The Western Lonesome Society has been described as a surreal western. Some of it feels distinctly historical, while other parts of the story have a dream-like quality. What inspired you to create multiple narratives in one story?
I love that question. To explain it, I really have to go back in time a bit, fifteen years or so, to when I was writing the first draft. I’d just published my first collection of short stories A Night at the Y. I think after one publishes a book, one asks, “What’s next?” There’s a little breathing room somehow, a reprieve, an opportunity to do something different. I knew I wanted to write something longer, but I didn’t know what. I’d actually written a couple of unpublished novels, so the thought of writing something longer wasn’t all that daunting in itself, but I had no idea of what it was I wanted to write.
I decided that I would just go to cafes and write every day, whatever popped into my head, a very exploratory kind of writing. So I did. I’d take my laptop to various cafes and just really scribble hard for two-three hours, usually writing well over a thousand words a day, but some of it was kind of incoherent. Pretty soon I realized I needed some sort of structure, so I conceived of a writer writing to an imaginary literary agent. I’d actually had a couple of agents in the past, but I thought it would be interesting to write to an imaginary agent and I would tell that agent about my various novel ideas, some of which were clearly ridiculous. There was a great liberation in that technique, though. I felt like I could write anything.
But it wasn’t too long before the writer proposes to his agent the writing of a western and then that storyline began to flush out in my mind. That storyline was no doubt influenced by tales my mother had told me of our ancestors who’d had a ranch in Texas, though our ancestors didn’t actually grow up with the Comanches. But she had always fired up my imagination and encouraged me to write more about our roots, which I describe in my short story “The Things I Don’t Know About.” So in some ways, that story, along with another short story, “Episode” laid the groundwork for the later novel. But as in those short stories, the “real” story is told through a twisting veering lens, so what is real and unreal isn’t always clear.
Around that time I was also reading various books about the frontier days, some historical, some fictional, some of my own mother’s roots material. As I got deeper into the book, I read various books about people who actually had grown up with the Comanches, and one fairly common theme was that, if one was accepted by the tribe, the captives had a hard time readjusting if they were returned to the original family, especially if they’d been taken at a young age when few memories persisted. So all that reading, and my mother’s stories, fed into the storyline and I think, though I don’t consider it a historical novel by any stretch, that it does speak to the emotional truth of the experience that at least some captives had.
The Western part became sort of the dynamic, forward moving part of the novel because that storyline became increasingly clear to me. I knew the boys would have to return at one point, and I knew that the older one would adjust better than the younger one.
But I didn’t write the Western part all at once. I continued going to the cafes and writing and I stuck to the concept of letting each day’s work be inspired by whatever I felt like writing that day. So simultaneously, I started writing about Jim’s childhood and in particular the kidnapping by Roughhound. I saw that I now had two parallel stories about kidnappings, but the connection was still vague to me. It wasn’t until later that all the storylines emerged thematically as being about belonging. Really what brought it all together, too, was something that should have been obvious to me much earlier because I’d written about it in my short story, “The Things I Don’t Know About” where the mother is encouraging her son to write about their roots but he’s doing so in a convoluted, imaginary sort of way. So I reintroduced that idea, and now I understood Jim’s motivation in writing the Western. He wants to please his deceased mother, but once again his imagination leads him down strange paths. So as he’s writing the book, he’s also writing about all the things that are getting in the way of writing the book. Understanding his motivation helped me a lot.
So those two storylines, the modern day Jim growing up in Texas, and the frontier boys living with the Comanches, kept going, interspersed with Jim’s notes to his agent. Originally, in fact, the novel was titled Notes to My Literary Agent. But in later drafts, those notes became less important, more backdrop than upfront. But one thing that drove the book was this interest of mine in seeing what would happen if a writer turned over his writing to the subconscious, to whatever wanted to emerge on a particular day. Later I did find it necessary to bring back in the more conscious mind, to structure, to create connections, to flush out, to add, to cut, so I’m not suggesting this is a really efficient way of working. After all, it took me about six months to write a first draft and about fifteen years to rewrite, so I wouldn’t use me as a role model for novelists! Of course, I was also writing a lot of other stories during that time, and I would let the novel sit for long periods before coming back to it. Really, toward the end, it was Caleb’s Seelings’ fondness toward the novel that convinced me to do the final work on it, especially on the opening three chapters. I told Caleb he was maybe the only publisher brave enough to publish such a strange book. I hope we’re both not crazy!
