Good against evil, law against outlaw in its purest form

Tom Rizzo about the Western Genre

Everyone knows the Western Genre, but interestingly the big publishers seem to lose their interest in this very old and traditional American genre. They hope to make their money elsewhere. For friends of good literature this is very disappointing, because the genre contains much more than trivial literature. Many gifted writers are able to write stories you are forced to think about. One of them is the author of the remarkable book LAST STAND AT BITTER CREEK (Finalist Western Fictioneers Peacemaker Award) Tom Rizzo. With him spoke Joachim Mols

Dear Tom, you are a writer of so called Western Fiction. Why is this genre so fascinating for you?

--The Western genre is fascinating because it represents a link with the historical adventures experienced by those who endured the hardships to travel and settle in the new American frontier. It represents powerful image for Americans, a period of incredible ingenuity coupled with sheer courage required to persevere through a broad range of hardships unlike any other time in American history. To me, the story of the West is an endearing saga of determination, independence, individualism, and entrepreneurship under a canopy of sheer survival. While the West itself plays a critical role in American history, the Old West, or Wild West, has everything to do with America’s folklore—all which makes for exciting fictional accounts of actual history.

For me the story of the settlers, which were forced to go west and thereby sustain different adventures, seems not always to be the experience of the American Centers. The Polish, the Jewish and the Italians of New York for example had never tried to go west. They came to an organized city. Florida is still important, but as it is also the case in California it`s inhabitants have overwhelmingly their roots in the south or in the Europe of the 20th century. Therefore my question: Is the Wild West still a part of the mainstream American History, it is a history affecting families?

--Absolutely. The “Wild West,” as some describe it, is still very much a part of mainstream American history because individuals and families were trying to better themselves and on their own terms. Independence and self-determination were major themes among settlers of the frontier. Although you point out the Polish the Jewish, and the Italians of New York, for the most part avoided traveling West, it’s mostly because they had organized their own communities within metropolitan areas, replicating the communities in which they lived in the old countries. But make no mistake, ethnicity was very much a part of the fabric of the Old West, influenced by Hispanic, or Latino minorities as well as Asian and, of course, American Indians. The Western region of the US represents the largest number of minorities in the country.

The Iliad as well as the Songs of the Nibelungs described a world, which was in the correct sense never existent. The authors were successful, because the projected the self-concept of their contemporaries back into the past. Would you compare this situation to the Western Genre?

--I’m not sure I can adequately address this, but I’ll try. The Song of the Nibelungs revolves around a series of adventures. The Western genre mirrors these adventures because Western fiction addresses many of the same broad themes: action, heroism, loyalty and the lack of it, individual achievement, betrayal, emotional manipulation, and tragic loss. Like the Song, chivalry plays a major role in the Western genre.

Even if the Iliad or the Songs of the Nibelungs were poetry, everyone believed them to be true. I would think, it was thanks to the victory of Christianity that mankind discovered that Achill had never existed at all. How would you describe the relationship of the American reader to the Western Genre? Do the Americans believe the Wild West of the poetry to be reality or better real history?

--The appeal of the Wild West is anchored in both poetry and mythology as Americans pioneered Westward expansion. People were drawn to the West because of the challenge of overcoming the unknown. The “song” of the West, if you will, is the story that marries imagination and reality—a time of danger, opportunity, and freedom. In effect, it is almost impossible to separate the poetry from actual history. While most stories of the genre feature relatively simple plots and sometimes larger-than-life characters, the better ones are unique in the way they blend fact and fiction. At the same time, Western history is often all about larger-than-life individuals—courageous achievers who often overcame incredible odds. Sometimes, of course, they failed.

The question about the truth of poetry is a very important one. Since everyone believed the Iliad to be true the Iliad had its cultural or political influence. For example Alexander saw himself as second Achill and this motivated him to go to war. Do you see independent from the reality of history any political influence of Western Mythology in American Politics?

