PART 3 OF AN EPIC INTERVIEW WITH . . . BERNARD SCHAFFER
Q: You famously meshed the western with science fiction in The Guns of Seneca 6. Tell us how that project came about.
Bernard: a lifelong love of both genres. I’d recently visited Wyatt Earp’s grave in California, and was reading a lot of western fiction at the time. One of the most profound influences on GOS6 was my experiences with the Seminole Indians I know. My old partner at work is Seminole, and through him And his family I experienced native culture, music, and ritual. When you are a white kid from Horsham Township, PA, and you find yourself in a teepee, participating in a native wedding ceremony, it’s an eye opener.
Q: It’s not quite finished yet, is it? You have this concept of each book being a chamber in a gun. I believe we’re up to four chambers. When can we expect the last two?
Bernard: that’s something I wrestle with, to be honest. I have them both written in my mind. But they’re big projects and I want to devote myself to them exclusively. I may need to clear out a lot of other things first. Stephen King recently said he’ll never be done with The Dark Tower. I worry that GOS6 is going to loom over me forever as well.
Q: Was the great reception to Guns of Seneca 6 on your mind when you created Grendel Unit?
Bernard: actually Grendel is much easier to write. The characters are all based on my old narcotics unit. It’s just us, but instead we’re carrying laser guns, whacking terrorists.
Q: There are some fantastic characters in Grendel Unit – Monster being my favourite. I even asked to include a Mantipor in my Far From Home series, and got you to name her. I think they’re my favourite creations of yours. What’s it like to create a group of characters like that, who just work so well together, and let them play? Does it make the writing easier?
Bernard: I can tell you this much. Knowing what happens in the next installment makes it a lot harder. But that’s all I’m saying.
Q: Westerns play such a huge role in genre science fiction. What are your Western influences? And how have they informed what you write?
Bernard: my western influences in terms of literature would be Ron Hansen, Louis L’Amour, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx. Ron’s western books are fantastic characterizations of historical figures. His Jesse James book is one of the finest I’ve ever read. Jem Clayton in the beginning of Guns of Seneca 6 is essentially a recreation of that character. Jem evolves, of course, but his roots are firmly indebted to Ron. Louis L’Amour has the grand, epic scope of the western. His Cowboys and Indians are the prototypes for everything we understand them to be. As far as Cormac and Annie go, it’s in their language. Both of them have such awe-Inspiring ability when it comes to describing that area of the country. I would love to know how many goddamn ways Cormac McCarthy has used to describe a desert in his books. That talented bastard.
Q: I’ve recently got hooked on Justified (and am now chewing through the last of Season 5). The Western seems to play really well in long form storytelling, as it does in a series like Justified or Deadwood. What makes a good Western?
Bernard: a good western is one that eschews all the sentimental crap, stripping it down to the raw grit of the thing, only to find that reason it was sentimental in first place. Let me explain. The Wild Bunch spends its entire movie destroying the typical Western mythos. It bashes us over the head with how violent and unromantic the era really was. But then you get to the scene at the end when, after they’ve whored and drank and pulled off their heist, decide they’re going to go back and get their friend. That walk, when Pike and the guys are going to demand the release of Angel, knowing it’s not going to go well, is what a good Western is about. It’s when normal people draw that line in the sand and say, “I’ve had about enough of this shit.” It works for the Western, the samurai, the Starfleet captain, and the President facing off with terrorists. It’s that moment in all of us when we decide the cause is more important than ourselves.
Q: One could read the struggle of the frontier as the pursuit of the American Dream, in a way. How do you think the American Dream relates to science fiction?
Bernard: I think they really hit the nail on the head when they called space the Final Frontier. It’s really just another unexplored, unsettled territory filled with riches and promise and danger. The difference between space exploration and the American West is that anything we do in space will be huge, colossal governmental undertakings. The frontier was where people went to get away from the government and live on their own.
Q: In Star Trek, Gene Roddenbery portrayed an idealistic future that very much embraced the sensibilities behind the American Dream. Is that hopeful worldview still relevant to today’s audience, given what has happened globally in the last 10-15 years? Or does it make it all the more important?
Bernard: I’m not sure I agree with that. I think the American Dream would not correlate well with Star Trek. If anything, I see Star Trek as some fantastical success of Socialism. The American Dream is pretty rooted in individualism and capitalism. It is much more geared toward individual success than collective endeavor. Sadly enough, I think we’re a long ways away from any kind of unity of human purpose. Not with ISIS and Al Qaeda and mass shooters and crumbling infrastructures and social issues to deal with first. Right now, we need a little of that rugged American, Land of the Free, Home of the Brave spirit. After that, maybe we can move forward.
Q: Do we, as writers, owe it to future generations to have a degree of optimism in our fiction? To quote Jimmy Cliff: “Good will conquer evil and the truth will set you free”. Do you think that, no matter how dark our stories, we have a responsibility to show the light, too? Or does pessimism simply tell it how it is? I guess what I’m really asking is if there’s a place for hope in today’s fiction.
Bernard: I think our only obligation as story tellers is to be true to the story. Not all things end well. They’re not supposed to. Some stories are bleak, and they remind us to better appreciate what we have. It’s up to the reader to determine what they take away from it. People assign allegorical meaning to poems or paintings all the time, then they’re disproven or shouted down by someone else with a different theory. That is all okay. And they’re all right, even if they’re all wrong. The only thing writers owe to future generations is good writing. This is our limited time to care for literature, to uphold the craft, and to tell our stories.
Let’s make sure we leave them something worthy.
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