The Fiction of Owen Thomas

Major Fake Interviews

Guns & Ammo

On November 1, 2012, Owen Thomas sat down with Guns & Ammo to discuss his novel of short fiction, Signs of Passing, winner of the 2014 Pacific Book Awards for Short Fiction. Or, at least, he thought he did.

GA: Owen Thomas, welcome. Guns & Ammo is excited to discuss your book, Signs of Passing.

OT: Thank you. Uh…

GA: What’s wrong?

OT: Guns & Ammo?

GA: Yes? Who were you expecting?

OT: Atlantic Monthly.

GA: Oh. No. It’s Guns & Ammo. Says so right on the door.

OT: Oh. So then there has been some sort of mix up. How did this happen?

GA: Well, no disrespect, but since this entire interview is really the product of your own imagination, I think you’re going to have to ask yourself that question.

OT: Oh.

GA: Yeah.

OT: Guess you’ve got a point there. I didn’t think…

GA: What? That Guns & Ammo does book reviews? That the Guns & Ammo market is literarily-minded enough to care?

OT: Well…

GA: I assure you that we are as refined and literarily inclined as any readership you could hope to reach.

OT: Oh.

GA: As long as whatever you have written is about guns.

OT: It has to be about guns?

GA: Or ammunition. That works too.

OT: But my book isn’t about guns.

GA: I find that hard to believe.

OT: Why?

GA: The title of your first chapter there is… well, we found it captivating.

OT: Winchester County?

GA: Yes. We figured maybe it’s a whole book about guns.

OT: You mean you haven’t even read it?

GA: Read the title. And so far so good. We assumed you were here to make the case on the rest of it. Does it have any guns in it?

OT: … A couple.

GA: See there?

OT: But the book is not even remotely about guns.

GA: Oh but it must be. It’s got a gun right there in the title of the first chapter. See here? Winchester…

OT: It’s not about guns.

GA: Well, then why don’t you tell us what it’s about.

OT: It’s actually a collection of short fiction. Four short stories and six novellas. But they are all loosely connected. Each story has some character connection to its predecessor and then the last story loops back around to the first story. So it is kind of a combination of short fiction and a novel.

GA: Very interesting. Well, it has been just terrific interviewing you and best of luck with the…

OT: No.

GA: No?

OT: We’re not done.

GA: But…

OT: No.

GA: Do you mind if we just talk about the gun parts?

OT: No. We can talk about the title story called Winchester County.

GA: But…

OT: My imagined interview, my rules.

GA: Okay.

OT: It’s about Tyler Freeman, a young boy living in the 1960’s whose parents are divorced and preoccupied with their own lives. Tyler is so lonely he kind of loses himself in a television western called Winchester County. Tyler has a best friend called Pillsbury and…

GA: Pillsbury?

OT: Yes.

GA: Like the…

OT: Yes.

GA: Okay.

OT: And Tyler and Pillsbury both watch this west…

GA: So this Pillsbury kid is from the commercial? He’s the little fat baker who likes to giggle?

OT: No. He’s a real person. It’s a nickname. Just… let it go.

GA: Okay. Just trying to hold up our journalistic integrity. But you go on ahead.

OT: Thank you.  So Tyler and Pillsbury are really into this show. Addicted. They watch it every day. Pillsbury alone in his house and Tyler alone in the apartment he lives in with his dad. The show is reminiscent of all of those old western series. Gunsmoke, Big Valley, Bonanza.

GA: I know the ones.

OT: I’m sure you do.

GA: What is that supposed to mean?

OT: Nothing. So Winchester County is populated by versions of all of those same stock characters you saw in those old series. The star of the show is Hank Winchester, who is the sheriff of this small frontier town. The Winchester family has made a fortune in the cattle business and so they actually own most of the town and the land it sits on. Hank, with the help of his deputy, Sam, maintains law and order. He has a sister named Kitty who is very feminine and frilly, and a brother, Benjamin, who lives in San Francisco and drops in to visit every so often bearing gifts. Hank’s parents, Papa John and Evangeline Winchester, live on a huge ranch up in the hills. These people and their close-knit community essentially provide the sense of family that both Tyler and Pillsbury are lacking in their lives.

