Tuesday, October 7, 2014

An Interview with Joseph Hirsh - Author of ORPHAN ELIXIR

The Western Online: Can you describe Orphan Elixir for our readers?

Joseph Hirsch: Orphan Elixir could best be described as a Weird Western, or maybe what Jonathan Rosenbaum once called an "Acid Western." It mixes traditional elements of the genre with ones not usually associated with the Western, specifically horror in this case. There are also some historical influences, specifically the Donner Party/Alferd (sic) Packer tales.

TWO: What motivates the protagonist in your story? What is he trying to prove?

JH: I think the main character, James Gallowbraid, is somewhat jaded, both by his experiences in prison and as an outlaw. Ultimately, while his mission was not clear to me while I was writing the work, it appears to me with hindsight that he is looking for something to push him in either direction, either toward total cold-hearted cynicism, or back in the direction of humanity. I won't ruin the experience for those who haven't read it yet by telling them which way James goes.

TWO: Do you write in other genres besides the Western? If so, what?

JH: I like to test my mettle in various fields. Some I'm better suited for than others. I've written Science Fiction and had some success there. I've written in the crime genre, but the better practitioners, like Jed Ayres, made me hang up my hat. Crime requires a terse, spare style, and I'm a bit of an expressionist. I think Jed Ayres could write the hell out of a Western. If you haven't read Peckerwood, it's the best piece of Southern-fried fiction I've read in quite a while. I'd call it a Western in spirit, as the filmmakers John Carpenter and Walter Hill have, I believe, categorized their own works, no matter how far afield of the genre they seem to go.
My newest novel, Kentucky Bestiary, was just put out by Paragraph Line, run by the incomparable Jon Konrath, a great surrealist who I have been unsuccessful in wooing to the Weird Western genre, thus far.

TWO: There are some Horror elements in Orphan Elixir. The Western seems to lend itself well toward blending with other genres. Why do you think that is?

JH: I think that the unsettled West was an incredibly violent place, and, as frightened as we are of violence, death, and disease, we're all fascinated by it, and the West, with its lore and larger than life characters, amid the backdrop of wars and Native American mythology, just continues to stoke the imaginations of people all over the world. Germans like the painter Karl Bodmer, or Italians like Sergio Leone, were drawn to this distant and mythic land. I think Cowboys and Aliens didn't do too well at the box office, but it showed the genre's limits can be stretched to the stars, literally. 
Some of the best genre-hopping being done right now is by the writer Scott Phillips, whose Westerns Cottonwood and Hop Alley are what I would call "Western noir." He's an original and exciting talent.

TWO: What draws you to writing Westerns?

JH: The most prosaic and honest answer I could give would obviously be the violence, the action. I like a good adventure yarn. It's been years since I've had a gun in my hand (when I was in the Army), but, like a lot of people, I'm fascinated by outlaws and battles. The terrain of the West, the open vistas and the splendor of nature, also give a writer a chance to wax poetic and flex his or her descriptive powers. 
Also, while the rest of the country was settled, the West was still wild, something of a meritocracy, where one's skills, rather than one's station at birth, determined their pedigree, as opposed to the way of things in New England at the time, and it's more fun to write about rugged individualists than to write about someone inheriting his father's company.

TWO: How would you define the term "Western" and what does it mean to you?

JH: It's tricky to pin down, exactly. A lot of people say it's about manhood and masculinity, which is right to a degree, but then a great Western film like Meek's Cutoff shows you that it can be about womanhood, too. I guess it's about grit, and ultimately endurance. "Endurance is more important than truth," as Charles Bukowski once said. I also think it's about morality, as I think even the title of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly makes explicit. There are good guys, bad guys, and then fence sitters, who eventually have to hop one way or the other. R.I.P. to Eli Wallach, by the way.

TWO: What Western movies, television shows or novels influenced you the most? Why and in what ways?

JH: The filmmaker Andrew Dominik is on record saying that he doesn't view The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as a Western, which is a pity, since I believe it's at least the best Western film since Unforgiven. For me, it is to the genre what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to Science Fiction. It's a real mystery, a Russian nesting doll of a film that becomes a new experience every time I watch it. A lot of Westerns don't work for the same reason most period dramas don't work. The costumes are right, but somehow the behavior isn't believable. With Jesse James, it feels as if these actors are inhabiting the Old West, with the way they talk and behave.

TWO: If you could go back in time and meet one famous person in the Old West, who would it be and why?

JH: I'm a research junky, and I remember in my efforts on Orphan Elixir I discovered the concept of the travelling lyceum, where luminaries like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain would speak in theaters and one could pay a general admission fee (something on the order of a dollar) to hear them speak. I would have liked to meet Mark Twain, probably.

TWO: What changes/if any have you seen within the last decade when it comes to Western fiction? Where do you see this genre in five years?

JH: Of all the genres, people love to proclaim the Western dead the most often. But just when people are convinced the genre is stale, something new and surprising crops up and proves the naysayers wrong. The Western always works as a metaphor or allegory, and thus I don't think it ever goes stale. Robert Benton's Bad Company is, at face value, about some draft dodgers running from the Union Army, but it's also obviously about the Vietnam War. 
I concede that Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian is the new bar, but I'm confident that in time someone will leap that hurdle and surprise us all.

TWO: What are you plans for the future? Are you working on a sequel?

JH: I share Norman Mailer's superstition about not talking in detail about a project while it's brewing, but I definitely want to revisit the genre again sometime in the future, and I want the work to be longer, something on the order of a novel. Hopefully The Western Online will be open for submissions at that time!

Joseph Hirsch's book Ohio at Dusk was published by Damnation Books. His novel War-Crossed Eyes was published by Mélange Books, and his novels Rolling Country and The Last Slice of Pizza were published by Moonshine Cove Publishing. He has sold work to Underground Voices and Zahir Tales. His novella House of Crystal was published by Silverthought and his novella Orphan Elixir was published by The Western Online Press. His short stories were also featured in 3 AM Magazine. Some of his stories can be found at www.paragraphline.com. He previously worked as a sports correspondent for Fight Hype covering boxing matches around the globe, and he was also a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award Competition for New Writers. His novel Kentucky Bestiary was recently published by Paragraph Line Books.

He served four years in the U.S. Army, wherein his travels took him to Iraq and Germany. He currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and attends the University of Cincinnati.

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