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Thursday 25 Jul 2024

Bruce Holbert
dr george pollard

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Truth lives in fiction. Our deepest beliefs are the essence of fictional stories. This is why stories that resonate, most, are most popular.

Authors have no choice. Mostly, they know what the rest of us know. Authors live by the same codes, as do their readers.

Buried in the moral code of the old West are the most robust American beliefs. Violence, for example, is a rational means to an end. A strong, silent, lone wolf killer, living on the edge, is as likely an enforcer of law as a wild cowboy.

The code of the old West calls these men heroes. This explains, partly, why White gunslingers murder Black teenagers, with impunity. Silent, if not strong, lone wolf characters from the pale supposedly shoot to save us.

Bruce Holbert, above, knows violence. In 1982, as he examined a gun, it went off, killing his good friend, Doug Grooms. “That incident influences every breath I take,” says Holbert. “It influences my stories.” Since the shooting, “I find it much more difficult to tell a story about myself, as a good person.”

He caught more grief for an Op-Ed, about the shooting, published in the New York “Times.”* Gun activists claimed he made up the event because he called the gun a service revolver; it was a 357. Others thought he blamed the gun or its maker. Some readers claimed he was obscure, as way of not admitting he pulled the trigger on purpose.

Two books by Holbert deal with violence. In “Lonesome Animals,” violence leads to more violence, out of need; “The Hour of Lead” deals with the weight of violence on victims. “There are no Hollywood endings,” he says.

Holbert is a thrifty writer. There’s not an extra word in either of his books. He writes the sparest, most telling, sentences.

He loves sentences. “I find parts of a sentence,” says Holbert, “that lead me to different parts of a character.” Here’s an example from “The Hour of Lead”: “Most were good for nothing sensible, just wondering doubt and the doubts attached to them.”

A sentence, says Holbert, “leads me further along. I use sentences to tell me my direction. That’s another reason I like rewriting.”

For Holbert, rewriting is similar to sculpting. “I chisel off some stone here and there,” he says. “I chip away at the stone, the sentence, to find the shape I want. I sculpt with sentences.”

Reading, today, is often skimming. “I write sentences,” says Holbert, “in layers. I’m trying to get readers to do more work.” A reviewer said Holbert discovered how to slow down the reader, which improves the reading experience.**

Exquisitely written, both “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hour of Lead” root deeply in the code of the American west. Holbert is the best writer you will read, ever. His challenge is to continue to write so well.

In this interview, Bruce Holbert talks of writing, of his fear our undetected demons do us much harm and his deep passion for well-chiselled sentences.

Grub Street (GS) You say our demons live in stories that guide our lives.

Bruce Holbert (BH) I think the stories in our heads can direct us to places we wouldn’t otherwise go. Sometimes those places are dark. Sometimes no one needs to go to those dark places.

GS Are you talking about mythos, a recurring story or plot line that expresses a set of beliefs.

BH Yes, I’m talking about mythos. I’m also talking personal stories as well as cultural-level stories. These are stories, repeated so often that everybody comes to believe such stories as fact.

GS Tell someone, often enough, she or he is stupid or bad, say, they will try to conform and be stupid or bad.

BH I teach high school. If a parent, say, repeatedly tells a student not to trust anybody, that it’s best to keep quiet, the child lives by that story. It’s ingrained.

The problem is not a bad student or a rotten person. It’s someone responding to stories picked up about him or her. After a while, the stories become a truth; the person doesn’t know any different.

GS She or he isn’t aware they’re responding to the stories.

BH No, they see their response as natural. In a sense, it is normal. It’s what they learn about themselves from listening and watching, as others respond to them.

GS Socialisation, learning whom you are and how to act, is what you’re getting at.

BH Yes, I use students as an example, but I think it’s important in the life of everybody. It’s important for storytelling. I grew up with a certain idea of what a man is, as did my brother.

GS What’s a man?

BH In the west, where I live, certain actions are masculine and expected. Few women or men, in the west, trust a talker, for example. A man that talks a great deal is weak, womanly or a shyster. Someone that’s good at talking, good at engaging in conversations or enjoys it is a little askew.

This is how the conventional thinking goes. Not talking, much, makes for some badass tavern drinkers, talking with theirs fists. It’s tough to hold a marriage together that way, too.

GS The NFL is finding that out.

BH Yes, in the west, people trust action, men, especially, and especially traditional men. They don’t care what you say; they want action. When high school boys break up with their girlfriends, they punch walls; that seems okay, out here. It doesn’t make much sense, but people respect it and, in a way, I understand it.

GS In the east, such action would lead to therapy.

BH There’s not much consideration of therapy, in the west. Trying to work a problem through talk isn’t an option. For men, in the west, talking out a problem is, well, womanly, alien; it’s best to act.

GS Do you fit the mould, of a man in the west?

BH Yes and no, I guess, not as much as do many men. As a high school teacher of English and a writer, I think I may have broken the mould. My brother followed the rules better than I did and landed in penitentiary for five years.

GS As a writer, you don’t fit that idea of manliness.

BH True, I’m interested in the myth that dominates the west. I’m also interested in the story of the west; how it affects people. I’m not interested in living that mythos, myself. Many men and women, in the west, want to live the mythos, not talk or think about it.

GS Writing or teaching seems inconsistent with the mythos of the west.

BH Yes, it took some time to work out that. I was always decent at school. I always had creative urge.

Still, it wasn’t a natural line of work for a man, in the west, to become a writer or teacher. When I got into the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, my dad said, “Your pay will be the same when you come back here to work. Why are you going?”

It was hard to explain to him. Finally, he said, “Well, as long as you have your job when you come back, I guess I’m not going to worry about it.”

That’s his view life. It’s not that he isn’t proud of me. He just didn’t understand what being a writer is or means.

GS What did your father do for a living?

