Keith Chapman writes Black Horse Westerns under the pen name Chap O'Keefe.keith chapman



TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF.

I was born and educated in Enfield when it was still on the edge of the Green Belt north of London. I shifted to New Zealand in 1967, paying for the air fare out of my income from freelance writing. Because there was and is no genre publishing in NZ, I then worked as a journalist on magazines and newspapers for nearly 35 years.

WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?

Pretty much as soon as I could read! Professionally, as soon as I left grammar school and went to work at Fleetway Publications in Farringdon Street, London. Since that great starting opportunity, I've never had to work in a job that wasn't based on writing. With my wife, I've managed to raise a daughter and two sons, now all adults, and we live in a comfortable home on a hillside overlooking the upper Auckland harbour. And you could say the bills have all been paid by the pen.

WHO/WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES?

A book of my mother's, Playbox Annual 1928, is a fondly remembered early-childhood influence. The Bruin Boys, with Tiger Tim, featured in that book, and when I found out they were still appearing in a comic paper called Rainbow, I became an avid reader. I've still got my Tiger Tim badge somewhere! I moved on to boys' story papers, favouring the text publications, like the Champion, over the picture-story ones, like Lion and Tiger. All these weekly papers and their annual books were issued by the Amalgamated Press from the Fleetway House, Farringdon Street. As a boy, this seemed to me to be an almost magic address, though I did also read the Thomson-Leng story papers from Dundee: the Rover, Wizard, Hotspur and Adventure. At this time, the Amalgamated Press also published pocket-sized monthly paperback series called "libraries". These included the Sexton Blake Library detective novels, and a companion series edited by the same man, Len Pratt, called simply Western Library. Here you could find reprints of Ernest Haycox, Clarence E. Mulford and George Owen Baxter (Max Brand) alongside new short novels by John Hunter, T.C.H. Jacobs (Penn Dower), James Marshal (Sydney J. Bounds) and Charles Wrexe (Rex Hardinge).

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO WRITE WESTERNS IN PARTICULAR?

I don't know that I did. Westerns were part of the mix of what I could sell in the 1960s. There was also war, detective, school, sport, historical. In the '70s, I added some "confessions" and supernatural material for the Charlton Comics Group edited by George Wildman in Derby, Connecticut (Ghostly Tales, Many Ghosts of Dr Graves, Scary Tales, etc). I even wrote some scripts for a Scandinavian publisher who had a franchise to produce Disney comics.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO WRITE UNDER THE PEN-NAME CHAP O'KEEFE?

Keith Chapman sounded too ordinary for a Western. Everything about the books I wanted to write in this genre needed to be ringing and colourful, including the byline. So for fun I shifted things around a bit till I reached a result approaching what I was looking for, but that could still be recognizable as myself.

DID YOUR BACKGROUND SCRIPTING STORIES FOR COMICS HELP YOU WHEN YOU TACKLED YOUR FIRST NOVEL?

All your fiction experience helps: your reading, working in editorial offices, writing short stories . . . and yes, scripts for picture stories. The tight script structure forces you to be a planner plot-wise and to visualize constantly. If your story is too static, lacks graphic incidents, or is just too wordy, your picture-story script won't even begin to work. Also when you worked on periodicals at a young age, you learned the discipline of deadlines. If the artist didn't get his script on time, the letterer and then the printer couldn't do their jobs. I never heard of a picture-story publication missing an issue because of a slack scriptwriter, so I guess those that were unreliable just got weeded out before they could cause a problem. When I was editing Micron Publications' Western Adventure Library and Cowboy Adventure Library, along with a monthly mystery magazine, a war library and a detective library, I depended on good writers. They included Vic Hanson, T.C.H. Jacobs, Rex Hardinge, Sydney J. Bounds and J. T. Lang. By the way, the two sample openings of my Western comic stories on this page are from Odhams books -- Boys' World Annual 1968 (The Train Robbers) and Eagle Annual 1967 (Blackbow the Cheyenne). Blackbow was a stock "house" hero who appeared in the famous weekly Eagle boys' paper.

WHAT PROCESS DO YOU GO THROUGH TO GET FROM INITIAL IDEA TO FINISHED MANUSCRIPT?

