|This interview first appeared in the online magazine Graphomania.
It is used with permission and has been edited in size.
Ralph W. Cotton, one of today's most popular western authors, claims his success as a story-teller is due in part to his background in, among other things, construction, ironwork and as a commercial seaman.
"You learn to hear how a broad range of people talk, hopefully, how they think. Life experience is one valuable asset a writer can't achieve in the classroom. It only comes from being there, where the sweat is spilled and the tempers and the emotions flare," says Cotton, whose first novel, While Angels Dance, caught the eye of the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1994.
Above photo by Bridget Cotton
|A number of
his books made Ingram's top fifty list for westerns and the USA Today Bestseller
List. With several novels now in print, Cotton's work has been hailed by
critics and likened to such literary notables as: Jack London, Walter Van
Tilburg Clark, Steinbeck and Twain.
Southern literary critic, Wade Hall proclaimed in the Louisville Courier Journal: "Cotton has proved himself to be no mere 'Western' Writer, but rather a gifted writer who happens to write Westerns. His works incorporates Greek-like economy of time, place and plot in a language that ranges from lyric beauty to macabre descriptions of bestial savagery -"
Among the western genre, bestselling author, Terry Johnston said of Cotton's work: "Cotton writes the kind of story we all hope to find within us, blood-soaked, sweat-stained, gritty believability-"
Of such praise, Cotton says: "I'm honored that people enjoy my stories. It's inspiring, yet I have to keep a handle on it. I remind myself that there are thousand of writers out there no different than myself. I just happen to catch a break, by God's grace. So I don't get lofty about it. I keep writing the kind of story I personally want to read. Fortunately, other people like them too."
Ralph W. Cotton is with Signet-Dutton Publishing and has authored such books as: While Angels Dance; Powder River; Cost of a Killing; Justice, Trick of the Trade, Price of A Horse and more. He has also owned and operated several businesses, held public office in Louisville, Ky. while serving as a lay Minister for the Lutheran Church of America, and served as benefits coordinator for the construction industry in Washington DC. While he only completed the Seventh grade, he later received his high school GED in the military where he served a two year term in the US Army. A self-taught writer, he later attended classes in psychology, English, and literature at Jefferson Community College in Louisville. Cotton is a member of the Western Writers of America, (WWA) and served as judge for the highly acclaimed Spur Award in 1997.
What first motivated you to begin writing, and why you've chosen to make writing your career?
"I began writing as early as the third grade. I'm certain it was just my way of expressing what I perhaps could not vocalize. I was a terrible student in school, and by the seventh grade, all I did was write and play sports. It was at about this time that I began to think of someday becoming a writer. Fiction was then and still is my favorite reading and writing. I got hooked at a young age on everything from pulp fiction -Mickey Spillane, Louis L'Amour-to literary fiction -Melville, Kerouac, Faulkner, and Hemingway. "
"I've always been fascinated with how a good writer uses words to paint a scene or an emotion in the same way a painter uses brushes and colors. Choosing writing as a career only came after seeing I could make a living at it. Once my novels began to publish, I decided that I didn't want the safety net of writing part time and having another occupation to fall back on. There's nothing like putting it all on the line to make a person demand the best of themselves. So far I'm glad I made that decision. "
You write westerns. What do you enjoy most about this field and what do you find the most rewarding aspects of your particular field to be? Do you ever hope to try another genre?
"I enjoy writing the kind of westerns I write because I like that wide and often harsh backdrop of the early west. It gives me the room I need to let my characters express themselves to the extreme with little social, legal, or perhaps even emotional restraint. What I find to be the most rewarding aspect of my field is that readers will come to me saying they don't ordinarily read westerns but have just finished one of mine and found it to be more than the typical genre fare. There is room in the western for all the elements of good literary fiction--symbolism, imagery, poetic voice, and the rudiments of the human condition. I write in other genres, including literary fiction. Westerns happens to be the work I'm most recognized for. My westerns are written the same as my other novels, they just happen to be played out on a different stage."
Who are the writers you admire most? Who are your role models in the literary world?
"To name only a few within their respective genres. Crime: Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, and James Lee Burke. Romance: Mary Liming Spencer, Bobbi Smith. Westerns: Terry Johnston, Ralph Compton, Elmer Kelton. Contemporary Fiction: Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. All time favorites (Without whose influence. I would never have been inspired to write) Hemingway, Faulkner, Kerouac, Twain, Blatty, Melville, and Poe."
"I put William Blatty's name in here because even though The Exorcist is not considered literary fiction by some standards, I feel it should be, due to its profound religious philosophical insight and presentation. As far as role models, in terms of striving to do the best possible job I can do, I look at The Exorcist by Blatty, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and while my work has had much praise, I read these two books and am reminded of just what excellence is possible if a writer keeps an ear to the word and the wind, and shoots for something beyond traditional plot and story line. "
What are your goals in terms of writing for the next ten years?
"As a working writer, at my age naturally I hope to still be able to publish a couple of books per year. I want the quality of my work to remain respectable-don't want to disappoint anyone whose spent their money and time reading what I've got to say. Over the next ten years, I'd like to see one of my books turned into a movie, just because it's something I would have never dreamed possible. It would be a real pleasure for me to take my grand children to the movies and see my characters up there moving around, doing the things I sat at home one night and created."
What was the most influential moment for you, in terms of your writing? And how did it change your outlook on your work?
"In 1994 when my first novel, While Angels Dance, (a western) became a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, it had a great influence on my next novels in terms of encouragement. It also had a lot to do with me getting more work published and realizing that maybe this was more than a one or two shot deal. It helped me decide to write full time and take my chances."
"Another influential time was back in the seventh grade when I wrote a short story and read it to the class. My English teacher accused me of copying the story out of a magazine. I felt bad at the time because I knew I'd created and written the story on my own. A few years later, thinking about it, I began to realize what a compliment that had been, in a backhanded sort of way. I began to think that if my work had been good enough that she thought I stole it from a professional, maybe I had something going for me after all. "
What do you enjoy doing when you aren't writing?
"Although writing is now
my profession, when I'm not at work on a particular book, I still enjoy writing
as a hobby, experimenting with different phrasing, voice, style etc. I read
a lot in my spare time, mostly old novels I've read a dozen times before.
I'm seldom able to ride horses anymore because of some old back injuries,
but I ride when I can and still enjoy just being around horses, working with
them. My two Catahoula Leopard dogs spend lots of time with me out in the
woods and fields. We don't hunt, but they like to run around, chase coyotes
and act tough. I do lots of swimming, golfing, and talking with other writers
when there's an opportunity. My wife Mary Lynn and I travel out west every
chance we get, and south to the beaches."