Lately, the Western novel has been getting really fun again. Most of us probably think of Louis L’Amour’s, or maybe Joe Lansdale’s classic Weird West stories. But there’s a slew of new Westerns, featuring diverse characters and bracing new storylines. We talked to four authors about the new wave of Westerns.
In Gemma Files’ Hexslinger series, a Pinkerton agent named Ed Morrow infiltrates a gang of outlaws that’s led by a rogue “hexslinger” named Asher Rook and his lover, Chess Pargeter. The Hexslinger books have won lots of praise for their protrayal of LGBT characters and themes.
In Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, a mixed-race girl named Nettie Lonesome kills a vampire and suddenly she can see supernatural creatures everywhere. She steals the vampire’s clothes, passes as a man, and becomes first a cattle rustler and then a Texas Ranger. But her sexuality turns out to be more complicated than killing monsters.
Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory combines steampunk, fantasy and Westerns, for a story about a sex worker who gets tangled up with a Jack-the-Ripper-esque serial killer and a man who has a machine that can control anyone’s actions.
And Laura Ann Gilman’s Silver on the Road follows a saloon girl named Isabel who volunteers to be the Devil’s Left Hand, helping the man who’s believed to be Satan to control his vast territory West of the Mississippi. But a rash of supernatural attacks tests Isobel’s control over her new power.
These are just four of the more interesting novels that have come along recently and play with Western themes. We talked to all four authors about why now is the perfect time for a wild new West.
Why is now a great time for people to experiment with Western novels?
Lila Bowen: We’re in a weird place now in America, in a time in which rage has become a commodity and most people feel helpless to change anything. The idea of the Old West has come to represent something we yearn for: a new beginning with an unrestricted frontier of endless hope and possible riches that allows for personal vigilanteism. Right now, so many people are fed up with the corruption of government and the way we feel disconnected from our leaders and our laws and our land that we yearn for a world where a person is as good as their word—or they have to deal with the consequences. Westerns have a comfortable familiarity and shorthand that we all connect with but offer endless variations for science fiction and fantasy stories.
Laura Anne Gilman: I’m not sure there’s ever been a bad time to experiment in that genre - it’s both iconic and constantly being reinvented, especially in film, as each decade looks back differently. From the heroic loner of the 1960's to the more cynical look of the 1970's, and the “big epic revisionist” of the 1980's, all the way up to the SFnal takes and gritty hyper-realism of the 2000s. Every time we revise our history, we also revise the mythology of our history.
I think what’s different now is that it’s more women doing the experimenting. There’s been a leap over “girls can’t play in the old west unless it’s a historical romance” to “this is our sandbox, too,” a step away from the hyper-macho aspect. Possibly still hyper-macho, but gender inclusive, now.
But really, if you’re asking “why is weird west making another run at popularity?” the only honest answer is “I haven’t a clue.” Waves occur and it’s easier to see them in retrospect than when the impulse is still building under the surface.
Elizabeth Bear: I’m not sure what in the Zeitgeist it is that’s giving these books a push. Because there has been a slow trickle of fantasy or SFnal westerns by women for a while now—Karen Joy Fowler’s Sarah Canary, Emma Bull’s Territory, Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker et. al., and more—but it does seem as if, bang, this is the time to railroad, as it were. I started KAREN MEMORY in 2009, roughly, and it didn’t see print until 2015, and it seems to have slotted in magically as if it were something that people were really looking forward to.
Gemma Files: I think, at this point, we’ve very much moved on from an age of strict gatekeeping—an age in which there was a very deep perceived divide between those who were only “allowed” to consume popular cultural narratives versus those who were “allowed” to comment on, analyze or unpack them. Possibly this is due to a rise in the number of fans with deconstructionist academic training, or maybe it’s just an off-shoot of the immense number of fans for whom the production and consumption of fanfiction is a natural part of the whole fannish process; probably both.
One way or the other, we now know that nothing’s sacred and that every narrative has a thousand potential alternatives—we get that don’t just “have” to accept anything anymore, just because it’s the only thing of its kind that currently exists. So if we’re dissatisfied with the way an existing narrative handles (or, more likely, doesn’t handle) something, we can either create our own version that solves those inherent problems or at the very least go looking for someone else’s version, one which plugs those pesky world-building holes and addresses our political discontents: flip the default, add context, refuse and rewrite the received wisdom of a given genre.
