For years Ben Boulden has been interviewing other writers and reviewing their novels for the magazine Mystery Scene, and on his blog, Gravetapping. Now he's a novelist, as well. His debut, Blaze! Red Rock Rampage, was published last month by Rough Edges Press. It's a fun read. In fact it's a rip-snortin', shoot-em-up, roll in the hay worth of thrills and chuckles read.
Boulden has joined a stable of writers working on the publisher's new Blaze! series, which grew from a brainchild of longtime novelist Stephen Mertz. I learned from Boulden's in-depth interview with Mertz last year, that he has written under various pseudonyms including Don Pendleton, for The Executioner series, and as Cliff Banks, for Tunnel Rats. Mertz told Boulden the Blaze! series is schedued to pop out a new novel every two months, thus the need for the writing team. Boulden's is Nr. 15. He's already at work on another.
In his interview with Boulden, Mertz explained the Blaze! series was born of a short story he wrote called "The Last Stand," about "a pair of gunfighters who are the two fastest guns in the West…who just happen to be married to each other. Kate and J.D. Blaze. I couldn't get away from the idea that those two deserved more than one story. I am happy to say that Rough Edges Press felt the same way and, in fact, wanted to amp up with a bi-monthly publication schedule. I’m too slow a writer to accommodate that, so a handful of topnotch writers stepped in to maintain consistent scheduling."
He created Kate as "a little smarter" than J.D., "but dog-gone-it, J.D. is a standup gent. They banter back and forth in between shooting the bad guys and sorting out various marital issues. These are western tall tales for today’s audience." From that description, Ben Boulden clearly has the hang of it. Red Rock Rampagen opens with Kate and J.D. (stands for Jehoram Delfonso, but never ever call him that to his face!) sleeping under the stars in southern Utah's badlands. Within minutes they're in a shootout with villains who have come upon them with malice aforethought. Kate kills one with a single shot from her Winchester while J.D. takes off on foot after the other. Alas J.D.'s villain bushwhacks him, steals his prized Colt revolver, and vamooses, leaving J.D. unconscious next to a rock fall. Kate brings hubby around and tells him what she learned from the other varmint's dying words. J.D. makes an amorous remark, Kate reminds him they have much work ahead of them.
“`We sure do,'” J.D. said as he pulled Kate’s lithe form into his arms, closing the gap between them into nothing." Such romantic action occurs throughout Red Rock Rampage during frequent breaks in the shooting and narrow escaping. And novices these kids are not, in essentially whatever they might do. This little scene is typical:
“How about the one from Flagstaff?” J.D. said, referring to a seemingly awkward but extremely rewarding sex position from Kate’s worn copy of the Kama Sutra.
“You read my mind.” Kate pulled J.D. towards the bed at the back of the tiny room. The dark streaks of light filtering through the building’s roughly constructed walls illuminated the curve of her hips and the tips of her breasts. Then: “Not enough room to get fancy,” she said. “Better go straight this one time.”
Typical marriage? Well, I'm sure we could find a married couple or three who would grin or grimace at a scene like this:
J.D. flinched at the sound of his proper name. Kate was the only living person allowed to speak it and when she did, J.D. knew he was in deep trouble.
“Stop speaking this instant!” Kate said. “I’m coming down.”
Kate glared at J.D. as she walked past him towards the two women. Her hands motioned a “don’t say anything” gesture and her eyes took harsh notice of J.D. And J.D. knew better than to say a word. Instead he held back, feeling excluded as the women gathered in a small circle. He watched as they grasped hands and listened to their voices, muted, the occasional sob making him uncomfortable as he tried to keep himself distracted by searching for unwanted visitors.
Let's not forget landscape, either. It's here, have no fear. Boulden takes us right into the middle of it, as if we're watching Frederic Remington filling a canvas with paint while telling us stories, too:
The sun moved slowly across the afternoon sky as Kate and Beth rode the high desert, its heat unobstructed by the canyon walls and the bleak, flat landscape of the desert. The valley widened in places to several miles, narrowing in others to no more than a few hundred yards. Ancient sandstone spires clawed skyward towards the unfathomable eternities. The horses sputtered their complaints and Kate was forced to slow the march, stopping every several minutes to allow the horses rest and a small taste of the water they hauled.
You might be wondering about the plot. Well, my friends, it's a doozie. Hired by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway to use "any means necessary" to put an end to a rash of robberies on their trains. Soon, between their Kama Sutra experiments, they find themselves unwelcome visitors to a remote Morman community run by a tyrannical renegade Mormon with, naturally, many wives. It's here J.D. discovers the sheriff is wearing J.D.'s stolen shootin' iron. The plot doth thicken, we soon find, and verily I found it damned hard to stop reading long enough to hit the head now and again for that refreshing relief we rarely if ever hear about in the TV commercials. Ben did a fine job with Red Rock Rampage, if you haven't figured that out yet. He did, indeed.
In an interview with the new author, turning the tables on his customary spot asking the questions, I tried to weasel a hint or two out of him as to the plot of his next Blaze! episode. He enticed me with this:
"Without saying too much, my next Blaze! story involves a legend of Spanish Gold in Utah’s Eastern highlands and a bunch of bad people who want everything for themselves. I’m excited about it, but to this point the writing has been very slow. Something I’m planning to change over the next few weeks."
As my interviewing skills have gotten pretty rusty since my days writing for newspapers, I asked Ben how he learned to do such good ones. I was hoping he'd give me some tips to help me do this one better. (His answers from here on will be in italics—the reverse, I think, of how he does his.)