GA: They don’t have families?

OT: Not good ones, no. Tyler’s parents are divorced. He lives in a small apartment with his father, who spends most of his time working at an auto repair garage and most of his off hours with his friends at a local bar called The Office.

GA: The bar is called The Office.

OT: Yes.

GA: Clever. Honey, I’ll be late at the office.

OT: Exactly.

GA: That works better than Honey, I’ll be late at Slippery Pete’s Watering Hole.

OT: Right.

GA: Or, Honey, I’ll be late at the Bump-n-Grind Lounge. Or, Honey,…

OT: … Okay, the point here is that ten-year old Tyler is spending most of his time alone. His father is gone most of the time. And since the divorce, Tyler’s mother has met a well-off guy named Mr. Wilton. Tyler, her own son, now barely seems to exist for her. She picks him up from school every day but drops him at the corner because she doesn’t want to have to drive all the way around the block on her way to see Mr. Wilton.

GA: Boy, not a great mom.

OT: No. The irony is that Tyler’s father is simultaneously absent from his son’s life and paranoid that Tyler’s mother and Mr. Wilton are going to abscond with Tyler and whisk him off to someplace unknown on the east coast.

GA: So then the make-believe Winchesters are like his surrogate family.

OT: In a manner of speaking. Yes. The show presents an idealization of family and family values and priorities, and Tyler and Pillsbury take some solace there.

GA: I’m assuming that this story is about more than a couple of emotionally abandoned, disaffected children watching television.

OT: Yes. Tyler and Pillsbury start to understand that something very strange is happening in Winchester County.  Things that don’t make sense.

GA: On the television show.

OT: Yes. It’s as if in some strange way the show is talking to them.

GA: I was assuming they were watching with the sound on.

OT: No, no. Talking to them – Tyler and Pillsbury – specifically. As if the show was broadcasting a kind of code that only they could understand.

GA: Lesser publications would wonder about schizophrenia.

OT: No. These are a couple of kids who realize that they need to take matters into their own hands…

GA: With guns.

OT: No. They simply realize that their happiness in life is up to them. And that, in fact, is the basic theme that runs through all of the stories in this book. Each in their own way, these characters are all forced to confront the possibility that it is time to set down one life and pick up another.

GA: I see. So then…no gunplay.

OT: Only on the television show itself. There is plenty of television gunplay.

GA: That counts. I’ll take that. Let’s talk about another story.

OT: Well, there’s another one in here called The Office.

GA: You mean… the same place as…

OT: Yes.

GA: The bar.

OT: Right. The Office is a story about a waitress, Lydia, who works in the same bar that Tyler’s dad frequents.

GA: Okay. And what is Lydia’s story?

OT: She’s basically alone in the world. The bourgeoning middle class of the early 1960’s America has kind of left her behind. She is a prisoner of circumstance, or at least so she believes. Every day for Lydia is the same – the customers are rude, if not abusive, her parents have died, love has left her, she lost her baby – life has worn her down and she is losing all confidence that it is possible for her life to change. What Lydia wants as much as anything is some indication that change – any kind of change—is possible. Another word for that is hope.  But she is about out of hope. She has reached the point in her life where she is no longer afraid to walk home alone in the dark.

GA: Does she have reason to be afraid?

OT: Yes. And yet even fear has abandoned her.

GA: Because she has chosen to arm herself for the long dark walks.

OT: What? No. Because her life and her concept of the future have lost all authentic meaning for her. Lydia is so alienated from living that even her most primal emotions have left her. Or at least so she thinks. But then one night she meets a man who could change all of that.

GA: And are any guns to make an appearance in Lydia’s tale?

OT: Yes, actually. One gun and a very large, serrated knife.

GA: Well now.

OT: And a bottle of crème de menthe.

