What’s it like to be a writer and have an imagination that won’t turn off?
Look no further than Louis L’Amour.
Ninety-one novels. Nearly four hundred short stories, articles, screenplays, and poems—in addition to hundreds of unfinished works that Louis L’Amour left behind when he died in 1988.
That’s a jaw-dropping output for any writer and if you only think “Western” when you see the L’Amour name, you’d be mistaken. His interests spanned the waterfront. Crime fiction. High adventure. Historical romance. Science fiction. And even stories with a healthy dose of mysticism or spiritual adventure.
Following my recent move to southwestern Colorado (the vibrant little town of Mancos, 25 miles west of Durango), my writer pal Chuck Greaves invited me to lunch with Louis L’Amour’s son Beau. A day or two later, a package arrived on my doorstep with copies of Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 1 (published in 2017), Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2 (coming out next month), and the full-length novel No Traveller Returns, also published under the Lost Treasures banner.
Far below is a review of Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2. Suffice it to say that Louis L’Amour fans will enjoy devouring these stories—even in their incomplete (but not always) state—and admiring the active imagination that conjured them up.
But, wait, there’s more. Throughout Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Beau L’Amour has added extended, thoughtful commentary on each entry. And both volumes come with lengthy, and distinctly different, introductions along with photos of Louis L’Amour throughout the years. The elder L’Amour is occasionally pictured not writing.
Beau’s thoughtful approach to the Lost Treasures project is easily seen in the answers he sent back after I emailed him a few questions.
Question: When you first considered pursuing the Lost Treasures project, was it a tough call? On one hand, there was the opportunity to bring these pieces out into the light. On the other hand, given the sheer volume and fragmentary nature of some of the works, there would be a whole lot of work going through them and adding all the commentary, too. Or was it a no-brainer given your father’s talent, his huge fan base, and his wide-ranging interests?
Beau L’Amour: Just to unpack some terminology: the Lost Treasures project has three parts. First, there’s two books of story fragments, notes and a few complete, previously unpublished, short stories and treatments. Those are titled Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Volume 1, and Volume 2. Volume 2 is coming out this November.
Second, there are over 30 of the classic and long-published Louis L’Amour novels and short story collections to which I have added a Lost Treasures Postscript. In these I try to tell the story behind the story, how or why they were written, and sometimes details about a subsequent movie adaptation.
Third, is No Traveller Returns, my father’s first novel, which I have completed so that his fans can finally read what was the final piece of his “Yondering” series. This was an early sequence of stories that functioned as a snapshot of the world of merchant seamen, hobos, soldiers of fortune and drifting men and women that he inhabited in the 1920s and ’30s. These stories are very different from his later work in their greater focus on the nuances of atmosphere, character, and theme. There were about five stages of dad’s career, this was Louis version 1.0.
There were a lot of aspects to the decision to compile and publish Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures. A writer’s estate has to occasionally revive the confidence of both booksellers and publishers, so it’s good to have a big project or two hidden away that can be brought out just when they have started to wonder if you have anything left. Clearly, book sales have a lot to do with anything we do. Some fans seem kind of surprised by this, but we are in business and the only way to stay in business is to make money. It takes a lot of effort to keep a writer who passed away 30 years ago fresh and popular. If you rely on a publisher to do all the work, or even knowing how to do it all, you are kidding yourself. Then there is fan service, many want to know everything they can, want to own every piece of writing they can find. This project is unique in that it is the only effort I know of to package this complete a selection of a writer’s “papers” with the works that they relate to. There is also our hope that some of these efforts will allow us to acquire new fans, that someone who came to the Lost Treasures series because it illuminates the interior life of a writer, or discusses the history of publishing in the 20th century, will become a Louis L’Amour fan and buy other books.
Finally and most important, Lost Treasures tells a story I wanted to tell. Dad made two attempts to break away from writing westerns. The first time out he tried to make a clean break. This was in the late 1950s and he was completely unsuccessful. The second time, in the 1970s, he had a complex and careful plan, one that is a bit breathtaking in its ambition, especially given his age. What he tried to do, and the material he hoped to write in other genres, and how he was eventually able to succeed in selling The Walking Drum (a historical novel set in 12 century Europe), Last of the Breed (a cold war thriller), and Haunted Mesa (piece of “Weird West” Science Fiction) is ultimately what Lost Treasures is about. It’s kind of a random access portal to that story, given that that the details are spread out over many books, but the really interesting details can only be appreciated by a person who has just read the story that the notes pertain to. Being able to package them in those novels or with those stories was an amazing opportunity.
Question: On that point, can you give us an idea of the raw material you worked with? Typed manuscripts? What was the process of getting these stories ready to edit? Your description of the burgeoning mess of books and papers makes this all sound like it must have been daunting to begin the excavation process. How hard was it to find all these bits and pieces? There must have been a lot of labor involved.
