Doomed Quests in the Old WestAn Interview with Dominique Scali, Author of In Search of New Babylon
Dominique Scali is an award-winning French Canadian novelist and journalist. Her novel À la recherche de New Babylon (2015) won the 2016 First Novel Award at the Festival du Premier Roman, held in Chambéry, France. It was also a finalist for the Governor General's Award for French-language fiction (2015), the Grand Prix du livre de Montréal (2015), and the Prix des libraires du Québec (2016). The English edition, translated by W. Donald Wilson, titled In Search of New Babylon, was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for French to English translation in 2017.
The novel opens just outside the town of Paria, where the unconscious form of Reverend Aaron is found face down in the dirt, both hands severed at the wrists and the stumps cauterized. The mystery surrounding the Reverend's origins, his identity, and the events that led to his mangled body being discarded somewhere along the trail between Paria and the Sevener homestead appear central to the novel's action. We soon learn, however, that
Most people will read this book to find out everything they can about Charles Teasdale. Mexican readers will want to learn the fate of Vincente Aguilar. Others will be looking to better understand Russian Bill, or Pearl Guthrie. But this book is dedicated to the people of Paria, for only they will turn its pages to know more about the Reverend Aaron.(14)
The complicating of these initial expectations is in keeping with Scali's novel as a whole, which captures a sense of disillusionment with the legend of the West.
Alongside the ersatz preacher Reverend Aaron, Scali introduces us to outlaw arsonist and bare-knuckle fighter Charles Teasdale, [End Page 193] whose various brushes with the hangman's noose quickly turns him into a legend. There is the single-minded and independent Pearl Guthrie who absconds from her family home in the dead of night in search of a "real man" to take as a husband. And finally, Russian Bill, an outlaw who claims to be a Russian aristocrat and the only character in the novel based on a real historical personage. What unites the stories of these disparate characters is the sense in which they are each drawn to traverse the American West in search of something meaningful. For Russian Bill, this is the quest of the novel's title. Bill is seeking to set up his ideal of a western town, a dirty, dangerous, gunslingers' paradise he will call "New Babylon." But, as with all the other ideals posited in the novel, reality confounds his plans.
In charting a series of repeatedly frustrated quests, Scali's novel foregrounds the ways the Wild West as a place of myth and legend is perpetually out of reach. There is a sense of movement as the action moves from town to town, but it is the cyclical movement of repetition rather than progress. As the character Charles Teasdale puts it: there is "no difference between always moving on and going in circles" (103). The novel is built up of short chapters, each named for the specific town where the action of that chapter takes place, "Paria," "Bullionville," "Panamint," and so forth. Yet these chapters are grouped into sections that highlight the repetitive nature of the action against the changing backdrop of these various towns: "The Ten Hangings of Charles Teasdale," "The Thirty Marriages Pearl Guthrie Never Had," "Russian Bill's Hundred Killings." In this way In Search of New Babylon balances the weary cynicism of a modern Western with the readability of a fast-moving novel.
In August 2018 I spoke to the author about the work that went into writing this novel; the influences and experiences that inspired her writing, her writing process, and her perspective on the Western genre as a writer working from outside the US context.
I thought I'd start by asking you about the title of your book In Search of New Babylon. What is the significance of "New Babylon" for you? [End Page 194]
I think I liked the idea of Babylon as the opposite of paradise. We always hear of Babylon as a place of chaos, a place where a lot of things are happening. I imagined that Russian Bill would like that name for his ideal town where everyone fights duels and where everything is loud, dangerous, and chaotic.
Is it fair to say that in your novel there is a strong sense of distance between the ideal—like Russian Bill's idea of New Babylon—and the reality?
Definitely. I liked the idea of characters going out West and thinking that all of the different towns are really important, but then they turn out to all be the same. The descriptions of all those places are very important, they are almost like characters themselves. I spend a lot of time talking about those towns. But in the end, the characters don't find what they're looking for even though they keep going from town to town. I like to play with that idea of a place that shows the emptiness. The physical emptiness because of the desert but also the psychological emptiness in not finding what your quest is about.
You mention that you spent a lot of time thinking about these places; how did you prepare to write about these towns to make them feel like real locations?
At first it came out of my imagination while I was reading things. It was very spontaneous. A big part of my research was based on instinct and what I felt like reading. I was just obsessed with that universe, so everything that I could get on it was providing me with inspiration. At some point I decided that I wanted these places to be real. Some of them I chose are ghost towns about which we know absolutely nothing, meaning I had more freedom with what I said about them, but they were still places we know existed. The research at that point changed from general cultural research to more specific historical research where I had to find real towns that fit the things I had imagined. Sometimes it was very [End Page 195] difficult. I had this town in mind and I was thinking, how do I find something that fits this imaginary idea? But at the same time, I stumbled across real things that fed this whole process. It soon became hard to say which town was completely fictional at first and which was completely historical at first. It was a process in two parts.
