There may be no heroes in Clifford Jackman's dark debut The Winter Family, but there are unforgettable characters and narrative risks that make Jackman's novel a must-read for fans of gritty, violent tales in the vein of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Described as a "hyperkinetic western noir," The Winter Family spans over three bloody decades in the history of post-Civil War America. Abounding with outlaws and devoid of conventional hope, Jackman's book examines the darker side of human nature and ambition, all in a haze of blood, bullets and savagery. I pressed Jackman with some difficult questions about audience, craft and all that darkness and he most certainly delivered.
Steph Post: In your acknowledgements you mention that the prologue of The Winter Family, "Oklahoma 1889" was published before the novel came out. Was this section originally meant as a stand alone piece only? Was The Winter Family always going to be a novel, or did it start with "Oklahoma 1889" and transform from there?
Clifford Jackman: It was actually the final story, "Oklahoma 1891", that was written first. For those who have not read the book, The Winter Family is made up of four different stories set about 10 years apart. The first one I wrote was "Oklahoma 1891," which I self-published as a stand-alone. The story was intended as a "break" from my more serious, marketable work, but I ended up writing four more stories set in the same world, which were eventually combined into one novel, and which was eventually sold to Doubleday.
But wait, that's five stories! What happened to the fifth story? Well, although this is a shameless plug, I should say that another story set in the same world as The Winter Family (called "California 1901") will be released as an e-original standalone on June 16. I think it is only a couple of bucks, so if you are curious about the book, or if you have read it and want more, you can pick it up if you have a Kindle.
SP: One of the more striking aspects of The Winter Family is the lack, in my opinion, of any true heroes. Do you think this is true, or do you think a hero is buried somewhere in the characters beneath the prevalent darkness and violence? For that matter, does there even need to be a hero?
CJ: How sympathetic the characters need to be to keep any particular reader engaged is different for everyone and there's no right or wrong answer. It's your spare time, after all; please read what you like without fear of any judgment from me. In terms of The Winter Family, I felt that although there were plenty of villains and no heroes, in each individual story there were characters who were trying their best under difficult circumstances. In my view one of the most important themes of the book is how bad people can redeem themselves, even if they can't change the past.
SP: And speaking of violence... The Winter Family is certainly not for the faint of heart when it comes to brutality and gore. Does the graphic violence in the novel have a message or is it simply the realistic truth with regards to the nature of the characters and setting?
CJ: I don't think the violence itself had a message, it was just how the story came out. Certainly it was a very violent time in American history and this is a story about extreme personalities. I think another one of the main themes of the book is how all civilization has a certain level of violence in its heart, even if it appears peaceful on the surface.
SP: As I mentioned, The Winter Family has some stomach-turning scenes and doesn't leave the reader with a whole lot of hope. I honestly wouldn't say that it's for everyone, though it excels in its genre. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you were writing The Winter Family? Do you think, as I say, that the book isn't for everyone, or do you believe that all readers can find something in its pages?
CJ: This book is not for everyone, but then all books are not for everyone. Just go look at the one star reviews for your favorite book if you don't believe me. I did not write this book for an audience. My Canadian editor once said to me that all the great genre authors are completely sincere. By that she meant they were writing about what interested them, not what they thought would sell books or win awards. That's what I did with The Winter Family, and no matter how much or how little it sells it's where I've found my greatest success as a writer. You can't neglect your audience, you're writing for people other than yourself, but ultimately you have to write a book that you yourself would like to read if you had not been the one who wrote it.
There's a lot of dark literature out there, whether it's Cormac McCarthy or George RR Martin or Chuck Palahniuk, so hopefully The Winter Family finds its audience. If not, when I write my next book I'll keep the feedback I've received in mind . But not too much. You can't be too proud to change, but your first priority always has to be to stay true.
SP: From the standpoint of a fellow author, I have to wonder about what it was like to spend so much time with such dark characters, knowing that there wasn't redemption in the end. Did you ever have trouble with this? Obviously the point of writing isn't to make readers, or yourself for that matter, "feel good" all the time, but I still imagine that writing parts of this book could be a burden. Did you ever have moments where you just had to step back for fear of getting lost or dragged down by all the darkness?
CJ: Honestly not really. When I'm writing it it doesn't seem as dark to me as it does when you read it. I will say that there is one particular scene at the end of "Phoenix 1881" where someone fights back against the Winter Family that was very cathartic for me to write. I spent a long, long time editing this book and that scene was inserted very late in the process. It was nice for someone to finally stick it to them.
SP: And finally, as I always believe in spreading the love, give me three books or authors without whom The Winter Family could not be possible.
CJ: Well now let me see. Although everyone thinks Blood Meridian, I will have to go with The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy. Next would be Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. The Winter Family has a very strong political aspect and Darkness at Noon had a big impact on me. Lastly I would pick Beloved by Toni Morrison. I should also say that like many writers of my generation I've read a ton of Stephen King, and although there's no one work in particular I would single out, his writing style has had a deep impact on me. On Writing is one of my main sources of writing advice.
Thanks so much to Clifford Jackman for stopping by! Be sure to pick up your copy of The Winter Family today.