Please welcome Holly Messinger to the blog! Her debut weird western, The Curse of Jacob Tracy, just came out this month, and she kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
Will you tell us a bit about The Curse of Jacob Tracy and what inspired you to write it?
Jacob Tracy came about because I was tired of the dystopic space opera I had been working on and I wanted to write a story about a genuinely good guy. It was 2004 and I was fed up with what I saw as the deliberate ennui and self-disparagement of genre books and movies (this was four years, remember, before Marvel set out to conquer the multiplex) so I also wanted to write something that was unabashedly swashbucking and fun.
A friend of mine who was into Clint Eastwood movies suggested I write a sort of X-Files in the old west (This was, incidentally, mere months before Deadwood debuted on HBO—my friend was eerily prescient that way). I was already toying with a concept for a sickly sorceress who plotted dark revenge from behind cloistered walls, and at some point the two ideas achieved fusion.
It made sense, from a dramatic and thematic viewpoint: Miss Fairweather was aristocratic, monied, skeptical, calculating, exploitative; Trace was egalitarian, salt-of-the-earth, pious, empathetic, and always trying to save everybody. Their conflicting personalities and needs perfectly reflected the conflicts of 19th century America.
What makes Trace such a compelling character? Why do you think readers will root for him?
Like I said, Trace is a good guy. But he’s still very human and flawed, and has a deep vein of insecurity that I think is universal: the fear that we’re not good enough, that our dreams are somehow invalid in the world’s eyes, that we either missed an opportunity along the way or won’t be ready when it comes along. Trace has to hide his power for very concrete reasons in the book—because his curse tends to kill those who find out about it—but I think that sense that we have to hide our inner selves, and the resulting loneliness, is something we all struggle with. The great fun of this book is watching Trace embrace his whole self, and the great heartache is seeing what it costs him.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
The research never stops, if you’re doing it right. In some ways I’ve been doing research for these stories my whole life. I loved the Little House books, and my mom had a complete set of that “Old West” series from Time Life books, which I pored over as a kid. And while there is an unfortunate White-makes-right slant to those sources, they also contain a solid base of facts, as I discovered when I started reading deeper about the 19th century. For instance, Laura Ingalls has some of the best descriptions of period food-making I’ve ever seen, and she got the details of the long winter of 1880-1881 exactly right.
Because I was writing at such an odd confluence of genres my research has been eclectic, even schizo. I read about the real ghost hunters of the 19th century—that is, The Society for Psychical Research that was composed of serious scientists—and I dug up a bunch of 1870’s Spiritualist newspapers full of table-rapping and accounts of spirit-travel to other planets. I read about aether theory and medical history, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. I read hair-curling essays about how evolutionary theory “proved” that non-white races were inferior to whites.
I read everything I could get my hands on about supernatural folklore from the 19th century. I hunted down the curriculae of Catholic seminaries in the 1870’s and pored over Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis’s amazing Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism. I read The Prairie Traveler, which was a road guide for wagon-trains of the 1850’s, and The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, which is the autobiography of an ex-slave who went west and became a cowboy while still a teenager.
What is your writing process like?
I compare my writing process to making bread: a lot of kneading and shaping with long pauses to “proof” in-between. I don’t like to outline, but I also find I can’t progress forward without some sense of where I’m going. So I tend to write the beginning of a story—establish the characters, setting, tone, basic conflict—then step back and study it for a while, do some more research if necessary. Knead, let rise, repeat. Often I find that when I’m stuck it’s because I’m lacking the big picture, and if I do more research—say, on the duties of a ranch foreman in Wyoming in 1880—those fresh details will suggest the next logical step in the story.
Have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us more about yourself and your background?
It wasn’t a matter of wanting to write. It wasn’t that conscious. Like a lot of young writers, I wrote to amuse myself and to insert myself into the stories I loved. I think my first completed short story was in the fourth grade. It was fanfic of Madelaine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet. By the seventh grade I was writing daily, in a series of cheap composition books I bought for 75¢ in the junior high school commons. I wrote five or six novella-length G.I. Joe fanfics, moved on to Anne McCaffrey and Dragonlance pastiches, to CJ Cherryh pastiches, to original works.
