In Clifford Jackman's The Winter Family, the last half of America in the 19th century is stitched together by a roving band of killers for hire. The stitching is almost battlefield surgery, all blood and pain and booze and urgency. Named for their leader, the stoic, pale-eyed, and seemingly amoral Augustus Winter, the titular Winter Family is an odd bunch made up of a military general, an unnatrualized German, a freed slave, and a booze-ruined Cherokee, all leftovers from the Civil War who aren't convinced that wars are the sort of things that are actually won or lost, let alone ever fully end. With a melange of violence, humour, and pontification, they attend and assist the awkward, sometimes excruciating, growth of a nation trying to define and secure its vision by any means necessary. They punish slave owners in Georgia, tamper with a still struggling democracy in Chicago, and remind a Phoenix lawman that lawless remains the law of that land.
I loved the daylights out of The Winter Family. It overlaps a lot of figurative and literal territory that I've been working with the past few years. A lawyer by day who who recently moved to Guelph with his family, I bought Clifford a beer so he'd have to talk to me about genre, history, and the daily grind of writing.
How'd you come to writing?
I've always wanted to be a writer. I was a writer when I was a little kid. And I was always a big reader, relative to the other kids my age.
What kind of stuff were you reading?
I read pretty broadly. I was an ambitious reader. I wanted to read things above my age level. If I was in Grade 9, I’d be reading stuff the Grade 12s were supposed to be reading. I was under the mistaken impression that it made me cool. Which, in fact, it did not.
Were you reading and understanding?
I would read first and the understanding would come after. When I first read, say, Heart of Darkness when I was 14 years old, I literally had the CliffsNotes there. I would read a page of the book, and then read a page of the CliffsNotes to figure out what I just read. But I always found that once I read one book by a writer, whether it was Joseph Conrad or Charles Dickens or Dostoevsky, I could crack the code [of that writer], and then I was understanding.
I should say that I didn’t just read the classics. That was one half. The other half was fantasy and sci-fi, and I was a huge Stephen King fan. I loved the Dragonlance novels. I was all over Dungeons and Dragons, all over space, all over Lord of the Rings.
If this is 1995ish, the stuff you were into – oftentimes called "genre" – was generally considered low entertainment. But if you’re reading that stuff next to Conrad, who himself was writing for entertainment – I mean, those were the entertainment stories of the time – it must have created a personal context. Did you seeing those connections then?
Definitely. After high school, I went to York University thinking I was going into creative writing, and it was a shock. I took this course, Introduction to Literary Genres, and I thought we’d do mystery novels and science fiction novels and stuff, but they took a pretty different approach to what “genre” was. So we were reading people like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. And for me there was a fair bit of resistance to that. I wouldn’t say I hated it, but at the time I was like, Oh, man. These people think they’re cool. But then I went on to get my master's and came to love Woolf, and Joyce, and Faulkner.
I’ve never really believed in the division between "literary" and "genre" fiction. But I get the feeling that that gap is starting to shrink down again. I vividly remember in the 90s Margaret Atwood denying up and down that she was a science fiction writer, or that Handmaiden’s Tale was a science fiction book. As a guy who liked science fiction then, I remember that. But people aren’t nearly so fussed about that I don’t think now. "Genre" was sort of the kiss of death back then. People treated you like crap.
There was a shift in the 90s, I think exemplified by authors like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. Chabon especially became vocally bored with the suburban, domestic literary stuff that he had earlier made his name with. I especially remember him pointing out that "literary" is as much as a formula as anything else.
I think that’s the thing.
I get the idea that around that time authors got bored and readers got really bored.
I think fundamentally… And I don’t want to be rude to anybody because I know everyone’s trying really hard. Writing really hard to do. But fundamentally, when, as a writer, you’re making your list of things to do, you can forget about the reader to a certain extent. Books are a commitment of the reader's time and mental energy in a way you don’t when you just click on shit on Netflix, or when you play Candy Crush or something. If I’m gonna bore a reader… There’re writers I really respect who were boring on purpose. Like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which I read in school. I like that book and Sterne makes jokes about how he’s boring you on purpose. At the end of the day if that you want to do, fine. But make sure you think about it.
Ask yourself, Who’s reading this book? Why are they reading it? To me, it seems like that sometimes gets lost. It's easy for a writer's audience to become juries for prizes, or reviewers, because that’s a way to get sales. It’s same if you’re at a convention and there’s a book with a cool dragon on the cover – I’m not saying they’re equal, but they’re similar. They’re a way of selling the book.
