Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Tom Rizzo’s West


Tom Rizzo
By Kathleen Rice Adams

Tom Rizzo writes westerns — good ones, with traditional action aplenty and, so far, romantic elements that play significant roles in the story. He writes westerns so well, in fact, that his debut novel, Last Stand at Bitter Creek, was among the nominees for the 2013 Peacemaker Awards, in the Best Western First Novel category.

The man bears watching, not only because he’s a rising voice in the genre, but also because of the level of historical detail he incorporates into his work. Rizzo loosely based Last Stand at Bitter Creek on a little-known theft of valuable documents during the Civil War. The resulting action-adventure tale reads a bit like Louis L’Amour dressed National Treasure and Robert Ludlum’s Bourne novels in six guns and denim.

Though Rizzo presents his tales from the male point of view, his female characters clearly are more than stereotypical damsels in need of rescue by a hard-bitten cowboy. Rizzo’s women think, they act, and they help drive the plot.

Like many other former journalists, Rizzo arrived on fiction’s doorstep later in life. His interests are broad, from mystery and crime to thriller and science fiction. He could have attacked any of those genres; yet, he chose to write historical westerns despite conventional wisdom saying “the western is dead.”

According to Rizzo, it’s only wounded.

Why westerns?

Tom Rizzo: Westerns represent such a rich legacy of American history. I grew up in the Midwest, small-town America. Like others, my introduction to westerns came from black-and-white movies. The plots were basic, simple, and straightforward in most cases, but it was the sense of adventure that attracted me.

Then, I began to read various authors and became impressed with their realistic visions and interpretations of the frontier. As much as anything, however, it was the physical beauty of the West that captured my attention and fired my imagination. The language of the West is its landscape — a visual poetry of mountains, rivers, streams, and deserts, rolling hills, and the sky.

Most authors who write in the genre grit their teeth every time they hear “westerns don’t sell” or “the western is dead.” Judging by the number of authors who continue to write westerns, though, a funeral may be just a tad premature. What would you like people who insist on consigning westerns to Boot Hill to know?

I think, at times, there’s sort of a Neanderthal mindset about westerns. Not from the readers’ viewpoint, but from that of literary agents and publishers. It’s as if they’re standing wild-eyed, brandishing a garlic ring and crucifix in an attempt to ward off the evil western writer who wants to foster the traditional shoot-’em-up, cowboy-and-Indian story.

As you know, this type of thinking is downwind of reality. This genre accommodates a number of sub-genres. Westerns, in fact, represent historical adventures, historical mysteries, historical thrillers, historical romances, and even historical horror and fantasy.

Perhaps there’s a marketing disconnect. We have to do a better job of attracting readers who haven’t yet tested the waters.

One of the common laments we hear within the admittedly aging community of western historical writers is that the traditional market for westerns is aging, too. Some see attracting younger readers as the key to keeping the genre alive, but no one seems quite sure how to go about that. Got any ideas?

Why don’t you just put me on the spot? A great question with no easy answer.

Some writers — Dale B. Jackson , JR Sanders, and Cheryl Pierson come to mind — have written novels aimed at the young adult and have done very well with those books. That could be a way to lure younger readers into sticking with the genre as they age.

At the same time, I think it comes down to an old-fashioned sales and marketing strategy in developing a message aimed at convincing younger readers to at least try the product. Westerns are not only great tales of adventures, but also wonderful resources of American history.

Traditional westerns often include a conspicuous romantic component, although many traditional western writers — especially men — are hesitant to call their stories “romances.” Your short story “A Fire in Brimstone” uses a romance between the sheriff and a café owner to propel the plot, and a case could be made for the story’s conclusion meeting the happily-ever-after-ending requirement of the romance genre. Where do you draw the line between “western” and “western romance”?

I don’t know that I could draw a line between the two — at least consciously. When I wrote “A Fire in Brimstone,” the term “western romance” wasn’t top-of-mind — or any other term, for that matter. The romantic attraction between the two characters seemed, at least to me, a natural component of the story.

Sometimes labels get in the way of good storytelling. I think most writers have of an umbrella goal in mind when they write. For example, no matter what the plot, I try to present characters in conflict — either with one another or with their own emotions — who face adversity and are striving for some level of justice or redemption.