You also visited the US, specifically Arizona. How much did that trip help inform your sense of place?
One of the most difficult places to write about was Tombstone in Arizona because I'd been there! In many ways, having that experience helped me. A lot of the details and ideas I gathered for the novel I got from Arizona, but it also made it difficult to write about that place because it's a tourist destination now and so the vision created there for tourists wasn't necessarily useful to the vision I needed for my book. There are a lot of shows and costumes. Everything is very staged.
In terms of your conception of the West, was the coming together of the historically grounded with the imagined something you actively sought to navigate or did it emerge during the process?
I think it emerged during the process. It took me about five years to write the novel. The first four years were spent writing snippets, almost like puzzle pieces I didn't know would make a novel at some point. I really didn't know where I was going with it. It was only when I took a break—and with that distance thought about crafting these pieces into a novel—that I began to think about the historical details. I just kept adding puzzle pieces until I could no longer deny that I had the material for a novel. The only thing that I felt from the start was the importance of the towns as chapters. One town, one chapter, chronology didn't matter. It was always about describing those places.
I'm really interested by the description of your writing process as involving these "puzzle pieces." I wonder how much this way [End Page 196] of writing informed the structure of your novel, which is made up of these very short sections?
It's hard to say. Is it because I wrote it that way? Or is it because I always had this idea that I wanted to structure it like that with one chapter one town? I know that the epigraphs between the chapters that come from Charles Teasdale's last thoughts were very deliberately structured that way. I had been writing them for a little while and I wasn't sure what to do with them. They didn't fit with the tone of the rest of the novel, but when I got some distance from the writing and thought about placing them in between the chapters it made a lot of sense as a way of framing the sections.
Charles Teasdale is of course one of the main characters in your novel. How did you come up with these characters? Were there any historical or fictional templates that you used or was it an act of imagination?
I'd say a lot of that was from my imagination, except for Russian Bill. Russian Bill is a historical character about whom we know very little, and the things that we do know sound a little impossible! I stumbled upon a short description of Russian Bill in a museum when I was in Arizona and thought that he would make a good character for my novel. For the most part, though, these characters formed in my imagination while I was in that universe, reading and watching movies for so many years.
Is there anything in particular that you watched or read that you think influenced your writing?
Way before I had this infatuation for Westerns as part of my research for this novel, I had watched the Italian spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. They were my first interaction with the genre. I had always liked their cynicism and had maybe carried that in the back of my mind. When I started being interested in that universe for my novel and started watching older Westerns, I realized there was something I really liked about classic Westerns too. Aspects [End Page 197] of these older movies haven't aged as well but there is something about the nostalgia and the romance that the classical Western had and that the spaghetti Western didn't have that really appealed to me. In particular, that image from The Searchers by John Ford and starring John Wayne of the little house in the desert with the sunset and the idea of this happy family living surrounded by the potential for danger. There's something about that image that really inspired me. In my novel there is a lot of cynicism, but there is also a sense of longing for this ideal place and a sadness that comes from not finding your little house in the desert with the sunset.
Your novel deals with four different main characters. Did you have a favorite when you were writing?
Not really, because even if I said that there was one I had imagined much more before I started writing and others I struggled to realize at the beginning; it was a very circular process. I would write something about Pearl, then something about the Reverend, then about Charles Teasdale, and each one took precedence when I was working on them. Russian Bill was slightly different because I stumbled on him a little later. I found Russian Bill in a museum and had a moment of revelation as I realized this was a character I had been trying to build but had been struggling with. There was something missing with that character until this discovery when things began to fall into place. Apart from that, it was very circular, so it would be hard to pick a favorite. On the other hand, I feel like the character that was almost neglected was the matador. At one point he was almost a fifth main character, but it became clear that he couldn't have the same importance as the others and was more of a background character. That decision was difficult to make because I really liked him! The real difference though was that he wasn't on a quest like the rest of the main characters. He was an interesting character, which is why I liked him, but his storyline didn't fit the pattern for the novel I was trying to write.
With regards to Pearl, the obvious question to ask is about the role of women in the Western genre, traditionally, and to what extent that influenced your writing of her. [End Page 198]
I don't think I purposefully said "I'm going to write a strong woman" just because women aren't traditionally central to western stories, but when I looked back at all those classical stories with stereotypical characters and with the women often in the background being pretty damsels in distress, I knew there had to be something more going on behind that. And perhaps, yes, the men writing those stories didn't necessarily care about the inner lives of those female characters, but I was always interested in going deeper into who those women were, and that's what I tried to address with Pearl.
One of the other main characters in the novel is a writer. How significant is that occupation in terms of the plot and the story? Were you saying something about the writing process or about the persona of the writer through that character?