--I believe Western Mythology had indeed influenced American politics, especially during the 1950s. During that particular decade of the Cold War, television was top heavy with Westerns that featured cowboys who embraced patriotism, demonstrated respect for the government, and fought successfully against societal evil. The image of the cowboy, proud and resourceful, played well with the American mindset and carried over to the political process—sometimes referred to as Cowboy Diplomacy.

Would you label this influence a more conservative one?

--Definitely—in terms of smaller government, an emphasis on individual resourcefulness, and a suspicious eye cast toward external resources and alliances.

In my opinion, every time has its own mythology. The question is not whether the mythology is based on facts or not. The question is, whether the mythology is believed in. Since the societies are always changing we can observe also changes in their mythology and in the surrounding literature. Of course there are still romances of chevaliers in Germany, but their idea is totally different from the idea they had 100 or 200 years ago. Götz von Berlichingen died with Goethe. Could you describe for the European reader the changes of the Western Genre and its mythology in the last 200 years?

--According to British historian David Murdock, "No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America’s creation of the West.” That said, the changes to the Western Genre have been few because its “formula” works. Good against evil, and law against outlaw in its purest form. However, the stories, the characters, and the conflicts have become more complicated with a greater psychological underpinning than in the past.

Sometimes also the heroes are changing. The not speaking Clint Eastwood, by the way a marvelous actor, seems to be a stereotype, a cliché; I never met this role after the times of Italo Western again in films. Do you observe similar developments in the Western Genre of literature?

--The image of the strong, silent type has always been attractive to American audiences. The mindset even spills over to politics, in theory. The Western genre, however, doesn’t necessarily reflect such as image. Creating a strong, silent hero to carry a novel for 40,000+ words wouldn’t be feasible in advancing the story. Strong silent types with nothing to say—in a novel—would be like launching a boat without a rudder.

The problem of historic literature is very often also the knowledge of author and reader. Very often historical novels are unreadable, because author and reader don`t know nothing about the described past. Looking at your genre, would you agree with my comments?

--Historical novels should reflect history. It’s up the writer to “educate” the reader about the importance of a particular time period by showing—in a fictional presentation—the impact certain events and characters. For example, in my novel, LAST STAND AT BITTER CREEK, three actual historical incidents are included that have an impact on the fictional storytelling process.

Does the American youth learn enough in high school about the “wild west history” of the country; are the able to understand Western Fiction?

--Not much today, from what I can determine. Young readers (and a great many adults) shy away from the Western genre, mainly because their mindset views Westerns as nothing more than run-and-shoot plots with little depth. Of course, they haven’t taken the time or received the appropriate guidance to understand the importance of the Western knowledge.

Sometimes we have abrupt changes of genres, because societies were looking for new ways of expression. The bucolic romantic literature died in Russia after the revolution and made place for the literature about heroic engineers. What will be the future genre of American Literature? Will the Western Genre survive?

--I believe the Western genre will survive and flourish. But it’s requiring a consistent promotional effort on the part of Western authors. Publishers, mostly independent ones, are now using a broad range of sub-genres to better attract specific audiences. The larger – Big Six – publishers done next to nothing to generate any interest in the Western genre, staying flatly they have no interest in Westerns. Literary agents, as well, go out of their way to shun Westerns—without bothering to read the material that often reflects a depth matching any other genre. Unfortunately, it’s a small-minded approach and does a disservice to the public. Today’s writer of Westerns produces so much more than the traditional shoot-em-ups. They include stories of mystery, suspense, and intrigue, as well as romance.

Dear Tom thank you very much for taking your time.

© Questions Joachim Mols

About Tom Rizzo: A passion for 19th century American history, Tom's debut novel includes several elements of historical fact. His writing journey has taken him from radio and television news reporting to the Associated Press, where he worked as a correspondent, followed by several years in advertising and public relations. He grew up in central Ohio, lived in Great Britain for several years, and now calls Houston, Texas, home. Tom is a member of Western Writers of America, Wild West History Association, and Western Fictioneers. More information you will find at his interesting website