One of our most treasured friends in Montana is Richard S. Wheeler, an author of impeccable grace and almost unbelievable output. Over a 40-plus year career as a novelist, he's published more than 80 titles.
In recent months, he has re-released his memoir, An Accidental Novelist, which we find to be a most remarkable book. In it, Richard writes vividly and honestly and lovingly about the writing life, including his marriage to Sue Hart, a longtime professor at Montana State University Billings who had a profound influence on Craig. (Click here for the remarks Craig gave at her memorial service in 2014.)
Richard is a wonderful writer. More important, he's a stellar human being. We're thrilled to share this Q&A that Craig conducted with him.
You recently released a new edition of your memoir, AN ACCIDENTAL NOVELIST. Did you do any revising/updating from the version that was originally published 10 years ago?
Only a new dedication to my late wife, Sue, including her birth and death dates, but I didn't make any text changes about our late-life marriage.
You write vividly of past professional lives—journalist, book editor, ranch hand, etc. How did those things prepare you for the writer's life?
Hemingway considered journalism a form of literary apprenticeship, and so do I. Book editing gave me critical insights into the art of writing. But most importantly, my forays into other occupations, such as wrangling horses, opened the real world to me. The worst thing a future writer can do is hang around literary circles. Go spend a day witching water in drylands, and write about it.
In your experience, how much do nature and nurturing come to bear in the development of a writer? Do you consider yourself innately talented or did you become what you are?
I have few natural skills as a storyteller and had to learn all that from the roots up. Attending genre fiction conventions helped. My mother had been an English teacher, and I did absorb some grammar. There's no one route to success. Each person needs to cobble together the gifts and habits that will help conquer a difficult and competitive field. I consider Jack London's life an example of shaping a career out of what you're born with.
One of my favorite parts of the book delves into how you and your late, deeply loved wife, Sue Hart, came to the decision to marry and how to live as married people. How did the two of you make that work?
Distance and sovereignty. We had separate homes, careers and incomes, but in common a love of writing, literature, and tastes. We'd known each other for decades, but by the time we talked of marriage we were old and didn't want to build anew, like young couples. So we lived separate lives, and each meeting was a honeymoon.
You're an astute commentator on how publishing used to be vs. what it is now. What's your advice to a nascent writer?
Go with the new. I can offer nothing of value to aspiring writers. My world is now history. Five minutes with you would help an aspiring writer more than an entire book from me. I do have one prejudice, though: steer clear of all master of fine arts education. And in particular, avoid all MFA orthodoxy.
You made your reputation and your living as a writer of genre fiction, which is a world apart from the literary-fiction sensibility that dominates most university settings. Have you made peace with that lack of critical recognition, and if so, how?
I used to grumble at academics. I was ready to show them genre novels that contained every quality ascribed to literary fiction. But recently I've concluded that literary and popular fiction are two different worlds. They appeal to different types of readers, and each has its strengths and weaknesses. Where did that lead me? I quit being embarrassed about being an author of popular fiction, and I no longer cared whether critics and academics consigned my writing to oblivion. I reach people who are bored by literary novels. That's a happy place to be at the end of my life.
You read widely. What do you make of today's fiction?
I can't generalize here. I'm seeing some of the best fiction I've read in years, and the best of it doesn't pigeonhole as literary or popular. Someone's written a compelling story. And yes, I'm talking about your work.
What's your own assessment of the career you've had?
I earned a living in a field where almost no one does.
Read more about Richard at his Wikipedia entry.
His considerable backlist can be found here.
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