AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Charles Yu

Can you tell us something of the origin of this story? With its awareness of genre tropes, it feels more like a descendant of John Barth (and Mel Brooks) than Zane Gray (and Robert E. Howard). How did you come to write this story?

Barth meets Brooks—I love that. The western is such a deep, rich genre, with so many conventions and tropes that starting to write a story you can almost feel an embarrassment of riches. As a reader, you bring that richness with you as you start a story, you’re not just reading a western, you’re aware of the western-ness of that western. I wanted it to feel like a TV set, like the storefront was a cardboard facade, the characters from central casting, the guns from the prop department. The characters feel like characters, but they’re no less real for all of that.

The townspeople here are the worst, orchestrating and enjoying violence as entertainment, like a parade. But aren’t we readers implicated in the same desire for entertaining violence? Or put another way: when writing a piece like this, where do you locate the conflict?

Yes, indeed—the townspeople are an audience, and the line between them inside the story and us outside the story is blurred, just as the line between reality and performance for the gunfighters is somewhat blurred. I wanted the sharpshooters to feel a little bit like they were stuck in their roles, and being thrown against their wills into these life-or-death conflicts. They’re the stars of the show, but being the star comes at a steep, terrible price. The conflict is tangible (gun vs. gun) but there’s also a sense in which the tale is about characters struggling against the story they’re in, and maybe even the convention as a whole.

Though the characters here flirt with guilt and retribution, it doesn’t seem to stick: for instance, the town gunfighters can’t stay angry/focused long enough to duel over a woman, while Ratface absolves the narrator of guilt. Are you playing with the idea of guilt-as-motivation—and character motivation more broadly?

A little bit—I think if I’m playing with something, it’s in the idea of certain classic motivations, and how they might feel a bit rehearsed or practiced, and how people stuck in these roles (which are, in this environment, jobs) might not be able to get into them, might have problems being authentic when they know, everyone knows, what they’re going to say. In a world when expectations are so firmly in place, how do you play your role well?

There’s lots of humor and genre-savviness here around language and dialogue, from gunslingers forgetting their lingo to the narrator being brought into a gunfight over a grammar correction. What drew you to these moments and this type of genre-/medium-awareness?

Part of it is just me writing around my weakness—I don’t think I’ve got it in my bag of tricks to write a straight western story. And part of it is that this is how I have fun writing, and how I can spin something up from nothing. If I tried to write a straight story, I’d probably never get through it, because I would give up long before I could finish it.

A lot of your previous work seems to revolve around a person (or people) trying to find their place in the universe. How does this story fit? Will you be writing “How to Survive in a Western Universe”?

Ha—maybe. I like the idea! I think that’s a great encapsulation of one of my central preoccupations—maybe a little close for comfort, actually! I think this story fits right in there, actually. Those elements of the western that lend themselves to the existential, I wanted to heighten those, and making it a meta-western seemed like the way to do it.

What is the appeal of “weird west” fiction? Why do writers—or you yourself—write about it? What do you think readers like about it?

I am drawn to it because, by definition, it is a genre with a twist—a self-bending genre. As a writer, that’s the best situation. You have the constraint of a genre, with the built-in requirement to mess around within that genre. It’s freeing, but not so much freedom that you are paralyzed. It’s in some kind of sweet spot for creative degrees of freedom, if that makes any sense.

As for this reader, there’s the obvious appeal, as you get to read a story where you have this alchemy, this mix of familiar genre elements or features, but with the unexpected always possible every time you turn the page.

What are some of your favorite examples of weird westerns (in any media), and what makes them your favorites?

I don’t think it’s a weird western, but since you mentioned him, Blazing Saddles is obviously an all-time classic and if not necessarily a weird western, it is a story that plays with the conventions of the genre. I’ve read some of the stories on Lightspeed, of course, especially the story “Crossroads” by Laura Anne Gilman.