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: Matt Sumell

making niceOn 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’re chatting with Matt Sumell, author of One Story Issue #201 “All Lateral” and the debut story collection Making Nice, available now from Henry Holt. Thanks to Matt for taking time out to talk with us about publishing his first book, memory, first-person, and jolly ranchers.

Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I got the call while I was in the middle of a writer’s group thing with my great and talented friends Marisa Matarazzo, Michael Andreasen, and—One Story Debutante herself—Ramona Ausubel. We still had a few stories to go through, but after finishing up we walked down the block to a bar called The Hudson where I popped a jolly rancher in my mouth and washed it down with five vodka sodas before I pedaled home and made my first purchase: a bigger Brita. Pretty sure I’ve been dehydrated for decades.

It was only about six stories in that I realized Alby was the narrator for all of the stories in Making Nice. That isn’t because he’s an inconsistent narrator, it’s that the world in each story is so fully developed that they seem like stand alone pieces. Reflecting on it, though, the structure of Making Nice definitely suites its story. Could you elaborate more on the form and the way Making Nice developed?

As Barry Hannah put it: “I like the first person—just a guy blasting through with the little he knows.” Me too. And when you have a narrator blasting through the wreckage of his life—taking inventory, trying to sense-make it a little bit, salvage what he can—it makes some sense that it’s not going to track chronologically. You don’t start at point A and move in a hard straight line to point whatever. Memory meanders, circles, loops. It gets tangled. Pull one string and something else comes with it. One memory makes you think of another, and whether that thing happened ten years or three weeks ago is beside the point. Consider your mother. Does it run like a movie reel: your earliest memory to your last? If it does you’re fuckin’ weird.

From the moment Alby punched his sister in the boob, I loved him, and it was interesting to me that, as a woman, I could still relate to a character who expresses some form of misogyny at so many points. Were you surprised that women responded positively to the novel? How did you take gender into account when writing?

I didn’t really consider my potential audience much, if at all, and I certainly wasn’t attempting to please people. Not sure you can read this book and think I was even trying to come out of the gate clean. I’m not interested in that. I just wanted to present a guy honestly struggling with grief in a way that people can believe in–flaws and all—because bad choices—and bad behavior—make for good stories.

As for women responding positively—let’s be honest: some have and some haven’t. That’s fine, and I’m not sure it comes down to gender so much as the ability to read well. All that “misogyny” is surface level. Read a little deeper and it’s pretty clear that beneath all the flawed thinking—the temper, the bad choices, the drinking and drugging, the violence and the girl chasing—there’s an underlying sense of awe and appreciation when it comes to the people—especially the women—in Alby’s life. That he loved his mother. That his sister is important to him. That even at his worst—and there’s plenty of that—he looks back at past girlfriends with the understanding that the ladies who love you, and even a few who don’t, have a way of making things better, and worthwhile, and sometimes even nice.

Alby is decidedly a dog person, something that appealed to me, but I wonder if cat lovers sympathized with Whatsherface in “All Lateral.” Any plans to give cats a starring role in a future novel and gain access to a whole new world of feline-loving readership? 

Alby the dog lover is really—when you think about it—Alby the animal lover. Working from shoddy memory here: over the course of the book he sympathizes with a bird, turtles, an almost drowned grasshopper, gazelles, a wolf that eats gazelles, an elephant, a slug named Cherokee Bob, ducks, bulls, dogs, and—as much as I hate to admit it—even his father’s cat Steve.

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

What I always look forward to: celebrating with friends.