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Introduction to the Clay Reynolds Baen Ebook Editions

Most often, when someone discovers that I write books, the question that follows is “What kind of books do you write?” This query, innocent as it is and flattering as it ought to be—for it shows interest in what I do, often from a stranger—always flummoxes me. I don’t know what to say in response. My main goal in responding would be to interest the inquirer in my work sufficiently to send him padding off to . . . well, to his computer to download a copy, since brick-and-mortar bookstores are rapidly going the way of blacksmith shops and greasy-spoon diners, where the coffee was cheap and the waitresses all called you “hon.” But I usually don’t know these individuals, have no idea of their reading tastes, so I’m as likely to put them completely off any interest they may have in my work as I am to attract their pleasure.

The truth is that I don’t write any particular kind of book. I never have, and, to be honest, I hope I never will. The only honest answer is “the best kind I can,” and that sounds smart-alecky.

I am what might be termed an “accidental novelist.” I wasn’t trained to be a writer of fiction, never really intended to be so. I never took a course in creative writing, never paid much attention to such, and actually thought that people who followed such a path were academically lazy and a bit fuzzy around the mental edges. I tried my hand at fiction as a lark, a kind of diversion when my main activities were changing diapers and putting my young children to bed. I had no idea in the world that anyone might ever want to read—let alone publish—what I was writing. And I had no idea what I was writing. I was just telling stories the best way I knew how. It was something to do until my wife came home from work and relieved my parenting watch.

When my first two novels were published—both in the same year, a mistake I rue deeply, I might add—I didn’t tell anyone about it. I had a notion that if they were well received, folks would find out about them sooner or later. If they were flops, then I would have less to apologize for, to be embarrassed about. At the very least, I hoped they would add appreciably to my professional resume; at the most, I thought they might make me a few dollars. The first of these was about all I got out of it, and it didn’t result in any greater remuneration than did the latter.

It was then I learned the first hard rule about novel-writing. Everyone is delighted to know that you’ve published something; almost no one will actually buy a copy and read it. My closest friends and most of my relatiives have never opened one of my books. Even after more than twenty-five years of teaching creative writing (something I’ve discovered has nothing to do with fuzziness around the mental edges), I remain astonished at the number of students, some of whom have taken as many as five courses from me, who have never read a word I’ve written.

As the first of the two novels was coming to press, I dealt with the publicist at St. Martin’s Press. He was interested in billing me as a “Texas writer.” At the time, the Texas sesquicentennial was going full-throttle; writers like Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Elmer Kelton, Dan Jenkins, and Peter Gent were in the national limelight; The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was being converted from Broadway hit into Hollywood hit, Willie and Waylon and the Boys were topping the national pop charts; Levi’s and Tony Llama werer cleaning up selling jeans and boots to New Yorkers who had never been west of the Jersey Meadows or ridden any horse off of a bridal trail in Central Park; Yankee gourmands were discovering Dr Pepper, Lone Star Beer, and chickenfried steak; Dallas, the TV show, was riding high; and a relatively unknown and marginally talented musician named Kinky Friedman and his Austin-grown jug band, The Texas Jewboys, were packing them in at the Lone Star Café on lower Fifth Avenue. Being anything Texan, particularly a Texas writer, was definitely in.

All the same, I didn’t want much to do with that. I had been trained as a scholar, a teacher and researcher of matters literary and lofty. I had written and published articles on Samuel Johnson and Gustav Flaubert, after all. I had another book at press on the development of the American literary theater. I was considering writing a book on war novels by combat veterans. My interests were more ethereal than mere fiction writing; I was something of an “elitist,” I fear, or I wanted to be.

More to the point, I didn’t think of myself much as a Texan. I was, of course. My ancestors came to the Lone Star State in the 1840s; my grandfather was a horseman and had Indian blood. I was born and reared up in a town so steeped in Texas geography and history that its very name excreted Texana. I was a graduate of The University, spoke a modicum of Spanish, and Judy and I were married at the historic chapel at Fort Sam Houston. Except for a brief sojourn in Oklahoma while I was in graduate school, I’d lived in Texas all my life. My bona fides were unimpeachable.

But I didn’t even own a pair of cowboy boots, and I hadn’t since I was about twelve. I had worked on a farm and ranch in high school (ranch workers wore brogans or high-laced workboots, ordinarily), but my work with cattle and fence lines was a nightmare of hard labor and miserable heat that I didn’t care to recall. I had shaken the dust of West Texas off of my Mexican truck-tire sandals back in the sixties, traded pearl-snaps for tye-dye and then for tweed, and had no intention of looking backward. So I told the publicist no. I was no Texas writer. I didn’t want to be so typified.

