Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright posse up with Bob Shuman–for the second part of their Stage Voices interview on The Sheriff–and talk about fact being stranger than fiction, human nature and the big questions of morality and will, as well as the greatest Western of all time.
Robert Dwyer is a history buff with an abiding interest in the West, which looms large in the American psyche–a canvas for big stories and big ideas. He lives with his wife and dog in Alexandria, Virginia.
Austin Wright started watching John Wayne movies with his dad before he was old enough to talk–and he’s been hooked on Westerns ever since. He lives with his wife, son, and daughter in Annandale, Virginia.
“Has a chance to be judged one of those rare modern Western–fiction classics.”—Jeff Guinn, New York Times best-selling author
(Photos, from top: Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright.)
Did you find you became more interested in American History by writing the book—what kind of research did you do?
Absolutely. The concept of frontier, of the West as this unbounded land of freedom and opportunity, is central to the American psyche, whether true or not. Such a world of exploration, of struggle, of creation, is inherently interesting, and in reading histories one finds that fact is often stranger than fiction. We felt we needed to be true to the genre and true—to a degree—to historical fact. Enough not to jar readers, at least, which required research. We also wanted to make sure we could represent our more diverse cast of characters with adequate empathy and understanding. That meant reading about African American experiences during that time, reading about the lives of prostitutes, about suffragists, about Native Americans. And then writing is always improved by the little details that come from reading accounts of everyday lives—of the cowboy, the hotelier, the soldier, the homesteader.
Tell how you approached making your novel relevant for today, if you feel it becomes that.
Our goal was to apply a modern moral lens to the traditional Western. That meant bringing to the forefront characters and perspectives that would have blended into the background in Westerns past, if they were there at all. Does the archetypal Western hero, the lawman, still look like a hero through the eyes of those at the bottom of the power structure? We also believe our novel speaks to present-day politics, exploring the tension between populism and elitism, rural and urban, individualism and collectivism.
What person did the most to make you a writer—what did they give you?
Rob: My parents, who filled the house with books and always encouraged reading. I think it’s inevitable that reading turns into writing. I was also lucky to have wonderful English teachers along the way, who taught me invaluable lessons in good writing, particularly in high school. Although I have had to unlearn certain things—like putting two spaces after my periods.
Austin: My dad, a teacher, moonlights as a novelist and playwright. He wakes up early most mornings to put in a few hours of writing before work. As a child, I started getting up with him—and he’d slide a pen and paper my direction and encourage me to create my own stories. Since then, he’s always been my chief editor and sounding board. He gave me the knowledge that writing is not glamorous or flashy—it’s about sitting down at the keyboard and getting the work done.
What western movies do you remember as kids that you feel the same way about today—or ones that you have changed your minds about? Should the movie The Searchers be banned?
As kids, we preferred the moral clarity of John Wayne to the more ambiguous Clint Eastwood. But as adults, our appreciation for Clint Eastwood’s Westerns has grown tremendously, from A Fistful of Dollars to Unforgiven. We would now rank The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly as the greatest Western of all time. Breathtaking in scope—and with the most riveting score in film history—it features three men racing to find buried treasure as the Civil War rages all around them, portrayed mostly as an inconvenience to their search. Is there a better representation of the human comedy—of our grand obsession with personal fortune even in the face of collective calamity?
As for The Searchers, which is a big exception to our John Wayne “moral clarity” comment…We tend to oppose the banning of books and movies, a principle instilled in us by our high school English teachers. But if you’re interested in the real-life story that inspired The Searchers, we’d recommend the book Empire of the Summer Moon, by S. C. Gwynne. It’s riveting, extraordinarily well-researched, and does much more to humanize the Comanche people than the movie.
Does a new form of Western need to evolve—and what would such works probably look like? What do you appreciate most about the conventions of writing Westerns?
Not necessarily. It all depends on what one means by Western. To us, the Western uses that particular historical and geographical setting to tell a story that probes human nature and big questions of morality and will. How do humans behave and organize in the absence of overwhelming, top-down social structures?
A good example is The Ox-Bow Incident, by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. This tight little novel asks deep questions of justice, xenophobia, mob mentality, and human nature, all arising organically in a Western setting where citizens are able to take justice into their own hands. You just can’t ask those questions as easily anywhere else. Ox-Bow manages to keep that element of Western setting, to tell a recognizably Western story, without glorifying its injustices—on the contrary, it grapples with them. And it was written in 1940.
Westerns, we think, go wrong when they glorify a past that was so clearly abominable for whole classes of people. But good stories can be—and are—told there. It requires grappling with and acknowledging the true history of the West. Now, there’s a whole genre of what we’ll call anti-Westerns, which are written exclusively to subvert or oppose the traditional Western. That’s great, but one shouldn’t expect lovers of traditional Westerns to necessarily appreciate them. We think there’s a middle ground—and we hope The Sheriff finds it—where the past is acknowledged, where the age isn’t naively glorified, but where the story is still recognizably Western. And fun.
What’s your next project?
We’re working on a contemporary mystery about a small town reporter and single father who gets laid off and takes to solving a murder—while also scrambling to figure out how to provide for his son. We’re on what feels like the thousandth draft. But we’re getting close to that magical point where the plot and character motivations feel right, and we can focus on the higher-level fun stuff like voice, themes, and foreshadowing. We hope to finish this year.
We’ve also outlined a successor novel to The Sheriff, called The Outlaw, which centers around the gender-bending Western gangster Jack Holloway. Our outline is modeled after The Godfather Part II in that it is both a sequel and an origin story. Whether or not this project becomes a reality will depend on the success of The Sheriff.
Thank you so much for talking with Stage Voices.
View The Sheriff on Amazon.
(c) 2021 by Robert Dwyer & Austin Wright (answers) and Bob Shuman (questions). All rights reserved.
Cover photo: TwoDot.