Kenneth S. Pratt has the great fortune to be a man with a series of hit Westerns under his belt. His first book “Willow Falls” is one of the bestselling Western adventures of the year so far. His second book “Sweethome” is almost matching that success. What makes a writer like Kenneth S. Pratt so popular? What drives him to please readers the way he does? Well, it’s no good asking me, we better ask Kenneth himself…
Why was it important for you to write westerns? What drove that ambition?
Let’s begin by talking about the ambition part. Writing has always been a way to express my emotions and imagination. I always wanted to write a novel, but I was cut down from the beginning and everyone doubted that I could, because let’s be honest, I didn’t learn the alphabet until 7th grade. I didn’t graduate high school, and as people told me, “I wasn’t smart enough to write a novel.” But I had one teacher named Mrs. Schmidt in fourth grade who looked at a story I wrote in class and said, “Ken, you should be a writer when you grow up.” I believed she was sincere enough to never forget it, and for the seven years that I wrote Willow Falls, I held on to her belief in me. So what was my ambition for writing Westerns? I write novels because I absolutely love creating characters and making them come to life with their own personalities that clash, make me laugh or bring tears to my eyes occasionally. My ambition is to write stories that connect with people emotionally. In fact, just a quick story: You may have heard of the “Happy Huffmans”? They are a retired couple who became an internet sensation for not knowing they were recording themselves on their computer. Anyway, they are friends of mine, and Esther Huffman proofread Sweethome for me. I went over to their place one day and Bruce was reading Sweethome on their couch. When I walked in, he looked at me with a perplexed expression and said with an angry tone with tears in his eyes, “How can anyone as nice as you write something so terrible?” He was upset by a scene in the book. My reaction probably wasn’t what he was expecting… I smiled. All I could say was, “Keep reading, Bruce. Honestly, just keep reading.” I was excited because he had connected to the characters and was emotionally involved with the story. And that is exactly what I aimed for. He continued reading and loved the story by the way! Why do I write Westerns? There was so much drama and action going on all around our country at that time, and every part of the Old West had something exciting going on. In short, there are no limitations in a Western. It’s a free world where anything you can imagine probably really happened, and you can find it in history, if you look hard enough. And you can’t beat that!
How closely does the Western mirror the American way of life?
The Old West is still alive and well in many rural areas of the United States. I don’t think there is a better example of that than the American spirit of freedom. Most Americans hold great pride in our flag and our history. A history of fighting for what is right. A history of working hard and sacrificing to build this great nation. We have the right to work in any field to make your life your own. The American Dream that brought my great-great-grandparents west on the Oregon Trail to build a life of their own was undoubtedly tough and exhausting, but they never gave up. And they built a ranch at the base of the Blue Mountains outside of North Powder, Oregon. My other great-great-grandmother divorced her husband in 1882, answered an ad in an Illinois newspaper and traveled across the Oregon Trail with her two-year-old daughter, Jenny, to marry a man in Haines, Oregon. That spirit of adventure and courage to achieve a dream is what makes America amazing, even today. Just a quick story: I worked at a retirement community and met an elderly man named Ken. He was from North Powder and just so happens his parents were best friends with my great grandparents. So he personally knew Jenny, who had come across the Oregon Trail. I introduced Ken to my kids and said, “This gentleman knew your great-great-great-grandparents. That is how not so long ago it really was.”
What are your favorite Western movies?
Oh, my favorite Western movie is Lonesome Dove without a doubt. In fact, I watch it annually. Dances with Wolves, Shane, and Quigley Down Under are all top movies on my list, as well. Now when it comes to classics, I always enjoy old Westerns, and though John Wayne is absolutely legendary, I am a Robert Mitchum fan myself. So River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum gets a big thumbs up from me. It is Marilyn’s best movie by a mile, I think. But along with movies, I also really like documentaries and find Ken Burns’ documentaries worthy of watching multiple times, as well.
How did movies like “Lonesome Dove” influence the way you write?
The longer the better! No, I’m kidding. I am obviously drawn to movies that have multiple storylines and a combination of action with some good, heart-stirring drama, too. The interest that I am drawn to and look for in movies is the interest that I layer into my books. All of my stories have multiple storylines, and all have their own little sub-plots within the overall plot of the book. Take Sweethome, for example; there is Abby who is an abused wife trapped on a ranch, with no hope of ever seeing her parents again or being able to leave her awful husband. She has no hope. Even though she keeps praying, nothing’s changed in three years. On the other side of the town, there are complete strangers with no connection to or knowledge of her at all. There is a very happily married couple, named Jenny Mae and Truet—their world is wonderful, except for the advances of the increasingly threatening AJ Thacker. Saul Wolf, the pugilist with a heart bigger than his fists; Felisha, a single mother struggling to raise her son right without a father figure; and the powerful Bob Thacker, who believes he can control them all, until U.S. Marshal Matt Bannister is called to town by both Felisha and Bob for the same reason, just different sides of the coin. They say God works in unexpected ways, and in this story that is a fact! People have said reading Sweethome is like watching a movie, so maybe movies have influenced my writing even more than I realize. All I know is I like deep content, realistic characters and realistic action! It works for me.