That soon changed. It was more or less unavoidable. My novels and stories were set in Texas, in the same kind of place I hoped never to go back to. They involved people of the sort I had grown up knowing and hearing about and never wanted to associate with again, and they were filled to overflowing with “Texisms,” characters that said things like “I ain’t got me one lakyat.” Or “Say hey to your momnynm when y’all go ouchonder after supper.” My characters wore “gimmecaps” and stepped on “goatheads,” routinely said “neegra” and “Mescan,” and called young, professional and well-educated women, “Li’l gal.” They got tangled up in devil’s claw and prickly pear and could debate the merits of various tractors or pickups. They knew searing heat and bitter cold, blowing northers and biting sandstorms. They’d burned off tumbleweeds and mesquite, bounced endless miles across rutted country roads in rusty pickups with broken springs, had suffered drought and flood, knew the difference between kinds of cattle and hogs and, most certainly, horses. They worshipped at the twin altars of fundamental Protestantism and Friday Night Football, ate gallons of gravy and grits, carried guns and pocketknives. These were the people I wrote about, so, virtually without my having any say-so in the matter, I found myself becoming a western writer, generally, a Texas writer specifically.

The point was driven home to me one wet afternoon when a hurricane was blowing through the southeast Texas city where I lived. We had no electricity and were seriously worried about rising water, although we were miles from the coast; to my surprise, though, the telephone was working. My editor of the moment—the third in what would become a long succession of inept, incompetent, and mostly indifferent individuals who would hold my literary destiny in their incapable hands—called to tell me what needed to be done to the novel I had most recently given him to consider as my third publication. He began lecturing me on the particulars of western fiction. I listened with growing apprehension, hearing his voice but also the howling wind outside and suddenly becoming alarmed because our house was surrounded by giant sweetgum trees that were notoriously shallow-rooted and prone to topple in gales. As I tried to concentrate on his words, the eye of the storm completed its passage and the rains started again with vicious intensity, but then I heard him say, “…if you knew what a western was…”

That sort of tore it. I exploded and told him that he had “no goddamn business” telling me what a western was, that I, in fact, had been the plenary session speaker at the most recent Western Literature Association meeting, that I had been publishing scholarly articles on western fiction for more than a decade, and I wasn’t going to—Well, I went on from there to “paint the air blue,” as the West Texas saying went. I must confess that the hurricane-force winds had trouble dissipating the clouds of profanity I blew his way.

The one thing a true Texas knows how to do is cuss. I learned how from my father and grandfather, both of whom frequently elevated the eloquence of profanity to unprecedented heights.

From that point on, I answered questions about what kind of novels I wrote by declaring, and with some confidence, “westerns.” But they weren’t. They aren’t. And that was his point. If I could find him, I’d offer him an apology.

If a writer sets out, as many do, to write westerns—or crime fiction, or mysteries, or romances, or science fiction—then he or she has a pretty good idea of what to do. The formulas for these categories of fiction are well established; for a time, you could actually contact major publishers who would send you a copy of what the formula for a particular category required. Most people who read them knew what to expect, and the writers who wrote them knew what to write to keep their reading audiences (and their publishers) happy.

As a general rule, many writers whowrite in a particular vein soon settle on a single category and stock with it. They might step adventurously into a neighboring type of fiction from time to time; but for the most part, they write the same kind of books throughout their careers. Usually, when you mention a known writers’ name, he or she is classified fairly quickly according to a particular type of fiction.

But, as I said, I wasn’t trained to be a writer, wasn’t educated in the process of writing fiction. I actually had no idea of how to do it when I started, and I’m not sure I know any more about it now than I did then. What I didn’t know was that my former editor was quite right: I didn’t know what a western was, and I didn’t write westerns.

So what do I write? It’s still a good question. Presently I’ve written about ten works of fiction. My setting remains firmly grounded in the western environs of Texas, although I’ve set scenes in other places, including New York and Los Angeles. I’ve also set scenes in Dallas and Houston, New Orleans, Mexico, and even in a couple of more exotic locations such as a nameless Latin American country’s political prison. I have written tales that take place in the 1870s and 1880s, but there are no “cowboys and Indians” in my novels; nor are there stirring cavalry charges or heroic deeds of derring-do performed by lantern –jawed heroes in the service of gorgeous ranchers’ daughters. I also have written about the 1960s and 1970s 80s and 90s, and my most recent effort is set firmly in the twenty-first century, in a more or less urban environment, and with no character who could be closely identified with any particular region.

This means when someone asks me what kind of novels I write, I am still unable to formulate a clear and meaningful—or even truthful answer. I want to say, “Why don’t you read one and then let me know?” But that’s not a very good response; and it won’t sell many books.

