Going 10 Rounds with Mark Finn, Chris Gruber and Patrice Louinet

Since Fists of Iron Round 1, the first volume of the four-volume series of the Collected Boxing Fiction of Robert E. Howard  is now shipping, I thought it would be a good time to go 10 rounds (i.e. questions) with the three guys responsible for making this massive collection possible. If you have not already done so, be sure and order these volumes — with 200 copy print runs, they are sure to go fast.

I hear the first bell ringing, so it is time to climb through the ropes and get down to business with Mark Finn, Chris Gruber and Patrice Louinet.

Round 1: How was the title Fists of Iron arrived at?

Patrice: The original title was quite longer. It was actually so long that it would have taken the whole cover just by itself. So we had to come up with a new, shorter, and punchier title at the very last stages…

Chris: Actually, there might have been a third title! When Patrice first contacted me about the boxing project, around 2007 or 2008, he had already been pitching a project to the REH Foundation that would encompass everything Howard had written – a project he had tentatively called The Completists. The very first title for the boxing stuff might actually have been The Boxing Completist or something like that. Regardless, the Completists idea was real and eventually given the green light but the boxing tales would have to wait their turn in the genre list. We went with the super long cover-spanning title because it really connected Howard with boxing and Cross Plains but Rob Roehm insisted it was too long – and he should know as he was the one trying to squeeze it onto the cover. While I rather liked the super long cover-spanning title I have to admit that Fists of Iron packs considerably more punch as a title and fits quite nicely into the squared ring that is our cover.

Round 2: Considering the massive amount of material and all the different versions of the Steve Costigan and Dennis Dorgan yarns, how did you originally get your arms around the project?

Patrice: The number of projected volumes and how we would organize them was of course the very first thing we – meaning Chris, Mark and I – discussed. We knew we were embarking on a mammoth project, so the need to know what we were doing and where we were going was present from the very beginning.

Mark: The organization was borne out of a need to get a handle on so many stories. This project deviates from the usual format that the Del Rey books fall into, meaning, we had to make some concessions. So book one is all of the early stuff, plus fragments and notes. Books two and three—all Costigan, from start to finish. And book for is all of the other, non-Costigan stuff, like Kid Allison, and so forth. Patrice’s essay, running across all four books, shows the order of who and what and when and where. So, it works out pretty good, but for readers, it’s organized much better.

Chris: Originally, we had a more visual idea in mind. Patrice was really keen on including original scans of some of the primary material that we hoped would help create for the reader an experience of having read Howard’s work as it appeared on a carbon just pulled from his Underwood. In the end the idea was scrapped though I don’t know why. However, we were allowed to include all of that material cleanly retyped as part of the supplemental sections. So, thankfully, it’s all there.

Once we had a solid picture of what each volume would look like and contain we engaged in a series of discussions to determine whether or not we would include altered versions of already included stories, drafts, and other relevant texts. It was clear that we wanted to include everything. Patrice wanted the same thing I did – to include everything that had significant value to the scholar – and to his credit he was able to sell that idea to the folks who have to foot the printing bill. The result of this decision is that now a scholar can examine the creative genesis of well known stories and characters that differ significantly from the established canon, and I’m not just talking about the Dorgan/Costigan dilemma though that particular identity theft is finally, fully, addressed.

Round 3: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced putting this collection together?

Patrice: I’d say the biggest challenge was at the same time the biggest thrill: our constantly discovering new material: drafts, better texts, alternates, carbons, etc. in Glenn’s collection. It took us an awfully long time to get our final contents *really* final.

Chris: The biggest obstacle was easily time. If two of us were hopping along the productive trail you could bet your last dime that the third musketeer was sure to be mired in some personal, unavoidable, life time-suck. School, family, whatever – shit happens during collaborative efforts and it never at the same time. Next to that, I’d have to agree with Patrice – it seemed he couldn’t turn over a rock without finding yet another unearthed boxing gem in Glenn’s trunk. This happened several times throughout the production phase but each time we unanimously agreed to include each new find rather than rush to production. No dilemma at all, really. After all, when we said definitive we meant ‘definitive.’

