Interview/Review of James Wade’s All Things Left Wild

4 out of 4 Sotols

Big Bend Literary Magazine's Kate Keenan and novelist James Wade discuss his first novel, influenced by the Big Bend region, All Things Left Wild. Kate goes deep, but Wade gets deeper.

It’s hard to get by in the Big Bend without recalling the ole western tales, whether yarns, legends, or historical accounts, as you look out at the Chisos reverse sunset, mine ruins, or even just the folks waiting in their desert hidey-holes prime to tell you a story. And, boy, are there stories.

I was talking to Paul Wiggins, all-art aficionado of Terlingua, on the Porch a couple months ago. I told him I was reading Lonesome Dove, and it was the slowest read I could remember. It just kept going, even though I’d felt it ended many times over, and I wasn’t sure if anyone in that book was ever gonna ride off into the sunset. He said they don’t and told me when I’m done to pick up Cormac McCarthy. So I did. I found McCarthy to be superior to McMurty in the way of succinct and Texas-authentic storytelling, but Mr. Wiggins hadn’t warned me about the dank macabre of his tales. I was left after both stories feeling empty-handed, startled, a bit depressed, and with a thick Southern accent far beyond my normal, steady East Texas drawl.

Fully immersed in the western genre, I was primed for James Wade’s debut novel All Things Left Wild.

Wade’s first novel, written primarily in a camper near Terlingua, Marathon, Marfa, Alpine, and other Far West Texas outposts, aspires to address that which all first-time novelists always do: Man versus Nature, Man versus Man, Man versus Himself, Man versus…well, every damn thing.

And Wade succeeds.

Now, nobody is gonna hand Wade a Nobel Prize for this. I doubt he will get a Pullitzer. Reason being, he wrote a real Western novel, and that’s just not on-trend. He didn’t skimp; he didn’t lie; he didn’t deviate from his own true self or his art. See, this day in age we all want to have something to say so people will listen, and people only listen if we have the buzz words they are fired-up about. Wade can fire ya’ up, but he’s not using those words. He’s not hashtagging his art like some wayward graffiti artist tryna trick ya into reading his masterpiece. No. He’s patient, and he’s kind, and he’s just what everyone should be writing and reading. He doesn’t muddy the waters when you ask him a question. He doesn’t dodge a bullet he knows is blank. He doesn’t blink when you approach him with some crazy, rambling theory about his art. He waits. He thinks. He answers. Shoots straight and to the point.

If there is one thing I know about Big Bend folks, it’s that we are what we are. Upfront, face-value, die-hard. There are others out there floatin’ in the world that are, too, and maybe those are the folks who belong here. I don’t know. I’m not advertising. Don’t want to sift through any of them unless they just fall in my lap with a novel about our region that puts to me some ideas I only think about in my most alone moments, looking up at those vast Big Bend stars, thinking about those big questions we all have but don’t have time to contemplate fully.

To boot, this writer owns Terlingua property, so we may as well let the man call himself a local and lay claim to what he’s earned with his words, his honesty, and his respect.

In my interview with Wade, I asked about his writing process, themes, influences, style, and philosophy. I also addressed a concern about how to address female characters in Western novels. I think it’s best I just show you what Wade said in his own words.


Kate: Most writers try to do what you did in All Things Left Wild, include overarching themes that tie into the big questions, get the reader beyond just thinking on a notion but rather into an experiential state that feels conclusive for the story but not necessarily for the writer. Was this different for you? Is it assumptive of me to say you were working out these vast ideas as you wrote? Did putting them to characters help you work those ideas out? Was all this organic or calculated? Or both?