I don’t read much of what other people say about my work. I don’t like to. I don’t even like to read book reviews of my work. To do so embarrasses me. It’s rather like eavesdropping on someone who is talking about you. You’re afraid of getting caught, and sometimes I think it’s just better not to know.

I did one time, though. A literary scholar, of sorts, flattered me by writing an article about my work. He asked me to read it before he submitted it. He didn’t care whether I agreed with it or not; he just wanted me to check it for accuracy. As I read what he’d written, I found that I didn’t like much that he had to say. It was mostly positive, but I thought he was wrong about a lot of things, even though he was accurate in the particulars. He didn’t say I was a writer of “westerns,” though; on the contrary, he said I was the author of “literary fiction.” That kind of made me wince. Calling a book “literary” is the kiss of death. No one who has finished all his coursework wants to read anything “literary.” It makes them think of things like The Fairie Queene or Moby Dick, The Golden Bowl or, God help us, Ulysses, ordeals many had to slog through in order to earn a bachelor’s degree somewhere. The last thing they want to do is revisit such torture.

I mentioned this kernel of observed wisdom to my agent, and he agreed. “That’s a big part of your problem,” he said. “You’re too literary.”

I thought he was, pardon the expression, “full of shit.” After all, how can anyone who would write a phrase like “full of shit” or have characters spew racist and sexist epithets and vile profanities with the casual eloquence of the proverbial sailor be called “literary.” I mean, I know that people like Henry Miller and Hugh Selby, Jr. did, but that’s why their very names bring scowls to the proper and send the fingers of older matrons fluttering about their throats in shocked panic. That category of “literature” wasn’t one I cared to join.

What he meant, though, was that my works belonged to a category of writing that was once known as “the Midlist.” That was a classification where anything that didn’t fit into one of the other established, formalized categories was relegated. And it wasn’t a bad place to be. Writers like John Updike and John Barth were once in the Midlist; so was Joyce Carol Oates and William Kennedy. John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant A Confederacy of Dunces belonged there, and, in spite of often being called a “southern writer,” Walker Percy’s works went into the Midlist, too. Tom Robbins and even Thomas Pyncheon were, at one time or another, in the Midlist, and Cormac McCarthy’s early works were rescued from regional identification and so classified, as well.

Today, though, the Midlist, as the saying go, is dead. What few novels still might qualify for it, including at least one or two of mine, struggle against the odds. There’s no place for them at Barnes and Noble’s remaining stores, and not even the on-line bookstores are sure what to do with them. So saying that I write “Midlist novels” is meaningless to a contemporary reader and potential book-buyer. It just confuses them.

Another thing the literary scholar who was kind enough to devote the better part of a year to reading and analyzing my fiction said was that most all of what I wrote, especially my novels, were “love stories.” At first, this shocked me. I never considered writing a love story, and I couldn’t imagine that he would think such a thing. But upon reflection, I realized that he was right. Virtually every one of my novels is, in one way or another, about the love of a man and a woman. I don’t mean that they’re romances, not by any stretch of the imagination—if I could write successful romances, I’d be reasonably wealthy. What he meant, and what I mean, is that I think the dynamic of emotional commitment between two people is a key element in the human story. I think, to be utterly trite, it’s what makes the world go round.

I recall hearing a professorial pundit ask, tongue in cheek, of course, “Would Napoleon have invaded Russia if Josephine had been faithful?” It was a joke, but there might be more to it than that. More than one major turn of western civilization has taken place because of the relationship between lovers, or spouses, or parents and children, or even humans and their perceived god. Sometimes, of course, it’s perverse; but sometimes, it’s deeply passionate, moving, emotional TNT. If Helen’s face, or her fickleness, or her infidelity, could launch a thousand ships, why couldn’t Josephine’s send the French army into Russia? Cleopatra, after all, was responsible for the movement of Roman legions, Joan d’Arc mobilized armored knights, Benedict Arnold was led astray by Peggy Shipton, Jesse James killed to avenge the injuries done to his mama, and the story goes that Ma Barker was more than a little responsible for the homicidal mischief of her offspring. It’s just as true that most—not all, but most—of the great works of literature pivot on love, as well.

So there might be something to that. But I can’t tell people, “I write love stories.” Shades of bad movies! And besides, if someone looked into one of my books expecting to find a pleasing story of the requited heart and discovered instead an opening scene of rape and double-murder, he might think I’ve deliberately deceived him.

