A version of this article appeared with great photography work in the December / January 2009 issue of "American Cowboy" magazine. Please check out the original at www.americancowboy.com. Just use the site engine, type in Elmer Kelton, and it will take you right there. But I must say, there's a ton of other things to enjoy in the site. Why don't you take a moment and stay a while? The magazine is awesome, and it presents a true representation of life in the American Southwest and the personalities and talent that make this land what it is...truly unique.
Elmer Kelton, named the “All-Time Best Western Author” by the Western Writers of America, sat down with me during a bookstore signing to discuss what it was like living and learning in my hometown, and his, of Crane, Texas. The interview is a portion of what was divulged by Mr. Kelton. Later, I will print the interview in its entirety.
Elmer Kelton: The Best Western Author and Western Man
by Bradley D. Pettit
Earlier this year, Elmer Kelton, one of Western literature’s leading voices, returned to his hometown of Crane, Texas, to lay to rest his friend and mentor of many years, Paul Patterson. Patterson was a cowboy, folklorist, author, teacher, and friend to the people of Crane, a small west Texas oil town located about 50 miles southwest of Midland. Patterson was known for his wry wit and kindness, but above all his lasting legacy is in the generations of students he influenced as a high school teacher. It was in this role of teacher and student that Patterson’s and Kelton’s lives first intertwined. Recognizing Kelton’s potential early on, Patterson forged a special bond with his young student, offering the future best-selling author advice on journalism, college, and life in general. I recently had an opportunity to visit with Kelton at his home in San Angelo, Texas, where he discussed what it was like growing up in Crane, the passing of his mentor, authors he admires, and what it means to be voted “All-Time Best Western Author” by the Western Writers of America.
Bradley Pettit: Let’s start with Paul Patterson. How do you best remember him?
Elmer Kelton: Well, Paul Patterson came to Crane to teach school in the fall semester of 1939. His brother, John, worked out on the McElroy Ranch with my father, Buck Kelton. And since Paul arrived in town a couple of weeks before school was to start, he decided to fill in his time and make a few extra dollars by working through the McElroy roundup. So, my first acquaintance with Paul was as cowboy Paul Patterson.
Then school started, and all of the sudden he was my teacher, and he was Mr. Patterson. So, the relationship then took on a little different aspect.
Paul taught Spanish and journalism. I took both, and I can’t say that the Spanish stayed with me too well, but the journalism definitely stuck. And I think Paul was responsible for giving me the idea that one way to get into writing, as a profession, was through newspaper work. He was a big influence on my decision to go to the University of Texas and major in journalism. In fact, Paul took a group of us journalism students from Crane to Austin one time for a scholastic journalism contest. That decided me on the University of Texas because, at that time, it was far and away the best journalism school in the state.
BP: You and Paul both served in World War II. When you both returned, it is my understanding that you two worked on a project together?
EK: When I got back from WWII, Paul had written a book while he was in the service and he asked me to illustrate it. Well, I drew the cartoons for it, and it got published with the cartoons. So, Paul was responsible—other than the newspaper work I did at school—for the first publication of anything that I did. We remained good friends throughout the rest of his life, which went on for a little over 60 years after school. And I just cannot give enough credit to Paul for a lot of the good things that have happened to me as a writer. Paul was always one of the best friends, and I consider him to be the nearest thing to a mentor that I’ve ever had.
BP: Where do you think you would be today if Paul Patterson hadn’t been an influence in your life?
EK: (chuckles) I might still be out on the Pecos River, holding down somebody’s ranch. Just out there waiting for some rain.
BP: What did you think personally of Paul’s writings, and did they influence your own in any way?
EK: Paul always had a touch of humor about him, and some of his stories were downright hilarious. They’d just kind of make you chuckle a little bit. For one thing, Paul was a great folklorist. He was able to capture the spirit of the time, place, and people that he wrote about. And, of course, he understood the cowboy. He understood him inside and out.
I only saw Paul perform the duties of a cowboy that one time during the McElroy roundup, but he was as good as anybody else. Except maybe for his brother, John, who perhaps had him skinned a little bit in that area (laughs). But Paul did do a little bit of cowboyin’ elsewhere. One time an outfit gave him a string of pretty bad horses, and one of the horses in particular kept throwing Paul off on his head. He used to say, “That ol’ horse gave me a burnin’ yearnin’ for learnin’.” So that fall, he went to Sul Ross State University to work on becoming a school teacher.
Paul was certainly not a professional cowboy, you know, but he was a competent hand. He could hold his own with the rest of ’em. In a lot of ways, we were the same in that respect. Even though I worked a lot on the McElroy Ranch, I considered myself more of an astute observer of the cowboy, rather than actually being a professional one myself. Paul was the same way.
But to answer your question, we didn’t really have the same writing style, but his influence as a teacher, mentor, and observer definitely had an influence on the way I came to write. Because, like I say, we remained friends until the day he died. He was always there to listen and offer advice. And I miss him. I miss him deeply.
