Interview with Pamela DiFrancesco, author of The Devils That Have Come to Stay

In her starkly beautiful, poetic novel The Devils That Have Come to Stay (to be published by Medallion Press in February), Pamela DiFrancesco takes us into a dark and violent world that only gets darker with each turn of the pages. The novel brings us to California in the midst of the Gold Rush, and into the life of a saloon keeper whose wife has taken leave of him to care for her desperately ill mother in a town to the north.

Early in the novel, the saloon keeper (also the narrator) crosses paths with a Me-Wuk Indian, who’d vanished from the bar after stealing gold from another customer. When the narrator discovers the Indian scattering this gold, leaving a trail of white feathers, the Indian explains that he is only returning to the earth what has been “stolen” from it. “Perhaps if I can make it back to where the gold came from,” he explains, “my bag will empty, and the last feather will fall.” The place he has come from is close to where the narrator’s wife is caring for her mother, so the narrator decides to set off with the Indian. In the interest of not giving too much away, all I’ll say is that their journey is dark indeed, bringing the two men (and readers) in contact with the large-scale slaughter and the environmental, and spiritual, degradation that marked whites’ settlement of the West.

As an acid western, The Devils That Have Come to Stay turns the conventions of the traditional western upside down. In this novel, like other works in the genre, the white man isn’t a hero; quite the opposite. And while the traditional western ends in triumph and glory, acid westerns end in disillusionment and worse. While this book satisfies within the parameters of the genre, it delivers on many other levels as well.

One of the things I admire most about The Devils That Have Come to Stay is the way in which DiFrancesco portrays the inner struggles of the narrator, who seems to be the only white man with a conscience; that proves to be its own form of torture. He understands that he is one of the devils of the novel’s title, yet he also sees that his own needs and fears will almost always prevent him from intervening in the wrongs he witnesses, or from committing sins of his own. As they follow these ruminations of the narrator, readers may be put in the uncomfortable position of examining the ways in which they, too, have distanced themselves from problems they’ve helped to create. (This was certainly true for me.)

I also love the way in which women are given real agency in this book, in contrast to so many traditional westerns. In one crucial scene, several women band together to slaughter their enemies (a group of murderous white men) with businesslike efficiency and without apology. Here’s a great description of the battle’s aftermath:

They were mostly Indian and Mexican women. There were fierce-looking Celestial [Chinese] women, and every now and then a black woman, too. Not a few of the women’s bodies were missing some piece—an arm, a leg, a hand—though the lack did not seem to bother them. All their faces were hard and without mirth, but no one looked cruel. It was as if they had an inevitable job to do, and now it was done.

Aside from strongly recommending The Devils That Have Come to Stay, I’d also like to share an interview that I did with the author, Pamela DiFrancesco.

What inspired you to write a western—or, specifically, an acid western?

I really enjoy challenges in writing. Writing that feels easy to me isn’t usually something that keeps me engaged enough to finish it. The way I mainly challenged myself as a writer prior to writing this book was through writing experimental pieces—stories that played with traditional structure, or language, or traditional notions of character. Then, based on a class I took in college, I began playing with genre fiction a bit, and discovered that I really liked trying to create meaningful and artistic writing within the strict boundaries of genres. Acid westerns were always interesting to me, as they took a genre that could be considered problematic in so many ways and made it something deeper, with a completely different message and approach as a subgenre. The acid western appeals to a lot of my own ideals—the failings of capitalism and expansionism for one, the alternative view of the American Dream for another. The more I learned about the genre, the more I wanted to work in it.

Were there any particular books or films in the genre that you looked to as models or brain fodder?

So many! Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, first and foremost, but also Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Monte Hellman’s The Shooting, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder. Other books that weren’t necessarily in the genre, but had similar ideals, such as Terry Bisson’s Fire on the Mountain, were really influential in the writing of this piece as well.