Yes, I think there is something about the position of the writer as an observer, about not being an active player in the game and about trying not to intervene that was very important in terms of that character. We often have this very noble idea of writing as something that is important for society, but taking a cynical point of view, which my novel often does, we can say that writing is also choosing not to help. It's choosing not to help things change and make the world better. It's choosing just to look. In the Reverend's case it's also choosing not really to communicate what you're observing; he's not really publishing what he's writing. So, I think my novel presents an almost negative view of writing and of being a writer that we don't tend to think about.
You work as a journalist as well as a novelist. Do you think that the style of writing you use as a journalist helped you approach writing a Western?
I don't think I had had enough experience as a journalist when I started writing this novel to say that it helped. That may be different for my next books, as I've spent many years writing journalism now. But I think my love of research has certainly been useful in both roles, as a fiction writer and a writer of journalism. In [End Page 199] terms of style, I actually think that my work as a novelist helps my style as a journalist rather than the other way around.
You mention your love of research, and you have spoken about coming across Russian Bill in a museum and about your research into specific towns, but is there anything else in terms of the research you did that you found particularly useful or interesting?
I read a lot of nonfiction books that were incredibly useful, perhaps more so than the fictional books. There was something about learning about the true historical reality that was incredibly interesting, especially during those times you realize that the myth isn't that far from the reality. The book that probably inspired me most though was a work of fiction: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian was so compelling and at the same time so enigmatic. I don't understand that book, but when I read it, it was like a bee sting and I knew I wanted to write a Western. McCarthy's writing is so vivid, and there was something about that universe that I wanted to dive into. That book was both a starting point and an ending point for me. It is what gave me the initial sting, and also, in the last year when I was actively writing New Babylon, I would read parts of Blood Meridian in the mornings just to get me started with the language because it really put me in that universe. It was like my Bible.
Do you think you were inspired more by the general atmosphere and language of the novel or were there any other, more specific, elements that you drew on?
There was something about the atmosphere, definitely, but also about the type of characters McCarthy writes. You get the sense that they are not just characters but metaphors for something else, something bigger, and that was a very big influence on how I thought about character in my own writing. Seeing how he wrote characters that were interesting and compelling without going explicitly into their psychology or intentions was fascinating. He goes to such extremes in not describing the intentions of [End Page 200] his characters, and I really liked that. While I didn't go as far as McCarthy, I did want to get across a sense of my characters as metaphorical figures with the ability to embody broader concepts, as well as discrete individuals.
As a Canadian author, why do you think the American West appeals to writers outside of the US?
I think even though it's a historical period particular to America, the myth created through Hollywood has allowed this image to spread around the world, and it's an image many people are drawn to. Some of the colonial aspects of the American West are relevant to other places, like Canada, but even the elements that might seem exotic—I think we've seen so much of it that it doesn't feel foreign. I also think there's something about the aura of authenticity that goes along with the old West that appeals to people of the younger generations who have grown up during the technological revolution. We live in a society that can seem quite disconnected and fragmented and so there's something appealing in the more savage, more real, more natural setting Westerns offer. For me, the West was the perfect canvas on which to project more modern quests: finding meaning, finding inspiration, finding love, finding glory. Each of the characters has their own golden nugget that they're trying to find.
Do you feel there were any particular opportunities or advantages to writing a Western from outside of that US context?
The problem I felt I had with the Western genre was that so much that surrounds it has become clichéd. Without effort it came to me that one of the ways to evacuate the clichés was through language, and for that French helped me a lot. In the whole novel, I never used the word "saloon," and I never used the word "cowboy." In French we can say "cow-boy," but we also have the word "vacher," which goes back to the French core of it and gets you back to the idea that these were people that looked after cows, avoiding the cliché. It was the same thing with "saloon." Saloons are so associated [End Page 201] with the Western cliché that you forget the reality of it, so by not using it and by using other words to describe it, it felt like I was going deeper into the reality and not just replaying those same clichés. I don't know if they used those words when they translated it into English, but I specifically chose not to use those words.
Writing in French, how did you make the dialogue sound like it belonged to a Western?
Dialogue was one of the more difficult parts of the writing process. These were characters that would obviously be speaking in English, but I was writing their speech in French. It was a challenge to get the right tone and to seem authentic. Because I'd been watching a lot of Westerns, I had a sense of the voices of these characters from the perspective of the English language, but it was quite different thinking about how that would work in French. I focused on making the dialogue seem rural or unsophisticated in French, thinking more about how these characters would sound as French speakers. The dialogue was driven by the characters.
Did you enjoy the translation when you read it?
I did! It was like rediscovering the book in a way. It felt lighter. In French, the sentences are longer and that's partly to do with the way the languages work, but it created a slightly different feel to the book that was really interesting for me.
Do you think you'll write another Western in the future, or are you planning something very different for your next book?
My next book is set in a different kind of world, but I'm not ready to say what that world is quite yet! [End Page 202]
victoria addis is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research examines the concept of ecomasculinity in contemporary US fiction that invokes or reimagines the Old West.