A Terrarium For The Imagination: A Conversation With Colin Winnette, Author Of Haints Stay
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
The myth of the Old West still exerts an outsize pull on the American imagination, to both sublime and pernicious consequence. In Haints Stay, his fifth book of fiction, Colin Winnette doesn’t so much revise as remix the traditional Western, muting some elements while amplifying others to sometimes startling effect. He and I corresponded by email over the course of a few weeks about the new book, the tricky relationship between fiction and history, the compositional value of self-imposed restrictions, and the surprisingly astute depiction of our home state in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Martin Seay: Your new novel, Haints Stay, is a Western. This seems beyond dispute — right from the first page we’re in a world defined by guns and gunmen, horses and the lack of horses, and wilderness scattered with outposts of human settlement — and yet its engagement with the tradition is idiosyncratic to say the least. It isn’t overtly hostile or reverential, but instead seems to use only what it needs; it doesn’t evince much interest in checking off genre boxes. The result is a pretty fundamental disruption of assumptions. In a weird way it reminded me of Sonic Youth’s approach to three-chord rock: We’ve heard this before, but not in this, um, tuning. So I’ll start by asking: Why a Western? Did you know it was a Western when (or before) you started writing it? The novel — like probably all worth-a-damn novels — has certain abiding concerns, and they seem well-matched to its genre, but which came first, the genre or the concerns?
CW: My best guess is that the concerns came first. There are a few things in this book that have appeared in every book I’ve written so far, in one way or another, so I guess I’ve been carrying around some of this stuff for a while. But all kinds of new questions and concerns cropped up while I was working on Haints Stay.
When I started writing, it was just Brooke and Sugar in the woods. I knew they were headed to a town, and my first thought was that the book would just follow these two characters as they were forced from one town to the next — and that’s what the book ultimately does. When I start a book, I’m looking for a setup that feels open. Fiction is one of the few places where I feel like my imagination can just take off and do whatever it wants to do, and I think my imagination is most articulate when it’s interacting with something, a set of rules maybe. Something other than itself. Any writer is working against or with a predetermined set of rules, whether we realize it or not, so I’ve always actively tried to set as many of the rules as I can on my own. I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but it’s an approach I pinched from the Oulipo, and from Jesse Ball.
Familiar touchstones inspire trust too, which makes it easier to play with expectations and get weird without losing folks.
I also have this idea that if you’re a reader or a listener or an audience member, it’s more engaging to watch someone else’s imagination interact with something familiar. Dreams are more interesting to hear about if you or some part of you is in them. It’s an easy trick to get people’s attention and part of why most movies and books are full of stock characters. Also why dialogue so rarely feels original or honest. Familiar touchstones inspire trust too, which makes it easier to play with expectations and get weird without losing folks. Which I like doing. This can be used to nightmarishly boring and depressing effect (Jurassic World), but not always (Twin Peaks, Jurassic Park). The Western genre gave me a set of rules to interact with that were interesting to me for a number of reasons, and familiar enough (without being culturally exhausted by the fashions of the decade, yet) to engage readers and keep them engaged when things got weird, hopefully. I also just thought it would be fun.
MS: It IS fun! And a bit harrowing at times! But it’s fun to be harrowed, right? It’s interesting that the Oulipo was an influence; I wouldn’t have guessed, but in retrospect I can see it. To the extent that the book seems to proceed according to its own inexorable, oblique, possibly non-human logic, Haints Stay has a vibe not unlike those of constraint-generated novels: Harry Mathews’ Cigarettes, e.g., or even Invisible Cities. What Haints Stay does NOT convey, at least for this reader, is the sense of moving amid clockwork that I get from a lot of Oulipian novels; it seems more fractal than circular, curving back but also spiraling outward in surprising ways. I think that’s cool. Can you say any more about the rules that shape Haints Stay? (I believe one of the precepts of the Oulipo is that one shouldn’t reveal too much about one’s restrictions, so “no” is an acceptable answer here.)
The Western is my instrument of choice for this bizarre concert.
CW: I can say this about the rules that govern Haints Stay: the majority of them are rules that many could argue go without saying. For me, though, it was important to think of them as rules. In my mind, it’s not a Oulipian novel, but it’s a novel that’s influenced by a Oulipian way of thinking. There’s an enjoyable tension, to me, in the novel taking place in a limited world. This isn’t sci-fi. This isn’t flarf. There are characters moving in a relatively set space, with comparatively few options as to how they might conduct themselves. And yet there’s a kind of chaotic energy behind all of that, pushing against the walls, sometimes breaking them down. If I’m interested in rules, it’s because I enjoy seeing them stressed, not because I enjoy seeing them articulated without interruption. I get very little satisfaction from that. It’s interesting you brought up Sonic Youth earlier. I was a musician for a long time, and when I was in college I was extremely interested in extended technique and noise. They opened a lot of doors for me, as far as how I thought about the world and art, etc. I hadn’t thought of it before, but now I think it’s fairly apparent in the book. The Western is my instrument of choice for this bizarre concert.
