AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Laura Anne Gilman

You hint at the world in “The Devil’s Jack,” drawing enough of a picture for us to understand the realm Jack has to deal with, but leaving us wanting more. Was this a sandbox you’d played in before, or were the demons, magicians, and devil created whole cloth for this anthology?

At the time, I’d written one previous story in the Devil’s West—“Crossroads,” which was published by Fantasy Magazine in 2011. That story actually originally came out of a writing exercise I’d set for my students—to be a good sport I played along, and out of that opening paragraph came an entire world! The idea of a divergent history, a space in the ‘real’ world where magic held sway in a very practical, non-fantastical way … it appealed to me too much to let it go. I had a feeling that there were more stories in this world—three, so far. In fact, there turned out to be novels there as well. I just sold three books set in the Devil’s West to Saga Press/Simon & Schuster! The first one, Silver on the Road, will be published in 2015.

Jack is a sad character, but a survivor. What was your inspiration for him? Did he come first, or did he arise from the setting or story?

I think they were crafted together … the world existed, the setting of a sparsely-populated world where making a vow has very real consequences, but there was also the image of the lost traveler, the man who has lost his honor but still struggles to be honorable under the devil’s yoke. Jack couldn’t exist in any other setting, but as I wrote him, I discovered more about the world itself as it shaped around him. And yes, he’s a sad character, but he’s also aware of the fact that he created his own fate. Like so much else in the Devil’s West, you make your own bargains, and live with the cost.

One of the things I loved about your story was the feel of greater magic at play while our hero (if the devil’s dog can be called a hero) is kept rather downtrodden, low-powered if you will, forced to rely on his cleverness. What attracts you to this kind of character? Does it mean more if the proverbial underdog can win?

I don’t know that it means more if they can win … it certainly means more that they fight. That they make the effort. I’m an activist, I believe that change can come from the top AND the bottom of society, that motion is better than apathy. Jack is the devil’s dog, he has been forced to heel … but that doesn’t mean he has to be passive. He just, as you say, has to be clever. And since clever wasn’t his natural state, that’s part of the struggle. That interested me.

Jack isn’t a good guy. He’s not a nice guy. But there’s something honorable about him, nonetheless. And the devil knew that, when he leashed him … At the risk of being spoilery, the question of intent and practice are raised in this story, on both sides of the leash.

Demons and the devil are distinct, even possibly at odds, entities in “The Devil’s Jack.” Did you draw upon a particular mythology for this separation or spin it all yourself?

In this world, there is no supernatural or preternatural. Everything that exists is part of the natural world. The devil is a powerful entity in and of himself, but demons are not there to do his bidding—they’re complete within themselves, driven by a different agenda. A lot of that came from my readings in Animism, moving away from the human-centric sense of the world to a more inclusive “what if?” If you can’t say “it’s God’s will” but “I made my own choices,” then what will we, inevitably, lean on? I suspect my reading on governments and social structures has as much to do with creating this scenario as religion … how much can we handle on our own, how much do we need to blame/rely on others, how do we react when we’re thrust away from the supports we’ve always had (i.e. civilization)?

As a reader, you can’t help rooting for Jack, as he accepts both his failures and uses his wits to survive. Is this the last we’ve seen of him, or do you have more in mind for Jack and his piebald hoss?

For now, I think that’s the last we’ll see of him. But he’s going to be riding for a long time—so I’m not ruling out a return.

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

Oh, I’m not sure I can say what other people find in it … everyone brings their own luggage on the trip, after all. For me, though, a frontier—and it can be any frontier, from ancient times to space travel—offers the writer the same thing it offered those who traveled toward the frontier in real-time: the chance to leave behind social structures that no longer fit, that had begun to chafe, and to discover new scenarios, new conditions that we have to overcome, or adapt to. But not everything gets left behind …what do we bring along? What’s intentional, and what’s ingrained? Plus, and particularly in the American West, there is the issue that this isn’t a blank slate, it’s not an empty land. When you mix in a little magic into all that …. there are more opportunities for abuse, of course, but also new opportunities for discovery. It’s not a question of rewriting history but of exploring it, of poking it into different shapes, and seeing what we learn. Like science—you repeat the experiment, but change a variable. When applied to history, especially social history, I find that endlessly fascinating.

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

I admit, I haven’t read widely in the identified-as-such weird west sub-genre … and once I started working on these stories, I intentionally veered away from anything that might be too close in theme because I needed infusions of something different in my down-time.

Most of my fascination with the period comes from reading non-fiction about pre-1850 North America, both Canada and the USA, seeing all the incredible points where history could have diverged, how individuals really made a massive change in the future, and how many incredible mistakes were made, because that was how our culture shaped the tools we had.

In fiction … there’s Joe Lansdale, of course, and Stephen King’s Dark Tower (I only read The Gunslinger, shhhhh don’t tell on me). Now, if you want to talk about the non-Old West weird that’s influenced me …. That could take a few pages, but includes Cherie Priest’s Eden Moore books, and Graham Joyce, and Steven Milhauser, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and ….

In other media, the TV show The Wild Wild West was a little before my time, but I remember seeing it in reruns, and being fascinated because I knew that wasn’t real history … and of course, Kung Fu—a Shaolin monk in the old west? Mysticism and sixguns? Yeah, that probably had an impact.