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David Naimon: In addition to The Book Pile Podcast, today’s episode is also brought to you by Paraic O’Donnell’s The Maker of Swans; a novel David Mitchell calls “Truly bewitching”, and Helen Macdonald calls “Rich, strange, and beautiful.” The story begins in the dead of night as shots ring out over the grounds of a sprawling English estate. The world-weary butler Eustace recognizes the gunman—his longtime employer, Mr. Crowe—and knows he must think and act quickly. But who is the man lying dead on the lawn? Who is the woman in his company? Can he clean up his master’s mess like he always has before? Or will this bring a new kind of reckoning? In the days to come, this night will stir shadows from the past and threaten those in Mr. Crowe’s care. He and the faithful Eustace will be tested as never before. So too will his niece, Clara, whose own extraordinary gifts remain hidden, even from herself. If she is to save them all, she must learn to use them quickly and unlock the secret of who she is. A secret that will change everything. The Maker of Swans is out on June 7th from Tin House, and available for pre-order now. Before we begin today’s conversation with Courtney Maum about her memoir, The Year of the Horses, I just want to say that I usually try not to say too much about the conversation beforehand. But while I was doing the audio edit of this one, it just struck me how it was almost like Courtney and I had three very different conversations; three 45-minute explorations that somehow ultimately come together as one. A conversation about interspecies communication, and how communication with a certain species might have particularly therapeutic benefits for ours, for humans; and how communicating outside of language can affect us as we return to the world of words and humans. Then a second conversation which couldn’t be more different. I normally don’t talk about the business side of writing on the show. There are plenty of great podcasts that focus on just that. But both because Courtney is a working writer as a character within her book, dealing with real issues in the world of book publishing, and because Courtney herself is so involved as a writing teacher and coach, and as the author of Before and After the Book Deal, I decided we should fold all of this into the conversation as well. We do look at agents and editors, and drafting and revision, and perhaps most importantly, about the very real questions one has to ask when writing very deeply about oneself also means writing very deeply about those around you too. It might seem improbable to say that this part of our time together is also about horses; and that our time talking about being in the barn rather than at the desk is also about drafting and revision. But I think it’s true. And by the time we come to the latter third of our talk, as we discuss the ways women and horses seem to have a particular bond, and look at the ways women and memoir are often looked down upon and why, you realize, just like with Courtney’s memoir itself, all of these things are interrelated and paint not just a picture of Courtney’s life but raise questions about the status of women and the status of animals that isn’t the same question but somehow related. For the bonus audio archive, Courtney talks about and points us to an essay she highly recommends called Clown School by the poet, essayist, and psychoanalyst, Nuar Alsadir. Which joins bonus audio from everyone from Ada Limón, to Pádraig Ó Tuama, to Teju Cole, and many others. To check out how to subscribe to the bonus audio, and all the other potential benefits of becoming a supporter of the show—from becoming an early reader for Tin House, receiving 12 books over the course of a year months before the general public, to rare collectibles from everyone, from Ursula K. Le Guin, to Nikky Finney—head over to patreon.com/betweenthecovers. Now, for today’s conversation with Courtney Maum.
These stories are about to get unleashed. They’re about the wildness contained in all of us. “I think stories have some magical effect in the world. I think it’s really hard to live without stories and if somebody tells you this is the way you’re going to end up, you’re lucky if you can forget that.” “There’s me and then there’s writer guy me, and then there’s me working, which is the absence of me. It’s just a story.” “I had no idea how to write a novel. I didn’t know if it would ever come to fruition. I was working at a vet and lint-rolling puppy hair and cat dander off myself.” “They’re almost like really shy animals. They will come out of the woods but you have to stay very still and you have to pretend like you’re not interested in them.” “Artists tend to put their fingers in the wounds in the silences.” “I believe in the role of literature as a catalyst for dialogue and new forms of thinking.” “All the stuff I’m interested in is thrown into the washing machine that is my brain and it’s put on a spin.”
David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is writer, Courtney Maum; the author of five very different books, but all of which in some way engage with the pursuit of a creative life; a life of art making. Her critically acclaimed debut novel is the reverse love story I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You; a book she followed up with the speculative fiction Touch, an NPR best book of the year and a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Next came Maum’s book of historical fiction set in Mexico, inspired by Peggy Guggenheim and her daughter, Pegeen, as well as the surrealist art movement, Costalegre, picked by Glamour Magazine as the best book of the decade. She followed this up with Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer’s Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book, which includes contributions from over 150 writers, including passed Between The Covers guests, Garth Greenwell, Anthony Doerr, R. O. Kwon, Rebecca Makkai, Melissa Febos, and Mitchell S. Jackson, among many others. Courtney Maum also writes essays and articles on creativity that have been published widely from The New York Times to Interview Magazine. She also interviews writers herself, from Anne Perry to Edouard Louis. With her filmmaker husband, she has co-written films that have debuted at Sundance and won awards at Cannes. Drawing upon her past life as an event planner, she founded and is executive director of The Cabins, a collaborative learning retreat open to artists, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and poets, where each selected person gives a 40-minute master class to the others. She hosts the Beyond the Writing of Fiction conversation series through Edith Wharton’s storied home The Mount, and also works as a writing coach and educator, teaching ongoing online writing classes on everything from querying agents and writing book proposals, to learning to write personal essay and memoir. Courtney Maum is here today to talk about her latest book, her second from Tin House Books and her first memoir, The Year of the Horses. Writer Hala Alyan says, “Courtney Maum dives into her own life with the same fearlessness and honesty that she brings to her fiction. The Year of the Horses is a beautiful, unflinching exploration of darkness and self-forgiveness, terror and tenderness.” Dani Shapiro adds, “Searing, lucid, tender and wise, The Year of the Horses is a moving, beautifully-written interrogation into a complicated, privileged childhood and its aftermath. Courtney Maum weaves together the sensory, tactile world of horses and their capacity to heal us, along with one of the most illuminating and powerful depictions of depression I have ever read. Oh, and it’s also a page-turner. I tore through it with immense pleasure.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Courtney Maum.
