Matt Braun calls himself a storyteller. As Matt himself admits: “First prize for a storyteller can be reduced to a single declarative sentence. “Gawddamn, I read your books!” Braun’s forty-six novels and four other books have sold forty million copies worldwide in fourteen foreign countries. His novels are rich in plot and character, steeped in the immediacy of place and entrenched in Western history and lore. Any member of Western Writers of America who hasn’t already read one of Matt Braun’s novels should latch on to a copy and read it.
Matt, winner of the 2004 Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in Western Literature from Western Writers of America, has been honored with the National Festival of the West Cowboy Spirit Award and our own Western Writers Spur Award for The Kincaids. The Governor of Oklahoma has appointed him lifetime Territorial Marshal. In 1999, he added the Eagle Feather Award for contributions to Native American literature and the Doc Holliday Award for contributions to Western literature to his growing list of laurels. His novel, Black Fox, was adapted for a six-hour CBS mini-series. Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross starred in the adaptation of Matt’s One Last Town, which TNT renamed You Know My Name.
Matt Braun has chosen his calling because of his Western heritage and honed it by hard work. Matt’s ancestor, James Adair, wrote The History of the American Indians, published in London in 1775. The same James Adair married a Cherokee in 1776. Matt’s great-grandfather established a ranch in western Oklahoma near Sweetwater and survived a shoot-out with three horse thieves. He held three riflemen off with a pistol and lived to tell the story. John Adair, an aristocrat from County Donegal, Ireland, another of Matt’s ancestors, partnered with Charles Goodnight to found the JA Ranch in the Palo Duro Canyon of the Texas Panhandle. This is the same Charles Goodnight who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail. The ranch prospered and in 1880 the JA Brand stamped 100,000 cows that grazed one million acres. Other ancestors were members of the Cherokee tribe.
Matt graduated from Oklahoma Military Academy College with a B.S. in journalism and served two years in the army. He grew up among the Cherokees and Osages on a working ranch, riding horses and chasing cows. His great-grandfather was a first-rate storyteller in the days before radio, television and C.D.’s. According to Matt, his great-grandfather “could outtalk a preacher.” Matt Braun has clearly inherited the talent. He set himself a goal at an early age: to become a writer. He himself admits: “It seemed only natural that I would one day tell stories of a bygone time.”
For Matt, Indian culture and traditions were part of growing up and he subscribes to this day to Indian philosophy that holds sacred the individuality and independence of each man. Following to this conviction Matt has carved and shaped his life. Becoming a writer was his personal choice. He will tell you: “I can’t imagine not being a writer.”
Matt is a quiet man. Many writers are. Some say he is a man born out of his time. He chops wood and rides horses, trains on a boxer’s speed bag, practices regularly on a combat pistol course and is a crack shot. He is as fit and trim as when he won the regional middleweight championship of the Golden Gloves. He loves the wild places and has spent much of his life wandering the West. He uses all these experiences in his novels when he infuses events, people, and places long gone with the vivid reality of the present. He’s been down the trail, really, not figuratively. Noted historian and author, Dee Brown, said of Matt Braun: “Matt Braun has a genius for taking real characters out of the Old West and giving them flesh-and-blood immediacy.”
Matt’s personal story is enlightening. The day in 1969 when he sold everything he owned, quit his job, and retired to a mountain cabin to write his first novel must have been scary indeed. And his prospects three years later, when he had written four novels and sold none, must have been depressing. He had been a journalist but had never written fiction. Convinced that his writing was improving, he survived on odd jobs and went to work doggedly on his fifth novel. Then suddenly, in ten days, an agent sold his first four novels and the fifth was sold on the basis of a half-written manuscript.
What happened next was Matt Braun’s coming-of-age. Like a cheeky teen-ager, with four novels published and no editorial revisions even requested, Matt assumed he knew everything there was to know about writing Western novels. In 1974, with six books published, he saw himself as a Mark Twain or Brete Harte. Then seasoned writer Jerrold Mundis edited every sentence of two of Matt’s published books. The red-penciled corrections that spread across every printed page came as a rude shock and cold shower of humility. That was when Matt Braun buckled down and decided it was high time he learn to write and launched his crash course of self-instruction.
