John Larison Fights the Toxic Cowboy Myth By Giving His Western a Female Hero
The author of ‘Whiskey When We’re Dry’ started writing about American violence after witnessing a school shooting
John Larison was a teacher when a student who had been expelled came onto his high school campus and murdered two students and injured 25 others. In the two decades since, the writer has meditated on violence in America. He spent those years doing many things from being fly-fishing guide to writing for outdoors magazines, but he knew he needed to write a novel that explored what made America so violent. For years, he thought it would be about survivors of a school shooting. Then a voice came to him one day while he was walking deep in the Oregon wilderness.
That voice was Jessilyn Harney, the main character of Whiskey When We’re Dry. She is a strong young woman who poses as a boy in search of her infamous outlaw brother. The result is a fresh take on the Western novel, which has been steeped in stereotypical archetypes that Larison sought to redefine.
I spoke with the author about his desire to understand violence, the allure of the American West, and why redefining a genre will help cure political turmoil.
Adam Vitcavage: What drew you to writing a Western?
John Larison: Most of my life was spent in the American West. I met so many people who didn’t fit the character types that were in Western literature. Especially cowboy literature. I never met anyone who fits that stereotype; except newcomers who dressed like a cowboy hero. Those character types just don’t really exist. I always took issue with that.
I also found the true history of the West to be interesting. Some of the earliest exploring in Oregon was done by Hawaiians. Some of the latest settlements were founded by Orthodox Jews who came to the West to escape oppression.
The true history was always more interesting than what I saw in the literature of the West.
That was one element, but another element was anger. All of my writing stems from a sense of activism. A few years before starting this book, I was teaching at a high school that had a shooting. It was before Columbine. Twenty-five students were injured and two died. At the same time, we were marching into war with Iraq and I saw George Bush put on his cowboy hat and a belt with a big buckle. He was talking about a border wall between the United States and Mexico while wearing the appropriated style of a Mexican laborer. The cowboy tradition is a Mexican tradition. He didn’t even know and I found it offensive.
It felt like what he was really saying was by wearing this cowboy garb was close to white power. It comes from this cowboy mythology that grows from the Western films from the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s that show a whitewashed America.
I wanted to write a book that took on these ideas and fracture the longstanding mythology of the West. I really wanted to get into the heart of American violence.
AV: Westerns are always about strong, established, White men. Whites are passive innocents and it’s the Native tribes or Mexicans who are the violent ones, when in reality it was the opposite.
JL: Yes, that’s true. This notion of victimization is at the heart of Western tradition. We see that narrative of victimization resonating currently in our politics. The current presidency is all about this figure who casts himself as a victim, that he is standing up to the victimizers.
That is a direct descendent from the Western novel where we see people who have brought genocide to the Native Americans or people who have argued to their senators to bring forward the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the Western novel, these people are recast in a tradition of standing up for victims. The victims are normally white women. There is a lot of focus on women’s body and it is white men’s jobs to protect these bodies.
The Western is the right kind of book to speak to the nerve center of American identity. Also to target these myths that have led to the cultural trouble we are in now.
AV: Stereotypes in Western books and films with characters like Lone Ranger and Tonto have been subtle forms and overt forms of oppression that White men have pushed for a century. Your book fights these stereotypes by the point of view the story is told through. When did Jess come into your mind?
JL: Jess’s voice was the origin of the book. I had been working on a novel about American violence that was about the survivors of a school shooting. It wasn’t going well. I needed a new approach and knew a Western might work.
I was walking and listening to Gillian Welch and I heard this voice. I assumed it was a salty, traditional cowboy hero looking back on his exploits and was less confident in them in his old age. After a couple of weeks, I realized this was the voice of someone who is blurring gender in a time before we had words to describe that.
The Western itself is built on these simple dichotomies of men and female; good and evil; white and non-white. I realized my character didn’t fit into these categories, just like none of us do. Politicians use these dichotomies to keep us divided.
My goal was to remain as honest as I could to that voice. I wrote every line out loud first so I can make sure it was true to Jess and not me, the author, trying to put words in her mouth. By staying true to that voice, the dichotomies of the Western novel started to crumble.
