Thursday, November 24, 2011

Six-Gun Stotter

Elmore Leonard (left) talking with Mike Stotter in May 2006, when the Crime Writers’ Association presented Leonard with the Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement. Photo © 2006 Ali Karim

During this last September’s Bouchercon in St. Louis, I was humbled to be presented with the first David Thompson Memorial Special Service Award. In my acceptance speech, I thanked my many editors--George Easter and Larry Gandle of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine, J. Kingston Pierce and Linda L. Richards at The Rap Sheet and January Magazine, Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers Journal, and Jon, Ruth, and Jennifer Jordan of Crimespree Magazine--for making the words in my reviews, features, and interviews really “sing.” But I closed that address with the name of one editor in particular, whose life has become intertwined with my own over the last decade: Mike Stotter, a most gracious and generous man, who I am honored to call a friend.

It was a decade ago, in 2001, that novelist Mark Billingham introduced me to Stotter, when we all got together to discuss the Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger Awards. (That was the year Swedish author Henning Mankell won the Gold Dagger.) Stotter, at the time, was one of the CWA judges. Following that dinner, I joined Stotter (as his assistant editor) at Shots Magazine, which was later re-created as a Webzine and is now among the Internet’s most visited sites for information about crime and thriller fiction.

Subsequent to the St. Louis Bouchercon, Stotter re-released some of his out-of-print fiction in both e-book format (available for download here) and paperback versions. It got me to thinking about the fact that most people know Stotter only as the editor-in-chief of Shots. Comparatively few realize that he’s also a writer of children’s books, Westerns, and crime fiction. So I decided to take him out to one of the London public houses and record a short interview for The Rap Sheet. We had a opportunity to discuss his work for the CWA, his longtime involvement with Shots, his work on non-fiction books, and his success in composing Western fiction--even though, as he readily admits, “the nearest I have gotten to the Wild West is Missouri.”

Ali Karim: Tell us about your early reading and writing life.

Mike Stotter: As far as memory serves, my earliest writing goes back to when I was around 9 or 10 years old. Our primary school had a visit by a children’s writer by the name of H.E. Todd, whose books often had a fantasy/magical theme. It inspired me to write my own children’s fantasy/adventure called The Magic Signet Ring. Of course, it has never been or ever will be published, but that was a start. Also, my headmaster was very supportive and would give me writing projects. I’ll never forget the first one: “It started with a bang,” then I was instructed to finish it off. I also spent hours in the local library, reading books at an alarming rate, without any thought to genre.

AK: And how did the interest in Westerns come to you as a Londoner?

MS: I doubt if I am any different to hundreds of kids of my generation who were brought up on U.S. TV western series such as Wagon Train, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Have Gun--Will Travel, and a big favorite of mine--Bonanza (I can easily recall the opening titles with the flames burning away the map). It hit a natural sweet spot for me. Soon, I was avidly watching all the John Wayne films (my favorite Wayne western is The Searchers), and then came the rousing The Magnificent Seven.

My first foray into Western publications was when I became involved with the George G. Gilman Appreciation Society--which was set up for fans of the ultra-violent Edge and Steele series, which ran for ages in the UK, written by an ex-Reuters reporter by the name of Terry Harknett. Although I didn’t come in on the ground floor [of the society’s newsletter], I did eventually take it over, broadened the appeal to include other Western writers such as John Harvey and Angus Wells, retitled it to The Westerner, and eventually sold the idea to IPC Magazines, who published it as The Western Magazine. The first issue came out in October 1980 and lasted for all of four issues before being cancelled due to the journalist strike at the time (or so they said). My role there was as a consultant and contributor. That was fun, actually commissioning writers such as Terry (Triple G) Angus, John Harvey, and Louis L’Amour. I’ve seen copies on Amazon going for £25.00 each, so I’m glad I kept mine.

Ten years later I had my first book published. McKinney’s Revenge [1990], which took me about eight months to write, and about three drafts, as I was learning the mechanics of writing a novel. I’ve known fellow BHW [Black Horse Westerns] author David Whitehead since childhood, and he was having success in getting published. He remarked that [BHW chairman and managing director] John Hale was looking for more new authors, and casually said, “You read Westerns. You can write. Write one.” So, I did. Hale accepted the manuscript and gave me a two-book contract. Up until then, I had been brought up on a diet of Elmore Leonard, George G. Gilman, Laurence James, Angus Wells, John Harvey, and Louis L’Amour. So if you ask where my influences came from, that’s the answer.