BH He worked construction. For last half of his working life, he worked on Grand Cooley Dam, Chief Joseph Dam and the Little Goose, a small dam on the Snake River. He had to assume the masculine mythos, early in life: at nine months, my father became the oldest boy in his family.

GS What’s the story?

BH His grandfather murdered his father.

GS That is a story. Your great-grandfather murdered your grandfather. Is that right?

BH Yes, my grandfather and mother helped run a ranch started by her grandfather. There was an argument, which my great-grandfather decides is about how to run the ranch. He went into the house, came back out with a shotgun and killed my grandfather.

GS That’s taking action.

BH My great-grandfather went to jail, of course. My father was roughly nine months when this happened. His mother and two older sisters raised him. This is where his ideas of manhood came from.

GS This incident becomes the basis for “Lonesome Animals.”

BH Yes, it’s the whole story. My granddad’s name was Strahl. The main character, in “Lonesome Animals,” is Russell Strawl.

“Lonesome Animals” is an investigation of how someone could get to the point where he kills his son-in-law, ruins his life and the lives of his family members.

GS How does this event become the basis for “Lonesome Animals.”

BH Well, I think the story is the story is a hunt for a killer. The reason Strawl becomes involved, in the hunt for a serial killer, is he didn’t practice many ways that were acceptable any more. The serial killer, Strawl hunts down, is much the same as him.

GS Such practices were menacing, even in the middle twentieth century west.

BH Yes, Strawl hunted people, bringing them back dead or alive. Dead was easier. He beat-up many people, too.

Eventually, the town eased him out of his job, as sheriff. Then a serial killer shows up, with a sense of the macabre; he leaves a trail of intricately carved bodies of Native Americans. The new sheriff is too much a politician, a slick talker, of a sort, and not much of a man of action.

The town folk realise they need Strawl. Circumstances call for someone that plays by the old rules, as does the killer. Strawl is much like the killer; some town folk suspect he is a killer.

Strawl accepts the job. He must go and live through that story, again. He does what he must, as a man.

GS Right.

BH There’s a line, in “Lonesome Animal,” where Stawl describes himself as a mean guard dog, with nothing to guard. I think that’s how it is for men, mostly, living by the code of the west, which is no longer is acceptable. It’s strange; people accept and expect, subconsciously, the code to exist, but it’s no longer a legal or an honest option.

GS Accepted out of need.

BH Yes, Strawl has an old set of rules. When he acts in the new world, he scares people or hurts them. These are circumstances women and men in the west face. The mythos excuses people, mostly men, for playing by a different set of rules. If they play correctly, they likely end in prison or dead.

GS The town ousts Strawl, but due to his special skills must bring him back, to the save the day.

BH Yes, that’s right. The problem is his skills are almost the same as the serial killer. Strawl is a killer hired to rid town of a killer.

GS Strawl does what he must, what the town folk ask him to do and then he must leave, again.

BH Yes, violence is the problem and the solution. It’s the supreme form of justice, the law, in the west. Yet, few can tolerate violence, any longer.

Strawl is a murderer practising law. The town needs another murderer to stop the first one. Both murderers use the same tactics to different ends.

GS Violence in thought and action is mythos at work.

BH It could be. I think violence in the west has a different mythological end than it does back east. To me violence back east, in the cities, in particular, roots in how a great many people cram into a relatively small area, a city. This means there are so many more people to bump into and contend with than in the west. There’s also an economic violence, back east, imposed on the poor or people that are struggling.

It seems the response, much violence, especially when you consider gangs and such, is an economic force pressing some people to take dire action. In the west, the violence is about anger, the code is, “I don’t take this from you. Don’t treat me that way.”

The code has a bit in common with respect. “You don’t respect me.” Kids in gangs say that.

GS That reminds of the “The Godfather,” by Mario Puzo.

BH This is partly the approach of people in the west, too. In the west, it roots in stoicism. There’s a silence in the west that keeps the pressure on the pot.

People, in the west, build up to violent acts, they don’t know how else to release that pressure. This is out of frustration, too; the frustration isn’t economic as much as it is social. I think, in the west, we know many of us are living by a code that doesn’t work, any more.

Men and women, in the west, don’t see how their code no longer works. It’s the only code known. Access to change is rare and difficult to digest.

GS Are you hoping your books, “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hour of Lead,” will change the code.

BH No, I knew both books would address the code and, at least, imply it needed changing. I knew I wanted to explore beyond the boundaries, of what readers expect and accept, in stories about the American West. I knew I wanted to get into the effects of the code, but I never thought I would or could change the mythos, the code.

I wanted to know how to encourage readers to find something in the books and themselves, they hadn’t seen before. I don’t know if I believed my books would change anything. Both books are an opportunity to examine the whole, the experience, in a new way for me anyway.

GS “Lonesome Animals” is a story of the old west, although set in 1938, but “The Hour of Lead,” although it starts in 1918 or thereabouts, is a story of the new old west.

BH Yes, I think that has to do with some of the events and people I was exploring. Usually, such ideas don’t come to me until I’m well into writing a book. Now, for example, I think violence was my central concern and idea in “Lonesome Animals.”

One reason violence was prominent in “Lonesome Animals” was that I believed to make it any less so would turn Strawl into a hero. As it is, readers admire Strawl. When I hear that readers admire Strawl, I think, “You don’t want to stand next to him in a line up.”

The traditional western story steers readers to see a somehow heroic or redeeming quality in the central character. Readers get a surprise when there’s no way to redeem Strawl, in the end. I leant, heavily, on the violence to steer readers away from thinking Strawl is John Wayne.

GS “Lonesome Animals” reminds me of “Shane,” by Jack Schaefer.

BH Yes, it’s much the same story, but Strawl, unlike Shane, does not ride off, at the end, everybody thinking he’s a hero. Strawl and Shane are killers, with little, if any, remorse. There’s no Hollywood ending for Strawl.