AV: How did writing Jess affect you as a writer?
JL: One thing that Whiskey has taught me is that the novelist’s job is like that of a good friend. It’s to see the essential self of the character. Don’t think of the character as a character and don’t think of the people in our lives as the sum of their identities. It’s to see the sum underneath those identities. Inside all of us is an essential story we are telling ourselves as it relates to the outer world.
AV: Jess was exciting to me for how she is a strong young woman who has to pass as a man. Is there a tradition of this?
JL: Yes, absolutely. I believe there were many who were trans who weren’t passing as men to survive, but they were living their true selves as men. The American West in the 19th Century, and it remains today, as a place to come to reinvent yourselves. All of us know people who have moved to Oregon or Washington to start a new life in the past few years and that’s nothing new. It has been going on for a century. People came here to escape oppression.
AV: What is so alluring about the West?
JL: I feel that answer is different for everyone. The West has been a place where the story is just beginning. That’s how it feels for Americans. The country’s story starts on the East Coast and it is pretty established. After the Civil War, the West was an unwritten land. Anyone who felt hamstrung by their place in society back East could come to the West and write their own story. For me, it’s the landscape. The population density is so low that a writer can go through and contemplate story.
AV: Your novel has these passages that wax poetic about nature and the landscape, but they never feel like a lull to read. How did you approach these parts of the story?
JL: My favorite parts of researching this book. I spent time in places that Jess would have been in. When I was in those places, I was there not as myself. I tried to transcend myself to what Jess would think about. Where I would think about climbing a mountain, she would think that was a waste of time.
I tried to see the West through her eyes and how it would feel to a young person who was unsure about identity and the future. All she knew was the rhythms of where she was raised. I wanted to think about what landscapes would feel like to her to experience for the first time. It was almost like I was a method actor tapping into her which is what unlocked the emotion of the book for me.
It seems strange the emotion would come from the landscape, but I think that is a fundamental part of being human. Our setting is apart of our emotions. That’s something this novel taught me about writing characters.
AV: It’s hard to fight the urge to compare this to a canon Western like True Grit because it’s not from the point of view of a White man. Was that story in your mind while writing Whiskey?
JL: I read really widely in the Western novel tradition; both the early novels and then the action to those novels. I mark True Grit as the beginning of the reaction to the traditional Western. Up until that book, we have these archetypal characters dominating the genre. It was a genre that was dying out and then Charles Portis offered readers a new take on it.
That book ultimately has different aims than my book. Whiskey is seeking some cultural reckoning that True Grit is not. For that element, I looked to Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. More recently, I have been inspired by people like Claire Vaye Watkins.
There has been this tradition dating back to True Grit of people critiquing the Western mythology. There are writers bringing literary ambition to the genre.
Outside of the genre, something that was really an inspiration to me was reading letters from the early settlers. A lot of the assumptions we have regarding them are wrong. They are different people than you might imagine. That element comes through in their language and it doesn’t come through in academic histories of the West. Reading those pioneer accounts was huge for me.
AV: Since Whiskey stemmed from your desire to talk about violence, do you think about violence in America differently now?
JL: I think about it differently after writing this book. Novels for me are to explore problems. Violence in America is one of those problems that needs fiction to get at the capital-T Truth. That was one of my ambitions for Whiskey.
I don’t have any answers for this, but I do think America’s gun obsession is one of the legacies of the Western novel. I would like to believe fiction will be one of the things that will help change and understand America’s relationship with guns. I’m not sure if that is a good answer.
AV: That’s one of the reasons the topic of guns in America is so hard to tackle. There are no good answers. There are ideal answers that half the country love and half the country hates.
JL: I think we all have the same goals. We all want to live in safe places and feel protected. I believe groups like the NRA have taken these myths of the American West that are born out of the Western novel and harnessed them for capitalism for the benefit of big industry. Guns in the United States are a big industry and they benefit politicians.
The internal violence within America is a result from marrying the gun obsession of Western novels with big corporate influence.