I get asked this question a lot: Why Westerns?
That’s a darned good question that has an ironic answer woven into its fabric. Short answer: I took a class and came up with the idea there; hint: there was a gun involved.
A couple of years ago, one of the writers from my accountability group suggested a class called The Fearless Writer, taught by Laura Baker, and a handful of us took it with her. Honestly, my expectations for myself were low at that moment in time. I didn’t have much to lose and a whole lot to gain as I was in a stagnant place. The class had a series of varied goals, but the homework from one assignment became the very first scene of The Reluctant Bandit. I’m being purposefully vague about the assignment, but there were specific elements everyone needed to include in their homework, three of them being a woman, a bell, and a gun.
This was a turning point for me for a couple of reasons. I sat with this homework for a long while because I had no idea what to write and I wouldn’t let myself walk away until I started something. Was it the gun that threw me off (I was writing about the medieval period, originally)? The combination of items? Had I given up on myself? The idea that finally came to me was in the form of a western. I loved these characters that I had barely scratched the surface on, but it also felt weird to inhabit that space. I didn’t think much of it because they were just part of an exercise that we weren’t returning to. The instructor said this was the first time in teaching this class (20 years, I think she wrote) that someone wrote a western. 🤔 I found that hard to believe, but okay…she was super excited about it and I had a serious fondness for the scene. “Accidental” kidnapping aside, it peaked my interest and curiosity.
Turns out I was lucky that I liked Charlie and Annabelle from this exercise, because later in the class we were required to work with a new manuscript idea. The problem was I didn’t have a fresh manuscript to work with or even a fresh idea. And the sayin’ goes, I was also riding dangerously close to the cliff of “fresh out of F**ks.” I tentatively asked if I could use Charlie for the hero’s arc and she was very encouraging about this (after putting her foot down on not using something I’ve already written 😬). This, even after I insisted that I “do not read or write westerns.”
Cue hysterical laughter, Friday Fools. I’m just glad I didn’t use the dreaded “never” so I’d have to eat crow.
The other element of “western” for the psych lab–and here’s where “never” rides in, kicking up dust–is I “never” thought that I could be a part of the western mythos. My mother is from Japan and I grew up in the PNW. I grew up with two kids who played with the western toys of the 1950’s, one inherited them from her dad and aunt, and the other from his much-older siblings. They watched the shows, had the decorations and accouterment, and were American in a way that I wasn’t. I don’t even think I had one of those stick ponies to play with. I certainly didn’t have little cowboy boots. I tended to identify and sympathize with the “Indians” in the westerns, but I wasn’t part of their tribe, either. I am a half Japanese woman who grew up in a part of town during the ’70s where there wasn’t a whole lot of space for a non-categorical like me. Cue Cher’s Half Breed. Again, the irony is not lost there, either.
So, while my friends with their walls decorated with little cowboys and cowgirls, their cap guns, and cowboy hats inhabited a space that I couldn’t imagine, I was relegated to “Indian,” which wasn’t a problem aside from feeling like a fraud there, too. From reservations to internment camps, I’ve struggled with my country’s (America’s) history growing up while simultaneously idealizing the grit and determination of survival, the cooperative working and living, as well as certain freedoms. I tried to “live away” from this feeling of non-belonging by studying things where there was no question of not belonging: German language and literature and Comparative literature as an undergrad and British literature as a graduate student. I tried to reject or “run away” from the culture that both raised and rejected me. However, that isn’t sustainable. At some point, you have to return “home.”
So here I am, back where I started with westerns. I found myself brushing up against them with where I live (Arizona); who I live with; as well as with these two characters who fell into my proverbial lap, embracing my writing for what it is. These aren’t the westerns of your father or the sweet historical western romances. They’re my own blend of story and observation. Something that I’ve come to terms with. They have a lot to do with all is not as it seems, much like life.
And Charlie? In the end, he didn’t have a gun in that opening scene. He managed just fine without one, and in his own way–a double Hail Mary of sorts. For both of us.