As far as background I have an English degree from a tiny Baptist college, and I worked ten years at a publishing company, mostly doing copyediting for repair manuals. That gig taught me it’s better to write with brevity and clarity than with eloquence and pedantic grammar. If you can do both, great, but it’s better to be natural than writer-ly.
I’ve always had a restless mind and a limited tolerance for convention, so my work history has been eclectic, too. I did three years in land title research, three Christmases at Wal-Mart, seven years making custom costumes for cosplayers, and I worked at a liquor store for about four months last autumn. But a necessary adjunct of all those jobs was the ability to communicate with a wide variety of customers. In Kansas at any given moment I could be talking to a retired farmer who never finished high school, or a transplanted New York attorney. Which is why my character Trace code-switches the way he does; I’ve done it all my life.
Why a supernatural western? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, in the genre?
In some ways I grew up in a supernatural western. My family, like Trace’s, were deeply religious, and my father impressed on me when I was quite young that there were demons out there, and God was watching you All The Time. That’s scary stuff for a kid. But at the same time my folks were what you might call salt of the earth. They owned their own business (my father and grandfather owned a custom printing business, which inspired the segment of Curse of Jacob Tracy involving a print shop) and they grew their own produce and they taught me to cook, can, bake, sew, clean fish, use hand tools, and generally look after myself.
People who are even 10 years younger than me probably don’t remember there used to be a custom print shop in most small towns, before photocopiers and home computer/printers became common. Because I do remember it, and because I still sew my own clothes and I’m married to a carpenter who builds furniture and works wood, I have a sort of desperate fascination with the slow ways of doing things.
I’ve long loved history, and the more I research, the more I realize that despite advances in tech, people haven’t changed much in 150 years. The intriguing thing about late-19th century America is, it was a pressure-cooker of change. The shift from a primarily agrarian society/economy to a primarily manufacturing one; the new ideas about evolution (and social theory) and what that meant for religion; the increasing faith in science and how that broke down the old power structures of God and social class.
And those issues are still with us. It’s amazing how much crap the Victorians made up to suit their own agendas, which got so indoctrinated into the public consciousness that we still believe it today. And that’s why I chose to write Curse of Jacob Tracy as historical fantasy, rather than steampunk or secondary world. I’ve never been the kind of writer to wear my agenda on my sleeve, but really I couldn’t have picked a more relevant time for this book to come out. Here I am writing historical allegories about racism, xenophobia, and the use of religious doctrine as a bludgeon against personal sovereignty, while the modern-day headlines are full of race protests on college campuses, Syrian refugees, and abortion/gay marriage/evolution theory, forever and ever amen.
I saw a tee shirt the other day that said, “Kansas: Racing Utah into the 20th century” that made me laugh so hard I cried, because it was so true. Hell, I still live in a supernatural western.
What authors have influenced you most in your writing, and your life?
In terms of fiction, early Stephen King has always been my touchstone for style and his handling of the supernatural in a familiar world. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of my top three favorite books ever, for her unaffected use of vernacular, her perfectly sculpted stream-of-consciousness shifts between past and present, and her characters’ matter-of-fact relationships with the supernatural, as well as the symbolism of the ghost itself.
CJ Cherryh and Octavia Butler are both big influences. Diana Wynne Jones. Romance writer Mary Balough’s fabulous regency romances from the 1990’s—she is the very antithesis of purple prose in romance, and her characters never do stupid things just to move the plot forward. William Gibson for his worldbuilding and noirish slant.
Joss Whedon is my master in terms of plotting. Pretty much everything I know about long-form storytelling I learnt from Whedon.
And of course the fantastical writers of the nineteenth century cannot be discounted: Stoker, Shelley, Stevenson, Wells, Kipling, Le Fanu, M.R. James, Henry James, etc etc.. There’s a purity to those early science fiction and horror stories, I think because they are the early products of the scientific age, when unexplained things were no longer the sole province of God and fate. Prior to the 17th century, there was a pervasive belief that it was heresy to investigate natural phenomena, because to do so was to question God’s plan. But after the general public began to accept physics and biology as natural, predictable processes rather than divine whim, it became “safe” for writers to think about the supernatural in terms of entertainment—that fear of the unknown was still there, but it was no longer a paralyzing fear. At the same time there was a new set of fears—that of scientists as the new Priests who hoard knowledge, and of being in command of our own destinies, and the possibility that God’s faithful might not be the Chosen People after all. Horror stories reflect that, as well.
