1. Could you tell us the name of a book that you love, and why?
I’m going off the grid here and I hope you’ll all bear with me. After much and adequate chastisement of myself for my decision not to choose a book of poetry or novel or short story collection, I’ve decided to pay reverence to the television series Deadwood.
I’ve tried and tried to think of any work of literature in the past four years that has influenced my writing, my language, my ability to remain, despite the darkness despite the inferno, brushed with some warm light of sincerity and hope and self-reflection, any work of literature that helped me understand the meaning of community and friendship and sacrifice, more than Deadwood. I couldn’t.
On a literal level, Deadwood, a series that lasted three seasons from 2004-2006 and was created and written by David Milch, a Yale and Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate, and co-creator of NYPD Blue, is about the creation of a gold mining camp in the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota in the 1870’s.
But to fire-bomb any great work of literature down to its plot, as we all know, is to dismember its magic.
What Deadwood is really about, on a basic, human level, is something we all do, are all a part of instinctually every day, something we need: the creation of community from individuals, a birthing of one body from many interlacing parts that need each other desperately to survive and prosper. In Deadwood, I find a world that, despite its being unbound by pages, is just as poetic, just as powerful, just as literate, just as dense, just as humanely complicated, just as violent and kind and empathetic and terrifying and hilarious as any piece of literature I’ve devoured, ever.
2. Where were you when you first read, or saw, or heard of this book?
The time in 2007 that I first discovered Deadwood has no name living left in me, but we can here refer to as “Darkness.” In the last days of grad school, caste by my own hand into the shallow, self-violent, mucked thoroughfare of a break-up with my girlfriend of five years, and anxiety about my future, it was not a poetry I ran to, or fiction, or music, but Deadwood.
I was in a dark frame of mind, but it was also, and more importantly, a contemplative, morality-questioning, ethically-sensitive, self-reflective time that felt new and Deadwood spoke immediately to all these sudden quakes in what I thought of as “me.” Trixie, Calamity Jane, Al Swearengen, Charlie Utter, E.B. Farnum, Mr. Wu, Alma Garrett, Ellsworth, Dan Doherty, Doc Cochran, Wolcott, George Hearst, Aunt Lou, Joanie, Cy Tolliver, NG Fields, Richardson, Wild Bill, Bullock, and Tom Nuttall, were my brace, my balm, my gauze. Still are. These full, morally complicated people are among my favorite fictional (though many based on real historical figures) creations because they help me find myself reflected in their own specificities and peculiarities. They help me find my way through my own vast complications and the complications that surround me in the world.
3. Did this book influence your own writing, thinking, sense of the world, or work?
There is Melville on the tongues of these women and men. And Shakespeare. And Robert Penn Warren. Whitman. Dickinson. Perhaps a little Austen? And this ornate syntax and music is alchemized with wonderfully metered, hilariously contemporary use of profanity. Each character has a language unto themselves. Each character has a different gait of tongue, a different curl of phrase, and a different idea of how language can improve their lot instead of getting them murdered. In Deadwood, modern profanity twines with Victorian stride and parlays the social and cultural boundaries between like-minded pioneers that have come from far corners of the world. Profanity helps allow even the lowest on the social ladder be heard and, if not respected, tolerated as having right to try their hand at making a living. We witness the creation of new (though not new at all) American rules, codes of honor and morality and ethics, and we see them being birthed out of necessity because no one can earn a decent living if everyone is able to murder or rob from everyone else without repercussion. The creation of a community, no matter how patched and deloused and distilled and cobbled together, keeps chaos at bay.