Plus, since the classic Western story is definitely perceived as a narrative originally designed to provide a new mythology for a then-new country—one that would allow Americans rationalize and romanticize even their grossest decisions in the name of expansionism, Manifest Destiny and the New Frontier—and very much inherently marketed towards the absolute default (ie, power fantasies about conquering savage nature for cis white heterosexual dudes), I think as a genre it’s thus become something everyone who doesn’t fall into that particular rubric feels instinctually compelled to fuck with.
What is it about the West that makes stories about people who don’t fit in and are trying to figure out who they are so compelling?
Files: A lot of Westerns are about running away and starting over, to one degree or another: you pack your bags, move somewhere so far away from “civilization” that the rules don’t matter any more and remake yourself, usually by setting yourself in opposition with uncontrollable and mysterious forces that want to crush you: landscape, weather, ecology, fierce beasts and even fiercer indigenous human beings, criminal predators of every description. They are fantasies of escape as much as anything else, and I don’t know anything that non-default people crave quite as much as escape, aside from the concept of the found family—the possibility of going so far away from whatever structure you’re trapped inside that you find out where you were always actually meant to be, form a gang, create your true “tribe.”
Basically, the Western is all about potential, though there’s also this constant undercurrent of a tragedy foretold; eventually and inevitably the map gets filled in, civilization encroaches yet again, and what you have will always be lost. It’s like history’s shadow peeping in on us through a brightly-painted scrim, tingeing the sheer entertainment value with retrospection and nostalgia.
Bowen: In our current world, we’re all crowded together and constantly in touch. Everyone’s on Facebook, along with their entire home town, high school, college, first job, and neighborhood. It’s hard to drop who you used to be and entirely recreate yourself, and the people who knew you in the past will continue to judge and troll you, even if they think they mean well. But in the Old West, you had an entirely new backdrop of wide spaces in which to reinvent yourself. Change your name, change your physical presentation, create your own new history. There was no real way to determine who you used to be, and even if someone did manage to get paperwork from Back East, it took months to arrive and the jury might be swayed otherwise.
It reminds me of Colorform sets—right now, everyone’s Colorform set is totally packed with people and things, stuck down like stickers. But you lift up that character and drop them into a new set, and you’ve effectively erased everything up until that moment, giving them the freedom to completely remake themselves. Which I love. Plus, as I learned writing Wake of Vultures, if you don’t like what a feller has to say about who you are, you can punch him in the teeth with zero repercussions. It’s immensely satisfying.
Bear: There are so many fewer expectations and much looser social codes in a frontier society, I think is a lot of it. Women like Mother Damnable and Calamity Jane, who refuse traditional gender roles, can become legends, rather than being forced into tiny socially acceptable boxes or shut up in madhouses. It’s actually curious to me—Robert Heinlein, in several of his novels, has Libertarian-leaning protagonists such as Lazarus Long wax poetical about the opportunities of a frontier society for a man to make his own way and be who he truly is without interference from meddling neighbors. It’s a very Charles Ingalls kind of rhetoric.
But really, marginal societies function because of interdependence. Even Pa Ingalls needed nails and calico, and those nails and that calico came from an industrial society. And that level of interdependence—the work needs to be done, and any hand that can do that work is turned to it—leads to greater freedom for everyone until the niches fill up and the competition gets fierce enough that social pressure starts displacing people lower on the social ladder from desirable jobs.
Gilman: The American West is about frontiers—that moving grey space between what’s (too well) known and what’s completely unknown. It’s where whatever you were can fall off, and something new take shape. Like the space between high school and college, nobody knows you so you can become anyone. Or, your past can follow you, and you have to take a stand against it, gunslinger style, face to face.
That’s the idealized version, anyway. It’s also a canvas of some colossal mistakes. Failure’s not only an option, it sometimes seemed to be the default.
Did you set out to shake up the tropes of the Western genre? What have you learned from playing around with it?
