Louis Dearborn L'Amour was not only the West's best-selling storyteller, he was the consummate Western man, a pattern for the white-hatted heroes he wrote about. Hardworking and soft-spoken, he was proud of his accomplishments, yet despite rumors to the contrary, he was often shy in his remembrances. L'Amour literally elevated himself by his proverbial boot straps, and in the process, left footprints in the marketing landscape that few writers will be able to fill.
Luck had nothing to do with his success, he said not long before his death in 1988. "Nor have I had any connections or breaks that I did not create for myself. I just tried to write the best I could about things I knew."
There are realities that writers must consider, he was quick to add. "No publisher is going to do anything for you that you don't earn. They simply can't afford to. Once a writer proves he can make money, they will often extend themselves. There's no magic, just hard work."
The work ethic was instilled in L'Amour as a child by his parents in Jamestown, North Dakota. His father, a veterinarian and farm machinery salesman, was involved in local politics. He served as alderman of Jamestown's largest ward for many years as well as deputy sheriff, but he lost his mayoral race. "People in small towns doubled in brass, you might say."
Young Louie enjoyed playing cowboys and Indians, and roughhoused in the family barn, which doubled as his father's veterinary hospital. He did more than his share of reading, particularly G. A. Henty, an Englishman who wrote of wars through the nineteenth century. L'Amour said, "It enabled me to go into school with a great deal of knowledge that even my teachers didn't have about wars and politics."
The L'Amour family library encompassed some five hundred books, among them the works of Whittier, Lowell, Longfellow, and Poe, as well as popular American and English writers. The youngest of the L'Amour children, Louie remembered reading a five-volume Collier's History of the World while he was small enough to sit in his father's lap.
"I think all things you read influence your writing to some degree. And if you don't learn anything else, you learn something about living and the use of words."
His serious reading began at twelve with a collection of biographies titled The Genius of Solitude. "The only one I remember is Socrates, the first chapter, but I remember it well." A book of natural history followed, which he tried unsuccessfully to locate years later for his children. During adolescence, L'Amour immersed himself in books of chemistry, mineralogy, geology, and the history of aircraft.
His concentrated self-education resulted in boredom with school. "I was just spinning my wheels," he said, "so it was no real hardship for me to leave. I had to go to work to find myself a change." L'Amour left school and Jamestown at fifteen, after completing the tenth grade. Since crop failures were common in North Dakota, and his father's livelihood was linked to the farming community, he decided to find his niche elsewhere. By hitchhiking and riding the rails, he arrived in Oklahoma City to visit an older brother, who was the governor's secretary, but he soon moved on.
"By then I was broke and I got a job in West Texas skinning dead cattle that died from a prolonged drought. They had been dead a while. Some fellow was trying to save the hides and it was the most miserable job, but I learned a lot." The young man's boss was a seventy-nine-year-old wrangler raised by Apaches, who had ridden on war parties with Nana and Geronimo. "He was a very, very, hard old boy but I got along with him fine. He was the first to teach me about tracking and using herbs."
L'Amour left his odorous job, after three months sleeping on the ground and staying downwind from passersby. He had helped skin 965 head of cattle by staking their skulls and tying their hides to the bumper of an early model pickup truck.
His next job was baling hay in New Mexico's Pecos Valley, across the road from Billy the Kid's grave. He visited the Maxwell home where Billy had been killed, and talked to the woman who offered the outlaw his last meal. L'Amour remembered her as "a pretty sharp old lady who still had all her buttons." He then talked to Judge Cole in Ruidoso, and got to know some thirty former gunfighters, rangers, and outlaws in the area. He regretted not knowing about a number of others.
While wandering about the West, he joined a circus in Phoenix, leaving three weeks later in El Paso. He then hoboed his way to Galveston, Texas, where he hired on as a merchant seaman. His first cruise was to the West Indies, his second to the British Isles. He tried his hand at writing during his travels, but his scribblings didn't include events as familiar as his Western heritage.
L'Amour's family history is rich in frontier adventure. His maternal great-grandfather was scalped by the Sioux while a member of the Sibley Expedition, following the Little Crow Massacre in Minnesota. Both his grandfathers served in the Union army during the Civil War, and his maternal grandfather taught him military tactics by drawing battle plans on a blackboard.