BP: The Western Writers of America recently named you the “All-Time Best Western Author.” What does this award and honor mean to you?
EK: Well, I’m real proud of it, but I’m not sure I really believe it. I think of so many other great Western writers who have come along before me that I’m sure should have gotten that award instead of me. But I’m the one who is contemporary, and I’m getting to be one of the old founders, you might say. I joined that outfit when I was one of the kids, and that’s been so long now, I’m an old founder. But I appreciate the honor. But, I really have got reservations about it. Because I go back to people of an earlier time, like Will James and Ernest Haycox, and, of course, the more literary-type people, and that’s a whole different category. And I’d hate to have to stand up and make a jury believe I was better than them, because it’s just not so.
BP: Who would you nominate as the “All-Time Best Western Writer”?
EK: I’d have to give that a lot of thought. You’d have to consider, first of all, what that writer was trying to accomplish; whether he was more of a literary writer, or more of a popular-entertainment type of a writer. In the more popular field with a literary touch, I’d say Ernest Haycox would be hard to beat. Of course he comes from another era. And because I’ve still got so many friends in the field, I’d hate to try to name one of the contemporaries, because I would certainly forget about somebody I shouldn’t.
I’ll also mention Don Coldsmith. Don writes books from an Indian point of view, somewhat like Bob Conley, except Don’s not Indian himself. But he’s another one whom I consider one of the top writers in the field today. Another one I’d have to think about would be A.B. Guthrie, Jr., who wrote The Way West and The Big Sky. He’s another one who I would seriously consider for having been the best, both in the entertainment side of it, as well as the literary side. The Big Sky is kind of a dark book, in a lot of ways. The Way West is a little bit more cheerful. And then he wrote, in later years, before he died, a sequel to both of them, with some of the same characters out of both books. It was the bleakest Western I think I’d ever read. Nobody came out of it alive. I mean, at the end of it, everything was dark and getting darker.
Which brings me to Cormac McCarthy. He’s probably the best contemporary writer. All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian, which is probably the most brutal book I know of in the field. Cormac McCarthy is probably the best-known, most widely accepted literary Western writer alive today. And, of course, you can’t overlook Larry McMurtry. The most outstanding thing he’s done from the standpoint of popularity is, or course, Lonesome Dove. You could make a pretty good case for Larry instead of me for this best writer thing. I think he’s a wonderful writer. He’s got a wry wit. He’s got a very dark view of things. Most of his characters come up at the end of the story with an empty sack. There are a lot of good ones out there.
BP: Who do you think might be responsible for getting you involved in your interest with the Western writing genre?
EK: I can’t pin it down to any one thing. My mother taught me to read when I was five. We lived out in the country, so there wasn’t a whole lot else for entertainment but to read. I loved reading. I got started on the Western books fairly early because, growing up around cowboys, I related to the Western story very strongly. I guess my early influences were writers like Will James, who did Smoky and a lot of other horse and cowboy books, J. Frank Dobie, the folklorist, and Zane Grey, who wrote those grand, old-time Western adventure stories.
Later on I kept up with more contemporary writers. And when I began to try to write professionally, I studied people like Ernest Haycox and Luke Short, who were at the top of the ladder at that time in that field. I studied them to try to learn how they did it. I tried to figure it out: “Why did it work? How did he do that?” I learned a lot of things from these writers who never knew they’d taught me anything.
BP: Did any of your earlier work resemble some of the writers you were analyzing at that time?
EK: Oh, sure. You know, you start out trying to be a carbon copy of someone else until you finally begin to develop your own style. And then you try to avoid being a carbon copy of anyone else. It’s like a young artist copying the old masters to try to get a feel for how they did it. And then, eventually, you develop your own way. That’s basically what I did. I tried to emulate those people, but then gradually developed my own voice.
BP: What piece of writing would you be able to say, “That’s all me there. That’s the voice of Elmer Kelton.”
EK: Well, the first novel I had. I’d written short stories for a number of years, and published a good many of ’em before I ever tried a book. The first book was Hot Iron, and I think by that time it was beginning to come together. I think where it came together best in those years was probably my first real hard-cover book, The Day the Cowboys Quit. From there, I kind of graduated into a little bit more literary-type Western than my early work had been. The only problem I see is that I probably peaked with The Time it Never Rained and The Good Ol’ Boys, which are now both more than 30 years old. So, if I peaked that far back, where have I been since then, you know? I kind of worry about it from that standpoint, if that was my best work. But, I have to admit, it probably was.
