Brothers’ Life-Long Feud Leads To Murder
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Diane Slocum
The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo, Ian Stansel, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt – Silas Van Loy murders his older brother, Frank, and takes off on horseback through the hills of coastal Northern California. Besides having to dodge the police in patrol cars and helicopters, he has a more determined adversary – Frank’s wife, Lena, on her own horse. Lena is after revenge, but also seeks answers as to why the brothers’ feud reached this climax.
AUTHORLINK: What gave you the idea for this story and how did it develop?
STANSEL: The story began with an idea given to me by my sister, who was a horse trainer and rider. At one point she worked with two brothers who were constantly at each other’s throat, and I remember her saying that I should write about them. She meant as a piece of nonfiction, but at the time I had little interest in writing nonfiction. A few years later, my sister passed away suddenly and I had a hard time writing anything for a good long while. Then I recalled the brothers she’d mentioned. I still didn’t want to write nonfiction, but I thought I could take that small initial premise and build it into a piece of fiction. Through the writing process I had my sister on my mind and I consciously wrote a book that I thought she would have loved. That was my motivation.
AUTHORLINK: Did your original draft start just after the murder as it does now or did you have other ideas of where to start?
STANSEL: The book always started right after the murder, though I didn’t know at the start why it had happened. Writing the story was a process of uncovering why Silas had killed Frank. If there is suspense in the book, part of that is because I was also trying to find the answer. This is generally how I work. What happens isn’t always terribly interesting to me. I’m far more concerned with why and how things happen.
AUTHORLINK: Were you already familiar with the equestrian world you describe or did you learn about it through research? What was your experience and/or research in that area?
STANSEL: I’m not much of a rider myself, but I grew up around horses. My mother and aunt were riders, and as I said my sister rode and taught riding her entire life. So I am familiar with horses and the horse world. But to get into the minds of characters who had dedicated their entire beings to that world, I did have to do a bit of research. A lot of the time that just involved googling things I wasn’t sure about. I also picked up a copy of Horse and Rider, this big encyclopedia of breeds, styles of riding, etc. There is a part of the book where Silas takes up dressage, and this was a type of riding I was less familiar with, so there was a bit of research to that. But I did go into the book with most of the knowledge I needed. The research aspects were more a matter of clarifying and double-checking. I also called and texted my mom a lot to bug her with questions.
AUTHORLINK: Your story, like James Scott’s The Kept, has characteristics of a Western, even though not set in the typical time and place. Also, both stories feature a woman pursuing her family’s murderer. Yet, they are very different. Do you see yourself, Scott, Malcolm Brooks (Painted Horses) and others carrying on and reinventing the western? Or do you reject that classification?
STANSEL: I call my book a Western as a sort of shorthand. Like The Kept, it is a Western and it isn’t. Sometimes I try to call it a quasi-Western, but that’s not really a thing. No one is out there thinking about how much they’d like to read a good quasi-Western. So basically I’m fine with the classification, with the acknowledgement that it (like most classifications) falls a bit short. There certainly are aspects of the book that are traditional Western tropes: the chase, the horses, the hats, the feud, etc., etc. But I was never particularly interested in writing a fully traditional Western. Just as much as the book is about horses and brotherly feuding, it is a book about grief and family. I’ve been asked about influences with, I think, the expectation that I was consciously building off of the works of Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis, and I absolutely was, but I was just as much working under the influence of Alice Munro and James Salter. Stylistically, for instance, the way the book moves between scene and exposition is highly influenced by Salter’s magnificent book Light Years. Just because you’re working on a book with horses or spaceships or broken marriages doesn’t mean you can’t learn and borrow from books with absolutely no horses or spaceships or broken marriages.
AUTHORLINK: How long did you work on this novel and did any aspects of it give you particular difficulties?
STANSEL: I wrote the book fairly quickly, in about 18 months. I think one of the things that helped me get it down with relatively few issues was the fact that I didn’t set out to write a novel. It was supposed to be a novella, but then it just kept growing. The backstory developed a lot more than I thought it would, as did the relationship between the two main female characters: Lena and Rain. I also got a lot out of the setting, Northern California, where I spent part of my childhood. So because I hadn’t set out to write a novel, I think I avoided some of the anxiety that can come from that process. I was just writing a story and I let the story grow into what it wanted to be.
AUTHORLINK: You have published short stories before this. How did that help you write and sell your novel? Had you written any unpublished novels before this and if so, how did they help?
STANSEL: I wrote one and a half novels before this one. With those there were a couple problems. One, I was overly concerned with size. I was insecure and wanted to write a “big” novel. Maybe I thought this was how to “make my mark” or some nonsense like that. The other problem was that I didn’t spend enough time on plot. When people saw these projects the reaction was almost always, “Love the writing, love the characters, but there’s no story.” You can get away with less plot in a short story, maybe, but when you’re writing a novel you need to have momentum. You need to have one event leading to the next. You need danger, whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual, or something else.
As for the short stories, I have published them and I did have a collection come out on a small press called Five Chapters. I’m sure both my individually placed stories and my collection helped to sell the novel, though I don’t necessarily think it wouldn’t have sold without those.
AUTHORLINK: What was your experience in finding an agent and publisher? Easy or a struggle? Did anything surprise you?
STANSEL: I’ve sent work to a lot of agents and gotten a lot of polite, often thoughtful, messages saying they weren’t interested in representing me. And that’s fine. That’s part of the business. I’m not so arrogant to think that everyone should be head over heels in love with my work. With this project, though, I used a connection. My wife is a writer also and she has an agent, and she offered to mention to my book to him. He said to send it to him and after he read it he wanted to work with me. I was lucky to have that connection. But even without it I think the book would have eventually found representation, though I’m sure I would have received a few of those polite, thoughtful no-thank-yous first.
AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?
STANSEL: Right now I’m trying to finish up a screenplay and a new story collection, and I’m starting to lay a foundation for a new novel.
|About the Author:|
Ian Stansel has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville. His stories have been published by Salon, Ploughshares and others. Everybody’s Irish, his short story collection, was a finalist for the PEN/Bingham Prize.
See more information at: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/The-Last-Cowboys-of-San-Geronimo/9780544963399
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.