You were writing while you were at York?
I was. It took me a long time to finish my first novel. I got pretty far into one, then gave up. It was a retelling of the Hercules myth basically. I got pretty far in another one, a fantasy story again, about a world of two races on it who fought each other. I got stuck and it took me years to finish. What happened was, my second year at York they went on strike. That one lasted 10 weeks. All that time, I did no writing. All I did was play video games. Baldur’s Gate 2 – another nerdy Dungeons and Dragons game.
When I went back to school, I decided I was never going to finish a book ever. I’d had 10 weeks, had nothing to do, and had done nothing. I was 21 years old, so I’m basically old already – that was my thinking process. But then my philosophy changed. I made sure I put down 1 000 words a day no matter what. And I made sure to cut out everything boring. And then, lo and behold, the book got finished, and that was a big moment for me because I knew I could do it. I went on to write a bunch of stories and actually became very productive at school and at work. I got my 1 000 every day for some time.
Then I did my masters [in English Literature] at Queens and struggled on and off with a story there, then took a year off, then went to law school. I had these projects that were sorta fun projects, like science fiction stuff, but then other projects that would be The Thing, would be more publishable. And a lot of the time that stuff wouldn’t go the way I thought it would. It wouldn’t get finished.
What was your idea of publishable?
I had one idea set in the 1980s around this scandal: basically, the CIA cooked up this deal with justice department to not prosecute contras that were smuggling cocaine into the US, and the contras eventually hooked up with this guy, Rick Ross – who, I believe, the rapper got his name from – who was the biggest cocaine dealer in the universe and that fueled the crack-cocaine boom in the 1980s that was devastating to a lot of American inner-cities. So I did all this research and got about 120 pages in and it just died on me.
Then I had another idea about a lawyer set in Toronto and I thought, Oh, now I’m writing from what I know. That’s what you’re supposed to do. This’ll be good. Up to this point a lot of books had failed for me, and this was the first one that ought to have failed, but I technically, on paper, finished it. I had a lot of issues with it, but it was still a big moment, knowing I could finish anything if I have to.
The Winter Family was something I wrote for fun. It wasn’t something that was supposed to be publishable, it wasn’t supposed to be anything. I sat down and, in four days, wrote a much longer version of [the chapter in The Winter Family] "Oklahoma 1891", and I put it aside thinking, That was fun. But at the time my friend had a store in Toronto, Article 8, on College and Bathurst, and we decided to self-publish Oklahoma 1891. His store closed before the book was done. It ended up at the Modrobes store – which is closed now too – and we had the party there. A lot of people came out and I started getting positive feedback to my writing for the first time. This would have been 2008, 2009.
What on earth’s a Modrobe?
I never owned a pair, but they kinda looked like this hospital pant-type things, very popular in college dorms and people would I guess wear them to raves. But then the inventor of them went on Dragons Den and got a bunch of money and opened a store, and that’s where I launched Oklahoma 1891.
That story was supposed to be a standalone. Spoiler alert: there’s not much left after 1891. But I ended up writing three prequels and a sequel to it. Eventually, in 2010, I randomly went out to an event in Whitby called DarkFest. One of the events was a PitchFest, where you have 10 minutes to pitch your book. So I pitch my book, saying it’s a western, and here’s who I am, and that’s eventually how I got my agent, Carolyn Forde. But that was, what? Five years ago? So it’s still a very, very long road to where we are today.
That actually worked? I’ve never heard of anything coming from those pitch things.
I think it’s very rare, but it does happen sometimes. The thing is, it’s hard to break into this industry. It’s so hard. And it’s so hard even after you get your deal. There’s so much competition out there. It’s unreal. You put your book on the shelves next to something that was written 2000 years ago, not just the new stuff that came out that month.
Have you guys been talking about the market for The Winter Family?
There’s definitely a market. Cormac McCarthy is the name that always comes up, but this Grit Lit stuff is a sub-genre. I hadn’t heard Grit Lit until people started calling my book that. But The Winter Family is also supposed to be a fun book. This has been one of my concerns when I started seeing some of the reviews was that everyone was talking about the violence, but it’s also supposed to be fun. Quill and Quire got that.
It seems now that anyone with a book set in the past, in the desert, with people getting shot, gets hailed as the new Cormac McCarthy.
It sucks. Cormac McCarthy owes a lot of William Faulkner, but no one says he’s “William Faulkner, but not as good” every time he puts out a book. It’s a tough comparison. The Winter Family’s written nothing like McCarthy, although I’ve read all his books, he’s maybe my favourite writer.