Courtney Maum: Oh, it’s my honor to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
DN: You could describe this book in many ways. It’s a story about an intractable depression and how and why interacting with horses was transformative for you, but it’s also the story of a marriage of two people pursuing different art forms, of a marriage that’s a little bit off the rails and attempting to bring it back on, the story of a writer puzzling out their next move, a story of parenting when it shifts from a phase of joy to one of hair pulling exasperation, among many other things I think. I’m sure some of these things weren’t necessarily part of your idea for the book at the onset but then became part of the book through the process of writing and shaping it. But because you’re also a writing coach and a writing teacher, and you teach classes on memoir writing, and specifically braided narratives—and I also think about the before section of your book Before and After the Book Deal with sections like Killing Your Inner Perfectionist, Finding Your Voice, Learning to Revise—maybe we could start here. I’m imagining all of this life material unshaped, you could give us a glimpse into where you began. What was your first idea and then what were some of your early choices that you had to grapple with in terms of starting to create a shape for the story that you’re telling?
CM: Absolutely. It’s a big question and one I’m still answering with every new thing that I pick up to write, of course. But I was very moved by your introduction. It’s something I love about listening to you interview people is you’re able to find a through line between author’s work when neither they, nor their publicists, agents, or editors can find it. Sometimes people do, “Oh, wow, Courtney, she’s all over the place written in so many different forms and formats,” but a while ago, I think when I was prepping to promote Costalegre, which was totally at least a big departure from my first two novels, I started thinking, “Well, what are the connecting threads?” I did realize, “Oh, I have an artist, not necessarily a visual artist but a creative person at the forefront of every single thing I’ve ever written and certainly the books.” Now when I set out to write The Year of the Horses, I wasn’t thinking about that. I try not to think about huge themes and summary paragraphs before the work is done because that’s certainly going to come later. But looking back now, and certainly to how you framed the book, I’m incredibly moved in my own writing and in the coaching work I do with other people. I really do see it as, I’m not sure if mission is the right word, maybe passion is the right word, to help people stay afloat emotionally, mentally, and financially if possible as an artist in America, specifically in America. In my memoir, that’s definitely something I’m looking at from within the framework of a monogamous married couple of two artists, which sometimes feels like paradise because we set our own hours, but it’s really hard. To more properly answer your question, every single book that I write started out as something else. I was going to say Costalegre came out like a gift from above, but even that’s not true. That started off as something else. So many of my book length projects, I thought they would be a novel, and in fact, they needed to be something else. I have lots and lots of unpublished manuscripts that were novel, they’re sitting in drawers, they’re book length, but it turned out that they needed to be an op-ed or a personal essay. I’m fortunate because I write very quickly. Although it sounds probably pretty torturous to write 90,000 words and then realize, in fact, it’s a 1,200-word essay, that for better for worse has become my process. With The Year of the Horses, it started out many, many years ago as a novel. There’s a tiny, tiny aspect of this book that I had been trying to get to work in novel form which was being diagnosed with perimenopause far before a woman would usually go into menopause, and what does that feel like when you’re marked infertile in a woman’s body in America. It was something that interested me. Again, I tried to get it to work as a novel, and ultimately, I thought this would be great as an anthology or a personal essay, it’s not working as the main quest of the novel, it’s just not working. So I put it aside. I never think I abandon things, I just put them aside. It didn’t feel related to me at all. It was probably a year, maybe a year and a half after that, I long shot pitched an essay to The New York Times about learning or trying to learn polo as an almost 40 year old. They took it. I got so much wonderful correspondence to that piece, which was a short piece. Certainly, a lot of middle-aged women wrote me and said, “I don’t have anything to do with horses and they scare me, but your essay reminded me how much I loved watercolor painting as a child or swimming laps or ballet. I think I’m going to sign up for a class. I think I’m going to join the local YMCA.” That really moved me. At that point, all I was thinking about was it is interesting that at 40 years old, I’m a fearful person, struggling with anxiety, and galloping in an arena with five other people on horses at 30 miles an hour after a fall, and falling quite a lot is helping me. That’s interesting. Let’s try to blow this out a little bit. It’s really only now in hindsight when I can look at the hardcover and think, “Oh, I did it. This actually is another book about the pursuit of a creative life.” I certainly will continue to get questions like, “Why historical fiction and a memoir and this and that?” All of my books are me trying to honor, understand, and continue the journey of art making.
