How did “The Herd” come into being?
A few years back, John Joseph Adams asked if I might be interested in contributing a story to Dead Man’s Hand, a “Weird Western” anthology he was putting together. I thought that sounded like a lot of fun, so eventually I whipped up “The Herd” for him. It seemed to slip through the editorial cracks, however, and the story didn’t make it into the book. I just thought, “Oh, well — maybe that story sucks.” But then John recently got back in touch to see if he could run the story in Lightspeed. So I looked at the story again, realized to my relief that it doesn’t suck (in my opinion), and gratefully accepted his offer.
The title made me look for parallels between the herd ruled over by The General, how the people in the town were ruled, and what happened when a herd member tried to stray: Was that your intention or was the title meant to indicate something different?
Bingo! Yes, you’re absolutely supposed to pick up on a parallel between the cattle and the people in the town and also between The General and the narrator.
“Beeves”: Who knew this was a real word? Where did you first come across it?
I’ve written a mystery series set in the Old West — the Holmes on the Range novels — so I’ve done a ton of research into cowboy life and slang. One of the things I enjoyed most about writing the Holmes on the Range books was the chance to throw around a lot of colorful words and turns of phrase, so I did that in “The Herd,” too.
What are the challenges of mixing vocabulary across centuries (“dude” vs. “Old Scratch,” for instance) in one character’s speech?
I think the primary danger is corniness. If you lay it on too thick or use a lot of clichés, you’re going to turn most modern readers off in a big hurry. Another challenge, of course, is coherence. You don’t want to toss in a bunch of obscure words just to show off, because your readers will end up doing a lot of work just to understand what you’re saying, and again you’ll lose them. A story set in the Wild West needs some old-timey flavor, in my opinion, but that flavoring also needs to be sprinkled on lightly.
Why is the protagonist able to walk away from the first bar, while his companions are not?
They don’t try to leave. They’re happy where they are. It’s a case of bread and circuses — and beer and babes.
The power of three in stories: I expected a third interaction around town names after Schultzton and Goddard City: Were you tempted?
Yup. But there’s a rule of conservation at work in short stories, too: Don’t introduce a character you don’t need to advance the plot. I could’ve had one more person lay claim to the town, but what other purpose would that character serve?
The protagonist briefly experiences an apparent Judeo-Christian Hell, which made me wonder if the town is also framed by the same religious outlook, but it seems more ambiguous: Heaven for some (like Jawbone), a minor Hell for others. What was your thinking?
What do cows make of a farm? Do they have any idea what a semi-truck is? What do they think they’re looking at when they peer through the slates of the trailer on the interstate and see buildings and bridges whipping by? Do they ever grasp what the slaughterhouse is, or is it just a swirl of noise and light and confusion and terror? Whatever that experience is to them, the narrator’s experience is to him.
Why do some characters blink out of existence?
It’s their time. Maybe they’ve been plumped up enough, maybe it’s something else. We all blink out of existence sooner or later. A lot of people have put a lot of effort into understanding why we do — and why we were here in the first place — but so far I haven’t heard any answers that I find particularly satisfying.
You write across a number of genres and age groups: Any forays into new genre/age group territories planned?
At the moment, I’ve got my hands full with two series: the middle-grade mysteries I write with “Science Bob” Plugfelder and the adult, tarot-themed mysteries I write with Lisa Falco. I’m also really eager to relaunch the Holmes on the Range series, and I have a million other ideas for middle-grade, YA, and adult books in the mystery, thriller, Western, horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres. If I live to be 300, maybe I’ll have found time to write them all . . .
Any projects you want to tell us about?
My most important project at the moment is meeting my next three book deadlines without having a nervous breakdown. Wish me luck!
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