David James Keaton has one of the most active imaginations out there (Stephen Graham Jones might have a slight lead, but it is close). Pig Iron is his take on the western. It is part deconstruction, part weird western, part dark comedy, and all DJK. It really does resist comparisons to other westerns and because of that, is worth your time.
Brian Lindenmuth: Why a western?
David James Keaton: My western novel Pig Iron was initially a screenplay, several years and several “western resurgences” ago. Unforgiven came out in the ’90s, and everyone was all about the Big Western Comeback, then it didn’t happen, of course. In retrospect, it made sense that it didn’t happen because Unforgiven felt like the end of the road. Who wanted to follow that? I tried to with my screenplay, but I couldn’t really finish it, until The Proposition, Three Burials, and Assassination of Jesse James landed in 2005, 2006, and 2007. So then it felt like there really was a comeback. But somewhere in there, the 3:10 to Yuma remake and Appaloosa came out, and they were the sign posts I was missing, mainly the fact that those were the ones that made money, and they were middle-of-the-road pop westerns, which I still love, but with none of the vitality of those other ones, and nothing I wanted to try and emulate. So then I was hungry to finish the screenplay, so I did, and I printed off a dozen and send them out. It got close to being picked up (actually one studio asked me to write a “sci-fi” western for them instead, and this was before Cowboys and Aliens!), then I pouted and forgot about trying to write movies for awhile and put aside all my screenplays. But I was always bummed no one got to read that western story, which my dad and I had spent a lot of time on hashing out plot-wise, so I retro-fitted it into a novel, keeping the present-tense scene intros, and I think it suited the material. But I quickly found out that selling a western novel was even harder than selling a western screenplay, and after anther long slog, it finally ended up at Blastgun/Burnt Bridge, where they’d had some luck with David Oppegaard’s weird western <And the Hills Opened Up, and I worked with Jason Stuart and Mark Raspacz to put out a cool little book that still feels like a movie.
Why did this story have to be a western?
I don’t know. I was trying to be a genre hopper for awhile, and I was trying to get westerns out of my system or something, to write the “ultimate” western (which is obnoxious to say, and everyone tries this, of course), but one that had the same impact as Unforgiven was a ridiculous goal, especially since Pig Iron is doing something weirder and more otherworldly, closer to The Proposition, but, like, funny? But somewhere along the way, stories about dystopian futures had become almost indistinguishable from westerns. Fury Road and Bone Tomahawk could be part of the same universe, right? And High Plains Drifter is 100% just as weird as The Gunslinger. And I was caught up in that, so, ironically, I ended up with exactly the sort of “sci-fi” western I’d scoffed at a decade ago.
What is your favorite western movie?
Some western-movie fans have trouble answering this question and narrowing it down to one movie, but it’s easy. My favorite western movie is Per Un Pugno Di Dollari (a.k.a. A Fistful of Dollars), Per Qualche Dollaro In Più (a.k.a. For a Few Dollars More), Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, (a.k.a. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Giù la Testa, (a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite, a.k.a. Duck, You Sucker, a.k.a. Once Upon A Time: The Revolution, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Yojimbo, Last Man Standing, The Quick and the Dead, Unforgiven, Dead Man, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Deadwood, Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Appaloosa, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Mission, Tombstone, Utu, Undead, (or anything else with a four-barreled shotgun), The Outlaw Jose Wales, Duel in the Sun, Major Dundee, Ravenous (now that’s how you introduce a hero), Django, Django, Kill! (If You Live, Shoot!) (a.k.a. Oro Hondo, a.k.a. Se Sei Vivo, Spara), Django Unchained, (most of the Djangos really), The Way of the Gun, Westworld (original and episode 1 of the reboot looks real promising), Wild Bill, The Proposition, Lawless (and anything else Nick Cave writes in the future), Heaven’s Gate, exactly half the Zulu movies, Extreme Prejudice, C’era uno Volta il West, (a.k.a. Once Upon A Time In The West), C’era uno Volta il Amerigo (a.k.a. Once Upon A Time In America, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (a.k.a. Everybody Hates That Movie, but fuck it, he shoots the cook, and you need a trilogy to restore balance), Le Dernier Combat (a.k.a. The Last Battle), The Searchers, Kung Fu Hustle (a.k.a. King Fusion, such a western), I Quattro dell’apocalisse (a.k.a. Four of the Apocalypse, Geronimo, Open Range (for the candy-bar scene alone), Six-String Samurai, Giant, High Noon, Outland, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Jonah Hex, Black Robe, The Long Riders, Mannaja (a.k.a. A Man Called Blade), El Mariachi, Desperado, The Rundown, One Eyed Jacks, Pale Rider, Run Man Run (a.k.a. Corri uomo corri, a.k.a. Big Gundown 2), Sukiyaki Western Django, 3:10 to Yuma (both versions), Junior Bonner, True Grit (both versions), Quigley Down Under (not both versions, just the one with Magnum P.I.), and all three Young Guns films (I’m being optimistic).
What is your favorite western novel?
What movie is that? Just kidding. Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. And the movie version is an immaculate adaptation. Looking forward to The Kid this month.
Who is your favorite western writer?
Probably Sam Pecknipah.
What do you most value in the fiction you love?
A lack of unearned melodrama. Bold moves. Dark humor.
Who is your favorite violent western character?
Oh shit, tough question. Gene Hackman’s Little Bill is fully realized, but Ron Hansen’s (or Brad Pitt’s) Jesse James is positively reptilian in his loopy malevolence.
Is the western genre dead, dying, in a state of disrepair, or doing just fine?
I would say it’s doing fine, if by “doing fine” means it’s remained in a state of not quite catching on enough to be mainstreamed, no matter how many Magnificent Seven updates they throw at us, and how weirdly green they make them.
Then/Now/Next: what book did you read last, what book are you reading now, and what book will you read next?
Last book I read was Harry Crews’ Feast of Snakes, I’m currently re-reading Alissa Nutting’s Tampa to dream of the upcoming Harmony Korine adaptation, and almost done with Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels.
What was the last great western that you consumed (watched or read)?
I’m more into “almost good” and/or “almost great” movies, so Bone Tomahawk was almost great. The Westworld reboot just landed, and the first episode was real juicy. The original movie was odd and scary when we were kids, but it’s since been relegated to the history books as sort of a Jurassic Park trial run for Michael Crichton, which is kinda true. But this new one is weirder than that, and more deconstructive of the classic western tale. This makes it way more Cabin in the Woods than Jurassic Park, which is more in my wheelhouse.
David James Keaton’s work has appeared in over 50 publications, including Grift, Chicago Quarterly Review, Thuglit, PANK, and Noir at the Bar II. His contribution to Plots With Guns #10 was named a Notable Story of 2010 by storySouth’s Million Writers Award, and he won a 2012 Spinetingler Award for the Best Short Story on the Web. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, recently received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Flywheel Magazine. These days, he’s tinkering with several screenplays, including a prison movie, a thriller, and a western, also adapting them into novels. He realizes this method is probably backwards. His books are available wherever insanity is sold.