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Paul Wheelahan talks about writing more than 800 western novellas

The Cleveland years…

Cleveland Publishing was started by former secretary of the New South Wales Democratic Labor Party Jack Atkins in Sydney in the early 1950s. He created an institution that still provides entertainment for many Australians. The Cleveland westerns feature a world as ugly as the real world can be, but it’s also a world where values like decency and courage prevail. Cleveland westerns have provided solace, encouragement and entertainment for many men over the years – often men who were down on their luck and needed a reminder that you could still have a win if you were decent and had enough guts.
The market for western novellas was spurred on by the popularity of westerns in the movies in the 1950s, with films like The Searchers, and stars like John Wayne. Les Atkins, the son of founder Jack Atkins, who has run Cleveland Publishing for 30 years, said the heyday of Cleveland Publishing was in the 1950s before tv came to Australia in 1956. Cleveland once distributed to the U.S. and England but Les Atkins said these markets dried up 15 years ago, and Cleveland stopped distributing to New Zealand 10 years ago. Cleveland books are still distributed to newsagents around Australia, with returns published in South Africa.
They include reprints and some new works by authors like Sundown McCabe and Jack Masterton.
Les Atkins said some old editors from Cleveland had started writing for them, too. Paul Wheelahan said Jack Atkins partly financed the company with a Holden car he owned.
Les Atkins said his father started Cleveland Publishing with contacts he had who worked for printers and publishers, and that he bought newsprint from some of these contacts at other companies.
Paul Wheelahan said these included Wally Simpson, who became business manager at Cleveland.
“He was a printer,” Mr Wheelahan said. “He was a printer boss, which was unusual. “You’d think Atkins would have gone to somebody with publishing, editorial, experience.
“I think the attractiveness of Wally Simpson as far as I can look back on was that he was a big name in printing.
“He was the boss of some major printing outlets. I think it was for one of the newspapers…
“He had a huge reputation. And I think because Atkins…Atkins just got the idea of publishing and he didn’t know a damn about printing so I think he looked around and kept hearing this name Wally Simpson, Wally Simpson.
“And then when he went to meet him, well, Wally was a very impressive bloke.”

“He was big, tall…you know I think I mentioned to you he tore telephone books in half when he was 60 and 70. And he used to do it to show off.
“So, he was impressive in every way and I think Jack just kept on offering him enough money until he quit this…I think he was with Rotary Colorprint, though I’m not sure of that.”
Les Atkins said these workers did not leave their jobs to join Cleveland immediately. Cleveland printed 25000 copies of their first story, Les Atkins said.
The books were on the newsstands for three months before they could tally the number of books sold: 22500.
It was then that the future Cleveland Publishing employees knew the business would be a success, and that they could leave their jobs for a career at Cleveland Publishing.
Cleveland has always been based in Sydney, starting at Kings Cross across from a pool hall; then moving to the corner of Pitt and Bond Streets; then to Piermont (now Darling Harbour); then Cremorne on the Sydney North Shore; and finally to Brookvale where it has been for the past 20 years.
Les Atkins said the writers mostly worked from home, although one Gold Coast writer used to come to Sydney and work in the office just to get out of his home for a while.
Following Stan Pitt’s advice, Paul Wheelahan went to Cleveland in 1963 and submitted a story: Never Ride Back (the title of the autobiography Mr Wheelahan is working on).
Cleveland Publishing liked the story, but asked if he had more than one story in him; he said he had unlimited ideas.
He said it was an effort to get professional status as an artist, that he had “minimal talent” in art, but he found writing westerns easy.
He had a hatred of making speeches in real life, but if he had to write about a politician making a speech in Louisiana it was simple.
He said he came to Cleveland aged 32 or 33, and most of the writers there were 20 years older than him. Cleveland had been running since the early 1950s and he was the young hope of the company when he arrived in 1963, he said.
Older authors included “Marshall Grover”.
“He was Lenny Meares,” Mr Wheelahan said. “He was an older guy than me. He’s dead now. Most of these people are dead unfortunately.
“Lenny Meares was a gentleman, and really assiduous. He didn’t join in the booze-and-fall over epochs at Cleveland.
“There were quite a few. There was Clive Bleek; have you heard of him? He was quite a prolific writer.
“These are the authors..and Tony Veitch, those three…They got Cleveland started, you know.”
“So they were always looked back on fondly by Atkins and by the rest of us because they established the Cleveland quality. And it was quality. I was always aware of that.”
He remembered other Cleveland authors like Des Dunn who he said was a total character – a tough guy, swash-buckler.
Of course Mr Wheelahan’s best friend Stanley Pitt, who brought Paul Wheelahan into Cleveland, was already at Cleveland when Mr Wheelahan arrived.
Stan Pitt drew “a couple of thousand covers for Cleveland over the years”.
Mr Wheelahan said Pitt was like “Kirk Douglas on speed”: intense, intellectual, hard-working, dynamic.
Wheelahan, Pitt, and Dunn formed a nucleus of the younger personnel at Cleveland.
There was also Tony Veitch, and Don Haring (an American who wanted to be Australian, with an Australian wife who wanted to be American) who wrote the Larry Kent detective stories about a cigar-smoking detective not unlike Don Haring.
Mr Wheelahan said the editors at Cleveland were mainly old writers.
He said he always wrote the books at home, where he lives now, at Emu Plains, New South Wales. He said each author negotiated with the publisher about what they would be paid. “We were just paid a flat rate…The writers, they all did their haggling with the publisher..I ended up getting more than the other writers but that was only because of longevity I think, and sales.”
He said he did not receive royalties for the sale of Cleveland reprints today because he signed away the rights in his contracts with Cleveland. He said the writers knew that Cleveland was a unique situation in Australia – that outside that one company, and that clique of 12 or 15 people, was the real, ugly world of having to make a living in a normal job, of “having to be nice to people in stores”. He said it was a unique and picturesque group.
Most of the old guys were now dead from booze, he said.
“Dunn dropped off the radar about five years ago. I suspect he’s dead,” he said.
The people at Cleveland made up 95 per cent of Paul Wheelahan’s social contacts from 1963-1997.
Mr Wheelahan said founder Jack Atkins was a tough, hard-driving guy, but they were friends nevertheless.

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-copyright Simon Sandall.