Chet Cunningham ’50
Man with the Lightening Pen
By LeeAnn Kriegh '94
Chet Cunningham ’50 published his first novel, a Western called “Bushwackers at the Circle K,” in 1968. He published his most recent book, a mystery called “Scream Terror,” last year. And in the intervening years, he has published 307 other books.
That’s right: 309 books in 39 years. More than 150 Westerns; 15 nonfiction books; four children’s novels; numerous mysteries; 18 books about the U.S. Navy SEALs; and many, many more about other aspects of military life. It adds up.
“Some people say I’m a fast writer, and I’m not,” Cunningham insisted. “But I put in longer hours. The dilettante who says I wrote two hours and was totally exhausted, that’s not a real writer. That’s a wannabe writer.”
When he has a book contract, Cunningham writes nine hours a day: “three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, and three at night.” One year, he wrote 18 books, his personal record. And once, when the original author missed a deadline, he wrote a book in a single week.
Cunningham has sold more than 5 million copies of his books, and said his urge to write began when he was a senior at Forest Grove High School. “I had … an essay-type test. I wasn’t sure quite what the answer was, so I wrote all the way around it, everything I’d ever heard about it,” he said. “When it came back, I got an A. I said this writing is a pretty good deal; I think I’ll stick to it.”
At Pacific, he tried to enter the journalism department. But Professor Clifford Rowe ’29 intervened. “He called me into his office and said, ‘Cunningham, I don’t know if I can have you as a major or not.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Well, you flunked the English exam.’”
Years later, Cunningham suffered other setbacks to his writing – books that were turned down or didn’t sell particularly well, a profitable series that was cut off too soon. Always, he responded as he did at Pacific, by writing more.
To earn his way into the journalism department, Cunningham published an article – his first – in The Oregonian and showed it to Rowe. “I said, ‘OK, now can I be a (journalism) major?’” Cunningham recalled. “And he said, ‘One article doesn’t make you a major, but we’ll see.’ ”
Rowe, who died in 1968, eventually relented and Cunningham graduated with his degree in journalism. But that November the war in Korea interfered with his writing plans. He was drafted into the Army and served two years in Japan, Korea and San Francisco. When his service ended, he earned his master’s degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.
Cunningham joked that aspiring writers should make sure to avoid the draft, and he added, “The best thing is to get a good general education. Try and touch on every field you can. And then research everything you can. Everything a writer does is going to show up sooner or later in his books.”
Making a living as a writer is difficult, he admitted, noting the danger of pouring years into one book, just hoping it will sell. “That’s the way to starve to death,” he said.
While raising his children, he recognized the pressure to make his words, and his time, count. “I couldn’t afford to write three or four weeks on a book and come up in a box canyon, not able to get out.”
Now 78, Cunningham said he’s “on the down slope” of his career. His eyes are failing. He writes less, relying on bold, 14- and 16-point type in his favorite Bookman Old Style font. But he still writes. And he still believes that the 310th book is going to be a good one.
“I’d love to write a bestseller, love to write one book a year and make a million dollars off it,” he said. “But I haven’t and I probably won’t – although my agent has a book right now called “Moments” which I have high hopes for …”