Beau L’Amour: When my father died he left behind all sorts of randomly filed documents. Beyond that there were dozens of hip-high piles of loose paper mixed with books, artifacts like Rolliflex cameras and Arabian daggers, and newspaper clippings he thought might someday be interesting. I started by sorting all that into about six categories just to make some sense of it. Then I dived into each category individually. Eventually there was a huge pile of “unknown” manuscripts and another of notes. Over many years I sorted them all into order. Through research or my own memories, I identified what was related to which project and then filed it all away. The vast majority of the finished or nearly finished stories that we discovered I polished up and published between 1990 and 2005. I had a lot of help in all of this. A list of those people can be found in the Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Volume 1 and 2 acknowledgments.
Once the project started I assessed each element like this: 1) If it was finished I automatically considered including it. There are a couple of complete short stories as well as a number of film and publishing treatments In Lost Treasures Volume One and Two. 2) The more lengthy something was, the more likely I was to include it. Lost Treasures Volume Two contains one fragment that runs an amazing 17 chapters while another one runs 10. 3) It should “get somewhere.” Although many of these pieces are unfinished, I gravitated to fragments that felt like they had arrived at or gone on beyond some sort of turning point or act break. 4) It was needed to help tell the story I was trying to tell about how Dad worked or what he was trying to do with his career.
Once the selection of a fragment was made I would pull together the different drafts and figure out what I was dealing with. Often there would be a number of drafts, some distinctly different than others. I would combine the drafts that were most similar to one another into a single version that include most of the important elements. Then I would place the drafts that were different enough to be interesting in the most entertaining or easily understood order … this was not necessarily the order in which they were written. After doing that I would dive into Dad’s notes and correspondence, my memories, and his journals, to write a commentary section that would explain what he was up to, how he expected to finish the story, and where the idea originated. I try to keep these as succinct as possible, I’m not the subject here, my father’s work is.
I do the same thing in the Lost Treasures Postscripts included with his well known novels. Each is different: The Postscript to Down the Long Hills is all about a sequel he was planning, including some manuscript pages he had written and various notes. The Postscript to Callaghen covers our doing research on the forts along California’s “Desert Road.” And while the Last of the Breed postscript deals extensively with the novel’s inspiration and a missing piece, or chapter, that I discovered in all those papers mentioned above, it also discusses the fate of both movie and comic book adaptations.
Question: Of all the pieces in Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and add No Traveller Returns, too—which one do you think your father most wanted to see published in his lifetime? And why?
Beau L’Amour: There are two unfinished adventure novels, one in Lost Treasures Volume 1 titled “Journey to Aksu” and the other in Volume Two titled “Ben Mallory.” Both deal with China and Tibet and both have interesting mystical elements. Dad had spent a short time in China in the 1920s and always wanted to “return” through the medium of writing about the country. He also was highly critical of China’s imperialist domination of Tibet and supportive of the plight of the Tibetans. Similarly, and somewhat presciently, he was also concerned as to the future fate of the Gologs and the Turkic speaking peoples of Xinjaing … today we know one of the larger groups as the Uighurs. He wrote two short stories about 20th century China and these issues, “Beyond the Great Snow Mountains” and “May There be a Road,” as well as starting these two novels.
Question: Can you give us a few thoughts about what it was like to grow up in your father’s storytelling world? The sheer volume of pieces he left behind is stunning, let alone his prodigious output of published works. Did he discuss what he was working on with you or anyone? Your marvelous description in the introduction of Vol. 1 makes it clear he was incredibly dedicated—and his output and discipline are certainly legendary. How did this home environment of words and stories affect you?
Beau L’Amour: Dad discussed his own work more than I initially remembered. Working on Lost Treasures both brought back a great number of memories or reminded me that I was quite aware of the travails of his writing career even when I was a child. We grew up surrounded with stories. Dad read to my sister and me every morning at the breakfast table or on trips in the car. This was nearly always material he was interested in rather than material intended for kids. I have very clear memories of him reading Thor Heyerdahl’s book on the Kon-Tiki Expedition.
Our house contained thousands of books, to the point where after a decade or so we had to move to a bigger house just to have room to get around. There is a great list that covers much of what he read over the course of more than fifty years on the Lost Treasures website. (Follow this link.)
Sometimes things got a bit odd—there were lots of stories told about my father, many of them he told himself. Were they true? Were they merely extensions of his imagination or stories he was working on? When you live in a household this dedicated to storytelling these are the sort of questions you have to ask, and often that you find you can’t answer. I’m reminded of the character of Ernest Hemingway in Alan Rudolf’s wonderful film “The Moderns.” He absentmindedly calls his friends by the wrong names and when they remind him who they really are, he waves them away and goes back to scribbling in his notebook saying something like, “Just something I’m working on …”
Question: Your favorite story—or TV or movie treatment—within these two volumes? Is there one that you think holds the most promise for being finished as a concept?
