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Jon Horton

Monday, December 19, 2005

Writing in 21st Century America


jackson hole blog

with j. r. horton

january 2005

i used to write a monthly column for but dropped it after the events of september 2001. like most americans i had been traumatized by the felling of the world trade center, and the world i was writing about in the local columns had become comparatively unimportant to me. i also dropped the novel Murder in Moab that i had been writing because the intellectual world i had been living in seemed now strange and irrelevant. subscriptions to the online versions of The Washington Post and the New York Times gave me immediate access to particulars of the new and messy quotidian world of the twenty-first century. when i picked up the Murder in Moab manuscript again the previous plot seemed weak so i began to re-cast it in the shadow of the biblical End Times, and it felt right.

I gave away my television over fifteen years ago so got the news of the attack via national public radio. however the Kmart store was only two blocks away so i hurried over to get the images associated with the story. that may have been a mistake because i stood in front of perhaps twenty tv sets being bombarded by images broadcast by four different sources. it was shocking, and soon mesmerizing, as new sources like home videos were added to the cascade of images. the original broad shots taken from distant helicopters were now intercut with narrow aspects framed by buildings and the harrowing reviews of people fleeing the enormous billows of poisonous dust from millions of square yards of wallboard mixed with god-only-knows-what office supplies and components of information-processing apparati normally trapped by manufacturing processes — deadly genies released from pandora's box to ride a killing tide of blitzed business machines. but you know all about that. you were probably there...

after a two-year hiatus i saw that my whole world had changed and i wanted to get out of the old publishibng paradigm and into the new digital world of the burgeoning generation which had matured while i was absent. the corrupt publishing model of writing a work, submitting it to an agent or editor, waiting years for rejection or confirmation, working for little or nothing, and with slim hope, seemed like a very tired and tiring way of doing business.

I began to mentally re-group then put the new paradigm into action by first regaining all the rights to my published works while researching this new digital world where the artists have real control over their work. The first proofs of the potential were demonstrated by musicians who began to desert the ships of Sony, Warner Bros and the rest in the thieves market that was the music world to create their own labels. Hell, all you needed was an Apple computer and a very few thousand dollars-worth of equipment plus business and marketing plans to get into the music biz, so why not the book biz? for better or worse the die was cast.

later i would seize on the modern idea of a blog as part of a marketing website. writing the column about Jackson Hole and the Yellowstone area had necessitated research and finding images to match the subject of the month and that had taken a lot of time away from the novel. because i had picked up the unfinished novel again about a year ago i didn't want to the divert my writing energy from the process of excavating my characters from the matrix of my new mind-set. it would also give me a chance to change my focus from one effort to the other without a major shift in concentration. the idea that i could use the blog to talk about the writing process i go through. i decided to include excerpts from my writing for examination by anyone interested in what i am trying to do with the western novel. Wyoming is probably the least supportive writing environment in the country if you are not part of the established writers, and i am definitely not one of them. by way of explanation for how i became the outsider I'll supply a short history.

i think it was 1994 when i attended the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and met an editor for Dell Bantam who was interested in the manuscript of Murder in Jackson Hole after reading the first three chapters. i sent her the whole manuscript and about a month later she sent me a list of edits necessary to generate a contract. the list of demands included: no women as victims (the book opened with a woman being victimized during a drug dea), no villains drawn from minority groups (the bad guy's name was Rick Rios) and no ghastly hunting scenes (the hero bloods his son through an elk hunt, a practice that goes back to the earliest times of homo sapiens sapiens). i tried but couldn't make it work so i told her thanks but no thanks, i had to be me.

what to do, what to do? after appealing to about fifty or so agents to represent me and getting snubs or no acknowledgment at all, a regional publisher approached me and said he was interested in publishing the book. o happy day!

I won't go into particulars but suffice to say that after the book was published i immediately demanded the rights back and got them. what to do, again? i send letters and e-mails to about fifty more agents and suffered the same rejection process. shit.

what process? at this point i should explain the old paradigm of publishing. first : make your heart fit a 2X9X11 package then shlep it around to writers conferences where (if you are male) you pitch it to mostly disinterested folks (women) from back east. then you try to write a book that conforms to what you have heard and overheard at the same conferences. and that is important because the mega-publishing and distribution companies will almost certainly spit out 99.9% of the manuscripts that don't follow their particular formulae for success.

second: you try to find an agent to rep your work. If you are writing outside the mainstream your chances of finding an agent are just about zilch, though i have had three excellent agents who tried to find a home for my work. the rub here is that you have to smelt the precious from the dross and the vast majority of agents out there are dross despite their claims to be 24-carat. the painful part of the process is that your work can be tied up for one or two years while the incompetent agent strives to become competent. whether they like the analogy or not agents are just salesmen with a sample case in hand who circulate from editor's office to editor's office, pulling out your work and saying, isn't the quality obvious? here, smell it, feel the grain.