Wade: My goal was to include several "big questions.” It's a flaw of most first-time authors-- and I'm no exception-- they try to address every philosophical theme or thought they've ever had within the confines of a single manuscript. This can leave the story feeling a little disjointed or the reader feeling overwhelmed. It's also a pain in the ass for the author, all of these competing ideas vying for positioning on the page. With All Things Left Wild, there were so many components in play (race, religion, class, morality, choice, justice, love, violence, greed, capitalism, etc.). Story is such an immersive experience and it's ripe for bringing readers into philosophical spaces they may have never been or have felt alone in. It's important to me folks don't take something like that as an attempt to convert or discredit anyone’s beliefs. These are ideas and issues I'm struggling with myself, and I haven't necessarily come to any epiphany on either. I'm not old enough or arrogant enough to be set in my ways. I want to continue growing as a writer, which means I have to continue growing as a reader and a thinker. The philosophical nature of my writing has and will change from novel to novel as I continue to explore the themes important to me. Does it help me work out those ideas? The honest answer is no. It really hasn't. Research and reading I’ve done has enlightened some of the darkness around the questions I have regarding purpose, morality, death, etc. but I don't believe I'm anywhere close to an answer. That's one of the reasons I love literature. It has the power to move us with questions, even when there aren't solid answers. It can make us feel less alone in our contemplation.

So, it was both organic and calculated. The novel itself came naturally, but some of the themes were chosen and placed within the narrative. It's a bit of a balancing act because I don't want to completely lose the pace of the story or lose the reader with too much metaphysical musing; however, I'm also not writing formulaic, short-chapter, genre-driven, page-turners. I do appreciate those authors and those books, but I am fearful that in today's publishing industry there is such a premium put on things good for business (trendy topics, scandalous storylines, minimalist prose, etc.), we may be losing sight of what is good for literature. I've had several editors tell me that "you don't want the reader to put down the book," as if putting down a book means you'll never pick it back up again. And I know there are readers who enjoy those short, cliff-hanging chapters that keep them burning through the story. But for me, as a reader, I love those moments when I read and then re-read a sentence or a paragraph and then put the book down and really think about what it was saying.

Kate: I put your book down and picked it up multiple times. For one, sometimes the really dark stuff just isn't what I need at that moment. For another, sometimes I want to ruminate on what I just read. I finished it on audiobook on the trip yesterday, and I paused the book multiple times to mull over what I'd just heard, wondering at the interplay of characters or some deep idea divulged directly from Caleb's (protagonist) mind or Grimes's (villain) twisted mouth. And ultimately what I like about it is that no conclusions are drawn.

In the vein of “trendsetting” in publishing or really any art, it’s clear that’s not what you were trying for here. It’s obviously contemplative. I agree those books have their place. Lord knows I’ve consumed quite a few. Do you see yourself parallel at all, especially as a Western writer, to the Country & Western Music industry? For instance, we’ve got our Luke Bryans and Blake Sheltons, but we also have more upcoming mainstream artists like Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, and even Kacey Musgraves. Do you see yourself more like the latter?

Wade: While I'm nowhere near the stratosphere of those artists you mentioned, I do very much identify with the ethos of their work. And it is an ethos, or a creed, that sort of stands in for us when we create and/or consume art. For me, there is a degree of authenticity or genuineness that has to exist. That's not to say you have to be an astronaut to write a song about space, but more so that you need to at least be invested in the themes that make up your art, not just in their ability to sell your product. When a writer sits down and says, "Okay, how can I trick the reader with a big twist, or shock the reader with a crazy concept," that takes away a level of truthfulness in favor of entertainment. But we need entertaining books, so I still have a ton of respect for those authors, even if we don't share the same goal in our work.

I believe if a writer begins with, "What concept is going to sell the most books?" they might not be truly concerned with the integrity of their craft. That can be tough in a publishing industry where the decision makers are usually business-minded. It wasn’t always this way. I mean, Cormac McCarthy never sold more than 2,000 hardcover copies of a novel until All The Pretty Horses was released in 1992. His first novel came out in 1965. That's almost 30 years of shitty sales. That’s important for two reasons. First, thank god McCarthy didn't abandon his writing, or worse, change it to something more palatable for the public. Second, his publisher never dropped him. They made zero money from his books. They instead recognized the brilliance of his writing, so they kept him in print. That would likely not happen in today's publishing landscape.

I think, to your point, it's true not just in country music, but in all art-- and for most of history. There's always the trendy music, and then there's the music that endures. There's always the "hot reads", and then there are the novels that endure. If you ask most authentic writers, “Would you rather have a lot of money and popularity or be able to truly touch someone with your work,” they'll usually choose the latter. Although, it's nice on those occasions when the two can overlap, of course.