“The Hour of Lead,” as I look back on it, is an exploration of isolation, too. That’s also part of the western story. The strangeness, in “The Hour of Lead,” is a strangeness of aloneness. People act strangely, when isolated; they make awkward tries to connect with others.

In “Lonesome Animals,” the strangeness comes from the violence. I don’t think Strawl tries to connect with anyone. I’m not sure it would enter his mind to connect, in an expressive way.

GS Matt Lawson, the protagonist in “The Hour of Lead,” seemed a man in solitary confinement. Occasionally, he had a reprieve, but always returned to aloneness.

BH The events of the first chapter overwhelm Lawson. He loses his twin brother and his father, in 1918, to a brutal snowstorm that opens the book. Lawson, his mother deep in grief, is on his own and he knows it.

He tries to manage his circumstances, but doesn’t succeed. He has, there are, no instructions. He roams for decades, learning his way back home in 1978.

His heart’s in a decent place. It’s just difficult for Lawson to go through this world, given the events of the first chapter and no guide to steer him. In the end, he becomes his own father, in a way.

GS The self-image of Matt Lawson, which he believes is irrevocable, changes during the snowstorm and during his decades of roaming and eventual return.

BH Yes, that’s an implied conclusion. I do qualify the idea that Lawson consciously thinks he changed; he hasn’t. Lawson remains a child throughout; he has only a general notion of whom he is, defined, largely, by what he is not, as embodied in his twin brother, Luke. 

Those that could help him fill the blanks and provide the mythological guideposts for discovering his self-image, left the stage. His father and twin brother, Luke, died in the storm; the deaths caused his mother to withdraw, deep into herself. No other character has the authority to provide the guidance a father might or the competition a brother would.

The fact Lawson committed a man’s act with Linda Jefferson confounds his search for self. He entered sexual intimacy without the guidance usually provided by a fuller socialisation. Lawson has no way to hone his blade.

In the first part of “The Hour of Lead,” Matt tries to make sense of it with Wendy, another child, and a series of characters that wander in and out of the story. In the second part, he tries to fill the void, without success, by roaming the country. Only when he works for a human purpose, with others, on a ranch, that he begins to fill in the blanks enough to try, again, with Wendy. In the third part, Lawson finds the detail he needs to complete his self-image.

The storm and the sex keep Matt Lawson from developing a shape in the traditional and mythological sense of the west.

GS How did you find your way to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa?

BH I went to college at Eastern Washington University (EWU), which is just down the road from me, in Cheney. I took a writing workshop, at EWU, led by Terry Davis. He said, “You should get in Kay Boyle workshop.” Boyle was a visiting writer, with more experience than had any previous visiting writer, at EWU.

I tried registering for Bowles class, but couldn’t. The class was only for graduate students in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programme. I was a sophomore undergraduate, majoring in English and Education.

I asked, “What does someone have to do to get into this class, if they’re not an MFA student?” Three or four deans needed to sign off on my registration. I reverted to my own mythos: I forged signatures.

I counted on what I knew would be a long-drawn-out paperwork ordeal. When the registrar caught up with me, I was the favourite student of Kay Boyles. She wouldn’t let them drop me from the course.

Bowles and I became friends. There were some, in the programme, that didn’t appreciate I was her favourite student. Her course was great for me.

Everyone in her course talked about the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. To me, being a writer sounded as distant as being an astronaut. I thought writing would be a cool occupation, but I needed to make money.

At EWU, I took a second major in Education. I found a job teaching high school English. After four years teaching, I applied to the Writer’s Workshop and the University of Montana, where James Welch, a great writer, taught.

Iowa accepted me based on two samples, both traditional short story themes. I’m not sure why they admitted me. I don’t think they were that great of stories.

GS Iowa saw something lurking in those stories.

BH Once I got to the Writer’s Workshop, I flourished. At first, the Ivy League and pre-med students, say, that took time out to try writing, intimidated me. I felt out of my league.

GS Hardly, if the results are any hint.

BH I read what other students wrote. I thought could do as well, maybe better. I turned in a well-received story. I came to understand the Ivy League students didn’t write any better than did I.

GS You’re physically big.

BH Yes, 6’3” and two hundred and fifty pounds.

GS The mythos that follows writers is that big men, except Thomas Wolfe, say, don’t write, especially as well as do you.

BH Yes, there’s a certain idea that goes with physical size and expectations. When I first arrived at Iowa, everybody thought I was an idiot. I was a big fellow that wore shorts and a t-shirt when it was hot. I didn’t wear the uniform or look the part of a writer.

GS You didn’t wear tweed, smoke a pipe or gazing into the heavens, as if thinking great thoughts.

BH Still, I connected with the best students. Other students kept thinking I was out of place. Many of the best writers, in the programme, engaged with me because I was as different as were they, which they liked.

GS The best will always support you, but the mediocre let you down all the time.

GS What sparked your urge to write?

BH In fourth grade, when I was ten, Mrs Hunter, the wife of a local minister, was our substitute teacher. One day she gave a writing assignment. On my essay she wrote, “You’re a writer, I see.”

From then, I thought of myself as a writer. That’s what I always considered myself, academically, anyway. Writing was what I could do.

GS One person wisely sees you’re a writer and makes all the difference.

BH Yes, when chances to write arose. I had the confidence to write. I wrote for the school newspaper.

In college, instructors allowed students to write multiple tests or an essay. I took the essay every time. I thought I was being smart. Tests meant knowing everything, all the time. Writing an essay meant a focusing on one topic.

GS Practice makes perfect.

BH I figured I could write about what I knew and forget the rest.

GS Who are your
favourite authors?

BH At roughly the time as Mrs Hunter called me, “A writer,” my aunt had me reading “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey. I didn’t understand it, but I knew it was different from other books I read. Then I read “Catch-22,” by Joseph Heller; it was also on her counter. I didn’t understand this book, but, again, I understood it was different and good.

