One woman here at the Western Writers of America 29th annual convention said she writes "personality articles on horses." Another said: "My speciality is place names. I have a new book coming out on Montana place names."
The big names in western writing--such as Louis L'Amour and Edward Abbey and Matt Braun--weren't here this week. A surprising number of the 160 of the organization's 500 members turned out to be smallish women with white hair, most of whom are published by small-town or university presses.
One of the younger members of the group, 38-year-old John Erickson of Perryton, Tex., said, "My great-great-grandmother had the distinction of being scalped by Quanah Parker's father. My great-grandfather was killed in a gunfight in 1917, probably one of the last gunfights in Gaines County, Tex. I decided to continue on the tradition by writing."
A graduate of the University of Texas, Erickson spent two years at the Harvard Divinity School before returning west to spend seven years on a cattle ranch and then write about it. "I got up to Cambridge thinking that to write anything important you had to be from New York or Boston or Baltimore," he said. "When I got to Cambridge I discovered, much to my surprise, that I was a Texan." Asked if Harvard Divinity School had been good preparation for the cowboy life, he replied with a simple "No."
But many of the writers at the Inn at Loretto on the Old Santa Fe Trail said they are not being given due respect by the eastern establishment publishers and press.
"The genre of western writing has been ghettoized and stereotyped," said Stan Steiner, cochairman of the convention. "It has never been afforded the dignity and prominence of southern and other regional writing . . . some western writers see themselves as the new 'niggers' of publishing who are tolerated and patronized, but who are treated as an archaic joke."
"Yes, I think we're being ignored by eastern publishers," said Nellie Yost of North Platte, Neb., the author of 10 nonfiction books about the West. "We're not trashy writers, and I don't know why we're considered so just because we write westerns."
The comment by Yost came moments after a man named Will Knott, discussing the new "adult westerns" that include lots of sex, said: "I enjoy writing sex scenes very much. You can characterize a person as much while he's making love as while he's shooting a man off a horse."
When they weren't discussing their works-in-progress or taking in the local sights, the western writers attended panel discussions and watched films. One film was "Heartlands," a highly acclaimed feature about a pioneer woman in the West. Reviewing the making of this film, writer William Kittredge of Missoula, Mont., said the producers "wanted to do a series of films about contemporary women of the West. They sent a proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities. They were told that contemporary women were not part of the humanities." They switched to women of the past and got their grant, he said.
"I'm sure a lot of you in the audience are ranchers," Kittredge continued. "You will have noticed that there are a lot of mistakes in the film. The ear tags on the cattle, for instance. It costs a lot of money to pay a man to take out those ear tags and put them back again. So you hope nobody notices. Basically, nobody in Boston cares."
The liveliest panel centered on the question: "The New Western--What Is It?" And it began with almost all of the panelists eschewing the designation "western writer."
"I hate horses," said John Nichols of Taos, N.M., author of "The Milagro Beanfield War" and other books set in New Mexico, as well as his earlier "The Sterile Cuckoo." "I have a real antipathy toward anyone telling me I'm a western writer. I don't like that at all . . . The books are as much about the human experience as those books by professors in New York who are oversexed in academia . . . I learned more about New York City by living in Taos, N.M., than I ever did by living in New York City because the same system operates everywhere."
Lee Head, author of "Horizons," said: "I grew up in Oklahoma. In Oklahoma if you want culture, you drive to Dallas and shop at Neiman-Marcus. And I didn't even get there 'til my thirties." Head said the new western must appeal more to women, who are the primary readers now, and must include sex. "The first two buildings that went up in a western town were a land office of some kind and a brothel. That's reality," she said.
"I share this panel's opinion of horses," added Tony Hillerman of Albuquerque, author of a mystery series featuring a Navajo detective. "The stupidest animal on the face of the earth is a horse . . . I, too, grew up in Oklahoma. We had the farm next to the Joads. The Joads had an automobile and enough gasoline to get to California. We stayed. We only had horses."
Hillerman said that while fiction in general is in a bad way in the publishing industry, the future of the new western is bright. "We are beginning to develop a national and international interest in this part of the country, in the real West," he said. "Look for realism. Insist on it."
The panelists agreed that this new realism must feature a more realistic, more sympathetic treatment of Indians, Hispanics and women than appears in the traditional western shoot-'em-up. Tony Mares, a Chicano poet, said he is writing a play, called "Death Comes for Willa Cather," to correct that woman's vision of the Southwest.
The convention is scheduled to end tonight with a dinner for Eve Ball, winner of the group's highest honor, the Saddleman Award, which rewards a career marked by "outstanding contributions to the history and legend of the West." Ball, of Ruidoso, N.M., is 92 years old and began writing about the West when she was 62.
For many of the western writers, a highlight of the convention was the receipt of a telegram from former cowboy star Ronald Reagan. "I am delighted," the president wired, "to send warmest greetings to the twenty-fifth anniversary convention of Western Writers of America. Thank you for bringing the excitement and history of the Old West to life for the American people. You provide untold enjoyment for so many."
The convention was the group's 29th, not its 25th--but, like the man said, basically nobody in Boston cares.