Thursday, 16 March 2017

Blaze! Red Rock Rampage by Ben Boulden, 2017

Review & Interview

“I have no predilection about dropping you where you stand,” J.D. said. “Put the man down, gently as you would your breakfast egg, then raise your hands as high as God allows.”

© Rough Edges Press
I picked up Red Rock Rampage—No.15 in the Blaze! Adult Western Series—for three reasons. One, it's written by writer-blogger Ben Boulden whose reviews I read with much interest. Two, it's a western and packed with action, romance, and adventure. And three, it recounts the daring exploits of a husband-and-wife team of gunfighters I’d never heard of.

Red Rock Rampage is a fine debut by Ben. I read the book in three sittings, which I seldom do now. And I look forward to read more in the series, both by him and other writers.

A few pages into the book and I found myself riding at a distance behind bounty hunters J.D. and his beautiful wife Kate on their journey to Small Basin. Utah. The couple is on the trail of a gang of robbers who have been holding up trains in Arizona. They have been hired by a railway company whose northern route has been the target of the marauders.

If J.D. and Kate thought it would be a simple case of track and nab, they were mistaken. Small Basin turns out to be as hostile as an inhospitable desert under a ruthless sun. The settlement and the surrounding area are ruled by a renegade Mormon patriarch called Levi Skousen and his hired gunmen, and crooked Sheriff Allred who wants them to keep riding. The town is inhabited by a bunch of unfriendly polygamists and dirt farmers.

But our bounty hunters have no plans to vamoose now that they have tracked down their prey. And that’s when their troubles begin.

Skousen has kidnapped two young girls with the intention of adding them to his harem of twenty wives. One of the girls belongs to a poor Mexican settlement, the other has a thing for the outlaw’s estranged son. Suddenly, J.D. and Kate are forced to alter their plan and rescue the damsels with help from a priest who can shoot.

Red Rock Rampage, published by Rough Edges Press, is 115 pages of twists and turns, surprises and ambushes, and humour and excitement all the way. It’s a realistic portrayal of the Old West’s only husband-and-wife gunfighters whose derring-do and skill with guns does not hide their vulnerability. They find themselves in a tight corner more than once. When J.D. is caught and beaten up badly, Kate knows what she must do. The woman’s got guts. At one point I found myself thinking, “Come on, you should’ve seen it coming.” That they don’t adds to the reality of the plot, the descriptions, and the well-drawn characters.

I liked the book a lot, as much for Ben Boulden’s narrative style and relentless pace as for J.D. and Kate’s passion for each other and for adventure. They share a telepathic bond from the beginning. It lent a nice touch to this unusual western tale.

Recommended.


'I genuinely enjoy telling myself stories'

Photo by Kara Boulden

Ben Boulden, a trained accountant by profession, writes a column and regularly reviews mystery, crime, and thrillers for Mystery Scene Magazine. His essays, ‘Reading Ed Gorman’ and ‘Easy to Read: A Story of Rick Ollerman’ have been published in the Stark House Press editions of The Autumn Dead/The Night Remembers by Ed Gorman and Truth Always Kills by Rick Ollerman, respectively. He also regularly reviews books and interviews authors at his blog Gravetapping. Ben lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and daughter.

He spoke to the 3Cs about his debut novel in an email interview, which is split into three parts: the book, the characters and setting, and the author.


THE BOOK

Ben, why did you choose to make your writing debut with the Blaze! Adult Western Series? Why not a standalone western?
A really good question. A year ago I was interviewing Stephen Mertz, creator of Blaze!, for my blog Gravetapping and when everything was complete—questions asked and answered, formatted and posted—Steve asked if I would like to try writing a Blaze! novel. No guarantee of publication, but I unhesitatingly said, “Yes” and everything worked out. Pure blind luck aided by the kindness of Steve Mertz.

