With his latest novel, The Death and Life of Struther Purcell, set in the Wild West, award-winning writer Ian Weir treads on classic terrain with a slice of British Columbia history on the side. Weir is a playwright, screenwriter, TV showrunner, and novelist. His debut novel, Daniel O'Thunder, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book, as well as the Canadian Authors Association Award for fiction, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award. His second novel, Will Starling, was longlisted for the International DUBLIN Literary Award and shortlisted for the Sunburst Award. He has won two Geminis, four Leos, a Jessie and a Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award.
What follows is an interview with the author about what inspired his latest novel, developing his characters, and more.
What made you decide to visit the gun-slinging era and write a book about it?
As someone who has loved Westerns since childhood, I’m not sure you could say that I’ve ever left that era. Writing a Western is something I’ve wanted to do for ages — it’s just taken me all this time to get around to it. As for the question "why now, exactly?" — well, we’re living in an era in which we’re increasingly seeing the manipulation, flat-out invention, and weaponization of historical narratives, most often by people whose agenda is deeply disconcerting. The Western, as a genre, has always had that impetus baked right in. The classic American Westerns of the mid-Twentieth Century tend to celebrate and reinforce a sociopolitical worldview that’s right-wing, to say the very least. And so it just seemed to me a perfect time to write a Western that’s very much about the way historical myth gets created and shaped and falsified and manipulated.
Were there any songs/books/movies that served as inspiration, which made you think “I have to write this book”?
Well, it’s pretty tough to pick a favourite song/book/movie after decades of Western fandom. Maybe I’ll settle for stating the obvious: it is a truth universally acknowledged amongst all right-thinking Western fans that the single greatest piece of horse-ridin’, six-gun-totin’, white-hat-wearin’ music is, and will forever remain, the William Tell Overture.
Your newest novel was called a revisionist Western by B.C. Bookworld. How do you think we as a culture tend to idealize or stereotype Westerns?
What fascinates me most about Westerns is the enduring power of the archetypes — which, after all, are stereotypes in their essential, undiluted form. Westerns are morality plays — at their tip-top best, even tragedies — and what the Revisionist Western genre does is to subvert and deconstruct those archetypes.
Did you ever find yourself speaking like your characters while writing? Say, with a drawl, and many “godalmighty” inserts?
Not in public, thank God. At least, not that I’m aware of. But my writing process tends to involve a great deal of reading aloud to myself, which means long hours of pacing back and forth in my basement, waving my arms and declaiming in dramatic tones. This undoubtedly gets pretty silly sometimes, but there’s not much I can do about it, since the alternative would be to look for honest work.
Were there any times you found it difficult to tie in the history of the characters to the story, to the different character narratives, as you wrote?
Actually, I love the whole world-building and subplot-weaving element of writing, and mapping out character histories and arcs is something I’ve spent years immersed in while wearing my Screenwriter/TV Showrunner hat. And fortunately I have quite a large basement (the same one I pace about in, waving my arms). So I cover the walls in sheets of paper on which I scribble dates, chronologies, events, etc. Sometimes I even take a stab at colour coding these, though mainly I settle for scribbling with whatever Sharpie is laying close to hand.
Some authors have noted they had specific people in their lives they based a character on. Was the mysterious old woman based on someone or was she a complete creation?
Y’know, I don’t know that I’ve ever based a character specifically on someone I know. My characters all tend to be composites and mash-ups, with random elements scavenged from multiple originals. Actually, I almost always find that a single characteristic provides the key that unlocks the rest of a character. Once I can find the one detail that sparks the character to life for me, I can (usually) piece the rest of the character together quite quickly. That’s also the point in the process at which I finally realize what the character’s name should be.