JD Jordan is the author of the acclaimed scifi-western novel, Calamity: Being an Account of Calamity Jane and Her Gunslinging Green Man—and has also been featured in Creative Loafing, The International Journal of the Book, Newsweek, Paste, and Smashing Magazine. He is also an award-winning graphic designer, design educator, and historian with experience working with some of the biggest agencies and brands in the Southeast. He is currently the design director of the design and content agency, MaxMedia. He is represented by The Zack Company.
JD, thank you for agreeing to this interview. You have offered something unique to speculative fiction with your western science fiction novel, Calamity. Tell us about this book and what inspired its creation.
Thanks so much! How to describe my book—I think that’s something every author struggles with since we know our stories so well—but here goes: Calamity is a violent reimagining of a frontier legend and her alien gunslinger as they face off against extraordinary enemies in the Wilder West. Calamity Jane—a temperamental, teenage outcast—and a hardened, alien gunslinger burn their way across the West, living as outsiders, killing like outlaws, and surviving calamities of their own making. This unexpected pair of underdogs confront savage spacemen, avenging posses, and native tribes on the warpath—all while reframing the frontier legend of Calamity Jane with a gritty and witty sci-fi twist.
That’s the elevator pitch, anyway. J
I remember sitting on the steps of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce after a party when the ideas for two historical scifi books popped into my head. One of those became the novella Seeing the Elephant that ultimately grew into the novel Calamity. I remember bouncing ideas off my friends and it took a while for the story—as you read it—to take shape. But it was always about growth and coming of age in the West, in the aftermath of the Civil War, on the frontier of American civilization. At the time, I was deep into both HBO’s Deadwood and Fox’s Firefly and their influences are unmistakable in Calamity, I think. If you don’t know what I mean, go watch the first few episodes of Deadwood, especially “Here Was a Man” and “The Trial of Jack McCall”—Robin Weigert’s was the first Calamity Jane I ever really knew—and the Firefly episodes “Out of Gas” and “Objects in Space”—hints of the scifi-west and the Green Man can be found there. I was so intrigued by Calamity Jane as a historical figure—an iconic woman in a man’s world—and as a transformative character. I fell in love with the potential of her right away.
I cannot imagine you dived into writing this novel without doing an exceptional amount of digging, even for someone who has taught history like yourself. What did the process look like to piece together this tale and make it believable? What was the strangest thing you found yourself researching?
I’m a huge scifi nerd but, despite basically everything about Calamity, I have to admit that I never purposefully sat down to watch or read a Western until Jane and the Green Man rode into my imagination.
If it had spaceships and lasers in it, I was there. I grew up on delicious doses of Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Star Trek, and so much Star Wars I wanted to name my second son Han. I read every Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Douglas Adams, and Frank Herbert book I could get my hands on.
But westerns? No. I was a child of the 80s and I chaffed under the western genre’s dominance of Sunday afternoon TV. I liked some, to be sure. I went through a strong Young Guns phase and I’ve loved the Lonesome Dove miniseries since I was first introduced to it in college. But I had to very intentionally research westerns for Calamity. So I could both avoid and lean into clichés. And to own one-liners. I knew from the very start that my stoic alien cowboy needed to be a creature of Western one-liners.
I surveyed friends and film buffs looking for the very best titles. I even made multiple trips to the Booth Western Art Museum (which is close to home, in Atlanta) to immerse myself in the western aesthetic. And this is where I began to see what these two genres have in common. It’s not just that Star Wars or Mad Max are honest-to-god westerns (which they totally are). It’s also that westerns and scifi are so thematically and narratively similar. Consider John Ford’s Stagecoach and Ridley Scott’s Alien: These are both stories about survival on the frontier, against a cruel and savage Other (Indians or xenomorphs, respectively). Everyone in these ensemble casts is in real peril. And if we can suspend our disbelief and forget what John Wayne and Sigourney Weaver became superstars after these films, you can still feel some of that genuine uncertainty and tension these films would’ve created upon their first screenings in 1939 or 1979.
The fancy literary answer would be something like: A lot of the appeal for this kind of mash-up comes from the fact that these are both fundamentally American and fundamentally modern genres. Westerns are the product of America colonization of the continent—and all the good and the bad that goes with ideas of frontier and Manifest Destiny and conquest in that history. Scifi, on the other hand, turns many of these themes around, looking forward while always metaphorically looking back. Where settlers exterminated and drove out the natives in the 1800s, so will their descendants—the beneficiaries of that conquest—face extermination in the future. Just look at movies like Independence Day or The War of the Worlds and how terrifying they really are. Culturally, Americans know genocide well. The settlers have become the first peoples in jeopardy and the idea of the Green Men and the Gray Men as Others who can menace the West in this way is an interesting one. And one that preys on our fears of annihilation.
But the more basic answer is that Jane and the Green Man insisted on these genres. A prospective agent once asked me to remove the Green Man from the story and I just couldn’t see how it would work. It suddenly wasn’t anything I wanted to read. The Green Man is Jane’s magic feather and her Man with No Name. His alienness is so integral to her view of the world—even when he’s not around or when he’s the only scifi thing in the story—that the western part of the novel would’ve been diminished without the science fiction.
