Author Talk: August 8, 2014
Malcolm Brooks was raised in the rural foothills of the California Sierras and grew up around Gold Rush and Native American artifacts. A carpenter by trade, he has lived in Montana for most of two decades. His debut novel, PAINTED HORSES, combines his widely varied interests, his fascination with the American West and, of course, his lifelong love of horses. In this interview, Brooks talks about the path that led him to write this “sprawling book,” the strange paradox of progress, how living in Montana has affected his writing and, naturally, why he loves horses so much.
Question: Describe the path that brought you to writing. How long has this novel been developing?
Malcolm Brooks: I was raised in a pretty rigid, pretty sheltered religious environment and early on had the sense of being sort of an oddball, the kid who learned to escape through the alternate universe of books and reading. I went to public school for the first time in the eighth grade, and my English teacher, Marcia Callenberger, gave me a book that changed my life, because it made me want to be a writer too. LONESOME DOVE was unlike anything I knew existed, a hilarious, character-driven epic that followed no formula but struck me in the heart like nothing before.
I knocked around the West in my early 20s, learning carpentry along the way to support myself and attempting college in fits and starts. I read like crazy, discovering Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje, knowing I wanted to be a writer but not quite knowing what sort of writer I wanted to be, like a guitarist with a schizoid devotion to both Segovia and Angus Young. Thomas McGuane struck a chord with me because he was clearly connected to so many things I myself had a love for --- horses and fly-fishing, bird shooting and the West, and, above all, stylish writing.
I finally landed in Missoula, Montana in my mid-20s, tackling an English degree in earnest and finding my way to literary parties and events through my then-girlfriend, a poet and MFA candidate. I hunted a lot and rode horses when I could, wrote a couple of novels I hated and began to publish essays and short stories in magazines, then landed a job as a writer and consultant for an outdoor television company, all the while concocting this novel in my head, this huge, sprawling book that would somehow connect the dots of everything I’d ever been consumed by --- archaeology and the West, Basques and Indians and the Lascaux cave, hunting and horses and the inevitable pros and cons of progress.
After six years of morning and evening and weekend writing, I named it PAINTED HORSES.
Q: Was there a specific reason you went with a female protagonist?
MB: Initially, long before the actual writing began, John H was going to be front and center the entire time, but as I was putting all the various conceptual pieces together, I realized Catherine couldn’t be a mere plot device or a love interest if I wanted to tell the most fully human story I could tell. Plus I wanted to capture the era as well as I could. I think we tend to look back on the ‘60s as the time of real change and conflict and paradox and upheaval, but the ‘50s had plenty of that too, and in ways that could significantly affect women.
Q: PAINTED HORSES deals with technological progress and the erasure of tradition on several fronts. Can you talk a bit about the friction between those two forces and how it drives your writing forward?
MB: This is a great question, because it makes me realize I’m as much a creature of paradox as anything else, which undoubtedly informs my writing. I myself can be quite a Luddite --- I’ve got to be one of the last Facebook holdouts --- but I don’t ever want to give up jet air travel, hot showers, iPods and antibiotics, among other things. Bob Dylan, Talking Heads. Life and culture are malleable, and protean, and obviously life goes on, but at the same time, part of the price of progress, especially on the scale we’ve been capable of since the Industrial Revolution, is probably for lack of a better word spiritual, the danger of losing our own sense of the whole magical trajectory of what it means and has meant to be human. And paradoxically, it’s often modern progress that cracks the lid on long lost things to begin with --- the only known Clovis burial site in North America was discovered by bulldozer during a drain field project.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the US Army’s last mounted cavalry in World War II?
MB: This was the springboard for the entire novel. I only knew about the ad hoc World War II cavalry in Italy because of a chance conversation when I was 19. I worked for my father’s construction company, and he had a retired equine vet for a client at one point who hung around the jobsite all day. I was then and still tend to be the guy who sits there at wedding receptions and birthday parties and talks to old people when nobody else seems to want to, and over the years I’ve heard some really amazing stories as a result. This guy figured out that I liked horses, liked hunting, and so on, and he would just sit there and jaw with me.
