Wayne Allensworth worked as an analyst for the Foreign Broadcast Information Service from 1991 to 2002. He is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, published by Rowman & Littlefield in 1998. He is a Corresponding Editor of Chronicles magazine. His short story, Man of the West, was nominated for a Western Writers of America Spur award. He has contributed to the following collections: Exploring American History (Marshall Cavendish, 2008); Peace in the Promised Land: A Realist Scenario (Chronicles Books, 2006); Immigration and the American Identity (Chronicles Books, 2008); and Russian Nationalism and the National Reassertion of Russia, edited by Marlene Laruelle (Johns Hopkins University). He lives in Ft. Worth, Texas.
Wayne Allensworth saddles up with SV’s Bob Shuman to talk about writing the epic, the poetic, and the tragic in a two-part interview—Part 2 will be published 4/25. Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD at the end of this post.
Wayne, tell us about your new book—would it be fair to call it a “Western”?
The themes and setting make Field of Blood what some might call a “modern Western.” I think of the book as taking place in an imagined present— a small Texas town is transformed as the American Southwest gradually melds with Mexico. America is merging with Latin America, with all the dislocations, conflicts, and moral dilemmas that arise out of a clash of cultures. We aren’t quite there yet, but are headed in that direction at a rapid pace. If the elite of both countries had their way, that’s where we would be now. That was my starting point.
I tried to imagine what that would look like. It’s very much a frontier situation. The rule of law is breaking down where the old America is passing away, the globalized world bringing with it chaos and disorientation. The corruption and frenzied violence of today’s Mexico are crossing the border. That’s what’s coming. You might say that the drug cartels and their accomplices are a criminal counterpart to trans-national corporations, both out to take advantage of the erosion of borders and national institutions. They share an interest in dissolving boundaries, doing away with the old institutions, and exploiting the situation for profit, no matter what the cost to ordinary people.
My characters are struggling with the new reality and their own sense of identity, as well as a sense of loss. I tried to get at the surrealism of globalization, and the bizarre situations it creates. America is being forcibly merged with Latin America, but it doesn’t stop there, not for us or them. It’s really an anti-human and anti-humane world, one without reference points, that benefits the most ruthless among us the most.
In this setting, I set up a situation that forces people to take sides in a way that is especially pronounced on a frontier. It’s the kind of dilemma that leads to an inevitable showdown. That’s very much like a traditional Western, but in a modern, or post-modern, setting.
How did you become interested in Westerns–and what is it about them that made you want to write them?
My grandfather told me stories about the Old West when I was a boy. I heard stories about Quanah Parker, the range wars, about his meeting Frank James, and seeing Geronimo. Westerns are uniquely American, they are elemental, dealing with fundamental issues—survival, identity, loyalty—and they are about us, about our people and how we came to be what and who we are.
I read Westerns my grandfather would pass along to me after he had read them, books by writers like Louis L’Amour, Ernest Haycox, Jack Schaefer, and Alan LeMay. Later on in life, I read Larry McMurtry, Charles Portis, and Cormac McCarthy. McMurtry wrote his great epic Western, Lonesome Dove, in an urbanized, technological era when Westerns had fallen out of fashion. I think he revived the Western. McCarthy wrote his masterpiece, Blood Meridian, as a metaphysical Western, one that drew on authors like Melville and Conrad, but the violence and stylistics of the novel were from a later period. McCarthy took the Western to places it hadn’t been before. You might call some of these books “modern Westerns,” books like McMurtry’s Horseman Pass By, McCarthy’s border trilogy, and his No Country for Old Men. Modern Westerns, especially, have an elegiac quality about them; they are stories chronicling the passing of an era, the passing of the old America, its values and way of life. But that sense of something dying out, that something we’ll miss, the good and the bad, is part of a lot of Westerns.
Westerns were once a very important genre in America cinema, and movie Westerns and Western books drew on each other. It was a two-way street, the books, dating back to the dime novels of the 19th century, to the authors I’ve mentioned. They provided much of the raw material for movie Westerns, and the films provided a lot of the imagery used in subsequent Western stories. The great movie Westerns, films like Stagecoach, Red River, Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, gave the genre its stock of characters and themes, and the imagery of a mythical West. Directors like John Ford and Howard Hawks set the standard for movie Westerns and made them art. Movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper became the face of American Westerns. John Wayne, in particular, became a symbol of the American Western. Clint Eastwood took up Wayne’s mantle to a certain degree. He was in Westerns on TV and in the movies, and, together with director Don Siegel, made modern Westerns like Coogan’s Bluff and, some would say, Dirty Harry, which I’ve heard called an “urban Western.”
I think films like Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country and his best movie, The Wild Bunch, drew on the somber tone and texture of elegiac Westerns. The Wild Bunch took Western films into some of the places Cormac McCarthy would take the literary Western. Peckinpah made modern Westerns like Junior Bonner and The Getaway, while films based on McMurtry’s books, Hud and The Last Picture Show, contrasted the Old West with the new one, the ideal of the West as we like to think of it, and the realities of modern life. That kind of movie is still with us—just look at the success of Hell or High Water.
Thank you so much. Looking forward to next week.
Read the prologue to FIELD OF BLOOD: Field of Blood Prologue
Wayne Allensworth photo (c) 2017 by Elizabeth Allensworth Merino. All rights reserved.
(c) 2017 by Wayne Allensworth (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.