INTERVIEW WITH MARK BANNERMAN
Tell us about yourself:
I was born at Colchester in 1933 and educated at Kings College School Wimbledon, my best subject being English. I served for 35 years in the Royal Army Pay Corps, retiring as a major and visiting many parts of the world. I married my French-born wife Françoise in 1966 and now have two grown up children and four grandchildren. I currently write full time and live in Ash Vale, Surrey.
When did you start writing?
After writing many essays and compositions at school, I purchased an antique typewriter and enjoyed typing so much that I started writing in the early fifties, churning out countless stories (mostly Westerns) without success. In 1963, I got my first breakthrough – a short story sold to ‘International Storyteller’, who thereafter published a whole sequence of my stories until the magazine folded in 1966 (not I hope due to my stories!). But now I had the taste for publication and spread my wings into other genres and my stories appeared in men’s magazines, women’s magazines, children’s annuals, animal books, anthologies and newspapers. I also wrote articles on numerous subjects. In all, I guess I had some 300 short stories and articles published.
What made you want to write Westerns?
My Grandfather was a great devotee of Western books (he read nothing else) and films, and he used to take me along to see the latter. In those days my heroes were Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, the Lone Ranger, not to mention John Wayne. It was from that time that my seeds of interest in the Old West grew. In 1951, I read Will Henry’s great book NO SURVIVORS, a tale of Custer and Crazy Horse, and loved both the style and first person narrative. I read other authors, such as Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, AB Guthrie, Wayne D Olverholser, Charles Marquis Warren, Walter D Edmonds, Elmer Kelton, and was so impressed with their literary style, that I determined to write Westerns myself. My love of the West has grown even stronger with the passing years, and I have been fortunate to tread what is to me the hallowed turf of the Old Frontier many times, gathering literature and ideas for stories. Perhaps the greatest attractions of all are the wide open spaces, the mountains, rivers, deserts, skies, and the sort of poetry they stimulate. I know I can never emulate the truly great Western writers of the past, but I can enjoy trying.
What do you think of the Black Horse Western series?
I am grateful to the Black Horse Western series for keeping the genre alive in this country. It is wonderful to see one’s name listed among the all time greats of Western literature.
What do you think of Hale’s ‘author friendly’ approach?
I find Hale’s efficiency very refreshing. The return-post acceptances are most reassuring, as one always has the lingering thought ‘will this one fail?’ Fortunately, so far, I have not had that disappointment. I do find Hale’s set-piece letters rather impersonal, but the occasional word of encouragement is greatly appreciated. No doubt a more chatty approach would slow their turnover down, so I am happy to go along with it. It is nice to know that there are other authors striving in the same way as I am, and that is why a group such as this really fills a gap.
What process do you go through from initial idea to finished manuscript?
I usually come up with a situation of high drama, where my hero or heroine is quickly in some conflict. After the opening impact, the central character’s problems increase in numerous ways and I gradually work towards a climax that is not entirely what the reader expects (I hope). I like to paint my stories against real historical and geographical backgrounds, and use conflicts that involve human relationships, weaknesses, as well as those imposed by the rugged times.
You have travelled extensively with the Army … Has this helped with your writing?
I would say that my Army experiences broadened my outlook and enabled me to set my short stories against a great variety of backgrounds. My travels to the USA since my retirement have helped me with my Westerns.
Do you carry characters over from one book to another or do you prefer to create new ones for each story?
I have carried minor characters from one book to another, although never a central character. My heroes seem to undergo such turmoil, that I feel it would be unfair to subject them to such suffering again. It is also unlikely that they would have the luck to survive another dose of the similar medicine.
In a genre that is often said to have few plot variations, do you have any problems coming up with original stories?
I think the answer to that is yes, but they come to me eventually. It is hard work. Of course no stories are strictly speaking ‘original’ but one tries to treat them with a fresh style and approach. I glean stories by reading into history, myths and legends, and studying countless other Westerns by the earlier writers. I find Dee Brown’s books about ‘The Wondrous Times on the Frontier’ and others full of anecdotes and events that are stimulating. Histories of Indians, outlaws, lawmen, pioneers, immigrants and explorers also provide a wealth of story ideas. I love to expand the Western theme into new and more original realms, though not beyond the limits of reality. I am happy to write of a psychological situation, though I would feel I was betraying history if I involved fantasy or science fiction. For me, the Old West is full of stories and material if I make the effort to unearth them.
