An Honorable Man in a Mostly Dishonorable Land: Robert J. Randisi on Writing the West

Robert J. Randisi has written at least 13 novels a year—every year—since 1982.  The tally so far is somewhere over 550.  That number wouldn’t be as impressive if not for the fact that they are all good.

Okay, I haven’t read all of his books.  (“No one has,” Randisi once told me, “not even me.”)  But I’ve read a lot of them, as many as I can get my hands on, and I’ve enjoyed every last one of them.  In fact, I have to be careful with a Randisi novel.  If I start it, I will finish it in as few sitting as possible and that can be problematic if I have things like papers to grade, deadlines to meet, or… sleep to get.

What’s the shortest distance between reality and another world, another place and time?  Simple.  Page one of a Randisi novel.

Most of Randisi’s novels have appeared in The Gunsmith action-western series (formerly adult Western series) under the name J. R. Roberts.  (The Gunsmith #353: The Deadly Chest came out this month.)  Randisi has written in just about every form and every genre—from action-adventure to science fiction to erotica–but he is best known for writing private eye fiction and Westerns.  The sixth book in his Rat Pack Mysteries series, Fly Me to the Morgue, comes out this June, and a new The Gunsmith novel comes out each month with one Giant Gunsmith each fall.

Below, Randisi and I talk about writing, getting knocked down and getting back up, and about always moving forward but looking back every now and then.

Crow Bait opens with Lancaster beaten nearly to death.  It takes him two tries just to stand up.  It’s the story of survival, of determination, of revenge and redemption, of a beaten up man and a broken down horse.  After more than thirty years, 500+ books, and an ever-changing publishing industry… do you ever feel like Lancaster?

Robert J. Randisi: Jeremy, I’ve been knocked down so many times there’s just nothing to do but get up. Back in the 70’s I sold two short stories to a brand new magazine, thought I had found myself a regular market, only to have them fold after eight issues.  I had the editor of a paperback house who wanted to give me a four book contract for a private eye series, only for him to be told that his buying had been frozen, and he couldn’t buy anything for nine months.   I had a book that was actually in the window of a B. Dalton on 5th Avenue in Manhattan when the company went out of business and the books had to be pulled. This business is filled with disappointments and bruises.  And it still happens. Believe me, there’s nothing else to do but get up.

What is a typical writing day like for you? Didn’t you mention one time that you go through a new keyboard each month?

Robert J. Randisi: I don’t think my keyboard situation is unusual. I wipe the letters off the keys and have to buy a new ‘board about four or five times a year. Recently someone gave me two extra keyboards, so I think I’m okay for a while.

My schedule is to write day and night.  Since there are other things that must be done during the day–banking, the post office, groceries, answering the phone–my most productive hours are 11 pm to 4 am.  Usually, I work on one book during the day, and another at night.

What do you enjoy about writing in general and writing the West in particular?

Robert J. Randisi: Writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. Despite the fact that you needed publishers to get your work into the stores–and that’s changing now–you’re pretty much your own boss. You set your own hours. And I love sitting at my keyboard, creating characters and situations.

The legend of the West is interesting to me, as are the “Legends,” and it’s fun to think I’ve created my own Legend in the Gunsmith.

Where do you typically start with a Gunsmith novel?  What’s the process from there?  How much pre-writing and outlining do you do?

Robert J. Randisi: No outlines, no pre-writing (whatever that is). I come up with a task for the Gunsmith, and he has to accomplish it in 220 pages or more.   We go through it together. I really don’t know what’s going to happen from one chapter to another.  These are not books you can take very seriously, as I have to write one a month.

The Gunsmith is one of the longest running Western series. How do you keep the series from feeling repetitious?

Robert J. Randisi: The Gunsmith is the 4th longest running series. There are certain aspects that must repeat, but if I can keep myself interested, I can keep the reader interested.  And there are a lot of fans just waiting for Clint’s next adventure.

What is it about Clint Adams that has made him so enduring?  That has kept you and so many readers so interested for so long?

Robert J. Randisi: Clint Adams is an honorable man in a mostly dishonorable land–the old west. Yet he has to develop as the West develops. He has the ability to kill any man with a gun, but as he gets older, as he develops as a man, he finds it necessary less and less.  If a problem can be solved without a gun, he much prefers it. The 360+ books have taken him to the precipice of the 20th century. He has to change with the times. If he was the same man in every book, I don’t think he would have endured.

You have the remarkable ability to bring a character to life in as few words as possible.  What goes into the creation and presentation of a compelling character in general and a compelling western character in particular?

Robert J. Randisi: There must be a certain number of characters in any book–Western, mystery, whatever–who the reader has never encountered before. Their journey must be their own–that means their history, their formative years, and the way they’ve decided to live their lives as a result.  It’s a little easier in Westerns because there are fewer rules of society to deal with.

How are Western heroes and private eyes the same?

Robert J. Randisi: They each adhere to their own codes. That’s basically it. Neither is constrained by the rules of a company, an organization, or even the law.  They both bend the law to their own wills. They find it necessary to do so to achieve their goals.

Dialogue seems to play a crucial role in your novels.  What should dialogue do and what’s the secret to writing it?

Robert J. Randisi: Dialogue should advance the story. It should also provide a window into the personality of the character. If the reader can get to know the character through dialogue, rather than pages and pages of exposition and description, the book simply moves faster.

The secret to writing good, realistic dialogue is . . . wait for it . . . “Listen!”

Any advice for writing action scenes?

Robert J. Randisi: Remember to keep things “moving.”  Action means movement. And I don’t just mean walking, running, fighting, shooting . . . I mean keep the story moving forward.  A good story cannot stand still. Everything has to advance the story.

You’ve started and been integral in a number of professional writers’ organizations, including The Private Eye Writers of America and The Western Fictioneers.  What is the Western Fictioneers and what are the benefits of membership for a writer?

Robert J. Randisi: Western Fictioneers was started by me and a handful of other Western writers who like to read and write about “the traditional West.”  Our members must be fiction writers.  You’ll pardon me, Jeremy, but no academics need apply–unless they write fiction about the West.

We’ve seen a swing in awards over the past few years toward the more “literary” and “modern” works of the West.  So we’ve also created The Peacemaker Award. This year we’ll be presenting awards to The Best Western Novel and the Best Western Short Story. As for the novel we don’t have a length limit, we don’t separate hardcovers from paperbacks. When we present an award to the Best Novel, that’s exactly what we mean–the best novel about the Traditional West. For more information folks can go to our website and our blog.

Any parting words? Words of encouragement or caution?

Robert J. Randisi: Please don’t forget about the Old West. It’s our history, and it’s important to be aware of it. Progress is fine, but we can get lost in technology.  I caution everyone against never looking back.  Forward is fine, it’s where we’re going, but there would be nothing ahead of us without what happened behind us.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher.  He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly.  He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.


5 thoughts on “An Honorable Man in a Mostly Dishonorable Land: Robert J. Randisi on Writing the West

  1. Thanks for the great interview with one of my favorite authors. There are more Robert J. Randisi novels on my shelves than those of any other author–except, maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs….

  2. Not only is Randisi a fine writer, he is a fine man and very welcoming to aspiring writers. Early on, he encouraged and inspired me. And not just with words–he included my short stories in several anthologies he edited. I will always be indebted to and appreciative of Robert J. Randisi.

  3. Enjoyed this interview, particularly those answers about The Gunsmith (I have every book in that series – and nearly all his other westerns). As you say once you start reading one of Robert's westerns you can't put it down until it's finished.

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