Nunslinger, penned by Stark Holborn, has been the best combination of contemporary and classic publishing: a terrific novel from a major publisher, but published as a series of serialised ebook adventures. Perhaps best of all, Nunslinger is a classic Western—no Weirdest, no Lovecraftian horrors, no post-apocalyptic metaphors—just a nun, some guns, and all the adventure that the 1860s had to offer. On December 5th, a year from our first introduction to Sister Thomas Josephine and her penchant for mayhem, Nunslinger is finally coming out as a single volume.
One of the great mysteries is the identity of Stark Holborn—the garrulous pseudonym selected by Nunslinger’s author. To celebrate the final instalment in this fantastic Western, Holborn agreed to grant an interview.
What prompted the idea of writing a good ol’ fashioned Western?
If you had told me five years ago that I would end up writing Westerns, let alone a huge, sprawling traditional Western, I would’ve probably thought that you were cracked, or joking or both. As you might guess from the title, the idea for the story and the genre it belonged to went hand-in-hand; Sister TJ appeared, and I followed, deep into the murky depths of the Western…
Given it has been over 150 years since the height of the Wild West, what is it about this particular genre that has such a lingering appeal?
Well now, that question could start a bar brawl… I reckon it’s because the Western is something of a mongrel, made up of the best parts of other genres.
In its vast journeys, we see the adventure quests of classic Fantasy. In its spirit of frontier discovery coupled with the introduction – and threat – of new technologies, we see two distinct aspects of Science Fiction. The Western can see the Romance of two lost souls in a vast wilderness sit comfortably alongside the gore and brutality of Horror, maybe with the mystery and retribution of Crime thrown in. As a genre, it can be restrictive in that everyone knows what to expect, yet I can’t think of another genre that offers such freedom of narrative within its strong set of established conventions. In that way, it’s like the frontier itself, setting the dream of limitlessness against the shackles of established reality. And that there’s a dilemma familiar to us all.
Is it more difficult writing for a serial? How do you come up with all the different cliffhangers?
The cliffhangers were the easy part! Writing a serial has its pros and cons. On the upside, there’s a certain headlong energy that goes hand in hand with a tight publication schedule, and that suits an adventure yarn. On the downside, you find yourself wishing you had more time to brew over the story’s trajectory as a whole; to rip it apart and put it back together again. That’s probably not so much the case if you’re a planner. I ain’t. I know vaguely where the story’s going, but never exactly how it’s going to get there until I start writing.
Overall, it’s a damn sight easier to write a book of this size in novella length sections: I’m not sure that I would’ve had the grit to write a full, 180,000 word novel in the same timescale, yet as 12 novellas, it was manageable.
Are any of the characters inspired by historical figures?
Spilling my secrets, eh? Yes. Some of them. Benjamin Reasoner is based on the marvellous Bass Reeves, the first African American deputy west of the Mississippi. He was a lawman and a detective for 32 years, spoke a handful of Native American languages, and apprehended some of the most notorious criminals of the time. Apart from that, I guess there’s a smattering of Mark Twain running through several characters, from riverboatmen to Franklin Templeton. And I believe Colm Puttick absorbed a healthy chunk of Confederate Guerilla badman William Quantrill. But apart from that, my characters are mostly composite Frankenstein’s monsters, scraps of inspiration picked up from all over.
Where’s that inspiration come from? The level of detail is really impressive, and you’ve snuck in all sorts of (occasionally horrifying) fun-facts about 19th century frontier life.
The internet is a wondrous place. I spent a long time trawling primary historical sources, both for inspiration and accuracy. I looked at semi-fictionalised journals by Civil War widows, letters from soldiers to their families, Railroad pamphlets, advertisements and – my favourite – encyclopaedias of medical and surgical history. How else are you supposed to know how much beef tea and brandy to mix opium with? You can be damn sure that if you’re interested in the answer to a question, someone else in the world is too, and has probably posted about it online. And so by way of odd search terms I found out about recipes for groundhog stews, how and when it is advisable to eat an iguana, the history of iodine and the layout of Gratriot Street Prison in St. Louis.
There are some fine free repositories of information out there; a shout out especially goes to the Internet Archive / California Digital Library. In short, I read as widely as I could, and went hunting for specifics. The one thing I didn’t read many of were actual Westerns: I deliberately stayed away from them when I was writing Nunslinger; I think I wanted to stay as fresh – and probably as ignorant – as I could, wading into a genre of intense stereotypes.
At the heart of Nunslinger is a love triangle—Sister Thomas Josephine, Abraham Muir and Sister Thomas Josephine’s faith. How can Muir compare with God’s omnipotence? And how is God supposed to compete with Muir’s manly physique and brooding sensuality?
Muir does have a bit of a brood on a lot of the time; it certainly gives Sister TJ some trouble. At first, almost all of her relationships take place on a scale of pure and immutable versus savage and fallible; Carthy is the first one to challenge that, and as the story goes on, those binary definitions become more and more blurred. Gradually, TJ comes to understand that humans are a tangled mess of loyalty, morality, passion and shame, herself included. She isn’t actually a very good Catholic, but she is trying to be a good person: those two things don’t mesh well a lot of the time. By the eighth book, she can acknowledge that we have all fallen as a leaf, and that’s an important turning point for her. It’s part of the recognition that empathy isn’t the same thing as piety, and that to do the “right thing” is rarely clear cut or easy.
Besides our star-crossed pair, are there any other particular favourite characters?
I’m a sucker for a villain, what does that say about me? Although, there are no true “baddies” in Nunslinger. For the most part, they’re all people who’ve found themselves at the raw edge of the world. Colm Puttick’s one example.
My personal favourite is Lieutenant Carthy. He was great fun to write, a real volatile cocktail of emotions, yet he began to claim more and more of my sympathy. For all his dastardliness, his cold-bloodedness and dubious intentions towards Sister Thomas Josephine, part of him desperately wants to be seen as morally “good”. He can never rid himself of the desire to be forgiven; hope can be a terrible thing, and the Sister’s promises of salvation both tantalise and haunt him.
Please can we have a Reasoner series next? (What if we paired him with a scrappy teenage railroad-hobo named Alexandria Rime? They could solve mysteries!)
That sure sounds grand. Where do I sign up?
I’ll take that as a yes. But until then, what other Westerns would you recommend—modern or classic?
What’s your poison? Pulpy and romantic or blood-soaked and bleak? For the former, there’s always Louis L’Amour for a silly, thigh-slapping romp, or for the latter, Cormac McCarthy and Deadwood. Now, I like Westerns that look slightly askance at the tradition, so I’d choose The Sisters Brothers and Dead Man for self-aware, surreal black comedy and Elmore Leonard for crime-Western mash-up. Jurassic London’s A Town called Pandemonium is a thrown-in-at-the-deep-end anthology of Western stories, while John Hornor Jacob’s The Incorruptibles will entice those in the market for a dark, fantasy-Western crossover. Sergio Leone’s films are a must, for unbeatable landscapes, characters and faces. To that I’d add Mark Twain’s Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi for classic, semiautobiographical travel writing, as well as the adventures of Isabella L. Bird, and the lyrical essays of Mary Hunter Austin. And, of course, Firefly for fun.
The twelve-part Nunslinger serial, by Stark Holborn, has been running for a year and is available on a number of ebook platforms. The complete collection is available December 5th from Hodder & Stoughton (UK).
Jared Shurin once shot a man in Reno, just to see him die.