Eventually he told me he’d been a part of the last U.S. mounted cavalry effort, in World War II Italy, and I was just fascinated by the whole notion because I’d never had a clue such a thing had ever occurred. Over the years, I tried to find a reference to what he was talking about in history books and whatnot, and other than a really oblique aside here and there, came up for the most part pretty blank. Then when the Internet realized its full potential, I tracked down an old magazine story in an Army publication called Cavalry Journal, from 1942. It was a full-length feature on exactly what he had described to me, with really amazing anecdotes and photos. It’s still the only significant source material I’ve been able to find.
Q: And how about Londinium?
MB: I knew a bit about post-Blitz archaeology, and definitely knew it was instrumental in the modern concept of salvage or rescue archaeology. Really the germ of Catherine’s backstory came from my former mother-in-law, who went to England on a Fulbright to study the clarinet in the early ‘50s. Although she didn’t so far as I know encounter any of the digs, I had a sense that these really interesting and significant excavations were going on right in the same era she was living there. And I knew about the history of London generally, as a Roman frontier fort initially, and Boudicca’s Revolt, and so on. So once I decided to place Catherine in circumstances similar to ones I knew to be true, I started to research the actual history and logistics of Grimes’s London digs, and the literal pandemonium created by the temple discovery, and it just opened this amazing world that happened to work beautifully for my own purposes with Catherine. Coincidentally, the Walbrook area is currently being re-excavated right now, for the first time since the post-Blitz excavations I describe in the novel.
Q: Tell us about your history with horses.
MB: I think my interest goes back to the womb, or nearly so. My mother grew up on a farm in South Jersey, and was one of those girls who lived, slept and breathed horses. When I was born, she owned what had been the New York State champion trail horse, a gigantic palomino named Brushmaker. I still remember him from when I was very, very small --- he was nearly 17 hands, practically draft horse height. The first time I was on horseback by myself I was probably four or five, again at my grandparents’ farm. I tried to jump a ditch and instantly fell off, but just as instantly climbed back on which I guess says something about my interest level at least.
I rode as much as I could at the farm for a few years, and badly wanted a horse of my own when we moved out to northern California--- we lived in the heart of endurance riding country, and I wanted to try my hand at it but never did get to. Luckily we had friends down the road with a number of fiery little Arabians, and I rode those horses all the time in high school. You had to have your wits about you because they weren’t polite horses by any means, but I learned to ride fairly well on a pretty rough landscape. Nowadays I mostly ride my neighbor’s horses --- he’s 82 and has Missouri Foxtrotters, which are a gaited horse in the manner of a Tennessee Walker. I don’t consider myself any sort of vocational expert, but I have spent a fair amount of time around horses, and have always had a pretty intense interest. Some of it’s almost certainly totemic --- the impact of horse domestication on human culture is obviously incalculable, and really embedded I think in certain people’s psyches. Evidently I’m one of them.
Q: How has your experience living in Montana shaped your writing?
MB: I actually fell in love with the idea of Montana long before I ever visited, thanks to my first subscription to Field & Stream. Then in my teens, LONESOME DOVE and LEGENDS OF THE FALL really set the hook. Of course once I got here, the myth didn’t totally square with the reality.
Montana is in many ways this sort of retrograde place, and obviously sort of mythologized for unsullied, pristine wilderness, and yet it’s also home to the largest Superfund site in America, or one of them. Economically it can be very difficult to make a reasonable living here, but real estate values at the same time are astronomical. There’s tension between environmentalists and developers, between resident and non-resident landowners, between the tribal and state and federal governments, between fishing guides and cattle ranchers… you name it.
I guess I’m saying Montana is a place of pretty pronounced dualities, and the tension of dualities, and that can be major fodder for a writer. And visually, for a person who basically worships beauty, it is indeed breathtaking.