SCATTERGOOD DISCOVERS THE DESERT
An Interview with Clarence Budington Kelland
From Desert Magazine August 1943
Conducted by Oren Arnold
(illustration of CBK from Desert Magazine)
True fans of the desert may not like it but a western formula developed by Clarence Budington Kelland has been a potent force in publicizing the Southwest country. Oren Arnold gives us a close up view of the author of Scattergood Baines stories who a few years ago "went desert" in a serious energetic way. He bought a home near Phoenix, Arizona, and promptly started to turn out one novel after another telling the country at large about the adventure and romance still to be found in the desert. -Editors
A lovely eastern girl inherited a ranch in the Arizona desert. She came west to run things, and two gents fell in love with her. She married the one with the quickest pistol and the fewest buck teeth—then faded with him and the saguaro cactus into the sun setting in Skeleton canyon. The End
THAT beautiful formula has done more to publicize the desert country in the past 10 years than all the desert chambers of commerce combine. It is the plot pattern used by Clarence Budington Kelland, highest paid author in the world.
Whether or not it is a "good formula is beside the point. It is good for Kelland. And it is good for the desert. With variations, it has been written, broadcast and screened so many times that all of us Americans should be sick of it. We aren't. It was an oId plot when Kelland was born, and it will be new when he dies, We Americans like to see the lovely girl triumph with her hero, and we especially like to see the picturesque desert land, which is naturally keyed to adventure and romance.
Bud Kelland can turn out three novels a year and do a lot of short stories, radio talks, politics, horseback riding, and loafing, on the side. He is not a desert citizen by birth or rearing. In fact he started his personal and professional life away hack East, began writing nearly fourty years ago on tile once distinguished American Boy magazine. He created Scattergood Baines, a Vermont philosopher. He did a lot of miscellaneous romance.
But he didn't—by his own admission—get his journalistic stride until he discovered the desert. And that happened by accident, He was rolling from civilization to California (a New York neighbor said that!) when his trailer house broke down in that wild western region called Arizona. For several hours he had to wait there amid loneliness and prickly pears. A rancher rode by looking for steers.
"Good afternoon,- Mr. Kelland greeted.
"Howdy, pardner. Nice day."
"Yep it is. Say I want to know something about this country. I am Clarence Burlington Kelland."
-Um," grunted the rancher, "right smart stretch of name, stranger, What do yore friends call you?"
The distinguished author swallowed. "Bud," he said then, grinning.
"All right, Bud. Mine's Ike. Ike Bane, Now this country is a great place for either cows or minin'. Me, I'm in the cow business here, you want a cigarette makin'?—because they are more shore. A man cain't eat a gold mine he don't find, but I can always manage to eat my own beef if I have to. Hanh?"
That was enough! Two smart men, each salty and wise in his own way, had all they needed in common. They didn't stay strangers long.
Bud eventually came on into Phoenix, and walked around down town. Several people in the banks and the hotels discovered he was Clarence Budington Kelland—but not a doggone one fell over himself begging for autographs! Nobody gasped and looked at him with awe. Yes, they knew about him. Kelland, the famous author. What of it? Looks like a good egg. Lots of good fellows come out here. How do you do, Mr. Kelland; make yourself at home.
It was a new live-and-let-live sincerity. He hadn't expected it. These Westerners, these desert folk, just didn't give a whoop how important he was; they liked him because he was likeable. So Bud Kelland promptly bought himself a $50,000 home near this desert town of Phoenix, and he expects to grow old gracefully and die there.
It wasn't many months after that when the Saturday Evening Post burst out with the first of the famous Arizona trilogy in fiction. It was a serial called "Arizona." The girl this time was even more impossible than his heroines usually were and more lovable. She baked pies and she swung a blacksnake whip—remember? The Post circulation jumped up. The book version of the story sold fast. The motion picture was filmed on the open desert near Tucson—in the grandest set ever created out of Hollywood, a re-creation of historic old Tucson, adobe walls and all.
Next one was about Prescott and third one about Phoenix, the same plot retold with new details, the same general setting. Again they clicked high everywhere. The Post ballyhooed them on its cover. The screen called them epics, which they weren't. The public loved them. "Valley of the Sun" was the Phoenix story, and it was partially true. It got Mr. Kelland in good with the citizens of his new home town.
Since then he has done several other desert stories—nobody ever tries to keep up with his titles, because they come too fast‑ and all of them have ranged toward best-seller class. As recently as 1940 Bud Kelland was rated by the profession (as reported in Writer's Digest) as the highest paid author in the world, and 90 percent of his output was concerned with the desert. He sees in every storied hill a new setting for his romance. He reads a bit of history about an old mine, a picturesque rancho, a wagon train, an Indian raid, and goes to his workshop out back of his residence, He types for three hours, then rides a horse on the desert nearby. Next day he types some more. That's all the "inspiration" he seems to require.