Mark: To echo Grub, yeah, it was time. But those new finds coming out of the Glenn Lord Archive were happening for part of this, so yeah, it was bittersweet, to say the least.

Round 4: Some Costigan stories were hastily changed by Howard to Dorgan stories when a new market opened up for him. Are both versions included in the collection?

Patrice: The Dorgan/Costigan question had never been satisfactorily explained until the present collection. When you read volumes 2 and 3, you’ll understand that it’s not possible to answer that question… I want you to buy the books, so I am not telling, sorry.

Chris: I want to answer! But I’ll follow Patrice’s lead and not ruin the fun.

Mark: Suffice to say, it’s all in there. I don’t think there will be any more confusion after this. Well, I hope there won’t be.

Round 5: I imagine, after recent discoveries in Glenn Lord’s papers, it is impossible to say this collection includes everything, but was something found in those papers boxing related that was added at the last minute to the books?

Patrice: “Something?”; lots of things were included. Carbons, drafts, fragments, you name it, plenty of stuff turned up at what was supposed to be the very last stages of composition. I had been working on that material for over a decade, but every time we thought we had a volume finalized, something else turned up! Sure, we are thorough, sure we can be slow at times, but the constant addition of new material was the major reason we were so far behind on our projected deadlines for these series.

Chris: We had ‘finished’ at least three times that I could remember and each time I would get another wonderful email letting me know that there’s one more thing that might need to be included – and we’d mull over the pros and cons of adding it, vet the material to make sure it was new and boxing related , and ask ourselves if it should be included even though it would mean a new delay? And each time our response was the same – “Hell yes it should!”

Mark: I really think that everything found is in this book. It’s every scrap of boxing we could get our hands on.

Round 6: Since this was a team effort, how were the duties divided up? Who did what?

Patrice: After we had agreed on the number of volumes and what we wanted in them, I organized the contents (based on the writing chronology of the tales) and prepared the initial etexts. Then everyone read everything and made comments and suggestions. We checked our text against the original appearances (I am lucky to own the immense majority of the Sports pulps featuring REH, and we of course had the scans of the Howard typescripts.) There were some hard-disputed bouts discussions about some words, various issues, etc. And we did the same for the articles each of us authored for those books. We read what the other guys wrote, and made suggestions. It was quite a collaborative experience, and truly one of those instances when the final product is much more than the sum of its parts.

Chris: Patrice came prepared with basic volume word counts and from there we pounded out the basics – we identified themes, organized textual dates, and hashed out the form each volume would take. After agreeing on the organization of the stories and form of each volume we began to edit. Basically, Patrice would provide a clean e-text copy to the group and we each would compare it to original source to ensure we had retained Howard’s idiosyncrasies (certain words and spellings as an example). This sounds simple and straight forward but we had resolved early on not to interfere into Howard’s grammatical wheelhouse unless absolutely necessary and there was much back and forth about the usage of this word or the historical spelling of that word. With each text we would weed out obvious errors and compare them with any corrections provided by the others. We had to be absolutely certain that each correction or hands off decision made sense – the integrity of Howard’s intention always foremost in our minds. If there were differences of opinion a case was made and defended to the others. We had to have a consensus to change or keep anything that was deemed suspect. We were also cognizant of the potential reference value each volume represented and the result is the most scholarly significant collection of Howard boxing stories ever assembled.