What made you pick the title Red Rock Rampage? How did you hit upon the idea?
The title was the last thing I came up with. The story was mostly complete, still lovingly titled “Untitled Blaze”, when Red Rock Rampage sprang into my head. It fit the setting, the painted rock badlands of Southern Utah, and the genre; rampaging desperados, outlaws. I especially liked the smooth alliteration.

The idea for the story arrived in a hurry. I knew I wanted it in Utah, where I’ve lived most of my life, and I narrowed it down to Southern Utah because of the beautiful, desolate setting. It was, and probably still is, wilder than Northern Utah; fewer people and less law. And, of course, it was and still is a hotbed of plural marriage. So

I took what I knew about the setting—it is called Utah’s Dixie because someone in Salt Lake City decided its arid landscape was perfect for growing cotton. It wasn’t. There was either too little water, or too much water (in the form of flash floods) and as far as I know there was never a successful crop. So I created a villain who, not satisfied with his failure as a cotton grower, found other means to gain wealth. The rest of the story bloomed from there.

You are more than familiar with western fiction. And yet, did you have to do any research for your book?

I  did some research for RRR. Mostly about the early Mormon pioneers sent from Salt Lake City to the Southwestern corner of current day Utah to grow cotton. My wife and I lived in a small college town in the area several years ago while I studied for my master’s degree and that, mixed with many trips to Canyonlands National Park (in Southeastern Utah) as a child with my parents, gave me a grasp to imagine the setting.

Were you influenced by other western fiction authors while writing Red Rock Rampage?
I don’t think it shows, but my major influence was Ed Gorman’s work. The way he develops characters, especially women, in his Western novels amazes me. Gentle, intelligent, long suffering, horny, angry, and everything else that makes a person a person.

I also followed two pieces of advice that came to me second hand, both heavily paraphrased. Ed Gorman wrote, on more than one occasion, that he owed his career to Max Allan Collins who told him to write a novel like every chapter was a short story to keep from becoming overwhelmed. And Stephen Mertz told me that Don Pendleton always said you should write, no matter what you’re writing, like it is a serious and important work.

In spite of consistent action, the narrative has an even and unhurried pace. Did you plan it that way or did it flow as you wrote?
I wanted the narrative to have a nice fluid pace, but to say I planned it from scene-to-scene (beyond hoping it worked) wouldn’t be accurate. Although I worked heavily to keep it tight and unhurried throughout the writing and then rewriting processes. I’m glad it worked. And I’m glad you told me since I still have doubts about it late at night.

Is there any part of the story or character that you wish you’d written differently?

Maybe  one. A gunny named Jackson Rockwell, who was originally intended to be the fictional brother of the Mormon gunfighter Orrin Porter Rockwell, who, as the story developed took a smaller role than I originally planned. I think the story would have benefited from developing JR’s character more as I had originally intended. Instead he became more of a stock villain with a mean streak and a desire to make his name by gunning down J.D.

CHARACTERS & SETTING

 
Both J.D. and Kate are very likeable and, in a certain way, vulnerable too. What were your thoughts as you wrote about the husband-wife gunfighters?

J.D. and Kate were the best part of writing Red Rock Rampage. I fell in a kind of literary puppy-love with Kate. Tough, smart, kind, beautiful. And I genuinely liked J.D. Although, based on the beatings I put J.D. through there may have been some jealousy at work (I hope I’m kidding). I liked the give and take between the two, and my favorite scenes are where both are present.

I couldn’t help noticing that Kate and J.D. seem to have the perfect marriage, which I felt was a great selling point. Of course, I’m basing my opinion on just this one Blaze! novel. Is that how they are in the rest of the series?

It is, I think. I’ve only read a couple of the other books in the series. I’m actually reading Stephen Mertz’s The Christmas Journey right now. But J.D. and Kate have something of a dream relationship. They have their moments, mostly when J.D. is, or isn’t, doing something Kate feels strongly about. Steve really deserves some kudos for creating this pair.

Kate is brave and determined, and more than capable of taking care of herself. I, for one, thought she stole the show. Would that be a fair assessment?

