The Rumpus Book Club chats with Colin Winnette about his new novel Haints Stay, writing ambiguity, and playing against the expectations of genre.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: It’s the top of the hour, so I’ll ask the first question(s) and we’ll see if some other folks jump in. So where did this story come from? What was the germ that sprouted into this book?
Colin Winnette: Oooh, lots of gems along the way. I was reading Brian Evenson‘s Dark Property and that got me thinking a lot about people wandering through the woods carrying bags of meat. At the same time, I was thinking a lot about the sort of comic trappings of Westerns. Their iconography. How much I loved the way they looked, but also how ridiculous so many of them are. Being from Texas, but never really having been a Texan, I’ve always had this attraction to the cowboy, while also feeling like what the cowboy was turned into is pretty absurd.
Brian S: Yeah, the absurdity was something that appealed to me when I was reading it. I think very often the Western as a genre falls into this habit of macho men doing macho things and it gets very (to me) tedious, and this book was very deft in the way it sidestepped that.
Colin Winnette: Thanks, man! I think the book wears a serious face at times, but there’s always a little wink when anyone’s being “macho.”
Brian S: I’ll admit, I was wary at first. I’m glad I gave it a chance, but your writing was such that I didn’t have to wait long to realize something different was going on, even if Sam Lipsyte invokes Cormac McCarthy in his blurb.
Frances: Never boring, that’s for sure.
Colin Winnette: Oh, that’s good. Thanks, Frances.
I’m glad you gave it a chance too, Brian! It’s a hard book to describe without evoking a lot of associations. But the book is definitely interested in that, in exploring and manipulating the “familiar”.
Frances: The wacky stuff was ok with me. If I didn’t get it, I just kept reading. Sometimes I get hung up on figuring things out, but not here.
Colin Winnette: Impressive, Frances! So many readers lose interest if something seems weird or difficult or just too far from what they’re used to. I appreciate your commitment to seeing the book through to the end.
Frances: The power of the writing kept me going and I could go with the flow.
Colin Winnette: That’s so wonderful to hear. Thank you, Frances.
Brian S: We just got a look at the book trailer a couple of days ago. How did that come about?
Colin Winnette: The book trailer came about in a really wonderful way.
Brian S: Is that you reading in it?
Colin Winnette: The trailer was made (and voiced) by a filmmaker named David Formentin. I met him at the Mission Creek Music Festival this past April. We met at the Two Dollar Radio reading (he’d recently done the trailer for Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star—which was excellent, both the book and the trailer). And I just really liked him after talking with him. So a few weeks after the festival I emailed and asked if a) we could be friends and b) he’d be interested in working on a trailer for the book. And he just happened to be driving through New Mexico/Arizona, on his way to Texas, at the exact moment I emailed. So we talked briefly on the phone and then he started shooting.
He stopped at some ghost towns right when they were doing a reenactment, so he got a lot of footage from that. It was just this wonderful set of coincidences. And he’s really talented so he was able to pull all the pieces together and make something great.
Brian S: Nice. I have to admit, the idea of a book trailer is still foreign to me in a lot of ways.
Colin Winnette: It’s very strange. I’d done one for the last book Coyote and I really loved the experience of it. It was made by a musician I’m friends with named Laura Leif. And she was great and the video is really dark and atmospheric, more like a short film than a trailer, so I just got excited by the idea. In my mind, it’s like inviting someone to create an artistic response to the work.
Brian S: Can you talk a little about the relationship between Brooke and Sugar and what went through your mind as you built it? What you decided to not address openly and what you let us in on, that sort of thing?
Colin Winnette: The thing I didn’t know going in was how close they were going to be with one another. I didn’t understand the nature of their intimacy until I was pretty deep into the book, but then all of these interesting doors opened. Their relationship is extremely complicated, but that’s what drew me to it. What is the nature of their love? Are they protecting one another or hurting one another? Where are their loyalties?
Frances: They both seemed naive. They seemed committed to each other but without much thought as to why.
Colin Winnette: As for what to address openly, I just never wanted to explain anything that didn’t need to be explained. So, I held on to what I knew until the right moment presented itself.
Frances: It did that, intended or not. We were pluinged into the story and there were no neat divisions.
Brian S: One of the few characters who seemed to plan out what he was going to do was Bird, and then only at the end. Him and Mary.