Deadwood also reminds me, the way the poetry I love does, that the way we say something, the way we form its music and meaning, is just as important as what we say. That may be an old thing, or an obvious thing, but it is also a thing I need to keep being reminded of in a contemporary society where the music of language, the creativity of usage, is often considered ancillary. Words and how they are constructed move people, Deadwood knows this, revels in its necessity. A number of my favorite scenes are even straight up Shakespearean monologues: spoken to a quite adorable dog, or a severed Sioux head kept in a box, or spoken to murdered loved ones in the graveyard, two or three related while scrubbing bloodstains from hotel and bar room floors, a couple astounding ones related while a certain saloon operator is teaching a new prostitute how to fellate him in his preferred manner, and one involving a doctor begging God to take a man dying slowly and painfully of a brain tumor, while also excoriating Him for the Civil War battlefield horrors he witnessed.
To me, it’s the stuff of taking breaths. The stuff that compels me to write, to steal ideas, to replicate inexactly, to awe over and grasp at and grasp at.
4. Give us a line or excerpt from the text that intrigues, engages, mystifies, inspires, disgusts, or transforms you. Discuss…
I’ll just let these quotes speak for themselves, even out of context and away from their images, I find them thrilling:
“So including last night that’s three fucking damage incidents that didn’t kill you. Pain or damage don’t end the world or despair or fucking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man, and give some back.” – Al Swearengen
“Past hope. Past kindness or consideration. Past justice. Past satisfaction. Past warmth or cold or comfort. Past love. But past surprise? What an endlessly unfolding tedium life would then become!” – Francis Wolcott
“Whiskey does not steady the hand. It just dulls the worry over the hand’s unsteadiness.” – Doc Cochran
“I lived most of my life a whore. And as much as he’s her misery, a pimp’s a whore’s familiar. So the sudden, strange or violent draws her to him. Not that I wouldn’t learn another way.” – Trixie
“I am afraid. I am so afraid that my life is living me and that it will soon be over and that not a moment of it will be my own.” – Alma Garrett
“I’d punch that cocksucker in the balls before I’d cup him for comfort.” – Calamity Jane
“Will you let me go to Hell the way I want to?” – Wild Bill Hickok
“And we gonna be surprised by that, boys. Government being government. Will we next be shocked by rivers running or trees casting fucking shade?” – Cy Tolliver
“People are fucking people, and that is fucked up.” – Calamity Jane
“Yet avarice is numbered among the sins, but stupidity omitted.” – E. B. Farnum
“I hate these places, Odell, because the truth that I know, the promise that I bring, the necessities I’m prepared to accept make me outcast. Isn’t that foolish? Isn’t that foolishness? And old man disabused long ago of certain yearnings and hopes as to how he would be held by his fellows, and yet I weep.” – George Hearst
“The man I once was, Al, was not formidable, and I am but his shadow now. And yet I’d be put to use. A decoy, perhaps. A weight to drop on villains from above.” – Jack Langrishe
“Could you have been born, Richardson? And not egg-hatched as I’ve always assumed? Did your mother hover over you snaggle-toothed and doting as you now hover over me?” – E. B. Farnum
“And fuck us all anyway for the limber dick cocksuckers that we are!” – Ellsworth
“Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live” – Calamity Jane
(Special thanks to The Onion AV Club Deadwood episode reviews for transcribing many of these quotes for me already.)
5. Who did you send this book to, why?
I’m currently on my third full trip through Deadwood. I’ve had Deadwood watching nights, watched myriad episodes with myriad people I’ve made to watch or wanted to watch, and I get giddy when it comes up in conversation or, more likely, when I bring it up. And goddamn it, I always want a shot of Basil Hayden or Bulleit while I pine and gush over its complex and empowering heart. Deadwood makes tears of every kind fall from my eyes in turn.
Adam Fell is the author of I AM NOT A PIONEER, published by H_NGM_N Book. His chapbook Ten Keys to Being a Champion On and Off the Field (H_NGM_N, 2010) is available in a free pdf version here. His poems have also appeared in Tin House; Forklift, Ohio; Diagram; Crazyhorse; notnostrums; Sixth Finch; & Fou, among others. He lives in Madison, WI where he teaches at Edgewood College.