When I reflect on the narrator’s longing for his wife, and on the Indian’s attempts to return the gold to the earth, I get the sense that the novel is in some way about unrealized dreams. Do you think this kind of disappointment and disillusionment in any way comments on the consequences of western expansion and industrialization?

I love that interpretation, and I think it’s spot on. The California Gold Rush was a really fruitful time for a smaller number of people, but for so many, it was a destruction of the earth, a way of life, and the genocide of their people, particularly Native American tribes of California. Even those who traveled westward often met with incredible hardships or terrible ends. There’s a scene in the book where the narrator finds a town where people build coffins and gravestones day and night for this endless stream of death that the Gold Rush has actually been. In many ways, the Gold Rush and the American Dream in general are unrealized for many people who attempt them. For every person who gets rich, there are people who work hard and end up with nothing; for every person who “makes it,” there’s a hundred who die with only dreams that someday, someone they care about will have it better than they did.

The sense that western expansion, particularly gold mining, polluted the earth also felt like a major thread through the book. Did you intend for the book to touch on environmental degradation from the start, or did that emerge as you worked on the book?

That was something I intended from the start. I felt like was in keeping with the overall ideals of the genre, even though it’s not something the genre always explores fully.

I saw from the Acknowledgments in the novel that members of the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians read your writing about the Indian for historical accuracy. Did they provide any particular insights that helped you see him in a new or different way?

Vicki Stone and Stanley Robert Cox from the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians were really wonderful about reading the piece. I did a lot of research about the Me-Wuks before beginning the story because I was very careful about the fact that many non-Native American writers, when they write a Native American character, use stereotypes, or kind of mix and match Native American tribes’ history to create composite Native American characters. I thoroughly researched the Me-Wuks and their traditions before beginning, and Vicki and Stanley agreed to read through to make sure that those traditions were represented correctly. So it wasn’t exactly about the character, as much as making sure I paid correct attention to historical accuracy. It was really wonderful of them to take the time to read the book, and I’m indebted to them for doing so.

How did you hook up with Medallion Press? What have been some of the advantages (or disadvantages) of being published by a small press?

I first read about Medallion Press when they announced that they were publishing a Chuck Palahniuk anthology of transgressive fiction titled Burnt Tongues. I remember thinking as I read the post that if they were publishing something he had put together, they might be open to my somewhat dark and strange novel as well. I independently queried them with the first three chapters, and in a few weeks they responded requesting the entire novel. Shortly after that, they offered me a contract, which was pretty much one of the happiest days of my life – other than the day I married my wonderful partner, of course.

The biggest advantage is that there’s been a lot of personal attention from the press. I think I’ve spoken to most of the people who work at Medallion at one point or another. They’ve consulted with me about everything, from marketing to final edits. They always respond quickly to e-mails and take the time to call me up and discuss things with me. So that’s been absolutely wonderful, and something I’m told you don’t always get with a bigger publisher.

Something that I’ve found many writers have a hard time with whether they’re with a small or a large press is that writers in the Internet age are expected to do a lot of their PR themselves. For someone like me who just wants to write, that can be a real challenge, albeit one that I’m learning from. I actually hate to complain about any part of being a writer, because it’s always been my dream, and even the disadvantages are great problems to have.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your book, about small-press publishing, or anything else?

I’ve interned at small presses and now I’ve published with one, and I think they are often the idealists of the book world. They’re not doing what they’re doing because there’s millions to be made in it; they’re doing it because they love and believe in what they’re doing. I think that is pretty amazing and special, and certainly the kind of people whose hands I want my hard work to be in.

Other things? The New York Public Library main branch is a great place to research books. You can sit at those tables for hours; you don’t even have to buy a coffee. Contrary to popular opinion, marrying an artist when you’re an artist yourself is a wonderful idea, because they understand when you lock yourself in your room for days at a time to make up stories. Devour books, movies, and music as much as you can, because inspiration comes from the world around you and from what other artists are creating. Surround yourself with people who support what you’re doing, because when you forget that your art is worth anything, they will remind you.

Thanks so much for your time!