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Larry Sweazy is one of those authors linked to the journeyman writers from the genre world. He has written in many genres, not only putting an attention to craft, but finding new stories and characters in whatever category he takes on. It can be seen in his collection, A Cow Hunter's Lament that focuses on his western short fiction. Larry was kind enough to take some questions about his approach to the genre and the art of short fiction.

SCOTT MONTGOMERY: The biggest takeaway I got from the stories is how you don't stay in one place or period. Is there a reason for the literary roaming?

LARRY D. SWEAZY: One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read in a writer’s how-to book comes from Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer. McCann says a writer should, “Read promiscuously.” I like that because my reading tastes have always been erratic. I bounce from science fiction to PI (private investigator) novels to literary fiction to poetry collections and on and on. If I read promiscuously then I can’t help but to write promiscuously. I’m interested in more than one genre, more than one way to tell a story, and more than one voice to tell that story. I’ve always bristled at the idea that a western is nothing but a white hat, black hat conflict. Or a mystery is nothing but a potboiler of an investigation. Or a romance is nothing more than a happily-ever-after story. I can respect genre and their tropes, but I don’t want to read the same story every time from my favorite authors. I want new adventures. The same when I’m writing. I don’t want to write the same story over and over. I would be bored. And If I’m bored as a writer, then how can my readers not be bored?

S.M.: Is there a certain time or place you'd like to match a story with that you haven't already?

L.D.S.: I have some ideas for the Revolutionary War and World War II. And as odd as it may seem, I haven’t worked in the present much, so modern-day stories appeal to me, too.

S.M.: Three of the stories feature characters that ended up in a book series. Do you use a short story to test run a character or do you see the long form potential for a lead character once you've had them in a short form?

L.D.S.: I do use short stories to test run characters. Marjorie Trumaine, my relentless farmer’s wife/back-book-indexer/amateur sleuth started out with this sentence, “I saw a plume of dust through the window over my desk, and something told me trouble was heading my way,” and I thought, oh, I can’t do that. And then I thought about it a little longer and my mind went directly to Charles Portis and True Grit. I thought some more, until I decided that the short story was a good place for a creative challenge that became a Marjorie Trumaine’s story: could I write first-person female and pull it off successfully. I was encouraged enough to expand that story into a novel and eventually a three-book series. Josiah Wolfe, Sonny Burton, and Trusty Dawson all came to me in short story form first with a challenge of some kind. Can I write a traditional western? Can I write from an amputee’s POV? Can I write about identity and self-worth in a western? Short stories really give me a safe place to play and experiment in a way a novel can’t.

S.M.: One of my favorites in the collection is "The Longest Night", a horror western featuring the characters of Blanchard East and his more capable native companion. Do you have any interest in turning them into series characters?

L.D.S: I really liked the dynamic between East and the Indian. I could see this story becoming more than it is, especially a blend of two genres, which I enjoy writing. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see what’s next. This might be a case where a short story stays a short story. Though I really think I could tackle vampire western and have some fun with it.

S.M.: In that story, like A Thousand Falling Crows, one of the POVs come from animals. What do you think that element brings to the story when you can utilize it?

The original idea here was for the crows to act as a Greek Chorus. I really felt like this story had all the elements of a Greek Tragedy and I wanted to structure it that way if I could. The crows seemed to be the right element, but I didn’t want to beat the reader over the head with the Greek Chorus idea. I think the crows’ POV was a risk, and I like to do that, take a narrative risk in a book that I think adds to the story. It’s not a gimmick or a crutch, but another one of those, “oh you can’t do this,” conversations with my artist self, and then I decide, why not? This story needed a Greek Chorus and that’s how it’s going to be, someone will buy it or they won’t (I didn’t have a contract when I wrote it). The chorus was the more interesting element to me as writer. I should add that I know a crow and see him weekly. He lives as an education bird with some friends of mine who are bird rehabbers, and I believe he communicates and has language capabilities—he squawks in specific way when I walk in the door and I answer him back and we proceed to have a conversation—so I was inspired by a real crow to write that part of the story. I’m not sure I would have done that without having a relationship with a crow.

S.M.: You also contributed the story "Crossing The Sun" in the anthology Fortitude. It follows the journey of a young man's search for his father in 1853. How did you approach the story for what would normally set up an epic novel in a story that's under twenty pages?

L..D.S.: You hit the nail on the head. I really wanted that story to have an epic feel to it. I had to build it using images and ideas that readers are familiar with and trust them to fill in the rest. Most of us have assumptions about life on a wagon train and an image library that we have accumulated from years of watching TV and movies and reading books. It was the cloak of a quest wrapped around a mystery. Every word had to count and it had to move from place to another with meaning. I felt like the scope of the story was the challenge in writing this one.

S.M.: What do you enjoy about the short form?

L.D.S.: I love the constraint. The demand to use every word to advance the story. I like that I don’t have room for an evolution of character, but a revelation of character. And plot. Everything hinges on that reveal in the plot, that O’Henry turn, which still works because it is a crucial part of the form as far as I’m concerned. I’ve already said this, but short stories are a safe place for me to play and experiment, all the while learning more and more what I can and can’t do. I love the challenge of creating an epic feel in twenty pages or being able to switch gender voices. Or taking a risk with POV without having to spend a year and writing three hundred pages to do it, to find out if the challenge is successful (which means the story works for me). The world on the page, as it turns out, is my oyster, and I want to explore and play in it as much as possible. I want time travel backward and forward. But more than anything, I want to fully engage my imagination as an artist and find my limitations as a writer and I think a short story is the perfect place to do that.


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