Monday, January 21, 2013

Louis L'Amour, The Read Deal



If your name was Louis L'Amour and you wrote about men tougher than nails, would you adopt a penname? Frederick Faust used Max Brand to publish his rough and tumble Westerns. Of course, that was partly because Faust was a Teutonic name, and the Great War had made Germans unpopular.

Saul David, editorial director of Bantam Books, told Donald Jackson a story he included in a Smithsonian Magazine article. "That was the heyday of the paperback Western. We had lost Luke Short, our Western Star, and I was in California looking for a new one. I got a call - the word was out that I was in town - and a voice said, 'This is Louis L'Amour, you've never heard of me but I want to see you right now.' He came up with an envelope, made a pitch and told me to read his samples. He said he was going to be the next great Western writer and we'd do well to take him on. I read it while he waited. It was Hondo, and it knocked me out. I signed him to a long-term contract on the spot … David's boss in New York had doubts about their new author's name - L'Amour on a paperback sounded like ‘a Western written in lipstick,’ he said - but no one had grit enough to ask him to change it, ‘I didn't want to get punched out,’ David explains.”

At the time David met L’Amour (1908-1988), he was nearly fifty. He had mellowed a bit in middle age, but could still throw a hefty punch. For almost his entire life he would spend over an hour each day lifting weights, skipping rope, and punching a bag.

It might seem that L’Amour started late in the writing field, but that would be incorrect for two reason. First, he wrote for the pulps before WWII. (He took an extended hiatus during his enlistment.)  After the war, he sold at least one story per week prior to the film Hondo. There is a legend that John Wayne made L’Amour’s career when he bought the theatrical rights to a short story that became Hondo. Wayne also endorsed of the later novel as the best Western he had ever read. The Duke certainly gave L’Amour a big boost, but L’Amour was making a decent living from writing prior to Hondo. He had already sold several novels to paperback publishers and had sold several other projects for movies and TV.

The second reason would be research. He spent his early years living the life he would later write about. During his upbringing in North Dakota, his father’s veterinary practice and his other relatives exposed him to ranching and genuine cowboys. As a youth, L’Amour traveled the world as an itinerate worker. He hoboed, skinned cattle, baled hay, worked in mines, saw mills and lumber yards, circled the globe as a merchant seaman, and boxed all over the globe for money. He went out of his way to meet lawmen and outlaws. He traveled everywhere, noticed everything, and read constantly. He bragged that from 1928 until 1942 he read three books a week. By the time he met David, his life experiences and pulp writing had thoroughly prepared him to be a novelist.

Louis L'Amour wrote over one hundred books, of which more than 30 have been made into movies. He was extremely prolific and once signed a thirty book contract with Bantam. His books have been translated into over fifteen languages. A few days before he passed away, L’Amour was notified that sales of his books had topped two million. Today, that number is well in excess of three million. None of his titles have ever been out of print.

He loved writing and storytelling. He said, "I can transport myself to another time and place and put myself there." 

Critics panned his dialogue and one-dimensional characters, but praised his pacing and historical accuracy. L'Amour dismissed their criticism. "If you write about a bygone period east of the Mississippi River, it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi it's a Western." He added, "I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks, I know it's literature and I know it will be read 100 years from now." 

Twenty-five years after his death, his prediction looks accurate.

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