I like Cormac McCarthy a great deal, too. He wrote “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men,” among other books. I’m not a big fan of “The Road,” although many readers think it his best work. I love his “Blood Meridian,” which, I think, is a necessary read.

GS Whom are you reading, today?

BH “The Devil All the Time,” by Donald Ray Pollock, is on my nightstand. I was in France for a month, in the spring, and a friend gave me this book to read while I was away. I’m finally getting around to it, now. Now, I’m a big fan of Pollock.

I like Denis Johnson a great deal. He can be a little hit-and-miss, but “Jesus’ Son” is among the best books I ever read. So, too, is his “Trains Dreams.” I urge my readers to read Johnson, as well as my books.

My friend, Chris Offutt, is a writer I enjoy. His first book, “Kentucky Straight,” is great. He also wrote “No Heroes” and “Out of the Woods,” both superb books.

Elizabeth McCracken is another good friend. She wrote, “Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry,” “The Giant’s House” and “Niagara Falls All Over Again,” among other books. I enjoy her writing. I think she’s a marvellous short story writer. She’s an incredible writer period and one of the most decent human beings on the planet.

I enjoy Isaac Bable, especially his “Short Stories,” and recommend his books.

GS How do read another published author; editorially, critically or can you forget you’re a writer, too?

BA After thirty years teaching high school English, I have to fight reading with a red pencil. It’s hard not reading editorially, after all those years. There’s a compelling urge to correct, to cross out all the adverbs.

I try not to read fiction too editorially, but when an author gets a phrase right, I fly. I’m not as critical about non-fiction, but I don’t read that much of it. Poetry is not a skill I own; my youngest son is the poet and I’m in awe of him.

GS What inspires you?

BH Those few moments of clarity we have, when the opaque peels away; especially with my children, as a teacher or, simply, the dog chasing the cat.

GS Do you have a writing schedule, a time each day that you write.

BH No, I have children. Now, they’re in college, but, for the last 20 years, I spent most of my time with them and with my wife. I mowed the yard and did tasks one must do. I decided, not long after Iowa, I wasn’t going to trade writing, teaching or coaching for time with my kids, my wife, my family.

I wrote when I could. The time I found to write was different at different times. It depended on what we, my family and I, were doing.

GS Were the short stories what you mostly found time to write.

BH No, I was working on the novels. It took a while to put those books together. I wrote as I could.

I tried to write every day; sometimes I did, for days in a row, other times not for weeks. I might sit, while the kids were playing a game, with my computer open, fool with sentences, tweak and turn sentences. Sometimes I’d play music, when I was alone, and I’d write.

I adjusted to my environment. It’s like waiting on inspiration. If you’re going to wait for inspiration, you’re going to wait a long time. If I were going to wait for the perfect time and perfect environment to write, I wouldn’t write often.

GS Seems you can write here and there, effectively.

BH Yes, it is how I write. I sweep in and out, of a manuscript, which how I like to write. To me anything that goes as planned is likely boring.

Writing in this way diverts me enough to come back to a scene or line and find a way to build or rebuild it effectively. The time away from writing provides new perspective. Coming back, I usually view the manuscript differently.

I’ve been teaching for thirty years. I don’t think I’ve made a lesson plan in more than twenty years. This works for my students and I.

In a book or in a class, I know what I want to talk about, in general. In class, no set plan allows me to follow how students are getting the material and adjust, as necessary. It also allows me to go where the students want to go, with the course material.

GS We have these ideas, let’s talk.

BH Yes, it encourages participation, which builds confidence. The students know I won’t shoot them down. Other students may disagree; others will defend or argue for or against points made. This is when students start to enjoy class.

Then class becomes a play. That’s what I aim for, an environment where learning is at least in some part playing. That’s how I learned.

GS You’re writing is sentence centric.

BH I like sentences. I can find parts of a sentence that lead me to different parts of a character and ideas or where a story is going. I write something, in a certain way. It leads me to something I wrote, previously, or something I’ve been thinking, but couldn’t get just right.

That leads me further along or in another direction. I use the sentences to show me my direction. That’s another reason I like rewriting.

GS Rewriting is similar to sculpting.

BH Yes, I chisel off some stone here and there. I chisel away at the stone, the sentence, to find the shape I want. I sculpt with sentences.

The image is also partly in the stone, the sentence and manuscript, not only how I chisel it. I write, rewrite and find parts, here and there, that surprise me. Rewriting, chiselling, is exploring in ways I wouldn’t otherwise do and discovering new or different parts of the manuscript.

GS That’s an apt metaphor. In the Preface to “The Hour of Lead,” there’s a superb sentence, “Most were good for nothing sensible, just wondering doubt and the doubts attached to them.” All your sentences are that good, easy to read, simple in some way and jammed with meaning.

BH I jam sentences with information, but not an extra syllable, if I can help it. I wrote that sentence, you mentioned, in a separate context. It existed before “The Hour of Lead.”

I was writing another part of “Hour.” My mind went to that sentence. I thought, “This is where that sentence goes.”

GS Do you often write sentences and later find a place for them?

BH Yes, sometimes a sentence intrigues me, but it hasn’t found its place, yet. Then, I’m writing and come to the place for that sentence. Once the sentence is in place, I look at the whole, say, a paragraph, and play with that until the sentence doesn’t look grafted on, it looks natural.

GS No sentence you write looks grafted on to a paragraph.

BH Thank you; most of the sentences I write emerge in draft after draft, as I write. I write a first draft. I look at it and I chisel.

I go through the first draft, which, in fact, is a way of writing a second draft. As I write a second draft or a third draft, I’m tweaking every sentence, every word, I can. I’m chiselling, finding parts of the manuscript that didn’t exist in the first draft and so forth.

It’s discovery, satisfying discovery. “So, this is what this sentence is going to look like” is a gratifying point. I think in sentences, for sure.

I tell my students sentences must be dramatic. The sentence must hit the reader, from the beginning to the end. A writer can’t be utilitarian, at least all the time.

