Five Questions For Author Guy Vanderhaeghe

Zoomer sits down with the writer who reinvented the Western to talk about A Good Man, which combines history with fiction in this novel about the end of the Wild West.

Athena McKenzie: I understand that when you started writing this book you were more focused on Sitting Bull and Major Jack Walsh, but then it turned into something else. How did that happen?
Guy Vanderhaeghe: I think it happened through research. When I started investigating the Major’s life, I discovered that he had been a member of the Canadian militia and that took me to into an investigation of that. From there I came across quite an old book called Troublous Times in Canada that had been written in the early 1900’s about the Fenian raids into Canada and I got intrigued with the Battle of Ridgeway. The Fenians took me to the establishment of the first Canadian secret police at the Western Frontier Constabulary.  Then I became increasingly interested in questions which at least to a certain extent are contemporary — the questions of terrorism. Canadians worried about Americans not keeping their eye on the Fenians and the Americans feared that Sitting Bull would use Canada to launch raids into the United States. So the book began to change as I was writing it.

AM: And the book also became more about the character Wesley Case?

I wanted someone who was to a certain degree standing apart from the action but also involved in it. So for instance, he’s a liaison between the American military and Major Walsh in Canada and I also have him as a participant in the Battle of Ridgeway. This character began to interest me in the sense of a man who coming from very privileged circumstances. His father has plotted out a career in politics for him that he doesn’t find congenial. I think one of the things that brought people to the west was an attempt to reinvent themselves — to better their circumstances, escape the past, make a new life for themselves. That’s one of the things that interested me about Case.

AM: Is Weslecy Case a fictional character?

GV: Entirely fictional, as is Michael Dunne and a number of others. Though there are these other characters, like McMicken, who was the real head of the secret police, who is in a sense invented, because very little is known about him. I’ve seen photographs and read about him, so I’ve briefly sort of built up what I would call the skeleton of his life but a novelist has to impute motives, and that kind of thing.

AM: One thing that really struck me in the book is the language and dialogue. How do you capture a historical period in that way?

GV: I think that the historical novelist, if he/she is writing about a period that’s relatively recent — by that I mean maybe 130 years ago — realizes that the means of expression were quite different. So I attempt to mimic that. At the same time this is a literary invented language. For instance, if you actually look at accounts that were written by pioneers, they’re almost too colourful to be believable. That language almost sounds like Blazing Saddles, the movie. It doesn’t work, it’s just humorous. You have to balance it, tune it down, but try and keep the flavour. You pick and choose. If a prostitute in the west was called a shed hen you might keep that, but dispense with something else.

AM: Your three novels have been called a trilogy, but would you say The Good Man stands alone?
All the books stand alone. In a sense, it’s only the loosest of trilogies in that they are tied together by time and place. All three of my books are set in what was once called whoop-up country, which was an area that began in Fort Benton in Montana, ran up to what would sort of be present day Calgary and into southwestern Saskatchewan, in the Cypress Hills area. If anything, geography and timeframe are what links these books. To understand or to read A Good Man it is not necessary to read the other two.