Bowen: Oh, hell yes! Wake of Vultures was born of a late night tweet in which I decided I wanted to write Lonesome Dove but with monsters and heroes who weren’t white guys. The idea stuck with me, hard, and I decided that if I was going to flip a table, I should flip ALL THE TABLES. In Nettie, I wanted to craft a hero who would face every single kind of discrimination and hardship in the Old West and still triumph. She begins as a half-black, half-Comanche girl kept as a slave by a pair of abusive drunks, and she goes on to realize that what she wants most in life is to be a cowpoke and live as a man. I learned that I had been playing it safe in other books, not putting my protagonists in too much pain. But torturing Nettie and watching her kick ass is a pure joy and has helped me level up as a writer. Now, instead of thinking, “What happens next?”, I think, “How can I take away everything she loves, and how can she still come out victorious?”
Gilman: I didn’t so much want to shake them up as step around them. By setting by story in 1800-1802, I’m working before the “Old West” that we recognize today was established. An area that hadn’t been surveyed by the east yet, much less colonized or claimed... so a lot of the tropes we automatically assume are there—weren’t, yet.
That wasn’t intentional. I’d been using the Louisiana Purchase as my story-point, since it was an interesting pivot for the continent (history major, here. So much of who we are as a nation can be traced back to this moment, both politically and emotionally, for good and for ill). But my research quickly reminded me that, for example, the Colt “Six Shooter” so beloved of the Western wasn’t mass produced until 1832, and even the flintlock revolver was 1814. So my characters would be restricted to single-shot rifles and blunderbuss pistols—with a 14" muzzle, not exactly useful for the quick draw! Take away the Western iconic gunfighter, lawman, and cavalry (not to mention the affiliated townspeople)...what do you have?
The explorer. The dreamer. The builder. And, yes, the order-bringer, in the lawful neutral sense of the word. Fortunately, those were the people who interested me.
Files: My route to the Western led directly through Slash Canyon, so yeah, I guess I was looking to mess things up from the start—but then again, when you deliberately gay up a narrative that’s already homocentric and homosocial by nature, how far are you actually moving away from the original? I went into my first book, A Book of Tongues, with the deliberate intent of making my main character a full-bore Billy the Kid kind of guy, unrepentantly murderous, peacock-flamboyant and viper-deadly, anti-authoritarian to the point of perversity but also completely and absolutely “frilly”...a dude who, if rap had been invented yet, would be apt to declaim in public that he like[d] big dudes and [he] cannot lie, or [he] could but [he] ain’t gonna try, mainly for the pleasure of shooting any fool dumb enough to object. That was Chess Pargeter, the human engine whose doomed relationship with fallen preacher turned hexslinger Reverend Rook drives the entire trilogy.
As I got further into even that first book, however, I started thinking about trying to redress other imbalances. I made up a literal magical Native person character, the Diné shaman Grandma, just so that I could have her do the opposite of what she’d be expected to do in a “normal” Western; instead of mentoring the Rev, she observed him from afar long enough to figure out how dangerous he was, then lied to him to get him close enough to kill. My Big Bad turned out to be an amalgamated creature constructed from worship-hungry indigenous archetypes that had eaten each other after “death,” named after the Mayan moon goddess Ixchel but also containing all the most bloodthirsty aspects of a bunch of Mexica goddesses, whose transition from human sacrifice to total inhumanity predicts what could happen to any magician if they become more interested in predation and power than making sure the world around them survives the imbalance they create by simply existing. Trying to do due diligence and be respectful to all three cultures was a challenge I was proud to meet, though I’m sure I screwed up here and there, for which I apologize.
By the next book I was playing around with situational bisexuality, lesbianism, and genderfluidity, introducing a character (Yancey Colder Kloves, an innkeeper’s daughter who quick grew to become the third-most important person in the whole shebang) who hopefully made the whole thing slightly less of a massive bag of dicks, and trying my best to make even the people I’d originally brought in as little more than pulpy local colour into honest-to-god human beings, with character development and everything. Near the end, I was even trying to make a distinction between zealous Christian characters whose faith was genuine but who made bad decisions and the sort of straight-on status quo hypocrites you expect in these tales. I also fell down a burning ring of shaky world-building here and there, but was hopefully able to extricate myself without looking completely ridiculous.