I still can't fault the Luke Bryans of the world for what they do. We live in a world, and certainly a country, where security is so often tied to money. It's easy to say "Don't compromise," "Don't sell out," and all that, but it's tough to say no to some industry exec when they tell you, "Singing about beer and trucks and rapping a little will make you ten million dollars this year." Just because I wouldn't do it, I try not to take the holier-than-thou approach to those who do. And to be honest, there are plenty of times when I see a book about werewolves or serial killers or whatever else is hot at the time, and I think, "Fuck all this meaning of life stuff; let's write a fun mystery series about a vampire wedding coordinator who can 'plan for everything except murder'." Talk to Netflix, make a few seasons of the show, then call it a career.

Kate: So glad you mentioned Cormac McCarthy. Clearly, since I’ve been diving into this genre, other texts are going to have a bearing on how I read the next. Before reading your book, I read Lonesome Dove and All the Pretty Horses. In Lonesome Dove the descriptions became a cadence. That same slow, steady, just telling you how it is but sayin’ it real nice style flows right on even during the terribly jarring parts. It primed me for All the Pretty Horses because I tend to space out during those slow reading moments but couldn’t with Lonesome Dove. All the Pretty Horses was so extreme macabre, gothic, downright darkness in not only the style, themes, character, and plot, but I felt bad for McCarthy having to basically method act/write his way through this never ending tale of pain and loss from the perspective of a kid who just couldn’t do right and didn’t know how.

So, I’m juxtaposing those two works, then read All Things Left Wild. I think yours is a nice balance of the two styles. It doesn’t get too ugly or too slow. Descriptions are exquisite in the true western style, but also with a hint of surrealism and unconventional use of imagery and vocabulary that not only modernize it but also wakes the reader up - And I’d argue this is very similar, again, to the Childers-Simpson-Musgraves canon. Whereas McCarthy might jostle the reader with some ugly imagery, your writing doesn’t mind using pleasant things even while looking hard at ugly ones. Whereas McMurty might stretch out the scene so that it’s hard to tell if he’s even worried at all about symbolism - It’s clear you employ this device, which is important, especially given your title, All Things Left Wild, which ties nature into the heart of the story.

How did you come into this unique style? It’s not regular, ya know? Such as, at the beginning of Chapter 17, the setting is more than place. It’s personified, symbolic, and otherworldly. It feels like switching between settings or other dimensions. Have you seen other writers do this in your genre, which basically is taking a western and putting a Southern Gothic Literature twist with a hint of magical realism in there, or is it just a product of your artistic influences? Who influenced your style?

Wade: If I do sound like a poor man's version of a cross between McCarthy and McMurtry, it's because I've read a ton of their work. In McCarthy's case I've read everything he's ever published and some of the things he hasn't (I live about 30 minutes away from the Whitliff Collection where the rough drafts of his novels are housed). I’ve also been influenced by Flannery O'Connor, William Gay, and Thomas Wolfe. Throw in my Texas background, a lot of time spent in the woods, some geology books, poetry collections, a fair amount of anxiety, and plenty of existential dread: Bam, there I am. I don't see a ton of folks blending these genres. In part because I don't think many writers have both cultural experiences. Most Southern authors are firmly southern, and most western authors stay true to the west. I know Gordy Sauer's Child in the Valley did a great job delivering that southern magic into a western novel. That novel came out last year, so it's the most current example I can think of. Of course, McCarthy himself pretty much established the gothic western. His first four novels were as firmly southern as you could get. He was very much a descendant of the Faulkner tradition. But then something in the west called to him, as it has so often done throughout the history of our nation, and he brought that other-worldly gothic style to the western genre and changed the literary landscape in the process.

I do wonder what the market would have been for All The Pretty Horses had Lonesome Dove not reignited interest in the western in 1985. Coincidentally, McCarthy's first western, and what many consider his strongest work, Blood Meridian, was also published in 1985 (but not many read it at the time).

I digress.