DN: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that this starts as a novel, becomes a memoir, and Costalegre started as nonfiction and then becomes a novel. [laughter] But from the vantage point of a reader, from the vantage point of story, the book opens with you losing patience with your two-year-old daughter around her elaborate putting on or not putting on of her socks; and also your first visit with a new therapist, with him administering a depression intake survey, one where you score so severely on the depression score that he doesn’t feel like it’s safe for you to drive home. But the subtext of these opening scenes is I think perhaps that you’ve been living this way, not quite calling it depression, let alone major depression, for a long time. From a reader’s perspective, I think it’s the depression that organizes the memoir. It’s what brings you to reevaluate your choices to find something outside of your immediate family from your childhood, which in turn, gets you to reevaluate how you parent, how you write, the state of your marriage. I guess maybe if you could talk a little bit, as you do in the book, about the ways depression was manifesting for you prior to this crisis moment and prior to being given a label, what were maybe the signs that brought you to the therapist, perhaps in the first place, that you do unpack for us as we get to know the state of your life at the beginning of The Year of the Horses?
CM: This is an interesting question and it’s still one that is hard for me to answer. Because the moment in that intake session in therapy, when this young fellow I talk a lot about, well, not a lot, but the book opens with me, I’m very uncomfortable about doing therapy and I walk in and this guy is like 24 years old, he has a LiveStrong Bracelet on and I almost walk out. [laughter] I just think, “We are not the right match.” Of course, that 45-minute session leaves with being sobbing in my car and having been told that I’m in basically a complete breakdown. I wasn’t comfortable with the word depression then and I’m still not comfortable with it. Not fully, of course, but I certainly still have the embers of what I felt that day thinking, “Oh, I can’t be depressed. I’m a lucky person. I’ve got a great career going. I have a husband and a healthy child and I had an incredibly fortunate childhood. I have a beautiful house. I can’t. I have no right to use that label.” It still makes me uncomfortable and I do prefer to link it to insomnia fueled or insomnia driven because my experiences with depression, which were the most severe over the course of the year—I write about it in the book—have nevertheless plagued me, I would say, from age seven on which is when my insomnia started to manifest. Again, I probably have to be a little bit more forgiving with myself and just allow myself to claim certain labels, like chronic illness. It’s only as I’ve started to promote this book that I think, “Gosh, I think I do have a chronic illness actually, and it’s called debilitating insomnia.” In general, throughout most of the major errors of my life, like prepubescence, adolescence, young adulthood, motherhood, there’s never been a year where insomnia hasn’t reared its head in one way or another, it’s something, especially as an artist, that I don’t want to say holds me back, I try not to blame my insomnia but I don’t really apply to residencies. I don’t take on a lot of in-person week-long teaching assignments because the minute I’m out of my schedule and habits, traveling, being around new people, especially being around creative people, it’s a joy, but it triggers this switch that gets the electricity to start flowing. I’ve had quite a few experiences, either as a student, or unfortunately, even as a teacher at festivals and stuff, where I behave a little erratically or inappropriately, and it’s just because I don’t sleep at night and I’m walking around in a somewhat unstable place. Fortunately, for my career, I try to protect myself from that happening. When I think of my book, this memoir, I really think of it as horses helped me access an inner calm that cannot beat the insomnia but it’s given me coping strategies to live with it in more harmony than I used to. Before I started riding, if I managed to fall asleep at night and I woke up as I continued to do it two or three or four in the morning, I’d have an actual panic attack and just think, “Oh my god, I have to write 5,000 words today. My essay or book, something’s due, I’m going to get in a fight with my husband. I won’t be there for my daughter. I’m going to be a wreck. I’m going to be a wreck. I’m going to be a wreck. I’m not going to be able to show up for the different things in my life.” Now, I talk a lot about this in the book, how, not even riding, but just contact with horses and seeing how immediately they mirror whatever’s going on with you has allowed me to understand how to breathe in a meaningful and healing way, whereas all the yoga classes, everything I’ve done before, I couldn’t figure out a way to actually breathe and still my mind. To me, it’s a form of meditation that I’ve been provided with that I just couldn’t get elsewhere. When I think of the way the book is structured, I don’t think people will read it this way, but I personally think of it, “Oh, look, she’s learning to sleep or learning to not panic if she wakes up at night.” [laughter]
DN: The year of sleep would be– [laughs]
CM: I was like, “I don’t want to step out of Calhoun’s territory with Why We Can’t Sleep, there are so many fantastic writers, especially women writers writing about insomnia and everyone’s going to call it depression, that’s what it says on the back of the book and that is what it was and I still have those kernels inside of me. But to me and in my head, and in the night after night after night of struggle that lies behind this book, it was about sleep.
DN: Just stepping back from that label of depression, regardless of whether it was depression or insomnia-caused depression or not, or whatever, an insomnia-caused something, you said that one of the alternate titles for this book was Nervous Women, Nervous Horses: The World’s Healthiest Pairing. I was hoping you could talk about that pairing more, the mirroring that you mentioned that happens between a horse and a human. Especially because on the surface of it, the last thing you think a nervous person would need is an encounter with a nervous animal.