No, I don’t write love stories, although I will confess that I fall in love with most of my heroines, and, to be honest, they represent an amalgamation of most all the women I’ve known—good and bad—who’ve caused me trouble. But then, all the women I’ve known in my life, including my sainted mother, beloved wife, and adored daughter have caused me trouble. And I’ve loved them all, in one way or another, just as I’ve loved my heroines—from afar and without compunction.

But I don’t write love stories. And I don’t write westerns. And although I’ve written novels that would handily fit into the category of both, I’ve also written novels that would fall under the heading of academic satire, crime adventure, psychological thriller, social comedy, and one that I tend to call my “Rock and Roll, Drag-Race, Ghost Story.” But I’m not a horror writer, either.

I think what I write about is people. Ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. They may be living in historical periods, such as what is usually mislabeled “The Old West,” or even in the recent past. They may be embroiled in underworld intrigue or the politics of poetry; they may be rednecks just trying to get through another day, or singular individuals attempting to live through horrendous crises. But at bottom, they’re people, just like me, just like you, just like the reader.

I’ve always been more interested in effects than in causes. A student who had actually read a couple of my novels and some of my stories once observed—and wisely, I think—that my fiction always started on the page after the story had ended. “You don’t care why something happened,” she said. “You care what happened because it happened.” I believe that’s an excellent characterization of my work. I am not at all interested in “big events”; I am interested in the effects of any events, even small ones. A moment in time, frozen in a photograph or painting, in a newsreel or prose description is mostly interesting to me because I consider what happens next. When I see some bureaucrat speaking on television, my focus is not on what he’s saying into the camera. I’m considering what he will say when he leaves the platform, goes off to be with someone he trusts. What will he say then? That, I think, will be true, no matter what he said before.

The books that are included in this series of electronic editions are all about that, I think. That’s the “kinds” of fictions they are. They are about people. They’re also about love and hate, ruthlessness and compassion, about sacrifice and redemption, and about wisdom. The characters in them aren’t particularly nice or admirable; none, I don’t think, is heroic or in the least noble. But many of them do ennobling things, and many do heroic things. Many discover love and grace and happiness; and many are disappointed to find that, like Faust, they had those things all along and didn’t know it.

Someone, I can’t remember who, once said that there were only three kinds of stories in fiction. One tells about a character who desperately needs or wants something and struggles against incredible odds to get it, then fails. That’s tragedy. Another tells about a character who desperately needs or wants something and struggles against incredible odds to get it, then succeeds. That’s comedy. The third tells about a character who desperately needs or wants something and struggles against incredible odds to get it, gets it, then realizes that he doesn’t want it, after all. That’s real life.

My books, I like to think, are about real life. Whether the life is on the vast plains of the frontier or the dirty squalor of the urban ghetto, whether it’s in a honkeytonk or a long-abandoned and condemned building, whether it’s on a ball field or on a ghostly drag-strip, it’s most all about the same thing. It’s about the people who are living it. That’s what my books are about.

The second most frequent question I hear from people curious about my work is “where can I buy them?” My answers for nearly three decades have been vague. In the beginning, I was perplexed and not a little angry when bookstores, which were plentiful then, did not have my books in stock, which, in fact, had never heard of me. But in time, bookstores were driven out of business by oversized coffee-shops and music emporia that also offered reading matter as a side-line item to their marketing of muffins and croissants. The late-but-not-much-lamented Borders stores and soon-to-be-history Barnes and Noble stores drove the mall bookstores as well as neighborhood bookshops out of business. I understood that such mega-corporations would never stock my work; after all, they wouldn’t stock the Midlist, for the most part, and they were doing all they could even to squeeze out category fiction to make more room for shelves of throw-pillows, book marks, tea-pots and other brick-a-brack. So it was hard to tell people where they might buy a copy of my work. In the first couple of decades, I could say, “Oh, you can order it.”, although I knew full well they wouldn’t go to the trouble of doing so.

With these electronic editions, however, my work has entered a new phase—one might even call it a new dimension. Armed with freshly designed covers, all of which offer a closer reflection of the books’ content than do most of the original dust jacket paintings, they are now electronically available. I’m not entirely sure whether this makes them more or less “real” in any tactile sense; but I do know that it, at last, makes them available; and as ordering products via the internet has now become a national pastime rivaling the population’s addiction to the NFL, I have no fear that most people won’t avail themselves of the opportunity to do so—if, of course, they actually want to read something.

I will confess to being somewhat superstitiously wary of electronically published material; I also will confess to being almost utterly ignorant of how the process works. But I am overwhelmingly grateful to Baen Publishing and editor Tony Daniel to being receptive to my work, to offering it with enthusiasm and panache, and I am now hopeful of being able to answer the questions about what kind of work and where to find it with confidence and surety that I can, at least, say something meaningful in reply.

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