Setting as being more than a place: It's one of the reasons I can only write about places I've been and ideally spent a fair amount of time in. Setting is so important to me, and I really need to see and feel a place to engage it in a way I believe is genuine. Also, a nature-driven setting is a wonderful literary tool, rich with metaphor. Whether it's a desert, mountain range, river, ocean, these things are ripe with symbolism and Biblical allusion. I don't imagine I'll ever write something that takes place solely in an industrial setting.

Kate: Let's talk about Caleb vs. Randall. Very parallel characters. Did you design them that way from the get-go to then explore all these themes? Could we consider Randall a foil character, or is he too much of a main character for that?

Wade: The book started with just Caleb, and I never intended to have Randall's perspective included. Early on I saw how important it would be for me to have two conflicting goals between two relatively sympathetic characters. As individuals, I feel like we slide pretty easily into thinking the world revolves around us-- and that extends to the stories we read or see on screen. Everything is always about the hero. But in reality, none of us are more special than anyone else, and humans in general are no more special to the universe than any other collection of calcium. So having both those guys on this journey is a way to alert the reader early on that someone isn't going to get what they want. And there are enough actual villains elsewhere in the narrative, and that allowed me to write Caleb and Randall both as the "heroes," though I use that loosely since neither of them are without flaws.

Kate: I think “hero” is appropriate. They both struggle throughout the novel to come to terms with a point of view they don't believe is right for them as individuals. Then, slowly, they change into men they understand. Randall doesn't get what he wants, but he does understand himself, finally, the real him, what drives him. Caleb comes to terms with his past actions and grows from it to be the type of man needed to love in a healthy way. Seems pretty heroic to me.

I have one concern, which seems old hat. Have you ever heard of the “manic-pixie-dream-girl trope”? Where the girl is the savior? I felt so much like Sophia and Charlotte were that. The two men depended on them for their own change. I hate that -ism approach my brain takes makes it so the ideas you were working with here, the real core of it, love, is ruined for me while reading because the two male characters and who they become as people are so dependent on these women. Like, what if the women just didn’t like them? But they did. Sophia and Charlotte reject Caleb and Randall, respectively, in so many ways. Still, I look at works within this genre that are arguably feminist, such as Netflix's Godless. But that's so feminist, I almost question if it isn’t more of an alternate reality instead of western. Don’t get me wrong,I love Godless, but it isn’t the same thing as that familiar, culturally relevant and still important cowboy tale from the male point of view which we all understand from a different lens if we have delved into that genre. Isn’t it wild how that is so tied into my experience reading your book? Like this lens of feminism is permanently welded to me? I can’t get out of that literary criticism standpoint. Were you concerned about this while writing?

Wade: Yes. I was and still am concerned anytime I write a character that has experiences that aren't my own. Women. Minorities. Characters with different sexualities. Some of that concern is a good thing and can cause writers to make every effort to be thoughtful and respectful. Some of that concern is a bad thing and can cause writers to abandon diverse characters because they don't want to be sacrificed to the ever-expanding cultural bonfire. But I'm absolutely with you on the two main females being so tied to the men. Particularly Sophia. Although I wouldn't say Sophia changes Caleb. More that Caleb very much projects onto her the things that he wants: a stable life, a family, a relationship. He also projects himself a bit as her savior. And even though he says that's not what he's doing, it still feels that way. Ultimately, their shared shitty backgrounds bond them, as do their circumstances and proximity. This was much truer of relationships before cars and phones and all that. Just being close to someone was often cause to have a relationship. Not to mention they are both horny teenagers. Still, if I was a better writer/thinker at the time, I think it would have been an awesome decision to have Caleb and Sophia work together to escape, but her never to return his romantic affection. I’m working on a western where the lead female does not reciprocate the guy's feelings, and his growth has to do with accepting that she doesn't owe him anything just because he loves her. With Charlotte, I was hoping she would come off as against that type. The fact that she was this badass western woman but still drawn to Randall's kindness and vulnerability was something I hoped would speak well to her strength. She didn't want/need some macho asshole. For me it was a little more about her perspective than Randall's in regard to their relationship.

James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out and All Things Left Wild, a winner of the MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction and a recipient of the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel from the Western Writers of America. Find out more by going here.

All Things Left Wild is available online and locally at Front Street Books, Alpine.