AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Fred Van Lente

The Northwest Pacific Express is a very unique train. How did you come up with the idea for it and for the “mechanics” of how it works?

John first invited me to be part of Dead Man’s Hand because of Cowboys & Aliens, a comic I wrote that got made into a movie. And I wanted to do the complete opposite of that story, so going from science fiction to high fantasy seemed a logical other direction. And being a rather well-rounded (and huge) nerd, I knew a lot about ley lines and dragons and realized it’d be fun to combine the two into a Weird Western train heist, which is at its core is what “Neversleeps” is.

What research did you do for this story?

It was when I hit upon the idea of tying the re-Awakening of magic in the world to the actual “War of Currents” between Tesla and Edison toward the end of the Old West era that the whole universe of the story kind of fell into place. So I read quite a lot about Tesla and Edison and their conflict—which is a classic battle between Creative and Business Genius, which is all too common, particularly in American history. I felt like a lot of Tesla’s problem was his contrary personality, so I imparted that to Nicola, his descendant.

Leaning how to swear in Serbo-Croatian was also fun … Hope that web site I found was accurate …

Simon Leslie certainly has some history with the Neversleeps and with Morgan Ash, and Leslie and Tesla make a great team. Is this story part of a larger project or do you see it as a jumping off point for other stories starring Simon Leslie and Nicola Tesla?

Yeah, I definitely have stories set in their world, though none that yet star them, specifically. One, in fact, should be appearing in Lightspeed magazine around the time Dead Man’s Hand comes out. I’m working a third one, should draw the various threads of the world of the Awakening together, leading hopefully to a novel about Leslie and Tesla, which would be awesome.

“Neversleeps” takes place in an alternate history where the spirits, spells, and mythological beings from cultural legends have become part of reality. How did you decide which magic/mythology to put front and center in the story?

The Chinese worked on the railroads and have a rich dragon tradition, so that was kind of a no-brainer. The Pinkertons started out as railroad guards and I remembered seeing their “We Never Sleep” ads in books as I was researching Cowboys & Aliens. It was really just a matter of finding which magical traditions married well with Western tropes … Native American spirits and magic being another main one, obviously.

Nicola Tesla is an infamous “Science Criminal”, and being burned at the stake is mentioned as one possible punishment. There is also mention of some highly illegal technology in Leslie’s armor. Is this a world in which science and magic can’t live side by side?

Yeah, exactly. The whole world of The Awakening for me is a metaphor of our own world, in which people desperately have to impose their ideologies and belief systems onto the rest of us or they lose all meaning. Objective thought and reasoning is discouraged because it’s not utilitarian—it rarely flatters us or tells us what we want to hear. In our era we can create our own cocoons around ourselves online by making sure we never hear a contrary opinion or we can attack anyone who says something we don’t like. The Awakening is just that idea writ large, metaphorically speaking.

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?

Genre mash-ups are always super-fun, and so many cool things come out of them. Like people trying to come up with new plant species by interbreeding them—it’s a great way to inject new ideas and creativity into an old formula.

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

I always enjoyed Joe R. Landsdale’s Jonah Hex comics of the 1990s, that Tim Truman drew; they were so full of sleazy humor and horror. Landsdale and the late, great Jack Jackson also did a great comics adaptation of his zombie novel, Dead in the West, way, way before that sort of thing became super popular.