A few weeks ago, I reviewed Justin Allen's fabulous Wild West coming-of-age novel, Year of the Horse. (link goes to my review) I had so many questions about his ideas for the book and how he came up with him, so I was thrilled when he agreed to be interviewed.
Lorin: Where did the idea or inspiration for Year of the Horse come from? How did you get the idea to incorporate fantasy into what is otherwise a Western, coming-of-age story? Year of the Horse, to me, is a rarity: it tells a story of the Old West through the point of view of a person of Chinese descent. Where did the idea to do that come from?
Justin: I first came up with the idea of writing a Wild-West Fantasy Novel while on a short vacation to the Florida Keys with my friend, Kennon Irons. We were sitting in a diner, eating breakfast and wishing that the Monsoon-like rain we’d been experiencing for the last three days would JUST QUIT for a few minutes, so we could go to the beach, go to the Everglades, or just go OUTSIDE.
Anyhow, I got to complaining about how so much fantasy fiction is nothing more than the eternal rehashing of King Arthur, Tolkien, and the Chronicles of Narnia. Kennon, who very much likes that sort of thing, wondered what I had against King Arthur, and it suddenly came to me… What I hated wasn’t King Arthur (I love King Arthur, by the way, and all that sort of thing). What I hated was that when Americans write that sort of fantasy, it’s just as though we’re still stuck in some sort of pseudo-Colonial state. Why can’t we produce American fantasy? Kennon argued that fantasy was as much swords and chivalry as magic and wonder, and that any attempt to replace the broadsword with the six-shooter would ultimately fail. “Bull!!!” I said it then, and I’ll say it now with even more ferocity! In fact, “Bull CRAP!!!” The Western has always been mostly fantastical. Don’t believe me? Watch some old Clint Eastwood films and see if you don’t begin to have a whole passel of wonderings. For instance, how in heaven’s name does he always have the right number of bullets in his gun? Or, how come there aren’t more than six guys he has to shoot? And where in the name of all that’s holy is he anyway? Is that supposed to be Mexico? Then how is he escaping from a Confederate Prisoner of War camp? Yeesh! Did the filmmakers know anything about North American Geography at all?
In fact, the Western has more fantasy aspects to it, by its very nature, than just about any other genre. It’s just dying to be exploited. That’s why I dedicated Year of the Horse to ‘our favorite Oxford Dons.’ It’s my way of saying, “Thanks, but Enough. We’ve had all the medievalism we need for a while. We’re DONE with that.” I say, let’s strike new ground! Let’s make myths out of our own people, landscape and mythical heritage.
As for Lu…
I don’t know exactly how or when I decided to make an American-born Chinese boy the main character in the book. The first character I thought up was actually Jack Straw - itinerant adventurer, gunfighter and mystic. Lu came a good deal into the planning.
I’d read China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston, and very much enjoyed the sections where she described the dangerous jobs that Chinese immigrants performed during the American push westward, especially in mining and railroad building. Huge numbers of Chinese men were killed or maimed while handling explosives (no one knows just how many). So I figured a Chinese explosives “expert” would be a fascinating addition to my story about the west. Plus, using a Chinese boy, and making him pretty much no different from any other boy his age, allowed me to say something about what it means to be an American. I wanted to show Lu realizing, over the course of the journey, that he was truly an American, as much a symbol of his country as Sadie or Henry or Jack. And I wanted readers to come to that realization with him.
Lorin: In the acknowledgments for Year of the Horse, you wrote that the female characters in the book were based on several of your actual family members. Were Lu and the other members of Jack's gang also based on real people? If not, where did the ideas for those characters come from?
Justin: All of the characters in Year of the Horse come from somewhere. All of the minor characters do, anyway. The main group: Lu, Jack, Henry, Chino, Sadie and her father, are all my own creations. I never met anyone like Jack, have no Uncles like Henry or any old enemies like Chino. I developed these core characters entirely on their own, discovering each as I followed him or her across the country.
Their NAMES, however, were all chosen for historical, literary or personal reasons. Lu’s name, for instance, comes from The Analects of Confucius. Tzu-lu was one of Confucius’s favorite disciples, known as an adventurer and swashbuckler. Likewise, Henry is named after John Henry, the famous “steel driving man.” His last name, Jesus, comes from the practice of freed slaves taking on the names of their former masters. Henry would have none of that, I thought – his only ‘master’ being his Savior – so I figured he’d take on the name that meant most to him. Manuel Garcia – also known as ‘Chino’ – got his name from a famous bandit in the old west. MacLemore was named after Louis L'Amour - “Mac” in Scottish meaning “son of” - as well as a family I know in Montgomery, Alabama (my sister-in-law’s last name is McLemore). And Sadie – This is something I have NEVER told ANYONE until now – is actually named after a dog I had when I was a boy. I loved that dog more than I could possibly say, and so appropriated her name for Year of the Horse. Jack Straw takes his name from a revolutionary figure in British History, and from the fact that I always liked the name ‘Jack’ for a gunfighter.
But as I said before, though their names come from some association that means something to me, there is no ACTUAL relationship between my characters and their namesakes. The minor characters, now that’s a different story…
Lorin: Clearly, you referenced Washington Irving in Year of the Horse. In my review, I mentioned that it also reminded me of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Were you influenced by Mark Twain? What other authors inspire your work?
