THIS INTERVIEW is an edited version of an email conversation between Colin Winnette and Robert Kloss, two novelists who like to mingle the historical with the fictional. Both are drawn as well to examining acts of violence and to the American urge to push westward. Kloss’s new book, The Revelator, follows the rise of the prophet Joseph Smith from country boy to religious icon. Haints Stay is Colin Winnette’s take on the Western, a novel about hired killers, foundlings, and revenge.
ROBERT KLOSS: Film critics have been discussing the slow death of the Western for as long as I can remember. As novelists, I think, we are both drawn to the genre. So my first question for you is what drew you to this particular genre and did you have any concerns about the Western’s relevance in the 21st century?
COLIN WINNETTE: Can a genre really die? Maybe it gets boring or overplayed or we go through a period where no one is skewing it in a fresh way or breaking expectations, but dead? That line of thinking is depleting and unfun, right? Genre is just a way of categorizing books. You can re-sort them and discover new groupings for books that might otherwise have been written off as “a type of Western.” Our books can loosely be called “Westerns,” but they are different from one another in just about every other way. Your new book is much more in conversation with your previous books than with mine or any other “Western.” The Kloss mythology has its own unique tenor.
I don’t think a genre can die out — they only go in and out of popularity.
Every novel I’ve completed to this point — The Alligators of Abraham and The Revelator and an as yet unpublished book called The Woman Who Lived Amongst the Cannibals — involves a journey westward. I think that has more to do with my interest in the construction of America than my interest in genre, though. I think what I drive at is closer to the old myths and legends, the national myths and legends of the oldest poems and epics. I think as a culture and as a literature we lose something when the poets and storytellers abdicate the telling of the national myth to historians and academics.
That’s one of the many pleasures in your book. The images and events flicker between having the authority of a legend and that of a compellingly unique fictional world. How much actual research went into this retelling?
I begin with biographies and histories, mostly as a means of building a foundation and acquiring inspiration. From there I move to creative leaps. I will Google, a little, and I will go to the library, but I am not interested in direct experience. I waited until after my novel about the Civil War was published before I toured my first battlefield. I write about the West a lot, but until I moved to Boulder, Colorado, a few weeks ago, Minnesota was the farthest west I had been. Until last night I had never been on a mountain although I frequently depict climbing one in The Revelator. I like that remove from “fact” and direct experience when working, and once something rings true to my imagination then I have no interest in going further.
Wait, you were on a mountain for the first time last night? How did you feel?
Well, I brought a pen and notepad and the only word I jotted was “terror.” You drive miles above the town you live in, and the entire route is winding, mostly unpaved, and there are seldom any rails between you and these steep drops to the world below. Our friends, who are pretty experienced in hiking mountains, drove us to a little town leftover from the Gold Rush called Gold Hill. People live there and work there, in buildings mostly dating back to the Rush. The proprietor of one shop told us about a mountain lion that he had watched leap across a road from a standing position; outside, we found mountain lion warning signs that offer this advice: “don’t give up.” We wandered around for about a half hour and then we drove back down. There’s a beauty and a grandeur and a freedom to being on a mountain, I found, but, yes, also anxiety and terror.
Haints Stay is so fantastic and feverish and yet so grounded and vivid that I assume some research went into the writing. Did you take up shooting or observe a pig being slaughtered? Sleep in the open? And I also wonder if Haints Stay was built from other works in the genre; did you have Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis on your mind? I caught at least one reference to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
I’ve gone shooting many times, and (separately) seen animals slaughtered. I have also slept out in the open. I didn’t set out to write about things I’d done, or do things I hoped to write about, but I guess that stuff does come bubbling up to the surface.
Haints Stay was more intentionally built from movies than novels or experiences, though I’m pretty sure all the movies I watched were based on books or short stories — something that is notably common in the Western. I was interested in the stage dressing of the Western. But I didn’t let myself read many Westerns, though I wanted to. If they influenced Haints Stay, it was through gauzy layers of interpretation or my own bad memory.
I liked what you said about the distance between “fact” or direct experience and imagination when you’re working. Outside of feeding the imagination, is there a place for fact in fiction?
