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Published on Wednesday, July 14, 2010

An Interview

with John M. Whalen

 

Writer John M. Whalen granted an interview to The Western Online. His recently released book, Jack Brand is available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.


   

The Western Online: Can you describe Jack Brand for our readers?

John M. Whalen: When the Great Terror War ended near the end of the 22nd Century, Jack Brand was discharged from the Army where he'd served as a Ranger. The Government of the Northern Territories began colonizing other planets. Oil had been found on the planet Tulon and the oil companies and the provisional government needed recruits to build a Security Force to protect the oil fields and the oil workers. Brand's experience as an Army Ranger made him highly qualified for that kind of work, so he left Earth and joined the Security Force.

His kid sister, Terry, who had also fought in the Terror War, said she was damned if she'd stay home while he went out exploring new worlds. Their parents had been killed in the Great Salt Lake chemical attack, and were buried with thousands of others in the mass grave out in the Bonneville Salt Flats. There was nothing left of the lives Jack and Terry knew, growing up as children on their ranch fifty miles from Salt Lake. He agreed to take her with him.

They served together on the Security Force for 10 years until the day he led his tactical squad, which included Terry, into an ambush. The squad was wiped out, Brand wounded and left for dead. Terry was kidnapped by a Nomad gang known as the Wilkersons. Brand survived and vowed he would not leave Tulon without finding his sister and making the Wilkersons pay for what they had done. The novel begins four years into Brand's seven-year search for his sister.

TWO: Although Jack Brand is being called a Space Western, is it a story that readers of The Western Online will enjoy? Why?

JMW: While Jack Brand falls into the sci-fi category, it is, for the most part, actually a western novel set on another planet. Brand fits the pattern of the archetypal western hero---a lone figure riding across a desolate frontier, who's on a personal quest. Like many western heroes, Brand has a code he lives by and feels no reason to explain himself to anyone. His actions raise questions in some of the other characters' minds, but that is only because they do not know what private motivation prompts him to do the things that he does. Brand cares little about what anyone else thinks, he is content to know that his private reasons are reason enough. Brand is tough, two fisted and a fair hand with a Raygun. The sole reason for his existence has become the rescue of his sister and retribution to those who kidnapped her.

   

TWO: What is your definition of a Space Western?

JMW: That's a good question. There have been a lot attempts to pin it down. Some people call Star Wars a Space Western. Another example typically cited is the film Serenity and the earlier TV series, Firefly. Some people think you can take a western and give the character a Raygun and a rocketship and that's a space western. Some people think its something altogether new, and maybe what I'm writing is new, but in my opinion space westerns can be traced all the way back to Gene Autry's famous Phantom Empire serial. If you look at that serial, there you see Gene in full cowboy regalia shuttling between Melody Ranch and the Scientific City of Murania, which is a totally sci-fi setting. In a way, I'm trying to recreate that kind of fusion of the two genres, but in a more realistic way and possibly with a more serious intent. But even more, I'm trying to pay tribute to more modern westerns and maybe bridge the gap between the westerns of the past and whatever shape westerns of the future may take.

TWO: What draws you to writing Westerns with a Science Fiction slant as opposed to the traditional Western?

JMW: I think the science fiction element of the stories, just possibly makes space westerns a bit more relevant to our lives than the traditional western. For instance, there's a chapter where Brand's quest takes him to an underwater city, where the themes of superstition vs. progress, and the need for energy conservation policies are part of the story. It's hard to do that in a traditional western. Another reason why I'm writing these stories is that I just like the image of the western lone hero crossing a desert on his Hover-Jeep, a Raygun on his hip, entering a futuristic city built under a glass dome. But the cross-genre approach gives you the opportunity to do things that haven't been done before. I wrote a short story for Science Fiction Trails magazine about the Gunfight at the OK Corral, in which one of the participants turned out to be an alien.

TWO: You write in a variety of genres. What is your favorite genre to write and why?

JMW: I like whichever one I'm involved with at the time. But when I look at my output over the last couple of years, many have been stories set in the Tulon Universe. What I like about Tulon is that it's a planet that was discovered to be rich in oil. It underwent a boom during the Terror War when oil was desperately needed back on Earth. But after the war an alternative fuel source was discovered and nobody needed oil. The bottom fell out of the Tulon economy and it rapidly deteriorated into a burnt out wasteland. I've got another series of stories under the title This Raygun For Hire about a gunman who roams the planet at an earlier time than the Brand era. Frank Carson is kind of like Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel.