Would you ever write a book about the Alamo or other historical events?
No. I have referred to real historical events, such as a character involved in this or that battle, but I am a fiction writer. I find it works best for me to stay away from present tense nonfictional events within my fictional stories of the past. See? Now I’m confused.
Do you believe in good and bad? Is that a concept that all who write Westerns should keep in mind?
When I was a kid, my mom watched old Western movies where the villain most often wore a black hat and the good guy wore a white hat. Unfortunately, that is not how life really is, and quite often the bad guy comes with a warm smile and can even wear a white hat, too. I absolutely believe in good and bad in my own life and also in the context of my novels. I cannot speak for anyone else or the stories they write, but as for me, there is a fight between good and evil in the stories that I write. The evil may have a different face, name and approach with each story, but the damage they strive to do can be life shattering. How one responds shows the strength, endurance and heart of their character. Some fights are worth fighting, and I believe that is what puts the frosting on the cake of a good story.
Who is the greatest American folk hero from the West—in your opinion—and why?
I have to say Bass Reeves. He was such an amazing man that I really can’t believe he isn’t more well-known than he is. I am surprised even more so, that they haven’t made as many movies about him as they have about Jesse James and his gang. What I admire about Bass is his ingenuity, fearlessness, and toughness in keeping the law, and of course, his integrity as a man. To volunteer to hunt down your own son and arrest him for murder is one tough thing to do, I would imagine, but he did it despite the heartache. I enjoy learning about the lives of lesser known, but equally as dangerous or amazing people as any of the Western legends that we know so well. Kitty Wilkins of the “Wilkins Horse Company” of southern Idaho, for example, is an amazing story in itself. For dangerous men who are not household names, but certainly feared, names like Boone Helm or Champ Ferguson come to mind. History is so full of interesting people and actions that are largely unknown, but probably shouldn’t be. For me, it’s like finding a treasure to discover someone new who has an amazing life story.
What will your next book be about?
Well, the next one to come out isn’t a Western at all, but I’ll talk about that another time. The next Western to come out will be one that I am typing up the second draft on now. I won’t mention the title yet, but I will say it is the third installment of my Bannister series. It takes place at the exact same time as Sweethome and is the most action based story yet. It’s lead character will be Adam Bannister and is about some trouble he finds in the rugged Wallowa Mountains, while hunting for wolves. Adam will go up against one of the most unique and evil men I have created yet. That is the main storyline, but there are a few more that I believe will be just as interesting. If you read Willow Falls, you may remember Kyle Lenning, and if you read Sweethome, you may remember a wire comes in mentioning Kyle drowned. This is Kyle’s story of how that comes about. This is a story about survival, infatuation, love, and faith when all that can be seen is looking pretty dim. This a story that I hope will bring tears of heartache and also tears of joy to the reader’s eyes. This third book in the series will introduce new characters that will join with some of the characters from Willow Falls and Sweethome to make the fourth story all that more exciting. I always tell people who ask that every book sets up for the next one. You just don’t see it yet, but I do. There is a reason for everything.
Do you think it’s important to have a large publisher as a Western author?
You know, I think if someone is seeking to write the proverbial “Best Seller” and become an overnight sensation and party with the New York upper society, as seen traditionally on TV shows, probably so. But those stories are far and in between I think. Personally for me, I just like to write. And being an introvert, I truly have no desire to party at all! I am published through Outlaws Publishing, which is a small independent company run by J.C. Hulsey. About a year ago, I emailed him questioning about his company. He called me up and we talked for a bit and got to know each other some. We had much in common, and I decided to take a chance and sign a contract with Outlaws Publishing. One year later almost, and Willow Falls has had a four-month stint as a #1 best seller on Amazon. Sweethome was #2 on the best seller list for some time, and became a #1 best beller, as well, until Willow Falls took over again. For me, it was just a kick in the pants to see my two books ranked #1 and #2 at the same time. There was a bit of satisfaction also knowing that they were turned down by so many literary agents, and yet they were doing so amazingly well. I heard so often that my books were not what they were looking for. Westerns weren’t sellable; religious Westerns were an even smaller genre, but religious Westerns like mine were not exactly sellable to either the Christian market or the secular market! I guess they just weren’t sellable, period. But they are selling and pretty well to my understanding. No, I do not think having a larger publisher is important. I like owning my copyrights, I like writing what I want to write without it being edited down to what someone else feels will sell best. I like the personal care and interest in me and my thoughts by Outlaws Publishing. But mostly, I like the freedom of doing things my way, including the book cover designs. And JC could tell you what a pain I am about that!