The novelist was especially proud of his mother's ancestry, beginning with Godfrey Dearborn, who arrived in this country in 1638, an antecedent of General Henry Dearborn, who marched with Arnold to Quebec. He also took part in the second Battle of Saratoga, Monmouth, Sullivan's raid on the Iroquois villages, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and the surrender of Cornwallis, among others. Some of the general's diaries were published, and he and his wife corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, exchanging garden seeds.
General Dearborn's son, of the same name and rank, published half a dozen books, but L'Amour was only able to locate one of them, a biography of William Bainbridge, commander of "Old Ironsides." The book was published posthumously by Princeton University Press.
L'Amour stressed the fact he had never taken a creative writing course, and that his post tenth-grade education had been earned from voluminous reading. While in Oklahoma City, L'Amour assisted Foster Harris and Walter Campbell in their creative writing courses after he began to publish. He later lectured at more than forty institutions of higher learning, principally the University of Oklahoma. He was also a featured speaker for the National Convention of Genealogists in San Francisco.
"I get many questions about people mentioned in my stories—people looking for relatives or family histories—or about conditions at the time, or to clarify some point on which they lack understanding. Few people realize how much language and word usage have changed. Half the nonsense written about Shakespeare would not have happened if people knew more about the language and customs of the time. For example, they write of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, which in those days meant bawdy men."
L'Amour's constant research turned up the little known fact that Wild Bill Hickok's ancestors were tenant farmers on the property owned by Shakespeare. He insisted that credit for the factual unearthing go to English writer, Joseph Rosa.
The novelist's first published story sold to True Gang Life, and a few of his poems were featured in The Farmer's Stockman, an Oklahoma-based magazine. He also wrote boxing articles for a newspaper, sans payment, after meeting two pretty young news reporters in Oregon, who gave him a byline. He was fighting professionally at the time, and knocked out thirty-four of fifty-one opponents during his light heavyweight career. He first stepped between the ropes at age sixteen, and fought more heavyweights than those in his own weight division.
His first short story sales concerned the West Indies, football, rodeo, "detective yarns," and a few Westerns. "I'd grown up in the West and absorbed live background, but I was too close to it. I wanted to write about something far away, you see." He spent ten months in China, and bicycled across India during his twenty years in the merchant marines.
L'Amour's first big sale was Hondo, originally published in short story form by Collier's Magazine. "Dick Carroll of Fawcett Books asked me to come in, and he said, 'There's a novel here, and I'll buy it.' So I wrote it, and he bought it. Then John Wayne made a movie of it, and suddenly, everyone wanted Westerns."
The writer had an important decision to make. "Westerns have always been regarded in this country as second rate literature. I didn't agree with that. I never have. The paperback book was regarded as third or fourth rate, and I didn't agree with that either. So I sat down and had a very serious talk with myself. "Do I take the ball and run with it, or do I stay the same course I'm on?
"I decided to hell with it, that I was going to write damn good Westerns and I would make them accurate. I would show them that Westerns could be history, that they were important. Because to me, this was the most important phase of American history. The Western period, the pioneer period, did more to form American character than anything else done in this country. It should be taken seriously, and more attention should be given to it." The main difficulty he encountered was Eastern prejudice—those in the publishing business raised in the East, with little understanding of life west of the Mississippi River.
L'Amour did not come into his own as a writer until mid-life, much like English novelist Joseph Conrad, who also spent years at sea before settling down to write. While L'Amour lived in Oklahoma City, he realized "there was something drastically wrong" with his writing. "The short stories I sent out came back like homing pigeons. So I got a bunch of short stories and studied them to see how they were written. I found what I had been doing wrong and that's when I began to sell."
L'Amour's long-term association with Bantam Books began after his disillusionment with Fawcett, his first publisher, which only produced one of his novels a year. He said, "I have had, all the way along, to lead my publishers, sometimes by the nose. It hasn't been easy."
Saul David, a Bantam Books editor, told L'Amour he could write three books a year, but it took some persuasion on the writer's part, who liked "to write fast." He admired David's courage and his ability to "swim against the tide. If you told him something could not be done, he'd do it."