GA: That’s getting a little weird. How does the crème de menthe fit in?

OT: Have to read the book.

GA: Really?

OT: You can’t just read the title and then ask me about it. You’re supposed to read it.

GA: Okay. Let’s move on.

OT: Let’s see. There’s another story called Jimmy D’s Thrive-n-Dine. It’s about…

GA: Are there any guns and/or ammunition in this one?

OT: No. Can we just… wait. Actually, there is a gun in that story.

GA: That makes us three for three.

OT: I can’t actually believe that, but I guess it’s true. These are not really gun stories.

GA: If you say so. What’s it about.

OT: It’s about a guy named Garrett Webb, a crime writer back in the 1940’s who has a problem with writer’s block.

GA: You can shoot your way out of writer’s block? Who knew? The NRA is going to be ecstatic.

OT: He doesn’t shoot his way out of writer’s block.

GA: You’re sure no Hemmingway.

OT: I never said I was.

GA: Now there’s a guy who could shoot his way out of writer’s block. That man was loaded for elephant-sized writer’s block.

OT: Do you mind, terribly, if we just…

GA: Oh. Sure. So in what pacifist, Second Amendment-hating way does your guy go about fixing his writer’s block?

OT: Funny. He goes to funerals for inspiration. He listens to the dead.

GA: So then this guy is pretty twisted.

OT: No. He’s not twisted. His main character is a New York detective named Jack McMannis. Having uncharacteristically dropped his guard, McMannis has been shot and is lying in an open grave in the middle of some woods. A woman with a very large gun…

GA: What type of gun?

OT: Doesn’t matter. A woman with a very large…

GA: Well of course it matters. This is Guns & Ammo. Our readers, potentially your readers, certainly care.

OT: I did not specifically identify the make and model of the gun she was holding.

GA: The book is not published yet, correct?

OT: Correct.

GA: So then there’s still time. Please proceed.

OT: Thank you. A woman with a very large gun is standing above him and is ready to pull the trigger one last time. If Jack McMannis has any hope of living, he will have to talk his way out of death. But Garrett Webb, the author, cannot seem to come up with the words to save him.

GA: You know…

OT: Don’t say it.

GA: What the man needs is a G-U-N of his own.

OT: He has one. A Colt Pocket Hammer.

GA: Nice. Perfect for a private eye.

OT: Whatever. The problem is he just can’t reach it.

GA: Couldn’t you have just kind of… like…written one into the…

OT: No. I keep telling you… It’s not about the gun. Or shooting the gun. It’s about how Garrett Webb has become trapped in the open grave of his own life and about how only his words can save him. It’s a story about finding the words that will allow you to go on living. Garrett Webb is a writer and that’s what writers do; they find words. They sustain themselves on words. Broadened, then, this is really a story about trying to live a life of fulfillment and avoiding the open grave of regrets. It’s the ones lowered into the ground after a life of regret and self-denial that will start talking up a storm as the dirt is hitting the lid of the coffin. And while he doesn’t realize it exactly, I think those are the words – words of warning – that Garrett is looking for.

GA: And he goes looking for these words at the funerals of strangers.

OT: You could say that.

GA: I did say that. Does he find them?

OT: What?

GA: The words.

OT: I’m not telling.

GA: Of course not.

OT: But I will say that he discovers something unexpected.

GA: Does it involve a firearm?

OT: Stop it. He discovers that he is being followed.

GA: Followed by who?

OT: Whom.

GA: That’s really a terrible name.

OT: That’s not her name. That’s a pronoun.

GA: Her? You mean whom’s a she? He’s being followed by a she? Does she have a gun too?

OT: What? No.

GA: Have you thought about changing her name from Whom to Annie Oakley?

OT:  No.

GA:  Sarah Palin?

OT: No.

GA: Might improve sales.

OT: For the last time, no. Ask me about another one.

GA: Fine. Please do tell our readers about another story in a book that is supposedly not about guns but that seems to be loaded with them anyway.