Bud Kelland is no arty author. His stories lack the pompous importance of Zane Grey's westerns, and because of that is probably closer to real literature than anything Grey ever wrote, Kelland's novels are sassy, pert, cute; never heavy or profound. Dialogue is as rich and spicy as a high school girl's. Philosophies are elemental and sound and so simple that Ike Bane can understand them, are in reality Scattergood Baines' reasoning redressed for desert use. In short, Kelland stories are not the enduring classics we might like them to be, but they are tops in entertainment. That's all their author ever has claimed for them. That's the only goal he has ever set.
As a craftsman, he is good enough now never to rewrite, edit or even read his own stuff. (Among us lesser hacks, that fact will be phenomenal.)
"At nine o'clock each morning I sit down at my typewriter," says he. "I put in a clean white sheet and three carbons. 1 pause a moment, and then I begin to type.
"By 12 o'clock, almost invariably, I have done about 1,000 words. That's where I quit for the day. One thousand words a day is enough for any writer. That means 30,000 words a month. That means a novel complete in two months, or a little more.
"I do not bother to read what I have written. It is not necessary. I do not edit my own stuff, nor have any one else do it. I do not even have it copied. If some young squirt editor back east wants to change a word or two, it's up to him,"
Actually, the young squirts don't bother. Bud Kelland has them all bluffed, has editors begging him for manuscripts night and day at his own rates—which automatically makes him the patron saint of all other writers, who have been slaves to hope and revision!
It wasn't always like that with Kelland. And in this lies the inspiration for us all. His career, no less than Lincoln's and any other rags-to-riches man's, started from scratch. About the turn of this century, 25-year-old Buddie Kelland had been striving to sell fiction for seven long years before one story finally clicked. An editor paid him $7.50 for it
He spent the next six months in celebration, went back to work and eventually sold a second yarn for $10. Since then, some statistician has estimated, Americans have spent 10,000 years reading Bud Kelland stories. (Figuring the average time to read the average story, by the average number of readers of magazines in which his stories appear.) Many more aggregate centuries have been spent by us Americans looking at his stories on the screen. In his 60's now, his production is still amazing, and demand for his work is greater than ever. There's no guessing what sort of desert romance may pour out of his agile brain when he turns loose on desert army camps, aviation centers and the like. The war situation is bound to influence him.
Now with such a phenomenon as that publicizing the desert —what is the desert people's opinion of him? Do they approve of him? Do they like him personally? Does he "belong"?
To the latter question, the answer is yes and no. He offended a great many folk by being superficial in his historical novels of Arizona. It was a justifiable offense—most of us feeling that some great (which is different from popular) writer could have made "Arizona" as distinguished a novel for the West as "Gone With the Wind" is for the South. Answer to that, however, is that the gate is still open. America has known only two truly epic periods of history, the antebelium South and the Wild West. Margaret Mitchell did the former in her incomparable novel. Who among us will do the West?
Kelland is regarded as an eccentric now. Which means he has to maintain a sort of crusty guard against pests who bedevil him to read manuscripts and to speak to the ladies' society pink tea. He is not tough, or hard to talk to. He is exceedingly fond of children, He loves horses, dogs, and wild critters that bark and yap and scream in the desert nights.
His idea of a good time is to play a round of golf with some salty friend like Guy Kibbee, who plays Scattergood in the movies, then go for a desert horseback ride. Often he rides alone. He may just sit out on a desert rock and think—or, as the feller says, just sit. It's a pretty good form of recreation.
Any famous author is held to be wise, and perhaps that is so. This wise Mr. Kelland, then, admits in formal interview that life is sadly confusing, and that he isn't sure what he'd do with the U.S.A. if somebody thrust a dictatorship into his lap. He will occasionally venture a generality or two.
"Work, work, work!" he almost shouted at me once, when I asked him how to prevent unemployment. Work to prevent unemployment? It calls to mind another sage observation made by another wise man; Calvin Coolidge himself once said, "When a great many people are out of work, unemployment results!"
But when he isn't dodging, Bud Kelland does better. "I think we grew into a spoiled-brat nation," said he, on another occasion, "because we had too much luxury. Luxury is enervating. When the reaction set in, we soon had thousands of people floundering around like cry babies, and eventually we had to face a war because of it.
"America wasn't made in the first place by whiners. It was made by pioneers who felt not that the country owed them a living, but that they owed the country a living."
And that statement ought to bring nods of agreement around anybody's campfire.
(Final novel in the Arizona Trilogy, set in Prescott.)
Watch for new paperback and ebook editions of the entire trilogy in 2017 from Digital Parchment Press.