GS Do you ever find yourself needing a transitional sentence?

BH Yes, but writing a sentence that doesn’t get in the way is as much a skill as writing something that’s ornate and sticks out. Something I’m a nut about is sentence styles or forms. I try to condense as much as I can.

I take out prepositions, such as “in,” “from” or “until,” as I can. Prepositional phrases, such as, “in a few days” or “in the blue dress,” go too. I hate adverbs, such as “slowly” or “quickly”; these are cholesterol for sentences.

GS That’s interesting, “cholesterol for sentences.”

BH A way to condense sentences is with transitive verbs. With these sentences, I transfer the action; for example, “Jack met Mary.” I like sentences that have someone doing something, maybe with someone else.

Intransitive verbs, as in “Mary disappeared after the meeting,” circle action. Indirect, long sentences clog the verb, with helping verbs. All that’s needed, in the previous example, is “Mary disappeared”; when or how is for another sentence.

I try to be direct around the verb. “John met Mary.” I like to savour the potential for suspense, in a sentence. I find suspense mostly between the noun and the object.

I catch myself hanging phrases on to sentences, “Mary disappeared, after the meeting.” When I reread those sentences, sometimes one of the phrases contains what I think I can make into the primary verb. I rebuild the sentence around a new verb, making the sentence more vivid and more direct.

I try to remove helping verbs, as much as I can. Helping verbs aren’t necessary. I want to get to the heart of the sentence. The more traffic around the verb, the more muddy the sentence gets.

GS This is so true.

BH If I’m obsessed about anything, it is sentences. I learned to avoid verb problems without thinking. I hope I avoid verb problems.

GS You don’t care for adverbs, such as “together,” “grudgingly” or the infamous, among mystery writers, “suddenly.” What’s the problem with adverbs?

BH Adverbs get in way of the verb. When you tell me how a verb acts, say, quickly, the adverb makes the action less direct. If you write, with care, you don’t need adverbs. Use the right words to avoid using adverbs.

GS What’s your least favourite word?

BH F**K, I don’t like sound of the word, it’s not poetic.

GS What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?

BH Vanilla, it’s the most fundamental.

GS Here’s another sentence that caught my attention, “Their mushiness struck her as comic and she laughed.” Why use comic, rather than comedic?

BH The people I grew up around, the people that populate this story, understand “comic” as opposed to “comedic,” which would strike them as odd. A character would sound unnatural using comedic.

Even though “comedic” is accurate, it doesn’t have the right sound for the sentence. I pay attention to sound. When I read and when I write, sound is important. Does a word have the right sound?

GS Do you read, aloud, what you write.

BH Sometimes, but I’m an auditory person: I can hear the sound silently. My mind speaks the words as I write. I hear the rhythm and cadence, of the words. I cut words that, although grammatically correct, don’t fit my ear.

GS Is this a practised style?

BH No, I grew up with people that talk in interesting ways. My dad, I don’t think he could tell you what a preposition is; he speaks without using many. Such brevity comes from his way of making what he talks of interesting. I like to listen to him talk just to listen to how he says what he says.

GS What’s an example of how your father talks?

BH Instead of saying, “Somebody put a dent in my car,” my father, Pat, will say, “Someone creased the car.” The verb, creased, is what he uses for dent. I’m working on something, now, where the characters use that term a great deal.

My father will say, “See the eagle,” not “See that eagle.” Then his next line is, “Tree,” not “In the tree.”

GS He does talk the way you write.

BH A friend, Lorin Carlon, talks the same way. When I’m writing, his voice intertwines with that of my father. My writing takes off from how they talk.

GS A reviewer said you discovered a way of writing that slows down the reader, as readers like to skim, thus improving the reading experience.

BH I’ve heard that. I think the way I write sentences is in layers, maybe more so than do other writers. I’m trying to get readers to do more work.

Readers have certain expectations for books about the west. Readers expect a certain style in these books, which isn’t as layered as are mine. My style slows down the reader, yes, making him or her pay more attention to the language as well as the images.

GS In “Hour of Lead,” you broke a cardinal rule of fiction writing, as laid out by Elmore Leonard.

BH Yes, Leonard said never begin a story with the weather. The weather was everything in “The Hour of Lead.” No bad storm, in chapter one, not much of a story follows.

GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?

BH A pair of shorts, for me, nothing is more comfortable.

GS Despite slowing readers, making it difficult to skim, you write page-turners.

BH I give my editor, Dan Smetanka, credit for that. He’s keeps me on the story. He stresses the importance of keeping the story moving forward; keeping story momentum.

A great sentence is only a great sentence if it moves the reader to the next sentence. Smetanka is a wonderful editor. He ensures my sentences move readers forward.

GS How long did it take you to come up with the draft you would send to Smetanka, of either “Lonesome Animals” or “The Hour of Lead”?

BH “Lonesome Animals” I wrote over a three-year period, off and on. Again, I was busy teaching high school and spending much time with my family. I suppose I wrote “Lonesome Animals” roughly four hours a day, during the last year. After that, I sent it to Smetanka.

When he took the book, it needed a flushing out and cleaning up, mostly. The first draft was complete. Mostly, “Lonesome Animals” needed polishing at that point.

“The Hour of Lead” took 20 years, at least, to write. I first started writing it while I was at the Writer’s Workshop, in Iowa. I wrote the first chapter, selling it as a short story to the “Iowa Review,” a few years later. The title of the short story was, “Hawk Creek.”

GS Was Iowa difficult to navigate.

BH Yes and no, I was taking a particular workshop, at Iowa, which was difficult. I presented a story, for the workshop, but the class slaughtered it for reasons other than the story. The criticism was political: I was a male from the west; the workshop participants, many not from the west, did not like that I wrote about men in the west.