Colin Winnette: That seems fair. But how often do we actually know why we’re committed to someone? I have so many friends that I love intensely and would do anything for, but I couldn’t exactly tell you why. Their presence in my life improves it, or complicates it in a way I’m drawn to, so I’ve committed myself to them.
Amanda: I was wondering why you made the decision not to divide the book into chapters and if that was intended to create a more chaotic pace to the book?
Frances: Amanda, I felt the lack of chapters kept us from having any endings. Nothing tied up neatly so we could move on. I think you are right that the format fit the chaos.
Colin Winnette: Amanda, it wasn’t a decision at first. I was just writing and everything seemed to sort of move on to the next. I feel like chapters force writers to perform all of this stage setting. I didn’t want to artificially wind things down and then open them back up. I just wanted the story to unfold and move naturally. When I revised, I considered putting chapters in, but I thought the story read well in one long run. I didn’t see any reason to break it up with numbers and page breaks.
Brian S: I’d never thought about it that way before, but maybe if you’re at a point where you’re thinking about why you’re still friends with a person, then the friendship has already ended in a way.
Frances: But commitment to friends is different from commitment to a brother.
Frances: I don’t think so, Brian. We might look at why we are friends with someone and that doesn’t mean the friendship is dying out.
Colin Winnette: That’s true. I don’t have a brother. Only a sister. And I have even less of a sense of why I feel so committed to her. 😉
Frances: Okay—because you were raised to be committed to family. Isn’t that why Brooke and Sugar are so close?
Brian S: Ah. What I think I meant to say was when we’re looking for justifications for a friendship. Does that make more sense?
Colin Winnette: Brooke and Sugar have shared a life together. They have a history. So that’s part of what ties them together. They’ve also been alone for most of their lives. Isolated and dependent on one another.
Frances: Raised to be close. No explanation as to why they are brothers. Did parents make that decision?
Colin Winnette: I think if they met one another late in life, they wouldn’t commit to each other in the same way. They might not even like each other.
Frances: I feel that way about my siblings.
Colin Winnette: Their father was an abusive son of a bitch; that’s all we really know. By which I mean, we don’t meet their mother.
Frances: So did Dad decide Sugar was going to be a brother?
Colin Winnette: Sugar has always identified as male.
Frances: But why? Did Dad tell Sugar he was male?
Brian S: Yeah, I was just looking back at that scene where Sugar gives birth and there’s an odd sense of denial going on there.
Frances: More naivete it seemed to me.
Amanda: I could see this book playing out well on the big screen via Tarantino or the Coen brothers. Have you had any inquiries about that?
Colin Winnette: Hehe, not by Tarantino or the Coen brothers yet. The book has a film agent though, fingers crossed.
Brian S: If by some chance Tarantino likes it, cash the check quick and don’t let your name appear anywhere on it because he’s going to screw it up, guaranteed.
Colin Winnette: Aw, no! I’d let Tarantino have his fun with it for sure. I’m sure I’d like whatever he did with it, though it wouldn’t necessarily represent the book as I imagine it. I’d love to see how he interpreted it, though.
Frances: He could play Sugar. He looks right for it. The brothers seemed so detached. From life, from reality
Brian S: I felt the brothers were the extreme version of detachment that everyone in the story had in some way. Something about that landscape—not much in the way of trade between towns, you know? Everyone is isolated in so many ways.
Colin Winnette: I think they’re detached from certain things, but very present and aware for other things. At least in how I imagine them, haha. They’re both so aggressively themselves. I don’t love everything by either, but I think they’ve both made some pretty incredible work at one point or another.
Frances: They seem present for things that are natural and physical but not cognitively. Like an animal? Knows how to live in the woods and eat and sleep but not how to make choices and plans.
Brian S: That’s true—how does this feel, from your perspective, talking with people who are reading your book and may experience the characters in a way you hadn’t considered?
Colin Winnette: Oh, I love it! This is what I live for. The book has so much ambiguity in it, and so many of the characters are interpreting events (sometimes to tragic effect). It’s something I’m always thinking about.
Ryan: The book was a challenge for me initially. But I kept at it and am glad I did. The characters were vividly drawn and once I got into the flow of the story, I really enjoyed it. Could you talk about Mary and how you developed her?
