In Conversation with Zach VandeZand
Colin Winnette is on a hot streak. If you follow any indie or alt-lit blogs, you’ve heard his name, as his novels Coyote and Haints Stay have been praised as gems of a new kind of American Gothic, one that’s weirder, a little fuzzed-out, cutting closer to the bone. If you’re like me, though, you know Colin as the earnest kid of the Denton art scene, putting together house shows and reading his (groundbreaking, even way back then) work to a bunch of sweaty kids on the floor. That that kid made good makes perfect sense, and that he did it by writing such dynamic, harrowing prose that leaves his readers breathless and shaken also makes perfect sense. Below, we talk about his new novel, Haints Stay, which is a wild acid-western that reifies genre in the same moment that it breaks it over its knee.
ZVZ: We haven’t seen each other in something like two years now (which is a crime), and interviewing a friend is always kind of strange, since it’s like we’re going to perform our friendship in front of an imagined audience, and so anyway my first question: Hey buddy, how’s life?
CW: Pretty good, dude!
ZVZ: It seems like Haints is getting a lot of well-deserved attention. Coming so closely on the heels of Coyote, which also resonated with readers, must feel pretty good. Do you react to this kind of stuff at all, or is it white noise to you?
CW: I definitely react to any attention at all from anyone ever. If someone even passes me in a hallway and looks up, I typically react in some weird ass way. At best, they’ll get an exaggerated smile or a salute. But that’s not what you’re asking, I guess.
If I’m being honest, I’ve spent a great deal of my life struggling with the fear that I’m a terrible writer and that I’m wasting my life pursuing something that I’m not only bad at, but that’s fundamentally selfish in a lot of ways (maybe most ways). One of the biggest hurdles in my life was getting to a place where that didn’t stop me from writing, or from destroying my writing by limiting it and depersonalizing it in the face of imagined expectations. I’ve always enjoyed writing and wanted to write, but once I got over that hurdle, and was able to just make the work I wanted to make, then I started actually having fun and getting to some painful and pleasurable stuff. The idea that anyone actually read any of that, and actually found something in it for themselves? It means the world to me.
ZVZ: I think Sugar is probably one of the most interesting and original characters readers will have seen in a while; for one, his gender identity is treated as wholly natural (which, god, what does it say about how conservative most literature is that such an obvious way for an author to treat a character feels refreshing to my mind?), even as characters’ reaction to it in some ways drives the plot forward. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you’ve written a parable on trans identity, but you’re certainly doing something with his story. Where did Sugar come from?
CW: I don’t think Sugar is unnatural. And I think the characters’ reaction to one another in general drives the plot forward. Sugar’s no different there than the innkeeper. Sugar is a character I wanted to write about, and one I thought particularly well suited to a book that’s uneasy with expectation. But I think that’s true of Bird too, albeit for different reasons. Mary comes the closest to being what this particular world might expect of her, but that makes her an unexpected character in the world of the book. Also, she’s one of the deftest characters in her ability to occupy the role the world has cast her in without losing her autonomy or sense of self.
ZVZ: Do you feel any kind of responsibility of “authentic” representation when it comes to characters like this, or do you set that aside when it comes time to write?
CW: Are you asking if I felt responsible for Sugar to authentically represent the LGBTQIA community? If so, then no. No one person should or could ever do that, let alone a character in a book. Sugar is a particular character living out his existence in a very particular world. I think the lives of the characters in this book and the way the book operates as a whole, or even some simple passing moments in the book, could offer perspective, but it’s not a book that’s claiming to in any way represent the humanity you and I are a part of.
ZVZ: It seems like a common theme of your work is the way that violence is passed down from generation to generation. In Fondly, the progression of violence was clear, but it was tempered by moments of grace and relief. In Haints and Coyote, the worldview is far more bleak, and the ugliness is near unrelenting, and yet I still find myself seeing the heart in all of it, the empathy. How do you maintain that balance when you write?
CW: I think I’m sort of foolishly optimistic and have a fundamental faith in people. I have all of this love for a species that is unrelentingly murderous and hypocritical. I don’t think I could even really justify it. But I’m grateful. As far as art is concerned, I think it’s essential for you to show both sides if you’ve going to show one. Anything that’s too optimistic feels dishonest, same with anything that’s wholly bleak.
ZVZ: You mentioned once a year or two ago that you wished that you could have conversations with critics of your work, not to defend it per se, but to actually further what you see as an important dialogue between artist and reader. Do you still feel that impulse, and did you ever get a chance do it?
CW: Yes, I still feel that impulse, but not in the internet sense of me wanting to jump into the comments section and see if I can hold my own. I think there should be more well-considered conversations about literature, in general. And, as a self-centered person who’s writing books, I sometimes want those conversations to be about my books. And this is not to say there aren’t great writers out there, writing great things about books. But I always want to know more about what a person is thinking after they’ve read a book, how they felt at one point and then another and then another, the mistakes they made, the horrible thoughts they had, the love and/or hate they felt for whatever (a turn of phrase, a smug reflection, a character, a description, a theme, etc.) provided they’re interested in digging. I’ve read some incredibly insightful criticism about the books I’ve written, and of course of books written by other writers. When you read a book, especially a book that means something to you for whatever reason, it inhabits you and unlocks all of these little things in your brain. People say it transports them, but I rarely feel that. I just feel activated. And I love to see people who are activated try to describe it.
I’ve had the opportunity in interviews I’ve done. Inversely, having this conversation with you, I’m starting to get a sense of what your review of HS might sound like.
ZVZ: Follow-up: Since a reader and an author are engaged in at least a simulacrum of intimacy, if not the thing itself, what do you think they owe each other? I ask in part because it seems like in your earlier work a direct engagement with the reader as a person who is encountering your words was part of the vibe of what you were up to, and that’s not as present in Coyote and Haints, and I’m also thinking of Milorad Pavic (who Miro probably yelled at you to read at some point) who said that a book was a puma on two leashes, one held by the reader and one held by the author, and they could never approach each other without being devoured. This is a very long question that you probably can’t answer but oh well.
CW: In my opinion, Coyote and Haints Stay are two of the most “meta” books I’ve written. I know, you know, we all know, what we’ve gotten ourselves into. The books are as much about fiction and the imagination as something like Fondly, which telegraphs the subversions in formal ways. I think any author who can appreciate that reading is, to put it lightly, a collaboration, owes something to the reader. You decide for yourself what that something is. And for me, that something changes. But I respect that I’m asking people to join me in a project. To occupy themselves with the thoughts and feelings I’ve presented them.
ZVZ: What are you going to do now? Do you have any upcoming projects you want to tell people about, or maybe just some weekend plans you’re looking forward to?
CW: I’m going to watch some X-Files with my wife here in a bit. And this weekend I’m going to see Randy Newman at Stern Grove. In between things like that, I’m going to keep writing books and trying things out. There’s some weird stuff on the horizon, for sure.