TT: Exploring Wilderness

ALAN: Recently I re-read Wilderness, a novel that Roger Zelazny wrote in collaboration with Gerald Hausman. The reason that I picked it up again was because I was about to go and see the move The Revenant. One strand of Roger’s novel centres around the same story used by the movie. Hugh Glass, an early nineteenth century trapper, was mauled by a grizzly bear. His companions deserted him, leaving him to die. But somehow he survived. Slowly his wounds healed and he dragged himself back through the wilderness, seeking revenge on the men who left him behind. (The other strand in the story tells of John Colter who, almost a generation before Hugh Glass, made a dramatic escape through the wilderness, hotly pursued by Indians).

One Take on the Tales

One Take on the Tales

As an aside, The Revenant is an excellent movie, and Wilderness is an excellent novel. But it raises some questions in my mind. Perhaps you can help me with them?

JANE: I’ll try.  I actually know Gerry Hausman fairly well.  In fact, I just finished writing a short story for an anthology he’s editing.  So, if there’s a question I can’t answer, I can ask Gerry.  Go ahead!

ALAN: The novel is quite untypical of Roger’s work in that it is a piece of historical fiction based on a true story. Do you have any idea what motivated Roger to venture so far out of his normal area of work?

JANE:  In part, you can blame Gerry Hausman for taking Roger in this direction.  Among Gerry’s talents is that he is a professional storyteller.  He has a wonderful deep voice and spins out a tale so you can practically imagine you’re there.  After returning from Sun Valley, Idaho, where he’d told the story of John Colter, he…  Well, let me have him tell you in his own words:

“…when I returned from this trip I confided to Roger that it would be neat if we might tell the story together but I suggested we’d merge two men into the novel and one would crawl while the other ran. He picked the crawler, Hugh Glass, and I picked the runner, John Colter. Roger liked the idea a lot and suggested we call it ColterGlass, and that became the original title.”

ALAN: So how did the writing work? Who did which bits? I’ve always found the mechanics of collaborative writing interesting, particularly since you and I started collaborating on these tangents.

JANE: Ah-hah! I don’t need to guess about this, since Gerry mentioned it in his e-mail:

“When he [Roger] was ready to write he asked me to do one chapter on Colter to start it off. I did. I was a little nervous showing it to him. At that time I’d never written an historical novel. It was daunting. But I did the first chapter and Roger came over for dinner and after we ate and joked around he sat down in my little studio in Tesuque and read the first chapter of Colter Glass on my computer. He looked up from the page, six or so, and said, ‘This is great, Gerry, let’s go with it. I will write chapter two about Glass getting mauled by the bear and you should have it by sometime next week maybe.’ That’s how we worked for the rest of that school year. He’d write one, I’d write one. I think both of us were excited about the trajectory of this story and the fact that it was new territory for each of us. He’d never done a Western before and of course I hadn’t either.”

ALAN: One thing always puzzled me when I read the novel for the first time. It’s told in alternate chapters, with two completely separate stories going on. John Colter’s dramatic escape from the pursuing Indians, followed by Hugh Glass’s slow crawl out of the wilderness. But in real life, those two events happened many, many years apart. I was always curious as to how (and if!) those time differences would finally be reconciled in the novel.

JANE: Here’s what Gerry had to say about that…

“Looking back on it I remember that he remarked to me that the book had elements of ‘the future’ in it. Anyone who reads the end of the novel realizes that there is a view from space – that was Roger looking down from afar, imagining how an astronaut would see the marvelous spinning gyre of Mother Earth. The way the novel also weaves a pattern out of the men’s two separate but not unlike life stories is also on the edge of sci-fi. We manipulate time a good bit, don’t we? And whether old man Colter really met young man Glass is open to conjecture. Some historians say it really happened, but in this genre nothing is provable. It is all conjecture.”

ALAN: Yes indeed. When I got to the end I remember thinking that it could only have been written like that by someone who felt comfortable with what I suppose I have to call the science fictional way of looking at the way the world works. What did the reading public make of it? How well did it sell?

JANE: As I recall, the book was well-received.  I went and looked at the reviews, and they were very solid, both from professionals and in “reader reviews.”

I’m not sure about sales figures though, and I’m not going to ask Gerry that one, because that’s not considered polite!  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if, with the release of The Revenant, it isn’t finding a whole new audience.

ALAN: As far as I know, Roger only wrote one other non-genre novel (a thriller called Dead Man’s Brother), but it wasn’t published until many years after his death.

JANE: I think that’s right.

ALAN: Have you ever written outside the SF/F field?

JANE: I have and so have a number other SF/F writers.  Maybe we can explore that next time.

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4 Responses to “TT: Exploring Wilderness”

  1. Gerald Hausman Says:

    Thank you, Jane and Alan. Kind of you to do this, not to mention so helpful to the novel. Sales on the book were dramatic on the first hardcover edition done by TOR. After that there was a mass market paperback that didn’t last very long. Then there was a diaspora of interest and publication in Eastern Europe. Two commercial Russian editions and one
    Bulgarian edition. The audio book read by Trent Zelazny and by me was published by Kurt Mueller at Speaking Volumes. A POD edition came out four or five years ago and an ebook. Every so often I get a crazed email from someone saying, “I found your book at The Salvation Army outpost here in Ackalack and it was pretty beat up and looked like a grizzly read it. I read it too. Thanks for the read it was a good one.” Once I got an email from a man who said he lived in some strange outpost in Siberia and he hand typed Wilderness, he said, on an old manual typewriter and created a lending library and sent the book from village to village. Novels have separate lives from the writers who write them. Once again, thanks for doing your blog, Jane and Alan, it was very cool the way you did it!

  2. Peter Says:

    Can’t say what impact the movie may have had on sales, but this blog post just lead to one…:)

  3. Christopher Kovacs Says:

    The book did well enough that the editor had requested another. As Roger described in an interview (quoted in Collected Stories V6): “The editor, a fellow named Bob Gleason, is quite an authority on western fiction. He mentioned to us recently that he’d like another. I decided whether we do it or not, I would like to at least study the historical background. I’ve been a history buff for many years. A second book by us would be a few years down the line…”

    Sadly, it was not to be.

    • Gerald Hausman Says:

      I have the outline. It was to be a cross-generational and multi-timed exploration of the 7 cities of gold. But he wanted it also to be a useful guidebook. Pretty big order. But we could have done it if there had been time.

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