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Monday 3 February 2014

Blog Guest - Keith Chapman aka Chap O'Keefe

Today, my guest is Keith Chapman. He was an editor and contributor to various fiction publications in London in the 1960s before shifting to New Zealand and spending nearly 35 years in newspaper and magazine journalism. He returned to fiction writing in earnest in 1992, using the pen-name Chap O'Keefe, writing westerns, and also edited the Black Horse Extra online magazine. For the last four years he has concentrated on bringing out his quite considerable back-list in e-book format, rather than producing new fiction.

Chap O'Keefe, his wife, three adult children and five grandchildren live in Auckland, New Zealand. The family home is high on a North Shore hillside overlooking Hellyer's Creek and the sparkling Waitemata Harbour.

(part two tomorrow!)


Can you tell us a bit about your ‘various fiction publications in the 1960s’?

Many of these were British comics and annuals, so my output was mostly scripts interspersed with short stories. This was not a matter of choice.

As a child growing up in Enfield just north of London, I had always favoured story papers over the picture-strip comics. For example, when the Amalgamated Press closed its last text paper for boys, The Champion, in 1955, I switched my reading allegiance to the D. C. Thomson papers, like The Rover and The Wizard. These were published in Dundee, Scotland, although they carried a Fetter Lane, Fleet Street address.

But I did continue to read the AP's Sexton Blake Library detective novels. And via reviews and the like published in what today would be called a fanzine, this led to my first job after leaving school. I was offered the chance to become editorial assistant to the SBL's editor, W. Howard Baker, in London's legendary Fleetway House, filling a slot created by the departure of Michael Moorcock.

The SBL was dogged by a number of problems in its latter days at Fleetway. Not least of them was the books' format, which had made the series of novels in newspaper-size type externally unidentifiable from the company's “picture libraries” which were comic books.

Another drawback was the editor's seemingly odd policy of having a majority of the authors' submissions rewritten, not by themselves but by another author. The scope for fledgling writers at Fleetway House was clearly in scriptwriting for the comics.
As Fleetway dropped the curtain on the SBL, I shifted to backstreet publisher Micron Publications Ltd, a story I told last Spring in the third edition of Book Palace Books' sumptuous quarterly magazine illustrators. (An expensive journal but a must buy for anyone seriously interested in the history of artwork produced for books and comics.) Micron's output was almost wholly picture libraries along the Fleetway lines. Before D. C. Thomson began its Commando series, they were, in fact, Fleetway's only competition in this field.
1964: The youthful Micron editor and writer.

As well as editing, I found myself contributing war and western scripts for several Micron series: Combat Picture Library, Western Adventure Library, Cowboy Adventure Library.

In the manner of those times, the writers and artists for the picture libraries had their work published anonymously, but it was paying work and for me this was (and is) the main thing.

Although I was still in my teens when I joined Micron, it was perhaps the busiest time in my life. For Micron, I also proposed, launched and edited the monthly Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine. And a friendly agent for several of Micron's Spanish artists put script work my way on a Saint comic authorized by Leslie Charteris. This was published by a syndicate of Continental companies and in Britain by a Thorpe & Porter offshoot.


A clip from The Saint strip

Under-capitalization and the muscle of bigger publishing players brought an untimely end to Micron. For me, it was back to another long-established central London publishing house, Odhams. Like Fleetway, Odhams had become part of the then dominant International Publishing Corporation.

Again, most of my fiction output was comic scripts, usually for Odhams' annual books associated with the titles Eagle, Boys' World, Girls' World, Smash!, and Wham!. War, western, sport, school, fantasy, detective, historical, humour ... the material ranged right across all the popular genres.

But there were also short stories. At least one of them, originally used as the first item in an Eagle Annual, remained in print for years in an anthology of boys' stories, Fantastic Adventure Stories for Boys, published by Hamlyn. I spotted it quite by chance in an Auckland bookshop when I saw, and naturally recognized, the unusual situation depicted on the anthology's cover: a Focke-Wulf Condor aircraft attacking a German U-boat. The Hamlyn collection was reprinted at least four times over the years but because the story had been bought outright for Eagle it produced no extra income or even a byline!

For the last 20 years, you’ve been very productive with westerns, at times averaging three books a year. Do you have a special interest in this genre?

Not really, although as a youngster I'd read the text Western Library which the AP had published as a companion series to the Sexton Blake Library in the 1950s. I was attracted to the Black Horse Western series, published since 1986 by Robert Hale, because in its earliest years it was run with monthly releases along similar lines to the AP's long-gone Western Library.

The main difference was that the Hale hardback books were sent to libraries whereas the slim AP paperback libraries were inexpensive editions sold at newsagents. But both series offered new westerns interspersed with reprints from the genre's classic authors, like Max Brand and Ernest Haycox. Some Western Library titles – for example, Gordon Landsborough's – turned up as BHWs with changed titles. Both lines also had colourful pulpish, illustrative covers.

Unlike American publishers and agents, Hale clearly accepted westerns from non-American writers. I'd copy-edited the earlier work of BHW authors like Vic Hanson and Syd Bounds for the SBL. Later, I'd invited scripts and stories from both of them, and others, for Micron and Odhams.

2014: Not a western Stetson but an Aussie hat to protect
the elderly writer's head from the strong New Zealand sun.