CM: A hundred percent. I’m so excited you asked me this. For listeners who have maybe none or not a lot of experience with horses, in general, horse’s state of being, emotional state, is communicated through their ears. That’s the easiest way to see what’s going on with them. There are three positions. If the ears are pointed forward, they’re alert. There’s something that they’re paying attention to, but it isn’t causing them stress. They’re just paying attention or they could be keenly interested in something, like you’re approaching with a carrot, and they know you and they feel comfortable so their ears are forward. It’s generally a positive stance. Then there is a maybe a fourth position, there’s a neutral floppy position which is just “I’m at peace.” Then they can be kind of in the middle, which is “I’m starting to feel a little unsure. I have not committed to feeling good. I have not committed to feeling positive. I’m feeling unsure.” Then there’s the ear pinning. This is when their ears are actually pinned back, it’s the one time horses look very unattractive. Their eyes will bulge forward and that is no good. If they’re in a stall and you’re just passing in front of them, they’re not comfortable. There’s something about your presence that’s making them uncomfortable. Maybe they’re going to lunge and bite you. If you’re in an open field with a horse who pins their ears back, that’s an invitation to get the hell out of there, because they might swivel and kick. Of course, there are many other things: tail swishing, hoof lift, there’s all kinds of other things, but the easiest way to understand where you are with a horse is through the ears. The thing that I loved and so appreciated when I went back to horses as an adult was that I got this instantaneous feedback on the way my energy was affecting the horse. Whereas I’d spent all this time being an adult in the world, and clearly, even though I was in the middle of a massive unraveling, I’d lost so much weight. Now, that the book is out, friends have started saying to me, “god, I thought you looked so awful but I didn’t know how to say it.” People weren’t being honest. I wasn’t being honest because I was a mess, and my own friends and family weren’t being honest. We were really not showing up for each other in honest and loving ways. But you get in front of a horse and you’re carrying tons of anxiety or you’re feeling sad, whatever the emotion is, they mirror it right back. They truly do. They don’t even need to know you. I would go into barns, these were not horses I was riding and I was carrying so much junk that horses would pin their ears. If you know what it means and you know enough about horses to notice it, that feels pretty awful. It’s embarrassing, it’s instantaneous, and there’s just no way to deny it. Most people love animals. I love horses. I don’t want a horse to behave like that when I’m around them. This is not particular to me. This happens to everyone around horses. I include some anecdotes about other women in the book who were very high-strung over-performing women and they were having the same struggle. Much like me, these were women who’d walk into the barn and the horses would pin their ears. Then if they got on—this is something that happened a lot to me, it still happens—I’d get on a horse and because I don’t breathe in a relaxed manner and I’m holding stress and tension in my shoulders, I would have a tendency also to grip a little bit too much with my knees and often I would just get carried away with, they’d bolt right away because everything in my body was telling them, “Flee. We are in a panic situation. Flee.” Especially if you’re mounted, it can be dangerous if you have that, some people call it a hot seat. When you sit on a horse and you have a nervous energy, they call it a hot seat because it makes the horse go. Obviously, that can be dangerous. You get carried away with horse bolts or twists, you could fall. Nobody wants that. But what is healthy and beneficial, especially to high-strung people with anxiety is having this very honest force in front of you that says, “You are nervous. You are anxious. You are not in the ideal place.” Instead of having a human lie to you, you go out, I don’t know, you run into someone on the street, “Oh, my gosh. How are you? “Fine.” “Oh, great. Me too. I’m fine.” And nobody’s fine. No one’s fine anywhere. [laughter] No one’s fine, and yet we keep telling each other, well, it’s getting a little bit better, the lies, the pandemic has helped us admit that we’re not fine, but still, it’s not convenient to not be fine and so a lot of people will just, “Oh my god. You look so great,” when you don’t look great. You don’t look great at all. You wonder why, “Well, they’re lying to me. That’s nice. Or maybe I do look great.” And the horses say, “You look awful. You’re a wreck. You’re an anxious mess. You’re making me feel super anxious.” For a lot of people, either the desire to ride well and/or be safe and/or have an animal love you or feel kindly toward you is so strong that they are willing to make strides they haven’t made before to get that. For me, that looks like correcting my breathing, which was something I thought I was addressing. I got a meditation bell. I went to the yoga classes and I still couldn’t still my brain because I think ultimately, I just didn’t really like yoga, or the meditation apps, I found that I’m annoyed or I didn’t like the person’s voice. I wasn’t invested. Whereas horses is 100% all in. I want the horse or horses to like me. I want to be able to get on and not have the bolts off down the street. I want to improve. So many of the women, specifically women that I’m friends with, who are the most passionate about riding are not chill people at all. They’re really neurotic and they self-describe that way so I don’t feel uncomfortable using that language. The riding is the one place where they can fight the worst parts of themselves and feel, at least, maybe just 30 minutes, like they’ve come out a better person, or it’s like you can touch your mirror self, you could touch the better, calmer version of yourself because you have to access it when you’re on a horse. You won’t get it all the time and you won’t magically be transformed, but you can access it. Whereas so much of the rest is a little aspirational. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about. I don’t know if I’m making any sense, but there is an antidote or some version of medicine, I think, available for anxious people in horse contact or through horse contact.
