Whiskey When We’re Dry puts a gender-bending twist on a classic western quest tale, and Hollywood has taken notice even before the book’s August release.
In some ways, John Larison’s Whiskey When We’re Dry (Viking, August 21) is a classic western story, one as old as the genre. Its teenage protagonist Jesse becomes a man by setting off across the West in 1885 in search of a prodigal outlaw brother following the death of their father, encountering hardships and gunfights along the way. But in this tale, becoming a man isn’t merely a matter of being forced to toughen up and fight for what is right. It also entails cutting her hair short, binding her chest, and trying to hide the fact that she was born a girl named Jessilyn Harney.
Gender swap aside, the book has all the tropes of a conventional, authentic western story: horses, six-shooters, good guys and bad guys struggling over their differing ideas of frontier justice in a beautiful, rugged setting. Larison comes by much of his knowledge honestly, having grown up in the rural West riding horses and shooting guns as a kid, then making a living as an outdoorsman as an adult. What he didn’t already know he researched, from domestic details like how to churn butter or store hay before the invention of baling machines to stories of women who survived the violent era by passing themselves off as men.
Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, the husband-wife screenwriting and producing team behind Jurassic World and the three latest Planet of the Apes films, among other credits, have already acquired the film and TV rights to Whiskey When We’re Dry.
“The Western has long held up a mirror to the American character,” Larison says in a recent conversation with C&I, “and I think a lot of us right now are questioning the American character, and it makes good sense to me that we would turn back to the western in our search to figure out who we are.”
Here’s more from our conversation with Larison.
Cowboys & Indians: How long did it take from beginning the book to turning in the manuscript?
John Larison: Just under nine years. It actually started off as a book set in contemporary times, but I learned somewhere along the way that I would have more fun writing it and it would be more fun for readers if it was set in the 1880s. That was actually a time a lot like our current moment, where we see a lot of big corporate interests taking opportunities from ranchers, you know, smaller people without as much means. There was swelling of industry, so ranchers and farmers were losing a lot of their land because their prices were going down at market. That was a strategy of corporate America to take over farms and ranches. So I saw some parallels between that time and now.
C&I: Was it the idea from the beginning, even when it was set in contemporary times, to have the protagonist be a girl who disguises herself as a man?
Larison: You know, I actually wrote for several weeks on the book before I realized the voice I was writing in was a woman’s voice. I heard this voice come to me one night when I was out walking, and I started writing knowing it was the voice of like a grandparent figure. The only thing I knew was that I wanted this character to leave the family ranch in search of a famous outlaw brother. I knew I wanted it to be a sibling story. Then all of the sudden I realized a few weeks into the project, wow, this person was an older woman who is telling a different kind of story than maybe I’d read before. Then I quickly realized a woman couldn’t saddle a horse and ride across the mountains in the 1880s the same way as her brother could. I realized, wow, she would be camouflaging herself to do this and trying to pass as a man. Once I unlocked that element of the story, it really took off and I was able to get a first draft.
C&I: Did you base her off any real-life figures from history?
Larison: No one directly, but her voice, her language, it definitely grows from conversations I’ve had with older women I know that live in the ranching country of Oregon. As a kid, I had an experience with a woman on Oregon’s Hart Mountain. Her name was Sherry. She was Shoshone, working cattle on public lands. She taught me to throw a lasso and told big stories about shooting elk. I just remember being totally awestruck. I had the sense some of the most interesting people in the West weren’t men, they were women.
C&I: What kind of research did you do about what life was like for people who today we would call gay or lesbian or transgender who lived in the late 19th-century American West?
Larison: I found lots of examples of women who had passed as men in the American West. I was really compelled by that. None of these words that we have now were even in use then, so I was really interested in this idea of people who have a strong identity but don’t even have a word for that identity. I was really compelled by these figures who had passed as men in the American West, and I was also interested by what it would be like. One of the characters in the book is in the closet. He’s a gay man but he’s living this life as a guard for governor. I was super compelled by his story: Here was somebody who had probably never even encountered the notion of anyone who was out as a gay man, and what would it be like to live in that world where that identity doesn’t even exist? There was a historical element to that research, you know, finding that these complicated characters did exist in the American West. And then there was the process of talking to people who I know who live now who have identities that maybe I myself don’t have, and sort of learning to listen to the patterns of thought and trying to really just soak up as much language as I could to maybe tell a story that maybe wasn’t my own.
C&I: Jesse’s outlaw brother was especially memorable. It was interesting to see his arc from troubled kid to thug to outlaw legend to something like a cult leader. Was he based off any real-life characters?
Larison: I was really inspired by a few different historic characters. One was Butch Cassidy, who in real life came around a bit later than this story. Butch Cassidy was the son of a man who lost a lot because of big industry eating up his land. Butch Cassidy decided to wage war on those capitalist forces, which is really compelling to me. But Butch Cassidy the person was not quite as interesting as I wanted Noah to be. I was also inspired by John Brown, the abolitionist who rose up in Kansas before the Civil War. John Brown had this incredible charisma, [and] believed himself to be led by God, and that he was the hand of God. That led him to do things that mere mortals wouldn’t attempt. I was fascinated by that and the role of religion in ambition within this outlaw character. Essentially, he was able to leverage religious power into outlaw power. I thought that was a fascinating thing to explore that might have resonance outside the novel.
C&I: Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa acquired the film and TV rights to the book. What do you know about how they’ll bring it to the big or small screen?
Larison: Right now, we’re talking about various possibilities: What would be the advantages of going with a feature versus what would be the advantages of going with maybe a 10-part limited series on television. They get to make final decisions about that stuff, but they’ve been wonderful in including me in thinking through the potential of including more of the story that didn’t end up in the finished novel. The book was quite a bit longer and was pared down in the revision process. We’re exploring the potential of including more of that back story in whatever screen adaptation eventually comes out.
C&I: Did it trouble you at all, or make you reconsider how to cast the film or TV version, when Scarlett Johansson dropped out of the film Rub & Tug after getting backlash for taking a role as a trans man?
Larison: I just made the connection in my mind, but no, I haven’t thought about it. I will say it’s been — I’ve considered it a serious responsibility in writing this book that has required me to do a lot of research and think things through that I otherwise might have just assumed, and I will say that Scarlett Johansson event [in mid-July] is further evidence that hard work needs to be done by artists.
C&I: If you had a dream cast for the adaptation, who would it be?
Larison: I honestly have no idea who could pull these characters off. [Laughs.] In my mind — granted, I don’t watch a ton of TV or films these days, so I’m not fully up to speed — but to me, these characters are all too strange and complicated for most actors and actresses I can think of.