James Salter, he wrote short stories, such as “The Hunter,” led that workshop. He gave me some great advice. He said, “The problem is you put women into the story. The story is about men; you put women in there to try to keep the women, [in the Workshop], happy. What you did was just make them mad because it wasn’t about them. Just leave the women out; it’s not a story about women. Then your story improves and they’re not mad about underdeveloped characters.”

He was right. I made the effort to include women in a short story about a bachelor party. Still, after that workshop, with Salter, I didn’t want to do anything, which I had my heart in, for these students or instructors.

At Iowa, I also took a workshop with Alan Gurganus, he wrote “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All: a novel” and “Local Souls.” In his course, I realised I liked to write about landscape and places. Gerganus gave me an assignment to write three short stories that take place in the same place, but the place is significantly different each time.

I decided to take a shot at the assignment. It was one of those magical times, where you’re writing the first paragraph and, abruptly, the whole story falls out before you. I knew what would happen. I was writing to the next scene, as I wrote the first scene and so forth.

GS How did you handle the assignment from Gerganus? Three stories taking place in the same location, but the location is different each time.

BH I simply located the stories in the past, present and future.

GS What job, other your own, would you like to try?

BH I would love to be a musician. For years, I collected guitars. I always loved music. Writing is music.

GS What occupation would you not like to try?

BH I wouldn’t want a job that made me boss of anyone like me. It’s my take on Groucho; he said he wouldn’t join a club that would allow someone like him to be a member.

GS In the first chapter of “The Hour of Lead,” two boys go out into a heavy winter storm, after school. They lose their way home. They need rescue.  

Their teacher finds them and brings them back to the school. The schoolhouse fire roaring, she, the teacher, undresses the boys; they lie on the floor, under warm blankets. The teacher also undresses. She lies between the boys to keep them warm. One of the boys may be already or close to death.

Has the latter scene caused any fall back on you.

BH Yes, some readers might consider those scenes inappropriate. I sent a version of that chapter to David Hamilton; he edits the “Iowa Review.” He was also one of my teachers at the Workshop and good man. He said, “I love this story, but there are people, in the programme and elsewhere, that may take exception.”

GS Going through the Workshop at Iowa toughened you to criticism.

BH That’s for sure.

GS When Dan Smetanka returns your manuscript, do you think it’s less distressing for you, say, than for a writer that hasn’t gone through a workshop programme.

BH Maybe, but handling criticism is never easy. A writer must never get defensive. She or he must try to open to the comments.

The next step is to work through the manuscript, addressing the comments. Some comments will improve the manuscript, others, the writer decides, won’t. Writers decide.

GS Maybe readers decide.

BH That’s true, but I can’t, I don’t, give all comments equal weight. I don’t listen to everybody. I try to figure out how comments make a general point about the manuscript. Then I decide which comments lead to improvements, which don’t and move on.

GS Right.

BH A criticism might be valid, say, for this scene or that, but what if suggested changes distort the arc or the art of the story. I want my novels to be natural. I want to avoid a mechanical odour; I want my novels to appear organic, a part of the landscape, not something built on the landscape.

Smetanka may offer a comment I believe distracts from the organic nature of a book. If I also believe the comment is valid, I find a way to make a change spring from the organic nature of the book. I don’t want to grab changes from outside the book for the sake of changes.

GS You use criticism to inspire more creativity.

BH Yes, I think so. Criticism is an estimate of time. Reading and commenting on a manuscript takes times. I don’t ask anyone to read my manuscript if I’m not interested in what they have to say.

I do criticism for other writers. I try to pay attention to what she or he is trying to do, in the largest sense, in the book. My criticism, I hope, takes the book forward.

GS Do you use beta readers, people you send manuscripts, other than Dan.

BH Yes, my wife, Holly, reads everything I write. She was an enormous influence for “The Hour of Lead.” She kept that book alive.

I would get angry, while I was writing “The Hour of Lead.” I thought I’d never get it into shape, never. My wife kept poking me to keep at it.

GS She was right.

BH She sure was right. My children are all good readers, too. Natalie, my daughter, is a theatre major; she ensures I have enough drama in the story. My oldest son, Luke, is an astrophysicist, he keeps saying, “Well, it could also happen this way, too.” My younger son, Jackson, is a poet, an excellent poet; he's also an excellent reader of my writing.

It’s good to have people around that can read my work and talk with me about it.

GS You enjoy a latent side benefit of raising children properly.

BH I understand how lucky I am.

GS What sound or noise do you love, most?

BH I love the sound of my wife’s voice, most.

GS Have you thought of moving away from violence as a primary theme.

BH Yes, I recently finished a draft of a new book that takes place from 1950 to 1990; it’s contemporary for me. One brother shoots the other brother in the behind; that’s the only gunplay in the book. The new book is more about emotional violence, how it’s devastating.

I didn’t set out to write westerns or books only about the west. It happens to be where live. My family happened to have an interesting story or two in its closet.

GS Would we call “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hour of Lead” westerns.

BH When a book publishes the publicists and the critics want to be able to say, “Okay, this is a western” or “This is a mystery.” If there are parts of the west in a book, retailers and publicists view the book as a western.

In some ways, my books are antiwesterns. “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hour of Lead” are partly westerns. There’s adventure, mystery and themes from other forms of literature.

A friend of mine, Craig Johnson, and I often discuss how the western mythos finds its way into our work. Johnson writes the “Walt Longmire Mysteries. His books are the basis for the “Longmire Series,” on A&E. He decided the western myth is about a good man standing between the chaos of crime and the safety of civilisation.

There are many takes on the western myth. The Johnson take on that mythos has reignited my interest in such stories.

GS The “Longmire Series” strikes me as revenge versions of the western mythos.

BH Parts of the television shows involve revenge. Johnson tells thoughtful stories, I think. Television is a different medium. He has a different way of telling stories.

GS A bookstore might shelve, “Lonesome Animals” and “The Hour of Lead” in westerns, adventures and, perhaps, other areas, such as writing-to-knock-your-socks-off.