DN: This is a perfect segue for what I want to ask next. Because questions of human-nonhuman interaction, both in the world itself and in narrative, have been on my mind a lot lately because of this new monthly series that we’re doing, the Crafting with Ursula series, where different writers talk about their work alongside that of Le Guin’s, discussing certain craft ideas they connected to. Quite a few of these conversations have become conversations about the encounter between the human and the non-human. Of course, some of this is alien encounter, like literal aliens, but also the human with a snake, a human with a cat, or the human with a tree. After the conversation with Karen Joy Fowler, which was about species and gender bias within science and the ways that both she and Le Guin interrogate this in their stories, a listener reached out who has also become a friend through correspondence who is an anthropologist named Maura Finkelstein. She mentioned as an aside that this conversation with Karen arrived and she was listening to it while she herself was working on the copy edits of an academic article that she was writing for the Anthropological Quarterly. That article is called “The Art of Therapeutic Horsemanship: Communication, Choreography and Collaboration in Equine Therapy”. I just want to read two short passages and see if they resonate with you. This is the first and it’s her quoting Donna Haraway from Haraway’s book The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Here, she’s talking about her work with agility dogs. This is Donna Haraway. “Dog and human figure out, if only for a minute, how to get on together, how to move with sheer joy and skill over a hard course, how to communicate, how to be honest. The goal is the oxymoron of disciplined spontaneity. Both dog and handler have to be able to take the initiative and to respond obediently to the other. The task is to become coherent enough in an incoherent world to engage in a joint dance of being that breeds respect and response on the flesh, in the run, on the course. And then to remember how to live like that at every scale, with all the partners.” The second thing that I’m going to read is a description by Maura of her with a horse named [Bella]. Who, earlier in the same article, this horse has humbled her many times in her failed attempts at rapport. But here, they’ve reached at least a transient point of harmony. “When walking by her head, lead rope in hand, Bella began adjusting her stride to my own. As my right foot moved forward, her right front foot would move forward. As my left foot moved forward, her left foot would move forward. She watched my own stride and matched hers to my pace. We were finding a choreography together, and I was, at last, the leader of our dance. When I wanted to slow her walk, I would slow my own walk and she would fall in line. When I wanted to speed up my walk, I exaggerated my legs and we moved forward together. I watched her face out of the corner of my eye and she watched my feet out of the corner of hers. We were in sync with each other, working together. We were working together through practiced choreographic thinking. Somehow, Bella and I were thinking together; and in thinking together, we were moving together. This practice, as a form of inter-species communication, is therapeutic horsemanship.” Before I ask questions that come after setting the stage with these quotes, I just wondered if any thoughts or impressions came up hearing that.
CM: Oh, so many. I almost need to hang up and go to write down my thoughts. [laughs] First of all, it makes me really excited to follow these writers and these academics and to read everything that they’re working on, because I find all of that is really moving to me. With the excerpts by Donna, the quest to access coherence in an incoherent world is a perfect summary of what I feel that I am aiming for every time I go to the barn, but it’s also what I aim for when I come to the desk to write. Some form of coherence and some form of beauty in an often ugly and incoherent world, these quests to me are the same at my desk and in the barn. As for Maura, you have to give me her number so I can call her up. [laughter] Because since I copy edit this fall, I rescued an abused racehorse and so many people think of riding as a human on a horse. What Maura is writing about is what we call groundwork when you are on the ground next to the animal and generally trying to establish dominance because you want the animal to look to you as a leader, not for ego reasons, well, yes, but also for safety. If your horse doesn’t believe that it’s your leader and you go on a ride and a plastic bag flies through the air, they’ll probably dump you on the ground because they’ll think, “I’m frightened of this. I don’t care about whether she is, I gotta go.” If they start to think of you as a leader and you stay calm in that moment, they’ll think, “Gosh, I feel awfully nervous, but Maura’s not nervous so I’m going to keep her on my back.” Then, of course, it becomes really dramatic, like if you come to an intersection or something, you need the horse to stop because there’s a car coming and they don’t respect you and don’t listen, that doesn’t end well for anyone. That’s something I’m really taking a lot of time and emotional and physical energy right now is working with this abused massive animal who has absolutely no reason to trust humans because she’s been abused by many, many people, and she’s old, so she’s had decades of abuse, trying to get her to trust and believe in me, but I don’t always trust and believe in myself because she could be very violent. Everything Maura is talking about in the excerpt that you read, good luck, Maura. [laughter]
DN: Yeah. Like you, I love this notion of Haraway’s, that the task is to become coherent enough in an incoherent world to engage in a joint dance of being that breeds respect and response in the flesh, and also Maura’s idea of choreographic thinking. I wanted to take this in two directions; towards equine therapy as a phenomenon, and also how your own experience with horses manifested back in your human world as a writer, a wife, and a mother. I’m bringing up your alternate title, Nervous Women, Nervous Horses again, I guess, because it still seems so wild to me that this is true. I looked more into equine therapy and there are lots of studies on it, but also lots of TED Talks and testimonials. I watched some of them. For instance, I watched a TED Talk of a psychiatric nurse who had worked with trauma victims, for instance, the children who survived the shootings at Sandy Hook. This nurse described herself as a “science-based” nurse, someone who wouldn’t ever expect to be endorsing, let alone giving a TED Talk on what she considered an alternative therapy. But it was only through the horses that the kids were able to open up with language again to other humans afterwards. What seems so wild to me is that it isn’t an unconditional supportive animal, say, a loyal and very approachable dog who will affirm you and cuddle you, wag its tail, and lick your face, and basically tell you, “I’m sorry this is happening. Let’s see how we can make you feel better,” it’s as you’ve described an animal, that if you approach it with your trauma, agitation and fear will send it right back at you. Somehow for the horse to be how you want it to be, you have to become how the horse wants you to be too. You include material on equine therapy in the book and if this sparks anything about it, I’d love to hear any thoughts. Otherwise, I’d love to hear you read a section that is about you seeing how some of the horse biofeedback is having a ripple effect everywhere else in your life as you return back to your human house.
