Colin Winnette – Haints Stay
Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay (Two Dollar Radio) is a western like you’ve never read before. The book follows Brooke and Sugar, who we meet at the start of the book in a manner that will seem familiar to anyone who’s encountered the genre before. “They had finished a job,” Winnette writes. “They were empties of bullets and powder. They were satisfied men.” But if Haints Stay seems like a straightforward shoot-‘em-up on the first page, things grow far more complicated, and more thought provoking, by the second—with about two hundred to go.
Brooke and Sugar are brothers, but Sugar is also pregnant—a development which not only challenges the conventions of the western genre, but cracks open new possibilities for the form, showing us how it can let writers and readers alike explore not just gender and trans identity, but themes of violence, scale, choice, fate, and chaos. Brooke and Sugar’s world also widens to include Bird, a mysterious foundling; John, the creator of a fragile and peaceable world within the ruthless expanse Brooke and Sugar roam through; among others. The world Winnette builds in Haints Stay is both blood-soaked and beautiful. Reading it means encountering a realm of terrifying possibility, and coming to grips with the fact that terror and possibility are inextricably linked.
When I interviewed Colin Winnette, we spoke about his approach to the western, Haints Stay’s relationship to his previous work, life in a violent world, and, of course, Jeff Bridges.
SARAH MARSHALL: To begin with, I’m curious about whether you would call this a western, and if so, where you see it fitting in with that lineage.
COLIN WINETTE: Actually, it was a very lively discussion when we were preparing the book, because I called it “the western” before it had a title or a plot or anything. But then, by the time I finished it, I realized it was kind of this strange, other thing, and not necessarily a western. And when I started talking to the publisher about the book, my initial thought was “We better not call this a western.” I almost thought that it would be the wrong way of categorizing it, and it wouldn’t respond to a lot of things that are alive in more traditional westerns.
So I was a little nervous about it. But then the more we talked about it, the more I realized “Well, I always thought of this as a western, so maybe this will by my western, instead of the next western.”
SM: What kind of conversations did you think putting it in the western genre might shut down? Why were you hesitant to categorize it as a western?
CW: Well, I guess I didn’t see it shutting down any particular conversation. I just know that the western genre is a very deep tradition, and one that I’ve read a lot more as a result of writing this book and becoming interested in it.
There’s no explicitly Native American characters walking around, which begins to happen more and more in westerns, and I think is really richly explored today. But that’s just not an issue that really came up in the book. This book is also weirdly underwritten in parts, so what is in front of the characters can kind of change, based on who’s reading it.
SM: I found the geography of it really interesting—and it’s interesting to think what cues you, as a reader, to see “Western.” For me, it’s mainly violence.
CW: And wagon wheels. [laughs]
SM: Yeah. Violence and boys having to gut animals and learn the ways of the world. That plot element, to me, was the big deciding cue [in Haints Stay]. But space is such a big element of a western narrative, where it tends to be about the frontier, and pushing forward the boundaries of civilization—and the characters in this book are constantly on the move, but they’re in an undifferentiated field a lot of the time. The setting itself is left so much up to the reader’s imagination. It’s also interesting that it’s very western, but it’s not explicitly very American.
CW: The whole time I was writing the book, I was thinking that it took place in this weird, other world that was not America, and that the landscape was both vast and really hyperspecific in moments. So you could imagine the vastness around it. The landscape [resets] as they move through it, almost like they’re walking on a kind of treadmill that projects a virtual reality.
SM:The book has a purgatorial feel to me, and a dream logic—it reminds me of a Jodorowsky film in that way. But it’s also mediated by a very lived, physical reality. I was curious about that, too, because there’s so much gore and violence in the book, but it’s always very matter-of-fact, in a way that fits into that dream logic. How did that element develop? Did the violence’s emotional valence change as you work on the book?
CW: I’ve always been really obsessed and fascinated by slippage, particularly in fiction but also in life: how things drift off into other things, and you realize they were never fixed at all. And that’s this kind of beautiful and terrifying thing about being alive and working with language. I remember the first time I watched [Jodorowsky’s] Holy Mountain: it’s alienating and strange, but also you’re like “This could go anywhere. Moment to moment, I don’t know what to expect.”
The challenge, when you’re writing dreamlike fiction, is how do you make it feel as alive as a dream feels? When you’re dreaming and it feels absolutely real and you wake up from the ream and you’re still deeply affected by the emotions of the dream—that sense of emotional reality, in the face of something you know is unreal, is very compelling and interesting to me. So that’s one thing the violence in the book does: it makes the state of the dreamlike situation very real for the characters, at which point it’s very real for the reader—even though the violence is somewhat slapstick at times. I wanted to move the violence from feeling very real to, at times, feeling less real.
SM: I suppose what makes violence feel real is an interesting question. I haven’t seen The Revenant yet, but the other film this reminds me of is Ravenous.
CW: I love Ravenous.