For a Black Horse Western I usually start by writing a 2000- to 3000-word synopsis which includes six main character sketches, two of them women. I don't become a slave to the synopsis when I write the novel, but the planning does help me judge whether the pacing through the book is right, and it does mean I can avoid writing myself into tricky corners. Since I want my first draft of the novel to be close to a finished manuscript, the synopsis is very important to me. Some writers hate synopses. I value them as props and safety nets in the writing process. The "working" synopsis shouldn't, of course, be prepared or regarded as a sales tool or blurb.

HOW IMPORTANT IS RESEARCH TO YOU?

I'm not a serious student of the Old West. I do research on the trot. Too much can be a hindrance. I usually research at the initial ideas stage in a broad way, to make sure what I'm proposing isn't ridiculous. Then for detail I research as I write.The Outlaw and the Lady, for example, drew largely for Colorado background on an 1879 book by an English woman traveller. The Gunman and the Actress was inspired by the US tours of Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and I borrowed two biographies from the local public library. I also got some south-western facts, particularly on cock-fighting, from the work of a University of Texas historian.

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE BLACK HORSE WESTERN SERIES?

It's a unique opportunity for writers world-wide. There's no closed shop at Robert Hale. They'll read your MS whether you live in Britain, America, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand . . . anywhere. That's so pleasing. An agent specializing in Westerns once told me that he went against his own conviction to represent two long-respected Black Horse Western writers. He named them in a letter to me, which I felt was a bit unethical, and went on to say that no American editors would touch their books simply because they were English! Because Hale's contract terms and payments reflect the limited number of Black Horse Westerns that can be sold to public libraries, it's tempting to portray the people at Hale in unflattering ways. Resist that! By all means put a reasoned case for improvements, but remember that for most of us Hale is the only option for publication as a Western writer. NZ, for example, has no genre publishing. The scene is dominated by the likes of Random House and Penguin, whose main business is marketing imports.

DO YOU USE SERIES CHARACTERS, OR DO YOU PREFER NEW CHARACTERS FOR EACH BOOK?

I prefer new characters, but Joshua Dillard is the hero of Shootout at Hellyer's Creek, The Gunman and the Actress and The Sandhills Shootings. So you can say I've done it, but only when it has been fitting. Series characters can become inhibiting. My first job at Fleetway House was on the Sexton Blake Library. The detective Blake was a "stock" character, the property of the publisher, of course. But many top mystery writers just couldn't write about him and his associates because they couldn't produce self-contained stories that were consistent with what had gone before, even when the publisher supplied fact sheets.

WHICH OF YOUR BOOKS IS YOUR FAVOURITE AND WHY?

Sorry, I don't have a single favourite. I like 'em all for different reasons. For example, The Gunman and the Actress, one of my books that had a Linford large-type reprint, is full of action and gusto from beginning to end. A romp, even to write. But Doomsday Mesa has a more thoughtful central character and is a more rounded, mature story with a bitter-sweet ending.

WHICH OF YOUR COVERS IS YOUR FAVOURITE AND WHY?

Again, they all have their strengths. My least favourite is the one for Doomsday Mesa, which shows a gunman waiting in ambush for an approaching rider. Nothing like it happens in the book.

WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT ANY UPCOMING WRITING PROJECTS?

Frontier Brides is based on the "cargo of brides" affair in Seattle but with the main setting moved to a frontier town in New Mexico. Chapters are also set in the territory's capital, Santa Fe, and in New York circa 1880. The Rebel and the Heiress will be a post-Civil War story with an Arizona background.

ANY ADVICE FOR ASPIRING BLACK HORSE WESTERN WRITERS?

Take a little time out to learn the basics of your craft. Many more excellent instructional books are available today than when I started out. You'll probably find some at your local library. They don't have to be on writing Westerns. They could be about thrillers or historical fiction, say. But the principles will still apply and you can adjust the advice, paying appropriate attention to the sections on setting and research. Find out about plotting, characterization, dialogue, construction, pace, climaxes, openings, endings, and everything else. Above all, write regularly and diligently. Read lots of Black Horse Westerns analytically, if you decide they're your bag. Lastly, don't expect BHW money to pay your rent or mortgage, or even your grocery bill. You'll need another income stream for that. If that means working eight, or even five hours a day in a job that is mentally demanding, you may find that by the time you've also met responsibilities to partner and kids, you'll not have the energy left to cope with even a short novel. Try not to fret. Put your BHW ambition to one side and promise to come back to it when your circumstances change. That's very hard, I know, but it can be done. And you wouldn't want to have a nervous breakdown, would you?
Thanks, Keith.


Back to Interviews List

Home