With the help of mentor and task-master Mundis, Braun taught himself to write. He began with a reading marathon. He read everything from bestsellers to dime thrillers to literary greats and ancient classics. He is living proof that writers need to read more, not less. He learned that he did not care for much of what passes for literature. He enjoyed a story, a plot that grabs a reader, makes him read every word, turn the page and read more. The writer must be first a craftsman, always striving to condense, to describe more vividly, to write more skillfully. Only a very few writers will progress to the next level, that of true genius, and write the literary classic that endures over many years. Matt simply intends to earn a living by spinning a good yarn. He does not aspire to write the literary classic, yet he should take credit where credit is due. His Spur-winning novel, The Kincaids, is still on the shelves and in print after more than twenty-five years.
No comment on Matt Braun would be complete without noting his book, How to Write Novels that $ell. Matt developed five guidelines that sum up the rules of good writing. First, foremost, and last, is plot. A novel must relate action that progresses and intensifies, must “engage the reader with a solid story.” Why? Because stories sell. Stories attract readers. Stories, with causes that produce effects, action that advances to climax, can enliven even drab events and characters.
But Matt’s characters are never drab because he endows each with tangible reality while still striving to preserve heroic quality of the legends that we, his readers, demand. His treatment of the famed Oklahoma lawman, Bill Tilghman is a good example. In One Last Town, hero Bill Tilghman, hired to enforce the law in Cromwell, Oklahoma, a town of oil boomers and brothels, is an old man.
Matt intends to entertain his readers, not shock, not impress, not overwhelm. He will make you laugh and cry and he may tie your insides in knots when a character like Britt Johnson chooses a tragic ending. A modest writer, Braun labors long hours to tell a story that readers will follow from start to finish and remember. Black Gold, his latest, is such a novel. This writer started reading in the morning, broke for lunch, answered two phone calls, and the next time I looked up, it was 8:30 p.m. Braun writes in concise, comprehensible prose–no going back to read a Matt Braun sentence twice. That’s how he’s written so many great novels that sell. His books are gripping, and fun to read.
Matt is keenly aware that the story of the frontier is America’s epic, much as Beowulf is to England or The Song of Roland is to France. Instead of dragons and heathen armies, the heroes of his novels must overcome lawlessness, prejudice, and injustice. Matt does not write a formula Western, cowboys vs. Indians, white hats vs. black. The choices his characters face are not always black and white. They are complex, heart-wrenching decisions, and they require the honesty and courage of brave men. His heroes are often not men of particular virtue or good repute, but they are pragmatists who meet head-on the challenging demands and circumstances of frontier society. They are loners who shun the limelight: a black man and former slave living among whites, or an Osage woman, wife by Indian law of a white businessman, shunned by the society that surrounds her. More than one is a killer, a bounty hunter, or frontier marshal. Many frequent saloons and brothels. None are intimidated by the pretense of wealth or fame.
Take Luke Starbuck, the Denver detective and hero of Manhunter, who wants “a bullet that will stop another man instantly, neutralize him on the spot, and take him out of the fight.” Braun has written seven Luke Starbuck novels. A master of deceit and disguise, Starbuck strikes out alone to infiltrate the James and Younger Gang and kill Jesse and Frank James. A perverse compulsion motivates him: “going head to head with the Pinkertons–and beating them.” Starbuck is mercenary. He demands twenty thousand dollars for the killings. But he lives by his own peculiar, chivalric code and derides Bob Ford for shooting Jesse in the back and depriving him of a face-to-face contest. Likewise, he cannot kill consumptive, bedridden, resigned Frank James, a man who no longer needs killing.
Britt Johnson, the Negro slave whom the Kiowas named Black Fox, faces another conflict. In 1861, while slavery still debases the plains of Texas and Oklahoma, he rides alone into the Kiowa camp and fights a duel, a tug of war over a pit of rattlers, to ransom captive white women and children. Running Dog, the Kiowa warrior, cannot comprehend how one who will fight so bravely for the freedom of another can so easily bow to another man’s will. Running Dog presents an emasculating dilemma in Kiowa terms: “Even Kiowa women have been taken as slaves by the Ute or the Crow. But never a Kiowa man.” Braun elucidates further: “The manhood of a people had been torn out, jerked from the sac as neatly as a rancher clips the balls from his frisky yearlings.” Braun’s imagery is stark, his meaning, unmistakable. He treats the black man and the system that enslaves him with a graphic sensitivity.
