on mountain power grass and gaining weight. It’s the pounds that a rancher sells, not “the cows.” Then there’s late summer and early fall. Harvest time, the inevitable breakdowns of machinery, the chugging and diesel smoke of swathers, balers, and hay wagons. Late fall, after hunting season is maintenance time. The structures are tended to, the fences (which always seem to succumb to falling trees, high water, rambunctious yearlings, or stampeding elk) are inspected. Problem areas are noted for attention the following spring.

On the other side of the spectrum is the writing. I do love to write, and I am immersed in writing this series. I am especially thrilled that an exponentially growing number of folks are enjoying it – the story, the messages, the history, and the universal energies. My writing time is generally those times when it is dark out. Dark makes already difficult ranch work virtually impossible. I probably accomplish 50% of my writing between December 1 and March 15 of each year. The rest of the time are stolen hours from five to eight or nine in the morning or, my most productive writing time – from eleven pm to three in the morning. It makes for long days and short nights. It’s a good thing I never much liked to sleep!

None of this is a complaint. Both full-time careers nurture different parts of my soul. They are interrelated. In a way I write what I do as a touchstone to the past for Americans. I’m convinced that our history is the guide post to the future. Ironically perhaps, my tackling this ambitious sixteen novel series will help preserve not only the overall American spirit, but this particular facet of our values – an all important cornerstone of the American psyche, history, and spirit.
I might add that sleep is nothing more than a necessary evil!

Why did you decide to set Threads West, first book in the series, in Europe? Briefly tell us about the plot.

I have several messages in my novels which I try to relate seamlessly within the context of simply a good read and enjoyable story. I want readers to recall our roots, remember that the nation is a rich and textured tapestry of many cultures, religions, creeds, and values, and to consider the disintegration of the values of the old West and of our revolutionary forefathers. These are traits that appear to be slipping away, replaced by an entitlement mentality and the crutch of government, rather than the tried-and-true values of self-reliance, individualism, family and community which are undeniably the foundation of the Old West.

The Threads West series begins in 1855. It is the tale of disparate threads of lives. Book One’s characters hail from Prussia, England, Ireland, Denmark, Norway and America. They have neither culture nor social origins in common, but they are twisted by fate into a common destination--America. In Book Two new characters of different ethnicity and creeds weave together with the Book One cast into the tapestry of an emerging nation; a country on the cusp of greatness, offering opportunity and freedom.

The last book of the series will be set in the real-time, contemporary West. I strive to ensure the historical novels in the Threads West series accurately portray what transpired in our history, in the evolution of our lands, our thought processes, morals and freedoms. So, too, will the contemporary novel portray in vivid reality—couched in sizzling romance and nonstop adventure—the current state of affairs in the West, and the United States. The fictional series is, in essence, a historical anthology of true life. If the series evokes every imaginable emotion, inspires passions, and delights readers, that’s great. But, if by chance, the tale reacquaints folks with the basic principles that form the foundation of this enthralling experiment we call the United States of America, then I will be truly satisfied.

Book Two, Maps of Fate,begins the examination of slavery, from the viewpoint of the slave—a race yearning to be fully American, totally free and self-determining. This is a theme which will carry over into Book Three, Uncompahgre – where water turns rock red. Also Maps of Fate begins America’s story through the eyes of an Oglala a Sioux family--the tragic tale of the Indians. This sad, dark blotch on the pages of American history begins to unfold and will carry forward in the series.

And, of course, Maps of Fate follows the evolving life threads, passions, loves, disappointments, tragedies, romances, and in some cases the pathos filled, lethal experience of the characters which the readers of Book One. Their life threads hurtle through American history towards the cloth of their destinies and still subsequent generations of the series, which begin to emerge in Book Three.

