Holly Messinger started writing Madeleine L’Engle fanfic in the third grade, and by the time she completed her BA in English, had written more than a million words of original fiction. Her stories inevitably feature snarky female anti-heroes. In addition to writing, Holly has had a lengthy career as a costume designer, mostly making high-end superhero costumes for cosplayers. She appeared as a judge on SyFy’s Heroes of Cosplay in 2013. Her short fiction credits include “End of the Line,” which appeared in Baen’s Universe; and “Moreau’s Daughter,” featured in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her brand new debut novel is The Curse of Jacob Tracy.
Holly Messinger’s debut novel, The Curse of Jacob Tracy, is a riveting weird western (though she prefers the term “gothic western”) featuring a pair of hands-on wilderness guides in the old west. Jacob Tracy (Trace) and John Bosley (Boz) tend to find trouble wherever they go, no thanks to Trace’s ability to see ghosts. Trace tries to avoid the ghosts (who wouldn’t?) but is forced to confront his unwanted ability when the wealthy and reclusive Sabine Fairweather hires Trace and Boz to perform odd jobs. Although Trace hopes that Ms. Fairweather’s knowledge of the spirit world will help him stop seeing ghosts, he comes to realize that his powers might be put to good use. Or, it could be that Miss Fairweathers’ intention are much more sinister. (Hint: they are.)
What impressed me the most about The Curse of Jacob Tracy is how fascinating the story was and how much I enjoyed the “flavor” of the western setting — and this coming from a reader who leans more towards science fiction than fantasy. After reading only half of it, I jumped at the chance to chat with Holly about her new book, its appealing setting, her writing, and of course: chocolate, and weaponry.
John DeNardo: You’ve described THE CURSE OF JACOB TRACY as a “Gothic Western” as opposed to the more commonly used term “Weird Western”. What are the similarities and differences between the two, if any?
Holly Messinger: It’s a fairly specious difference, I suspect. “Weird Western” often includes alternate universes and fantasy worlds that aren’t American-history or even Earth-history. I wanted to write something that was very historically grounded, so it seemed to me I needed a distinction. But there’s been a boom of weird western fiction in the last five years, so it all exists on a spectrum. I’m perfectly content with folks calling it a weird western, but it’s pretty tame compared to some of what’s out there!
JD: Can you tell us the genesis of the Trace and Boz characters?
HM: I had just written this dystopic spacepunk thing, and I wanted something new to work on, ideally with a straightforward good guy. The guy I was dating at the time liked westerns, and he pitched me this incredibly hokey concept about a monster-hunting posse straight from Central Casting: the ex-slave, the Indian warrior, the gunfighter with a past, the whore with the heart of gold, etc. etc.. (I think we had just seen John Carpenter’s Vampires.)
So I rolled my eyes and set about deconstructing the clichés, as any pompous English major would do, and asked myself what kind of character would get the most mileage out of such a set up, which is to say: How could I best torture my hero? The first point of order was to realize that before a guy could fight monsters he must be able to find the monsters.
That inspired the Miss Fairweather character, who directed him for her own purposes, and the logical progression of that thought was to ask “Why would she choose this guy?” which led to the conclusion that he must have some power that made him ideal to fight monsters. And from the depths of my own burgeoning spiritual crisis I remembered there was a Biblical injunction against speaking to spirits or consulting with witches, and I realized that my cowboy’s ability was also his burden, because he believed himself cursed. In other words, building the Jacob Tracy character was pure reverse-engineering: good solid start-with-the-conflict storycraft. Miss Fairweather and Trace were constructed as antithetical to each other from the beginning.
Boz, on the other hand, was one of those delightful organic characters who just walked into the scene, lit a smoke and made himself at home. I knew early on I didn’t want Trace to be one of those stoic-and-alone types—it was a cliché, and it makes for dreadfully dense pages when your hero has no one to talk to except his horse. Also I sensed that Trace’s curse had crippled him somehow, between the ghosts haunting him and his inability to talk about it, which I eventually framed as a metaphor for PTSD. I knew Trace had heroic tendencies, but he wasn’t able to flex them yet, and he needed somebody—not to prop him up, but to put on a brave face for. So Boz came around, creatively speaking, to fill in Trace’s cracks. The two men are deliberate mirror-images of each other—Boz is pragmatic and skeptical and self-possessed where Trace is self-doubting and a bit of a dreamer. And of course as I got to know Boz better, I started to reverse-engineer his past, to figure out how he’d got to be the kind of man he was. Boz is a bit older than Trace and he’s had fewer privileges in life, so naturally he’s going to be more hardened. He’s already hashed out his deal with fate and figured out who he is, and Trace admires that about him, emulates it.