L'Amour maintained the schedule he had worked for years until just before his death, at 81. "I'm not rigid about it," he said. "I work every day, seven days a week, and that's not a problem. However, if something comes up and I want to take a little trip, I do it. I come back and go to work again."
Rising at 5:30 or 6:00, he'd read two Los Angeles newspapers and The Wall Street Journal before breakfast. His work day then began. At noon he sometimes stopped for lunch, often meeting friends at a restaurant. He said he occasionally went alone at an off-hour to make notes for a forthcoming novel, although he was rarely known to use them. "But, I can discuss it with myself, and the direction the book will follow."
He usually returned to his IBM Wheelwriter after lunch for an hour, or he used that time to read. He would also file mounds of research material crowding his large office. Three-foot stacks of paper neatly flanked three sides of his desk. He had no secretary and didn't want one, because "it would keep me busy finding work for her to do." Only he knew where to file research material so that he could find it. He also answered his own mail, but only a small percentage of some 5,000 letters that arrived annually.
His personal library contained more than 10,000 books, with hinged bookcases revealing floor-to-ceiling shelves behind the visible ones. He also left behind map drawers, much like those on ships, with geographical charts of every country on earth. The world was literally at his fingertips.
Little physical research was done during his latter years because he had already been there. "Usually I write about places I've been," he said. "I knocked around the world for twenty years, and one of the things I did was file a claim on a mining camp where I had to do a hundred hours work a year to hold it. Sometimes I hired somebody to do it, or miss out on a good job."
Although he only two-finger typed one draft, he admitted to rewriting on occasion. "Usually if I find something wrong, I rewrite the whole page. Occasionally I reread the previous day's work, and that's only when there's been a break in continuity. My feeling is that if one plans to rewrite, one is careless, figuring to pick it up the next time around. I wrote for the pulps and to make any money, one had to produce a lot. I drilled myself in getting it right the first time."
His wife Kathy proofread his work, checking for typos and redundancies. She rarely found misspelled words and no one changed his work, "not even editors. They never have, not since that first sale when the editor sent my story back and said to cut 1,500 words. I thought, 'Ah baloney, I just don't know how I could possibly do that. I hate it." Chuckling, he added: "Now when I look at it, I wonder where all the words went."
During the mid-1980s, his novels crowded book store racks along with adult Westerns that he hated. "Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Brontes, Checkov, Thackeray, and many others, who used sex, did it with wit and charm," he said. "Sex in current books is clumsily done, indicating that most writers really know very little about it. They write like a bunch of small boys out behind a barn. They are crudely lewd. There's no fun in their sex and nobody appears to be having a good time."
L'Amour advised fledglings to read and write "everything you can. Keep writing, putting words on paper and learn to express yourself. One difficulty I find of people who write is that they don't read enough. And our schools aren't giving enough background in American literature. I think you should have a pretty good idea what's been done before you try to do it. And you can learn some valuable things by writing. I really learned how to write from Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Trollope, and de Maupassant."
A sentimentalist, L'Amour adopted a white dove before his first novel sold. The dove had taken up residence in the novelist's garage and was brought into the house and named Rama-Cita after two deities of East Indian mythology. The name was later shortened to Rama when the bird was found to be male. The dove could be heard throughout the L'Amour's large Spanish-style home as though in an echo chamber, and outlived most of its species as the writer's "good luck mascot."
Louis L'Amour was visibly proud of his children. His son Beau, at the time of the interview, was a film producer's creative consultant, who wrote in his famous father's wake. His pretty younger sister Angelique also writes. Both L'Amour offspring planned at the time to produce biographies of their father, in addition to the one he was writing at the time of his death. L'Amour wanted to be remembered as a storyteller—a man who told the American story, or one version of it."
Among his legion of books, Walking Drum, a twelfth century adventure, was the most fun to write. When asked which had been his favorite, he said, "I like them all. There's bits and pieces of books that I think are good. I never rework a book. I'd rather use what I've learned on the next one, you see, and make it a little bit better.
"The worst of it is that I'm no longer a kid and I'm just now getting to be a good writer. Just now."
(Excerpted from Maverick Writers and Weserners: Candid & Historic Interviews)
© 2013 Jean Henry-Mead