The sixteen books will arc over one hundred seventy years and five generations. The novels are divided into five eras, the Maps of Fate (1855-1575),North to Wyoming, Canyons, Coming Thunder, and Summits Eras. Each will span a different period of years, the Summits Era being the last books in the real time west

You've given some hints—but why “western” as the foundation for History and Romance? Why did you become a western romance writer?

In a Western, particularly a Historical Western, the land shapes personalities and destinies. It is the enduring stage upon which the characters act out their interactions, ambitions, greed, duplicity, loves, loyalties, and opportunities. The tapestry of western relationships is always the land. The intertwined twists are fascinating threads that the bind the conflicted men and women of the West., back then, and now. I try to make the foundation of my stories that reality. There is intrigue, adversity, vicious duplicity, and triumphs that few know of, but which are always at play beneath the idyllic mosaics of inviting canyons and sun drenched plains.

I believe the American West has a special mystique—a romantic aura that is known worldwide. Some of this magic flows from its violent evolution, part emanates from the image of the cowboy, and a portion from the perception of values the historical west embodies. But underlying all those tugs to the hearts of many is the power of its wild lands and open spaces, and the courage of its settlers.

The pull of western imagery is known around the globe--the land of the West, its special energy, solitude, space, and soul succor are at the core of this attraction. It is cleansing, inspiring, and real, this time machine of western earth energy. It brings us back full circle to our very roots as human beings, and that truth is universal.

The setting, the physical environment and specific era, of a western is all-important, and unique. I would equate a western landscape photo to the initial setting of a chapter. That peculiar angle of the sun, sky prisms following rain, shadows creeping with the ever-changing angle of light the vivid, mesmerizing power of the land. These are the scenes, and never to be repeated moments, that provide the visual underpinning to the draw and writing of the Old West and the backdrop to the passionate interaction of the characters. The pen becomes merely the shutter, and the paper the film.

So it makes sense that I love Historical Western Romance as a genre: the power of the land, the all-encompassing flow of steamy passion, heartfelt romance, and the intrigue of differing personalities, all laced with the American spirit.

How does it feel to have the first book in your series #1 in sales in three genres?

I'm astounded and humbled by the success of the Threads West, An American Saga series. I did not expect it. I am excited about the third book, Uncompahgre—planned for a pre-Christmas release--because I think, and hope, that I've met my goal of surpassing the high bar set by the first novels. The readers will determine that!

Each and every of the eight national awards the series has earned (including Best Western, 2010 USA Book Review, Best Romance 2011--Indies, and Best Historical Fiction, 2011 IBPA) and #1 best-selling, rankings in more than twelve categories and genres was a delightful shock. And the comparisons by national reviewers to Lonesome Dove, Gone with the Wind and Centennial obviously makes me smile widely (“Are they talking about my books”I ask myself incredulously). But, at the same time this increases the pressure to write the balance of the series and write it well.

Where and how do you conduct most of your research?

Historical research is a must. In some ways it ties in with getting your feet, your mind, body and soul to the location to experience it before you write. Research is both fascinating and tedious, exhilarating and surprising, mandatory and time-consuming. It was a far bigger task than I anticipated. I have researchers now that work with me on many facets of those specific points of history I want to touch on in delivering the story, creating the interaction between the characters, and describing the universal energies which drive them. I pay special attention to historical facts and details which move the plot along, act as catalysts to the convergence of life threads and at the same time help me convey my message.

I did virtually all the story-line research on the first novel, Threads West, by myself. I had important help from several researchers on details of dress, circumstances and some great historical tidbits, and gave them credit in the book. But, I wanted to learn what was entailed. I thought I was familiar with this special moment in American history. I was mistaken. 1855 maybe one of the most pivotal years in the history of this country, certainly of the West. The great westward migration was in its infancy. The breach of the 1854 Kansas/Nebraska Act, and the Compact of 1850 between the states were stirring the winds of war. The later turmoil between the northern and southern states, (part of the Book Two Maps of Fateplot) was beginning to darken the rhetoric of both sides. Native Americans had rightfully lost trust in the promises of the white man and the broken treaties of the years prior. Gold would soon be discovered in Colorado, becoming the real precipitate of the tidal wave of westward migration that began in 1858.

