Matt Braun is leading the life he always dreamed of ~ the writer's life. "I can't imagine not being a writer," he says. "That was my goal ~ my only goal ~ from an early age. Through the understanding of my wife, a bulldog of an agent, and a love of the written word, all those early dreams came true. I am the most fortunate of men."
He is highly successful as one of the country's most prominent western writers, with 45 published novels and books including 40,000,000 copies in print worldwide.
It's only natural Braun would grow up to write about the West. A native of Oklahoma, he hails from a long line of ranchers. His great-grandfather founded a ranch near Sweetwater, Oklahoma, and once survived a shootout with three horse thieves. Still, another ancestor was one of the foremost ranchers in Texas. John Adair, a landed Irish aristocrat from county Donegal, who came to America seeking investment opportunities.
In 1876, Adair went into partnership with Charles Goodnight and founded the JA Ranch. Goodnight was already a legendary cattleman, having blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail from Texas to Wyoming. With Adair's business acumen and Goodnight's cow savvy, the outfit was established in the Palo Duro Canyon, deep in the Texas Panhandle. By 1880, the partners controlled 1,000,000 acres of land and more than 100,000 cows wearing the JA brand.
As a fourth-generation westerner, Braun is steeped in the tradition and lore of the frontier era. His books reflect a heritage rich with the truth of that bygone time.
During his youth, he also acquired a respect for the Native American culture, having been reared among the Cherokee and Osage tribes. He learned their traditions and culture. Their philosophy regarding the right of each man to walk his own path became the foundation of Braun's own beliefs.
Like his ancestors, Braun has spent the majority of his life wandering the mountains and plains of the West. He has always felt more comfortable in a wilderness setting, and his books display a remarkable understanding of frontiersmen.
He writes of a West where a hardy breed of individualists challenged and conquered a raw and hostile land. Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, said of his work, "Matt Braun has a genius for taking real characters out of the Old West and giving them flesh-and-blood immediacy."
Braun believes today's readers are still fascinated with the Old West because "any novel set in the Old West represents a legendary time in our national consciousness. In the 1860s, the United States was not yet a hundred years old. America had no mythology of its own, no fabled characters such as Beowulf and Roland. So we invented a cast of mythical creatures, the cowboys and gunfighters and plainsmen of the western frontier.
"We combined the King Arthur legends with the medieval morality plays, adding the chivalric code of the Old West into the mix, and called it a 'western.' All in a matter of years, we created the literature of our newly invented mythology."
Braun says, 'Nowhere in history have mythical figures achieved such widespread appeal. Few people today would recall Beowulf met a valorous death while slaying the evil dragon. But people around the world, from Germany to Japan, can relate the story of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
"The myth of the Old West encompasses knaves and rascals as well as stalwart knights attired in buckskins. Nothing before or since has captured the imagination of a global audience. The Old West endures as a place of legend, a time of legendary feats."
Oklahoma has been the setting for several of Braun's works, including Outlaw
Kincaids, and One Last
Town, which was made into a TNT movie, You
Know My Name, starring Sam Elliott. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum hosted the
premiere for the movie in August 1999, in cooperation with TNT.
Of the Outlaw Kingdom, noted Elmer Kelton said, "Matt Braun brings back the flavor of early Oklahoma and the grit of the men who brought law to an outlaw territory. He is a master storyteller of frontier history." Terry Johnston, author of the Plainsmen series, said, "In Outlaw Kingdom, I once again see the unique talent that placed Matt Braun head- and-shoulders above all the rest who would attempt to bring the gunmen of the Old West to life. In place of the laconic, two-dimensional gunslinger of Hollywood and so much pulp fiction today, Braun has given us his Bill Tilghman - a man of flesh and bone, blood and sinew, a man we can see ourselves joining as he walks down those dusty streets of Oklahoma Territory."
Tilghman, the frontier lawman, is also the subject of One Last Town, a story about Cromwell, Oklahoma, a lusty oil boom town of shacks, tents, brothels, bars, and gamblers. It was called a "wicked town" by many and it was Tilghman's job to enforce what little law there was.
Tilghman died November 1, 1924, trying to protect Cromwell from itself. As quickly as the town rose to fame and a population that swelled from 3,000 to 10,000 from 1923 to 1925, it passed into obscurity. Today its population is 300 - tops.
What drew Braun to write about Tilghman? Braun says, the book and the movie evolved from his Oklahoma roots. He called Tilghman "the most revered lawman of modern Oklahoma. He devoted most of his life to law enforcement, and in large degree, he is the prototype for the lawman/gunfighter of western myth. He was, without question, the finest lawman ever to wear a badge.
