Stansel Pens Contemporary Western
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo
by Ian Stansel
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Ian Stansel had been working on a novel for two and a half years when he decided to lay that project aside to write what would become his debut novel, The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo.
|“I was halfway through the story (on page three hundred) and I just got bored of it.”|
“I was halfway through the story (on page three hundred) and I just got bored of it. The novel felt bloated and baggy, and I didn’t want to finish it,” he said.
Stansel turned his attention to a story of feuding brother set in modern day Marin County, California. He wrote the first draft of The Last Cowboys in eighteen months.
“I never had any interest in a traditional Western, but I grew up around horses. My mom and sister rode, and my sister became a trainer. I found horses to be gorgeous, but I was also afraid of them. I was suspicious of the horse world, which is full of rich people. This seemed like fertile ground to till,” said Stansel.
The book begins with the murder of Frank by his brother Silas, who flees on horseback, and follows Frank’s widow Lena as she pursues him, also on horseback. While the reader is privy to the chase, the brother’s rivalry and bond is explored in a series of flashbacks.
“I wanted a strong female presence in the book,” said Stansel. “The world doesn’t need another story about feuding cowboy brothers. My knowledge of horses and the horse world comes from the women in my life. It made sense to me to have a female co-protagonist.”
The book is dedicated to Stansel’s sister Kelly, who passed away three years ago. “After she passed away, I decided to write a book that Kelly would like,” said Stansel.
“The book itself is in love with horses. Hopefully, it is unpretentious, fun, and exciting in parts. For all the horses and chasing in the book, it is a book about grief—Lena’s grief in losing her husband.”
“I thought, what will happen if I try to write a traditionally-plotted western set in the contemporary world?”
Stansel was also driven by a desire to play with the conventions of the Western form.
“I thought, what will happen if I try to write a traditionally-plotted western set in the contemporary world? Can there be a western any more with technology? With mapping? With lawns and everything that seems antithetical to the lone cowboy in the west? I put it in a place, Marin County, California, that is full of rich people and hippies. I asked, how can I interrupt the cowboy narrative?”
He meets this objective in Silas, a wealthy, wine drinking cowboy, who is more impulsive than noble, and Lena, a smart widow who is bent on vengeance, but imbued with compassion.
Stansel begins the book immediately after Silas murders Frank.
“I started after the murder because I didn’t know yet why the murder happened. The reader doesn’t know because I didn’t know. I discovered why in the process of writing backstory.”
Exploring the why of the narrative is an important part of developing a compelling novel, according to Stansel.
“What I set up in the book was a binary. She will catch him or she won’t. The question of what is going to happen in a story isn’t very interesting. A more interesting question is why and how. In Donna Tart’s The Secret History she gives away the end in the prologue. The question is not, do they kill their friend. You already know they do. The questions of why and how are so much more interesting because there are infinite possibilities.”
Stansel describes the brothers as classic sibling rivals.
“There is the older brother who is confident and overbearing. There is the younger brother who is insecure about the shadow he is living under. The way I wanted to make it different was by coming back to the idea that even this hatred that they have for one another isn’t born out of nothing. Their feud is born out of this passion they have for one another. That is something Lena comes to understand at the very end of the book. They are connected in a way that they don’t understand. They are fated to one another, these brothers. Even the anger and strife that they experience comes out of this core love for one another.”
His greatest challenge was trying to write authentically about horses, not being a rider himself. “I did a lot of toggling back and forth between the document and Goggle finding out how to spell different kind of tack. I kept thinking if I could only call Kelly I could get this paragraph finished. It was a hard book to write, trying not to sound like I am making things up and dealing with the emotional turmoil that would pop up when I least expected it.”
“The book really came together when I figured out the structure, alternating between Silas and Lena and covering the past and present in almost every chapter.”
He worked his agent Richard Abate of 3Arts and, later, Houghton Mifflin editor Naomi Gibbs to ready the book for publication.
“The book really came together when I figured out the structure, alternating between Silas and Lena and covering the past and present in almost every chapter. It was a matter of editing and enhancing what was already there.”
Stansel, who has an MFA from Iowa Writers Workshop and a PhD from University of Houston, teaches creative writing at University of Louisville. He cautions students that they can’t game the market by writing what they think will be popular.
“You can’t write in order to get published, and this doesn’t change as you gain experience.”
“You can’t write in order to get published, and this doesn’t change as you gain experience. Every time I write a new story I don’t think I am going to get this in the New Yorker. I am thinking hopefully this is a little bit better than the last one. If it is, that is all you can ask for.”
With his debut novel on the shelves, Stansel is in the early stages of beginning a new novel.
“I have an idea for a novel that I just started putting on paper. Who knows if that will pan out or if it will be something that will hold my attention?”
|About the Author|
Ian Stansel is the author of the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo and the short story collection Everybody’s Irish, a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction.
His fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, Memorious, Antioch Review, and others.
For more information see: http://www.hmhco.com/shop/books/The-Last-Cowboys-of-San-Geronimo/9780544963399
|About Regular Contributor|
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.|
This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris