Today on the Factory I'm honoured to be joined by two of the best western and western fantasy authors out there - Arianne "Tex" Thompson (author of One Night in Sixes and Medicine for the Dead) and Stark Holborn (of Nunslinger fame). I've put togther a panel blog all about westerns and western fantasy. Read our discussion below!
What is it, for you, that makes the West so alluring?
T: Actually, I think it's the same reason that SFF is so attractive: we seem to have a persistent fantasy of smallness – an attraction to the idea of a lone cowboy riding through the wilderness, or a lone spaceship sailing through the void, or a lone hobbit struggling through a wicked wasteland. The West provides a huge, untamable canvas: a setting custom-designed to assure us that we'll never use it up or wreck it or exhaust it, that we'll never find the end of the map or run out of adventures. That makes for some potent story mojo.
S: For me, the West is intrinsically tied up with the concept of the frontier. One doesn't really exist without the other. Together, they present an irresistible set of contradictions: a dream of freedom trapped in reality, which, like all dreams, frays to nothing the harder you try to grasp it. The West is a frontier geographically, emotionally, morally... Western expansion could be seen as humans trying to corral and shape a fundamentally inhuman space. Some of the best Westerns I've come across use that contradiction to create stories of great tension, where "humanity" begins to sit lightly on those who are faced with the harsh truth of the landscape.
B: To me, it’s the excitement of the unexplored as well as the fragility of one’s own existence. Our age is one of laws, social principles and technology we take for granted. I think we’re automatically fascinated by places and situations that have no such rules or boundaries. The West is a world where you have no idea what’s over the rugged horizon, nor what beasts and villains might lurk there. You know you’ve only got your wits and skills to keep you safe and that the law can only reach so far. That’s what excites me about the West. Anything can happen.
While Westerns aren't at all a new genre, why do you think it's seeing a resurgence at the moment?
T: Well, I wonder if it's not partly because we've realized that we can dust off this old genre and bring fresh stories into it. It doesn't have to be all Hee-Haw and Wagon Train anymore. Westerns can accommodate comedy, horror, fantasy, thrillers, kids' cartoons, you name it – and while we're not likely to lose sight of the rugged white guy with a gun, we're coming around to the idea that the hero can be anyone. That's exciting!
S: Jared Shurin (of Pornokitsch fame) and I have had this conversation in various forms over the past few months. Truth be told, I don't think the Western ever really goes away. It's always there in some form or other, and there are always people discovering it for the first time, working their way erratically through whatever they come across. Which I think is great, actually. Because there's not a "canon" as such (beyond the obvious McMurty, McCarthy & Co.) people's idea of what a Western is – and more importantly what a Western can be – is changing all the time. I think it might have been Jared who said that every generation re-invents the Western for themselves; I certainly hope that's the case, and that we'll see people coming at the Western from more diverse angles, to give things a good shake-up.
B: I think it’s mostly down to the search for new ideas. As the wise old adage goes, every story has already been told, but it’s the execution of the story that breathes new life into it. That goes for setting as well. Even though the Western has never truly died, as Stark said, I think our attentions as authors and readers are turning westerly more and more to see what “classic” yarns look like when we put a hat on them and make them march across the desert.
Western fantasy or weird West isn't exactly new either, but does it seem that it's only now just getting into its stride?
T: Yes, it does, and for the same reasons as above: like the Western, fantasy seems to be the perfect host for other genres. Add crime or noir and you've got urban fantasy. Add a period setting and you've got historical fantasy. Add romance and you've got paranormal romance. And so often, that blending gives you the best of both genres – a kind of narrative hybrid vigor. (Or you get Cowboys and Aliens, but I'll still call that a win.)
S: Mmm, not sure. It still seems pretty niche to me. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
B: I would say so, slowly but surely. Western fantasy has only really seen a handful of seminal works so far, but they’ve shown that there is a wealth of possibility and excitement in the marrying of the two genres. I think a lot of people, both authors and readers, are realising that and so we’re going to see a lot more of it in the coming years.
Out of all the iconic Western tropes, from swinging doors to Stetson hats, what is your personal favourite?
