I recently reviewed Michael Katz’s novel Shalom on the Range. You can see the review here. In short: It’s a fun, pulpy, action-packed Western that also manages to sneak in some genuine historic lessons about the Jewish experience on the American frontier.
I asked Michael if he’d answer a few interview questions. So here goes.
What prompted you to write the novel in the first place?
I started out as an editor – first non-fiction, then fiction – and I never thought I was going to write anything. Especially not a full novel. I was content just feeding people ideas behind the scenes. And this was an idea I had come up with and was going to feed to an author to run with if they were interested, lending them guidance in the background. But a number of people told me I was a good writer and should try it myself.
And when I took time off from my “day job” of practicing law I decided to give it a shot. My now ex-wife had a friend who was a movie screenwriter and also did some adjunct teaching at one of the local colleges. He agreed to read my draft and give me feedback, so I decided if he liked the first draft I’d plow ahead. If he didn’t I’d give up, but at least I would have tried. Turns out he really liked it, although he did teach me quite a bit while I was writing it, and that in turn made me a better editor as well as writer.
When you were working on the novel, were you consciously aware of balancing simple entertainment with historical analysis of an ethnic group’s experience in the Old West?
I was perhaps too consciously aware of the historical aspects of the novel. I was trying to make the book appeal to fans of Western fare, because Western literature is possibly the most difficult to sell, so I wanted to make sure my book was as historically accurate and as chock full of Western lore as possible. I also wanted the book to appeal to the Jewish people because that was another target audience I hoped would latch onto the overall concept and try the book for that aspect even if they were not into Westerns, since only a minority of readers are.
I think I wound up trying to make too many people happy, and it interfered with the flow of the book. So the first two or three chapters overemphasize the historical setting, because I want the readers to be fully immersed before they take off on what I hope is a rollercoaster ride of action mixed with humor and drama.
I actually removed quite a bit of historical detail from the book when I revised it for Kindle and Nook. So if anyone buys it for an electronic reader, they may find a better flow than the paper version.
Could you talk briefly about the history of Jews in the Old West?
I could, but that’s what the book is for. Ba dum dum.
Nah, Jews in the Old West were treated the same as anywhere else. The Jewish culture puts a lot of emphasis on education and hard work, and people were jealous of them for their success. Their religion always made them seem standoffish because – and this has always been a bugaboo of mine – what other religion do you know wants to keep people out? It’s like they want to be the smallest minority in the world. Don’t they know there is safety in numbers? It’s always easier to pick on the smallest person in the room.
Plus, at one point the US government decided that too many Jewish immigrants were coming to America through New York. Afterwards they were supposed to be dispersed along the eastern half of the country, but they were sticking around the same areas and causing overcrowding. So Galveston, Texas – which was a busy port city that already had a large population – was proposed as a secondary entry point for Jewish immigrants. Once they came into the western half of the U.S., they tended to stay there.
Of course, don’t think that Jews were only good for running businesses. They fought in wars, they were in law enforcement, they were cowboys and gunfighters. Some of them even show up in my book.
Did you put a lot of research into the book?
Heck, yeah. I am very anal retentive when it comes to research. I hate the thought of getting anything wrong, especially where it comes down to the Old West or Jewish history. If I wanted to put something into my work I made sure it existed at the time or I would make sure to find something else to use. If I was researching one thing and I came across something else, I would save that other thing for a rainy day and find a spot for it if I could
I wrote a short story – horror – that took place in Chicago, and I’ve never been to that city. I did a lot of research on the city. The story involves a lock picking scene, so I researched how to do that. The character doing the lock picking is from the Isle of Man, so I researched their speech patterns and idioms. A lot of work when I just want to write about killing a monster.
Did you get any kind of response from either Western historians or Jewish groups?
Definitely both categories liked the book. Excellent reviews all around, I’d pat myself on my own back but you can send people to the publisher’s website instead. My favorite was from The Denver Post, but overall there truly is something in the book for everyone. That and a dollar will buy me a third of a cup of coffee. I kept my day job.
History is full of different settings and eras that are rife with action and drama. Why do you think the Western has proven so popular and enduring – both in America and globally?
Simplicity. I actually don’t think the West was as simple as people think, but it feels like it from what we see on the screen. What good guys and bad guys do is relatively obvious. The good guys want to be left alone. The bad guys want to take everything. If someone tries to hurt you, you are permitted to hurt them first or go after them in revenge. And walking around with a gun on your hip makes for a pretty good deterrent.
Now they have lawyers that keep you from doing that. Stupid lawyers.
A lot of pop culture wonks like to discuss the idea of the Western undergoing periodic shifts in response to what’s happening in society. For example, the clean-cut heroes of the early serials giving way to the scruffy anti-heroes of the 1960s and ‘70s. Or the radically different portrayal of the Indians in, say, “Stagecoach” and “Dances With Wolves.” Do you think the Western is undergoing any kind of similar shift these days?
No, unless you see a return of its appeal as being caused by people fleeing overcomplexities in life.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’ve been writing the sequel to Shalom on the Range for some time now. The first book took me literally six weeks to write the first draft. The second book will probably be six years. I wish I could take a sabbatical to focus on the book, but life gets in the way. I never expected to retire on what I made from sales of my first book, but I had hoped to parlay it into a full-time job. Never happened, so I’m still practicing law, which takes up a lot of my time. Parenting takes up a lot of the rest.
What Westerns (movies, books or TV shows) would you recommend?
My favorite modern Western author is Loren D. Estleman. He wrote a series of novels about a U.S. Marshall named Page Murdock, as well as some standalone novels. He also writes some excellent detective novels. James Lee Burke, who does the Dave Robicheaux novels, has written a few standalone Westerns. Then there are writers like Johnny D. Boggs, Bob Boze Bell, Elmer Kelton who aren’t known outside the genre. And luminaries such as Larry McMurtry and Zane Grey.
For movies you have to go with Eastwood and Costner. Eastwood’s Outlaw Josey Wales (very realistic in terms of weaponry), High Plains Drifter (supernatural elements gave it a Twin Peaks element) and Unforgiven (helped bring back the genre). Costner’s Dances with Wolves, Open Range, Wyatt Earp. I also loved The Quick and the Dead – a guilty pleasure, with Sharon Stone in the lead.
Deadwood was an excellent TV show, although the flowery, Shakespearean dialogue made it difficult for people to follow. I love Alias Smith and Jones. Two shows with modern day settings that I think fit the Western genre are Justified and Sons of Anarchy. Justified is the renegade lawman, with a latter-day U.S. Marshall in place of a traditional deputy. And Sons of Anarchy is a biker gang that translates well as a band of lawless riders living off the land, outside the tenets of society, which is how Western lore is traditionally viewed.