Brian Garfield Interview

Brian Garfield’s first published novel was written when he was just 18 years old. The book was called Range Justice, and it was the start of a long, exciting, and critically acclaimed career. Garfield’s bibliography is impressive not only in its diversity and quantity, but especially its quality. Western, Crime, Adventure, Suspense, Historical, War, Comedy, Biography, Espionage, Political Thrillers, and even a book on Western Cinema—Garfield has tackled them all with the same level of professionalism, attention to craft, and excellence. In 1976, his book Hopscotch won the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writer’s of America. Longtime readers of Garfield know that his is a name to trust.

While it was his suspense novels that first caught my attention—books like What of Terry Conniston? (a gripping caper about a rock band’s kidnapping-gone-wrong)—but it was his Westerns that made me a diehard fan. When Garfield writes about The West, he doesn’t rely on old gimmicks and stale characterizations. The characters feel fresh, and there’s a pulse to the stories, the same sort of driving energy you would find in one of Garfield’s more contemporary-set crime novels. Then there are novels like Relentless, The Threepersons Hunt, and Fear in a Handful of Dust, modern day Western Thrillers that are crackling with action and suspense.

Recently, Brian Garfield was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for Pulp Serenade.

Pulp Serenade: I read that Luke Short was an early mentor to you. How did you meet him, and what were some of the most important things you learned from him?

Brian Garfield: I met Fred ("Luke Short") Glidden in 1955 or thereabouts. He was mayor of Aspen, Colorado at the time and had a great office above the Post Office. He lived out in the woods on a very steep slope that overhung a river, and he could drop a fishing line from the porch right into the river. He loved to fish, but they had a home in Arizona, too.

He was a big man, kind and gentle. Even though I was a snotty teen-ager, he treated me as a guy rather than as a kid, and he was generous enough to criticize a few short stories I'd written. The most valuable advice he gave me over the next few years was, "Take out all the Western trappings. Your story should depend on characters and behavior. If it still works after you get rid of the clichés, it's a story."

PS: What other writers have influenced you?

BG: Writer influences? Lots of 'em. The usual ones -- Hemingway, O'Hara, Greene... If you want to write you've got to like to read. When I was a small kid, we lived down the road from Rex Stout (whom I met again years later in the Mystery Writers of America). His clean prose was a marvelous example. (Still is.) I liked Ernest Haycox's imagery and choice of words. (Still do.) I liked Hank ("Will Henry" / "Clay Fisher") Allen's energy and accuracy; he later became a friend. Growing up in Arizona, I met Western writers like Nelson Nye who were encouraging.

PS: Your website mentions you sold your first novel at 18. What was the book and how did you manage to sell it at such a young age?

BG: In 1957, at age eighteen, I wrote a Western and then went off to join the army. After I got out of uniform, Avalon Books bought the novel -- Range Justice. It was published in 1960 but had been written earlier. That was my first. Avalon was a publisher of formula-genre titles for the lending library market. It was a good place for me to do an apprenticeship, although the pay was very small. I don't know where a similar market exists today. Wish I could help, but I'm at a loss there.

PS: You published 11 Westerns for Ace in the 1960s, among them, The Night it Rained Bullets (one of my favorites of yours). How did you come to write for Ace, and do you have a favorite of those Westerns?

BG: I wrote the Jeremy Six novels because it seemed like a good idea at the time, although in retrospect the setting was too close to the Dodge City of Gunsmoke. I guess my favorite of them would be Big Country, Big Men, partly because it took Six away from Spanish Flat. I'd learned by then that if you liked to create new characters, you shouldn't write a series. (On the other hand, a series is lucrative.)

PS: Justice at Spanish Flat is an abridged version of Range Justice. Did you or Ace do the abridgement?

BG: The abridgement for the paperback was done by somebody at Ace, possibly Don Wollheim.

PS: How did you come up with the character of Sam Watchman and his two novels (Relentless and The Threepersons Hunt)?

BG: Sam Watchman was sort of based on a Navajo classmate of mine at the University of Arizona. He told stories and I listened. The second novel, The Threepersons Hunt, was triggered by a story he'd told me years earlier about a Navajo cop who'd been sent (as punishment) to solve some crime on the White Mountain Reservation, which of course was Apache -- i.e., enemy country. Soon after that we met Tony Hillerman, who was a lousy poker player but a great gentleman. Any thoughts I might've had about a Watchman series bowed to Tony; in any case I suspect I'd said all I had to say about Sam Watchman. (Meanwhile my college classmate ended up going to law school; last time I saw him he was an Assistant DA in Tucson.)

PS: How did you and Donald Westlake come to collaborate on Gangway and what was it like writing with him?

BG: I settled for a while in New York in 1965, got invited into a weekly poker game, and met some great writers there -- Larry Block and Don Westlake were the first; later came Ross Thomas, Bob Ludlum, Justin Scott, so forth. The agent who represented most of them was Henry Morrison, and he was a player in the game, too. One time, when Don W. and I were a bit bored with the same old same old, we decided to write a Western comedy together for the hell of it. Gangway was the result. It was great fun, but probably four times as much work as either of us would have done on a book of his own, because one of us would write it and then the other would expand it and then the other would fix it, so forth. We collaborated on other things as well -- the movie The Stepfather, for example. I wrote a screenplay for 20th Century Fox based on Don's "Richard Stark" novel Butcher's Moon, but it never got filmed. (That's the fate of most movie projects.)

PS: How did you come to work with the same editor as them?

BG: My old agent had died. Henry Morrison agreed to take me on, but only if I'd write something other than Westerns -- he felt they had too restricted an audience, no matter how good the books were. In some ways he was right; in others I think there's a lot of room for good fresh Westerns as long as they get away from the formula. It's a big part of our history, and there are aspects that have never been exploited. (Take for just one example the life of Bill Tilghman.) Henry is nearly 80 and not really agenting any more; he's been producing the "Jason Bourne" movies.

