An Interview with Scott Cheshire, by Celia Johnson
October 20, 2014
We published “Romantics,” a short story by Scott Cheshire, in Issue 12 of Slice. The theme for that issue was Obsession, which is fitting, because, as you’ll see in the following interview, Cheshire’s debut novel, High As the Horses Bridles, is the sum of many obsessions. The book begins with a stunning scene, set in Queens in the 1980s, in which twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk stands before a congregation of 4,000 people and experiences an overwhelming apocalyptic vision. The story plays out in three parts and this structure is a true feat of literary framing. Each section recasts the story, offering even more nuances to the themes of religion, mortality, and family. It’s the kind of book that, when you reach the end, you realize you’ve got to go back and start again. I spoke with Scott about the inspiration for his debut, his creative routine (or lack thereof), and his next book, which he hopes will “scare you shitless.”
It actually began with a dream. I dreamed of a ceiling I saw when I was a kid, a theater ceiling that was painted to look like an evening sky. Planets, moon, stars. Clouds were projected up there. I woke up that next morning wondering why I was thinking of this image, one I had not thought of for over twenty years. I decided I would write about it, and I began to literally write a description of that ceiling, for pages and pages and pages simply to see where it led me. And some point Josie walked in the room. It turned out he was waiting backstage. I had no idea why. I spent the next six years or so following him in the world and trying to figure him out, even as he was trying to figure the world out, which, of course, was also me trying to figure the world out. It was intense.
Did you envision your book unfolded in three parts from the outset?
Not from the initial outset, no. But a novel, for me, is a phenomenon of structure, a character within structure. Not so different from life itself really, as we now know that “time,” per se, doesn’t really exist outside of human experience. It is the structure consciousness requires. Otherwise there would be no “life,” as we know it, just nonsense. This is how I think of novels. My favorite books are structurally interesting, and that structure informs character. At some point, I then realized why Josie was backstage: he would give a sermon and then have vision. Which pretty soon turned into the realization that the book would consist of three parts, a triptych, and each part would revolve around a vision. This hopefully gives the book a consistent and coherent structure regardless of how digressive Josie gets (and he does digress). This also allowed me to let the parts themselves characterize Josie. The first vision dramatizes a first step in the loss of faith. The second part pairs the possibility of transcendent vision with corporeal vision. The third vision dramatizes a first step toward faith. Then again, a writing teacher of mine once talked about the number three, what he called it’s special magic. Maybe I just hoped some of that magic three-ness would rub off on the novel.
Would you describe your writing process?
I’m not one who writes everyday, three hours a day, at the desk, etc. And I used to feel guilty about this. But not anymore. I read a lot, and I read thematically, obsessively. Fiction and non-fiction. I keep a schedule. I take notes. The notes themselves start to form a narrative, and let me in on my less obvious preoccupations. For instance, while writing present day Josie, which is a very different part of the book, digressive, obsessive, sad, hopefully funny too, I found myself drawn to histories of early American religious movements. My notes suggested an impressionistic sense of yet another apocalyptic visionary moment, but an earlier one, in nineteenth century frontier America. I figure this would not work, as it seemed to thematically close to the opening section. But my notes and my reading habits suggested otherwise. And so I started that final section that takes place in Kentucky, 1801. I should say, now, while writing this new novel, everything I learned, all I thought I came to understand about writing—at least most of it—has gone out the window. I’m learning all over again. So I’m reading. And I’m writing. And I’m avoiding writing. Every day, I do a little of each.
Which writers do you admire most, and have any particularly influenced your work?
I mention Don DeLillo a lot. I try not to, believe me. But I can’t help it. Joy Williams was recently asked in her Paris Review interview about writers she respects, and she mentioned DeLillo. She said, “No one’s caught up with what he’s doing yet.” I am of this persuasion. And partly because of his subject matter. His books are big, always big, regardless of their actual size. The slim Point Omega is bigger, more substantial, than any contemporary weighty tome I’ve read in the last few years. I’m also drawn to his work with structure. Marilynne Robinson is a tremendous influence, as is Flannery O’Connor, even while they are pretty much exact opposites. Of the last few years, a writer I’ve come to love and get very excited by is Javiar Marias. I read and reread everything available. But this also means I’m currently trying my best to learn from him while not becoming overwhelmed. He is an extraordinary stylist. And I am drawn to style.
What are some of the greatest challenges you found in composing your book, either in the early stages or later on, working with your agent and editor to polish the manuscript?
The hardest part in the editing process, with agent and editor, was coming to accept how often they were right. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense. I was writing a novel while trying to teach myself how to write a novel. They were of tremendous help. As far as writing the book, the most difficult part was trying to give the book balance. The opening and closing sections follow a more traditional narrative arc. They are climatic. The drama builds, until a release. The middle section does not do this. It deliberately disobeys the general rule. And some readers have a hard time with that, which is fine, but odds are they also would not like the novels I like best. The book tries to balance two ways of living, two ways of experiencing time, the more traditional sort, climactic, and therefore apocalyptic, and the daily meandering way of human consciousness, memory, and dream. This was my way of exploring the loss of faith.
Were you particularly surprised by any parts of the publishing process?
I worked as an editor for some time, just a few years, and this proved invaluable to me. I knew what to expect what not to expect. What surprised me was how quickly I forgot all that. Why is this taking so long? Why is my book not a New York Times best seller? Why won’t The New Yorker publish my story? Why won’t Leonardo DiCaprio make my book into a movie? It is amazing how fast we follow our ego. Thankfully, I have remembered to ignore my ego as much as possible. I just want to make another book.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a book set in Queens, New York (again), in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s sort of a thriller, an inverted thriller, a slow thriller. I want to write a bad guy. And my reading notes and habits currently revolve around evil, and the devil, so he’s shaping up to be about really bad guy. I love to be scared. I love a truly frightening horror movie (which is rare). My goal is to write a book that you can’t put down, that is structurally interesting, and deals with the big questions, always the big questions. And I hope to scare you shitless.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan.
Scott Cheshire is the author of High as the Horses’ Bridles (Henry Holt). His work has been published in AGNI, Electric Literature, Guernica, Harper’s, and Slice. He lives in New York City.
Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice and author of two books, most recently Odd Type Writers.