OT: Another story in the book is called Still Life. It’s about a young woman named Emily Foves whose husband dies in World War II jumping out of a plane. Emily’s life has essentially been put up on the mantle with the memory of her husband, whom …

GA: Show off.

OT: WHOM – in her grief, she has made into a flawless specimen of humanity. But Emily encounters two strangers – a private detective and an army specialist exhibiting his collection of portraits at a local museum – who each cause Emily to wonder whether the world is as she thought it was. Whether her husband is who she thought he was. Whether she is who she thinks she is. And, in fact, she discovers it is all quite different than she had believed. In a series of quietly violent shocks to the conscience, Emily Foves is emerging from a kind of chrysalis of grief. She is waking up in her own life and this awakening will have dramatic consequences not only for her, but for her milkman.

GA: Her milkman.

OT: Yes. Don’t ask.

GA: Okay.

OT: And, no, there are absolutely no guns in this story. None. It is a story about art, not guns. It even features a couple of guest appearances by Henri Matisse.

GA: Well…

OT: What?

GA: Nothing. It’s just that you said Emily’s husband had died in the war.

OT: So.

GA: So how’d he die?

OT: Shot down over the Rhone Valley as he was parachuting down…

GA: So then there’s at least some ammunition involved. Right?

OT: …

GA: That counts, my friend.

OT: …

GA: I’m just saying. Let’s have another one.

OT: The fifth story in the book is a novella called The Number Six.

GA: The fifth story is The Number Six?

OT: Yes. Just… try to let it go.

GA: Okay.

OT: The story is set in the late 1940’s. It’s about a man named Harlan Buck, a bus driver for the Summit County Bus Lines. His assigned bus is the Number Six, which has a route that stretches like the legs of a spider from one end of the county to the other. In order to save his money for some land that he can farm, Harlan has found a way to avoid paying rent by sneaking into the bus yard at night and sleeping on the bus.

GA: Good way to get shot if you ask me.

OT: Harlan lives a simple life with really only one friend to speak of: a younger man named Christopher Dupree, who works out at the prison and who is a regular passenger on the Number Six.

GA: I think you mean whom.

OT: No. I really don’t. Can I continue?

GA: Please.

OT: Christopher likes to talk a lot about California.  Beaches made of gold. Every other person is a movie star.  The ocean like an expanse of wet blue sky. For Harlan, who has never been out of Summit County, let alone seen the ocean, the very idea of California is like some Elysian dream.  It may as well be as imaginary as El Dorado.

GA: “Gaily bedight, A gallant knight, In sunshine and in shadow, Had journeyed long, Singing a song, In search of El Dorado.”

OT: What?

GA: That’s Edgar Allen Poe. Or were you referring to the El Dorado of Voltaire’s Candide, where the roads were paved with precious stones? Or was it, perhaps, a more pedestrian reference to an automobile?

OT: That’s not…even…never mind. The point is that Christopher Dupree has dreams of getting out of Summit County and moving out west and he rides the dusty Number Six bus out tot the prison every day he jokes about taking Harlan with him. Harlan brushes the suggestion off because he simply cannot conceive of any future other than the one he has planned for years and years, which is to keep driving the Number Six bus and to keep saving his money, one nickel at a time, until he can buy his plot of land and live the life he wants to live.

GA: Nickel at a time. That’s a long time to wait to start your life.

OT: Exactly the point. Ultimately, Harlan must decide whether there really is a better life out there calling for him and whether the slimmest chance of finding that better life is worth risking everything.

GA: We’re kind of right back with Tyler Freeman looking through that television into Winchester County.

OT: Yes! You’ve actually been paying attention. I’m… kind of… impressed.

GA: I’m going to pretend not to be insulted by your lack of confidence. So what does he do?

OT: One fateful morning, Harlan meets up with Mr. Gray and Mr. Black and his world turns upside down.

GA: And who are Mr. Gray and Mr. Black?

OT: Criminals. Mr. Gray and Mr. Black are criminals.

