When I, Nathaniel G. Moore, started reading I Am Billy the Kid, the new novel from the team of Anvil Press / Michael Blouin, I began to read from an imagined dusty cloud on the streets of some run down Hollywood movie set - the closest thing I've ever seen to Billy's home planet. It crawled and it ached along, it lured me over with a hand through the sand-swarmed dirt. Then I noticed the italics, and my cracked psyche immediately began to twist and shout to the first impressions of Michael "Elaine, You've Got to See The English Patient" Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. But more than that, the voices, the long dead voices, the gravel in the eye of the reader, as we pass through two characters on the way to our star attraction. It's a wonderful transition, filmic even. I just wanted a reason to mention Ondaatje, you know, for Google reasons, and now we also have Elaine and Seinfeld, so... I do know Michael Ondaatje quite well you see: I used to regularly see at Jet Fuel Coffee in Toronto, once on the dancefloor at the Griffin Poetry Castle, several times at the Brick office when I worked at Broken Pencil which is inside the George Brown house, as well as once in Grenich Village. (If you want to know what he said to me on the dance floor in 2003 after we partied at the chocolate fountain Griffin-style, you'll have to read Honorarium, out now on earth's finest and Canadian-est bookstores.)

So I'm wondering here Michael, How many different openings did you have? And was there ever a cold open in Billy's voice from word one?

The beginning of this book was the seemingly random and out of the blue appearance in my head (during an early morning ice cold shower) of the phrase “I am Billy the Kid”. I knew immediately that it was the title of a book and initially I assumed (partly I suppose due to The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and due to the seminal influence that both that book and Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter had on me as a young writer), that it would be a book of experimental poetry. The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid by bp Nichol was also spinning around in my head once I had my title. So, I started to write that book and an alternate take of the first scene of that version is now on page 18. As I finished the first ten pages or so of that version of the book my two characters at that time, Billy and his brother Joseph, pretty much sat me down and told me “Brother, we are in no way interested in your experimental poetry, we are engaged in the construction of quite a large novel, and you’d best get to work on that for us.” Well, they had guns, so I followed their advice. Unbeknownst to the three of us Miss Turner Wing was just a page or two away at that time and quite ready to knock those two and myself right off of our high horses and to take over the narrative almost entirely. So yes, there was a cold open in Billy’s voice at one point, but a novel shifts a lot during the years of its creation, and new characters and the demands of the plot come into play, there were a lot of elements by the end of the journey that were not imagined at the start and this needed to be taken into account. Not to be missed though is the actual first line of the book “Don’t call me Ismael” which I think is just a fantastic open and I wish that I had actually written it. You can find more regarding that in the acknowledgements.

Would you say that this novel, I Am Billy The Kid is the performance of your lifetime? A lifetime of story and voice within? An ensemble cast. An enduring subject revisited. Was this a huge undertaking both time-wise and effort? Were there a lot of moving parts?

As a writer I would have to say that this story was, up until the day that I started on my current work in progress, the performance of a lifetime. My current work always surpasses, in my mind at least, what has gone before. This book is very important to me, and I do feel that everything I’ve done previously has led up to this work. I told a friend that this is the book that, if I am one day on my deathbed without having seen it published, would have killed me not to have seen out in the world. Of course, I’d be on my deathbed, so I don’t suppose that it would really matter much at that point anyway. Plus, I intend to go in a fiery crash. From initial idea to a barcode this one took ten years which is a very long time for me. Of course, that’s not all writing, there were about six years of writing, then revisions, then revisions with my agent, then submission, then edits with my publisher Anvil Press (lucky to work with Stuart Ross there), and the whole design process, all the regular moving parts. This book certainly took more research than previous books. I found, since this is what I would term a proto-feminist revisionist historical novel, that I had to do a great deal of research and then try to forget most of it. I do feel to some degree that this is the story I was placed here to write, there’s both a lot of me and a lot of my perspective regarding the writing of fiction wrapped up in it, but then that’s true of the novel in progress as well. Is “I am Billy the Kid” the performance of a lifetime? I guess we’ll know the answer to that question when I’m dead (well… I won’t). How did the novel evolve? What were the original plans structure wise? “I am Billy the Kid” would have been an 80 to 90 page book of poetry if the author had been allowed to have his way. Fortunately, I am just a pawn in the process and instead we have a 405 page novel. In terms of original plans for structure – there weren’t any. I usually don’t have any idea of an ending for the plot until I am about a third of the way in. Then I write that last page and I try to work my way towards it. I know that if that last page doesn’t materialize by at least a third of the way in that the whole thing is likely to fail, so it’s very rewarding occasion when those words do show up. Otherwise, I’d have to get a real job.

Were you afraid that you'd be consumed with the available material on your subject? He's kind of like Minnie Mouse that way. Ms. Pacman. Oprah. Superman. Barbie. William's influence towers over his actuality.

Billy the Kid is largely someone that we ourselves have created and I’m playing with that construct and with the construct of myself more than I am with any actual historical figure, so as I say, I tried to do a lot of research and then set it aside. The novel I’m writing now involves both Elvis Presley and astronaut John Glenn so those are both fairly intimidating subjects as well. But this is make believe, and you can’t allow yourself the convenience of being pushed around by reality. I don’t imagine that Henry McCarty, or whatever Billy’s real name was, (spoiler alert: it wasn’t Ishmael) was a very interesting person, and certainly not an admirable one in any way that makes sense to me, what is interesting to me is the character that we have fabricated around him as a culture and what that may say about us, which may or not be flattering to us, and likely it is not very – we are a very strange breed and we are quite likely to make bad choices about such things. (m)

Michael Blouin is the author of several books, including, most recently, Skin House and I Am Billy the Kid. (Anvil Press).