I don’t remember how I deduced Boz was a black man—probably the trickle-down effect of all those buddy-cop films in the 80’s—but once that angle was there it added new perspectives on the world I was building. I couldn’t even have the boys get on a train without considering the implications (I spent weeks trying to pin down the specifics of segregation on public transportation in St. Louis: short answer, there were laws against it in 1880, but enforcement was sketchy), and I think the story is richer for it.
JD: What were the challenges of creating a so-called “fix-up” novel from disparate stories? Did you have a long-term plan for the characters at the outset?
HM: Challenges? :hysterical laughter: It was awful. Straight-up awful. I had no idea such a thing was called a fix-up novel but that’s appropriate because it gives the impression of a house falling down around your ears while you try to shore it up from the inside.
Did I have a long-term plan? Yes and no. I did intend from the beginning that there should be an overarching plot to the series of stories. The weakness of that plan was, I don’t outline. So even though I knew Miss Fairweather’s motives involved some Big Bad machinating things from the wings, and even though Mereck was name-checked in that very first story, at the time I had no idea what his diabolical plan was.
Further complicating things was the fact that I wrote four short stories, sold one, put the thing down for five years, came back and wedged a fifth and a third story into the sequence. So suddenly I had a novel-length manuscript that was looking like the first act of a two-or-three book arc, and there was no smooth build of suspense through the whole, much less a satisfying wrap-up at the end of 120,000 words. Why the book sold in that condition I have no idea, other than the appeal of Trace and Boz themselves.
My editor, Pete Wolverton, suggested cutting “End of the Line,” partly because it had already been published and partly because it and “Printer’s Devil” were covering much of the same dramatic ground. It was a legitimate call from his perspective, but by that point I had written book two and I knew there were elements in EOTL that would be needed further down the road.
So I cut story five, which had nothing to do with the Mereck plot, switched the sequence of episodes two and three, and completely vivisected “End of the Line.” I also rewrote a great deal of “Printer’s Devil” and “Horseflesh,” but EOTL was gutted; the only parts that survived from the original were the two chapters where the monsters attack. It was incredibly difficult, because EOTL had been the second piece I wrote in the series and it was critical in my understanding of the characters and their conflicts. I had a mental block of it being this perfect “finished” piece, so it took me months, literally months, to work around that and diagnose what parts to salvage from it.
Once I found the new crux of that story, the idea that Trace has this vision of the Baptists in danger and chooses to act on it, the plot took off again. “End of the Line” is still a lovely bloody disaster-movie of a story, but in the rewrite Trace is much more in control—of his power, of the situation on the train, and most crucially, in his dealings with Miss Fairweather. Some of my favorite parts of the published book are the beginning and end scenes of EOTL, where Sabine Fairweather is starting to realize Trace isn’t some lackey she can push around. The power shift at that point is marvelous and necessary, and sets up the catastrophe that comes after. So the lesson there is, Nothing is so perfect it can’t be improved.
JD: Given some of the vivid descriptions of life in the Old West, I would venture to guess that a fair amount of research was involved in the world building?
HM: Oh Lord. It never stops. Just sitting at my desk I can count 50 books surrounding me that are regular reference sources, and that doesn’t include the maps, websites, digital scans of 19th-century sources, music, fashion magazines, cookbooks, documentaries, etc, etc, etc. Luckily I love history and I love being a smartass when someone starts sounding off about “the way things were back then.”
I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, even so. I try to be authentic and respectful in representing other cultures’ mythologies, but sometimes I don’t know enough to ask the right question. Just before we went to press I had to make the printer change 16 occurrences of the word “chiang-shi” to “keung-si,” because the latter is Cantonese and the Chinese railroad laborers in America would have been primarily from Canton.
JD: Can you tell us how you depicted the culture of late 19th century America?
HM: I had to have some discussions with myself, early on, about how gritty I was going to make it. I didn’t want to go the Deadwood route and pepper every speech with f-bombs—effective as that is, it’s not my style—but I didn’t want to present a sugar-coated Little House view of the time, either. I had some conversations with my editor and agent about whether to include the infamous n-word, for instance. I didn’t want to pretend that Boz wasn’t exposed to such nastiness—that would be dishonest and kind of patronizing—but I tried not to slap the audience in the face with it, either.
The more I read about the 19th century the more I’ve decided that folks fit into the same enlightened/hateful bell curve then as nowadays, and any social progress we appear to have made is because, as Chris Rock put it, white people have learnt to be nicer. (I write that with tongue pressed firmly into cheek, thinking of the demonstrations on college campuses this past month, and the casual hostility that black students and professors still have to endure, in that supposedly enlightened environment, on a daily basis)
Within the context of the book, because I was in such tight third-person perspective, it came down to Trace’s character, and how he would perceive things. He’s got an egalitarian bent and a generous heart, and he’s already been through his own crisis of faith, which involved a realization that there was more than one way to live in this world. So he has an I’m-okay-you’re-okay attitude toward people of different faiths and backgrounds.