You’re fond of a variety of genres from western to science fiction, noir, mystery, and political thriller. Do you find your eclectic tastes coming together in your work, intentionally or otherwise? How difficult is it to make all those influences work together?

What I find remarkable about the structure of the western is the ability to weave in varied sub-genres without sacrificing the concept of a true western. The difficulty, of course, depends on the intricacy of the plot or storyline.

The western can easily accommodate mystery, noir, and political thrillers. Science fiction, as well, but that would be a bit of stretch for me.

On your blog, you devote significant virtual ink to exposing some of the lesser-known scoundrels of the Old West — outlaws and wannabes alike. In fact, you’ve published a non-fiction book, Heroes & Rogues, containing profiles of some of the not-quite-notorious baddies and their not-quite-famous adversaries. To what do you attribute this fascination with villainy?

I think it goes back to my childhood. When my brothers and the neighborhood kids played so-called cowboys and outlaws, I was the first to volunteer to play the outlaw. They couldn’t understand why. But, I always felt an incredible amount of freedom in such a role. No rules to follow. No warning anyone what you were about to do. No decorum to maintain. The freedom to be devious, sneaky, and hide anywhere you could — as long as you stayed in the neighborhood and didn’t climb into Mr. Quinn’s Bing cherry tree to hide, because Mr. Quinn would shoot you.

It’s fascinating to me how many men wore a badge and then turned outlaw. Or kept the badge and played outlaw anyway. It amazes me how many of them would switch back and forth. Many — or most — of those who did ride the outlaw trail led very short lives, on average.

If you had lived in the Old West, when and where would you have taken up residence, and what line of work would you have pursued?

Wyoming, I think, would be a great place to live. Spacious. Beautiful. I would have been happy to live in a small-but-growing town and run the local newspaper. Newspaper editors, as you know, weren’t worth their salt unless they raised a little hell. And that would be fun, as long as you didn’t have to be fast with a gun.


Find Tom Rizzo online at TomRizzo.com, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. His Amazon author page offers a listing of his books.



25 comments:

  1. Tom, we're so glad you joined us at SotW today. Not every man is that brave. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Tom's storytelling is excellent. I'm a little surprised to learn that he always wanted to be the outlaw though. Well, maybe a romantic outlaw!:)

    ReplyDelete
  3. LOL, Larry! I was not all surprised by Mr. Rizzo's outlaw aspirations. Just look at those shifty eyes. ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for inviting me, Kathleen. I welcome the opportunity to mingle Sweethearts.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Larry, I've never considered the romantic outlaw route, but maybe opportunity awaits.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You're a fascinating man, Mr. Rizzo! I, too, wish we could just "write the story" without having to follow too many particulars designed to attract a certain crowd of readers. I say I read many "plain old Westerns," and you realize I only mean that in a complimentary way. I did not read romance novels at all..just Westerns until I accidentally read one that happened to be written by a romance author. Then..aha--I can have the best of both worlds, although I still look for that special Plain Old Western.
    My grandfather on my mother's side read them by the truckload when he stopped working. They were small paperbacks and he'd roll the left side of the book under to hold it with one hand. As he became more and more demented and almost blind, he's still hold that book--often upside down--maybe for comfort? I don't know, but it's am image firmly in my memory.
    Thanks so much for visiting the Sweethearts.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Tom, I love westerns. I've read a lot of Louis L'Amour and Elmer Kelton. As a child, I always got a gun and holster for Christmas and we rode stick horses. And, oh, if we were lucky enough to have a Cap Gun with Caps, we were in high cotton.

    I write time travel western historicals and am having a wonderful timegg. My problem is I stray on occasion to other Genres even when I know I should be writing tt.

    Thank you for joining us today. I'll be looking for Last Stand at Bitter Creek.