I do think there’s a place for fact in fiction. I think there’s a place for imagination in nonfiction, as well. Melville is my favorite writer, for instance, and most of his novels incorporate fact directly. Moby-Dick is obviously the most famous example, but most of his novels blur the line rather radically between direct experience, imagination, and research — and very often Melville lifts sections directly from his research materials. From what I’ve read, his novella Benito Cereno leans on the source material almost verbatim in many places. I’ve been reading William T. Vollmann a lot lately too and from what I can tell his novels do much the same thing — his historical novels, like Argall, for instance, seem almost scholarly (but of course with Melville and, I assume, Vollmann, there are moments when imagination and style and mischief trump “fact” and scholarship). I’m fascinated by the approach and I’ve toyed with incorporating aspects of it into my own work (to no interesting results so far). Recently I’m more interested in nonfiction that is shaped by imagination and a gradual remove from research and experience.
I think what you say about the influence of Westerns on Haints Stay is probably similar to what I’m getting at — I’m all for influence by bad memory and gauzy layers. I want the light to bend in odd ways when it hits the glass.
Moving to another angle, I’d like to get your thoughts on violence in fiction. Haints Stay examines where violence comes from and why people commit it and what comes of it, and I’m curious about how you approached the representation of violence. Did you have any hesitations or reservations? Was there anything you shied from depicting? And I wonder if your focus on violence was borne out of the genre or if you were influenced by anything exterior to the genre (contemporary America, for one)?
I had no idea how violent the book was until people started talking about it. It seems hard to deny now, but when I was writing it the thought never occurred to me that I was writing a particularly violent book. I didn’t set out to write one. When I thought about Brooke and Sugar, I imagined them as people who had to accept the violence of their world and move forward with the knowledge that, for them, it wasn’t going to go away. The killing wouldn’t stop, though there may be pockets of peace. I did want to commit, though. If the story was going to take place in a violent world, I wanted it to actually be violent and not just claim to be violent. There’s a really delicate balance when writing violence, I think. Like anything else in a novel, each instance of it has to be earned anew, and not just be violence for violence’s sake. I don’t like violence. If I obsess over it, it’s because I’m afraid of it and baffled by our tremendous capacity for it. Which might be where the influence of contemporary America comes in.
The violence in The Revelator comes to a slow boil. The story builds and builds until a pretty nightmarish finale. Without spoiling the ending, did you always know the book was headed in that direction?
Partly. There was an inevitability to the kind of ending the book could have — a violent, nightmarish conclusion was always in the cards — and for the most part I understood where the book was going even before I understood who the main character was. I tend to not let character dictate narrative action, so I need a sense of narrative progression in mind before I can understand the people within the narrative.
I want to come back to something you mention in your response. I’m always intrigued (and a little surprised) when readers react to a violent or dark or fantastic literary novel with mystification or shock, as if the culture isn’t obsessed with violence and as if our media and entertainment industries aren’t driven by violent and/or fantastic narratives. You also mention a “delicate balance” when it comes to writing violence, and I wonder if you think there is a different standard for writers than for filmmakers, or if there should be? And why some readers are less willing to accept or, at least, are less prepared for violent or horrific literary works?
When you’re reading fiction, you’re actively imagining a world/situation in response to what you’re encountering on the page. You have to participate. So books can grab hold of you and linger like a bad feeling or a depression. My guess is that it’s easy to feel outrage if you find yourself suddenly imagining something you never wanted to imagine, or something you can’t immediately make sense of. Me, that’s one of the primary reasons I read.
Films are different because you’re being shown something, rather than being asked to imagine it (most commonly, that is). You can look away. But I don’t think my standards are fundamentally different for filmmakers. For me, it’s just a matter of keeping things varied and meaningful. Maybe Haints Stay hits people as a notably violent book because I tried to make each instance of violence feel noticeable, in one way or another.
What about you? Were you writing violence in accordance with any articulable standards? Did you feel that something was owed to the reader? How does a book maintain integrity while accommodating the influence of an imagined audience?
