It was Orson Welles who first said that Joseph Stalin had put a price on John Wayne’s head. Given the nature of Welles, the story was just that for a long time, but the claim was verified in recently declassified Soviet documents. Yet, even if it had not been true, it still would have been the start of ‘John Wayne’.
The truth is, I’m not a huge Wayne fan. A few movies are interesting, but none of them – not even the Searchers – hold any real importance to me. I am, however, fascinated by him as a figure in society and by how he was able to embody a version of the American male, a role that in his later years he protected by selecting roles that would not diminish his off screen persona. Yet, parts of his personal life felt as if they were in conflict with the personality he fostered, such as his three marriages to Hispanic women, and his fluency in Spanish. The combination of the two worlds always appeared to me to create a very nauanced and fascinating character, and I tried to capture that here, in the story, while also talking about American fear, and the somewhat surreal experience you have, as a foreigner, when you walk into a Walmart and see the amount of weapons you can buy. I don’t think that Amercians realise just how truly weird that is, really.
No one wanted to buy ‘John Wayne’ after I wrote it. It was one of those stories, one where everyone says they don’t get it, or it’s too weird, or they give you the polite brush off, and maybe a couple of people tell you flat out that they think it sucks. I had it all, man.
Me, I always thought it was great, so I kept submitting it and it kept wracking up the rejections. It was the kind of thing that makes you want to question a piece, but I was always of the opinion that there was nothing wrong with the story in terms of writing, or structure. You reach a point in your evolution as a writer where you can pick up these things. It is usually not when you finish a piece, but you figure it eventually, maybe after a bounce or two. A lot of the stories early in my career – including my first novel – are pretty flawed things, and I can see the flaws clear as smooth botox skin, but with ‘John Wayne’ I always believed that it was a decent piece. I just needed to find the right editor. Someone who thought, like me, that John Wayne entering a Walmart to buy a gun was the best idea ever.
Eventually, I did. Ben Payne and Robert Hoge took over Australia’s longest running magazine, Aurealis, and they bought the piece. I don’t know if one liked it more, or both liked it, but either way, they purchased it.
At any rate, Payne and Hoge were kicked off Aurealis after one issue, and the magazine’s owner, Dirk Strasser, referred to them as ‘the disasterous Queensland experiment’ that Aurealis survived, which was a fairly fine endorsement, I thought. ‘John Wayne’ was published in the following issue, edited by Stephen Higgins and Stuart Mayne, and the days of me selling stories to Aurealis about American movie stars entering Walmart vanished oh so quickly.
On the other hand, Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt republished ‘John Wayne’ in their Year’s Best series, so there is always hope.
(This is a story note for my collection, Dead Americans and Other Stories, which is available now. The song is part of an illusionary soundtrack that I am putting into each of the posts for amusement, but if you owned the book, you could listen to it in the final moments of the story, if you were so inclined. If you don’t own a copy of Dead Americans and Other Stories and you haven’t read ‘John Wayne’, then you should follow the links and buy a copy. After all, who doesn’t love old American movie stars?)