Beneath Everything Is the Wilderness: An Interview with Colin Winnette

Guest Article by: 
Lawrence Lenhart

by Lawrence Lenhart

The first time I met Colin Winnette, we were in Tucson at a desert arts café. He read me a story. Actually, he read all of us a story from ANIMAL COLLECTION (Spork 2012). The desert seemed to agree with him. The second time, we were side-by-side at a urinal in Boston. We might have said more, but beholden to urinal etiquette, we mostly kept to ourselves. I wondered how he was doing, but not aloud. Last Wednesday, I met Colin for a third time. We had lunch in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Having just read HAINTS STAY, an innovative Western with a 211-page macabre streak, I was curious about Winnette’s delve into the genre of lawlessness and wilderness.

At the sentence level, nothing has changed. Colin is still a masterful crafter of sentences. This world, though, can be gruesome. Its principal characters, Brooke and Sugar, are brothers whose brand of “mobile meanness” has ensnared them in Borgesian iniquity. They’re “two murdering sons of bitches,” sure, but Winnette lets them (when they so choose) vie for their own redemption. Meanwhile, Bird, a young interloper who’s a veritable tabula rasa, drifts like tumbleweed in and out of the brothers’ lives. The novel is a gauntlet that relentlessly pivots as the characters fail to relate to “civil” society, but manage to relate to the earth and one another. Like Denis Johnson’s TRAIN DREAMS, this Western is as defined by its verisimilitude as its anachronisms: the rustic post-modernism, its contemporary subtext.

What follows is a portion of my first proper conversation with Winnette.

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Brazos Bookstore: Bird’s first appearance is so stark. It’s not even known which direction he comes from. It’s a spontaneous generation. With your other characters, it seems a little more complicated than that. Their origins aren’t immediately apparent, but it’s because they’re withholding. How do you manage that as a writer—monitoring the withholding, delaying the expository moment?

Colin Winnette: With Bird, I just knew he would have no sense of what happened to him and that that would complicate the other characters’ relationships to him. With Brooke and Sugar, they’re just living in the moment and they’re not going to tell you about their lives unless they have to. When Brooke’s stuck in the desert and he’s just fucking walking, and he’s like “I can live like this for a while, but I don’t have anywhere to go and I don’t know where I am.” He’ll probably survive, but what do you do with yourself in that situation? He starts remembering things, trying to figure out his situation, which allows him to reveal his past to us, because he’s digging. But aside from these particular moments in the novel, I try to let information reveal itself naturally, which means it more often than not comes out in dialogue or action.

I get really annoyed with novels that are constantly saying, “Okay, so this part is important because of all this other stuff that happened. And here’s the context for this exchange.” I’m always interested in how you can load up an exchange with as much meaning and emotion without having to tell anyone anything. I’m interested in the way dialogue can serve that. You get to know the character without having to know he had a rough upbringing or he had been married before. It matters, but it’s not essential to our understanding of the way the characters interact. It might help clarify once you do learn it, but I hope it’s not essential. Too many books force a precise cause and effect and then worry about whether or not we can control it. But sometimes people are just weird and different and that’s that.

BB: Meanwhile, while Brooke is wandering, his brother [Sugar] is being detained. There’s lots of action in this detainment—the deputies are guarding him, the townspeople are curious, he’s being forced to carry his baby to term—so we have to think about his character with respect to his actions. How is Sugar’s character development informed in terms of manliness in the [Western] genre?

CW: Sugar is a very complicated character. In a lot of ways, Sugar is the most “masculine” character in the book, in the sort of weird almost jokey way masculinity is depicted in the classic Western, which is so over-the-top. And so weird to me. I’ve never met an actual person like that. I’ve met a lot of people interested in being that way, who are trying to be that way. It’s all about masculinity as brute strength and aggressive forward momentum and hunting skills.

In the book, I’ve put [the characters] in a world where they need these skills, men and women alike, but it sometimes clashes severely with who they are: the way they feel and emote. These are far more emotional characters than you’ll see in the classic Western. Bird, for example, is trying to present himself as confident and decisive, but it’s clear he is confused and terrified.

Back to Sugar: he is one of the most masculine characters in the book as I understand it. When writing narration in the book, I always try to tie it to a character, so it’s never like the book telling you about something happening. Rather, it’s Brooke seeing something or Sugar thinking something. I attribute all the language to someone in the book whether or not it reads that way. The way Sugar is viewed shifts depending on who he’s interacting with. When Sugar is at home with the people who know him, Sugar is a strong-willed male. When he’s interacting with the doctor, he’s a creature and a prisoner.

There’s one review of the book where the reviewer is very comfortable referring to Sugar as male, referring to Brooke and Sugar as brothers, until one sentence where [the reviewer] describes the labor scene, and then the reviewer refers to Sugar as female. And it’s like, oh, so that’s the moment for you where it has to be this bio-essentialist thing. Can’t say “he” here, gotta say “she,” because, you know, genitals.

BB: It’s as if you anticipate that bio-essentialism, though. In the next scene, we get an image of Sugar as he had been before the labor, before the temporary gender projection. It’s a very dignified scene.