CM: What you said did spark something for me and it made me think about I think if people can imagine, you make sometimes a challenging decision to go into talk therapy and you have your first meeting with your therapist in person and you go, and for some reason, it’s in the middle of a field and there’s just this person standing in the middle of this pasture. You say, “Ted,” and he makes a weird grunt and turns his back, “Ted, are you my therapist?” when you go towards Ted. Ted doesn’t really want to give you the time of day and you think, “What the hell, Ted? I’m spending all this money and you’re expecting me to say things to you,” and I’ve framed them in a certain way in my mind that I’ve run through this whole scenario and this is not how I thought it was going to play out, and Ted actually runs away and you’re left not knowing what the hell to do. All of a sudden, you start questioning the very existential nature of talk therapy. That’s a little bit what equine therapy is, it’s a different journey for everyone. But for a lot of people, because they simply do not know what to expect and often have no prior references, it’s not something we see a lot on television or read about books, mainstream books very often, whereas the trope of anyone going to therapy, especially in well-off communities, it’s a cliche. We see the cartoons in The New Yorker, it’s a cliche, everyone has a therapist. What that means is everyone has an idea of how talk therapy goes. Even the people who practice it don’t really know how it’s going to go. From the people that I’ve interviewed and the research I’ve done, the one thing that does seem to be universal for people, be it veterans, children, especially those who have gone through major trauma, some autistic people, the one thing that seems to be quite beneficial for most people is that horses don’t expect anything, they don’t want anything from you, and they cannot respond verbally. There was a moving piece I read in The Guardian where a survivor of sexual abuse had said, “I’m just so tired of talking about my rape. It’s emotionally exhausting to talk about it and I have to go into talk therapy and relive all of this and use words that calls everything up. Whereas if I go into an enclosure with a horse, if the horse will let me get close, I could just touch my forehead against the horse and think through it and commune with them.” I do think at least for me, it has changed my perspective on what therapy is, what any kind of therapeutic quest is, and also change my expectations on how quickly you can see results. The horse I’m working with right now, the one I rescued, I might not see the results that I was hoping for until she’s dead. I might never get it. But that quest is actually becoming its own therapy.
DN: Let’s hear a section from the book. It’s a bridge toward what happens with you and the horse and how that carries over to everything else, and eventually, we’ll get to how this carries out into writing as well.
[Courtney Maum reads from her latest book, the memoir The Year of the Horses]
DN: We’ve been listening to Courtney Maum read from her latest book, the memoir The Year of the Horses. Thinking about this work you’re doing with the horse and the work you’re doing with your therapist, and thinking of this notion of Donna Haraway of disciplined spontaneity, one thing that is really a self-examination in the book seems to be about the absence of play in your life. Very early in the book, you talk about not knowing how to have fun and about how your mom did know how to have fun. You recount this map game that she did with you as a kid where you’d choose a random place on a map and then you would drive there together. Then also about the horse that’s stuck in the Swamp of Sadness in the movie The Neverending Story that you also saw as a kid. Interestingly, that your story writing, which began at age seven and the beginnings of your insomnia, which began at age eight, arise around the same time you’re writing about losing your home and secret underworlds happening as your parents are divorcing and you’re stopping sleeping well. As an adult, your success and failure as a writer, as a partner, and as a mother feels very much at the fore. I feel like as we read your story, we can feel the weight of your own self analysis and judgment in these arenas. But what’s interesting is that you’re rediscovering lots of erased parts of yourself or parts of yourself you want to rescue from these swamps of sadness through the horses. But nothing you describe sounds like play or abandon, but actually really difficult with lots of false starts and out-and-out failure, and yet somehow, a generative failure. One thing I was curious about is about the relationship of all this to language because what was interesting partly about Maura Finkelstein’s study is that she works with neurodivergent and disabled riders. Many of these riders of horses are non-verbal themselves, which for her, in looking at it, foregrounds the way that the communication that they develop across species is outside of language. Whether you are verbal or non-verbal, this cross-species communication that happens in equine therapy is outside of language. She raises questions of not only what it means to communicate with horses, but the implications also of what we are and aren’t communicating with other humans outside of language. It made me wonder on the one hand if some of these breakthroughs that were happening for you were happening because they were outside of language; like looking at the ritual of your daughter and the socks, and maybe focusing less on what’s being said and on the gestures being made, and maybe the choreography around those gestures. But mainly I was curious, it’s not exactly a question, but I was curious about you, you’re a writer, you’re a meaning maker, you work with words, do you feel like some of the liberation, obviously, a big part of it was the mirroring, but is some of the liberation also because it’s not with words?