BH Yes, anything that will help sales. Still, both books are counterculture westerns. Many stories about the west, by the way, are also counterculture.

GS How long have you been teaching high school English?

BH This will be my thirty-first year.

GS Was your undergraduate degree in English.

BH English, yes, and in those days I could get a combined degree in English and Education. I earned enough Education credits for a teaching certificate.

GS How much longer will you continue teaching?

BH Well, my youngest son will be a sophomore at Brandies University, in Boston, this year. I will continue to teach high school until he graduates, at least. Then it depends on what’s happening in my world, with money and everything else.

Right now, money is a consideration, as is steady health care. Mostly, I like teaching a great deal. The students are a good reason to keep teaching.

GS When you stop teaching, will you crank up the writing?

BH Well, I hope so. I write much more during the summer than I do during the school year. Maybe retirement will be one long summer.

GS Do you write nonfiction.

BH A little, my publicist, Julia Drake, has me writing a few essays on education. She’s trying to place them with Internet magazines, such as the “Huffington Post.” I published an opinion piece in the New York “Times,” last year, called, “Sleeping with Guns.” *

GS Have you considered an essay on writing.

BH I’ve written a couple of articles on writing for little magazines. I don’t know if that seems presumptuous. I’m not saying other writers that wrote about writing are presumptuous. I just don’t know if I’m there yet.

GS That’s a point well taken. Writing about writing, by Raymond Chandler, is influential as is that of Elmore Leonard and Stephen King, too.

BH Chandler was exceptional. What I love about Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is their efficiency. They moved from sentence to sentence quickly, beautifully and without any ownership.

Their work is about efficiency. Chandler and Hammett remove themselves from the story; they don’t intervene, which makes the story more direct. They move the reader along, often through attitude.

There’s authority, I think, in Chandler and Hammond that other writers don’t always own. It’s their intense focus on the language. This drives their characters past smartass attitude, into literary figures. I like that.

GS What sound or noise do you not like?

BH Sirens scare me; I have children.

GS Your Op-Ed, in the New York “Times,” dealt with killing a friend.

BH Yes, it’s true. I’ve accepted it. I try to move on.

GS What’s the story?

BH I was twenty-two. On Friday 13 August 1982, I was at the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race, with good friends from Eastern Washington University. One of my friends, Doug Grooms, was interning with the police. He was a law-enforcement major, worked with the police department and wanted to be a full-time officer.

I was in the back seat, of a red Vega. Doug Grooms was in the front seat. He handed me his gun to examine. I handled it, pointing it at the car door as I checked to ensure the chamber was empty.  

The gun slipped, in my hand. It went off. The bullet entered Grooms through his back.

GS Did he pass away?

BH Yes.

GS I know you must have felt terrible, but I have a callous question.

BH Okay.

GS I don’t see how that event could not influence your writing.

BH Yes, it influenced every breath I take. It influences the stories I tell myself, if we go back to the beginning, when we talked of stories as demons. After the shooting incident, I found it much more difficult to tell a story about myself as a good person.

That shooting influenced my view of violence as well as my view of the story of the west. In some ways, I think, my mishandling the gun, which led to shooting Grooms, was mishandling the mythos, as well.

GS Your Op-Ed, for the New York “Times,” about the shooting incident, caught much opposition, from all sides.

BH Yes, from several sides of the gun issue, criticised me. Gun activists accused me of making it up because I called the pistol, a service revolver; it was 357. Each gun works differently. 

Others thought I was trying to blame the gun, how the particular gun worked or guns, in general, for my own mess up. Some readers thought I didn’t want to admit to pulling the trigger 

Some of the confusion was due to the limit of words for New York “Times” Op-Eds. I had to be brief. A condensed description of the shooting published. Part of the article was my shorthand, as with service revolver.

I exchanged a message with a reader that was most critical. He was a friend of a friend. Once I laid it out for him, he was far more rational.

He said part of problem is the “Times” has such a liberal reputation. When anyone, on the right reads an Op-Ed, in the “Times” about guns, they assume a political bias. I understood.

There was also static from the left. I guested on “The Takeaway,” on WNYC-AM. That’s the NPR affiliate station in New York City.

The host kept pushing me toward political positions I don’t hold. I am not antigun. I am anti-stupid, with guns, and pro awareness of the effect of the mythology, of guns, on us all.

The recalcitrance on all sides of the gun issue shocked me. Few, if any, see gun use as a human experience; it’s always a political issue. I guess I knew this when I wrote the Op-Ed, but it came home, hard, in the response.

I wanted to make several points in the Op-Ed. Don’t be stupid around guns. Growing up around guns doesn’t mean you know all guns. Mostly, I wanted to show the complexity of the gun issue.

It’s deeply traditional for many women and men to own and use guns. For many a gun is a normal part of their environment. Still, a silly mistake, while handling a gun, is often not reversible.

Most gun owners don’t love guns because they’re bloodthirsty, cruel or stupid. For them, hunting and shooting are ritualistic. The ritual has less to do with blood than with male companionship, in nature. 

Most people I know that hunt deer, say, don’t care much if they get one or not. That’s beside the point. Yet, they remain buffoons to those that are antigun.

Anyone not trumpeting the sanctity of gun ownership is un-American. He or she is a pawn of the tyrannical government. The extremes drive the issue, there’s not much room for sane moderation.

GS Is the Grooms incident the root of the preciousness of life leitmotif in your books.

BH Yes, I think life has to be stubborn. Life, in the environment where I write, the western mythos, the characters struggle to stay alive. They struggle in the literal sense, of course, but also for lives with some sense of wonder about the world.

I think there is a preciousness of life theme in my books. It comes from the worst event of my life and the best part of my life, my wife and my children. This duality shows up in the character I’m currently writing.