How important is research to you?
Research is the key-note to all my work. As mentioned previously, my travels in the States always provide me with new ideas, and the range of research books available is breathtaking. On a recent visit to the Smithsonian in Washington, I never got outside the American history bookshop. I have visited the graves of Red Cloud, Captain Jack and William Fetterman and, in my mind, communed with their spirits. Furthermore, I have had the inspiration of visiting historical sites such as the Little Bighorn, Fort Phil Kearny and other Military posts, Apache Pass, Tombstone, Silver City, old ranches, and the San Carlos Apache Reservation. I have also travelled on the old railroads, and researched my book about the Modoc Indian War (1872-73) at the place where it occurred – The Lava Beds, Northern California. In addition, I have established a small network of Western experts and historians in the States, who, with the advent of the e-mail, provide me with a wealth of information. My home library is immense. I have the entire series of Time Life’s Books ‘The Old West’, as well as countless reference books on everything from Indians to railroads, every day life in the Wild West, Dictionaries of the Old West, Guns of the Old West, the US Army in the Old West, horses, cattle, American flora and fauna, trees, old towns – as well as many books on writing. Maps and territorial details are also an important part of my writing armoury. So yes, research is my number one priority – and yet, no doubt, I still get some things wrong, but that is my fault, not that of my American advisers.
Which of your books are your favourite and why?
Strange to relate, I have no favourites. I have enjoyed writing them all. My novel about the Modoc Indian War is certainly the longest and therefore particularly satisfying. Another book about this war, ‘The Frontiersman’, is shortly to be published by Ulverscroft. As a complete change from the Old West, I wrote ‘The Cornish Woman’ which has now been published by Ulverscroft. Perhaps a fairer answer to the question ‘which is your favourite book’ should be ‘the next one’.
Which of your covers are your favourites and why?
I liked the cover of ‘The Early Lynching’ (Hale) because it was an excellent montage that really captured the spirit of the book. ‘Comanche Rendezvous’ (Ulverscroft) was full of action, as was ‘Trail to Redemption’ (Hale). ‘Railroaded!’ (Hale) had atmosphere and ‘Escape to Purgatory’ (Ulverscroft) had considerable impact.
What can you tell us about ‘Lust to Kill’ and ‘Blind Trail’ your two forthcoming books?
In ‘Lust to Kill’ the opening chapter relates the apparent death of the hero (as did ‘Galvanized Yankee’), and the somewhat shocking events that surround it. As usual, a true incident sparked this one off. The story evolves as a killer holds a small town in the grip of terror. ‘Blind Trail’ relates the experiences of an ex army officer, blinded in an accident, and how he sets out to track down the killer of his brother. In so doing he finds himself embroiled in Geronimo’s Apache uprising. As in many of my books, I like to surprise the reader with things turning out not exactly as expected.
Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I am currently wrestling with the ending of my latest book. This concerns a real family of serial killers and the people who were unfortunate enough to become involved with them. The murderous family disappeared into Western legend and the mists of time. What really happened to them? Or, as far as my book is concerned, what might have really happened? As always, I like to include plenty of love interest and a little humour – and, once again, the unexpected.
I am currently writing a thriller called ‘High Gables’.
I have also written a Cornish Saga (Cornish Woman, see internet)
I have also written a book ‘Mark Bannerman’s Short Story World)
Also two collections of short stories, ‘Bridges to Cross’ and ‘Goose Pimples’.
Any advice to aspiring writers of Westerns?
Never write down when writing westerns. Give it your very best literary effort. Remember these were Victorian times, and attitudes differed in those days. Do not get overwhelmed with killing and rape and general violence. And do not attempt to write sloppy pseudo-American dialogue. Write in good English, only slightly tempered with the custom of the day. Have confidence in your own work. Consider the ‘shape’ of your plot as you move towards the climax. Sometimes it is best to start at the end and use flashbacks. Create characters with whom your readers can empathise. Blend your action and violence with moments of gentleness and tenderness. Non stop action becomes boring. The more you read the better you can write. Get your central characters quickly involved with conflict and do not resolve the situation until the final chapter. Write every day if you can, do your research and make your story as authentic as possible. Join a local writers’ circle or creative writing class. And above all, persevere.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Yes, I’d like to encourage new writers to lift the Western novel out of the pulp fiction category into a more respected, literary genre.