Are you ever surprised by how many Western readers there are in the world?
No, not really. The Western genre is as American as Friday night football games. It seems to me that literary agents are always looking for the hot buck and the next big thing, but I’d bet it would be harder than expected to find a bookshelf in the average home that doesn’t have a Western, historical romance, or non-fiction book taking place between 1800-1900. There is a natural curiosity and fascination with our history that simply draws people to it. Westerns, historical fiction, non-fiction, and other books that authors labor over help to keep that fire for our past alive. Hollywood makes all kinds of movies, but it is still the Westerns that stand above the rest, such as The Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and most recently, The Revenant all have won many fans and awards. It does not matter what you are looking for in a story—excitement, action, drama, romance or a good love story—you will find it’s all available in the Old West.
Would you ever write a non-Western?
Absolutely! In fact, the next book of mine being released a bit later this year is a non-Western. It is a dramatic thriller about fear based in modern times in a small country town. It asks the question: “Can you trust God in times of fear?” And that will be coming out in a few months. I love writing Westerns, but I also have plans on a number of more modern stories about various topics. I also write children’s stories. I have two children’s stories out presently: “The Uncensored Adventures of Pepper the Pug” and another called “If Slugs Ruled the World.” Soon enough, I hope to have the second adventure of Pepper the Pug coming out. Pepper the Pug is a continuing series of goofy animal fun. In October of 2012, my wife was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimers at the age of 45. It shook our world up as you might imagine, but things got worse. I had lost my job of seven years, and we were losing everything, including our home. My daughter was 15 and my son had just turned 12 at that time. Every night, I would sit down on my son’s bed and make up a story to tell him. I came up with many characters, but Pepper the Pug was one of his favorites. It was good to see him smile and hear him laughing as he went to sleep despite our changing world. So I wrote it into a book and hope to continue to with many more children’s stories when time allows me to, so he can read them to his children someday. Writing is fun, and I have all kinds of project ideas and plans.
Can you tell us a little more about your books?
I have written two Westerns so far that are published. “Willow Falls” is the first of what is known as the Bannister series. And “Sweethome” is the second book of the series. I am presently working on the third book. Willow Falls is quite a long book, but it sets the stage and introduces the main characters that will play a role in the rest of the series. Sweethome is the first real adventure of U.S. Marshal Matt Bannister in a town that is corrupt and dangerous. Some of the characters will become main characters in future books, as well. I have been asked, “Do I have to read Willow Falls first to understand Sweethome?” The answer is no. Sweethome stands alone as a complete story on its own, however, it will be richer if you read Willow Falls first.
How have reviewers treated your books?
The reviews have been overwhelmingly favorable for both books so far. I could not be happier about that. I have come into this world of publishing with a pair of Christian-based novels with a new approach to realistic characters and circumstances people face in real life. I dared to touch on tough subjects and not soften the blows to the ugliness of domestic abuse. But you know, there is so much darkness in this world, so much hopelessness, that you bet I will use what I know and am able to do, to bring some hope to hurting people through my stories. Sure, some won’t like them, but for those who do, maybe just one will really “get it” and change their life for the better, the brighter, and have hope where there was none. And that is precisely what it’s all about to me. Yes, it takes place in the setting of the Old West, but the lessons of enduring trials and having hope in the face of hopeless situations is meant for living today. I knew coming into this that not everyone was going to like my style of writing, but there would also be those who did. I have received some bad reviews, but most of those are due to the “religious aspect” or the “too long” of a story. Overwhelmingly by a large percentage the reviews have been fantastic!
If you could travel back to the West and be a cowboy—would you?
If I could go back in time, I would not want to be a cowboy, not particularly. I would prefer to learn more about the everyday life of multiple professions (cowboys included) but also the everyday, common people as they labored to survive and raise their families. That’s just what I am drawn to and strive to write about—just ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Why don’t you start the first Kenneth S. Pratt bestseller “Willow Falls?” You can download your copy today from Amazon. Do you want more Kenneth S. Pratt? Why don’t you download his new book “Sweethome?”