Ian Stansel’s debut novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is fire, smoke, and bursts of illumination against the open sky. It’s classically American—a Western with some serious literary chops—and it’s everything it should be considering the July 4th, 2017 publication date. Critics and readers alike have showered the novel with praise, which is a follow-up to his 2013 PEN/Bingham Prize–nominated collection of short stories, Everyone’s Irish. Stansel has published stories in Ploughshares, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, and many anthologies, and his nonfiction has appeared in Cutbank, Salon, and The Good Men Project. Memorious had the honor of publishing the title story from Everything’s Irish in Memorious 19. Stansel also later served as Memorious Fiction Editor. Suffice it to say, we jumped at the chance to talk to Ian about his new novel, alternate endings, reader appeal, and willfully committing the biggest writing sins.
The alternating point of view is a driving narrative force, an unlikely dance between predator and prey. It generates tension and deepens characterization—the kind of win-win that’s hard to come by. Most importantly, perhaps, seeing this landscape from the perspectives of both Silas and Lena affords the reader a greater understanding of the Van Loy brothers’ relationship. Did you begin the novel with this structure, and how hard was it to pull this off?
First of all, thanks for taking the time to read the book. As far as structure, etc. goes, something I’ve said many times to my students is that story, plot, character, and structure are really indistinguishable. We separate them for the sake of workshop conversations, but when it comes down to writing a novel, these things are so overlapped that you can’t say one is doing this and another is doing that. In the case of this book, I came up with the Lena character and the idea of an alternating structure and the overall story of the chase simultaneously. Without the alternating structure (or something like it) there is no Lena, and without Lena there is no story, just a situation.
The alternating POV allows a certain level of dramatic irony because the audience is aware of things that the characters are not, but the narrative also does not reveal everything to its reader. This is something I struggled with. I was trained to front-load everything. To withhold information is about the biggest sin a writer can commit. But at some point you have to say, Okay, I’ve internalized all the workshop training I can retain—now which rules do I need to follow and which might I need to break in order to tell this story most effectively? Whenever I see rules that say don’t do this or don’t do that, I always imagine a little asterisk next to each one with a note that says, “Unless it works.”
The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo comes in at a slim 200 pages, and this reader got the sense that you wouldn’t dare waste a word. Tell us about the words you had to scrap; for example, what was the hardest scene to lose?
The only major deletion was the original ending, which was very different and very weird. It was a strange experiment that didn’t really fit with the rest of the book. My agent rightly pointed this out and it was not too difficult to cut it and write an ending that makes more sense. Other than this, the revision process was more about adding and clarifying. This is largely due to the fact that I wasn’t envisioning this as a novel through most of the writing process. I had set out to write a novella, aiming at seventy or so pages. This, I suppose, goes to show that you need to be open to what the story you’re writing wants to become.
In 1993, I gave a book report on The Red Pony. Since, I’ve had little-to-no experience with horses, literary or otherwise; even still, your novel never made my lack of equine knowledge an impediment to connecting and engaging. What challenges did you and your human characters face in sharing the page with their animal companions?
The specifics about horses and horse life are, I suppose, a bit about establishing the world and some semblance of authority for the narrative. But they are more about being true to the characters and their passion and expertise. I was aware, though, that I was not writing solely for horsey people, and that there was a balance I needed to strike. I don’t expect the average reader to know every particular term—horse breeds or uses for pieces of tack—but hopefully those moments of detail, one, don’t distract or confuse, and two, serve to communicate how deep into this world the characters are and how much they care about the animals.
The other challenge I faced was how to make the horses feel like actual characters, albeit secondary ones. I think I succeeded most with the horse called Disco, who carries Silas. Their relationship evolved on the page mainly because through a large chunk of the book, Silas and the horse are alone. Lena has her riding companion, Rain, to talk to, but Silas has only Disco, so their bond needed to be a bigger part of the narrative than the bonds between the women and their horses.
How did you so deftly balance literary and commercial/genre appeal?
I wasn’t thinking so much about commercial appeal as reader appeal. That might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but what I mean is that I did (and generally do) think a good deal about how a reader would engage with the book, but I didn’t think about how a potential editor would. I think this is the way to go. After all, editors are first and foremost readers, right? So you might as well just write for readers. That said, I did understand that I was writing something with a lot more “plot” than previous projects, and plot, in general, is more commercial. I wrote a novel in grad school that never even got to the point of being “shopped around” because everyone who saw it said the same thing: love the writing, love the characters, but there’s no story. I did not want that to happen again. And, honestly, the older I get the less tolerance I have for plotlessness. I love stories and I wanted to write one that readers could really get into. You know those moments when you’re reading and the story is really running along and you’re so wrapped up you kind of forget that you’re in a chair in your living room or whatever? Hopefully there are a couple moments in this book that do that.
What overlapping obsessions, themes, similarities between The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo and your PEN/Bingham Prize-nominated story collection, Everyone’s Irish (the title story appears in Memorious 19), most surprised you? (I love, for example, the way you incorporate landscape—whether it’s the lapping of the Chicago River or the “shush of the wind purling over the grass.” I also noticed your characters’ yearnings for justice despite the overdetermined nature of blame and the strained choice between solitude and distraction. What, if any, would you say are the constants in your writing?
I don’t generally think of my writing as being that concerned with landscape, but I do spend a lot of time on it, probably because I’m insecure about my ability to fully convey this place or that. So in my collection, most of which takes place in Illinois, I did labor over ways to show the flatness of the cornfields or the river running through Chicago. I tend to focus on what I feel are my deficiencies, and I don’t think that’s a terrible habit for a writer. With the novel, so much of it depends on the landscape that I spent even more time obsessing over phrasing.
I think the most direct connections would be between the novel and the last story I wrote for the collection, “Introduction by the Author.” Both stories involve two brothers, betrayal, and an overabundance of ambition. I find ambition fascinating and dangerous—which are two good starting points for a story. I also find myself coming back again and again to sibling relationships. And grief. And betrayal. And regret.
Some people have asked me what writers I felt were influences on this novel and many assume I’ll say Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry—Western writers. And they’re right. I was influenced by them, as well as a number of other Western writers (Paulette Jiles, for instance). But it was just as influenced—perhaps even more so—by books like James Salter’s Light Years and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and others that tackle the inner turmoil associated with those themes I just mentioned: grief, betrayal, regret.
Would you be willing to tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
I have a number of things started, but nothing I can say is my “new project.” I’m confident there will be another book in the not-too-distant future. I just couldn’t say right now what it’ll be.
We’re grateful for the work you did as a former Fiction Editor for Memorious; you have a history of supporting writers and championing new writing. What great work have you recently read, and what’s in your reading queue. Are there fellow debut novelists you think our readers should be looking out for?
Honestly, I’m often woefully unaware of what is coming around the bend. The vast majority of my reading is determined by whatever I’m working on or teaching or just obsessing over. So I just bought a book about oyster farming because I like oysters. And I’m reworking my advanced fiction workshop wherein we read linked stories, so I’m reading books like Nami Mun’s incredible Miles Form Nowhere. I am excited to read N.J. Campbell’s Found Audio, which just came out. And Impossible Views of the World by Lucy Ives looks cool. So, yeah, those and the oyster book.
Assistant Editor Wendy Oleson is the author of Our Daughter and Other Stories, which won the 2017 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award (Map Literary). Her stories, poems, and hybrid text have appeared recently in Cimarron Review, Calyx, Copper Nickel, and elsewhere. She teaches for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the WSU-TriCities English department. Wendy lives in Eastern Washington with her wife and their irrepressibly-delightful dog, Winston.
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