PS: What inspired you to create the character of Paul Benjamin for Death Wish and Death Sentence?

BG: The Paul Benjamin character was a sort of everyman to me. Impetus for the Death Wish story came one night in late 1971. At the time, I lived out along the Delaware River, near Lambertville NJ, and I'd driven into New York to go to a party at a publisher friend's. I parked on the street. When I came down I found that somebody had slashed the convertible top of the car to ribbons. It was about a two-hour drive home, and really cold, and I thought about finding the guy who'd slashed the roof. I never did find him, but the novel came out of it so I think I got the better of him.

PS: Did you have any inclination that he would be so enduring and controversial?

BG: No, I really didn't foresee that the story or the character would be enduring or controversial. When the movie was made in 1974, my wife and I went with Don Westlake to an advance screening, and we all felt it was just another Bronson action movie. The screenplay by Wendell Mayes (which is excellent) had been written for a different actor and director (Jack Lemmon, Sidney Lumet) and we were disappointed. Then I went off to Africa on a research trip and didn't hear much of anything about it until later in the summer when it hit the fan. It was a surprise.

PS: Of all the movies made of your work, which one do you think is the best and why?

BG: At the moment I think I've had something like 20 movies made. A few are bad, most are routine. I especially like The Stepfather but my real favorite is Hopscotch. By coincidence, perhaps, or purely out of ego, I was one of the writers and producers on both films. Hopscotch works because everybody connected with it was having a very good day. I worked with the crew and I loved the cast, the director, the whole shebang.

PS: How much research do you do when you are writing a Western?

BG: Research? Sometimes. If it's a specific novel about a specific subject (the Wild West Shows and shooting contests for Wild Times, or the early ranch life of Theodore Roosevelt for Manifest Destiny) I enjoy the research, and do a lot of it. If it's one of the older Westerns, mainly I relied on my own background as a chore-boy and teen-age cowhand, and used the Western formula for the rest; that's why their stories are so predictable. A couple of early Western novels (The Vanquished, The Lawbringers) required research, and I always love doing it.

PS: I loved reading about Boag, the main character in Tripwire. Did you ever consider turning him into a series character and continuing his story?

BG: No, I didn't think of Boag as a series character, but he's one of my favorites, too. We're still trying to get things together to make it into a movie.

PS: I was really impressed by all the survival skills in Fear and a Handful of Dust. Did you learn these first-hand, or how did you research them?

BG: Fear in a Handful of Dust does not contain a lot of stunts I actually tried. I heard about them and read about them quite a bit before writing the book. It too became a movie (Fleshburn), not too bad in view of its tiny budget.

PS: There are two collections of your short stories that I know of – Checkpoint Charlie and Suspended Sentences. Is there a plan to release another collection of your stories in the future, or maybe a complete bibliography on your website for collectors to track them down individually?

BG: Those two short story collections you list are the only ones to date. I'm trying to get a collection of Western short stories published. To me, short stories take less time but are often harder to write than novels (there's no room to mess around).

PS: What is the biggest change, positive or negative, that you’ve seen in the publishing industry since you started writing?

BG: Publishing today - what a can of worms. The Internet has changed everything. That's the big change, of course, and publishers of all kinds are still trying to figure out how to deal with it. Therefore so are authors. Wish I had much wisdom to offer, but the field has a lot of gopher holes in it. Your guess may be better than mine.

PS: Do you have a favorite of your own books?

BG: Do I have a favorite of my own books? Several, I suppose; it's like asking "which of your children is your favorite". For different reasons I'd put at the top of the list Kolchak's Gold, The Meinertzhagen Mystery, Hopscotch, Wild Times and The Thousand-Mile War. Two have been filmed (Hopscotch and Wild Times).

PS: What projects are you working on now that readers can look forward to in the near future?

BG: The new novel, which I'm still working on, is a sort of thriller. I hope it'll be out next year but am so ignorant of the publishing situation today that I can't promise a thing. Wish I could (for my own sake as well as yours and others').

PS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to write something in the Western genre?

BG: Advice? Keep writing and keep making and using contacts -- eventually, if it's a good story well told, it'll find its way to readers or an audience or both. The details and the pitfalls keep changing, however. You might be better off consulting a younger writer, since I learned most of my storytelling and marketing skills too long ago. Find someone closer to the current marketplace. It really won't help you to learn how I sold my first "real" novel to a "real" publisher -- he died years ago, and I have no idea who's there now or even if there's a "there" there. Since you live in Brooklyn, I'd suggest you pick the publishers who publish the current books that you like to read. Call that publisher, and ask which literary agents they recommend. This may be a way to find an opening.


  1. What a fine interview; Brian Garfield is one of my favorite writers. He can do just about anything and do it well.

  2. Garfield says "If you want to write you've got to like to read". That is so true and often I get the impression that many writers do NOT like to read.

    My favorite Garfield book is his excellent reference work, WESTERN FILMS. For 30 years I've been checking off the westerns as I watch them. By his entries I put the date viewed, my grade, and often a comment about his review, etc. It is the best encylopedia on the A western and the funny thing is that Garfield is very tough on the movies. Very critical and most of the A westerns he finds fault with; but when he has good things to say about a film, you can count on it being a good movie.

    I would love to see an updated edition of WESTERN FILMS.

  3. I am one of many who would love to read a collection of your Western short stories.

  4. Excellent interview. Would love to know more about the BUTCHER'S MOON project.

  5. Garfield's talents as a writer add depth and insight to a field often replete with cliche.


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