Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What Came Before and Before: An Interview with Scott Cheshire, Author of High as the Horses' Bridles


To call Scott Cheshire’s recently released novel High as the Horses’ Bridles a phenomenal debut is almost misleading. This may be Cheshire’s first novel, but from page one it is clear to readers that they are in the gentle hands of a master craftsman. The story of reluctant child prophet Josiah Laudermilk oscillates throughout time, dipping and spinning through present, past and history, creating a multi-layered portrait of the American religious experience. The narrative focuses on Josie’s return to his ailing, mentally unstable father and their complicated relationship, but also poses and explores haunting questions- What does it mean to believe? To embrace doubt? To love and be loved in return? To what extent are we shaped by those that came before us? Scott Cheshire may not have the answers to the questions he poses- High as the Horses’ Bridles only opens one door after the other after the other- but he does have the answers to mine. Cheshire graciously took the time to discuss voice, perspective and what’s coming next. Because, trust me, once you’ve read High as the Horses’ Bridles, you’ll be banging down his door for more. 

Steph Post: I have to start with the opening scene of the novel because it is so very beautiful and startling. “See the night clouds lolling, drifting above their heads… like vapors released, dust climbs blue-gray and upward like prayers.”  This scene is also written in a markedly different style than most of the novel. Whereas the majority of High as the Horses’ Bridles is written from the candid point of view of the protagonist, Josie Laudermilk, the opening is a lyrical description of the Howard Theater told in second person by an unnamed narrator. The voice of this narrator also returns near the end of the novel, suggesting a possible cyclical narrative structure. What was your intention with these dual narratives? How do you think they enhance the reader’s perception of Josie and his emotional journey?

Scott Cheshire: Well, first of all, thanks for the compliment, but especially thanks for the insightful read.  The book is definitely cyclical, and for a few reasons. One of those being I wanted to make a book that explores how we consciously and unconsciously understand and manipulate what we think of as Time. Which is maybe just a fancy way of saying the book pits the more exciting apocalyptic and climactic sense of time against the more difficult and sometimes banal experience of just being alive in the world, how we wrench meaning from either. As far as voice, you’re right, the opening section seems unnamed and from a very different perspective, one that could certainly be called second person. And yet I also tend to think of that opening as a first person voice, one that belongs to Josie, but one that has to be gotten to, if that makes any sense. The book is about a man’s attempt to run from his religious history and family, and in doing so finds himself returning to them, and finding his true self. So the opening section tries to represent that move in language. You might have noticed the opening word is “they,” and so that section becomes a movement from “them” to “me.” The closing section does something similar, but within a much more ironic and tragic context, because of course the drama we have just witnessed, its religious promise of a better world, even the ultimate defeat of death, has long passed for over a century already. And yet it still does return to the “I” — which “I,” I’m not exactly sure at that point, if I’m honest. Fiction, for me, is mostly made of mystery. I guess I hope the “I,” by the end, has become a ghostly mix of me and the reader.       

SP: As mentioned, the heart of the story is told from the perspective of Josie. His journey starts when he is a child and experiences his first prophesy while preaching to a congregation. Josie is kid straddling two worlds. While seeing a horse emerge from the back wall of the theater during his revelation, Josie fingers the Star Wars action figure in his pocket. Josie is obviously in a unique position as a child preacher/prophet, but how different do you think he is from every other twelve year old struggling to find his or her place in the world?

SC: This is a super question because aside from that obvious difference, Josie’s not so different from most kids. His story is heightened by his position, definitely, and that works for storytelling, but in the end his fight is with identity — Who am I? Who are my friends? How do I fit in? How come first love is so much more potent than others? Where do people go when they die? And why won’t my parents live forever? I recently spoke with a bookseller in Seattle who said she’d been recommending the book to young readers, and that YA readers were really responding to it, which made me very happy. That said, I’m not so sure Josie as an adult is so different from any of us either. His story is heightened, again, because of his circumstances, but really it’s a love story (or maybe more a story about the aftermath of love) about a family, a story about a boy and his dad. Josie is trying to figure out the answers, or maybe just the questions, to life’s essential mysteries, and so I found him fascinating company.