TWO: There seem to be all sorts of Western sub-genres popping up and a lot of writers that blend the Western with other genres. Why do you think that is?

JMW: As I said earlier, I think the cross pollenization yields new and exciting ideas. I don't believe the western novel has exhausted all its possibilities yet, but there really isn't too much innovation being exhibited in westerns these days. The genre hasn't yet seemed to have recovered from its overexposure on films and TV of the fifties. And sadly, the younger generation of readers hasn't shown much interest in westerns. Maybe a sci-fi blend like Jack Brand will lead them to looking up some of the classics, especially in film, that were an influence in putting the Brand book together.

TWO: What are some of your writing influences?

JMW: This always strikes people as odd, but my book is dedicated not to a science fiction author or a western writer. It's dedicated to Stirling Silliphant, a screenwriter who co-created the classic TV series Route 66 and Naked City. Silliphant was a prolific writer who later went on to receive the Academy Award for his screenplay for In the Heat of the Night. Why is he an influence? I like the way all his stories focus on character. On peeling away the onion of the human personality and getting down to the truth of that person. He wrote stories that, in that now clichéd phrase, "hit you where you live." In Jack Brand I tried to go for that approach, focusing on the characters that Brand meets on his search for Terry. And deepest of all is an attempt to probe the nature of a man who would spend seven years out in the desert of a dying planet, continuing that search at great personal loss, when anyone else would have given up long ago.

TWO: What is your favorite Western? Why?

JMW: There are two. One is Comanche Station. Perhaps the best western of all time, directed by Budd Boetticher, written by Burt Kennedy, and starring Randolph Scott. If one reads my book closely they'll discover that the first chapter, "Tulon Station" is a rewrite of "Comanche Station" in a very condensed form. Comanche Station was about a man's unending search for his wife, who was captured by Indians. Scott gives the quintessential portrayal of the western hero, in my opinion, and Jack Brand is definitely modeled after him. The movie ends without knowing if Randolph Scott ever finds his wife. That question intrigued me. What kind of story would it be if we followed him on with his search? I was always intrigued by the way Sergio Leone rewrote Yojimbo and made A Fistful of Dollars, and John Sturges turned The Seven Samurai into the Magnificent Seven. So why not take Comanche Station, change it to a science fiction background and continue the story on until the end. So Comanche Station was the jumping off point. After the first chapter, the book goes along on its own, hopefully, original, way.

My other favorite is Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. In fact I pay tribute to Peckinpah in the book by rewriting a story he wrote for The Westerner TV series with Brian Keith back in 1960. The chapter entitled "Tulip" is based on the famous "Jeff" episode of the Westerner. In that story Dave Blasingame tries to rescue the daughter of a friend from a Mexican whorehouse, only when he finds her, she doesn't want to leave. In Tulip, its something of the same idea, only with a more violent ending more along the lines of the kind of thing Bloody Sam would do later in his career. I'm not the first to rip off that story. Robert Culp rewrote it for an episode of I Spy that starred Earth Kitt as a blues singing junky in Hong Kong that Bill Cosby's character was hung up on.

TWO: Why do you think the Western is so deeply embedded in American culture?

JMW: Well, I have to wonder if it is that deeply embedded anymore. I know it is for we who grew up with Westerns on TV every night. But I wonder if the western, which was part of the American psyche and the basis of American culture really, isn't fading into oblivion. I suspect there is still in the heart of every man and woman, even the most jaded and politically correct man or woman, something that still responds to the notion of getting up on a horse and heading out into the wilderness to discover new frontiers, new place, new faces, a new life. Of course you can't do it on a horse anymore. You can get in your Corvette, like the guys on route 66 did, or your Hover-Jeep, like Jack Brand. But in reality how many ever do it? And at this point how many are left who even dream about it? I think society is becoming so homogenized, and psychoanalyzed, so regimented and beaten down by mass media, fears of terrorism, and economic collapse, there aren't many who can escape the herd mentality, and even entertain the possibility. I hope I'm wrong. I hope there are readers out there who can identify with Jack Brand, and will want to join him on his quest. I hope there are enough people who aren't too busy texting, and tweeting, and watching You Tube, that they can still pick up a book and discover another world beyond their own circumscribed existence. Hopefully, in doing so, they may discover something about themselves along the way.

 

   
John M. Whalen has been a reporter, an editor, and an astrologer. His science fiction, sword and sorcery, and horror tales have appeared in numerous magazines both electronic and print. His articles on film and TV have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Filmfax magazine, and Mystery Scene magazine. He’s currently at work on a sword and sorcery novel.

 

 

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