third: you have an agent but you are going to have to live with the editor who is interested in working with you. If you are lucky beyond all reckoning you will find an editor who is competent and can understand and respect what you have graven on your heart. if you have the bad luck i had with the woman from dell bantam you will have to make a choice of writing according to the editor's dictates or give it up. most of the time the editor is right and you are wrong so don't dig in your heels until you understand that she just may have your real interests at heart. but then again she just may have her own interests at heart, such as forwarding an agenda that does no justice to your work. political correctness is one of the most pernicious aspects of modern life and it is at its liveliest in the halls of New York publishing. and because i write about the authentic west from a working man's point of view rather than following the easily-understood customs of the genre detective novel, finding an unorthodox soul in New York is almost manifestly fruitless.

that was my experience. i have Wyoming acquaintances like Michael and Kathleen Gear, Debbie Bedford, Tim Sandlin, Jerry Spence, Warren Adler, Ted Kerasote, Mark Spragg, Win Blevins and some others whose experiences have been mainstream almost all the way. they publish with big houses and are very successful in the mainstream but they have their stories and i have mine. i think it's safe to say that my experience in the publishing world is much more common that their's. besides, if you are a successful mainstream author you will not have followed the story this far because I'm preaching to the pews not to the choir.

that said, let's go back to what to do now? my choice was to start a sequel to Murder in Jackson Hole. that decision has no logic but if you want logic from a novelist go to his computer's mother board. when Murder in Jackson Hole was accepted by the regional publisher, who had an emotional life resembling a pack rat's nest, i thought i was home free. what happened with that house is a farce we need not recapitulate but it ended when i told him i was getting a lawyer. but before that happened i asked for an advance and left for Mexico where i had worked in oil exploration for a couple of years. i wanted to write about the illegal trade in archaeological artifacts for a sequel and came back with Murder in Mixteca fully plotted plus three legal pads of notes and dialog. But i found myself in the limbo that hovers over the hell of a doomed novel being followed headlong by another with even fewer prospects. so the cordite smoke and dust blows away and i am sitting on the blasting box with my chin in my hand. what to do now? then the phone rings. aha.

my sister is an excellent computer graphics artist and she is saying, i don't see anything your publisher did that we can't do. Why don't we start our own publishing company? heck, why not?

I send her the original disc with the novel and she extrudes it through Quark Express while i am falling into another serendipitous opportunity. an artist whose work i really like, Malcolm Furlow, offers his art for my covers and i am ecstatic. now i will have some real say in the whole concept from the writing through design and onwards. the rub here is that neither my sister or i knew what onwards would come to mean — like business plan, raising money, distribution, publicity, bookkeeping, cash flow statements, booksellers and distributors who never pay, fulfillment, floor taxes, resistance from the old paradigm, and the serious stigma of being labeled a self-publisher ten years ago.

that's enough for today. i'm worn out just remembering all the problems we stepped into and the really serious problems that would fall out during the process of publishing the next two books. more later.

Excerpt from Murder in Jackson Hole an authentically western novel

The canyon they had shot across was not real steep but it was deep and there was a lot of snow. It would be tough going, especially on the other side because it is impossible to ride a horse up a slope in deep snow. Their chests are too broad and they don't have the stamina a man has. It meant zigzagging uphill, on foot and in waist-deep snow while leading the animal. Tom rode down to the bottom of the canyon and when he swung down out of the saddle, the snow was hip deep, as he'd known it would be. Going uphill was murderous and he had to stop every few yards to rest. Near the top, he had to stop every two or three steps.

When he found the place where the animal had been feeding he read the sign. There were a few spots of dark blood. Gut blood. If it had been frothy and pink it would have meant a lung shot, a killing shot. But the boy had jerked the rifle's trigger and pulled the rifle barrel toward the animal's rear.Tom had suspected that when the animal had hunched up at the impact of the bullet.

He slogged up the mountain, sweating profusely, opening his coat because of all the heat the exercise generated. Sweat rolled down into his eyes and he had to carry his hat because it was intolerably hot wearing it.

Tom finally came to a deep, bloody hole in the snow, the place where his own shot had knocked the elk down. He was relieved that the elk had crossed into the pines instead of going up the few remaining yards and over the ridge into the bad country. It meant he was hit real hard. The amount of blood he was now losing proved that. Tom was confident he would find him in a matter of yards, bleeding the way he was. He took his rifle out of the scabbard and started down the trail in the waist-deep snow. The horse was spooking, so Tom took a handful of the clotted blood and rubbed it into his nostrils — so the animal's sense of smell would be saturated with the spoor.

As he started into the trees, he expected to find the bull at any moment because arterial blood had squirted onto trees and as much as ten feet out onto the pristine snow. But they kept dropping farther and farther down into the darkening woods. And then the trail ended. Nothing lay in front of them but unbroken snow. Tom was stunned. It was as if the elk had been levitated.

By now the horse was really spooked. He tried the blood trick again, but the big sorrel still rolled his eyes and reared, striking at Tom with his front hooves. He was terrified, acting as if they were trailing a bear. Tom knotted the reins near their ends and crooked his arm through them, keeping the animal as far away from his heels as possible.

