Robert Coover on Our National Disdain for the “Intellectual”
Just like many of my books and stories—“Ghost Town” and “Briar Rose,” for example—this story began years ago (probably in 1997 or before, when I was writing “Ghost Town”), with a one-liner, in this case about a schoolmarm winning the town saloon in a poker hand. It lacked a second line until I was working on other stories having to do with cinematic time, and I decided to run the schoolmarm through the same matrix and see what happened. This story did.
Your last story in the magazine, “Invasion of the Martians,” seemed to have a special relevance to the times we were living in and through. Do you think “The Hanging of the Schoolmarm” does as well?
Probably. Most stories do. But that’s not how I start. In the beginning, always, is the image, one usually containing the potential for expansion (as did the Judeo-Christian deity’s first one). The image of invading Martians, a hoary old sci-fi cliché, sat in my file folders for decades before finding a stimulus for moving on. That stimulus, though I don’t remember it well, was probably the immigration crisis in Europe, where we were living at the time. It also became urgent in the U.S., and, because the leaky border here is between Mexico and Texas, I chose a Texas senator to assume the point of view. This was long before Ted Cruz or the recent election, but the writing continued through the primaries, and was affected by them. The painful divisions of the country post-election are no doubt reflected in “Schoolmarm,” but did not inspire it. The national disdain of the “intellectual” is a frequent topos in my writing.
Do you think that the schoolmarm and the sheriff are worthy adversaries?
Here, they are participants in my holistic cinematic time scheme, not so much adversaries as actors with predetermined roles.
Do you agree with the schoolmarm that rocks have more to say than we do, at least about the nature of time? Why does she ask for a rock at the end? A way of aligning herself with oblivion? Or is she perhaps about to hit the sheriff with it?
The idea of asking for a rock to hit the sheriff is a funny one. Didn’t think of it myself. My notion of cinematic time had me too enthralled. The notion of rocks speaking to the nature of time occurred to me only when I wrote it. How one is taught by one’s own writing.
Do you have a favorite Western?
The Westerns I was subjected to at Saturday matinees in the thirties and forties were racist celebrations of white Europeans conquering the West, which mostly meant killing Indians, or “injuns” and “savages,” as the actors usually called them. Westerns got less racist and more violent in the fifties, darker versions of the same conquest, but I didn’t watch many. Then one night in the early sixties, by that time fascinated by the New Wave and its cousins, we went to see a Marlon Brando movie. But we were a day late, and the program had already changed. The film being shown was a Western, and we thought to leave, especially after seeing the opening scene, the old cliché of a lonely cowboy sitting at a small campfire, cooking up his breakfast. Then a jet flew over, wrecking the cliché. We stayed. It was “Lonely Are the Brave,” with Kirk Douglas and Walter Matthau. Incidentally, an immigration story. My personal best of the Westerns.