But I went to the novel in kind of an open-minded way each day, which might be what creates that movement between what seems more dreamy and what seems more real or historical. Probably the Western part feels more historical because I had done quite a lot of background reading. In a way for me, I think the whole novel is almost like telling a dream; as a fiction writer, I think one enters into a dream world, and is spinning a dream world for the readers, but the dream has to become real in a way, too.
The story within a story of Candy the stripper is achingly comical. What inspired you to create her character? Would you call her a character or a player in the story like Jim, our current day protagonist or Tom, our historical hero? Does she have another function in the overall narrative?
I’m always interested in thinking about where characters come from in my stories because I’m not always sure myself and I’m not always sure ahead of time how they fit into the stories. That is, I don’t usually smoothly map out stories and develop the characters all at once. As I write, the character forms more clearly in my mind as does the overall storyline. In short stories, it’s easier to make everything fit together, so the novel presents more challenges than short stories.
This seems like risky territory to discuss Candy, especially if my wife is reading this, but when I was a college student myself, about forty years ago now, so maybe time provides some grounds for forgiveness, I frequented such strip bars where we meet Candy in the book. Now, my own tale is much more innocent. I simply frequented those places – they were several along a stretch of road in Austin – and hung out and drank, but maybe it was a young man’s fantasy to fall in love with a stripper, though Dave’s relationship with her is all imagined (Really!) I do vaguely recall a dancer who wore a gold band around her waist. Strange that a little detail like that can go a long way to developing a character.
Sometimes ideas combine in curious ways, and I knew I wanted to have a student give Jim a wild story to read, which would be in contrast and a sort of challenge to Jim’s present staid condition, and I thought something along the lines of: Well, what if the student, Dave, actually fell in love with a stripper? You know, first all I had was the first part of that story. I told the nutty tale of the two of them ending up in bed with Tiny, and it wasn’t really until Jim asks, “Is there another part?” that I started thinking, “What else?” and adding in all the rest, of Dave’s nearly being killed by the gang in Mexico, and then his own crazy trip to Mexico with Candy. It was like that part was just writing itself, galloping along, and I was seeing it in my mind and just getting it down on the page. Dave’s voice was speaking to me and it was just a matter of writing it down.
The funny thing about creating characters is that once you get one started, one that interests you in some ways, it’s almost like they start talking and acting on their own and you’re just following them in your head. I discovered that Candy talked and acted in a very raunchy way and I went with that, played it up, made her coarseness sort of over the top, and that’s where I think the comedy comes in, playing off Dave’s astonishment with her.
Then at some point, I realized she had been a mental patient at the hospital. A long time ago, I worked as an attendant at a mental hospital, so undoubtedly I drew on some of that material. I didn’t realize for some time that she was still delusional and that she was inventing the story of Tiny and Sandy being killed. By the end of her section, I felt great sympathy for her, especially in Mexico when she almost kills herself. We see all her sexual bravado collapse and she’s just a sick, fragile person. I felt empathy for Dave, too. He’s wanted to rescue her, but in the end, both of them are worse off for it.
I do see her story as being essential to the overall narrative. I think her story within a story again emphasizes the theme of belonging. Where does Candy belong? In the strip joint? With Tiny? With Dave? In Mexico? In the mental hospital? When I worked in the mental hospital, one question some patients would raise is: Why were they there? They questioned their own sanity – were they actually insane or were they there by mistake, which would be insane in itself. In the end, she realizes she needs to go back to the mental hospital for a while, so I think her section actually closes with a note of hope. She’s had enough sense to realize she needs help. In a larger context, we might sometimes wonder: Are we insane people living in a sane universe, or are we sane people living in an insane universe?
Once I got Dave talking on the page, he really went on a roll for me and in a way, his character, his voice, allowed me to create Candy through him. So in a way Candy really begins with Dave and maybe Dave was partly inspired by the younger me. Maybe at a certain age, many of us see our younger selves as being “wilder” probably more than we really were. Sometimes characters are created through certain exaggerations of parts of ourselves or parts of others.