BP: If you feel that you’ve peaked, is that a large reason for why you wrote your autobiography recently? EK: I think that I had a lot of pressure to do that memoir through my publisher and my agent. I had resisted it because I didn’t think my life, in itself, had been all that interesting. So when I finally decided to do it, I thought, “Well, I’ll concentrate more on people that I knew than on myself.” So, a good part of that book is about other people. It’s more about my times than it is my life. But I enjoyed it once I finally got started. I felt it was worthwhile. At least my descendants will have something to go by, at least they’ll know where I was coming from.
BP: Well, in all truth, sir, I can’t totally agree that you’ve peaked. I think you’ve got a few great ones left in you. Just look at that wall behind you. I mean, you’re still putting them out, they’re still selling, and people still love them.
EK: Yeah, well, I’m not going to try to downgrade my later work, but I guess that The Time it Never Rained, that was the most personal book to me because it was about a period when I was a reporter in livestock and farm news. I reported that drought through the whole seven years, every day, and I watched all these things happening to people I knew, including some of my own family. Even though the book is fiction on the surface, it’s factual at another level. I was trying to show what country people have to go through to produce food and fiber for the majority of us. However, I found that, at least the first two or three times it was published, I was preaching mainly to the choir because I was selling the books west of the Mississippi where people already knew this. Now, I have, in more recent times, gotten a somewhat broader spread of the book. Maybe I’m finally reaching somebody besides the choir.
AC: Who are some of the Western authors who you are reading today whom you feel are doing a good job of keeping the Western genre going EK: Well, I hate to get into too much detail, because I’ll always omit somebody. But we do have a number of promising Western writers today. A younger group. Mike Blakely, for one. Dusty Richards. Cotton Smith. Robert Conley, who writes mainly from an Indian point of view. Bob is half-Cherokee, and he’s done a lot of books on Cherokee folklore and history, as well as some good Western fiction.
There’s so many more. Here lately we’ve had some non- fiction books that have been highly important in the field. Joaquin Jackson has done two books about his experiences as a Texas Ranger. Scott Zesch, from Mason, has written a book about Indian captivity… children who were kidnapped by the Indians out of the hill country, mostly German kids back in the 1870s and 80s, and carried away, and what eventually became of some of ’em.
Mike Cox has just come out with a new history of the Texas Rangers in the 19th Century. And Robert Utley has had two books about the Texas Rangers—one in the 19th Century and one in the 20th Century.
There’s a lot of good work being done out there in the field—nonfiction as well as fiction. I think there’s a future, more so in nonfiction than there is in the fiction. Right now, the fiction Western is in somewhat of a slump. It’s cyclical, and of course I always hope it will come back around. At the very moment though it’s a pretty tight market. It’s hard for a newcomer to break in. It always was, but it’s extremely hard now.
BP: How would you describe the town of Crane?
EK: Well, it was a great place to grow up. For one thing, nearly everybody there was on a fairly equal economic level. There weren’t any rich people living in Crane. It was basically a working town, an oil-patch town. There was a community spirit that always impressed me, even though people were transient. A lot of these people were transferring from one oil field to another, and to another. And maybe the fellowship was more general among the oil-patch people, wherever they were, but in Crane, it was always our football team and our band. One person’s triumph was everybody’s, and one person’s struggle was everybody’s. There was a feeling of togetherness there that you don’t get in a larger community. There’s that blissful, together kind of a spirit. I hope it’s still there. I hope it is. I don’t get out there that often to know for sure.
BP: Maybe not as much as it used to be. I think it’s kind of fading pretty much everywhere these days, but it’s still somewhat there.
EK: Well, I think that in those days, because we didn’t have all the television and that kind of thing, we kind of leaned on each other for support and for news. We listened to each other. Visiting your neighbors was part of your life. Now, who does that anymore? We’ve lost some things that we should have held on to. But, on the other hand, we’ve made some gains. I had a triple-bypass, and if this [malady] had happened to me 30 years ago, I’d have died. So, I guess the good ol’ days didn’t have it all.
What Some of Kelton's Peers in the Westerns Field Have to Say About Him
“Elmer Kelton has a writing style that is so clear and clean that it makes for very good reading. I think he can portray the reality of the area, the physical and mental hardships in a way that brings it alive. Texas has produced a lot of great people, and Elmer Kelton is certainly one of its treasures.”
— Cotton Smith
“I’m honored to say good things about Elmer because he is one of my favorite people. There are writers who write fiction
who think, well, it’s just fiction. They don’t think things through or research enough to make it accurate. This is one of the major things that Elmer and I have in common. And Elmer is definitely one of the ‘real ones.’ ” — Don Coldsmith
“Elmer is one of the finest writers covering
the American West today. He knows his history and his territory first hand—a fundamental requirement for any great novelist.”— John Jakes
“The vote that was taken naming Elmer Kelton the ‘Best Western Author’ could have been taken in 2008 or 2028. The result would still be the same, and deservedly so. Elmer Kelton is truly the best in the field.”
— Johnny Boggs
Bradley D. Pettit is a freelance writer living in Crane, Texas
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