An interview conducted on September 22, 2019
Just to set the record straight. Is J. Allen Wolfrum your real name?
It sure is. I shortened Jerad to J. because Jerad is hard to spell and pronounce. Allen is my middle name.
Where did you grow up? Tell me a little bit about your childhood.
I grew up in Waterford, Michigan. I’d say that I had a normal upper middle-class suburban childhood. When I was younger, it seemed like life revolved around baseball and hockey. I wasn’t good enough at either to play in college, so after graduating from high school I was kind of lost. I ended up joining the Marine Corps, which is the second best decision I’ve ever made, right behind marrying my wife.
Have you always wanted to be an author?
The short answer is no. The longer answer is maybe. Is that confusing enough?
I definitely did not grow up with any notion that writing fiction was even a remote possibility. I always liked to read, but the idea of writing did not occur to me until much later in life.
The closest I ever came to thinking about writing was an English Literature course that I took as an undergraduate. I remember it being a really fun class, but my major was Accounting, so that class was the end of English Literature or any other art courses for me.
The thought of writing fiction did not enter my mind until maybe six or seven years after college. I tried a couple of times to write action scenes like Louis L’Amour, but it was hopeless. I had no idea what I was doing and it didn’t go anywhere. I finally turned the corner when I found a book about the structure of storytelling called Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. From that book and the accompanying podcast, I learned the basics of storytelling and that is what gave me the courage to try my hand at writing fiction.
For me, learning to write fiction has been a difficult journey that continues every day. But all the hard work has been well worth it. I’ve always had this strange idea in my head that if I held out long enough and put myself in the right position to experiment, I could find my thing, that one thing that I really wanted to do. And with writing, I think I’ve finally found it.
Your first novel was a political thriller, the second is a Western. These are quite different genres, what made you decide to write a Western?
I am extremely proud of my first book, Selected. With that book, I went from never having written a sentence of fiction to completing a full-length novel that has a solid storyline and great characters.
When planning my second book, I forced myself to sit down and think hard about what genre I wanted to write in. Although I enjoy political thrillers, the Western genre will always be number one in my heart.
I grew up reading Louis L’Amour novels. In the living room of my grandpa’s house, he had a wicker basket that sat on the floor next to his chair. In that basket, along with the stack of magazines about bird dogs, pheasant hunting, and golf were Louis L’Amour books. That’s what I remember reading as a kid. Louis L’Amour books have been a constant in my life ever since.
Though I was raised in Michigan, the desert and the West have always had a pull on me. My grandparents were snowbirds, in the wintertime they lived on the outskirts of Phoenix, and we would go out there to visit on holidays. During those trips, I was able to see several Old West towns. Tombstone, Prescott, Flagstaff, Tucson, Jerome, Sedona, and Bisbee are among those that come to mind. I remember visiting Tombstone as a kid and seeing a reenactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In a drawer at my parent’s house, I am pretty sure that I still have one of the empty blank cartridges that the actors used. On that same trip to Tombstone, my sister, cousins, and I got our pictures taken dressed up in Old West gear, and to this day that picture hangs on the wall in my parent’s house. Anyway, experiences like that had a huge impact on me growing up, and have stuck with me through the years.
My time in the Marine Corps as an Infantryman also reinforced the relationship I have with the desert and mountain landscapes. Some of my fondest memories of that time are of the “backyard” at Camp Pendleton and up in Northern California at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. The deserts of Kuwait and Iraq were altogether different experiences, and just as important.
I guess all that led to my continued fascination with the Old West. To me, the Western is much more than what you see in shoot ’em up cowboy films. It’s about hard people. Men, women, and children, living in a harsh environment, and doing what’s right, no matter the consequence.
What is Durango Sky about?
Durango Sky is the story of a cowboy searching for purpose. Whether or not he finds it, well, that depends on your interpretation. I’d say that Lane Shepherd does ultimately find purpose, although it comes in an unexpected form. But each reader has to come up with their own interpretation, that’s the beauty of books.
How did you come up with the character of Lane Shepherd?
To me, Lane Shepherd represents anyone who has struggled to find a purpose in their life. He may be a cowboy riding on cattle drives and a sheriff enforcing the law, but on a broader level, he’s a lost soul searching for purpose, as we all are at some point.
As a cowboy, Lane Shepherd is what I always wanted to be. He’s harder than a block of steel, sharp as a whip, and deep down, he has a heart of gold. He’s a man you definitely want on your side in a gunfight. And just like every human on earth, he has a few flaws.
Why did you set the novel in Durango, Colorado?
Sometime in the 1990s, I remember reading an article about Louis L’Amour owning a ranch near Durango, Colorado. If Louis L’Amour chose Durango as his home, there’s no doubt that it’s a special place.
While doing research for Durango Sky, I spent some time in Durango. For those that haven’t been, I highly recommend visiting. The train ride from Durango to Silverton is especially amazing.
During my time in Durango, I explored as much as possible, the descriptions in the book are based on that research. In the book, Durango Sky, the characters are fictional, but the timing of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad line coming to Durango is based on as much fact as possible. The decision to make the railroad line stop in Durango instead of Animas City a few miles to the North was also based in reality.
What authors have influenced you the most?
I enjoy reading books from a broad spectrum of genres, both fiction, and non-fiction, but if I had to narrow it down to two authors, they would be Louis L’Amour and Larry McMurtry.
Every time I pick up a Louis L’Amour book, I smile. He does such a good job of describing the scenery of the West and is a fantastic storyteller. When I get stuck in my own writing, all I have to do is grab a Louis L’Amour paperback and start reading. Without fail, there will be a scene that triggers a solution to my own story problem.
I absolutely love the prose of Larry McMurtry. The way his sentences and paragraphs flow in Lonesome Dove is pure beauty. And of course, the storytelling is terrific.
What are you up to next?
Right now, I’m in the final editing stages for Durango Sky. I’m anticipating the publication date will be late December 2019 or early January 2020. I really enjoy the Western genre and I’m planning out the next novel which will be another Western featuring Lane Shepherd and Adam Walsh from Durango Sky. I’d like to explore the years they spent as bounty hunters before joining the Bar-O outfit. I know there is a series of outstanding stories in there.
Also, I’m writing a personal essay about the road trip that I took to Durango while doing research for the book. It was an exciting experience, I drove our 1969 Volkswagen Beetle from San Diego to Durango and back.
Lots of good stuff to come. I’m excited for what the future will bring.