by Terrence McCauley
I’d be the first to admit that I am not your typical western writer. I grew up in “The” Bronx and have the accent to prove it. Forty years ago you would have seen me on Bainbridge Avenue with my pals asking them “Wassa maddah?” and “Whadda ya doin’ amorra?” That’s certainly a far cry from “Hi y’all”.
So why in the world would would a guy from the concrete jungle like me even consider writing westerns, much less ten of them over a three-year period? The answer is simple. I’m a writer. A dreamer of days gone by.
I’ve always been captivated by history. Ancient history. Medieval times. The Revolutionary War. Prohibition. You name it, I’ve probably seen a documentary on it or read a book about it. But the era that fascinates me most has always been the westward expansion of the United States.
I’ve seen all of the shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza and the other series that dominated the airwaves during the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up watching Western movies with stars like John Wayne, Randolph Scott and Clint Eastwood. And while those movies might not have been entirely accurate, I always found myself wondering what life was really like back then. The showdowns on Main Street at High Noon never struck me as real, but the way people lived back then was real. You couldn’t just hop in the car and drive some place. You needed a reliable horse and a plan to get from one place to another, only to turn around and do it all over again on your way
Those movies and books took hold in my imagination and I began to wonder what it was really like to live back then. To explore a new place. To forge a new life for oneself in a foreign land. To know I was being part of something new that would last long after I was gone. I may have had something of a frontier spirit in my heart and that’s where I kept it. I wanted to wear a cowboy hat, but the crew I hung around with probably would’ve taken it from me!
My love of the west and the life it symbolized stayed with me throughout my life and even after I began writing novels. My first novels (PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN) were set in 1930s New York and explored the political corruption of Tammany Hall that still had a grip on the city back then. I got married and moved up to Amenia in Dutchess County where I spent my weekends writing the stories I felt needed to be told. Eventually, I bit the bullet and decided to try my hand at a western. The great Elmore Leonard from Detroit had penned classics like ‘Hombre’ and ‘3:10 to Yuma”, so I figured a city boy like me should give it a try.
While working on my front porch in Amenia, I wrote the kind of western novel I always wanted to read. The result was “Where The Bullets Fly” and is about Sheriff Aaron Mackey, who rides a pure-blooded Arabian he found as a filly while he was still in the cavalry in Arizona. Now back in his hometown of Dover Station Montana, Mackey is surrounded by ranches, farms, and precious mines, in a town where he is trying to keep the peace while being stalked by a killer. I had written the novel several years before I submitted it to my agent, waiting for a publisher that might be interested in it. And then, in 2017, Pinnacle asked me if I might be interested in writing a western. They were surprised when I not only agreed but sent the manuscript to them that same afternoon.
They loved everything about it except the cursing. That first draft was closer to ‘Deadwood’ than ‘Gunsmoke’, so I swapped out the cuss words and found ways to convey what I was trying to say without the crutch of vulgarity. They agreed to publish it, and to my surprise, the novel was well received. In fact I’m proud to say, Where the Bullets Fly, won the Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award and was also named Best New Western Paperback of the Year by True West magazine. It was also a finalist for the Silver Spur Award for best new novel from the Western Writers of America, so I knew I was on to something.
Since then, Mackey’s popular has not only grown, but so has his literary universe. People love a good series and I sought to give them what they wanted based on the input I received. Their response, both good and bad, helped me with the storylines of the books that followed. “Dark Territory” was published in 2019 and was also a Finalist for the Silver Spur Award. This year, two more of Mackey’s adventures were published: “Get Out of Town” and “The Dark Sunrise”.
The success of the Mackey series has allowed me the good fortune to take one of the minor characters from the books and create a series of his own. Jeremiah Halstead’s first solo journey will be in 2021 and will be called Blood on the Trail. He’s a brash young Texan who rides a mustang into the Montana Territory where he must find a way to bring a gang leader to justice while the gang is hot on his trail. I’m currently writing the second book of the series and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last.
One of the most popular questions I get from people is about how they can become writers. I always tell them it’s not necessarily something you become but something you already are. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve had more than my fair share of disappointments in the publishing business. Agents who don’t return calls. Publishers who like what I’ve submitted but ultimately turn me down. It’s not an easy path to take and if you can give it up, I suggest you do so. You’ll be saving yourself a lot of heartache and disappointment if you do.
But no matter how many times I tried to give it up, I’ve never been able to. Eventually, I always find myself back out on my porch, gazing at the beautiful scenery around me and ready to dive back into the corruption of the 1930s or the cat-and-mouse games of a spy series or, as it has been lately, the wide-open plains of the Old West. Why? I suppose it’s because I still have the element of a dreamer about me. The same dreamer that once roamed the concrete of The Bronx who now calls Dutchess County his home. A dream not only of what the Old West was like or what being a spy might entail, but a dream of something more. The dream that my best book is just over the next horizon. And although I may not have to saddle up and tote my gear to get there, I still believe it’s a journey well worth the taking and not one I plan on giving up anytime soon.