And not a lot of people know this: With Dave Whitehead and his father, we actually made some homemade 8mm Western movies in the exotic location of Snaresbrook, an area of Essex that had some sand dunes and forests which we passed off as “the West.” We had the guns (good old Daisy replicas), the gear (our mum’s boots), but never a horse between us. And guess who was the one who usually got shot?

AK: What of your books for children? How did they originate?

MS: Truthfully? By pure fluke. The gig for the [1997] non-fiction book, The Best-ever Book of the Wild West (The Wild West in the U.S.), was offered to Angus Wells. At that time, he was no longer into Westerns but sci-fi, and he told the editor to contact me. She called and we had a chat, then I got invited to the office to bounce around ideas. She liked what I had to say and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

The book took a year to complete, as I also had to approve artwork and layout. One of the nicest things was getting a letter from the U.S. consultant, who was Dee (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) Brown, saying what a great job I had done on the book. In fact, it won an award in 1998 for the Notable Children’s Trade Book in the Field of Social Studies.

After that came Step Into the World of the Native American Indian [1999]. For this one, I did not have the luxury of a year’s work, but rather it had to be turned around within six weeks. It was very intensive and focused the mind. But I hit the deadline with a few days to spare. This has since appeared in around eight different part works.

AK: So short stories weren’t your first published work?

MS: Short stories came after I’d been published elsewhere. They can be found in various anthologies, ranging from Best of the American West, Vols. I & II, Future Crimes, Desperadoes, The Fatal Frontier, The Mammoth Book of Jacobean Whodunnits, The Mammoth Book of the Roaring Twenties Whodunnits, Texas Rangers, and A Treasury of Cat Mysteries. And any of the above can be found in [the collections] Six Trails West and Six Red Herrings.

AK: Do you think that growth in the number and variety of electronic books will result in a revival of the short story?

MS: Throughout our education and in popular culture, the notion that if it’s not recorded on paper, it doesn’t count, has incredibly influenced our collective habits--habits that take time to change. The e-book has its own following and I cannot see it killing off printed books, and I do believe that short-story collections will benefit from the medium.

AK: Can you tell us something more about your collection of crime-fiction short stories, Six Red Herrings?

MS: That collection came about because I had published Six Trails West, so it seemed a natural progression to gather some of my previously published crime short stories, and a couple that hadn’t seen the light of day, and put them into one anthology. Also, I decided to order them in a historical timeline. So the first story, “Two Sides,” is set during Oliver Cromwell’s reign, then comes “Kiss the Razor’s Edge,” a story of East End gangsters set in the 1920s, though to a dystopian view of London.

AK: How hard was it to re-edit and format these stories for the Kindle?

MS: Once you get the format down, it’s quite simple, but you’ve still got to be careful to copy-edit, as some minor and bloody silly errors do creep in. I think I was more aware of getting the technical side of it right, as basically I am the publisher. There are no hard and fast rules for Kindle. You can throw up any old shite and get it out there, but I wanted to do a good job on it. That even included the covers, which I designed. It also gave me the opportunity to do a touch of rewriting. You know as well as I do that our style changes over the years, and looking at the very first story made me cringe. Being able to go in and give it a little tweak here and there was quite satisfying.

AK: Tell us about your relationship with author-editor Ed Gorman and the late editor, Martin H. Greenberg?

MS: It was Ed who first asked me for a short story going into a [1998] Western anthology titled The Fatal Frontier. I asked when he wanted it by and he replied, “last week.” So I cheated, and gave him a couple of chapters from McKinney’s Revenge that were self-contained. The very first one he actually commissioned was a mystery involving cats with the guideline of something like: a very British mystery, cozy even, but there must be a cat at the heart of it. Thank God he didn’t want the animal to talk as well. So I wrote “Bubastis,” with its core in Egyptian folklore. After that I would hear from him with requests for more stories going into other anthologies, mainly Westerns.

AK: You mentioned that Detroit-area writer Elmore “Dutch” Leonard was a great influence on your work. But can you tell us about what happened when you finally met him for the first time, and when he realized that you too wrote Westerns?