Once I knew Calamity Jane was my heroine, I began reading as much about her as I could. I was Masters of History student at UGA and fully in research mode so I turned to the sources. But the literature on Jane before she rode into history was thin. And unreliable. I can’t remember if it was John Jennewein’s Calamity Jane of The Western Trails or Glenn Clairmonte’s Calamity Was The Name for Jane that helped me so much—I’ll have to go back up to the stacks and feel these old out-of-print books in my hands to know for sure—but what little there was written about young Calamity Jane was largely unfootnoted and historiographically suspicious. But her journey to Salt Lake, the fates of her parents and siblings, even Somers and his ill-named wife were all there. As was Piedmont, Wyoming, where our story begins. It was so exciting to see a picture of her as a teenager—really, a young woman in the 1860s sense of womanhood—working on the rails and as a ranch hand, totally ignored by history until she reemerged as a scout for Custer years later.
As for Wyoming, history put her there. I just moved her around. I’m a Georgia boy and had never been out to that part of the country. So I used Google Earth to fly all over the state, starting with Piedmont and its amazing ghost town and working my way from landmark to landmark as Jane and the Green Man told me to. I didn’t get out there for myself until Christmas of 2015, when Calamity was already in the works for publication. You can see photos from that trip in the companion story “Courting Calamity”. It’s an absolutely amazing part of the country. A whole other world compared to the South. Or all the East. I see why folks went west.
Calamity captures many elements of a coming of age story. Was there a specific message you were hoping readers would discover?
As an author—or creator of any kind, I think—one of the things that’s always exciting is when readers find something in your work that maybe wasn’t top of mind when you were writing. I’ve had folks say they appreciated the racial allegory in the book. One of my favorite reviews talks about the book as a feminist tale. I see those angles, now, even if I didn’t have them in mind when I was writing. I recall thinking of the Western immigrant story, but I think these overlaps speak to the power of the West as a lawless meritocracy and to the similarities in our diverse experiences.
For instance, I’ve had a number of readers comment about how well-written they think Jane is as a teenager and as a woman—especially when they know she was written by a man. I even had an agent express surprise on meeting me because she assumed I’d be a woman based on what she’d read of chapter one. Such amazing compliments! I like to tell people I was neither a teenage girl nor very successful with them when I was young, so I reckon I’m just as surprised as that agent was. But I think I was able to write her as well as I was not because I was tapping into anything uniquely female (my wife disagrees on this point) but because I was able to tap into Jane’s frustration, her feelings of abandonment and ostracization, her loneliness, and—of course—her anger. I was in a lonely and angry place when I wrote her, though I didn’t appreciate it at the time. Writing her always felt more like commiseration than pretending. I think to some degree, we’ve all been Martha wanting to become Jane. I sure was.
Knowing you have experience in graphic design and marketing, I was not surprised to find you created the cover yourself. Tell us about the blend of the image, color, and typography and why we’re so captivated. Seriously, why can I not stop looking at this cover?
Cause it’s awesome. LOL. Thank you!
I’m a designer by trade so, yes, I retained control of the cover in my publishing contract. A lot of authors don’t see their covers until their copies arrive in the mail or until they see the books on bookstore shelves. And I’m sure my publisher thought they’d save time and money by having the author do the work. But I was probably more of a headache for them than any online-sourced graphic designer or professional cover artist would’ve been. I treated my own cover design just like I would a client project. I did a market analysis, looking at Kindle, iBook, and New York Times bestsellers, book cover award winners, western and scifi movie posters, and even video game jackets. I then tested design concepts and titles with users to see if the themes and genres I was going for were well communicated. I heard folks describe the result as being like a Tarantino poster, or reminding them of Red Dead Redemption. And I’m fine with that. My editor didn’t dig the cover at first. He said it didn’t look like any other westerns or scifi titles he’d seen—and I didn’t want it to—but he trusted me. And when saw the book for the first time on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, I texted him and thanked him for working out the B&N distribution. He told me he hadn’t—they just liked the cover. #dropmic.
What can we expect from you in 2019? Anything else you would like to add?
I spent 2017 and 2018 kicking cancer’s ass while starting and selling a user-experience design agency, so my writing has, sadly, fallen a little behind. But I have a sci-fi short about a super-powered Hopi Indian girl hitting The Grantville Gazette any day. And I have a hard-scifi novel in revision. I also have some Wilder West shorts shopping around, featuring the Green Man and his kind with an assortment of the West’s most iconic legends—such as Jim Beckwourth, William Walker (who sucked, btw), and a super young Annie Oakley. I also have a sequel—of sorts—to Calamity in the works. It’s the other story I dreamt up sitting on those steps. The Green Man traveled near and far so I have at least two more books in me featuring him and Jane and a few some folks.
There’s also a TV treatment for Calamity being shopped around. So keep your fingers crossed. And let me know who you think should play the leads (for what it’s worth, I’m crossing my fingers for Mackenzie Foy and Matthew McConaughey)
It has been a pleasure, JD! Please tell us where fans can find you online or in the upcoming year at events.
Folks can always find me at o-jd.com (where they can also find sample chapters, reviews, book club resources, a companion story, a guide to Calamity Jane’s notorious saddle slang, and more) or connect with me on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
I’ll also be hitting a number of events in the South East, this year. Notably, my home convention, JordanCon, in Atlanta (which I like to say they named for me, but I hear there’s another author named Jordan…). You can find an ever-evolving list at o-jd.com/events.