    ReplyDelete
  8. HI Celia--That's a great image of your grandfather keeping a tight grip on his paperback despite his health. I think you're right. It must have provided some comfort, or a safety zone of familiarity. As you suggest, sometimes it seems that marketing has trumped storytelling--at least in some ways. Instead of hearing people say, "That was a great___(fill in the blank), it would be nice to hear, simply, "That was a great story." Thanks for inviting me to visit the Sweethearts.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Linda--Thanks for stopping by. Had the cap gun and holster, but missed out on the stick horse. Time-travel westerns sound as if they 'd be a fun read. I'll give it a go.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Linda--Thanks for stopping by. Had the cap gun and holster, but missed out on the stick horse. Time-travel westerns sound as if they 'd be a fun read. I'll give it a go.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Tom, great interview. I always enjoy learning more about my friends and fellow writers. Thanks so much for the mention. I DO feel like maybe the answer to bringing younger readers of westerns "on board" means the creation of some new reading material for them. And hopefully, that'll be key in getting a whole new crop of readers of the western genre, no matter what age. Excellent interview! I have Last Stand but have not started it yet--soon, though. I'm looking forward to it!
    Cheryl

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Tom, it's nice to meet you. I'm glad you don't draw a conscious line between traditional westerns and western romance. I don't think there should be any line between the two. Sure wish western review sites would see it that way.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I agree with you about the state of Wyoming, Tom. What a beautiful place with its wide open spaces.
    Westerns are such a part of the American spirit, I wish they were more appreciated by the literary powers that be.
    I enjoyed reading your interview and learning a little bit more about you.
    All good things to your corner of the universe.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Cheryl, Thanks for popping in. You're definitely on to something in an effort to appeal to younger readers. The tick, of course, is creating the kind of stories that grab their attention and keeps 'em coming back. A big challenge that keeps us on our toes.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi Lyn, it would be nice if review sites based their observations and conclusions on the strength of the STORY. But the line you allude to is pretty deep. Thanks for visiting.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Sarah--The first time I drove into the Bighorn Mountains I was hooked. We all share your view of Westerns attracting more appreciation by the "literary powers." Many thanks for your comments from my small corner of the universe.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Great interview Kathleen and Tom!

    I agree with you, Tom on the disconnect between readers and the Western. When I was younger, I suffered from that disconnect. My Dad loved reading and watching Westerns and therefore it seemed like an older person's genre. But once I read one of his Louis L'Amour books I was hooked. I'm not a marketing major, but I hope someone who is can come up with a way to get Westerns into younger hands. Like me, I think they'd find Westerns are like potato chips once you start you can't stop.

    I also agree with you that Westerns are so much more than two men meeting with six-guns at high noon. They can incorporate so many sub-genres and they all meld like the many cultures that came West in the early days.

    One more thing, I wholeheartedly agree with you on living in Wyoming. But I might be just a tad biased. :-)

    --Kirsten

    ReplyDelete
  18. Tom, I love your interview and appreciate you taking time to share with us. Please come back again. Or, as we say in Texas, "Y'all come back now, ya hear?"

    ReplyDelete
  19. Kirsten-There a few among this group who are making efforts to get Westerns into the hands of younger readers. Love your analogy of Westerns to potato chips. Somehow, I'm not surprised at bias about Wyoming.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Caroline, it was a pleasure to visit Sweethearts of the West. I'm honored I was asked. Kathleen asks great questions to squeeze stuff out of the quizee. I'd love to return anytime. Thanks so much for all those who participated.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Hi, Tom. You were interviewed by one of the best and managed to live to tell the tale. :) I enjoy your writing, both fiction and non-fiction. You have a terrific blog and I try to make it over there ever chance I get. Best of luck to you!

    ReplyDelete
  22. BTW, I think you'd make a wonderfully devious outlaw who'd charm all the ladies.

    ReplyDelete

  23. Jacquie--She is one of the best grillers around. I have this vision of sitting in a small chair under a bright, hot light with her towering over me barking questions. Not a pretty sight. and always reminds me and sauteerHi, Tom. Thanks for being one of my loyal blog followers. Always nice to hear from you. Me a devious outlaw who would charm all the ladies? Hmmm...I must admit the idea has some appeal. Maybe a story idea for LInda LaRoque..lol.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Tom, thank you again for spending time with the Sweethearts today. Despite your villainous tendencies, you're a darlin'. :-)

    ReplyDelete
  25. What a terrific interview. Tom Rizzo sounds like a fascinating man. Love a good western, and will be checking out his website.

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!