Introducing 2015 Debutante: Scott Cheshire

horsesbridlesOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Scott Cheshire, a wonderful and generous person and author. Scott’s debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is now available from Henry Holt. The book follows Josiah Laudermilk as he goes from being a twelve-year-old prophet in a religious household in Queens, New York, to a divorced man who goes by “Josie” and owns computer stores in southern California. When his estranged father falls ill and Josie returns to New York to care for him, Josie confronts his past in ways that reverberate into his present and future. Memories of his childhood, his departed mother, his break from the church, and the early years of his marriage collide as he tries to figure out how to be around his father again and how to move forward in life with a clearer vision of his reality. It’s a very relatable family story told through the fascinating lens of religion, history, and love.

Where were you when you found out High as the Horses’ Bridles was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, in Soho, when I got the call. Which was fitting as I wrote much of the book there. After the call, I wanted to call my wife and my friends but I resisted that and went outside. I walked around the cobbled streets out front and I tried to be very aware of the moment. I let it sink in. I thought about how long I had been working on the book, how many years. I thought about how long I had been writing. Then I called my wife. I probably got weepy. And then I called one of my teachers, who by then had become a real mentor and friend. I asked him what to do next. He said, start another book, right now, even if it’s shit. That was very good advice.

The title of your book is so perfect. How did you decide on this title and were there any other contenders?

Well thank you so much for saying that. The whole time writing it, the book was called The Ends. I had it at the top of every page. It kept me focused. Everything in the book had to funnel toward that, and so the book became about the many ends of our lives, the end of childhood, the end of love, the end of faith, the end of life, the end of time, even the opposite ends of the country. At some point I realized this was not, in fact, the title of the book, but rather its preoccupation. It also helped that everyone hated that title. I made a list of more terrible titles until it struck me that the title should come from the book of Revelation, since the book itself was birthed from that book and my relationship to it. I read Revelation again and came across the phrase. It seemed poetic, even American, it sounded like a Cormac McCarthy novel (which couldn’t hurt), but actually referred to something quite violent and nightmarish, the depth of sinners’ blood come Armageddon. I liked that tension.

High as the Horses’ Bridles is set mostly in Queens and Southern California, both locations where you have lived yourself. Can you talk about the process of writing a story that takes place in environments with which you are very familiar? And has your recent move back to Southern California from Queens affected your current writing at all?

This is an especially interesting question because I never had plans to live in California again, and yet here I am. Place, I must say, is very important to me. I mean in life and in my reading and writing habits. Place directly affects my mood. For instance, just thinking about the splintery beach of Truro, Mass., gives me peace. I have a photo of that place on my laptop screen. As far as Queens and Southern California, they were the landscapes of the most formative times in my life and so it made sense to write about them. Not to mention, for me, life is sort of a dialog with the physical world. And so my work tends to revolve around characters engaged with the world around them, the trees, the beach, the sidewalks, and subways. As far as returning to California, well, I’m writing about Queens again, but with the beach just minutes away. This makes for a better mood and hopefully makes for better writing.

One of my favorite chapters in the novel is very removed from your own experience—it’s a vivid depiction of a tent revival in nineteenth-century rural Kentucky. What kind of research did you do to create such a believable environment and characters in this section?

This was the last thing I wrote and it happened quite fast. It took about a month of long marathon writing sessions in which locked myself in the bedroom and had my wife bring me lots of coffee. But that only happened after a tremendous amount of research. I took lots of notes but mostly just figured I would use what stayed with me. After writing it, I reached out to a few historians of American religious history who not only responded, but they did so with great enthusiasm. They sent me notes and corrections on things I might consider, or about stuff I got plain wrong. I could not have done it without them.

To me, your novel is ultimately about the often unrealistic expectations that parents place on their children—or even expectations that the children perceive, whether they exist or not—and how families and individuals deal with the dynamics that result from these expectations. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you heard any interpretations of the book that have surprised you?

Well, because the book centers on one family’s religious legacy, people often talk of the book in that context, that it’s a book about religion, but really for me it’s a book about family, first. It’s about fathers and sons. Mothers and sons. So it makes me very happy that you describe it this way. I have heard many differing opinions on the novel. I have been hugged by an atheist who told me he was happy that someone finally wrote a novel about religion from the atheist’s perspective. I have received letters from people thanking me for writing a novel about religion finally from the perspective of the faithful. I have sent at least one woman back to church. All of this pleases me. Probably my favorite response though was from a man in Boston, who bought five copies, one for each of his boys. He said they were going to read the book together. It doesn’t get much better than that. I know writing the book certainly brought me closer to my own family.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball on May 15th?

I love One Story and have been reading it for years, so it’s thrilling to be a part of this year’s ball. Not to mention I get to put on a tie, and get a haircut, although I need to get new shoes. Since the move out west, I’ve been wearing flip-flops, mostly. Maybe I’ll get a pair of fancy ones to go with my suit.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Mia Alvar

alvar_11-10On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Mia Alvar, the charming and brilliant author of In the Country. Mia was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City, and the stories in her debut collection follow an intriguing and varied cast of characters in each of these locations. In these stories, which are so true to life, family members show both deep love for and drastic misunderstanding of each other. Mia offers us stories of personal struggles, with vivid backdrops of politics, history, and socio-economic class differences. Her prose is deceptive in its seeming simplicity—its layers of meaning resonate long after the final page is turned.

