John Larison is the author of Whiskey When We’re Dry, a remarkable novel which, with its compelling voice, challenges the traditional values of the Western and which is shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award. This is the fourth in Historia’s series of interviews with writers shortlisted for the 2020 Crown Awards.
Congratulations on being shortlisted! What does being in the running for a Gold Crown Award mean to you?
Oh my, where to begin? I’m still floating on the news, honestly. I worked on Whiskey When We’re Dry for the better part of a decade, and during all those years of writing I was never sure if other people would be compelled by Jesse’s story or not. To learn that the novel has resonated with readers and critics who reside far from the American West continues to be a staggering, humbling experience.
This is your third novel; what’s different about this one?
Whiskey When We’re Dry is the novel I was born to write. The work felt urgent and necessary – and fun. My earlier two novels, in hindsight, were practice. They taught me the craft lessons I needed to pull off a book as challenging as Whiskey.
How did the idea of Whiskey When We’re Dry come about?
In the United States, the stories we tell ourselves about the historic American West continue to carry outsized influence. We’re a young country, and the frontier novel was our first homegrown genre (and our first literary export with titles like James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans).
For generations, Americans – both established citizens and newcomers – looked to what we eventually came to call ‘the Western’ as an origin story; in it, readers saw models of American identity, especially American masculinity.
Westerns are built from simple dichotomies, between good and evil, men and women, the faithful and the faithless. Their most central – and dangerous – lesson might be that the hero confronts injustice at high noon, with a gun in his hand.
I awoke to the Western’s lingering influence as a 23-year-old high school English teacher, when I watched President George W Bush use a belt-buckle, cowboy hat, and a rancher’s drawl to convince the country we needed to go to war against Iraq. Several of my graduating seniors abandoned their college plans to go fight.
For me, the Bush presidency revealed how dangerous the Western mythos could be, not just for Americans but for the world. Whiskey When We’re Dry became my attempt to challenge that mythos head-on. In writing the book, I was stunned to learn how much of the Western myth is contradicted by historical fact.
Whiskey When We’re Dry subverts the stereotypical narrative of the 19th-century American West. Was researching this era a pleasure – or a chore?
A pleasure, for sure. I was born and raised at the end of the Oregon Trail; I grew up riding horses, and learned to shoot a revolver before I could ride a bike. The first novels I read as a boy were Westerns. In that sense, the research began even before I considered myself a writer.
Early in the formal researching process, I discovered letters written by pioneers, which are archived in a local library. Immediately, I was awestruck by the gratitude these letters expressed, often despite the author having just suffered some tragedy or loss. The pioneer’s focus on gratitude became my first window into the worldview of people who died before my oldest relatives were born.
Those letters led me to learn more about the details of daily life in the 1870s and 80s, for settlers, Native Americans, and migrant labourers. Eventually, I found myself making the foods my characters would have eaten, and drinking a dram of their whiskey too.
But it was the language used at the time that compelled me most. The West was a terrifically diverse place by the 1880s; on any given day in any given town, you might hear a dozen languages being spoken. The shared dialect of English became especially spare and understated. I came to hear its poetry – to hear the truths that only it could articulate – and be moved by them.
Did your research for Whiskey When We’re Dry turn up anything unexpected?
I came to realize that much of what I thought of as the ‘history’ of the American West was in fact not history at all, but tropes of a literary genre.
For instance, the Western would have you believe that armed robbery was a common practice in the West. However, the historical record shows that only ten bank robberies occurred west of the Mississippi River between 1859-1900, fewer than occurred in a single year in some eastern cities.
You might think everyone in the West wore cowboy hats; actually, the cowboy hat didn’t become popular in the West until after John Wayne started wearing them in Hollywood films. Many people think of ‘cowboys and Indians’ when they think of the West; but by 1880, there were more Chinese-Americans in the West than Native Americans.
You might think of cowboys as being uniformly White, but in most of the West, African-Americans and Mexicans made up a significant portion – if not the outright majority – of the cattle-related workforce. (The word ‘cowboy’ is in fact a direct translation of the Spanish vaquero).
You might think of ranchers as being uniformly male, but many of the West’s most prosperous ranches were run by strong, independent, single women.
Were you conscious of any modern-day parallels when writing your book?
Strangely so, in fact. I came to realize that the American West of the 1880s was a place governed by business interests, most of which were based ‘back east’ in the financial hub of New York City.
These railroad, cattle, timber, and mining barons used their wealth to lobby elected officials to enact policies that would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the labouring class.
Put simply, these barons rigged the system to disenfranchise their very workforce – especially ethnic minorities. That dynamic, in my opinion, continues to exist in today’s United States, and might help explain our current turmoil.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Put your phone in a locked drawer and disconnect your computer from the internet. To cultivate creativity, you might have to first cultivate a little boredom.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Beyond the ability to illuminate the lived experience of long-dead people, the historical novelist is uniquely positioned to challenge the dominant narratives a culture tells itself about itself.
Writing Whiskey When We’re Dry taught me that sometimes even the most familiar historical narratives are based on a selective, biased view of the facts. These skewed narratives about the past are too easily weaponized for contemporary political ends. The historical novelist has a charge to see past the familiar and to lock eyes with what is true.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
My next historical novel is set in the future. To learn what human life might be like in a world altered by climate change, I conducted three years of diligent research into the deep past of humanity, specifically the eras when our species survived cataclysmic shifts in the Earth’s climate.
Just as Whiskey When We’re Dry was born from my compulsion to confront the stories we tell about the American West, my next book – called The Ancients – seeks to confront the stories we tell ourselves about ‘end-times.’ If the Western mythos is dangerous, so too I think is western culture’s belief in apocalypse.
Climate change, for instance, is often (even in scientific circles) discussed as an apocalyptic event – an end. When we allow ourselves to believe that humans are doomed, we dodge our most ancient and essential responsibility: to act as stewards of our descendants’ resources.
I’m happy to report that my deep-dive into the history of our species has revealed some startlingly reassuring lessons about human resilience in the face of repeated ‘apocalypses’.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
I’ll do you one better; here’s the book in three words: Share your water.
Historia will feature interviews with other writers who’ve made it through to the final round of judging, including Jung Chang and Tim Mohr.
Photo of John Larison: supplied by publisher
Nellie Brown, ‘cowgirl’, c1880s: via Wikimedia
Two ‘gunslingers’ fire away in a showdown on the street at the Enchanted Springs Ranch and Old West theme park: via Library of Congress
Pioneer family on the Oregon Trail: via Portland Center Stage
Nat Love, cowboy and folk hero, from his autobiography The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907): via DocSouth, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Colorado. ‘Round up’ on the Cimarron, photochrom print from c1898: via Wikimedia
Jicarilla cowboy by Edward S Curtis: via Library of Congress