I assume Augustus Winter will get compared some to The Judge in Blood Meridian. And probably the way you describe a human being’s ability to come apart will garner similar comparison to McCarthy's famous gore.
But that was a thing I did when I was a kid. We used to do that for fun. My friends and I would get a writing assignment and, because we were horrible… People talk about kids these days being terrible, but the kids in our day were so much worse. Kids today are maybe a bit soft or whatever, but they’re not dickheads like we were back in the day. We'd get creative writing projects, and it would turn into a contest to see who could be the most disgusting. You’d get an assignment about what you did in the summer, and everyone’s head would be getting cut off, or their guts ripped out. It was all a contest between me and my five friends to see who could be the most disgusting. If you did this today, you’d be sent to see the school psychologist. Back then our teachers were just like, “B. B+. B.”
Is it hard for you then, considering that gory glee, to also start bringing in questions about morality?
The theme of the book is caught in that anecdote of Alexander and the Pirates, how these guys aren’t the last breath of freedom before civilization, they are civilization. That’s not necessarily the thesis of The Winter Family, but that’s the question it’s asking.
In terms of the morality of the book, I think, whether we live in a universe with any objective morality, or whether we live in a universe where it’s just whatever your personal prejudices happen to be, and the universe is nihilistic and uncaring. I don’t know if the book comes down on those questions so much as it deals with individuals’ fears and beliefs towards those questions. It was important for the book to not sugarcoat the world outside of civilization. The point isn’t, These guys are terrible and if only we were in a state of nature like Jean-Jaques Rousseau imagined and we're all naturally good. No. Everyone is violent and at the end of the day you have to make a choice, and it’s a tougher choice than you might think.
A character in book I like, that people don’t talk that much about because he was in just the one book, is the city councilman in the Chicago chapter.
I was just going to mention Chicago. I love that these Western outlaws get inveigled in Eastern politics. In Chicago it's community-minded gangster Micky Burns against industry-minded Noah Ross, the brother of one of The Winter Family.
The party in Chicago were oppressed Irish immigrants. They had their own code, too. It’s easy to forget because they’ve now integrated so well, but people like the Irish, Italians, and Germans were horribly discriminated against. Not as bad as other people, but bad. If you go back and read what people were saying about the Irish, their being naturally stupid, inherently criminal – basically racist screeds. So this councilman, Micky Burns, had the philosophy, We stick close to our friends, and yeah we’re stealing our faces off, but paying for funerals and handing out Christmas turkeys and stuff. Of course you can’t just steal all the time, but he saw himself as a big man in the community. There was more to it than just being a thief. He was the head thief, and there’re responsibilities that come along with that.
On the other hand, you have Noah Ross and his pig factory, stripping everything down to efficiency so no one will really benefit, who doesn’t care if the people working in his pig factory are living in disgusting shanty towns by rivers so full of blood they could crust over. But at the end of the day, he’s also not wrong, right? That kind of corruption meant economic growth, and that growth in these cities hauled people up into the middle class.
And then Winter comes along and he doesn’t care. The book doesn’t really have an opinion about what’s right or wrong, but looks at the consequences of certain lifestyles.
The idea of Manifest Destiny is interesting as hell to me, inasmuch as it’s still going on, that there’s this stain in the national cloth, this indelible feeling of rightness, even in the face of what's certainly morally incorrect. We’re reluctant to talk about the amount of violence and deviance that brought us to where we are now. Similarly, the people who use Augustus Winter never seem to know what to do with him once his directed amorality has given them a boost.
To me, I don’t know how useful The Winter Family ever was. People thought they would be useful, but they mostly made things worse everywhere they went. But they get replaced by The Winter Family 2.0, The Pinkerton Detective Agency, who’ll shoot whoever they’re asked to, but honor their contacts as well. To me, Manifest Destiny was opening Pandora’s Box. That’s all in Blood Meridian. You tell people, These Apaches are pissing us off and we’ll pay you for their scalps, everyone runs out and starts scalping anyone they can catch. Then they take all your money until the treasury’s dried up and shoot up your town. You hired horrendous human beings to help you with this problem instead of dealing with it in a human way, you hired mercenaries. That was the thing with The Winter Family. They were tools, but they weren’t very useful tools. It’s not that civilization got to a point where they didn’t need them anymore, they just realized they were never that useful in the first place. That’s civilization learning. These people don’t help us achieve our ultimate goal, which is to reformulate the entire continent basically.