There’s a scene in Curse where Miss Fairweather says, “Only in so-called civilized areas, where our cities are increasingly well-lit, do we feel safe enough to make monsters into figures of comedy and entertainment,” and that’s what she was talking about. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss legend and myth as sources of wisdom, even if only for their insights into social psychology, and Miss Fairweather is sort of the voice of my own ego, my reconciliation of the faith I had as a child against my empirical nature. She doesn’t believe in God or adhere to a theology, but she is working at the crux of two unlikely disciplines, and so she can’t discount anything.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be? What are you currently reading?
I actually don’t like the idea of experiencing a book again for the first time, because I usually enjoy subsequent readings more. The first time I read through a book I’m always rushing to find out what will happen. That said, the last time I fell into a series and gobbled it up was when I finally broke down and started reading Charlaine Harris a few years ago. I never did warm to Sookie Stackhouse as a character (sorry, Charlaine!) but I deeply admired the plotting she did in those books. I could see the structure she put into her mysteries, so I went back and read the Lily Bard books, which are still my favorites, and the Harper Connelly series, which… wow. Those four books are a beautifully sculpted work, with the long game firmly under control and never a dull moment in the episode-of-the-week.
I remember the Harper Connelly books so clearly because they were a welcome gift to me as a jaded reader. I’ve done so much literary criticism in the last several years, so much pulling apart of text, that I can hardly bear to read fiction anymore, much less sink into a book and enjoy it. A great deal of what is being published right now feels both predictable and contrived to me—in part because I can see all the tricks and wires—and I find that depressing.
Right now I’m perusing those “best books ever” lists from The Guardian and New York Times, reading the classics I haven’t read already, because I figure at least those books have stood the test of time and won’t suffer from the sameness of current trends.
What’s next for you? Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Well, the second Jacob Tracy book is with my publisher now. It addresses many of the questions readers will have, about Miss Fairweather’s past and what she wants from Trace. I’m working on book three and it is a monster in terms of all the threads I have to tie together. One of my critting partners said, “You know you’re going to have to burn the world down, to make this story wrap up satisfactorily,” and he’s right, so that’s giving me an ulcer.
I’m also doing a stand-alone novella about Boz, which pulls my Chinese assassin character, Lily, into the larger Trace/Boz continuum. I have adventures in mind for her, too, as well as for some peripheral characters I’d like to develop in this world. After that we’ll just see where it leads. The past is a big place to play in, and so far I’m not tired of it.
About The Curse of Jacob Tracy:
St. Louis in 1880 is full of ghosts — mangled soldiers, tortured slaves, the innocent victims of war — and Jacob Tracy can see them all. Ever since Antietam, when he lay delirious among the dead and dying, Trace has been haunted by the country’s restless spirits. The curse cost him his family, his calling to the church, and damn near his sanity. He stays out of ghost-populated cities as much as possible these days, guiding wagon trains West with his pragmatic and skeptical partner, Boz.
Then, just before the spring rush, Trace gets a letter from the wealthy and reclusive Sabine Fairweather. Sickly, sharp-tongued, and far too clever for her own good, Miss Fairweather needs a worthy man to retrieve a dead friend’s legacy from a nearby town — or so she says. When the errand proves far more sinister than advertised, Miss Fairweather admits to knowing about Trace’s curse, and suggests she might be able to help him — in exchange for a few more odd jobs.
Trace has no interest in being her pet psychic, but he’s been searching eighteen years for a way to curb his unruly curse, and Miss Fairweather’s knowledge of the spirit world is too tempting to ignore. As she steers him into one macabre situation after another, his powers flourish, and Trace begins to realize some good might be done with this curse of his. But Miss Fairweather is harboring some dark secrets of her own, and her meddling has brought Trace to the attention of something much older and more dangerous than any ghost.
Rich in historical detail and emotional depth, The Curse of Jacob Tracy is a fast-paced and inventive debut, an intriguing introduction to a bold new hero.