Welcome to Fantasy Magazine! We’re so happy to bring your story “Ghost Riders at Hutchinson’s Two-Pump” to our readers. Can you tell us what inspired this story and how it came about?
I’d recently moved to NE Arizona and I was driving from Holbrook (Google it—little town on Route 66, full of cement dinosaurs) to Flagstaff, and I noticed a very long train hauling shipping containers and sporting four or five engines. I wondered how a gang of old-time bandits would feel about such a train, and by the time I got back from Flagstaff, the basic plot was in my head.
The Jubles Gang’s fall from “grace,” from Robin Hood wannabes to forgotten murderers, and George’s averted suicide both speak deeply to the difference a single choice can make. How important a theme would you say this is in how you approach storytelling?
Themes are funny things—some writers may decide on a theme for a particular story, but mine show up like stray cats and insist on hanging around. I’d say in this story, and others I’ve written, the choices eventually lead to a sort of redemption—not a huge, shiny rebirth, necessarily, but the opportunities and decisions that pull us, at least temporarily, out of the muck we otherwise sink into over the courses of our lives.
I read this story partly as commentary on the ultimately pointless nature of the gang’s criminal life; not only is their ghostly “unfinished business” settled by having George steal a bag’s worth of chocolate bars, but they’re completely forgotten by the world. Was this something you were thinking about during the creative process, or did you have other things in mind?
I started writing the gang as comedy—the sheep that die with them, the pamphlets, Little Billy’s swearing—so I can’t say I began with some grand plan to make them illustrative of a viewpoint on crime. I wanted the gang to be not very bad, partially through incompetence and partially through Jake’s view that good behavior in crime “saves on bullets on hangings.” Thus, having only one accidental murder on their record makes their chance at redemption work within the story, and their redemption isn’t only about the theft, but about saving George from his grief and pulling Merlene out of her depression.
The Western genre, not to mention the colonization of the West, has had a deep influence on how fantasy and science fiction developed. Beyond the immediacy of time-displaced characters, how do you feel that writing through a Western lens can help show the modern world in an unfamiliar light?
I believe it was Tim Powers who, in a convention speech, said that speculative fiction and the western needed to make friends again and, as a Westerner, that stuck with me. The John Wayne/John Ford ideal of the West has certainly held on in the Western states and across the US, glorifying the white male hero who wields violence as the ultimate solution, as well as blaming a lack of individual responsibility for modern problems that no one individual can have a hope of coping with. I think populating the Western setting with ordinary people facing ordinary problems—removing the glowing heroic mythos—is key, but then, I did include outlaws in my story and alt-western movies of the last 50 years still have gunfights; perhaps the myth is too strong for any treatment but the sort of deeply human comedy we see in The Milagro Beanfield War. For me, in this story, colonialism was a bigger issue. I live and teach college English classes on the edge of the largest reservation in the US, the Navajo reservation, and many of my students are from the nearby Hopi and Apache reservations as well. How could I have a story set in Holbrook, AZ, with no Native characters, and yet how could I, a white writer, create a believable and non-stereotyped Native character? Merlene is a woman and has depression because those are two things I do know about, and I tried to add a touch of reference (the ‘rez,’ her aunties) without overstepping.
Is there anything you’re working on now that you’d like to talk about? What can our readers look forward to seeing from you in the future?
I’m thinking about another story to be set in Holbrook, a bit of psychological horror centered on a pawn shop. I’ve always loved the quirky small town, in the West for preference, and Holbrook (seriously, Google it) certainly fills the bill.
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