One idea of the book is that Jim, as a writer, is contemplating writing other stories besides the narrative about Tom and Will who are kidnapped by the Comanches, and he’s having a hard time making those other stories very interesting. So the wild tale about Candy and Dave’s encouragement to “jazz his stories up” is an idea that runs through the book. Jim is trying to jazz up his writing and the depiction of Candy is kind of an inspiration to do so, to cut loose. She is also, maybe, a faint echo of Jim’s earlier girlfriend Cicely, that is, though it’s never directly mentioned, Candy’s eroticism reminds Jim of Cicely.
Jim’s also been referring to this story he’s writing about the family trip to Spain, but the story seems dull, so as a reaction to Dave’s encouragement to jazz it up, he tells a completely absurd story about the family’s escape from the police.
So yes, I’d say the section with Dave and Candy, while I hope it’s a good read in itself, is integral to the overall narrative.
The story begins with Jim talking to his imaginary therapist. Jim is describing his desire to write a book about being kidnapped as a child, as well as his ancestors’ kidnapping during the pioneer days in the late nineteenth century. Jim proclaims “‘We’ve all been taken–taken from our true home, and it’s only a matter of getting back there! Of finding our way back home.'” Do you think any of the characters in Western Lonesome Society actually get “back home”?
The search for “belonging” I think is one that has always haunted me, and one, I think, which haunts the human condition. It actually took me a while into the book, more in the rewriting stage, to realize that the central theme in the book was about longing, and longing to belong, but I think that theme was always there on a less conscious level as I was writing the early drafts. It was more just a matter of bringing the theme to the forefront, of strengthening the connections between certain sections.
It was actually reading some of C.S. Lewis that helped bring the theme together for me. In a very lovely passage, he refers to humans being spiritual wanderers, nomads in a way, on the earth, so in that view we are never really completely at home here.
Yet one finds, at times, if one is lucky, something close perhaps, something that seems wonderful enough. I think some of childhood here, if one is fortunate enough to be spared the horrors that many, alas, go through even at a young age. I remember my early childhood, not vividly mostly, but in an almost mythical way, as being a blissful time, with my mother and to some extent my grandmother, being at the heart of that bliss. That may be why early on we see Jim on his first day of kindergarten. It’s a shocking day for Jim! As it was for me! I totally remember that experience, the shock, of being taken from the home and forced into the clutches of the nuns, good kindly people, no disparagement meant, but thrown in with savage vomit-spewing children in a do or die world. There always seemed to be somebody puking somewhere, usually chocolate milk coming up. I think it was my first sense that “home” is elusive, that it can be taken from you. We see this theme enacted more dramatically in Will and Tom being taken by the Comanches into a completely different existence. And of course the historical background is that the Comanches themselves are being destroyed and losing their home.
In my own life, I moved around a fair amount from the age of twenty to forty, first alone, and then when my wife and I were married, some thirty years ago now, we moved several times before settling in Colorado. I was in my late thirties by then, so I think those years of movement heightened the question of “Where’s home? Where do I belong?” There were places where I lived that became homes. And yet I would leave those homes and move on, as if the next “home” might somehow be better, might be the real home.
I see movement in these characters toward “getting home” even if they don’t entirely make it all the way, as C. S. Lewis indicates. There’s a feeling, I think, that Jim’s family is more intact – this R.V. trip and the trip to Spain a kind of bonding, and part of “belonging” is knowing where you don’t belong, and we see that Jim is on his way to toss President Jammer out his window, symbolic I think, of breaking the university’s hold on him.
Will and Tom are the central characters of the old West part of the book. We flash forward in time at the end and realize they’ve lived good lives. I think Tom has successfully returned to his old roots, which he never completely broke from when he was living with the Comanches. Will had actually been happy with the Comanches and his return has been a difficult one. He lives between two worlds, but I think he’s made the best of it, a part of him laughing and smiling, walking around on his hands to amuse the kids, but part of him still out on the frontier.
Maybe we don’t entirely “get back home” but it’s not hopeless. There’s much beauty, much to love in life is a message I hope the novel conveys. And part of belonging isn’t so much about place, but about people. Finding the people who make us feel at home. In the end, Tom is with Alice, and the brothers are reunited. In the absurdist trip to Spain, the family escapes and makes it home.Tags: blog, fiction, Interview, on writing, Robert Garner McBrearty