Literary legend Max Evans on the landscape of Western writing
By Margaret Wright
Age is relative for Max Evans. Technically 88, he’s many hundreds of years older, he says, if you count his extensive traversals of metaphysical time and space. When the Western Writers of America held its annual convention in Albuquerque the week of June 12, Evans—one of the association’s most acclaimed and long-standing members—didn't have to travel much further than his own backyard to attend.
Photo by Sam Adams
Evans moved to the Duke City from Taos in the late ’60s, not long after his first two books, The Rounders and The Hi-Lo Country, were published and quickly deemed classics of the Western genre. From there, he’s never stopped seeking ways to tell the stories of the vanishing of the wild American West—always in his characteristically vivid, lyrical style. Evans spent his youth living the depictions in his novels: a cowboy, miner, rancher, combat veteran, barroom brawler and painter. He is just as comfortable drinking whiskey in hotel bars with roughnecks as he is hobnobbing with Hollywood actors and directors. (He’s been friends with Hollywood greats, most notably The Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, who is also the subject of Evans’ newest writing project.)
Evans joined the Western Writers of America in late 1964—a time when the organization had a heavy California contingent. “Most were working television or pulp writers,” he says, or staffers for slick Wild West-themed magazines. Despite a dwindling audience for Western literature these days, aficionados and scholars at WWA are as enthusiastic as ever. “A lot of these people really give their hearts to getting history as accurate and true as they can,” says Evans. “I think that’s an important part of America and always will be.”
Evans combs his hair into a spiral coif he’s worn for decades. He dresses like a gentleman cowboy, in long, slim jeans and a vest over his button-down. His voice is a gravelly drawl, and the letter “s” whistles in his teeth as he talks. And Evans embodies the lighthearted spirit of his writing. Even as he bemoans the contemporary West’s sprawl and pavement and younger generations’ loss of connection to wilderness, he simultaneously shrugs and laughs, marvels at how the hummingbird nest outside his bedroom window reminds him that we never lack for things to feel awestruck by. Here are some excerpts from our hour-long conversation in the Marriott hotel lobby—a conversation which, like Evans, travelled effortlessly across time and space.
How have you seen the Western Writers of America change over last 40-plus years?
First of all, they had five awards back when I joined. Now they have about 17. They'll soon have one for knife-throwing. [Laughs.] It's a joyous bunch of people, but not a hell of a lot of cowboys any more. ... There are more writers and less markets all the time—or maybe let's put it this way: If the markets shrink, it seems like there are more writers.
You’ve said you were motivated to write, in part, because you saw eras of Western history familiar to you being mythologized beyond recognition. Do you think the West is no longer distinct enough as a region for young people to be compelled to write about it?
The reason we aren't getting young people writing about it is that for about 30 of 40 years around the world, young people could go to the 10-cent movies and they were all wonderful, crazy shoot-’em-ups. They loved them and were raised on them. They didn't have cell phones and all those high-tech, wonderful things. It's just a different world. And right now, for some reason, the world's entranced with zombies and vampires. They don't give a damn about cowboys.
You’ve said that you can't write by hand any more, and so you’re dictating your next book. Can you say more about the project?
My old hand has been broken so many times, and my inner ear ruptured. I thought I'd just quit writing and go back to painting. But in some strange way, I felt compelled to tell the truth about Sam Peckinpah, the great director. We had a quarter-century friendship. My family lived with his family, and he was a madman, and so was I. And there’s no one left to write about him. ... He was a creature like no other, really. He had a certain ambition, and respect for an age group that had been through a transition period. He was always interested in transition periods, because they're full of scraping and rubbing and exposure. And in his Westerns, he pulled it off. They were shoot-’em-up movies, but while the West has been distorted, used and abused in every way, he tried to tell it exactly the way it was. He came very, very close—in a way that no one ever did and no one ever will. ... Sam loved the people of the West. He knew their honor and dignity and their love of the land and their neighbors. He did his best to retell it.
Photo by Sam Adams
Reading your work, I find myself overcome with this strange nostalgia. The landscape is so familiar, but the lifestyles you depict—of self-reliance and getting by on your own wits outdoors-—it’s remote to most of us now.
I grew up in Lea County, a place that's supposed to be flat, ugly country, and I just thought it was magnificent. I hunted and trapped animals for our family food. The very animals that I was going to eat, it got to be where I loved them and got to understand them. My whole life has been that, and I didn't know it, but it was guiding me to know that there was more to life than minutes of time, and people. We are just a minor part of the world, and the universe. I think I just knew that by the time I was 7 or 8 years old. ... I feel so privileged to have had the experiences I've had, with wild creatures and wild people. I feel blessed that I could say a little bit about it, so that maybe one or two other people in the world would have the same feeling.
Animals are these dynamic, pivotal characters in your stories. What do you think of our cultural shift that has moved us so far away from wilderness and contact with wild creatures?
People think the technology in their hands is the most important thing in the world, and it seems like it right now. But it isn't at all. Our technology is already obsolete compared to the knowledge of nature.
... Coyotes can communicate with each other through a solid mountain. One will communicate to the other that there's a rabbit coming, and the other will wait on the other side. The first will run that rabbit around the mountain; the other will take up the chase and catch it. I've seen them do it. ... People of my older generation did things right, but they didn't leave room for the young to be touched by the proper things and know that they're just part of a whole. That knowledge just keeps diminishing and diminishing. I'm not sad about it. It's just an observation. And we have to laugh at whatever the heck there is in front of us, especially ourselves.
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