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Questions by Kristin Pazulski
Introduction by Amanda Rea
Gary Schanbacher isn’t the type to let winning go to his head.
And that’s a good thing, because he’s racked up a few awards. His debut book, Migration Patterns, won the Colorado Book Award, the High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award, as well as a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention. Quite a showing for a collection of short stories.
As a result, Schanbacher has delivered absolutely no Richard Sherman-esque rants. He hasn’t compared his blood to that of an endangered predator, a la Charlie Sheen. Nor has he referred to himself as the Braveheart of literature.
And when his new novel, Crossing Purgatory, received the 2013 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize for American Historical Fiction, besting a couple of New York Times bestsellers, Schanbacher indulged in only a single fist-pump (or maybe it was two—he’s a little elusive on that point).
In awarding the prize, David Langum calls the book “an excellent novel that paints the West with more depth than is usual, that portrays the evil and the hardship as well as the rewards.” Elsewhere the book has been praised for its pacing and lyricism, and for its investigation of ambition, loss, and redemption. But Schanbacher is frank about his process: “I worked for beauty of language and a story that I might like to read. I had no grand themes in mind.”
Nobody who knows Schanbacher (who has been a Lighthouse workshopper, instructor, volunteer, benefactor, and board member) will be surprised by his characteristic modesty. Nor will anyone who’s read Crossing Purgatory be surprised by its receipt of the Langum Prize, which seeks to reward books that are both excellent fiction and excellent history. Crossing Purgatory is both, as well as the announcement of a major new novelist in our midst.
Schanbacher was kind enough to submit to a few questions.
Q: When you first began conceptualizing this novel, did you want to write the story of a troubled and redemptive character, or did you want to write a 1858 western tale?
GS: Neither, really. It’s funny how this writing process works. I started out with a vague notion to write about the dissolution of a family with deep roots in Colorado history (think “pioneer” license plates) and its reconstitution in the New West. I wrote a page or two about the history of this family, about an ambitious Indiana farmer who moved west in 1858. But why would he give up a successful farm for an uncertain future? I began the “what if, what then” questions, one thing led to another, and I ended up never leaving the time period.
Q: How did you come up with the character? Can you relate to him at all?
GS: The character developed over time during the revision process. I began with this ambitious farmer, maybe the 19th century equivalent of a hot-shot biz school grad. He neglects his family to build his career, feels remorse about not being around when his family faced crisis, and abandons his current life to wander in search of redemption. In early drafts, I tend to stereotype my characters—the compassionate are compassionate to a fault, the bad are devils personified, you get the idea. In rewrites, hopefully they emerge more nuanced and complex, and slowly Thompson emerged as the person I more or less expected him to be.
I think all writers need to relate to their characters on as deep a level as possible. It’s been said that writing is an exercise in empathy, the ability to see the world through the eyes of the character without making judgment, and that’s what I try to do.
Q: How important was historical accuracy in the novel’s creation? Where and how did you do the research?
GS: For novels based on actual events (“Gates of the Alamo,” for example) I think historical accuracy is crucial. In Crossing Purgatory, where all the storyline is imaginary and the characters fictional, I think historical “relevance” or “plausibility” counts more than accuracy. Do the characters seem real? Do they think and act the way we imagine someone in the 19th century might? So, for example, when my characters traveled through actual towns like Westport, I took care with historical accuracy; when engaged in conversation or facing a crisis, my intent was to reflect frontier sensibilities of the era. I researched for about 18 months prior to working through the first draft, consulting several dozen books and articles as well as extensive online sources.
Q: When you were writing the novel, what did you plan to give the reader? And now that it’s published, and recently received the Langum Prize, what do you perceive you have given readers?
GS: I think during the initial drafts I wrote for myself, without thinking too much about “giving” the reader anything. Truthfully, I worked for beauty of language and a story that I might like to read. I had no grand themes in mind, and had no specific ideas about how the story would progress or conclude. I did have a goal of publication (I think we all should) so as the drafts progressed, at some point I probably (consciously or unconsciously) considered readers, especially in further developing conflict, the old exhortation to “ramp it up.”
Although I don’t think it works as a rule to “write for the reader,” I do think we all hope for acceptance once our stuff is thrown out into the world. Although I’ve had both good reviews and lukewarm, on balance I think I’ve given the reader an entertaining tale, at least that’s what I hear from those who have taken the time to correspond or post.
Q: What was your reaction to receiving the Langum Prize?
GS: My reaction to receiving the Langum Prize was surprise, but it also involved a fist-pump. Or two. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to coveting it. The finalist list was impressive: a few were legitimate NYT best sellers, many made “best of 2013” lists, and most received much greater attention with the critics and in the media than did Crossing Purgatory. A certain amount of luck is always involved in these juried contests. What resonates with one set of judges won’t with the next. Still, winning gave me an enormous sense of satisfaction and a feeling of outside validation for the work.