SM: I love Ravenous too. [laughs] And I think in both that movie and your book, there’s violence that comes not from a sense of purpose, but a fact of the world the characters live in. It seems there’s no plot that would render that violence obsolete—that it’s just a fact of life for the characters you’ve created.
CW: One of the decisions I made early on is, this is just a violent world that these characters are living in. Violence is a kind of a constant in life. It’s just always there, and there’s no working around it, so you just engage and live to the best of your ability. And that’s almost exaggerated in [the protagonists] Brooke and Sugar’s lives, where there’s just violence everywhere. I remember sitting down and thinking that was going to be the case for them—and [thinking], then what?
I’m not a violent person, but when I think of the world, it seems like an undeniably violent place. And so that’s probably a problem I’m trying to work out within myself: what do you do? How do you live, if that’s all there is?
SM: The world of Haints Stay also reminded me of something Charlize Theron said about Mad Max: Fury Road: “The material allowed for two characters who don’t fall for each other, or even become friends, because there is no room for relationships in this place.”
This quote came into my head as I was reading Haints Stay, because it struck me as a world where there is no room for relationships—or the relationships that we do see are shaped in ways that are very unlike a lot of the relationships we’re used to seeing between fictional characters.
Were your characters and their relationships shaped by the world you placed them in, or was the reality of the book shaped by your characters?
CW: I see them both feeding off one another, in this particular book. And for better or for worse, relationships in my books feel a lot less like real relationships. But it’s interesting to hear that quote, because I feel like there are such intense bonds of loyalty in Mad Max, on both sides. For better or worse, by the end there is some kind of mutual respect for one another that develops, and not just that’s dictated by the terms of the situation. It’s also personal investment, I would say. Not that they fall in love, but there is a relationship there—just not one that we’re used to seeing. The end of Mad Max aside, something I’m excited about in any movie or book is when it presents a relationship that doesn’t feel pre-made—that still feels real, that still feels like two people somehow finding a connection between one another, that’s unique and forged on its own terms.
I remember in high school watching all these John Cusack movies, and thinking “I want to be a boyfriend like John Cusack is.” And that just fucked up so many relationships in my life, because I was constantly thinking about how to relate to this person through the lens of a relationship that was in a piece of art or pop culture.
SM: I read this as a book about gender, too, and not in a way that feels as if you’re imposing that framework on the book. Gender just sort of peeps out at the seams of the narrative. It’s not explicit, but it’s there. It seems as if, by creating such an alien world, you gave yourself the freedom to look at relationships, and to look at gender, in a way that I imagine might have been more difficult if you had set this in a world that more closely resembled ours. Was that your experience?
CW: The terms of what happens in this unique space should speak to the emotional life of the reader. But it’s always very freeing to me to explore something that’s closer to my heart and my sense of the world by stepping away from the world, and trying to create my own world, to some degree. I remember being so alienated, early on, when people would read something I had written and describe it as “weird”—because I would think, “This is so close to my emotional life, even though I know it doesn’t mirror the world.” But I eventually had to embrace it, and admit that it’s the most useful label, probably, when you talk about my fiction.
SM: “Weird” is better than the alternative, I think. I think there’s something about writing something so alien to your lived moment that allows the things you find most compelling about life to emerge. Looking at Haints Stay, and at how it compares with your other work over the last few years, do you see elements in it that really speak to your enduring concerns as a writer?
CW: Love is something that comes up a lot, although some people might not call this a book about love. Also, the malleability of human consciousness is something that keeps coming up in my writing—and when I say malleability, I mean something closer to fragility. But finding a way to address your concerns through fiction is, for me, a way of finding out what I think about something a little more clearly. As soon as I opened up my way of looking at the novel, I started getting closer to the thing that I had wanted to be doing.
SM: One of the characters whose evolution I’m curious about is Bird. How much did he change as you were working on Haints Stay? He emerges in the book as a kind of changeling who knows nothing of the world, so we really get to see his entire development as a character. By the end of the book, he was also the character I was most attached to. What was the process of developing that character like? He seems also to be a point of entry for the reader.
CW: That’s interesting. I initially thought of Bird as being alienating to the reader, since he’s dropped in with no explanation. At first I had a whole introduction to Bird written out, all of which felt really false, and felt very much like I was trying to excuse myself for doing this thing, so I ultimately cut it all out. So that’s one way he changed.
SM: He just is.
CW: He just is. But people sort of build their story for Bird. Some people assume the things he says about himself or true. But there is all of this intentional ambiguity to him, so that you know he’s just repeating things he’s heard.
SM: Like the Dude.
CW: Precisely like the Dude—“This aggression will not stand, man.” And Bird has a similar way of dealing with something—“I don’t know what to say, so I’m just going to throw this thing at you,” and moves to the next situation. But also, Bird shows up as a balance to Brooke and Sugar. His development as a character opens a new variety of experience. And I think of Mary as a sort of counterpoint to Bird, because Mary has all the things that Bird didn’t have, and when Bird gets them, the terms of the Brooke and Sugar world break in. So Mary is a third pivot point.