MS: That was a fantastic evening. To meet Dutch on a very rare visit to London was an honor. He was the recipient of the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger in May 2006. I fought the crowds and managed to grab five minutes with Dutch, and I told him that he was my inspiration in writing Westerns, and he was genuinely pleased. I also had with me a hardback copy of The Fatal Frontier ... I asked Dutch to sign it for me. He took a look at the cover, and said, “This is an odd one.” I replied, “It’s the first anthology in which I have a story published alongside you.” He laughed and said, “Well, a Brit Western writer. Well done.” The rest of our conversation was spent talking about the importance of characters’ names and getting their clothing right. “If the name doesn’t fit, he doesn’t talk to me,” [Elmore] explained. We shook hands and said good-bye. In parting, he said, “Keep writing those Westerns.” What more can I say to that?

AK: Tell us about your Western protagonist, Thadius McKinney.

MS: The first novel is set post-Civil War and McKinney is your average ranch hand, who returns from a drive to find his wife in the arms of his employer. The question I had to ask is, What would he do? He is not a killer--yes, he did kill men when he was in the war, but could he act in cold blood? The answer was no, but he does maim the ranch owner and goes on the run. He is just an ordinary man, once full of dreams that have been dashed by a single act of betrayal.

In the back of my mind I had always remembered a piece of advice that [author] Arthur Hailey gave me during an interview. He said that above his desk he had one word printed on a banner: CONFLICT. Whether the conflict is internal or externalized, everything revolves around the word or action. So I just kept throwing McKinney into different scenarios, just to see how he would react. The ending [of McKinney’s Revenge] is a bit dark but I couldn’t see any other way for the outcome other than to be stark and realistic. And he does emerge a different character and more is shown in McKinney’s Law [1993].

AK: So McKinney returns after taking his revenge?

MS: Oh, he does return in McKinney’s Law, but there is a long gap between that and the latest, McKinney’s War or McKinney’s Range--not quite decided on the final title. (The first draft has been completed, but obviously needs work.)

There was a period of time which was the darkest of my life: I lost both parents within eight months of each other, and I went through a health scare. So writing wasn’t right up there [in terms of priorities]. I couldn’t string two sentences together; really couldn’t care less about Shots, you know what I mean? But thanks to some fantastic support from my family and friends, like your good self, it saw me through some of those Black Dog Days. And about halfway through last year, things seemed to pick up and I could hear my parents telling me to get writing again. They were so proud of what I had already achieved, I just couldn’t ignore them, could I?

AK: To what do you attribute the fact that Western fiction is now thought of as a cultish genre than part of mainstream fiction?

MS: It’s something that I’ve spoken to fellow Western writer Ed Gorman on, and he said, “I heard an explanation recently for the demise of the Western that made sense to me. We’re no longer an agrarian society. The land holds no romance for us. And something I said 20 years ago in an anthology (and I believe I was quoting [Dashiell] Hammett): the cop is a cowboy brought to the city. Westerns are barely alive in any fashion over here.” So the lure of the open plains has been replaced with the dark alleys of the city.

Of course there are still fans of Westerns out there, and it’s more of a niche area nowadays. But authors such as Robert J. Randisi are still working in the genre, and also you’ve got Elmore Leonard, who recently said to me that his next novel will be an expanded version of The Tonto Woman. So he hasn’t abandoned the genre. In fact, his TV series Justified is a Western set in modern day. Western fiction--well, this is my opinion--will never be up there at the top again. Western films and TV, on the other hand, will always find an audience. Look how popular Deadwood was, and I hear they’ve produced for TV Hell on Wheels, which tells of the Union Pacific Railroad’s westward construction of the first transcontinental railroad. There may be a little peak of interest when that comes out. Who can tell these days?

In the UK there is only one publisher with Westerns on its list and that’s Robert Hale, with their Black Horse Western imprint. It’s still going strong, with the majority of the print run going to libraries. PLR [Public Lending Right] figures show that the genre is more popular than science fiction.

AK: You have been involved for many years with the British Crime Writers’ Association and are currently the Dagger liaison officer. How did you get involved with the CWA, and what exactly are the duties of a Dagger liaison officer?

MS: I joined back in the early ’90s as an associate member, as I was writing for Mystery Scene and Mystery Review as well as A Shot in the Dark. Then I was selected as a judge for the Gold and Silver Dagger (as it was then in old money), and also I served as a judge on the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. For the last three years I have been on the CWA committee in the role of Dagger liaison officer. Basically, the job provides a continuity of contact for the publishers in the run-up to the [annual] awards [presentation]. I am responsible for keeping up to date with changes with the publishers, updating the CWA database, fielding questions on rules ..., arranging judging lunches and the impartial observers. That’s it in a nutshell.