SP: So much of Horses’ is concerned with Josie’s relationship with father, Gill Laudermilk. Time shifts back and forth between Josie as a confused child and Josie as a troubled adult, but regardless of his age or the point in the story, Josie is focused on his father. While waiting in a cab to be taken to his parents’ home, Josie reminisces, “I sat there in the back of Abdullah’s cab, and thought of my father and how many different fathers we all have, of how many I’d had. All of them Gill, but different.” Josie goes on to list, “There was the father I had when I was a kid… the father who argued with my mother… who eventually refused church altogether… who frightened me… my deliberate insomniac of a father… the father who tossed me aside when I left New York… the father who lost my mother.” At the outset, this novel is about Josie, but how much of it is really about Gill? Can Josie and Gill, as father and son characters, even be separated?

SC: The story territory of father-and-son relationships covers so much, from Homer to the Bible to Star Wars. Which is not to say it’s a territory richer than any mother-child relationship, but simply one that also happens to echo Western questions of divinity, and a human relationship to the idea of a Divine. Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead, basically a novel-length letter from a father to his son, beautifully mines the same tradition. The fact that I’m not a “believer,” coupled with the fact that I am nonetheless intensely interested in the generational impact of belief, made Josie’s relationship to his father central to the book. There’s a moment in the book where Josie calls his father — any father — “a bridge between two voids” (I think that’s the line), and I think that’s true. Who Josie is is largely determined by his father, and where he is going is largely determined by where his father has already been. Josie wants to run away from his own “blood,” which also suggests the religious urge is within our very DNA. Incidentally, I don’t think that’s true. Josie fears it is, but I don’t. And I think the last section of the book makes a case for the very opposite. The acquisition and the loss of faith can be entirely due to happenstance. Who knocks on your door, and when, etc. I should also say that while I find Gill to be a tragic figure, he truly saddens me (his pain saddens me), Josie makes me laugh. I find him very funny, dry funny, darkly funny. The two of them are two halves of the same whole, and provide a kind of balance in the book.

SP: The more minor characters of Issy, Bhanu and Sarah appear only briefly, but their presence has a powerful impact on the psyche of Josie and on the narrative flow of the story. As an author, how important are minor characters? Should these characters even be considered minor in light of their influence on Josie and Gill?

SC: I think fiction at its best, no matter how absurd or surprising or unreal it might seem, still tends to look a lot like life, and it can be disturbing to think of what ways “minor characters” in our lives have been so influential. Which of course begs a reconsideration of what minor means, or usually means, anyway. In Josie’s case, people like Bhanu, Issy, and Sarah seem omnipresent by their absence, and seem almost as alive to him as anybody else. They function for Josie as a way to try and better understand the death of his mother, but also mortality itself. Death is a void, a nothing, literally a “no-thing,” and so in trying to understand his own mortality and what appears to the unstoppable loss of his ailing father, he thinks a lot about absence, holes become a recurrent theme in the book, and about people already gone. Which makes sense to me. I regularly thought of my grandmother, who I was very close to, and a long gone childhood friend, both of them now gone, while writing the book. I’m happy he has the fortitude to deal with this sort of loss, but also a dry enough sense of humor to save him from over-sentimentality. He veers, but steers clear, I think, until he finally finds his way into a place of light.       

SP: Many of the religious elements and depictions in Horses’ are spot-on; I have to ask about your sources. In writing my second novel, which heavily focuses on a Pentecostal preacher and her congregation, I relied on some personal experience and a whole lot of book research. How did you go about so accurately portraying these characters and their experiences in a marginal religious sect?

SC: I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and so I know the world of marginal evangelicalism pretty well, although I started my leave from that world in my late teens. It wasn't for me. And I didn’t write about it for decades, probably because I wasn’t ready. When I started to, I realized that the story I was interested in was about so much more than me and my experience. It was about America really, about humanity in general, and our desire for transcendence and meaning. I became especially interested in the American born religious movements of the 19th century and so immersed myself in their histories. I contacted a few secular historians of American religion who were really enthusiastic about helping. They read drafts of the book, suggested books, articles I should read, other people I should contact. They were of immeasurable help, and allowed me to make the novel more than just a predictable contemporary novel. It turned out to have a historical novel hidden inside it.       

SP: I’m already anxious to read more, so I have to ask: what can readers expect from you next?

SC: The next book is something of a thriller set in New York City, in the 1970s and 1980s. A family falls apart after their daughter goes missing. It’s also shaping up to be about the devil, not a real world devil, but the idea of one, the devil we imagine so as not to face the evil staring back in the mirror. 

Thanks so much to Scott Cheshire for stopping by! You can connect with him at www.scottcheshire.com and on twitter at @ScottCheshire (I don't think he'll bite...) And please remember to pick up a copy of High as the Horses' Bridles. This one is not to be missed!

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