Probably every human being has to be a hypocrite of some sort. Maybe we need to be just a little bit full of shit some of the time. You can’t take every idea to its logical conclusion. Dostoyevsky dealt with these problems. Arthur Koestler talked about them in Darkness At Noon, the idea that logical things brought to their conclusions become absurd.
I hate to be that guy who asks you if you’ve ever seen The Wire, but have you ever seen The Wire?
I love The Wire.
The Winter Family really has a The Wire feeling, inasmuch as it goes up the rungs of power, understanding how corruption and hypocrisy goes all the way to the top. I’m trying to think of other westerns that visit the city the way you did the in the Chicago chapter. There’s this romance of the west – maybe the same way there’s a certain sort of cultural romance to a kind of street life now – that turns that place into a kind of bio-dome, which ignores the fact that the railroads and economy are keeping even the most far off place connected to civilization.
For me it’s important that the Winter Family wasn’t just on the frontier. It’s important to say that people are shooting each other in Tombstone, Arizona as much as they are in Chicago. It’s all a democracy that, fundamentally, is unrecognizable by our current standards. Ballot box stuffing, gangs rushing around and battling on the streets. There’s craziness on the fringes, but there’s also craziness as the heart of democracy.
So you wrote "Oklahoma 1891" in 2008. You were gradually expanding the history since then?
I wrote the Phoenix chapter, then I wrote California – which has been cut out of the book, but will apparently be released as a digital short. Then I wrote Chicago and Georgia. They were in different orders and there were a lot of edits to make it to the book that’s getting released.
I edited a ton before sending it to my agent, and then we retained an editor to keep at it. Then we sent it out to all the big Canadian publishers, and were rejected everywhere. Then I redid the whole thing and we submitted it to New York, about 10 places. Everyone rejected it. I was devastated. But Melissa Danaczko at Doubleday liked it enough that she offered to work on it in her spare time. Then Anne Collins got on board in Canada and decided to put me up as the New Face of Fiction, which is obviously huge.
How does this experience match up with how you thought it’d be when you started slugging it out with your first novel back at York?
This is a lifelong dream for me, and I’m happy, but it feels weird. If the book's a big hit, that’s one thing; if it’s not, that’s another thing. I guess I’ll always be a writer. You just go on.
One thing I wrote during all those years was a screenplay of Beowulf. I thought I was so smart because I was ahead of the curve, but then three movies came out. They kill Grendel, but the next day Grendel's mother comes around, so I had this scene where Beowulf killed the monster and they’re like, Why aren’t you happy? You killed Grendle who’s been tormenting us for decades. And Beowulf’s like, This is a happy time, but the sun’s gonna come up the next day, and the next day, and other shit’s going to happen. I think that’s how I feel with the book.
I have always wanted to be a writer. There’s one quote from Hemingway where he’s talking about aspiring writers, which he calls "mice." The mouse asks him, When did you start wanting to be a writer. And Hemingway says, I have always wanted to be a writer. There was no when. I’ve always written. I have eight novels that will never get published. And to be here, it just feels weird. I hope that doesn’t sound too negative.
That’s the shit people don’t talk about. You start out writing towards this dream of publishing, but even if you've written the best book ever, it doesn't mean anyone cares. I remember getting my first book published and it sort of dawning on me that, as awesome as that is, and as awesome as it feels, I've got to go back to the same place at the desk regardless. Succeed or fail, you've got to get up the next day and just continue.
It’s so much work to be a writer...
Actually, no. It’s not hard work. Writing's like going to the gym. If we could all be totally jacked and ripped by doing something horrible over a short period of time, say 48 hours, and afterwards we walk out of there and we’re cut, everyone would be in good shape. It doesn’t matter how horrible that would be. But if you have to do something that’s not all that bad, but you have to to do it today and tomorrow and the next day, and you don’t really see any progress – and even when you do see progress it’s so slow you don’t notice it on a day-to-day basis – that kind of process takes more than hard work. It takes some other quality of craziness.
Maybe that's the true grit they talk about.
Okay, true grit, if you like. Basically, if you don’t love doing it, you need to do anything else. Because there’re easier ways to get rich. As a lawyer, I assure you there’re easier ways to get rich. If you’re going to do something you don't love, you should at least be getting rich so you can buy a boat or something. What’s the quote by Oscar Wilde? Something about the only reason to do a useless thing is you admire it intensely?