"Bat Masterson said of Bill Tilghman, 'He was the best of us all.' He was everything you would want in a hero. His sense of justice and fairness separated him from all the other lawmen like night and day. I wrote the novel to honor the man," Braun said.
But it is his novel The Kincaids, that is his favorite. It tells the generational story of the settlement and statehood of Oklahoma, spanning the decades from the buffalo-dotted plains of Kansas to the spiked, oil- rich horizons of Oklahoma in the 1920s. Three generations of Kincaids live the saga of Jake Kincaid and the dynasty he established during one of the most turbulent eras in American history.
Braun said it was also the 'most challenging" novel he has written. "I wanted to craft a novel that someone would check out of a library 50 years from now, and after reading it, say, 'Yeah, that's how it really happened in the old Oklahoma Territory.'"
In many ways, the book was also a tribute to Braun's ancestors, some of whom actually lived the tale.
His efforts were rewarded with a Spur Award for "Best Historical Novel" from Western Writers of America, and Oklahoma's former Governor, George Nigh, awarded him a lifetime appointment as an Oklahoma Territorial Marshal.
In 1999, Braun was honored with the "Cowboy Spirit Award" by the National Festival of the West. He was the first writer to ever receive the award, presented for his contribution to western literature. Braun has been called "America's authentic voice of the western frontier.'
Although Braun lives today in a remote section of mountains on the East Coast, with his wife Bettiane, and their Yorkshire Terrier and a Rottweiler, he continues to travel the West, gathering source material for his novels. Since 1972, when his first novel, Black Fox, was published, to his newest work, Hickok & Cody, to be published in May, the writing life has truly nurtured Braun's creative spirit.
After all the published words, the accolades from fellow writers, the awards, Braun continues to embrace his love affair with the written word.
"Writing has allowed me a life of freedom and personal gratification," he says. "I spend my days with fascinating characters who take me on a journey through the grandest adventure of our national history. Every day is a revelation, and the people I travel with are the stuff of legend. I'm a lucky dog."
M.J. Van Deventer is the Editor of Persimmon Hill and Director of Publications for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
In 1988 Writer's Digest published How To Write Western Novels by Matt Braun. The book drew wide acclaim as the most comprehensive work on writing novels of the American West. The introduction to the book (reprinted below) reveals all there is to know about Matt Braun, the writer and the man.Introduction
Mark Twain was fond of telling a story about the process by which boys mature into men. To paraphrase the old curmudgeon, he said: “At sixteen I believed my father to be one of the most ignorant men in the world. At twenty-one I was amazed to see how smart he’d become in only five short years.”
Perhaps the story is apocryphal. But it nonetheless strikes a parallel with the way in which writers mature at their trade. Certainly it typifies how I finally wised up to what the craft of writing is all about. The path I took might be characterized as the long-way-round.
All my life I wanted to be a writer. In particular, I wanted to write novels dealing with the Old West. Heritage provided the motivation, for my roots span several generations of Westerners. On one side of the family, my great-grandfather established a ranch in Oklahoma. On the other side, a number of my ancestors were members of the Cherokee tribe. It seemed only natural that I would one day tell stories of a bygone time.
That day finally rolled around. In 1969, I decided it was “now or never.” I sold everything I owned and quit my job. A week later I moved into a cabin located in a remote stretch of mountains. While I had worked as a journalist, I had no formal training in writing fiction. Nor had I ever read a book on the craft of writing. What I had instead was determination and a degree of rough talent. I gave myself a year to write a salable Western novel.
Three years later I was still an “unpublished author.” I had written four novels, none of which had found a publisher. Hard at work on the fifth novel, I was convinced my writing showed improvement with each effort. Odd jobs kept food on the table and I continued to hammer away at the typewriter. Then, within a period of ten days, my agent sold the fourth and fifth novels. The latter was purchased on the basis of a half - completed manuscript.
There's nothing extraordinary in my personal story. Lots of writers have endured hard times along the road to being published. Yet there's a tale to be told in what happened afterward. In some ways it’s a precautionary tale, for it happens to many greenhorn writers. The central point, however, relates to the way a writer matures at his trade. Some learn faster than others.
When I began writing in 1969, I was all too aware that I knew nothing about crafting a novel. By 1973, when I’d had four novels published, I was convinced that I knew virtually all there was to know about writing. The belief was strengthened by the fact that no editor had ever asked for revisions on any of the books.
By 1974, with six books published, I had convinced myself that I was the Faulkner of the Western novel. I saw my work as literature-literature in the sense that it was art. Some Western writers will recall I wrote articles drawing unfavorable comparisons between traditional Westerns and literature. To put it charitably, I took myself very serious indeed.
