Bearded Book Boys (BBB): First just let me thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Between teaching at the University of Louisville and a book release, you must be a pretty busy guy.
Ian Stansel (IS): You’re very welcome. I appreciate your taking the time to read the book and talk with me.
BBB: To me The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo is equal parts revenge story and love story about Marin County. Can you speak to this?
IS: After my first book, which is very Midwestern, just about all of the stories taking place in Illinois, I really wanted to go somewhere new and explore a very different landscape. I spent five years of my childhood in Marin County and have gone back numerous times through my life. I’d say it is the place I know second best, after the Midwest. So it seemed natural for me to go in my fiction. Horses are also very popular there, so once I knew I was going to write a sort of quasi Western, it was a natural place to set it. I actually just got back from a trip out west and was able to tour through my old haunts and was reminded, as I am each time I visit, of not just the natural beauty of the place, but of the wonderful “anything goes” sort of attitude. During the time I lived there we had a family friend who built himself a tiny house by hand. This, of course, was decades before the tiny houses became a status symbol for a certain demographic. This man, this family friend, did it because he could (or could learn) and he didn’t need much in the way of physical objects. Seeing that as a child I believe was hugely important. Even after my family moved back to Chicago, I carried the experience with me. This idea that you can draw your own map as you go along, that you don’t necessarily have to do what the rest of the world tells you to do. So, yeah, I suppose there is some kind of love letter element to the book.
This is not to say that I think the place is perfect. The insane wealth across the Bay Area is really troublesome. And there’s certainly that exclusivity thing in Marin. But I think that this is good for writing. If I loved every single aspect of the place, then I wouldn’t be able to do much with it in fiction. It’s like the horse world: I think so much of it is wonderful, but there is a lot of dirty dealings going on. And the push and pull of these things helps create the story.
BBB: What does your research process look like? The Last Cowboys tends to be rather specific and detail orientated about the horses, training and riding. Did you get some hands on experience in that area that helped write this book?
IS: I read some books and did a lot of Googling, but this was usually just to clarify information that was a bit hazy in my brain. I grew up around horses, and though I’m not much of a rider myself, I know how to at least talk and write about them. My sister, to whom the book is dedicated, rode and taught riding basically her whole life. She passed away three years ago. If the book is any good at all, it’s because of her.
BBB: Though the description didn’t tip me off, when I got a ways into the book it immediately reminded me of Charles Portis’ True Grit. Were you inspired by this classic western when developing this story?
IS: I love True Grit. It’s a damn compelling story, told with such compassion and humor. I did think about it a bit as I was developing the overall idea of the book. You know, a woman going off to avenge a loved one’s death. But of course in the Portis book Mattie needed Rooster to help her on her quest. In my book we’re in a different time and Lena is a grown woman, so it was important to me that, though she has a companion in her journey, she can do this on her own.
The other part of the book that might have been inspirational, though I hadn’t thought much about it until now, is the fact that it has two very compelling main characters in Rooster and Mattie. I also developed a man and a woman to drive my story, though of course with mine it is the hunter and the hunted, rather than partners.
BBB: How long have you been teaching creative writing and what’s your favorite part about it?
IS: I’ve been teaching creative writing a for a number of years, though it has only been the last two years that I’ve been able to do it exclusively. Before I would be teaching other things, usually composition, and picking up fiction classes whenever I could.
My first semester teaching here at the University of Louisville I finished up a workshop and was walking across campus to my car. It was fall—that perfect time of year to be on a college campus. For the last hour I’d been talking with students about stories, about how they work and how to make them work better. And suddenly I realized that I was the luckiest son of a bitch in the world. A few times a week I get to come into a room with fifteen or twenty other people and talk about the thing I love most of all. So it’s hard to tell you my favorite part. But something that sticks with me is this: last semester a student turned in a story that was very good. This was the second class he’d taken with me so I’d gotten to know him and his work fairly well, and up until then his work was pretty good. This story, though, was something special. I knew that at some point between the one before it and this one, something clicked. And he knew it, too. I met with him in my office and we were both really excited about his work and how it had progressed. That was a nice moment.
BBB: What is one piece of writing advice that has stuck with you the longest?
IS: The thing I’ve been thinking about recently isn’t so much about writing as it is about publishing. When my first book came out I was desperately trying to help market it, so I wrote to an old teacher of mine to ask her what she thought I could do. What she wrote back was far more helpful than, say, a list of review outlets or even names of people I could contact. It was a long letter discussing how to approach publishing. Basically what she was telling me was that even now she is surprised when anyone wants to publish her work or review something she has written. And this is a person who is very well published and well reviewed. Still, she goes through her career not expecting anyone to care about what she was working on. I try to have the same attitude. It’s not just the idea that if you don’t expect success, then you aren’t disappointed if it doesn’t come—though that is true. More so, it’s about putting the writing first, second, and last.
BBB: Does Louisville/Kentucky compare at all to the atmosphere of Marin County/Northern California?
IS: You know, when I was in San Francisco recently I was on a bus and we stopped on the corner of John F Kennedy Drive and Nancy Pelosi Drive, and I thought to myself, “Well, we’re not in Kentucky anymore.” Politically, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find two more different places than Kentucky and Marin County (though Louisville does tend to lean a bit left). But there is the horse connection. And here in Kentucky there certainly is something akin to that attitude I found when I was a kid in California, that “anything goes” sort of mentality. The difference would that in California it comes out as a kind of freewheeling hippie-ness, while in Kentucky it is more of a conservative, libertarian “don’t tell me what to do” stance. They’re very different, but maybe when looked at in a certain way we might see that they both come out of the same core American approach to the world.
BBB: Do you think you’ll write more stories about Marin County?
IS: Oh, probably, but my next book will likely be set somewhere else. I’ve moved around a lot in my life and have developed a real restlessness, and apparently that has seeped over into my writing. It’s hard for me to stay or write in one place. I don’t think I’ve been in Kentucky long enough to write it well. We’re still getting to know each other, Kentucky and I. I lived in Texas for a time during graduate school. Maybe it’ll be a Texas book.
BBB: What are your notable books of 2017?
IS: I tend not to read particularly new books. I read based on either what I’m working on or whatever happens to be on my mind at the moment. The downside of this is I’m often out of the loop in hot-new-books conversations. But really, great books stay great, right? I don’t see the need to read such-and-such book that came out last week over another book that came out forty years ago. Either way it’s new to me. That said, there are a couple newish titles I’ve picked up: Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin and The Young Widowers Handbook by Tom McAllister.
BBB: Any words of advice or wisdom for fans that read this interview?
IS: Spend time thinking about the structure of the story you’re telling. If you find the right structure, the story might reveal itself in surprising ways.
The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo is available at your favorite bookseller.