He describes Indians and the injustices they have suffered with the same sensitivity. The Indian mind is not unfamiliar to Matt Braun. There are no bloodthirsty savages in Braun’s novels. Rather there are characters who are intelligent, patient, steadfast and often realistic and silent presences. Grace Sixkiller of The Kincaids is a good example. She seeks no reward and asks no explanation, but she is the glue that holds the Kincaids–father, son and daughter–together.
That the Indian nations have suffered under the white man’s yoke, Braun is too keenly aware. Matt’s latest novel, Black Gold, is a story set in this century. Braun pits a mob of gangsters and politicians against members of the Osage tribe and two lonely lawmen. The battle is for oil royalties, known as headrights in Osage County. As Braun avers: “Black Gold is fiction based on fact.” In 1923, the 9,217 wells on the Osage tract were producing 21,000,000 barrels of oil per year. The Osages were rich but they were also dying at an alarming rate, poisoned in a greedy scam.
A word here about Matt’s research–he will tell you that most, probably all, of his ideas come from history. He recounts how “history is a fable agreed upon by generations. A writer transforms it into a novel.” Sometimes only a brief passage in an obscure account ignited Braun’s imagination, like the lone paragraph by T.R. Fehrenbach, which related the heroism of the slave, Britt Johnson. Sometimes, interviews with eye-witnesses provided the inspiration.
Wirt Jordan, the crusty driller and partner of Morgan Kincaid, is based on the testimony of an old and experienced driller who educated Matt over a period of three days. From him Matt learned the vocabulary, equipment, personalities, and rules of the oil business of the 1920s. The thrilling episode in The Kincaids when Shooter Adair stuffs two ten-foot tubes of nitroglycerin and one four-foot tube of dynamite down a well hole derives from the interview. Matt explains it best: “The idea was to explode the nitro, which would fracture the subsurface formations, thereby freeing the oil from the sand.” Morgan Kincaid and Wirt Jordan stand watching the well, Coffee Pot #1, which had swallowed their entire net worth, as pressures in the hole increase and send a tube of explosives hurtling back up the hole. The Kincaids could have ended right there in a shower of flame but Shooter Adair catches the tube on the fly. When Matt first heard the true story, he didn’t believe it, but the old driller swore on the Bible that he told the truth. Matt proceeded to construct one of the most thrilling episodes I’ve ever read. The old driller was sick and died shortly after but Matt acknowledged his contribution in his acceptance speech when he received the Western Writers Spur Award for The Kincaids.
The Kincaids is Braun’s favorite book. It’s more than a novel. It is a saga. The story encompasses three generations of an Oklahoma family from the days of Indian Territory and buffalo hunting to the oil boom of the 1920s. The Kincaids was first published in 1976, just after Matt Braun had suffered the onslaught of mentor Mundis and launched his literary blitz. Jerrold Mundis must have been an exacting teacher and Matt an eager student because The Kincaids embodies many of the attributes of great literary classics. And Matt will tell you: “I wanted to craft a novel that someone would check out of a library fifty years from now and after reading it say ‘Yeah, that’s how it really happened in the old Oklahoma Territory.’”
Many of Western Writers of America’s notables have praised Matt Braun’s novels. Don Coldsmith, Western Writer’s Wister Award Winner of 2003, calls him “one of the best.” Jory Sherman, author of Grass Kingdom, says: “He tells it straight–and he tells it well.” And Texas’ favorite author, Elmer Kelton, calls Braun “a master storyteller of frontier fiction.”
Matt Braun resides today in the hills of western Connecticut with his wife, Bettiane, far from the open spaces of Oklahoma and Texas. He’s given up his horses, three Malamutes and two Rottweilers but keeps a small cocker spaniel. The memory of Moonbeam, a three-year-old Appaloosa bronc that he couldn’t break, still triggers his grudging admiration. The animal “refused to surrender his freedom to a man.” In a sense, the memory of the horse embodies the spirit of the frontier and the indomitable characters that people Matt Braun’s novels and it reflects the years of struggle that Matt Braun has invested in his writing. He did not let the vagaries of the publishing world break him. He persisted according to his convictions and has devoted his life to writing wonderful Western historical fiction. He is a very worthy recipient of Western Writers of America’s Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. Matt, may you write forty more!
Cleary, the author of Charbonneau’s
Gold, is the former Vice President Western
Writers of America.