By Daniel Ford
I’m a sucker for books that explore father and son relationships, so I was already primed to be a huge fan. An intriguing discourse on religion and the New York City setting made me run to my nearest Barnes & Noble.
I’m not the only one that felt that way. The flames of damnation envelop Cheshire’s cover, but they may as well be a metaphor of how hot this book is. In addition to Grantland’s glowing review (no pun intended), High as the Horses’ Bridles, the novel earned positive reviews from The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post, was a Time Out New York Critic’s Pick, and was an Amazon “Best Book of the Month” in July 2014. Not bad for a first novel!
Cheshire graciously answered some of my fan boy questions about his career, his writing process, and our shared love of Queens, N.Y. Boston-area readers eager to hear more from the author can attend his reading and Q&A at Harvard Book Store today at 7:00 p.m.
Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?
Scott Cheshire: My earliest writing memory is a long handwritten letter, three or four pages, to my parents, making a strong defense for not cleaning my room. I was probably about 9 or 10 years old, which makes sense when I think about it, because while I spent most of my 20s and early 30s writing what might be called more typical stories, I seem to have returned to a more personal voice in my work. Thankfully, I am no longer addressing my parents. Instead, I’m talking to the universe. That came out as a joke, but I sort of mean it.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?
SC: Well, I’m certainly not the type of writer that “writes” every day, although almost everything I do is in the service of writing. I read every day, a lot. I have a reading schedule that is usually thematic, focused on whatever project I’m working on. As far as an outline, it’s funny, I was just talking recently with a writer about this. My first novel, which has an unorthodox shape and structure, was written in the dark (maybe all novels are). What I mean to say is I was learning how novels work while writing one, and was rather committed to that method. And so save for a few central ideas, I had no idea how the book would work. I did not outline. Whereas this new novel seems to be demanding one of me. I one day got a sense of the new book in its entirety, the outline of the book, which is a strange feeling.
And yes to music, always music. Lots of 1960s “free jazz” and noisy punk rock.
DF: When you first finished High as the Horses’ Bridles did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits before you had something you felt comfortable sending out into the world?
SC: I thought I finished it several times. And I was always wrong, except once. When I finally got an agent, who’s a super reader, we worked some more on the manuscript. Same with my editor. As I said, the book has something of a strange shape, plus I worked on it for a long time (it’s so easy to get lost in the forest of your own work), so their input was welcome. I needed it. But I should also say the strangeness of the book led me to think I was working on something good, or at very least interesting. I also think my perspective, coming from a place of a particularly relevant religious disappointment, helped. I knew I was working on something that others wanted to read. I had to believe that.
DF: The book was named to Amazon’s Best Book of the Month in July 2014 and Grantland just ran a feature highly recommending it to readers. What have those positive experiences been like and has it affected the way you think about your work?
SC: It’s been wonderful, I have to say. The independent bookstores have been so incredibly supportive. Here in New York City, and as far thrown as Ann Arbor, Mich., Texas, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Seattle. I had a chance to go west and read and found there a vibrant community of excited readers. Warmed my heart. But I also want to point out that Amazon has been super supportive of the book too because they are real fans of the book, which for some writers is a problematic statement. Including me. But I think it’s important to remember that Amazon, while largely monolithic, yes, also has individual editors that truly love books and care about book culture and are trying to better that system. I have met some of them. And they are people too it turns out. And readers thus far have very strong responses to the book. They love it or hate it. And I think that’s a good place to be.
DF: Your novel centers around religious belief and a father and son relationship defined in part by what they both believe. How much of yourself and your interactions with your family and friends did you put into the story? What was your inspiration for the story in the first place?
SC: I was raised as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and because most young men in the world train as child preachers, I was a child preacher, too. Knocked on doors. Stood on stages, etc. So that certainly informed the story. But at some point I became aware that my story was not enough, and I soon became aware the story was really about America, about humanity in general, about our desire to make meaning, to transcend. I’m no longer a “believer,” but I found the more I dug into our national religious history the more I recognized myself. And it was uncomfortable, to be honest. But that makes for good fiction. As far as family, well, you draw from what you know, and I did that, but at the same time this story hardly resembles my life. Thankfully, my family agrees.
DF: New York City offers a writer a character that is instantly recognizable to readers, but can also slip into cliché when applied the wrong way. Was that something you were conscious of when choosing your setting? Or as a New Yorker, did you intrinsically know what pitfalls to stay away from?
SC: I was lucky because I found myself writing a story about character falling away from belief, no longer privileging a world to come, and now falling in love with the given physical world. And so Josie (the narrator) is looking, always looking at what things surrounds him. And it often feels like the first time he’s seen a chain link fence, a beach, a telephone pole, etc. And so I needed to be hyper-vigilant about avoiding cliché. Not to mention, I wanted to write about Queens (I’m from Queens), and there are not many writing about Queens. It seemed wide open territory.
DF: I lived in Queens, N.Y., for all of the 11 years I was in New York City and I loved every minute of it. What was it like growing up there and what’s one of your favorite Queens stories that didn’t end up as part of the novel?
SC: I love Queens. And I love Queens writers and writers who write about Queens (like novel-ists Victor LaValle, Bill Cheng, Matthew Thomas, John Weir, the poet Todd J. Colby, not to mention Kerouac and Whitman. Alas, these are all men, but are just a few off the top of my head…). And as far as a favorite story…that’s a fantastic question. I have a hundred. But here is a good one:
When I was about thirteen or fourteen, walking down 101st Ave., in Richmond Hill, headed for school, headphones on, listening to new wave, I’m sure (until very soon after I discovered Minor Threat and was changed forever after). I had my head down, bobbing it, not paying attention to what was in front of me. Until I walked right into somebody, almost knocked the guy over. I looked up…and there stood mafia don John Gotti (they were very present in my part of Queens). I looked around. I was surrounded by muscle, bear-sized men in tracks suits. I was lifted into the air, and thrown against a brisk wall by one his guys. My feet dangled. Gotti walked over to me (headphones now around my neck), looked me up and down, and laughed. He said, “He’s just a kid. Leave him alone.” I took the day off from school that day. Then again, I did that a lot.
DF: Tell me a little about your work with the Tottenville Review and the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.
SC: I don’t work nearly as much as I used to with Tottenville Review, mostly because I’m writing a new book. It’s a great magazine with a great mission—to bring attention to books that might fall beneath the media radar. I was the interviews editor there for a few years, which basically meant I begged writers to talk to us and facilitated conversations between people. I paired up people to have a talk. As far as Sackett, Julia Fierro’s organization, it’s a fantastic New York institution. I teach small groups, nine or 10 people, and we meet in bars, bookstores, apartments, and we workshop work. We also do a lot of reading. We read and discuss short stories, in addition to the workshop stories, every week. I enjoy it immensely. Lately, I’m doing more one-on-one work, editing, manuscript notes, etc.
DF: What’s next for you following the success of High as the Horses’ Bridles?
SC: The next book is a thriller set in Queens, again and is about a family falling apart after their daughter goes missing. It’s shaping up to be rather dark. And funny. Hopefully dark and funny.
DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?
SC: Read like hell.
DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?
SC: I’m right now staring at one of the ceramic-cast idols actually used on the set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." One of these: