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Short, Nervous Cowboys

Joe Holley

Elmer Kelton, the prolific Texas writer who died Aug. 22 at age 83, had a terrific way of describing the ordinary folks he wrote about in his novels about cowboys, Indians, ranchers and frontiersmen. "I can't write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible," he liked to say. "I write about people five foot eight and nervous."

I saw several references to the quote when I began doing research about Kelton, whom I've known for 25 years or so. Don Graham, a literature professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on writers of the Southwest, reminded me that he and I first heard Kelton utter the quote in 1983, at an Austin conference on Texas writers where Don and I were moderators. "He liked it so much he repeated it over the years," Don said. "He knew a good line when he heard it."

Kelton was amazing -- 62 books in all, with two to come posthumously. Many are "formula Westerns," but more than a few transcend the genre, particularly "The Time It Never Rained." He also wrote "The Good Old Boys," which became a made-for-TV movie starring and directed by Tommy Lee Jones.

Kelton always advised young writers to keep their day job. That's exactly what he did. While he was churning out best-selling novels and stories over the years, he went to work in San Angelo, Tex., every day -- first as the farm and ranch reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times and then as an editor with "Sheep & Goat Raisers Magazine" and "Livestock Weekly." It kept him in touch with real people, he said.

By Joe Holley  |  August 24, 2009; 5:48 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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