I don’t think anything is owed to readers, no. I think a novelist owes everything to the work, to making it as great as he or she can make it. If we owe anything to the audience it’s to write the book only we can write. And we just have to hope that eventually enough people find that book worthwhile.
Melville, as always, is my guide. And I know he wrestled with this. He wrestled with this until he finally stopped wrestling with it and moved into poetry. (Or, maybe, he moved into The Confidence-Man first — maybe as great a novel about America as an American can write, but such a commercial and critical failure it killed his career as a prose writer.) Now, very few people have read Clarel or Battle-Pieces, but those are still great books and nobody else could have written them and not a day goes by that I’m not glad he had the strength to write them.
Maybe the easy answer to your last question is, a book maintains integrity if the author is as great as Melville, since most of the early novels do, to some extent, seek to interest the audience.
Since I just gave up half that answer to discussing Melville, I wonder if you’d care to share a writer or writers who have pushed, inspired, influenced, or guided you? Or maybe you place more emphasis on specific works than the particular author? I’m curious.
You’ve inspired me to read The Confidence-Man. I once told an English professor of mine that Moby-Dick was my favorite book (which it probably still is, if such a position actually exists in my excitable brain). His response was to ask if I had read The Confidence-Man, as he found it impossible to get through. The conversation put me off of the book. I didn’t want to read something that could potentially lessen my passion for Moby-Dick. But I’m just now realizing that that’s a silly way to feel, and that I should pick up the book. At this point in my life, even if I don’t love a book, I’m attracted to its successes — how it achieves its goals and also the random or unintended little sparks of brilliance in otherwise unimpressive books. There’s always something to be learned from a book’s failures as well.
As for the writers who’ve pushed or inspired me … Beckett exercises a tremendous influence on me. I’m always impressed with what Amelia Gray can get away with, and how. Brian Evenson’s work was a revelation to me. I recently read an advance copy of a book by a writer named Han Kang that disturbed me in a lasting way. I think that will be a minable experience some day.
But it’s a hard question to answer. I think I ultimately place more emphasis on individual works than authors. Nothing makes me want to write more than reading something new or strange or moving or infuriating. In those moments, I often lose track of the other writer completely.
I have a sort of non-sequitur-though-related question. Are you or were you raised Mormon?
I was raised Lutheran, and I did have this idea of God watching me and judging me, although eventually that went away. But no, not a Mormon. And even if I had been raised one I wouldn’t be one now. I have a hard time believing in much of anything with certainty.
I could talk all day about Melville and Moby-Dick … I will say this: The Confidence-Man is a different beast from Moby-Dick. I admire them equally and if I’m ever forced to grab only two books from my collection in haste, I will take those two. It’s a very focused, very controlled, very complex book. There is not a word out of place.
I learn more by reading a series of novels by the same author or watching a series of films by the same filmmaker, and watching the progression of style and ideas. I like seeing how an artist eventually got to where they were going. I recently read Kansas City Lightning, the Charlie Parker bio by Stanley Crouch, which is about the formation of Parker’s genius. And I found it inspiring — oh, so that’s how that happened. I wonder if you’re interested in literary biographies, and the process of other writers?
That’s probably a really profitable way of looking at a book, through the lens of the body of work, but maybe my brain is a little too chaotic to keep track of everything. I like that open feeling when picking up a book you don’t know anything about. “This could go anywhere.” I like feeling like a book can do anything to me, and then I like trying to let it for as long as possible.
I’m interested in other writers’ processes but in a selfish way. I’m always looking to try things out, knock something loose in me, so if I hear about something a writer does or did that seems doable I’ll often give it a try, just to see how it affects me. I haven’t read many literary biographies, though I did read Charlie Louvin’s autobiography (which has some really great stuff in it) and Yeats’s autobiography/notebooks (which has some really crazy stuff in it).
I’ve never been super drawn to biographies. Too often they speak with an authority that makes me uneasy. I couldn’t imagine trying to write about another person’s life. There’s just so much you can’t know. We only know what we’re presented. Or worse, we only know how we interpret what we’re presented. Novels don’t lie in the way history does. Or they are the lie. And yet it’s much more difficult for a writer to hide in a novel than in an autobiography or an interview.