As Mia tells us, she identifies with the narrator of “A Contract Overseas”, who has just discovered her enthusiasm for writing. The narrator’s brother understands, saying, “Now it keeps you up at night. You feel awake for the first time. Like you’d been sleepwalking through life before.” In the stories of In the Country, we are clearly reading the work of a writer who is passionate about her work.

Where were you when you found out your first book, the amazing story collection In the Country, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at home—getting updates simultaneously from my agent, who was finalizing the sale; and from my sister-in-law, who was in labor with her third child. The book deal was confirmed within a few hours of her (sister-in-law’s, not agent’s) giving birth. My husband was also working from home that day, so there was this happy embarrassment of good news in our apartment. We celebrated by passing a flask between us on the LIRR train that we rode to go meet our new nephew.

The first story in your collection is “The Kontrabida” was issue #165 of One Story in the summer of 2012. Were you working on other stories from In the Country around the same time? Can you talk a little bit about how you put together this collection of stories?

I did have other stories in the works alongside “The Kontrabida,” but at first I didn’t think much about how they’d all come together. I somewhat naively thought the setting(s)—this loose triangle of Filipino communities in the Middle East and America and the Philippines—would be enough to make it a collection. But over the years—and especially after Hannah Tinti worked with me on “The Kontrabida”—it became clear to me that those details of place and culture were more like points of entry than a subject. I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell were all in some way about the tension between cleaned-up “official” histories (whether in textbooks and newspapers, or in heavily curated family albums) and people’s messy, more complicated experience. After I knew that, I could see more clearly which stories belonged in the collection and which ones had to go.

Your stories so effectively explore the working lives of characters with a wide range of professions: medical doctor; special education teacher; fashion model; oil industry worker; nurse; journalist; etc. How did you go about preparing to write these characters, who are all so different and so convincing?

I’m glad you were convinced! To be honest, I find it extremely hard to sound authentic about people who do things I don’t in real life—but at the same time, I’ve never felt inspired to write from the perspective of a Filipina-American fiction writer in her thirties living in New York City. Maybe someday. But for this book, because I was drawn mostly to characters who are different (at least in surface ways) from me, I tended to over-prepare, wrapping myself up in a cocoon of research and interviews and prewriting and obsessive, borderline-Method techniques for getting inside their lives. Almost none of that material ended up in the stories, but it did give me a way into the voice or inner life of each character, which then allowed the details (work-related or otherwise) to fall into place. It’s not really necessary to describe what a nurse does at her job with which tools, but somehow having that information beforehand helped me figure out how that nurse might speak to her journalist husband at breakfast.

Many of your stories explore the role of the mother within a family, including the influence a mother has on her children, and the ways that mothers can surprise their children’s expectations of them. Your title story, which ends the collection, explores Milagros’s identity as a mother as one of its central themes. What most intrigues you about exploring motherhood in your writing?

This actually surprised me. I’ve only ever experienced life on the daughter side, so motherhood wasn’t a theme I consciously set out to explore. But mothers do come up a lot in the stories, and I guess that this goes back to my obsession with official narratives vs. real experience, and how those things pull against each other. Motherhood seems to be one of those ideas that we humans are most tempted to sentimentalize and oversimplify and “scrub,” so that space between the pretty mythologies and the complex, more gnarly aspects of it turned out to be rich and fascinating territory for me. And the writerly-craft nerd in me must have recognized on some level that motherhood—where the pressures are so intense, and the stakes could not be higher—is just a really great source of chaos, conflict, trouble…all of the things you don’t want in real life but do need in fiction.

Your stories take place around the world, with characters who are struggling with leaving or returning to their native Philippines. In “Shadow Families”, ex-pats in Bahrain throw parties for their fellow Filipinos and help each other out in an attempt to make their borrowed city feel “like home.” What does “home” mean to you?

It almost feels easier to define what home isn’t. At least in my experience, it’s hardly ever the place we’re physically and geographically born into—as many of my characters discover, either by choice or by accident or by economic/political necessity. I identify more than a little bit with the young girl narrating “A Contract Overseas,” who finds a sort of home in fiction and storytelling and other writers, after feeling basically like an alien within her own family and neighborhood her whole life. As sappy as it sounds, that whole “where the heart is” cliché rings very true for me. Even as they keep trying to recreate all the details of their original home, I suspect that what the women in “Shadow Families” are really after is the kind of connection and sense of belonging that two people—born in completely different countries and circumstances—find with each other, improbably, in “Esmeralda.”

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

Meeting my fellow debs. Getting all cleaned up (I hear the dress code is “Brooklyn fancy”), and toasting to the One Story crew, who always know how to throw a party.