Crime Fiction Coordinator, Scott M., sat down with author James Wade ahead of Wade’s virtual event with BookPeople on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT. The two discuss the novel’s main themes and talk a bit about the narrative choices made. It’s a novel at the top of MysteryPeople’s favorites of June 2020.
Read the interview below.
James Wade sets his take on the vengeance tale, All Things Left Wild, in a place and people caught between the fault lines of two periods. In 1910 Texas, Caleb Bently is on the run toward Mexico after his older brother, Shelby, kills the son of Randall Dawson when they attempt to rustle horses from the man’s ranch. Goded by his wife, Dawson, more poet and scholar than gunman and cowboy, pursues them with the help of a ranch hand, Tadpole, and Charlotte, a Black woman who knows her way around a pistol. As the two parties close in, they travel across borders of land, identity, and societal norms.
Mr. Wade was kind enough to talk about his world and the people and ideas he populated it with.
Scott Montgomery: How did you choose the particular time period for All Things Left Wild?
James Wade: I liked 1910 for the book because it’s a great example of the disconnect between the “civilized” America we think of by that point in history and the American West, which stayed wild for much longer than the rest of the country. That was due in part to the geographic challenges and lack of transportation infrastructure, but there were also murky legal standards because much of the Southwest was still divided into territories rather than states. This is also the year when political tensions in Mexico boiled over into the first battles of the Mexican Revolution.
So it was a tumultuous time, but something I hoped to show is how even during historical turning points, individuals are still struggling with very personal, very human issues. We tend to think of people in the past only as they relate to whatever event or movement was taking place at that time. In reality, most people were also dealing with the same issues we face: family, finances, finding a purpose, etc. But those things obviously don’t take up the same historical real estate, so they aren’t focused on as much.
SM: Like Blood Meridian, this book uses a historical period to create an other worldly feel. How did you use research of the time to build your fictional world?
JW: Researching this time period was fascinating. The country was only one generation removed from the Civil War, and yet it was also at the beginning of what would be the most remarkable century of progress in human history. We were essentially trying to find our footing as a nation, while also seeing the world around us modernize at an unprecedented pace. This sort of disruptive technology, disruptive forward momentum, is something we’ve dealt with ever since. And in the Southwest, you had a remarkably large, unregulated swath of land and resources. This became a breeding ground for corruption. And, as a result, we begin to see the gap between rich and poor growing rapidly during this time– much like it has in recent years. From the post-Civil War 1870s through the Great Depression, the country saw a massive income inequality, which led to economic anxieties, which ultimately led to more crime. I tried to create a world where economic tension was always present in the background. For example, almost every supporting character we encounter is poor. And if they are rich or have power, they are most likely corrupt.
SM: Did splitting the point of view between Caleb and Randall provide any challenges?
JW: I actually believe the split narrative made it a little easier to tell the story, and certainly made it easier to create some of the moral ambiguity I was hoping for. I wanted readers to get to know both characters, and see the flaws and redemptive qualities of both of these men, then have to decide who was right and who was wrong– or decide if it was more complicated than that. The decision to have Caleb tell his story in first-person, and Randall’s story be told in third-person, was based on the evolution of the characters. Caleb, despite his youth, pretty much knows who he is, and pretty much understands the way of the world. So he is competent enough to tell his side of things. Randall goes through a confusing transformation, which makes it more appropriate for someone else to describe, as Randall himself may not quite understand what’s happening to him until much later.
SM: Male identity plays a big part of the novel. What did you want to explore with that theme?
JW: Another great question, and a theme that no one else has asked about yet. I definitely wanted male identity, particularly conventional masculinity, to be pulled through the mud on a short rope. Almost all of the women in the novel come off as more rational, mentally tougher, and more patient, than the men. That wasn’t on accident. One of the real tragedies, in my opinion, is the shift we see that takes place in Randall. He starts out as a kind, sensitive man, but the circumstances and the world essentially turn him into a much different person by the story’s end. The tragic arc of Tad’s character is driven by his need be a conventional, masculine hero. With Shelby, he sees fear as a type of power to hold over others– another masculine trope. Even Randall’s wife plays a role in the perpetuation of toxic masculinity by chiding Randall for not being “manly” enough, which Charlotte later debunks as foolishness. Basically, the pitfalls of male identity are all over the book, and I hope folks take notice.
SM: One of your stand out characters is Charlotte. How did you construct her?
JW: There’s a strength to almost all the women in the novel, but certainly Charlotte is the bellwether of that strength. Her character was built by asking myself: who is the complete opposite of Randall in terms of wealth, privilege, and survival skills? Charlotte– a poor, black female, gunslinger– fit the bill. But once I wrote her first scene, I started to expand on her past and her experiences, and I think it really opened her up more and better informed her eventual relationship to Randall and Tad. Her ability to be a badass, but also maintain a softness for the world, is something that sets her apart from most of the other characters.
SM: Much of the violence is described very swiftly and often happens off page. What prompted this approach?
JW: I went back and forth on this, particularly the shootout between the Lobos and the Rangers, but decided to have some violent portions of the story take place off page for a couple of reasons. One, there is still a good deal of violence that is described, and I didn’t want to lessen the impact or significance of those scenes by having the reader become numb to it. And two, the majority of violence in the world is not some Hollywood, dramatized event. Rather, it’s quick and shocking and then it’s over and we’re left to pick up the pieces. One of the less visible themes of the novel is how we all believe our stories are the only stories or the most important stories, but to everyone else, it’s just another story. One of the few times– maybe the only time– I put my foot down during the editing process was insisting we keep the scene where two nameless Rangers are having a conversation in the aftermath of the big shootout. For readers, something huge has just happened, but for the Rangers– who are much further removed from the story– it’s a pretty casual day at the office. Playing with the notion of what the reader gets to “see” and what they don’t, is another way of driving home the point that the world doesn’t bend itself to our narratives.
All Things Left Wild is available for purchase from BookPeople today. And don’t forget to register for our free virtual event with James Wade on Thursday, June 18th at 7PM CDT.
NOTE: Because this is a virtual event that will be hosted on Zoom, you will need access to a computer or other device that is capable of accessing and sufficient Internet access. If you have not used Zoom before, you may consider referencing Getting Started with Zoom.