GA: I smell gunplay.

OT: No. Yes. Not in the way that you think.

GA: Admit it. Somebody gets shot.

OT: … Yes.

GA: Thought so. That’s five for five. What’s Next?

OT: Next.

GA: Right. What’s next? What’s the next story?

OT: The next story is Next.

GA: Amusing. What story is…

OT: The title of the next story is Next. Actually it’s a novella and the full title is Next (“The Cages”). It marks a transition in the book from stories set back in the 1940’s and 1960’s to stories set in the current day, although all of the stories are loosely connected.

GA: Okay. So what is Next about?

OT: Next is about a woman, Maribel Lumm.  Maribel’s widower father has Alzheimer’s and no longer remembers who she is. He has a history of just escaping and wandering off out into the world. Unable to cope with her father’s illness, Maribel essentially abandoned him to the care of her older sister and set out on a career devoted to studying animals, first out in the wild and then in captivity. She eventually marries Evan, a man she considers to be perfect in every way, and settles down in Summerfield where she works for a zoo as a part-time veterinarian. But neither distance from her father nor the perfect husband has made Maribel feel any better about her life. Locked inside…

GA: You’re monologuing.

OT: I know. My rules. Locked inside of her father’s broken mind is knowledge of something Maribel did as a child for which she desperately wants to be forgiven. But her father cannot forgive a person that he does not know for something he cannot remember. What’s more, Maribel feels unworthy of her seemingly perfect marriage. And on top of all of that, a chimpanzee with which Maribel has a particular affinity, keeps escaping her cage and is now missing.

GA: Well, well. A missing monkey.

OT: So, driven by a discontent she does not understand and a guilt she cannot extinguish, Maribel … well, she kind of adopts a curious pastime.

GA: Must I ask?

OT: She follows people.

GA: She follows people.

OT: Right.

GA: With a gun.

OT: No.

GA: Who does she follow?

OT: She does not know their names, but she has names for them. This story concerns three in particular. One of them she calls The Dingo Man. Another, Lady Ocelot. The third, Mr. Bird.

GA: Well now, those are some names, aren’t they? And so what, she just follows them? Nothing happens.

OT: Things happen.

GA: What things? Never mind, I know better than to ask.

OT: Suffice it to say that Maribel learns that the cages in life can have a role in defining our freedom, and that freedom is a kind of cage of its own; a cage from which we frequently seek to escape.

GA: Well. Now it’s all perfectly clear. This interview is starting to feel like a cage.

OT: You’re telling me.

GA: Hey. Your idea, pal.

OT: I didn’t expect to be talking to Guns & Ammo.

GA: Which shows a complete failure to control your own imagination.

OT: I guess I can’t argue with that. At least it’s not a failure of imagination itself.

GA: I don’t know about that. I’m guessing that the missing monkey never ends up with a gun.

OT: You are correct.

GA: Now that would have been imagination.

OT: No. That would have been moronic.

GA: It’s your book. Moving on. I’ve got a recital to get to.

OT: Kids?

GA: No. Me. I’m sitting in with Yo-Yo Ma tonight. Oh, did you think that because I’m with Guns & Ammo that I was off to see my twelve-year old play the banjo for squirrel meat down at the pool hall?

OT: No, I…

GA: Right, because my twelve year old was just accepted into the young talent program at Julliard.

OT: I didn’t mean…

GA: Right. Give me one more story.

OT: Well, let’s see. There’s a novella called Photophobia. It centers on a young woman photojournalist named Jacqueline, Jac for short, who makes arrangements to meet up with Conrad Kurtz, the owner of a California winery called Sol Ridge. Jac tells Conrad that she is putting together a book of winery photos and that she wants to prominently feature Sol Ridge in the book. Conrad, a bad man with an ugly past, and I should add, questionable motives, invites Jac up to the winery for a photo shoot.

GA: And by ugly past you mean something involving guns, don’t you?

OT: Well, certainly something involving death.

GA: And it’s just the two of them up at the spooky winery.