AK: I know Shots was born out of the 1995 Bouchercon in Nottingham, England, but can you give us some details of its inception?

MS: We’ve got to go back to 1993 for this answer. Peter Lovesey, who was preparing the fringe events for the 1994 Shots on the Page Conference, said that there should be a workshop devoted to crime-fiction magazines, which in the UK at the time was limited to CADS. Back in the day, there was a coterie of crime-fiction readers in and around the Peak District, headed up by Bob Cartwright, that became transformed into the Shot in the Dark Collective. Peter suggested to Bob that he should get a dummy out in time for the conference. They produced a couple of hundred copies of that edition, most of which were given out free at the Shots on the Page Conference, and thus A Shot in the Dark ... came into being.

I took over some time later and it evolved into Shots, a glossy A4 quarterly magazine. Increasingly, editing and publishing the magazine was proving a problem. It was requiring more and more of my time, and my skills with [desktop publishing weren’t] that great. And once, I was involved in an attempted mugging on my way to [see] Jim Driver (ex-editor at The Do-Not Press), who assisted with the [publishing]. ...

So when the Internet came along, I thought that it would be a better platform for Shots.

AK: And when Shots went online, that was when I joined to help. So tell us how much work goes into keeping that e-zine alive.

MS: One thing I must point out, and that’s that Shots is a collective. I may well be the editor-in-chief, but I consider myself rather like the conductor of an orchestra; my band being made up of a group of like-minded players who are as enthusiastic about the crime genre as I am. Without them, Shots is nothing. So take a well-deserved bow:
Ali Karim, Ayo Onatade, Mike Ripley, Kirstie Long, Richard Orchard, Liz Hatherell, and every single reviewer and contributor.

(Left) Friends Mike Stotter and Ali Karim attend the 2010 CrimeFest in Bristol

The workload is very time-consuming, especially when you consider that every one of us have day-jobs as well. Personally, I work on the site every day and the time involved varies. There is no average day for me. I am constantly thinking of editorial content and how to improve the site. The biggest change happened in April 2011 [when the site was redesigned], and that was after a year’s worth of work behind the scenes. I think it’s cleaner, easier to navigate, and people seem to like it.

AK: What are you writing currently?

MS: After McKinney’s Range there will be a standalone Western called Winter’s Blood. A couple of other writing projects [are] on the back burner, including a novel started with this interviewer (in other words--get your finger out, AK). And perhaps, just perhaps, the scripts for a period TV drama series.

AK: We had a really great time at Bouchercon St. Louis back in September. But can you share with Rap Sheet readers some of your favorite memories from that event?

MS: The question is, can I remember it? God, there were so many good things happening. Meeting old friends, putting faces to those I’ve e-mailed over the years, making new friends. Drinking in the bar. Rubbing shoulders with Bob Crais who, despite Shots covering him for years, I had never met in person. Drinking in the bar. Partying. Attending some great panels. Surreal moments like me going down the escalator, Mark Billingham going the other way, and both saying “hi.” We’re thousands of miles from home, in a foreign city, and it’s like we were passing each other in town. Drinking in the bar ...

One day will particularly stay with me, and that was on the last Sunday when I met my pen-friend’s daughter some 32 years on. Sadly, her mum had died of a brain hemorrhage a couple of years back, but Shannon got in touch to tell me and we’ve e-mailed each other since then. I spent the day with her and her fiancé, Josh, and in the evening threw them in at the deep end and introduced them to you, Roger Ellory, Matt Hilton, Adrian Magson, and Jeff Pierce. How the poor girl coped with it I’ll never know, but she did herself proud.

AK: Finally, is Knob Creek still your drink of choice or have you been converted to Bombay Sapphire?

MS: We’ve spent too much time together--you know all my foibles! (And can I have them back now, please?) I did enjoy Knob Creek right up until the point during ThrillerFest 2007 when Vince Flynn thought I was carrying around a urine sample! No amount of my saying that the ice had turned it a weird color would change his mind. It’s got to be the Sapphire nowadays, but I don’t mind a drop or three of a fine malt whiskey thrown in for good measure.

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to have a chat and get a word in edgeways. And to finish off, perhaps a chorus of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” is in order? No? OK, I won’t inflict that upon you.


Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Fascinating interview - enjoyed that

ktford said...

Wonderful, fine interview!!