Patrice focused on establishing the official boxing chronology as well as writing the Iron Man Genesis essays which will prove to be one of the more important contributions to Howard boxing scholarship. Mark and I were tasked with writing the introductions. We split this between us: I took 1 and 3 and he took volumes 2 and 4. We tried to feed off each others essays in an effort to provide a kind of running intellectual progression that centered around the annual “campfire” discussions we’d had for years. The idea behind the introductions was to try and provide modern readers with the kind of historical context necessary to get the most out of the boxing stories. We tried to create a bridge between Howard’s love of the sport, its place in American history and the obvious impact it had upon the entirety of his written work and life. In short, we tried to show just how important these stories are to understanding Howard as the creator of Conan, Solomon Kane or Kull. Everything you love about those other stories was pulled from the boxing connections.

Mark: Chris and I work very well together, and have for years, as a result largely from the Ice House panels at the Howard House every year. So for us, all that we said in our introductions stemmed from those bigger discussions and presentations we’ve been making for the last ten years. Ten Years! I feel like that’s how long we’ve been working (certainly thinking) about this project.

An example of some of our discussions regarding the texts: Howard wrote “could of” and “would of” a lot. What he meant was, of course, this contraction: could’ve. He chose to spell out the contraction in vernacular. For me, that throws my grammar cop right out of the story. I lobbied for changing all of the “of” instances to the correct contracted form of the word. And I was voted down. So all of the could of’s and would of’s are still in there, as Howard wrote them.

Round 7: Did you ever get frustrated while working with the original typescripts? I know Howard would start a story, leave it, then come back and write different story on the back. So there were bits and pieces of yarns. Is everything in the collection from those manuscripts or were some lost and the material pulled from the pulp version?

Patrice: I don’t understand the very idea of getting frustrated with an original REH typescript… The immense majority of the stuff in these volumes come from the original typescripts, for the first time ever. We were very lucky to get carbons for final versions in which we discovered that those tales, as published in the pulps, had been cut, heavily rewritten, bowdlerized, you name it. We always went in for the version closest to REH’s intention.

Chris: Never got frustrated. To say I enjoyed every aspect of this project is to undersell my true level of satisfaction. Come on! I was working with Howard’s original boxing texts for crying out loud – I was in heaven the entire time! Let me say it again: I got to work on Robert E. Howard’s original boxing work. I was asked to read some of my favorite author’s most hard to find musings on the Sweet Science! Argh – words do no justice to my level of satisfaction!

Also, working with Howard’s original typescripts allowed me a once in a lifetime opportunity to analyze Howard’s creative progression as a writer and experience the sometimes difficult process he labored under as a writer. The mechanisms he utilized were fascinating and revealed an earnest and professional writer doing the best he could with what he had. Rather than frustrating, I found it inspiring. This project provided me the opportunity to follow and experience Howard’s unique worldview as it changed and developed from year to year. When placed against the backdrop of the rest of his life it answers so many questions.

Mark: My only frustration was how much of this information, these stories, this whole world of boxing that Howard created had lay dormant for so long. That so few people have cared about them until Chris and I started doing our Ice House talks, until I recorded some of the stories for my old time radio recreation gig, and so forth—once people saw that yeah, these are here, and they are funny, and they are also unmistakably Robert E. Howard—only then did the interest pick up. We really had to create the market for these books ourselves. I mean, sure, the completists out there will want the books, but now there’s actual fans of the boxing stories that are driving the bus. That’s extremely gratifying.

Round 8: Are you proud of how the collection turned out?

Patrice: I really like many of these stories, but Chris and Mark’s sheer love for the material transpires through every page. It was a true labor of love for them, and it shows. Their knowledge of the “sweet science” is nothing short of staggering. I am simply the gave who established the chronology. Chris and Mark put them in context, explain their signification, show you their importance against the rest of Howard’s fiction. They give you the perspective. The day these books are printed, they will instantly become the definitive collection of REH’s boxing material, period.

Chris: I’m very happy and proud to have had a hand in producing this collection of Howard’s boxing fiction. It’s the pinnacle, really, of my involvement in Howard Studies and represents my attempt to give something back to my favorite author. I sincerely hope that were he alive he’d be happy as hell to know that his boxing stories live on in these books and that there are folks out in the great wide world who really enjoy his boxing stuff and continue to be entertained so many years after he first set idea to paper.