When the character, in my new book, becomes the father of a daughter, he turns to an emotional algebra; now his emotional life had factors and equations he had not imagined. He hated mathematics before, as do I. With the birth of his daughter, he needed change the priorities in his life.

I found a new range of emotional latitude, on the birth of my children, that’s unlike most characters in the western mythos. I think the one place where it’s okay, maybe, for a man, in the west, to be emotional when it comes to his children.

GS Why is algebra, with its fixed rules, the metaphor for change? Fatherhood likely calls for more flexibility.

BH Algebra reflected the maximum turn-a-round for the character.

GS What is your favourite indulgence?

BH Bourbon.

GS How does someone, as sensitive and chocked full of insight as are you, write about violence as effectively as you do?

BH Persistence is part of the explanation. In a way, I do follow the western code, the mythos. I occupy an emotional space. I won’t surrender it. I won’t stop reflecting on life, writing or emotionally investing in my children.

GS Part of the western mythos is to avoid change.

BH I think so.

GS You won’t change, only what you won’t change is not a violent way of life, say, but sensitivity and intelligence.

BH I think so, even though I’m encouraged to change, maybe for others to view me as a man. My take on the mythos affects my life, job and so forth.

GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?

BH I have a clam manner, although my characters aren’t especially calm.

GS You take the path less walked.

BH Yes, I realised that people weren’t going to agree, necessarily, with my choices. Maybe, I wasn’t going to have much wealth to measure my worth. The path I choose made the most sense to me.

GS Unlike many authors, people will read your books one hundred years from now.

BH That’s a humbling thought. It makes me feel good that I can be part of the conversation, now and then. When I sold “Lonesome Animals” somebody said, “How does it feel to sell your first book?” I said, “Honestly, my strongest feeling is relief.”

I tell my children and my students that if you have a little talent, persistently work at it, you will succeed. For a while, before “Lonesome Animals,” I was beginning to doubt my own bromide. I wondered if I had the talent I believed I did; was I lazy that it didn't show earlier.

GS Everything has its season.

BH I guess so.

GS What’s your favourite word?

BH Grace, it’s what we hope for, to behave with grace.

GS How do you imagine readers take to your writing?

BH I think I make people scratch their heads, wondering about the mythos and so forth or they finish my books and say, “Wow.”

GS Does exceptional talent, such as yours, come with a heavy burden?

BH Yes, there’s responsibility, especially if I’m that talented. I tell my high school students the only way I kick out of my class is if they want to talk about the hidden meaning in poetry, say. Poets don’t create so we can play “Where’s Waldo,” with the meaning in their poems.

We talk of poetry as an experience. The poet uses every tool she or he can find to create worldly experiences. He or she wants to share a life experience, with the reader. Poets want the reader to have the same experience, if vicariously.

If the poet is good, the reader will share the experience. A community, in a sense, will form for poet and his or her readers. The experience will permeate that community.

GS Does every reader of a poem, by William Blake, say, have to reflect a similar experience or can readers find different experiences in the same poem or book?

BH Readers find different experiences. The experiences will be similar, to some extent, if they’re good readers. Still, teaching someone to be a good reader isn’t teaching her or him about meaning.

Developing good readers is teaching how words create experiences. The word, black, creates a common experience for most of readers. Almost no one would conjure the colour, pink, on reading the word, black.

The experiences, gained from a poem or a novel, ought to be different. Yes, the experiences rotate around a centre, a common set of ideas, say, but through Blake, say, these experiences radiate and we recognise what we know and, maybe, what we don’t know.

I read Blake. You read Blake. There ought to be enough overlap, in the experiences gained from reading Blake, for us to have a fruitful conversation.

GS Focusing on Blake, as an example, Bob Dylan supposedly wrote “Every Grain of Sand,” after hours of reading Blake; supposedly “Auguries of Innocence.” Jim Morrison, of the “Doors,” supposedly wrote, “People are Strange,” after intense reading of Blake, perhaps, “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Dylan and Morrison seemingly experience Blake differently.

BH Blake is widely influential. I say, that if you sat Dylan and Morrison down, to talk of Blake, the conversation would include a great many, “Yeah, me, too.” How they responded to those experiences, in their own work is different. What they’re responding to is at least as similar as it is different.

GS Much overlap, expressed differently.

BH Yes, Bill Haley and “The Sex Pistols” were both responding to ideas about music. What came out was different. Still, they were responding to similar ideas and experiences.

I have a similar responsibility as a writer. I must create experiences, which are organic, such as a poet. Experiences women and men will read and recognise as part of the larger human experience.

GS It has to do with the code, the mythos.

BH Yes.

GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began writing, which you now regret.

BH I don’t believe in regrets. I regret killing Doug Grooms, accidentally. By comparison, any other regret pales in comparison.

GS What turns you off?

BH Conformity, it’s imprisoning. Everybody, supposedly, is to think outside the box; this is especially true for writers and other artists. I can’t find the box, thus I’m free.

GS What turns you on?

BH Laughter, it’s intimate, a big part of the life I share with my wife, children and good friends.

GS What item must you have with you, always?

BH I must have my laptop computer, with me, for obvious reasons.

GS What city could you explore for hours?

BH Paris, it’s so different from other places I have been. Art is everywhere. Museums are everywhere. Trees grow around history. Every building has a history. Paris is most engaging.

GS Thanks so much, Bruce.

BH You’re welcome.



*New York “Times” for 27 April 2013. A version of this opinion piece appears in the “Time” for 28 April 2013, on page SR8.

** G Hammerstone (2012), from a review of “Lonesome Animals” on amazon.ca: 7 December.

Tristanne Connolly (2011), “How Much Did Jim Morrison Know about William Blake,” on aozmorphosis.com for 20 March.

Richard Garnett (2010), “Blake and Dylan,” on ramhornd.blogspot.ca for 13 October.

Click here to read the review of Lonesome Animals.

Click here to buy books by Bruce Holbert
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interview edited and condensed for publication.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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