OT: No. Among others, Conrad’s young step-daughter, Iris, is up there.  Sol Ridge is actually Iris’ inheritance. Technically, Conrad is working for her. And it’s not a spooky winery at all. It’s a beautiful winery. Although there may just be a ghost involved in this story.

GA: You mean you don’t know?

OT: I have my own interpretation.

GA: So is Conrad afraid of photographs?

OT: Photophobia is an actual medical condition that makes someone hypersensitive to light.

GA: I thought that was vampirism.

OT: . . .

GA: I’m just messing with you because you desperately want to think I’m an idiot.  I take it this is not a story about being afraid of photographs. Or vampirism. Or guns.

OT: No.  At one level it’s a story of photography, wine-making, sacrifice, love and revenge. But at a deeper level, it’s a story about how any life, like any photograph, is a composite of darkness and light. And it’s a story, too, about context and framing. At one point Jac tells Conrad that there is nothing honest about photography because photography is all about framing the world you want, rather than capturing the world that is. I think the way we conceive of our ourselves and others, like the interpretation of any photograph, is always dependent on context and perspective. There may be beauty all around us that we never see because we have, for whatever reason, chosen not to acknowledge it. We’ve just cropped it out of our conscious perception. A snapshot of Jac may reveal a beautiful young photographer. A snapshot of Conrad may show a wealthy winemaker. But when you expand the framing around these people and take in an ever-greater context you realize that those snapshots are fatally misleading.

GA: Fatally?

OT: Did I say fatally?

GA: You did.  So just how far do you take the whole Heart of Darkness motif?

OT: I’m… speechless.

GA: Didn’t think I had it in me did you?

OT: Frankly…uh, no.

GA: Listen. Just because I know the difference between a Thirty-Eight Special and an AK-47 doesn’t mean I’m stupid. It is not a stretch to presume that any character named Conrad Kurtz has got to be the subject of a literary examination into the evil of which humanity is capable. And even though you are dealing with a wine maker and not ivory traders, Sol Ridge rather than The Company, I assume you make at least some nod to Joseph Conrad’s theme about the brightness of civilization having been built upon the darkness of men and the things that they do in the world.

OT: …

GA: Come on man. The clock is ticking here. Yo-Yo waits for no man.

OT: Wow. Okay. I will admit a very loose parallelism there. As Jac and Conrad ascend the California hills up to Sol Ridge, there is a certain subtextual, descending journey into darkness, although the river in this story flows as much backwards into the memory of these characters as it does forward into the future. And while Photophobia does not focus so much on the rot beneath the triumph of civilization, there is a deliberate juxtaposition of the sophistication inherent in our conception of fine wines, and even of artistic photography, against the inherent potential for depravity that belongs to the winemaker and the photographer.  I still can’t quite believe you read Joseph Conrad.

GA: I thought it was going to be like the movie.

OT: Mov… Oh. Apocalypse Now.

GA: Awesome.

OT: Got it. Should have guessed. Where are you going?

GA: How many times do I have to say it?

OT: But there are other novellas we haven’t even discussed. There’s a story about a child psychiatrist who falls for an exotic dancer and … and a story about a ex-convict who catches the local meteorologist stealing jewelry in a shopping mall. There’s a story about Tyler Freeman, the boy in the very first story, now at the end of his life as a television producer on trial for trying to steal the creative rights to Winchester County. There’s more!

GA: Tempus fugit, old chap. You can show yourself out.  Oh…

OT: What.

GA: If my old lady calls, tell her I’m at the office.



**Lest any reader, especially those with legal degrees, harbor the impression that Guns-&-Ammo actually had anything whatsoever to do with the forgoing, including the conducting of an actual interview with the author, allow the author to forever disabuse them of that notion here: nothing of the kind happened. It was all fake. Well, not the book or anything said about the book or its characters, but absolutely everything else. All fake. Including that the author has actually ever had the occasion or opportunity to “say” anything set forth above. That’s why they call it fiction. Go in peace.