Where Are We Going, Where Have We Been? An Interview with Stephanie Reents by Curtis Smith

Stephanie Reents (b. 1970) grew up in Boise, Idaho. She is the author of the The Kissing List, which was an Editors’ Choice in The New York Times Book Review, and I Meant to Kill Ye, an account of her attempt to come to terms with the strange void at the heart of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Her awards include a Rhodes Scholarship, a Stegner Fellowship, and the Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship for Writing from the Rhode Island Foundation. Her short fiction has recently appeared in Epoch, Witness, and The Bennington Review, among other journals. She teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and lives in Cambridge with her husband and four-year-old son. 

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on I Meant to Kill Ye. I’m always interested in a book’s journey. How did you end up at Fiction Advocate?

Stephanie Reents: I met Brian Hurley, who is one of the forces behind Fiction Advocate, when he was the book review editor at The Rumpus. I’d written a handful of reviews when he asked me whether I would be interested in getting involved in the Afterwords project.

CS: How did you first come to Blood Meridian? Had you read McCarthy before?

SR: I first read Blood Meridian when I was a senior in college. This was 1992: All the Pretty Horses had just been published, and Cormac McCarthy did an interview with the New York Times Magazine, one of only a handful he’s ever given. I totally bought into his solitary writer thingfor goodness sake, he moved from cheap motel to cheap motel in the Southwest, carrying a typewriter and a 100-watt bulb so that he had enough light to write. It seemed so romantic! I read All the Pretty Horses, and then as I was wont to do back when I was younger and had more time, I read everything Cormac McCarthy had written, starting at the beginning of his career with his southern gothic novels and continuing to Blood Meridian. When I came to the last page, I thought, What the hell just happened.  I didn’t know what I’d read, but my confusion intrigued me.

CS: I love this book—and McCarthy—but I’ve got to admit my first read took a toll. Not many books have felt like such a punch in the gut. Did you experience something similar? If so, what do you attribute it to?

SR: Absolutely. The first time I read Blood Meridian, I had to close the book from time to time, things got so intense. I’d never had that reaction to a piece of fiction before. Movies, yes, but the written word, no. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why this is the case, why Blood Meridian made my stomach clench and my heart race. I think it has something to do with the fact that in many instances you can’t predict the violent things before they happen. One minute the judge is dandling an Apache child on his knee, and the next he’s scalping him. Not only does the novel not have a conventional plot (a sense of A leading to B which ultimately causes C), but McCarthy is also meticulous about cutting anything that resembles foreshadowing from the novel. (I know this because I read several earlier drafts in the archives at Texas State University in San Marcos, and in those pages, I came across descriptions that would allow you to steel yourself for the next terribly violent thing. In the published novel, these moments, or hints, are gone.)

The other reason the novel is disturbing is that it’s also so beautiful, or even baroque, often in the scenes of most intense violence. There’s something disturbing about admiring the descriptions of massacre and carnage, but that’s just what I did when I read about the Apaches attacking Captain White’s army:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

That’s one sentence, and the pace and beauty, breadth, specificity, and verbal inventiveness, take my breath away. I shouldn’t admire itthat legion of horribles is about to slaughter Captain White’s armybut I absolutely do.

CS: I didn’t know you had access to earlier drafts. That’s a unique view. You mention what this perspective added to your understanding/appreciation of the book—but did this experience of seeing the evolution of his work have any impact on you and your writing?

SR: Well, the first thing I have to saywhich is probably obviousis that I write nothing like Cormac McCarthy. Part of my love for Blood Meridian comes from the fact that I could never ever emulate it in a million years. My imagination doesn’t lean towards the historical western, and I don’t have those Faulknerian sentences in my soul. And yet, reading the early drafts of McCarthy’s novel did remind me how much most writers labor to get things right. In the archives, I got glimpses of the incredible effort that McCarthy put in to write Blood Meridian. There are pages of research notes from the historical sources that McCarthy consulted in order to create the feeling of the southwest in the mid nineteenth century; there are lists of words and their synonyms; there are passages that McCarthy rewrites and rewrites. It was amazing to see a typed passage with crossed-out words and others added in McCarthy’s hand, or to see his notes tracking where he had used a particular word or image.

Writing is a process. It’s hard work. Bill Wittliff, the guy who contributed many of the papers (including McCarthy’s) that make up the archives of the Wittliff Collection, commented that “Young writers or people with the itch to write can come in and see that all these guys are just folks who have the urge to create and to work their asses off at it. I absolutely know that if I had gone into a place like that when I was 16 or 17 or 18 and seen John’s manuscript or McMurtry’s or Cormac’s or whatever, and seen them scratch out and struggling to find just the right word, just the right sentence to express their thoughts, I’d have said, ‘Well, shit. These guys are working. I mean, I can do that.’ ”

All of this is a long way of saying that seeing the evolution of Blood Meridian just reminds me of the value of the process: which involves drafting and revising, tinkering and experimenting, and for most writers, and certainly me, an unhurried attitude towards creative work.