Very  fair assessment. Kate’s character really spoke to me. As I was writing the story her role, both as the ethical guide and tough as nails get things done kind of person, developed beyond what I had originally intended. In a sense, RRR is more her novel than J.D.’s.

How did you come to create Brother Skousen as the evil and lustful Mormon patriarch who terrorises young women?

He was the first villain I created for the story. In a sense, and I don’t mean this to be demeaning or derogatory to early-Mormon history, he is a composite character of the stereotypical Mormon leader. Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, etc. who practiced polygamy for a stated reason—to take care of the older women without a man (Sister Mary in the story)—but actually seemed to have an abundance of attractive 17 year old wives who, I’m sure, had a line of young male suitors. But, Skousen is a true scoundrel and many of the early Mormon leaders did some amazing things, like create the infrastructure for the American West to be settled and develop the way it did.

How easy or difficult was it to capture the descriptions of the settlement of Small Basin, Utah, and the surrounding area?

It was really fun and fairly easy. It all came out of my imagination based on my experiences in the Southern Utah landscape. The canyons with painted rock, red dirt, the Fremont Indian ruins, many still awaiting discovery, all captured my imagination as a boy and it still does today. I hope I was able to describe the wonder of the place, even a little.

THE AUTHOR

 
Ben, can you briefly take us through your journey as a writer and an author?

I've been writing fiction since my early teens and over the past six or seven years I gave up the idea of seriously pursuing publication. I had a few very small successes placing short stories in tiny literary magazines (circulation less than ten, probably) in the early-2000s, but my writing plateaued. Each story had the same flaws as the one before. Not developed quite right, out of sync narrative, underdeveloped characters, etc.

So I started reviewing novels and short stories, first for a website, then my own blog and finally for Mystery Scene Magazine, to see if critically reading the work of successful writers would help my own writing. And it did, but not exactly the way I expected. I learned a bunch about structure, and even more about style, but the knowledge was still a little hazy. Then I started writing individual scenes, not for publication, but rather for my own amusement, about anything that caught my fancy. A mother mourning a child, a firefight, cowboys finding a flashlight. This more than anything improved my fiction writing, but I was still an unbeliever.

Then, an amazing thing happened, which I talked about in a question above, Stephen Mertz—creator of Blaze!—asked if I would be interested in writing a Blaze! novel. And I did. And Rough Edges Press published it. My writing life, I hesitate to call it a career, has been one filled with mostly work and a few lucky breaks. The first was Ed Gorman’s unflagging support of my critical writing and his help getting me a chance to write for Mystery Scene and then Steve Mertz’s simple question. I owe them both more than I can say.

How would you describe the experience of writing, and especially writing a book?

Hard, but satisfying. I genuinely enjoy telling myself stories, but the daily grind of working all day, then coming home and writing is difficult. The self-doubt is hard, too. Never knowing if something is good, or even readable, as I write and rewrite. But as satisfying as anything I’ve ever done when I type “the end” after the last paragraph. And then as I started revisions, actually enjoying the story.

Where, when, and how often do you write?

I have a weekly goal of 2,500 to 3,000 words. I often don’t make it, but I try. I have a tiny office in the house, cold in the winter and hot in the summer, where I do part of my writing. I also write at the kitchen table, which is where I am now. I travel some for work, and I write in hotel rooms at night when I’m away.

I may write for fifteen minutes or two or three hours, depending on my schedule. On weekends I write in the morning, and during the week I write in the evening. It all depends, but it would be nice if I could find a rhythm with a defined schedule. 5–7 AM, or something. I think it would increase my productivity, but I haven’t been able to make it happen yet.

How long did it take you to write Red Rock Rampage? Can you take us through the process from the time you conceived of the story idea?

I started planning the story—doing a little research—and basically stalling the actual writing in mid-April, 2016 and I turned the final draft into the editor the first week of August. So, from that first idea to the finished product was about 3-1/2 months. The first few chapters went like wildfire and there were a few spots in the story where I found myself lost in those murky middle portions. I knew where I wanted to go, but my map disappeared. When that happened I stopped writing for a few days, once for nearly a week, and thought about the story, what made sense, what J.D. and Kate would be inclined to do. And I always figured a way forward. And it always felt natural to me. Something that much of my earlier writing didn’t have.