Also, I think his partnership with Boz would expose Trace to a lot of abuse that white people don’t often see, or choose not to see. He loves Boz, so naturally he takes any slights against Boz personally, just like my incredibly supportive and feminist husband once threatened to flatten a guy who made inappropriate moves on me. My husband knows I can take care of myself and Trace knows Boz can take care of himself but he still reacts from an emotional place. And that causes him to overstep on the train, when he tries to take a stand that Boz isn’t comfortable making.
JD: Which authors and/or books would you consider to be the biggest influences on your writing?
HM: Stephen King, for sure. I started reading him in high school and devoured everything up through Gerald’s Game, after which we started to grow apart. He had an organic way of developing plot and his characters were always distinctive. In the early days he also had a compelling transparent style; you never felt you were reading, you were just listening to a good storyteller talk. And that’s something that seems to be missing from the current generation of novelists. Of the last twenty or so novels I’ve picked up, probably 18 of them had this weird self-conscious writerly “voice” that kept drawing attention to itself and pulling me out of the story.
Toni Morrison was a more conscious choice of influences, since I read her when my own style was already mostly developed, and I was still blown away by her clean prose and descriptive power. I studied Beloved like it was catechism, trying to absorb her unaffected way of code-switching between the dialogue of uneducated characters and the more regular (not formal) grammar of the narrative. Again, since I was writing tight third-person with Trace, I could have gone ham-fisted with the narrative and peppered it with cheesy cowboy metaphors, “fine as cream gravy” and so on, but I felt that approach would be distracting to the reader. Morrison managed to convey her characters’ worldviews through their dialogue—not just the words they used but also the cadence of their speech—with a skill I have never seen equaled elsewhere. Though Stephen King was awfully good at it in his younger days.
Mary Balogh, the antithesis of purple prose in romance, whose 1990’s Signet regencies were masterpieces of efficient storytelling that could rip your heart out. Balogh taught me a lot about the value of character study; she never falls back on cliché or allows her heroines to do stupid things just to further the plot.
Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels wrote an impressive catalog of contemporary gothic suspense novels in the 1960’s-80’s and many of them are genuinely eerie. Octavia Butler, C.J. Cherryh, Connie Willis, and Suzette Haden Elgin made up the bulk of my science fiction education.
Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries were probably more of an influence than I like to admit. I discovered those somewhere after writing the first four Trace & Boz stories, and before rewriting the final novel draft. The banter between Spenser and Hawk was exactly what I wanted for Trace and Boz, plus they were a good example of two grown hetero men who are unabashedly devoted to each other. And Parker can lead you through a plot without ever making you feel you’re being led. Charlaine Harris has that same ability in her mysteries.
Last but certainly not least, Joss Whedon taught me more about long-form plotting than anyone. Which is why I got into trouble with the serial-structure of Curse: I was trying to write a whole season of television.
JD: Your bio says you enjoy books, molten chocolate cake and well-balanced edged weapons. I’m afraid to ask you about one of those, but for the sake of completeness: Name some of your favorite books, favorite desserts, and favorite edged weapons.
HM: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, C.J. Cherryh’s The Paladin, Charlaine Harris’s Lily Bard series, Mary Balogh’s A Christmas Bride, Stephen King’s Carrie, William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, Diana Wynne Jones’ Charmed Life, Barbara Michaels’ Ammie Come Home and Stitches in Time, and Elizabeth Peters’ Naked Once More.
For chocolate desserts, obviously a molten cake or pudding is the purest, richest, warmest way to get your hit. But to tell the truth I like lemon desserts just as much if not better, especially in hot weather. I have a lemon panna cotta recipe that is pure cool tangy bliss. And since I’ve been experimenting with Victorian flavors I love florals, like lavender and rosewater. My new favorite cocktail is Lillet Blanc, ginger liquor, and lemon juice, with a touch of rosewater and absinthe.
Weapons, hmm, don’t make me choose. My tai chi sword was a lucky find; it was too small for most male artists but fit me perfectly so I got a discount. The anniversary switchblade my husband gave me is also close to my heart. Literally.
JD: What can readers expect from you next? Will we get more Trace and Boz stories?
HM: Oh yeah. Those boys ain’t lettin’ go of my brain any time soon. Right now my agent (Amy Boggs at Maass—Hi Amy!) is shopping a novella about their first adventure together, which takes place on a paleontological dig in the Montana badlands. And of course the second novel is with my editor, so this time next year readers should get some answers about what, exactly, Miss Fairweather wants from Trace. Suffice to say, it ain’t pretty.