CS: In the process of writing your book, you must have returned to Blood Meridian again and again. What about it fascinated you? What did you discover/come to appreciate upon repeated readings that you missed at first?

SR: I’ve been reading Blood Meridian for twenty-five years. Not every year. But every couple of years.  I’ve also taught it four or five times to undergraduates. First, I was fascinated by a very basic question: what is it about this novel that makes it difficult to understand, even after reading it very, very, very carefully for a very long time?

Next, as I began to perceive a pattern of things happening, I became obsessed with the kid. More specifically, I began to wonder why McCarthy introduces the kid as the novel’s protagonist, only to make him disappear throughout most of the middle of the novel. The kid seems to be a mythic or allegorical figure, like the judge and the ex-priest, except that McCarthy sometimes breaks his own rules and allows us to consider the kid as a character with psychological dimensions, someone whose thoughts and feelings motivate him. We see evidence of this every time the kid helps another member of the Glanton gang. He drives the arrow through Brown’s leg, in one instance, when everyone else in the gang refuses. In another, he ties and rides with Tate, whose horse can no longer carry him. And there are even more examples of the kid’s compassion.  We also sometimes perceive the world through the kid’s eyes, and even enter his physical suffering, but we never know what he’s thinking.

My book became a quest to understand the kid. To do this, I sought the kid in the archives, the deserts of the southwest, and the historical source materials. I did crazy things like retracing the route of the Glanton gang through parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. Though I failed to find the kid in the way I hoped, I eventually came to a fuller understanding of the novel.

CS: I’m interested in how your undergraduates reacted to the book.

SR: That’s a great question. I try to prepare my student for the experience of reading Blood Meridian by warning them beforehand that the book is both difficult and disturbing. I tell them a bit about my experience of reading it as a college studentthat I didn’t understand it, that I often had to close the book because I was freaked out by its depictions of violence. I think students like doing something hardit’s thrilling to know that you’re engaging with a novel that other readers have also found challenging. All that being said, I’d estimate that about 50 percent of my undergraduates like the book. They can get pretty hooked into the question of whether the kid changes, or evolves morally, and they often surprise me with totally new, insightful readings of passages that I thought I fully understood. (Last year, someone suggested that the kid didn’t really behave morally in those moments where he appears to be acting out of some kind of loyalty for the other members of the gang. For example: when the kid spares Shelby’s life instead of shooting him as the kid has been instructed, my student argued that the kid is taking the easy way out, and leaving Shelby to suffer a much worse death, either from the elements or at the hands of the Apache.)

I just sent an email to my students from last year, putting this question to them. Only one answered! (I wonder what that means.) She wrote, “When I think of Blood Meridian, I immediately think of the brutality, lack of humanity, and the gore. There were parts that were difficult to read without getting chills from the vivid descriptions of the murders and fighting, but McCarthy’s undeniably original writing style and voice was unlike any author that I have come across, and made the book memorable.”

CS: I so admire McCarthy’s style—his rhythms and imagery. On those levels—the sentence and scene—how would you describe his work? What do you admire the most?

SR: Like an opium dream?

I sometimes find myself reading long passages of Blood Meridian aloud to my students as though the best way to engage with the novel is not to put it under the scalpel and dissect it but rather to inhale it. I love McCarthy’s long sentencesthe and and and and and, the mix of high and low diction, the neologisms and King James diction, the Spanish and specifically named flora and fauna of the Southwest. I love the factI learned this from reading passages that McCarthy revised repeatedlythat he’s the kind of writer who spends a lot of time auditioning different words and rearranging them in hopes of hitting upon the combination to express his ideas. I skip over landscape descriptions in most novels, but McCarthy’s make me look closer every time.

CS: There’s a lot of great Western literature. I loved Warlock and Butcher’s Crossing and The Ox-Bow Incident.  What do you think sets Blood Meridian apart?

SR: I haven’t read the novels you mentioned, but I’m putting them on my list. Blood Meridian isn’t a typical western, where violence is depicted as inevitable (because of European American’s God-given right to occupy the continent from sea to shining sea and exploit the land’s natural resources) or heroic (because we enlightened the “heathen” Native Americans by introducing them to Christianity, democracy, and capitalism).  That being said, the genre of the western is often revising itself and critiquing old values.

