This week I sat down with Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses Bridles. The novel tells the story of an ex-Jehovah’s Witness and child preacher, who returns from California to Queens to care for his ailing father. High as the horses bridles is in the “Washington Post’s” top fifty fiction books of 2014, and is a “Wall Street Journal” book of the year.
“Called “powerful and unflinching” by Column McCann in The New York Times Book Review, “something of a miracle” by Ron Charles in the Washington Post, and named a must read by The Millions, Time Out, New York Magazine, and Grantland; Scott Cheshire’s debut is a “great new American epic” (Philipp Meyer) about a father and son finding their way back to each other.”
Your book has been reviewed positively many times. What is it like to emerge as a successful author?
It’s been very exciting. I feel very lucky. I had a chance to work in publishing for a little while so I was very well aware of how books do. It’s a hard business. You’re competing against video games, the Internet, movies, so I didn’t expect a lot. It’s been a very welcome surprise. It’s not a bestseller, but people are really responding to the book.
What was the reaction of your community, your family to the book?
As you might imagine I was inordinately anxious, because I didn’t want to write anything that was disrespectful. I wasn’t trying to make fun of anyone. I was trying to write a character who had turned his back on his family and his tradition, and as he gets older and his family get older, his priorities change. So he decided to return to them, and in order to understand them he has to embrace his tradition, to understand it better, which is really what I was doing. When the book came out my parents were certainly nervous. My mom read it in a day, and called me at night, you know crying on the phone “I’m so proud of you.” They were delighted by it, because they had been afraid that I wrote a book, that like Bill Maher would have written. But I wrote about the same questions that they were interested in as adherents. The meaning of life, what is god, what is love.
I come from an orthodox Jewish background, and from what I have seen, that’s kind of an atypical experience.
Yea, and that’s thanks to my family. I’m sure there are people in the community who aren’t happy with the book, I haven’t heard from any yet, but I’m sure there are. I have met a few ex Jehovah-witnesses at readings who were very excited to meet me, and almost every single one of them expressed surprise that I wrote a book that was so open, and not so critical and damning and angry.
I’m assuming most of this is autobiographical, to some extent
To some extent
When was that first “hmm” moment? was it an epiphany, or a slow progression?
I should say logistically the books not about me in that my dad is fine. My moms fine. She’s not dead. In the book the dad is losing his mind. So it’s not me. But is is me. Because it’s my question. It’s funny there’s no moment in the book that actually dramatizes the loss of faith, because that’s not how it happens. like anything important, it’s a process. Though when I was around eighteen, I read novels which really opened me up to to the world and questions about it. Strangely, ironically, or wonderfully or all of them, what got me writing about where I came from was Orthodox Judaism, because my modern day hero is Nathan Englander. I admire him and love him in what he does, and I studied with him. So when I first read his first collection of stories I was thinking to myself “that’s not me, but man, that’s me. I get it. and how is he able to make, (in my opinion) great art out of the humble tools of his own life.” so I was deeply inspired by him. And that’s when I applied to Hunter, because I wanted to study with him
Are you familiar with Shalom Auslander?
Because he is a lot more extreme. He had a much more negative experience with orthodoxy. Did you find yourself connecting with him as well?
I’ve only read a few of his short stories, and no I guess, I didn’t connect as much. Like many authors who come from Christian backgrounds and have left them, and write a book that reads hyper critically, I’m just not drawn to it. I want work that is about pursuing questions and pursuing love.
Did you feel lost or liberated leaving your community?
Both. And it never went away. It’s your life. I had a hard time trying to extricate myself without physically extracting myself. I wanted to be different but also be a part of the community, and it’s hard to do that. Also I was a kid. So my answer was to run away, and I went to California. By physically removing myself I was able to start processing stuff.
Was your family talking to you at that time?
No, but that’s mostly my fault. I kind of cut them off. I just didn’t know how to handle it, I was too young. Now were great. It took a long time to rebuild those relationships and I’m very happy that we did. And writing the book was key in that too.
Not to offend, but I find Queens a particularly uninspiring place. What is it about Queens that motivates you to write about it?
well it’s funny, like you can’t choose your family, you can’t choose were you come from. So, to me Queens is so big and sprawling and filled with so many different types of people. When I think of growing and the moments in my young life I think of Queens, so by definition it’s inspiring. What I grew to love about Queens is the variety, like all the different types of food you can eat. Where I grew up in Richmond hill/ Jamaica it was Irish/Italian up until I was about six, then they all left, and it was all West Indian and Sri Lankan and Pakistani, and it completely changed, and then those were my friends. Queens is this living thing. Also It wasn’t until I grew up that I realized Queens was home to great writers. Walt Whitman taught on this very campus, in a one room school house. I used to drink in a bar because Kerouac drank there.
Are there any books or projects in the works?
I have a new book I’m writing, I think I’m about halfway through. The day I sold my book I called one of my teachers and I was like “Collin, I did it, I sold the book!” (he has this great Irish accent, curses a lot) and was like “F*ckin’ congratulations, that’s so f*cking good to hear” and I asked “what do I do now?” and he said “hang this phone up and start writing another book.” He said you’re going to need another project to pour your anxiety, it’s a very anxious process. And I did and I’m glad I did. And now I’m halfway done. I’m writing about Queens again.
Do find that there’s a community of writers in New York? What’s “scene” like?
Yea definitely, I have a few friends who I’m close with, but there’s something about Queens writers that we seem to find each other. And there have been a few writers in the past few years that have come from Queens and had successful books bring the attention back to Queens. There’s a guy named Matthew Thomas who wrote a book called “We Are Not Ourselves”, and it takes place mostly in Jackson Heights. Bill Cheng, from Bayside, wrote a book called “Southern Cross the Dog.” We’re interested in what we do, because there aren’t a lot of Queens writers.
Queens college has a large number of older students. What was it like going to college at age 33?
It was really intense. I was nervous because for some reason I felt like a failure. But I had been a book nut my whole life, so when I stepped into an English class it was like heaven, because it’s one thing if you go to class and you don’t want to be there, but if you want to be there, and you’re in a room of of twenty five people and one well read person, it’s like a book club. I loved it, I ate it up. I took every English class available.
You were an English major I assume?
Yea, and probably to the annoyance of the professors. I was always in the English department, always looking for things to find out about, sitting in on classes I wasn’t even a part of. It was great, I was sponge, I loved it.
Thank you for your time Scott!