Justin: Thank you, Lorin, for mentioning Mark Twain. I can say without reservation that no writer anywhere has influenced me more. In fact, in Year of the Horse, I actually referenced some of Twain’s characters. You remember that scene where Lu and the gang cross the Quapaw River on a log raft? Well, I was thinking of Jim and Huck there (in fact, if you go back and look, you’ll notice that the customs agent’s name is ‘Jim’). Honestly, I’m not sure you can have a log raft in a book and NOT have people think of Huck Finn. Also, try Googling ‘Philip Traum’ and see what you find. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.
There are references to famous American (and a few non-American) authors sprinkled throughout Year of the Horse. I get a big bang out of finding (or inventing) connections. In the book you can find references to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I even made what I thought to be a funny reference to one lesser-known American Author. It’s when Lu is following Bill through the Hell Mouth Canyon and they come upon a waterfall. Most readers probably won’t recognize that reference, but one or two might. In fact, Bill himself is a sort of reference to the tall tales of Pecos Bill, his wife Slue-Foot Sue, and his horse Widowmaker.
And though I made no conscious references to them, there are oodles of other authors I’ve learned from and loved. I particularly love Jack Kerouac, Alan Moore, Larry McMurtry and Phillip K. Dick. I am a big fan of Ursula LeGuin and Barbara Kingsolver, think the world of Robert Heinlein and Charles Dickens (everybody please read A Christmas Carol – it is sooooo good!). And yes, I love Tolkien and CS Lewis as well. But for the references I sprinkled into Year of the Horse I tried to stick mostly to American writers of the 18th century.
Lorin: How much research did you do for Year of the Horse? Where do you do your research – Google, the library?
Justin: Well, there were a lot of little details that I had to look up. For instance, I don’t know much about guns or saddles, or any of that sort of thing. So I got me a copy of Illustrated Directory of the Old West. The pictures in that book were Invaluable. For example, I knew I wanted Lu to discover a brass revolver – the confederate army really did make brass revolvers for their officers to wear as side-arms, stealing the designs from all sorts of legitimate gun-makers (I have no idea whether they could actually be fired). But what kind of revolver ought it to be? A colt? An Allen? Something more unique or unusual? In the Directory, I was able to go from page to page, looking at drawings and descriptions of all sorts of pistols, both rare and not so rare. The same with Henry’s rifle. And the MacLemores’ saddles. If you’re thinking of writing a western, I suggest that little book. It’s a good’un.
Lorin: This question ties in with the previous one: Did you have the opportunity go to all the amazing places the gang visits? Was there any one place that you enjoyed writing about the most?
Justin: As a matter of fact, I have been to All those places – in a sense. Of course, in another sense, none of those places even EXIST. The geography in Year of the Horse is highly fictionalized. I wanted to create a fantastic, mythical America, rather than a factual one. But I still wanted readers to recognize the landscapes as being palpably American. So, most everywhere they go in the book is based on some famous feature of the American landscape, only made bigger than life. For instance – The Hell Mouth. You can probably guess that it was based on the Grand Canyon. And yes, I HAVE been to the Grand Canyon. In fact, in 2005 my family rode Mules into the Grand Canyon on Christmas Day - an experience I can not recommend highly enough. But the Hell Mouth is not JUST the Grand Canyon. It is also Hell’s Canyon in Western Idaho (note the similarity of name), and the Salmon River Gorge. In fact, I guess you could say that the Hell Mouth is all American Canyons rolled into one, and then multiplied by ten.
Lorin: What hobbies do you have in addition to your writing? Do you think one of them will work their way into a book?
Justin: I am a ballet dancer! You didn’t expect to hear that, I’ll wager. In fact, I wouldn’t even call ballet a hobby. It’s more an avocation. I take ballet class pretty much every day, and I work with two ballet companies here in New York – Eidolon Ballet and Dances Patrelle. Right now I’m rehearsing with Dances Patrelle, getting ready to dance as the Mouse King in their annual “The Yorkville Nutcracker.”
I don’t expect ever to write a ballet book, but this past year I did write a story for ballet, and I got it performed, too. The ballet was called, “Murder at the Masque: The Casebook of Edgar Allan Poe.” It was very successful, with beautiful sets, amazing dancers, gorgeous costumes, an amazing original score by Patrick Soluri, and the breathtaking choreography of Francis Patrelle. The ballet was even reviewed by the New York Times! [Find the review here] The reviewer never mentioned me (doesn’t that suck!), but it was still cool to know that I had a hand in putting that ballet together.
Lorin: What are your future plans for writing? Are you working on your next book?
Justin: I have lots of other books I want to write, and a couple I am working on right now. First, I’m writing a travel book about the National Parks (that’s how I’ve visited so many of the places that inspired the geography of Year of the Horse). I am also half-way through a science fiction book about the unintended consequences of new technology (like, what if people decide that it is better to have robot legs than real? Will they allow them in the NFL?).
And I’ve been thinking about doing a sequel to Year of the Horse, too. What would you think about a novel that mixed fantasy with the gang-land era Chicago of Al Capone? Maybe Jack Straw could be working with Eliot Ness, or maybe he would work with Al Capone? I don’t know exactly what that book would be about yet, but I think it would be a fun challenge.
Thank you so much, Justin, for taking the time to answer my questions!
Find Year of the Horse: A Novel on Amazon.
Author photos provided by Justin Allen.