Meet John Legg, prolific writer of Westerns

October 27, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Some people struggle for years and years to break into print. Others, like my friend John Legg, have many books to their credit. Legg has published 46.

Legg, a copy editor at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix, found his niche writing Westerns. He may not be rich or famous, but he publishes regularly. His most recent paperback is "Flintlock Trail" ("When a man's courage was his only resource") (Harper, $4.99, 1997).

Like any modern-day Western writer, Legg is originally from the East. He got his bachelor's degree from William Paterson College in New Jersey and his master's in journalism from Northwestern.

"I've always been interested in American history, particularly the Old West," he said in a recent interview. "I had been writing short stories, mostly science fiction and fantasy, and not having any luck. So when I decided to tackle a novel, I naturally turned to the West. The rest, as they say, is history (bad pun intended)."

After 46 novels, how does he keep the spark alive?

"Sometimes it's not easy," he admitted. "But I have a pretty active imagination as far as stories go, and I seem to be able to see stories all over. I can be reading something, and sometimes a sentence will pop out and the mind starts working it around, and soon I have a story. Or it may be a character. Once I get to thinking abut it, and come up with an idea, the enthusiasm seems to naturally flow along with it."

What expertise does he bring to writing?

"This is tough to answer, too. I've had some success in my writing, so obviously I have some expertise, or talent, in writing. But if we're talking more specifics, I guess I have some expertise in the history of the Old West," he said.

"I've studied it for many years, albeit without much discipline. Meaning that I'm an armchair historian rather than an academic historian. I belonged to an organization called The Opposition, which was a group dedicated to researching and re-enacting the history of the Old West, particularly pre-1840. The group disbanded several years ago."

Granted, Legg is a fulltime journalist so he doesn't depend on book publishing to make a living. But does he have anything to show for all those books?

"With genres, particularly ones that have been struggling as much as Westerns over the past decade or so, the money is not terrific," he said. "I know some people who are making a living at it, and a few who make a pretty decent living at it, but it's not easy. I've had some pretty good years, but some others haven't been that good. Publishers don't pay much, especially for genres, unless you're at the top. Or are a celebrity."

Does he really write two books a year?

"Actually, I usually write more than that," Legg said. "This, too, depends on the situation, though. Westerns, like most other genres, go through cycles. Right now it's in a down cycle, so things are slow. However, there are times when it's in an up cycle and I write a lot. At one period, I wrote 16 books in 18 months, which was a little much, even for me. One year, I had four books come out in a two- or three-month period. I think I had seven books all told come out that year. Last year I had two. This year, one."

For all his frenetic writing, his goal is the same as many many other writers. "My ultimate goal," he said, "is to get to a point where I'm doing well enough writing that I can quit my day job and just write. That doesn't necessarily mean becoming a millionaire...I mean making a decent enough living to support my family would be good enough. Meanwhile, because of the ups and downs of the Western market, I'd like to move into other areas of writing. I'm working on a couple of contemporary mainstream novels, as well as a mystery, some nonfiction and a few other things. A little success with this would smooth out things overall, making life a little simpler. It would also help me move toward the goal of quitting my day job."

Even though Legg has worked at several newspapers, he's been hard pressed over the years to get mainstream reviews of his work.

"Westerns are, after all, not really literature," he says (emphasis on the irony). "That's a common feeling among many reviewers and most large papers. They don't do reviews of Westerns, nor romances. It's an attitude I detest. Most of those people still think Westerns are the hack pulp novels of the 1950s. Some still are, but the majority are not. There are some damn fine writers out there doing some damn fine Westerns that are as good as if not better than most of the literary swill that's being published. Enough of my diatribe!" Anyone who would like to get in touch with Legg can reach him at

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