Beau L’Amour: I like certain aspects of “The Golden Tapestry” (Vol. 1). It’s a bit like a classic Alfred Hitchcock movie. Set in Istanbul in the early 1960s, the protagonist is a fixer and con man who stumbles into a thriller or caper plot. I’m not a fan of treasure hunt stories, unless the treasure is somehow something more than money, but I love the general set up and the characters.
Journey to Aksu (Vol. 1), mentioned above, appeals to me because I’m fascinated by China’s “Warlord Era” of roughly 1911—1945. This story has all the elements of classic 1930s adventure fiction: The hero is a cynical soldier of fortune who has become the pawn of a corrupt general. Much of the action takes place along the southern Silk Road in one of the most remote areas of the world and there is a lost city that holds a secret so dark that no one who finds it is ever allowed to leave.
The most intriguing, but problematic, of the stories I’d love to finish is “Samsara” (Vol. 1) which deals with a group of reincarnated men and women who have some slight ability to remember their past lives. Dad tried to start it in four different settings and eras. One version takes place in a “time before time” and possibly relates to a sort of Graham Hancock-like high prehistoric civilization that these reincarnated characters might have once belonged to. Another follows a soldier of Alexander the Great. A third is a TV Treatment about an antique dealer in Beverly Hills who can access his past lives. In the last, a young wanderer based very closely on my father, and using many incidents from his life, is recognized as one of the reincarnated and directed toward a mysterious repository of archives that this group has created for itself in central Asia. It’s a story that ends up being weirdly connected to the previously mentioned “Journey to Aksu.” “Samsara” would be a very difficult story to tell. It was clear from the pieces left behind that it lacks concrete goals for its characters and a coherent conflict but it was a very, very, interesting premise.
All that said, I have no plans to expand these stories at this time. I’m not dead set against it but I have to admit, I like their unfinished form. It a bit like a movie trailer. When you see a trailer your expectation of the film is all about its potential rather than what the actual film is going to be about. You are living in anticipation. It could be the best movie ever. You won’t know until you see it. It’s a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat, both completely alive and totally dead, until you look in the box. Unfinished, the stories live in your imagination in a way they don’t once the rubber meets the storytelling road.
Question: At one point, you quote one of your father’s journals: “People wonder how I write so much … I wonder why I write so little.” Can you even wrap your head around that concept…how could he have possibly produced more and, down deep, what do you think drove him so hard?
Beau L’Amour: Dad really couldn’t have done more and still lived a happy life. He was going flat out and enjoying his kids and the opportunities the fame he had finally achieved brought him. But the attitude in that quote shows how driven he always was to get back to it. He wasn’t obsessive, he was about one slight degree this side of obsessive. Very likely some of the things that motivated him were growing up in a house with two intense and successful older siblings.
His eldest brother was the foreign desk editor for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, a military intelligence officer, and the secretary to a US ambassador to China. His eldest sister was an author, librarian, and high school principal before she took an administrative position at Stanford Research Institute, a think tank that advised on subjects as eclectic as mind control for the US Military, air pollution, automated check processing, and where to locate Disneyland.
Both of those siblings went from what passed as a middle class childhood in the late 19th and early 20th century rather seamlessly into adulthood. In Dad’s case that middle class lifestyle broke down when he was in his early teens and he spent a couple of decades in poverty. He didn’t get the opportunities or the education that they did but he could see how helpful that education had been so he was driven to make up for it by working hard and educating himself. It is important to remember that Dad only broke out into serious success in the early to mid 1970s. He was pushing 70 years old and he died at 80. His story is one of a great deal of hard work and not such a long time to enjoy the fruits of his labor.
Most importantly, and probably the least understood aspect of Dad’s dedication to work, was that he had taught himself to write directly out of his unconscious. Unlike many authors who struggle to create he was able to put himself in a certain creative frame of mind and just let the stories pour out.
The downside of working like this is that the unconscious doesn’t like opening up and if you get out of practice, if you lose your discipline, your abilities become harder and harder to access. He was, rightly, afraid to let even a day go by. After a short time the struggle to regain what had once been easy could become extraordinarily difficult.
Question: What are you working on now?
Beau L’Amour: I am finishing the last of the Lost Treasures Postscripts. I’ll probably be doing that into next year. I’m also doing some fairly technical work: Starting in the 1980s we did a series of L’Amour audio books that were dramatized like Radio Dramas. We did about 60 titles in this style with a cast that varied between 5 and 25, sound effects and musical score. The last one we did was The Diamond of Jeru in 2015. Needless to say, between the 1980s and the 2010s we learned a great deal about how to produce these shows. One of the things I’m doing now is working with Paul O’Dell, our webmaster and computer handyman, to go back and reedit and remix a couple of our old productions to try to bring them up to a more modern standard.