CM: A hundred percent. As you were building up to this, it’s not really a revelation, really the question of what you just posed, it reminded me that, I don’t know if it’s inciting incident, but one of the major plot points in this book is that I was under contract from a second book and it was a big book contract and I couldn’t get the book right. That to me was an absolute crisis because this term of discipline spontaneity, which is Donna Haraway’s, I’m going to hold on to and bring up again because that’s exactly what it was, I had discipline in my writing, but the spontaneity was gone. I could not access the fun, joyful mayhem that is art making because the stakes had changed. My first novel, I was an absolute nobody. I didn’t have an MFA, I didn’t even major in English, I had no literary connections. I had a great education behind me, I’d be remiss to not point that out, but I wasn’t an intern at The Paris Review or something like that. I wasn’t coming out of Iowa, nothing. No one knew how my debut would do and it did really, really well. It did well enough, I wanted another book right away. I was able to sell that on a partial, which means just three chapters. Well, it wasn’t working because for the first time, and it was a fortune and a privilege, I had people looking over my shoulder, not exactly waving around checkbooks, but we paid you for something and now you have to deliver it, and they had a stake in what the content was. That was the discipline. I was given deadlines and I didn’t see why I wouldn’t be able to rise to meet them, but the spontaneity was gone. I started writing again while that second book was collapsing. I think more about the horses leading me to my third book Costalegre because I don’t know the access to magic that I was regaining through horses channeled into that weird third book. But the truth is it also helps me block out the voices, the emails, and the marketing expectations, and I really should say that most of that was coming from myself. When I finally had to admit that I was missing my deadline, no one gave a hoot. They were very supportive. They really were supportive but this pressure in most of the book was coming for myself. But yeah, absolutely, getting out there with these animals who I really do think are majestic, most animals are majestic, but there is something about horses that’s quite elusive and we keep trying to get at it through visual art, film. Look at Yellowstone. That program is nothing without the horses. It’s fundamentally not that interesting without the beautiful horses and the handsome people that work with the horses. There was something about getting out there with these huge animals and not using words that gave me access back to my magical trunk of words. I got the key back. It had been lost and I found it. To me, what that is, is just joy. I lost the joy and I had the discipline, but spontaneity a hundred percent depends on joy. I am an unfortunate graduate of a clown school, which was an intensive three or four day workshop I went to when I was working on a book that didn’t really work out. But I wasn’t joyful to be there. I don’t consider myself someone who likes clowns or clowning. I was watching around me all these people who somehow were able to access this unconscious part of their deeply childlike and joyful selves and then perform really well at whatever the task was. One of our tasks was to just walk around in a circle for a half hour laughing out loud which is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hated every single second of it. While that exercise didn’t do it for me, I know, from talking to them and having lunch with them, becoming friends with some of my fellow clown students, that for a lot of people, it did, being provoked into accessing some hidden repertoire of joy that was accessible to some people through clowning. For me, it was horses. For other people, it’ll be something else. But this was non-verbal practice and clowning as well. I think that for people who use words, at some point, there will be a burnout. Some people call it writer’s block. It’s not manifested that way to me, but burnout has arisen. I think that the cure is not necessarily going to a retreat in trying to write 30,000 words of your new novel. It might be hiking up a mountain or maybe it’s running after a goat or dog sitting someone’s dog for a week. Something that is outside of the realm of words is usually what we need to get our words back.
DN: Also, I’m thinking joy is hard to put into words. It’s something that is outside of language. But I wonder if for you, it’s coming as a discovery outside of success or outside of all these pressures around the outcome. Because one part of the book is you taking up polo. I think some of the funniest and most frustratingly funny parts of the book are your lack of progress in polo. You, sticking with this activity that you admit that you’re never going to excel at, you might find some basic competency at, but it doesn’t feel like you see some path with enough work that you’re going to end up with this great career as a polo rider. Yet, all these things that are happening in that realm, I’m wondering if it’s because you’re not geared towards doing it right, if, similar to being outside of language, here we are outside of language and the parameters for you are trying to find something out of something that isn’t excellence.
CM: Yeah. We’re so much in a world right now where the moment you identify something that you’re quite skilled at, it’s supposed to become not only the way you make money, but your brand, you become an ambassador for yourself. This is certainly happening in the literary arts where it’s not enough to write a book, you also need to write all these personal essay tour of duty, the off the book pieces around it, and then start a newsletter and maybe a TikTok just be because you have this talent. But that doesn’t leave a lot of time for silliness and it doesn’t leave a lot of time to try something new out at age 45 or whatever it is. In fact, it leaves no time because most likely, if you’re around my age or even younger or older, it really doesn’t matter what age actually, you certainly have no time at all. Once you’re done doing your brand ambassadorship for yourself, you might have a family to deal with. You might have a partner, you might have children, you might be caring for an aging spouse. You probably have a job. Maybe you’ve got something going on in your dwelling. Where are you saying to yourself, “Gosh, I’ve always been really intrigued in belly dancing. I should really go try to find time to go do this thing,” or rock climbing, whatever it is. Let’s say you do find the time and you go and you do it. You love it but you’re not good at it. A lot of things in our culture say if you love it but you’re not good at it, maybe step out of the way for the other people who are really, really excellent at it. Even the way people are about Twitter and Instagram like, “Oh god. You only have 400 followers? Why don’t you drop everything and build your numbers?” What’s wrong with 400 followers? I know what’s wrong if you’re trying to pitch a book proposal. We can talk about that in a different show. [laughs] But for you, who the hell cares? Those people are probably there because they’re excited for you. This act of pursuing polo, which is still something I’m doing even though I’m not gifted at it, to me was like a riot, very rule breaking because I’m such a perfectionist and an overachiever and hadn’t really been in a position for, at least, two decades where I wasn’t doing something that I wasn’t tremendously good at. Because on the side of publishing books, I was also working in marketing and corporate naming and lots of areas where I had to work hard but I excelled. I was good at it. I wasn’t miming on the weekends. I hadn’t needed to look for something else because I still felt so much joy in my creative writing, so the moment of crisis really came where the thing that I happened to be good at that also provided me with immense joy for many reasons wasn’t providing me with joy. Where’s the joy coming from? Unfortunately, it wasn’t coming from my husband or my child either. All the places that should have, could have been providing me with joy were providing me with the opposite. I get into the horseback riding in the polo where manifestly, I’m being shown because I kept falling off the horse and being trampled, this is probably not the path for you. Thank goodness, I had a coach who, my gosh, you should have seen some of our matches. One time, I was behind someone who had forgotten to buckle his girth and every single piece of tack, horseback riding gear that could come off a horse, burst off of the horse and she’s just like, “Get back on, Jared. Next time, don’t forget the girth.” She knew that we were all there for some crazy reason. We had the youngest person who’s 12 on our arena team, the oldest person was 70. He was not good and he was very scared. The 12-year-old was the best. One of my closest friends is a pharmacist in a hospital and she’d come in, she hadn’t even slept that night but we needed to be there. None of us were going to be offered scholarships, well maybe the 12-year-old, but none of the rest of us, no one was ever going to pay us to play polo and yet we kept coming every single Monday night. That continues to inspire me. I look all around me now with these wide open eyes and whether it’s the talent show at my daughter’s school, or someone’s giving a reading from their self-published book at the library, or we go to see the adult chorus at our local church, these people who have layman passions, I don’t like calling them hobbies, to me it feels a little condescending, they’re doing their oil paintings on the weekends and they manage to have a show at the library, I just think that is so exciting and so great. That drive to pursue things because they make us happy and joyful without, well, a lot of people hope that it’ll turn into a career or lucrative career, but if the market starts, or whatever, the market or the world starts to show you, “Okay, this art show at the library, you might not end up at MoMA.” Or “This self-published book didn’t find an editor,” and that’s enough. Or for me, “You play polo but no one’s going to pay you to play,” and you still continue to do it anyway, for you because it makes you happy and allows you to show up as a better person for the people in your life, I’m just all about that. I think that’s the heart of life really. It’s really beautiful and I love to see that.
