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A Few Moments With Ralph Cotton

In 2001, Mr. Cotton was kind enough to conduct an e-mail based interview with ECM. This is the first in what will be an ongoing column interviewing veteran western writers. -TR

ECM: Where did you grow up and what prompted you to start writing professionally?

Cotton: I was born in Central Kentucky, on a farm near a small town named Caneyville. My folks moved to Louisville during hard times in the late forties when I was still just a small child. I grew up in working class neighborhoods all over Louisville. In my early teens I began to see the country, and by then had already begun to write. Looking back on it, I think I always considered myself some sort of writer. I played guitar and wrote songs, wrote articles for church bulletins and local community newspapers. I also always kept a novel playing in my head. When I finally started writing those stories down and making sense of them, I started to seriously consider writing professionally.

ECM: Why westerns? Were there any particular heroes or influences that drew you in that direction?

Cotton: Above all, I consider myself an "American Author." I was fortunate to be born into this place and time and to be able to write about this country's early days is an honor I never take for granted As we all know, Westerns are the true original American novel, having been born and bred here in this blessed land. There is no wider unyielding unforgiving backdrop for a story than the harsh tapestry of the untamed Western Frontier. Nothing like it has ever happened before or since. It is a phenomenon within itself; and as a writer I can't see how anyone could ever tire of writing about those strong, wild, determined people. They take us to time of living by ones wits and wiles, something I think our undaunted American spirit still yearns for today. Whatever else I have written or might write in the future, nothing will ever out play the Western.

ECM: How long did your first novel take to write?

Cotton: My first novel was hand-written, so it took about three years I think. I had written several novels by hand over the years (14 in all) and had planned on moving to New York and hawking my work to the publishers. This was in 1981. But right about the time I was putting the plans together, we lost our home in a fire, and along with everything else my family owned, I lost all of my novels. For the next eight years I was too disheartened to even try to write. Then I became familiar with the computer, decided to rewrite an old western I'd lost, titled: While Angels Dance.

I rewrote it, sent it to an agent in Louisville Kentucky, the agent loved it, and the next week I received an offer from St. Martin's Press. The book came out in hard back and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and from then on I have been fortunate enough to keep my work on the shelves. These days with my trusty computer it only takes about three to four months to complete a novel.

ECM: Who was the first person you showed your completed novel to?

Cotton: My wife of course always sees my work before anyone else. But aside from her the first person to see what would become my first published novel was a co-worker, Marva Callahan, who happened to also be an aspiring writer. She said it the first western she ever read, and she was wild about it. She still has a computer printed copy that I signed for her. She's a great writer, and was a great encouragement at a time when I really needed some kind words.

ECM: Are any of the characters from your novels drawn from real life?

Cotton: Without getting to cosmic, I believe all characters are drawn from real life either directly, or indirectly, that is to say they all to some degree compilations of various real persons I have read about, or met and had some interaction with.

ECM: Do you use the Internet to help gather data for novels?

Cotton: No. I don't do very well with the Internet when it comes to research or gathering data. I still stick with the old reference books if I need them.

ECM: Are there any particular sites on the Internet that you have found to be particularly useful or that you enjoy?

Cotton: If this sounds like a plug so be it, but I enjoy hitting the Western magazines like this one, Elbow Creek, and others. For western writers it helps to keep in touch with the kind of folks you're writing for. These sites are where like-minded folks and businesses are found, so coming to these sites reminds a writer know why we do this for a living.

ECM: Which of your novels would you consider your favorite, that you enjoyed creating the most? Why?

Cotton: That's tough question, like asking which of my children do I love more. I feel a little guilty picking one over the others. Of course my first novel, simply because it was my first will always hold a special place in my memories because of the first book excitement surrounding the whole publishing process. There's something about the sale of that first book that no writer is likely to forget. Other than that, they are all my children, and I love them equally for what they are.

ECM: Do you have a favorite author or book?

Cotton: No. I have several favorite authors and books, in various genres, and for varying reasons. My reading goes back to early fifties, everything from William Faulkner & Hemingway, to Richard S. Prather & Jack Kerouc. I am a self-taught writer who never had the benefit of being told what I "should" or "shouldn't" like. The result has been a wide range of enjoyable reading, everything from the Holy Bible, to Captain Marvel comics, to Tolstoy's War And Peace. To pin down a particular western, my all time favorite by far is Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Lots of genre folks will groan when I say that, but the book not only hit the nail on the head regarding human nature, it drove it through the board, as far as I'm concerned.

ECM: When is your next book due to be released? Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Cotton: My next book is one of Big Iron Ranger books, titled: Jurisdiction. I believe it comes out in Jan. 2002, but I'm not sure. Anyone following my Ranger and Maria series knows that these stories often run a little deep, and take something of a morality and values edge to them. In this story (based on a true story I saw happen yeas ago) a young boy's family has fallen apart around him. His father is in jail for burglarizing a store just for food to feed his wife and son. The boy's mother has resorted to prostitution, and not being able to handle what it is doing to her spiritually, she has turned to drink and opium. The whole town looks down on the young boy, and he is friendless until he helps a wounded half-bred outlaw escape the law. He begins to idolize the outlaw. When the ranger comes to face the outlaw the boy is torn between who his real friends are. It's a deep story that could have been set in today's time, but making it happen in the west keeps it all the more interesting.

ECM: Do you ever go to book signings, and are you scheduled to appear anywhere over the next six months or so?

Cotton: I seldom do book signings. I came into this profession late in life, and I still have a lot I want to get done, by God's grace. I enjoy meeting fans at get-togethers, but most times I keep my head down and try to concentrate on my work. Usually I do a book signing if it's for a particular situation. In November I was honored to be asked to sign a load of books for members of a Marine battle group sitting out on the gulf ready to fly into Afghanistan anytime. That was more important than my work. That sort of signing I will stop everything for. Otherwise, I stay at home and keep the keyboard sizzling.

ECM: Do you have any suggestions or helpful hints for authors trying to get that first book published?

Cotton: That first book is in many ways the most difficult book you will ever write. Until that first one is on the shelves, the writer has no idea what his/her work is going to do, whether it is going to fly or fall. It seems that everything in the world is against the first-time author. But I remember John Gardner (The English Prof. not the fiction novelist) saying that if the writer "keeps at it" and the work is good, sooner or later it will be published. I believe that. But it still doesn't give any help as far as how long must one "keep at it." I think one thing the writer should do, rather "Must do" is constantly read good work in the genre he/she writes in. Try to read work that makes you strive to better your own work. With the changing face of publishing today, I think we'll see more and more new writers getting the break they have been working for. The small press markets are getting stronger all the time. I think it's an excellent opportunity for writers.

ECM: Any last pieces of information that you might want to work into the column?

Cotton: I want to thank Elbow Creek for this interview, and I want to wish this magazine much success. Also, I hope all of us who pray will say a special prayer for all the brave young men and women who are somewhere right this minute standing between us and harm's way. God bless them, and God bless America.

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