They started back up the mountain side. The bull had apparently sensed them coming and had back tracked in his own trail, leaving the air thick with the smell of blood, fear and pure will. That was what was scaring the horse — the essence of a doomed will to live.

The spoor was now a mess. They had walked in the bull's backtrack, burying it in a mass of trashed sign. They had to redouble back to find the place where he had jumped a bush to hide his departure from the trail. By this time Tom was awed by the dramatic blood trail, by the apparent fact that the elk appeared to be operating on adrenaline alone. And operating more cleverly than most mature elk do in perfect health. This animal was something special.

By this time Tom was nearing exhaustion as they hurried, slipping and falling, up the mountainside. He was breathing in great openmouthed gasps, seeing bursts of light. The horse was no better. He was bathed in sweat, his breath heaving, eyes rolling from the exertion. Ordinarily he was a good horse who was careful where he put his hooves. Now he was stepping on Tom's heels and getting popped in the face with the reins for it. The effort was pushing the man and the horse to the end of their energies, and as yet they had not caught up to an elk who was running on what must have the last couple of pints of blood in his body. But, suddenly, Tom stood looking down at him.

The bull had appeared in the circle of light at the center of the man's vision. A corona of black surrounded the dying animal. He was lying down, his neck outstretched in a great aurora of poppy-red blood. Now helpless, his eyes going soft with imminent death, he knew that he was finally overtaken. He moved his legs in slow imitations of the powerful, running strides that carried him from danger all through his great life.

Breathing in convulsive gasps, Tom threw a bullet into his rifle and shocked the bull over the line and into death. He then sat down in the deep snow beside the exhausted horse and looked at the bull's fine face and great horns, drawing the smell of hot flesh and blood deep into his own body with each heaving gulp of the thin, gray winter air. It was a primitive feeling, Tom thought as he sat and tried to catch his breath. It was something like wild sex in that it was zero intellect and all sensation, reaction and response.

Some say they love the animals they kill, and it may be a truth of sorts. But to say that you love them implies that you have had time to winnow your feelings, consider it from all angles and arrive at a conclusion. But that is conscience, not love.

As Tom sat there in the snow, breathing in gasps, sweating, his heart pounding while looking at the animal and smelling his blood it was the act, and nothing more, that carried the emotional weight. Tom was alive, the bull was dead, and Tom had killed him. Period. Nothing to think about, no apologies. And he felt very much alive.

He was resting against a tree, trying to recover from the exhaustion, when he heard a sound. He opened his eyes and saw Jackie sitting on his horse about twenty yards away. The boy's eyes were huge as he surveyed the scene, looking up and down the beaten and blood-soaked hillside.

Tom stood. "C'mere," he said as he motioned tiredly to the boy. Jackie got down and walked toward his father. He stopped about halfway and stared at the big bull in the snow.

"C'mere, c'mere." Tom got up and met the boy. Tom put his arms around his son's shoulders. "Go ahead and look at it, son. Look at it all."

The boy shook his head as he surveyed the mess. "Gosh," he said.

"This is our responsibility. We did this. This is what men do," Tom said. "But don't let it bother you, this is who we are. And it's OK. All that civilization down there in the valley is just a veneer. At heart, most of us are still hunters."

He let the boy take it all in for a moment, then stood and said, "Grab that hind leg. We need to swing his butt downhill, so i can show you how to gut him. It isn't all adrenaline and fun. We eat what we kill and getting an animal out of the mountains, then preparing it, is the biggest part of the deal.

"When we get to town, I'll show you how to cut and wrap the meat. Then we'll spend a day making sausage. That's the part i like, almost as much as eating it."

They labored at the big animal until it was on its back with its hind quarters pointed downhill. They set its butt on a big branch, to keep it from sliding away down the steep hill. When the animal was stabilized on the slope, Tom went to a nearby pine and broke off a small branch. He stripped away all but a small bunch of needles at the tip, and gave it to his son. "Here."

"What's this for?"

"Dip it in the elk blood and put it in the bull's mouth."

"Why?"

"To show respect. It's called a Schutzbruch by the German hunting society and the Indians do it too. If we had a feather and knew an Indian language we'd do the same thing. All real hunters do it."

"Huh?"

"You took his life, thank him for it.

"He's dead!"

"And you aren't, plus we are going to eat him and gain strength from his death."

"I don't get it.

"I don't expect you to, yet. But i do expect you to remember to do this every time you make a kill — show respect for the life the animal gave up. Always try to be thankful."

"OK. But i still don't get it," Jackie said as he knelt and brushed up a bit of blood and placed the branch in the dead animal's mouth.

"It's all right. Some day you will — when you're old enough to know what a life is worth. In the old days they would say that you have now been blooded.'

He helped the boy to his feet then said, "You better stand back a bit, son. When you get your first whiff of what's inside this guy, your nose is gonna do a somersault and your stomach's going be right behind it. Gut shots are foul."

He unsnapped the deep pocket of his hunting coat and reached for the razor sharp folding hunter's knife he always kept there.

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