SM: It’s interesting that you mentioned the lack of Native American characters, since one of the big plot hinges of the of the book is the collapse of the peaceful world that John has created for Mary and Bird. In a ‘50s western, that plot point would come about through the Indians showing up and killing everyone. But here there’s no frontier. It’s all within a world that we’ve created—it’s a society consuming itself.
CW: With what happens to John, and Mary’s family, I was more interested in it being tied to John’s actions, and the idea that John is not actually the person he’s been presenting to these orphans he’s collecting. I didn’t want the violence to constantly be unfounded. I wanted it to be, from time to time, something that was directly tied to choices. And that is at the heart of the book: not necessarily cause and effect, but things getting out of your hands.
SM: In the scope that the reader has, we see that the choices that characters make because of violence they experience does lead them to more violent confrontations with each other. And as the reader, we’re the only ones who can pull back and see what seems like randomness to individual characters actually has a cause and effect.
CW: For me, one of the more upsetting things about being alive is that question of how much you can control versus how much just happens. So that’s something that’s very present in the book.
SM: I was looking at other reviews of Haints Stay, and one mentioned True Grit, which surprised me, since True Grit is all about closure—you have to find the guilty party and punish them, and then go back to regular life. But in Haints Stay, this world is regular life. Do you see True Grit as an influence?
CW: I had seen both versions of True Grit when I wrote Haints Stay, but I did not let myself read it as I wrote. But True Grit was an influence, in that I view this as a story about healing the wounds by going out and returning to the source and getting retribution, and the story of a young person who was hijacked by a quest, and whose life is irreparably redirected, by the end of the book.
And at the end of True Grit, Mattie’s most meaningful relationship is with Rooster Cogburn. And she’s lost her arm, and lost the person she cares the most about, other than her father. And she has the opportunity to see him again, and revisit this meaningful experience, but when she goes, he’s dead. And you realize not that she’s always been in love with Rooster Cogburn, but that she has not found something as grand as their moment.
Every time I watch that movie, the line “Time just gets away from us” cracks me open.
SM: It’s interesting that in a narrative like True Grit there is the illusion that you go “out there” and come back—but the deeper truth of it is that Mattie doesn’t come back. And in Haints Stay, characters have no ability to imagine that there is an “out there” and a “back here.” They are always in the same space. There is, at least no civilization, for them to be exiled back into after their grand adventure.
It’s not fair to ask the author, but what is your feeling about the ending of Haints Stay?
CW: It’s a tricky thing, the ending of a book. But I feel like I knew the book was coming to an end when I thought that one could read the book and then project a second half to it—that you could imagine what might happen to each of these characters. You get the rhythm of the world and the logic of this book, and I just felt like I knew where each thing was going for myself, and also thought that another reader could read it, and know where things were doing in a different way.
SM: There is an openness to it. We’re given this big, open space to watch characters move around in, and at the end have the same freedom of choice that the characters have—which is exciting, but also terrifying.
I’m looking at a line near the end that I loved, where someone says to Bird: “Left to their own devices, people will live out every possible variation of a human life”—which is specifically about the terror people have about Sugar, and Sugar giving birth, and trans possibilities bubbling up as part of a more general chaos. But it does seem to me that there’s a sense of possibility throughout the book. It’s a violent world, but there’s a sense that if we stayed in this world for longer, we really would see people “[living] out every possible variation of a human life.”
It seems like a terrifying freedom—that’s the feeling that I’m left with. Do you see the world that you’ve created that way?
CW: Yeah, and the only thing I remember about that line, at this point, is that I felt like it was a thing that I thought of both happily—that there is this freedom and openness to life—and also thought of in the sense that anything can happen, and the worst thing can happen too. For me, it’s both a sad and a beautiful thing. That phrase “It takes all kinds,” that you hear people say more often than not as a negative—it’s a positive thing. But people see it as a negative thing.
This was a line I thought of as a true statement that I felt many ways about, and so I gave it to someone who would use it negatively—and hoped the other connotations of it would resonate positively with the reader. There’s all this stuff where I wanted to inject a kind of—not a tension, but that feeling of those drawings where an old woman becomes a rabbit as you’re looking at it. That feeling just as they’re switching, or just after they’ve switched—I wanted that feeling to be present in the world of the book.
Colin Winnette is the author of Revelation, Animal Collection, Fondly, Coyote, and now, Haints Stay. His work has appeared in The Believer, The American Reader, Gulf Coast, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. He conducts a semi-regular interview series for Electric Literature, and he is an associate editor of PANK.
Sarah Marshall grew up in Portland, Oregon and Honolulu, Hawaii, and earned an MFA in fiction at Portland State University. She co-hosted Late Night Library’s Late Night Love Affair podcast. Her writing has appeared in The Believer, The New Republic, Elle, Lapham’s Quarterly, and the Best American Non-Required Reading 2015, among others. She’s currently a PhD student in the English program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.