Beau L’Amour’s website is here.
In his comments following Louis L’Amour’s brisk sci-fi story fragment “The Freeze,” son Beau L’Amour notes the tale may have been inspired by the discovery in Siberia of “The Berezovka Mammoth,” which was found with grass in its teeth and mouth. The discovery suggested that the mammoth had been caught in a flash freeze. Louis L’Amour turned quick scrap of inspiration into the opening of a science fiction novel with a man in deep jeopardy. Right at the beginning of “The Freeze,” our protagonist is “setting in for a miserable night.” The conditions are wicked. The sense of peril is obvious. It’ signature Louis L’amour.
“The Freeze” feels like a sketch. It’s full of ellipses. “The sun … how long since I clearly saw the sun?” “It was ten degrees below zero that morning but bright and cold … and then it happened.” This tincture of L’Amour prose is less than four pages long. And yet we’re instantly caught up in the plight of this cold, cold man and his will to survive.
In the same comments about “The Freeze,” Beau quotes from a 1986 journal entry by his father. “People wonder how I write so much. I wonder why I write so little. People suggest stories when my brain is loaded with stories … and (I) would be telling them by the roadside if not for this typewriter.” L’Amour goes on to describe the nugget idea of “The Freeze” and then laments, “Good story there, may never find time to write it.”
Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasures Vol. 2 is a deep-dive into some of the unpublished manuscripts, screenplays, short stories, and film treatments left behind by this non-stop story machine. (It’s the followup to Vol. 1, which I’ve only scanned.) Beau L’Amour’s lengthy introduction to Vol. 2, a separate but companion effort to his introduction for Vol. 1, along with his detailed notes (six pages of thoughts and background for the opening chapters of Ben Mallory, for instance) make this project an invaluable gift to L’Amour fans.
The anthology is a fascinating smorgasbord and reveals the broad range of Louis L’Amour’s relentless interests—two beginnings for an epic historical novel (“The Bastard of Brignogan”) about a one-handed man taking on a castle (and about much more); the beginning of a western (“Mac Ross”) with a creepy atmosphere; a complete adventure story (“The Quest for the Bear”) about a group of downed airmen and a deadly—and legendary—bear; the beginning of an early frontier novel (“Kills Bear”) among settlers and Indians in the northwest; and the opening seventeen chapters of the adventure novel Ben Mallory about the changing political landscape in China. And so on.
L’Amour’s easy-breezy style never varies. The writing is built for roadside storytelling or campfire sit-arounds. The emphasis is on story and mood, often led by a character channeling his inner Jack Reacher or Indiana Jones (“The Jade Eaters”) many decades before either character existed. No matter how far L’Amour’s eye roams, however, rugged landscapes are in abundance.
In Ben Mallory, for instance, the presence of an unusual mammal is the sole clue that we’re in Asia; it could easily be the U.S. frontier: “Among the icy peaks and across the alpine uplands there was silence. Only the soft hoof-falls of horse and yak, only the creek of saddle-leather and occasionally the moan of the wind. Mallory rode ahead, his rifle at hand. Occasionally he looked back. There was nothing.”
Later: “Mallory moved out a little farther from camp. The moon was rising and the shoulder of the mountain lay in vast tilted ledges, grass-covered except here and there where they were exposed…great smooth almost polished white ledges, shining in the light.” The wild, wild west is a universal thing.
The most fascinating entry here might be L’Amour’s ambitious treatment for a movie called “The Jade Eaters.” Beau L’Amour tells us it the introduction that it went into development—in fact, Universal Studios is thanked for permission to publish it. The version in Lost Treasures may be an early version, but it is a breathtaking story of adventure, jungle exploration, and a hidden civilization that may have discovered eternal youth. (“Ben! This is it!! Remember what we heard about the jade? That people who drank powdered might live forever? Well, they are apparently doing it!”)
Yes, as Beau L’Amour has stated, reading these stories is an exercise in frustration—especially since the majority of these end abruptly. Devouring these stories triggers a recurring case of readus interruptus. But each volume has 21 entries in addition to all of Beau L’Amour’s commentary, which includes Beau’s personal observations from his youth and family life along with his best analysis, if he’s not sure, of when in his father’s career a piece might have been written.
“This is the story of the debris, the chaff, the waste heat that a writer produces,” he wrote in the introduction to Vol. 1. “The stuff that never makes it to the editor’s desk. The stack of pages never graced by a final ‘The End.’”
Many of the stories may not deliver that satisfying sense of finality we all crave, but Louis L’Amour’s Lost Treasurers offer ample proof of a writer could find a spark in a stray nugget and let his writing brain light up. It’s a remarkable thing to behold.
Previously reviewed: No Traveller Returns