CW: Right, Sugar gets out of that shit and reclaims himself. In the labor scene, he has been captured, held down, put in prison, forced to deliver his baby in front of all these detectives. Sugar is forced into a position based on the combination of some really gnarly physical things he has to deal with that leave him momentarily weakened and the way he is perceived by the people who have imprisoned him.

BB: Is this your first time writing a Western? Did you generally feel like you were writing within the genre or against it?

CW: It’s my first time writing a Western, but the prose is similar.

BB: The Winnette sentences are still there.

CW: Yeah, Winnette sentences stuck in a different world. That’s part of what attracted me to it. The Western is an identifiable genre that, at the same time, doesn’t feel tired. Whereas COYOTE has a murder/mystery/crime/thriller thing. Even when I was writing [COYOTE], I was thinking, I really don’t want to get too far into the genre elements of this because it feels so worn, but with the Western, for whatever reason, I was excited to grab all the little pieces I liked and forget about the rest. I think ultimately I was interested in writing within the genre, but there were parts where the departure points are what interested me most.

BB: Can you talk about one of those deliberate points of departure?

CW: One is super obvious. It’s one of the most heavy-handed examples of it, but it might serve to answer your question. When Mary asks Bird about the men who killed his family (and Bird has been lying about the family he claims to have had), she asks, “What color were the men’s hats?” and he’s like, “They weren’t wearing any hats.” The color of the hat is a big Western trope: white hats good, black hats bad. For me, this is a Western where good and bad are really hard to decipher. A lot of the really good characters wind up doing terrible things. It’s not because they’re pushed into it, but because they make a bad decision or they get confused. There’s a lot of confusion due to weird overlap, coincidence, lying, forgetting. No character is fixed in who they are. What they have done doesn’t dictate what they will do.

BB: Can you speak to that ambiguity? There’s a scene in which everybody in the town wants to be afraid of the brothers, but there’s a prerequisite that the brothers be celebrity killers. The doctor gives some kind of moral diagnosis and tries to convince the people, but ultimately only celebrity can sustain the tension. Can you speak to the ambiguous badness to them?

CW: The [townspeople] are interested in: “Are these people we know? Are these bad guys with history to them? They’ve done all the bad things we recognize, but they don’t have this repute.” The doctor’s like, “They’re not celebrities. They’re murderers.” And so people are less interested.

BB: And they don’t have a recognizable name like the Wild Bunch Gang, which is another Western trope.

CW: Earlier in the book, they’re called the Fatherless Brothers in one moment. And then it’s just gone because their history is being erased. Brooke and Sugar come into the book in the middle of something and that particular situation is immediately wiped away, so they have to respond to that. And that just keeps happening over and over again in different ways. A character has a life and has this understanding of themselves and how they fit into things. And for whatever reason, it’s taken away from them, and they have to redefine themselves against whatever they’re faced with. And it’s really interesting to me how a sense of self becomes problematic in these new settings, how carrying an old idea into new circumstances can get you into trouble. For Brooke and Sugar, the potential that they could become celebrity figures keeps getting undermined by external forces, to the point where they both kind of drift away.

BB: Can you speak to the culture of violence in this world? How do you decide upon the parameters of this culture? Is there such a thing as too much violence?

CW: For me, I don’t think there is a limit to the darkness of this world. These characters are still pretty lucky considering what could have happened. Part of why I was drawn to the Western is because it feels like there’s a lot of struggle for law and order, this underlying chaos we’re trying to build fences around. I was interested in a world where the depths of how horrible we can be to one another—not just emotionally, but something like cannibalism—is able to be played out.

HAINTS STAY is willing to let what could happen happen, but I wasn’t interested in writing violence for the sake of violence. I’m not sure any book is, though some may read that way. For me, the most compelling parts of the book are those like when Bird and Mary are sitting on the well, and she tells him her real name. It’s cheesy and sentimental, maybe, but it was really emotional for me to write. I found the moments where it’s not violent to be the most enjoyable. But part of what makes [those moments] enjoyable to me is that they manage to happen in this dark, dark place.

I think with anything—be it violent or romantic scenes—the writer has to earn it in some way, and that has to be personal and unique to the world they’re making. I hope that I earned every scene in this book, but that’s ultimately up to whoever’s reading it.

BB: What does it feel like to move on from characters like these who have had these intense experiences? Are they in a good place?

CW: I don’t know if I’d call them good, but I think the characters, the ones who survive, all kind of wind up in situations that are very far from where they were in the beginning of the book, and hopefully in a way that honors their individual selves and their ability to evolve. They have this kind of personhood that’s sliding around and reacting to things but there’s still some kind of core. It’s just liquid. I left them when I had a good sense of where they were going, which I think goes back to your original question about what’s revealed and what isn’t. I think the book gives you everything you need to get to know these characters and how their lives might play out. Although if there’s one thing that’s abundantly clear about this world, it’s that nothing’s a sure thing.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is a reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.


Haints Stay Cover Image
$16.00
ISBN: 9781937512323
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Two Dollar Radio - June 2nd, 2015

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