What can your readers expect after your brilliant debut—more in the Blaze! series or something else, perhaps?

I’m working, rather slowly, on another Blaze! novel now. It’s been slow for a few reasons. My work schedule has been unusual the last few months and I have been able to gain a rhythm on the story. But I like the story, and I’m hoping to have it finished in a few months. I just finished a hardboiled crime short story that I like a bunch. I’m not sure what is going to happen with it, but it felt great writing “the end” a few nights ago.

Once I finish my next Blaze! novel I may try something of my own. I have a few ideas percolating, mostly western and crime. We’ll see. But I’m excited that things are looking bright (in a very small way) for me.

Who are some of your favourite genre authors? Which books have influenced your writing?

I’ve already mentioned Ed Gorman. He is probably one of the most underrated writers of his generation. His works tends to be dark, which may be a reason it hasn’t caught on like I think it should, but he is well worth reading. Especially is mystery and western fiction.

Ron Faust is another favorite. No one writes better, more meaningful, or even beautiful prose than Faust did. He didn’t write enough, only 15 novels over four decades, but if you ever find anything with his name on its cover, buy it, steal it, or do whatever you have to do to get it home.

What were your thoughts when you first held Red Rock Rampage in your hand?

Woohoo! Then disbelief. Then woohoo! Then, man, I hope a few people like it.

Finally, Ben, what is your advice to people like me who aspire to publish someday?

Keep at it. I had given up, writing snippets of fiction here and there for my own amusement, but an amazing thing happened. I wrote a book, it was published. And I’m nothing special. Maybe lucky, but not special. So keep writing and something will come.

Thank you, Ben.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks, Prashant. You are truly a superhero. I appreciate your kind words and relieved you enjoyed Red Rock Rampage.

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    1. You're most welcome, Ben. It was an excellent debut. This was my kind of western. I was intrigued by J.D. and Kate.

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  2. I have heard about Ben Boulden's book, Prashant, and I am glad you featured it. I will definitely be getting a copy.

    The interview is great, lots of interesting information. Thanks to both you and Ben.

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    1. Thank you, Tracy. I always enjoy reading about writers at work.

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    1. Thank you, B.S. Dunn. All credit to Ben for the interview.

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  4. An enjoyable interview, cheers Prashant (and Ben)!

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    1. Thanks, Col! And thanks to Ben's insightful answers.

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  5. Great post, thanks Prashant. I have so little knowledge of the modern westerns being published that it is great to be treated to all this info via the reivew and the inteview.

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    1. Thanks, Sergio! I hadn't read a good modern western in years. I enjoyed doing both review and interview.

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  6. I'm very glad you enjoyed this one as much as you did, Prashant. There is just something about the setting in a good Western, isn't there? And a fascinating interview, too. Thanks for sharing, both.

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    1. Thank you, Margot. I agree, the setting in a western makes all the difference. I grew up reading western comics about Wild West towns and saloons with batwing doors, which triggered my interest in this genre.

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  7. Prashant – Thanks for this fine interview – good questions, thoughtful answers. Also, a “Where have I been?” moment for me when Ben mentioned Ron Faust, an author I have yet to read. Now I have one Boulden and several Fausts to get to as soon as possible.

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    1. Thank you, Elgin. The interview was fun. Ben has also got me interested in Ron Faust's novels which he has reviewed on his blog. Ben describes him as "the best writer you have never heard of."

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  8. Sounds fast paced. I like. great interview as well!

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    1. Thank you, Charles. I want to do more author and blog interviews in coming months.

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  9. The interview was fascinating, and you also made the book sound very good.

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    1. Thank you, Moira. I enjoyed reading the book as well as doing the interview with Ben. I will be reading more in the Blaze! series.

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