The Singer sewing machine had just been invented, foreshadowing the Industrial Revolution. The repeating rifle, other than the 1855 Colt cylinder model, had not yet been released. It was this point in time that American and the world breathed in, held their collective breath, and exhaled with a rush toward the Great Plains and the Rockies.

On the first book I did all the research myself. There were several gems that were unearthed by another researcher who was given credit in the book. She came up with some good ones – Capt. Kennedy, his dog, the saving of sailors, the poor woman who lost six children on the Edinburgh crossing. All true. People’s eyes widen in surprise when they ask me “How did you possibly think that up”, and I reply with a smile, “Didn’t have to – it really happened.” It is the nuggets of real events—big and small—and actual personalities which most intrigue me.

As another example, historical figure, Mayo Ferdinando Wood of New York, circa 1855. That research I did myself. There are conflicting historical tales about this man. That he was – to be kind – a corrupt rascal, is undisputed. It got to the point, though I only briefly mention it in Threads West, (the first book of the series) where he was on such outs with the rest of the city and the City Council that he had his own police force which battled constantly with the city’s police force. A municipal civil war. There are historical references here and there as to his philandering’s, but much of that I had to interpolate. I’ve known many men in powerful positions. Their wiles with the opposite sex is almost universal. Judging from his pictures he was not an attractive man. While his power and his own personal police force I’m sure got a few gals between the sheets, others, including several female characters in Book One, Threads West, tried to resist his overtures and some – very clever (just like in real life) – not only blunted his advances but turned his ardor to their own advantage.

While writing Maps of Fate the new publishing group which took over the series (they are terrific) provided me with two researchers, one specializing in period clothing, and the other in general history across a very wide spectrum. Both of these ladies did a fantastic job. They put together the general. I did further research of my own to come up with some interesting tidbits (the Grattan massacre, the obnoxious lieutenants’drunken interpreter’s insults resulting in the massacre of an entire platoon by the Sioux around Fort Laramie in 1854). I talked with elders in the Mormon Church. Those threads of lives will be apparent in upcoming books, but were just introduced in Maps of Fate. My editor is a specialist in Native Americans and her husband is a full-blooded Sioux. Though I myself am an adopted second son of a Mohican Chief (that is yet another tale) being able to be historically accurate to the “nth” degree in how the Western Indians tended and felt about the most minute aspects of their lives, as portrayed in Maps of Fate,was invaluable.

Maps of Fate not only reacquainted readers with the characters they knew and had come to love and follow, but introduced new characters – a renegade, his captive, the Sioux, and an older black couple –slaves setting the sails of their lives for freedom. I try hard to write from the perspective of each character based on personal experience, interviews and research. We are all shades of gray. In the worst of us there is a redeeming quality. In the best of us there is a dark facet. But, we are all Americans and it is together as a people that we built this country. It is the threads of disparate lives from uncommon social origins, locations, and backgrounds that made this nation great. Hence the name of the series.

Advice to fledgling western romance writers?

I am laughing. Write!

The setting, and creating the theater in which the characters love, lose, triumph, act and interact, is critical. I cannot fathom how an author who does not live within such an environment possibly writes one of these novels. Learn your locations!

Pick an area in your house that is “the writing sanctuary.” My preferred writing atmosphere is pacing around the kitchen and living room of the old ranch house, digital recorder in one hand, coffee in the other.

Fourth—devote time to your writing. Easy to say—hard to do! I am both a night owl and an early bird—that helps!

Last, use technology!

Your social media links.

Twitter -- @ReidLRosenthal

I hope these musings, albeit from a newbie author who freely admits he knows little and has much to learn, have been of some help or stirred some thought. Thank you, Jean, for this great opportunity to appear here on your site!


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