Mark: I’m with Grub on this. If I am known for anything down the line, it’ll likely be for two things: Blood & Thunder, and my work championing the boxing stories. I’m so proud of these books, and I’m just grateful that I had a hand in seeing them come to light at long last.

Chris: I understood early on just how important this project would be to Howard fandom in general and worked very hard to provide the Howard fan and scholar with a textually accurate yet aesthetically pleasing set of books. These four volumes shine a light on Howard’s boxing stories and in a way that demands the same level of respect and excitement that his fantasy work has inspired. I’d say we did a bang up job and now Howard fans can laugh at the antics of Sailor Steve Costigan and Kid Allison, marvel at the toughness of a Kirby Karnes or Slade O’Shane, or ponder the densely realistic world of Iron Mike Brennon and Jack Maloney – without having to go on collector’s treasure hunt. We have included every boxing scrap we could find – it’s all here. How cool is that Howard fans?

Round 9: Do you think this collection will lead to a greater appreciation of Howard’s boxing stories?

Patrice: I’ll let Mark and Chris elaborate on that one, but there’s no way you can pretend having *understood* Howard if you ignore or downplay his love and phenomenal production in the boxing genre. Not only is it essential reading to any REH aficionado, you’ll find it is also a very fun ride!

Chris: I believe that Howard scholars will be prodded into investigative action when they realize the gold mine these volumes represent. These stories reveal Howard to be a classic American author and this aspect of his writing has been sorely overlooked by his most famous creation — the pop culture icon Conan. There’s so much more to Howard than Conan, so much more to be explored, and for that to happen we needed to do this. We had to provide the reader, the fan, the scholar with the stories that Finn and I have been lauding in print for years. We had to place this aspect of Howard’s work within the appropriate historical context, to kind of prod the long time Conan fan (who might not be all that familiar with boxing) into a ridiculously fun journey of discovery into something that Howard was truly into, truly involved with and inspired by. So yeah, I think these stories will help lead Howard fans toward a greater respect and admiration for his creative mind and literary flexibility. He was truly a writer with many faces. The snarky high-brow condescension of the past just doesn’t hold critical water anymore. If you want to understand Howard the man you’ve got understand where he was coming from – and that perspective is best viewed through the ropes.

Mark: Nicely said, Grub. Yeah, we think that if you want a handle on Howard’s writing, his world building process, and even the template for everything that came after Costigan—like Conan, El Borak, etc.—you need to see the boxing stories as their own world, their own cycle of stories. It was Howard’s first attempt at world building, with consistent geography, characters, and events. Think about that for a minute. It’s another nail in the coffin that Howard wrote his stories “with careless haste,” as de Camp often said.

Round 10: So what’s next for you guys? The humorous westerns collection? That’s quite a task as well.

Patrice: Given the time it took us to assemble and prepare four books, I don’t think it would be a wise idea to let us three work together again on a project, unless you are ready to wait ten years to see it published!

Chris: Finn and I are already working on a project that will act as a supplement to the four volume set. I’ll let him fill ya in. As for me – I think it high time I start concentrating on my own fiction. We’ll see how that goes.

Mark: Grub and I are working with Jeff Shanks and Brian Leno on a fifth book, a companion project, that will sit next to the boxing books on the shelf. I think all of the die-hard fans will really like it. It’ll be necessary, since this is the largest amount of fiction in Howard’s canon and some folks will need a guide.

But outside of that, yeah, I’d love to help with the funny westerns. I think Howard’s humor stories are great, and they are the key to him seeing a wider literary acceptance.

That concludes our Main Event. If you are still hankering for pugilist action, just keep checking your mailbox for Round 1 of Fists of Iron. And I pity those poor procrastinating palookas that haven’t ordered their copies yet.