In 1992 I'd been in New Zealand for 25 years, working on magazines and newspapers, and most of my contacts in the swiftly changing (and sinking) UK comics market had long been lost, although I'd made a few US sales to the comics group Charlton Publications Inc., of Derby, Connecticut, for their mystery/ghost titles before they, too, went under. I'd also written a few anonymous “confessions” stories, one of which was published in Britain by the IPC's Loving magazine.

Then an Australian publisher of paperback westerns, Cleveland Publishing Co. Pty, of Sydney, replied to a query letter that their “regular writers have been writing our novels profusely for the past 20 years, so we're not interested in obtaining any more stories for years to come.”

I thought, what's to be lost by trying my western on Hale?

Hale took Gunsmoke Night for a small advance payment, plus the promise of 10% royalties beyond a sales threshold I eventually discovered could never be reached. Why not? Because the threshold was higher than the ceiling of the print-run set for a BHW. Hale published ten new BHWs every month and could service the market for westerns without raising the print run for any particular title and having to pay royalties.

There was a bit of a sweetener for the authors in the sale of large-print rights, but Hale kept half that income, which must have been very satisfactory for them. The half amounted to roughly three times what they paid the author as an advance. On the author-payments side of the publishing ledger, this gave them a 200% profit.

As the years went by, my Hale back list reached more than 20 books, yet the BHW advance remained the same, rather token sum while the cover price of the books just about doubled to meet life's “increasing costs” – which publishers seem to suppose do not affect writers!

The reprints of the western genre's classic authors – it had been flattering to see your books published alongside theirs in the same format – also disappeared from the BHW list, although some were acquired by other companies' strictly reprint series, like Gunsmoke Westerns in the UK.

Simultaneously, as the BHW list was given over largely to originals by lesser-known or entirely new writers, Hale became increasingly twitchy about what it would accept in terms of content. If your western wasn't suitable for reading by a minor, it wasn't wanted.

I self-published my last two, unexpurgated westerns in paperback, then successfully sold the large-print rights to the library-market publisher, Thorpe's Linford Western Library, without having to forfeit half the payment to Hale. This doubled the income from the books that would have been forthcoming had I gone the customary Hale route.

But at the end of the day, I don't like the role of self-publisher and the kind of work it involves. I find more enjoyment in reading other people's books than in producing and selling self-published work. Reading is also a lot less strenuous than promoting yourself. Moreover, I'm not a compulsive writer. For me, a cheque from a reliable publisher when the writing is done has always been a necessary encouragement. Not that I don't have admiration for the hardy souls who with little or no record of publication write “on spec”, often effectively but sometimes not.

Do you hanker after writing fiction in other genres? If not, why not?

No, I don't. As I've already mentioned, the market for comic book scripts was a wide one when I began writing professionally in the 1960s, covering just about every genre imaginable. The approach in every case was similar: you studied the target publication, figured out what was wanted by its readers, and usually began by presenting the editor with a synopsis. If the editor was sometimes yourself, approval to proceed would have to be sought, of course, from your superior – say, the managing or group editor.

More recently, I've had the odd genre piece published that isn't a western, but I'm careful not to use the Chap O'Keefe pen-name, which is clearly associated with westerns. I don't want to mislead, upset or disappoint any O'Keefe reader. More importantly perhaps, and sad to report, I understand many readers of other genres would not want to try a book from a writer seen to specialize in a genre somewhat disparaged of late.

As a reader, I particularly like crime and mystery fiction, but I don't feel as a writer that (a) I could confidently tackle a contemporary crime novel, or (b) that I would want to. My crime reading favourites date from the 1920s to the 1960s, roughly speaking. Perhaps one day I will try to pen a period crime novel, although in a sense I've already done that with my westerns, particularly the Joshua Dillard series. Sons and Gunslicks, Blast to Oblivion and Faith and a Fast Gun, to name three, are all thinly disguised hardboiled private-eye novels set in the Old West.

When US anthologist Marvin Kaye obtained the rights to the magazine Weird Tales in August 2011, I thought I would love to write for a proper revival of that famous publication. Kaye accepted two stories from me, making very appreciative remarks about them, but some time later he changed his mind. Such is today's market for fiction I was left with no option but to publish them myself as an e-book, Witchery: A Duo of Weird Tales. I included an introduction, possibly as interesting as the stories themselves, explaining how the short book came about.

So the work on my weird tales in the vein of such sword-and-sorcery luminaries as Clark Ashton Smith and Fritz Leiber was not a total loss – and the e-book was reviewed appreciatively – but it was hardly a worthwhile commercial success. I'm disinclined to repeat the exercise.
Who is your favourite character from one of your books and why? (I suspect I know this, but I’ll wait and see!)

The series characters Joshua Dillard and Misfit Lil come most readily to mind, simply because I've spent more time with them than my other characters. Joshua is probably the easier to accommodate in new stories. Lil is the more endearing but would need to grow up into a different character to avoid further stories becoming repetitive. And I think an older character who carried on behaving like a young rascal would probably soon stop being endearing. A mature, responsible Lil? Then the rebellious “misfit” part of the persona would become redundant and much of the stories' appeal might be lost.

Misfit Lil - her portrait as painted by Michael Thomas.
It was used on the Linford cover for Misfit Lil Robs the Bank.

I've given this dilemma some thought and reached no convincing conclusions. I do know I prefer the earlier Saint stories – in which Simon Templar is an outlaw, Charteris' “Robin Hood of Modern Crime” – to the later stories in which he often functions as little more than a slightly adventurous private detective.

Thank you, Keith, for your comprehensive answers.. Let's continue this tomorrow!

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