And yet, as I try to explain in my book, two things set Blood Meridian apart: first, the unflinching depiction of violence, in which war is the ultimate game, as judge claims, because it offers the ultimate reward, and murder trumps everything, even morality and the law, takes the novel to a much darker place. No one remembers the dead, the narrator tells us repeatedly throughout the novel. Of course, in telling us that no one will remember, the narrator memorializes the act of forgetting. That makes Blood Meridian an account of remembering, not exactly what we forgot and certainly not why we forgot, but that we forgot. We conquered the continent but forgot why; or perhaps we never had a reason, except for the pleasure of violence and conquest.

Second, the novel’s strange point of view – the extremely limited third person that tamps down the kid’s interiority and gives us almost no access to his thoughts – means that we (the readers) are entirely alone throughout the novel. We want someone to process the violence with, but no one does, except the narrator, who never says anything to make us feel better. The book asks us to witness the atrocities committed against Native Americans, and in doing this alone, without a point of view mediated by morals or feelings, we suffer in abject isolation. Nothing makes us feel better. Nothing redeems the story. And that seems to be very much the point that McCarthy wants to make.

CS: The Judge has to be one of literature’s greatest—and most horrible—characters. Now that you’ve given so much thought to him, what’s your take on his role? Is he the devil? Is he a natural evolution of man? Is he a mirror to the kid?

SR: I actually made a conscious decision not to think too deeply about the judge in my book, because he still confuses and scares me. But I did think about him a little.

“What’s he the judge of,” the kid asks at one point. It’s a great question. The judge’s voice is always in counterpoint to the voices of other characters who speak in short slangy sentences. These are men who spit as much as they talk. In contrast, the judge is the voice of education and knowledge. He provides the rationale for violence and destruction. He can tell a story and talk his way out of any situation. Truth is the one thing that doesn’t especially interest him.

Consider the scene early in the novel when the judge enters the tent revival and pronounces the reverend a fake, and worse, a pedophile and lover of bestiality. Pandemonium breaks out. Later in a bar, the judge admits he never set eyes on the reverend before that day.  Blood Meridian is an exploration of the persuasiveness of the judge’s rhetoric along side the duplicity, and even sadism, of his character. If the kid sometimes appears to be an instrument of fate, if he is violent because that’s the role the narrator choose for him in McCarthy’s myth, then the judge appears to play the role of fate itself, making things happen through the force of his pronouncements, his enlightened tone, his extensive knowledge of almost everything under the sun. The novel highlights the judge’s murder of the most innocent creatures (the Apache child, the puppies) to emphasize how much the judge enjoys violence for its own sake. Just as his speeches are performances of his verbal power, his killing of helpless creatures is a performance of his absolute power. The judge kills because he can. He can rationalize anything. Is he the devil or a natural evolution of humans? The answer to that question depends on how optimistic you feel about where wehumankindare headed. Or even where we are right now.

CS: Violence is central to the book. We see scenes that are as lyrical as they are grotesque. Do you think McCarthy is simply telling a tale of a violent time or is he trying to say something about violence and the human condition?

SR: In that 1992 interview in The New York Times Magazine, Cormac McCarthy observed, “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.” So, I think McCarthy’s doing both. He’s written about a particularly violent chapter in our history: for example, as John Sepich details in his exhaustive book on the historical source materials of Blood Meridian, the government of Chihuahua actually did pay people to kill Native Americans on the heels of the Mexican American War. But McCarthy has also, as I’ve tried to explain above, gone much further, suggesting that a “taste for violence” is an essential part of human nature. 

CS: Was there ever a second choice you considered writing about—or was it Blood Meridian or nothing else?

SR: Just before I decided to write about Blood Meridian, I declared to my husband that I would never ever teach it again. And yet when I saw the novel on the list, I knew I had to choose it. I’m not a literary critic, and in fact, a lot of literary criticism is like a foreign language to me. For this reason, taking on this project was daunting, because I knew I was going to have to figure out something reasonably articulate to say about a novel that left me speechless, and I knew I wanted to do this without entering into the critical conversation about the novel. I’d have to trust myself as a reader and writer; I’d have to find the confidence to say what I thought. Because I had just six months to write the first draft of this book, and I was also teaching full-time and raising my then two-year-old son, I worked at a breakneck pace that was new to me. In fact, when I started to write the book in earnest in mid-May, I wrote 1,000 words a day to meet my deadline.

CS: What’s next?

SR: I’m working on a collection of stories that mingle the domestic and the uncanny and sometimes feature animals, which is a nod to Joy Williams who claims that one of the eight essential attributes of the short story is “[a]n animal within to give its blessing.”  Right at this very moment, I’m revisiting a story about a recovering addict who climbs into a van parked in Chinatown that is filled with dozens of cats. She does this because the man who owns the van he’s small and slightly feline himselfpromises that the experience will help her quit smoking. I’ve been working on this story on and off for the past fifteen years. I am not addicted to cats.

Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Spiritual Writing, The Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

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