MS: Regarding the use of genre conventions to grab (and then mess with) readers, that is a great point. While I didn’t immediately pick up the Oulipo signal, Haints Stay DID remind me of a different set of mostly-European mid-century novels that use genre conventions to take readers into a kind of mythic or elemental space: nouveau roman takeoffs on thrillers — Duras’ L’Amante Anglaise, or Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers — as well as Bataille’s even earlier Story of the Eye, which uses the rigid structure of pornography to explore the intrinsic hidden metaphorical weirdness of common objects and images. In Haints Stay, certain nouns (tooth, dirt, fabric, creature, etc.) recur, accrue significance, and almost seem to become characters in their own right. Am I way off-base in assuming that this framework of atavistic images is pretty closely related to the fundamental concerns that got you started?
CW: You’re not off base at all.
MS: Cool! That’s satisfying. You grew up in Texas (as did I), and when a writer from Texas publishes a Western, she or he can probably expect to field a bunch of questions about Texas. So let’s do this! You’re from Denton, which always struck me as simultaneously one of the most and least Texan of cities. (On one hand, it’s on the northern edge of the DFW metroplex — Larry McMurtry territory, the main locus of big-hair, big-oil, hat-and-boot culture — while on the other, it’s somewhat politically progressive, and home to UNT’s world-class jazz program, as well as a ton of mushroom-gobbling indie-rock bands.) Do you have deep roots in the state? Do you think the experience of growing up somewhere that (last time I checked) actually builds a bunch of Old West mythology into its public school curriculum made you any more likely to engage at some point with the Western genre? Now that you’ve been gone a while, what (if anything) about Texas stays with you, for better or worse?
CW: I was born and raised in Denton, like you said. My parents moved around a lot as kids, but eventually wound up in Texas, although I can’t remember when exactly. They met at UT in Austin; I know that. And they moved north some time after. That’s about as deep as my Texas roots go. Because they moved around a lot as kids, it was important to them that my sister and I stay put.
Like the Denton you describe, I was somehow both Texan and not at all Texan growing up. I was really ready to be done with Texas when I left for college, but it’s started creeping back into things slowly over time. But this book is really nothing like the Texas I knew. If anyone was concerned with verisimilitude, they’d be way better off looking at my other books, at least for anything coming close to my actual life in Texas. Even then, it’s a pretty warped representation.
Still, a lot stuck with me from growing up in Denton, but most of it was particular to Denton. I have the sort of small town smile-and-wave way about me, for better or worse. I grew up playing in bands because there were only about six things to do in Denton, like you said. I have the sort of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure sense of the rest of Texas. That scene when he shows up at the Alamo after all that time and it’s just a big piece of set dressing? That’s most of Texas to me.
MS: Yes! In a sense, Texas really CAN be a big piece of set dressing: a test case of where 180 years of believing your own bullshit will get you. The near-total lack of a verisimilar representation of the American West in Haints Stay was what struck me as MOST Texan about the book: the iconic blankness of its landscape, and the sense that everything can be erased and written over. (The few things that aren’t, like the spiral stairs in the burnt ruin of Jenny’s tavern in the opening pages, swiftly have their provenance forgotten.) There’s a great exchange early in the novel between Sugar, who identifies himself as “a student of history,” and his unnamed employer/adversary, who demurs that history is “slippery.” Without giving too much away, it’s the latter’s view that seems to prevail within the world of the book. Prior to reading it, I had assumed that the Western is always and inevitably a subset of the historical novel; Haints Stay — which, unless I’m mistaken, makes no reference to any real-world events or figures, even in passing — demonstrates not only that that’s not the case, but also that the desire to escape from history and into wildernesses of various sorts might be a MORE intrinsic aspect of the genre. (This goes for personal history as well as national history, of course.) Am I correct in taking history as one of the novel’s major concerns, expressed mostly through its conspicuous absence? Or am I looking through the wrong end of the telescope?
CW: We watched the Lonesome Dove mini-series for a week in my US History class. History has always been a fiction to me. Or maybe it’s more correct to say that I’m suspicious of anything that makes too strong a claim on historical accuracy, particularly in a novel, unless they’re using it to undo the very idea of even managing such a thing.
Typically, when I’m setting out to write something, I’m thinking more of what I don’t want to do than what I want to do. And I think “historical” novels are a little suspect. I’m drawn to works like Impressions of Africa that practically assault the idea of ever really being able to “know” anything, while both celebrating and stressing the imagination. By the same coin, I think it’s extremely important for us not to lose track of the past — of what we’ve done and how we got to be where we are. It’s not something I’ve fully settled within myself: my belief that what’s come before is an essential part of where we are and the fact that I’ve always felt completely dissatisfied with the way we think about and communicate history.
The world in this book is not the world we live in or have ever lived in.
What I do know is, the novel can be a terrarium for the imagination. The world in this book is not the world we live in or have ever lived in. I knew I wanted it to be similarly appealing, it needed to feel like our world at times… Or, more accurately, I wanted it to make readers feel — in the way that things in our world and stories of our world make people feel. I wanted people emotionally engaged in a real way. But any novel that claims to be “accurate” or close to what life might have been like during XYZ, any novel that claims to be anything other than an artful manipulation, is suspect.