T: Okay, I know it almost never historically happened, but I love the concept of the horse with a name – the cowboy's faithful steed, his one special friend. The Lone Ranger and Silver. Roy Rogers and Trigger. Dale Evans and Buttermilk. My inner six-year-old loves it.
S: The beans. And the whiskey.
B: For me it’s the good old saloon - the card-sharps, the whiskey, the dark atmospheres, and the idea that you never know who’s going to walk in through the doors and change your day.
And which trope you wish would just ride off into the sunset?
T: Honestly, if we could just collectively agree to dispense with the idea that guns solve problems, I think our fiction would be better for it. Sure, you can smoke the bad guy – but then you have to deal with his friends. And then THEIR friends. And his grieving widow. And his kids. And I wish writers would either own up to that reality, or else find cleverer ways for their heroes to save the day.
S: The white-hatted, good-Christian gentleman cowboy galloping in to "civilise" things in the name of manifest destiny.
B: I’m going to almost echo the above and say the black-hatted villain – the one with the patchy stubble, ugly as sin and with teeth like a burnt fence that grin at you from every wanted poster. I’m a great believer in the fact that a villain can be anyone, even the good ole sheriff.
Are you of the opinion you can have a Western without its usual desert and prairie frontier setting?
T: Me and my Firefly collection are of the opinion that we already do :)
S: Yes. I think the desert or prairie are less important than the presence or concept of the frontier itself.
B: Absolutely. Wherever you have struggle against the vast wilderness, or exploration of the unknown, with a little lawlessness thrown in, you’ve got a Western.
Religion, superstition and myth seem to be an underlying theme through many different Westerns. Why do you think that is?
T: Well, at its heart, the Western seems to center on the conflict between the world you know and the one you don't – whether that's the railroad coming through town or a cowboy riding out into the wilderness. And whatever form it takes, religion gives us clues to guide us through that unknown world: if the Western is the map, the supernatural is its compass.
S: Perhaps it was because during the early days of Westward expansion, so little was known about the West. "West of the Mississippi" seemed like a vast, unknowable space - and there were few ways to break ground there for most people on the East coast. As a result, the West lent itself to rumour and speculation (in both senses of the word) and tall-campfire tales. What we don't understand, we seek to explain in a narrative that fits our experience of the world. The collision of religion (especially Christianity in all its flavours) with the frontier is one that I – unsurprisingly! – find fascinating. It's a volatile cocktail where faith, instinct, pragmatism, knowledge and reality are all thrown together at the same time. Navigating that situation is a moral mine-field, which of course makes for a fertile ground for storytelling. I think the mythology of the West is also tied to the wider self-mythologization of America; a new country writing a version of shared history, even as it was happening.
B: I believe it’s an underlying theme because it was integral to what defined the West. I think you have to look back at the wild West era, at that hodgepodge of cultures and ideologies that were thrown together and left to stew like a bubbling pot. You had Europeans arriving en masse all through the 1800s, original colonists spreading east, and of course the indigenous peoples of North and Central Americas. All of these people brought their beliefs with them just like the clothes on their back. Their beliefs defined them in a time of discovery and uncertainty.
What's your personal favourite Western, either book or film?
T: Well, so far it's been a book and two films, and I just can't get enough of it. True Grit really woke me up to what a Western could be, and to the huge kinship it has with fantasy. There's Bilbo Baggins, leaving his hobbity home to do his ludicrously ill-equipped little part to put the world to rights – and there's 14-year-old Mattie Ross, hitching up her britches to do likewise. (That, and Rooster Cogburn makes one hell of a whiskey-soaked old wizard.)
S: Well, Once Upon a Time in the West, Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers... Can I have a song too? One of my favourite singer-songwriters, Anais Mitchell, has one called 'Young Man in America'. It's like an epic Western, distilled. The lyrics are great: "Like the wind I make my moan / there's a howl in the canyon / there's a hollow in my bones / makes me cry, and carry on…"
B: I have to go with Tex. True Grit is an incredible and iconic Western. As a book it’s full of bold writing and clever portrayals of its deep characters. As its most recent film its moody and captures, just like its name suggests, the true grit of Western life.
If you want to find out more about Stark or Tex (whose names make my own sound thoroughly boring) find them and their books at:
And if you of course want to know more about my western fantasy books, head to the Books page to find out about Bloodrush and Bloodmoon.