Frances: I liked the detail about the stuff they found and took and used when they recolonized the town.
Colin Winnette: Hi, Ryan! I’m glad you stuck with it! Mary was one of my favorite characters to write. After starting with so many characters who were just struggling to get by, it was really wonderful to spend some time with someone who had (at least for a period of time) some safety and security. That doesn’t last forever, but it shapes her outlook in a substantial way.
Frances: Colin, I find it interesting that you could write the book and let it go with ambiguities that even you don’t know about. There is confidence and sureness in that. My OCD would never allow me to let a story go without every thread being sewn in a specific place.
Colin Winnette: But she, like everyone in the book, has gone through some kind of erasure.
Brian S: Maybe leaving an opening for a book to follow? Mary’s story? Bird’s?
Frances: And being able to read a book that doesn’t give me all the answers tells me it is a strong book.
Brian S: Who was your favorite character to write? And did it start that way?
Colin Winnette: Oh, thank you. For me, the book provides all the tools I think we need to come to an understanding of the characters and how their lives might play out. Those who survive. But I didn’t want to sketch in every detail, because I don’t necessarily trust a book that does that. Part of what I’m interested in is how we work with what we know, how much is left out, how much we fail to notice or is hidden from us, how far we’re willing to go with that before we lose interest or get frustrated.
Ryan: I always like to ask writers what they have recently read or are reading that they have enjoyed or influenced their work. You mentioned one at the beginning. Any others, writers or books?
Colin Winnette: I really loved writing Mary.
I just read and reread Amelia Gray’s Gutshot, which is stunning. Also, a book by Christopher Priest called The Affirmation. I’m still trying to shake how much I want to copy that one. And a book by Marie Ndiaye called All My Friends. It’s excellent.
Ryan: Thanks! Always looking for another great book to read.
Brian S: What are you working on now?
Colin Winnette: I just finished a screenplay for my last book, Coyote. I’m excited about it. I’ve also got a nonfiction book underway, and two novels. One is about ghosts and the other I won’t describe, because I’m feeling superstitious about it.
Brian S: I ask that question every month, and about half of the writers say that they don’t want to talk about it. Superstitious, every one of them.
Colin Winnette: I would also recommend Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, which is a really solid short story collection.
Haha. Yeah. For me, talking about it generates an expectation that wasn’t there before, which makes it harder to feel free when working.
Brian S: My wife won’t talk to me about stories until they reach a certain level of doneness, and sometimes not even then. She doesn’t want me to screw it up. 🙂
Colin Winnette: Your wife and I are birds of a feather! I say superstitious because it really does feel sometimes like you’ve got your hands on something magical, and even the slightest movement in the wrong direction could break the spell. Not that writing is all magic and spirit…
Brian S: Or spirits, as the case may be. Are there any plans for a book tour?
Colin Winnette: Yes! I’ve got a few SF dates next week, then I’m traveling to LA for a conversation with Karolina Waclawiak at Skylight Books. After that, it’s to Oregon to read at Powell’s and then to New York to read at Sarah Lawrence. I’m also piecing together a midwest tour in the fall and a tour in Texas sometime around mid-October.
Brian S: Midwest—does that mean Iowa? Fingers crossed.
Ryan: You’re always welcome in colorful Colorado!
Colin Winnette: Iowa’s definitely a possibility. Right now, the midwest thing is contingent on a few dates I’m waiting for the final word on. Then Eric Obenauf and I are going to drive around and hit as many spots as we can with whatever time we have. Iowa would definitely be on the list!
I love Colorado. If something comes together, I’ll be sure to trumpet it!
Brian S: If you could cast this as a film, who would be Brooke and Sugar?
Colin Winnette: Oh, man, I have no idea. It would be a real challenge.
Brian S: I just realized, I don’t even have a sense of how old they are. But they’re younger than they look, I’m certain of that.
Colin Winnette: For sure. These are hardened men.
Frances: Interesting point. I have no sense of age for them either
Colin Winnette: What would your guess be?
Brian S: Bird and Mary are adolescents. Brooke might be 30, Sugar mid to late 20s.
Thanks for joining us tonight Colin, and for wiring such a fascinating book.
Colin Winnette: Thanks, everyone! It was a pleasure talking with you.