MS: I found Haints Stay surprisingly moving, particularly as its characters stumble on these slippery questions of what to do with the past. The emotional impact is often ironic in the Greek-tragic sense: People get snared by their own blind spots, and certain silences become more and more deafening. One of the big ones is race: While the actual history of the American West is largely one of genocide, ethnic difference doesn’t seem to feature in the world of Haints Stay. I don’t believe that anyone’s ethnicity is ever specified in the book — its various communities are more concerned with the blurry divides between humans and “creatures,” civilization and wilderness — but there are hints that the reader ought to be thinking about such things, and maybe considering how patterns of ethnic violence are driven by individual impulses and confusions like those the book depicts. One such hint that I’m not sure how much weight to assign is the book’s eerie cover image, a 1904 photo of Navaho riders by Edward S. Curtis. Recognizing that authors typically get just about zero say in the design of their book covers, do you think that Two Dollar Radio’s design is a helpful interpretive aide, in addition to looking cool?
CW: I think if it helped you come to the thoughts you’ve just shared, it is an incredibly helpful interpretive aide.
MS: Speaking of Two Dollar Radio, they are — unless I’m mistaken — the fifth press you’ve worked with in your brief and productive career. Your previous books have been with Mutable Sound (Revelation, a 2011 apocalypse novel), Spork Press (Animal Collection, a 2012 bestiary), Atticus Books (Fondly, a 2013 pair of novellas), and Les Figues Press (Coyote, a sort of cubist domestic psychological thriller from earlier this year). The thriving indie-lit ecosystem seems to present a lot of prospects for building communities and working with a bunch of creative and committed people. How has this experience been for you? Have you found anybody’s editorial process to be particularly inspiring and/or nutty? Are there any presses out there that you haven’t worked with that are particularly impressing you with their output?
CW: Working with indie presses has been great. Like you said, they’re helmed by creative and committed people, and every book has been handled differently but with equal passion and care. For the most part, the editorial process was similar with each press. Les Figues stands out as being remarkably thorough. I couldn’t even tell you how many different people read Coyote and offered really attentive feedback during the proofreading process. It was interesting to have such attentive and engaged readers poking at every sentence, especially when the book is so full of ambiguity and strangeness and exaggeration and confusion. I had to defend every inconsistency or reality blur not only to myself but to a team of thoughtful readers ready to call me on my bullshit. It was really wonderful. As for other impressive indie presses, there are so many! There’s a relatively new press based in Dallas called Deep Vellum that’s putting out some really interesting (and beautiful) translations. Also, I’ve always loved Wave. Civil Coping Mechanisms has put out an astonishing number of solid books recently. I can’t imagine how hard they must be working. Coffee House has been killing it for the last couple of years too. Same with Graywolf. They’re both publishing some of the most important contemporary authors out there, and they’ve both managed to get a substantial national audience, which is extra impressive. They’re bridging a lot of gaps, and making room for translations and hybridity too. I could go on and on.
MS: And speaking of being productive… I have to ask, if you’re willing to answer: Have you been able to find homes for all of your finished manuscripts, or are there more of these still circling the runway, waiting for clearance to land? What does your writing/revising routine look like? What does your My Documents folder look like?
I spent way too much time picking at corpses when I was younger. These days, I try to go where the life is.
CW: Ooh, there are so many questions in this question! As far as manuscripts go, I’ve been lucky enough to find a home for every book-length work of literary fiction I’ve sent out — but I’ve thrown away a few book-length works as well without sending them out. If I get to the end of one and I don’t like it, I don’t really bother going back through it and trying to resuscitate it. I spent way too much time picking at corpses when I was younger. These days, I try to go where the life is.
My writing/revising routine is different with each book, but it involves writing a draft out to the end then making a list of things I might need to smooth out or make consistent. I read books aloud to myself. I share manuscripts with a friend or two, then I show them to my wife. She always gets the final read.
My Writing folder is an orderly mess of finished, unfinished, and broken work of different kinds. Lots of poetry I’ll never show you. Some that I will. A couple of kids’ books that kids will probably hate. A few longer works of fiction I’m picking away at right now. A bunch of ideas for nonfiction projects. I’m just… trying to keep myself interested.
MS: Finally, although you’ve already provided some great suggestions for further reading, is there anybody’s writing — or, hell, anybody’s work in any form or genre — that you’ve lately been obsessed with, envious of, or freaked out by?
CW: I’ll be honest, Martin. I’m having some trouble right now. I go through lulls… not for lack of incredible work out there. It could just be a mood thing, how receptive I am at a given time. I haven’t been hit, like really hit hard, by anything in a little while. I just finished Margarita Karapanou’s Rien Ne Va Plus, which I liked quite a bit, and I’ve talked elsewhere about a few books that excited me earlier in the year. But right now, at this very moment, I’m hungry for something I haven’t found yet. Ask me again tomorrow?