One of the biggest things I learned from the whole experience was that although the Western looks like a “simple” genre, it’s really anything but. Adding historical detail and trying to keep it fresh but valid will take you down one rabbit hole, while adding realistic psychological detail but trying to keep it true to the period will take you down another; trying to make sure no character falls into the easy trap of “heroes” vs. “villains” is yet another challenge, as is trying to create action and maintain pace, to sketch spectacle without allowing things to flatten out. I don’t even begin to know how other people do it, especially if the structural changes they’re trying to incorporate involve more than crossbreeding your basic horse opera with black magic and gay romance.
Bear: I certainly set out to give a more realistic picture of the American west than we usually get in the motion pictures, which are extraordinarily white-washed and Bowdlerized. The American west was a very diverse (and very stratified) society, and so many of the people who made it up are erased from the narrative, the Myth of the West. (Which I think in general is a pretty toxic myth on a lot of levels.) I did want to show some classic Western tropes from the point of view of the people who are usually treated as set dressing, to give them a subject position.
And once I found out about the history of prostitution in Seattle and San Francisco, well, the setting for Karen Memory was pretty much set and done.
And finally, the Western story obviously comes with a certain amount of baggage, and the genre has a problematic legacy. How did you grapple with this in writing your own Western?
Bowen: I started Nettie out in isolation, which means she was, philosophically, a nearly blank slate. She was taught very little and kept outside of the mores of society and religion, which means she doesn’t have the built-in prejudices most people of her time would. The book is in tight third person, which means the narration is in Nettie’s voice, mostly, and allows me to show how she reasons through her various problems and her growing understanding of herself and her place in the world. She’s never encountered any spectrum outside of miserable heteronormativity, so she’s able to reason that there’s nothing wrong with the fact that she’s attracted to both sexes and prefers to live as a man. She’s been taught she’s ugly and that being non-white is a bad thing, but she reasons that since the white folks who raised her aren’t worth a damn, their teachings about race aren’t worth a damn either. Nettie ultimately decides that a person’s worth is based not on what they look like or who they love, but in how they treat people and animals and what they contribute to the world. She does face insult and discrimination, but she has a strong core of self-worth and rises to the occasion as she grows.
In book two, Conspiracy of Ravens, which I’m writing now, it was important to me that Nettie make the mental leap from thinking of herself as a woman to accepting himself as a man, and I was really excited to write that bridge and change his pronouns to he/him. It is odd to have him think of women as basically useless, therefore disparaging my own gender, but it’s important to me to stay true to the character and his feelings... while slyly using women in the story to up his estimation of female worth.
Files: As I’ve tried to address somewhat in the paragraphs above, the difficulty of providing representation is always going to be that readers will automatically assume you intend your characters to be representative of their own particular identity, their group, their sub-set—and this is only going to get worse when you’re working in a genre rightly infamous for its classic use of racist shorthand. What always helps, however, is if you do your level best to make sure your gay character isn’t the only one within sight, or your female character can’t be somehow assumed to symbolize all female characters, and so on. Don’t tell stories that make people feel bad about who they think they are, if you can help it; that’s the basic principle. It’s hard, I guess, but it’s not that hard.
Because I write horror, for example, I struggle with the perception that since a lot of my characters are “bad people,” I must therefore have created them in order to prove that every person who shares their traits must be equally “bad.” In the Hexslinger Series, one of the ways I tried to get around this was by making sure Chess Pargeter eventually (spoiler alert!) gets to the point in his life where he doesn’t shoot first and ask questions never, or act like he thinks being annoying warrants the death penalty. Over the course of all three books, he makes and keeps friendships, learns to value other people’s happiness, changes enough so that he’s willing to make sacrifices on their behalf which cost him dearly, grieves love’s loss yet takes the risk of loving again.
None of which necessarily makes him a “good” person per se, or substantially different from his original self, but definitely does make him better, or at least recognizably human—and that’s all I was going for, really, in terms of not only Chess, but every other character he shares these books with.