FOUNTAIN VALLEY — When he was studying under novelist John Irving at the renowned University of Iowa Creative Writers' Workshop in the mid-'70s, Bruce Thorstad dreamed of one day writing the great American novel.
But "since there were so few openings for the next Faulkner," Thorstad instead spent 14 years as a magazine editor--first for Off Duty Europe, a general interest magazine for American servicemen, in Frankfurt, Germany; and then in the '80s for Off-Duty's Costa Mesa-based U.S. edition.
Today, Thorstad is the critically acclaimed author of novels in a genre he never dreamed of writing back in his Iowa days: Westerns.
His 1991 first novel, "Deadwood Dick and the Code of the West," is a spoof of sorts about a dime novel hero-worshiping runaway boy from Philadelphia who joins up with a crusty former black Army cavalryman panning for gold in the Black Hills of Dakota.
Praised by the Dallas Times Herald as "one of the most completely satisfying Westerns since (Larry) McMurtry's 'Lonesome Dove,' " the novel was nominated for a best first novel award by the Western Writers of America.
"Deadwood Dick" was followed by a novel about two newspapermen brothers in frontier Kansas, "The Times of Wichita," and now Thorstad's latest Wild West offering: "The Gents" (Pocket Books; $3.99), the first in a series of paperback novels about two down-on-their-luck misfits--the easy-going Riley Stokes from Kentucky and Cass McCasland, a blowhard dandy from Texas.
After a run-in with a lethally dangerous card shark named Terrible John Parrott, Stokes and McCasland sign up for a job guarding an Army pay wagon. Halfway to Ft. Dodge, however, they abandon their job. A young Chinese woman who was abducted by Kiowa Indians as a teen-ager needs help rescuing her Kiowa "sister" and mother-in-law from a band of whiskey runners who massacred members of her adoptive Indian family.
Thorstad calls his lovable rogues "Old West opportunists."
"They're willing to go after what comes their way," he said. "They might be riding for the law in one book and riding from it in the next one--and you find that in a lot of historical figures too. It's fairly clear, for instance, that Wild Bill Hickok's first gunfight was pretty much (a case of) murder. And Wyatt Earp had a pretty shady background as a pimp and horse thief."
"So my guys," he added with a laugh, "are no more exemplary than the real thing."
Thorstad, 47, acknowledges that he never imagined he'd one day be writing novels set in places such as Buffalo City or Commanche country in the Texas Panhandle (the setting for his next Stokes-McCasland outing, "Palo Duro").
"It's too bad I didn't think of it," he said. "Writing workshop students tend to turn out the same kind of story. For one thing, you're students; you're in your 20s and you have not seen a lot of the world yet. Everything is sort of me, me, me."
Even now, Thorstad said, "I haven't read many Westerns.
"What I do is read nonfiction--history and journalism of the time--and boil that down and spew it back through fictional characters. My inspiration has been more Western movies than books."
Thorstad said that because Western movies aim for a broad audience, they often have a sense of humor to them--everything from the tongue-in-cheek nature of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" to the humor and comic elements of "Lonesome Dove."
Humor--an ingredient with which Thorstad seasons his books--is something lacking in most Western genre novels.
"When you get to Western novels, especially the Western novels that are marketed on the Western shelves, the thinking of marketing people is that these books are going to a hard-core reader: They're more serious about their Western fantasy. They don't care to have it poked fun at."
The readership he's aiming for is "that broad audience who are not necessarily Western fans, but who can enjoy a good Western. I'm not very comfortable in the Western category."
It's too bad, Thorstad says, that "different kinds of people don't check out the Western shelves once in a while, because they may be surprised."
Until Kevin Costner's movie came out, for instance, Michael Blake's "Dances with Wolves" was marketed as a category Western, Thorstad said, and "had it remained on the Western shelves, millions of people would never have experienced that story, which touched a lot of people. The way that book was originally marketed, there was nothing to distinguish it from hundreds of other Western-category books."
Thorstad--whose wife, Ruth, teaches second grade in Santa Ana--said a combination of midlife career crisis and inspiration spurred him to quit his magazine job in 1988 and get back to fiction writing.
The catalyst was his becoming involved with Old West action shooting, a sport in which participants compete with Old West-style firearms and dress in vintage garb.