Then I got lucky. In 1975, I found a mentor by the name of Jerrold Mundis. A superb writer, Mundis has received critical acclaim for his works of literature. Under a pseudonym, he has also realized considerable success in writing commercial novels. Mundis did me a great favor of editing every sentence of two books, after they had been published. Once you’ve seen your work in book form treated to the red pencil, you learn the true meaning of angst. It was a humbling experience.
By the end of 1975, I realized I was not at all that brilliant a writer. Even though I've had eight novels published at that point, it became apparent that I had a good deal to learn about my craft. In effect, Mundis had employed a variation of shock treatment, and it worked. I was receptive, at last, to a long overdue message.
With my mentor's guidance, I undertook a program on self-instruction. I began an omnivorous reading course: classics, historical novels, mysteries and spy thrillers, and bestsellers. Many of these works, particularly those on the bestseller list, I have previously dismissed as commercial trash. Discovery followed discovery, and there was a gradual dawning that “literature” was not my strong suit. What I enjoyed reading the most-and writing-was a romping good story.
I ultimately arrived at a set of guidelines that turned me around as a writer. There’s nothing new or profound in these guidelines, and I suspect that every successful writer follows something similar. But what I've taken as my personal yardstick illustrates how a writer matures by getting back to the basics of his craft.
There are five guidelines in total. Throughout this book, I will cover three of them at considerable length. To simply list them here would dilute their critical nature, for they represent a summation of the rules of good writing. The fourth guideline requires no great elaboration. While specific, it’s nonetheless a personal statement. A belief I know now to be true. A hard fact of our trade.
Art is for painters and literature is a plateau achieved by perhaps one in a thousand writers. The journeyman writer-the craftsman-must strive to engage the reader with a solid story. Having achieved that with regularity, he can then aspire to one day writing a great American novel. Personally, I've reconciled myself to the fact that I will never write a literary classic. I’m content instead to write a damn good Western.
Suffice it to say I’ve lived by these guidelines. With each passing year-from 1975 on-I became ever more conscious about how little I knew about the craft of writing. Of greater significance, I realized no one ever truly masters the craft. We are instead lifelong students of an intricate process that defies absolute comprehension.
Somewhere along this road of enlightenment, I began to see myself in a more realistic vein. I discovered I was a craftsman, not an artist and never a literary oracle. In a word, I was a storyteller, and like storytellers throughout the ages, my one imperative was to cast a spell with words. To capture the reader’s interest, to occasionally entrance him, and above all else, to entertain him.
All of which brings to the fifth and final guideline that I’ve adopted for myself. A good story, even when it’s told with modest talent, will be read and remembered. A bad story, even when it’s told with brilliance, will be appreciated by no one but literary pretenders. In the final analysis, the craftsman knows that it’s about 90 percent sweat and 10 percent inspiration. He labors to write a good story, and having done so, he takes justifiable pride in his effort.
All writers, of course, strive to improve with each new book. To date I have written thirty-one novels and three non-fiction works. Since 1975, when I came under the tutelage of Jerrold Mundis, I believe my books have shown marked improvement. Granted, the statement in somewhat subjective; but writers I respect are in complete agreement. Like myself, I hasten to add, they are all craftsmen, solid storytellers. Not an artist in the bunch.
A literary establishment will never shower me with accolades. But then, I long ago cast aside the pretense of writing literature. So the indifference of the literati merits nothing more than a large ho hum. I write these days for the readers, rather than the artsy-smartsy community. Which is not to say I wouldn’t like the prestige and recognition that comes with a Pulitzer. From a pragmatic standpoint, however, I’m not holding my breath.
A story will serve to illustrate the point. In 1985, I journeyed to New Mexico for research on two novels. One item on my list was to “walk” the headquarters site of John Chisum’s Jinglebob Ranch. Through various helpful people, I discovered that it was still a working outfit and finally found myself face-to-face with the foreman. We talked for a while and he agreed to arrange a tour of the original site. At that point, I had identified myself only by name, commenting that I was researching a book. Abruptly, he stood and subjected me to a long, searching stare. Then a sudden light of recognition crossed his features.
“Matt Braun!” He beamed. “Gawddamn, I read your books!”
I won't forget the look on his face . Nor will I forget how he remembered titles and various characters from my books. Listening to him, I was reminded once again of what counts most. Awards and literary recognition are strictly second place.
First prize for a storyteller can be reduced to a simple, declarative sentence. Gawddamn, I read your books!