Interviewing authors, or probably anyone, really, terrifies me. There is so much to know about the subject, both as an individual and as a writer, that I find myself lost when I begin developing questions. I don’t want to miss anything important. Back in 2007 I did a number of interviews for Saddlebums Western blog. None of the interviews were especially good or bad, but an interview I did with Stephen Lodge, who had had an impressive career in Hollywood as a script writer, costume designer and actor, stands out to me. When I did the interview, I missed a good deal of what was likely the most interesting areas of his career, including writing and working on the cult classic horror film Kingdom of Spiders. His work as costumer on the TV series The Fugitive. That interview taught me the importance of preparation, so now when I interview an author I find everything I can about the person online—other interviews, profiles, etc.—and read as many of their books as I can.
So I went back and studied Gravetapping some more, and read the short story posted there Ben worried might not measure up to his current skill. He called it "The Hanging":
Its only claim to fame is it was a finalist for a British anthology that was to include Ramsey Campbell. I haven’t read it in years, but in my memory, it’s okay if a little dark.
I loved it. I asked him how long he's been writing fiction:
Since my early-teens. Mostly short stories. Many were/are pretty awful, but a few, despite their flaws, I liked very much when I originally wrote them and I still have fond memories of. I sold a story about a widower, World War Two veteran, near the end of his life sitting in front of an old radio listing to Frank Sinatra. When his eyes closed, time evaporated and he was back in specific moments of his life; frolicking in the ocean with his young wife, charging Omaha Beach, reading to his young daughter. The magazine went defunct before it could be published, but I have always had a soft spot for that one. Another story, “Electric Man” was published in Amazing Journeys, a small science fiction magazine (now gone, I think) and it was the first story I received cash money for writing. A few other stories have seen print, but none are very good and I hope most of the copies have been burned.
I’ve started a number of novels that never got past fifty pages, but back in the late-1990s I actually finished one. An action Western with a revenge theme. I still like the story, but the narrative was as flawed as a piece of fiction can be and the prose as clunky as a Yugo. The story may reappear one day, but the manuscript has long since disappeared into the ether, which is too bad because maybe it’s not as bad as I remember it.
Learning from Gravetapping he's a family man with a wife and a young daughter, whom he supports as a fulltime auditor, I asked Ben how he manages his time to squeeze in doing reviews, interviews and writing fiction:
My writing schedule is less than routine. I wish I could make a schedule where I write from 5 AM to 7 AM every morning, but, with work and my other responsibilities, I haven’t been able to make that work. I write when I can, sometimes for fifteen minutes and other times for two or three or four hours. I have a weekly goal of 2,500 – 3,000 original words (exclusive of rewriting, which I do constantly as I write) and my goal is to do at least some writing every day, but one day I may only write 100 words and another I may write 6- or 700. But I try to keep that weekly goal in sight, knowing that every word gets me that much closer.
While writing Red Rock Rampage I was traveling heavily for work and a good deal of that story was written late at night in hotel rooms. I hated being away from home, but the quiet evenings and nights made for great writing. When at home I have a small office where I do part of my writing and the rest is done, primarily, at the kitchen table. As far as deadlines, the ones that make me sweat are those for Mystery Scene Magazine because Rough Edges Press, publisher of Blaze!, hasn’t given me any deadlines so far. A very good thing since I need a good deal of lead time to finish the stories.
As Red Rock Rampage ramped up (I know...groan) the demands on his writing time and skills, I asked him to share some of his thoughts about that:
Red Rock Rampage was a joyful experience to write. The series creator, Stephen Mertz, offered to let me give it a try (no guarantee of publication, but with his stated confidence in my capability) and everything worked out. The main characters, Kate and J. D. Blaze, really came to life for me. I fell in literary love with Kate. Smart, tough and with a sly sense of humor. And when she and J. D. share a scene the chemistry between the two was wonderful, and I hope my writing captured at least a little of what I saw as I was writing the book and the characters. My style didn’t change much in writing this one, other than my attempts to make the red rock country of Southern Utah as vibrant as I could without overusing descriptive sentences.
I tend to enjoy books that have a sense of humor, no matter the genre, and I tried to do the same with RRR. I didn’t want it to be silly, but I wanted a few moments, conversations, situations, that made the reader smile. I was amused with J. D.’s ability to take a beating and immediately afterward have amorous feelings toward Kate, and Kate’s ability to make J. D. do pretty much anything she wanted him to do. Those two characters, both created by Stephen Mertz, are wonderful to write and I hope my enthusiasm shows in the narrative. I’m working on another Blaze! novel now and I’m hoping to have it finished in the next few months.
Starting to warm up with the questions, I asked Ben if his long-range plans include writing in genres other than westerns:
My primary goal is to write in the crime and suspense markets. I have several ideas percolating for novels and I’m working on a hardboiled crime short story now.
He, of course, is keeping details of those ideas face down for now. I then asked him, based on his own writing experience, if he had any advice for aspiring writers just starting out and hoping to break into the commercial markets:
Keep writing. I had given up on publishing fiction as recently as last year, but I never stopped writing fiction. I wasn’t writing anything publishable, but rather individual scenes that caught my fancy. A mother mourning the loss of a child. A child’s birthday. A cowboy riding fences. Keep at it, which I’m planning to do, and something good may happen.
And now? With his first novel on the market awaiting reviews and reader responses, how does it feel?
I’m...slightly embarrassed to get the attention. And a strange desire for everyone to like it. A cliché, but it is kind of like sending a child into the world knowing you can no longer protect it from the world.
Well, Ben, not to worry about this review! Your child not only gets safe passage into the world, but with enthusiastic best wishes to boot.