DN: Let’s stay with some of these questions of success and failure, but within the realm of writing. Because you situate yourself in this book as a working writer and where you are in your writing career as part of this book. You’re not only a writer in real life, but also a writer very interested in everything around writing: finding an agent, getting published, how to promote, and you’ve written a book about this very thing, helping others sort through some of these same questions. You seem particularly well positioned to do this in the sense that you’ve published with big publishers and also with indie presses, and also because you’ve written, possibly to the chagrin of your agent, very different books, even though I found a through line in terms of where to shelve these books, there would be questions of where they would go, how to guide historical fiction, speculative fiction, etc., a memoir. One thing you mentioned elsewhere in talking about this book is that you had a conversation with your agent about this book and money where your agent said, “You should make a decision around who you want to sell the book to and that decision could then shape the way you do your next revision on the draft,” in other words, that if you want this to be a commercial bestseller, if income generation happens to be a high priority in your life right now, you would want to reshape it toward that. But if you want the work to find its own form on its own terms, not with one eye toward the marketplace, you could work again with Masie Cochran who you worked with a Tin House for Costalegre, a much smaller indie press for those who don’t know. You wanted to work with Masie again. I know nothing about these questions that you and your agent had to puzzle through, so it makes me curious reading this interaction that you wrote about or talked about, about this decision itself, but also what would an edit have looked like had you gone the other way. What does working with Masie on this edit mean to you and then what would the alternate have meant in terms of “I’m going to maximize this based on my perceived sense of sellability”?
CM: Sure. This is an important question and it was an important junction in this book’s future. That phone conversation, which I remember very, very well, took place after my agent who is always my first reader and my agent reads something at the same time my husband does, those are the only people who read my work, she had read what was arguably a pretty bad first draft of this book. Her name’s Rebecca and we have a wonderful relationship but it’s a very blunt one. She was like, “Courtney, this draft, I can’t show it to commercial publishers.” By commercial, that’s just code word for people who can pay you a living wage book advance, probably something over $100,000. Real money, that’s what I mean when I say commercial. She just said it’s just not good enough. The thing was we were literally standing at like the Robert Frost two roads thing because to the left, I had a wonderful, super talented editor Sally Kim who I worked on with both of my first two books, but she only does fiction. So we had presented it to Sally out of just loyalty but she doesn’t have a non-fiction list. That wasn’t an option. Possibly working with someone new who I didn’t know at Putnam was a possibility, but what my agent was saying is “I can’t present it in this form.” I said, “I can’t get to where I needed to be without Masie.” She said, “I think that that’s probably true. If you go with Masie, you realize it’s just an independent publisher so there’s just not going to be money there,” again, because my last two books were also with independent presses. I knew what I wanted to do but I took some time to think about it. In terms of what it would look like if I tried to revise the book into a more commercial polish, that path was really scary to me. This was back in 2019 or 2020, and heads were starting to roll rightly so in publishing about the lack of diversity. A lot of top and also second-tier editors were starting to step down, be replaced, everything was very unstable. People were moving around a lot. I thought to myself, “My gosh, at this point after having two books in a row with an independent press, monetarily I really did need a book advance that I could live off of.” But I thought, “If we have to go out to a completely new editor,” because even my editor at Catapult where I did my fourth book, she had left. This would mean adding in a completely new editor to the roster, this would mean adding an editor that I’ve never worked with who is all of a sudden encountering some of my most intimate material because the early drafts were even more intimate than anything else. If they’re just on top of divulging things for the first time from your personal life, it’s also just a hot mess in terms of craft. Also, there’s a high, high possibility if I go to a new editor and publisher at a big five that I’ll start work with an editor who isn’t there by the time that the book comes out, and I know enough about the industry to know at this point you really need someone who believes in your book. I honestly sat down, and I hope this doesn’t bother Masie, but I sat down and I assigned a numerical value to what it was worth for me to work with someone who already knew me, we already had our patterns of conversations, we knew how to problem solve together, and she also knew a lot about my intimate life, and was in a very stable job at a stable house, that because Tin House has already, before the times, been invested in diverse voices, they didn’t seem like they were going to be canceled. I assigned a numerical value to that and then aside from that was just my deep, deep affection and admiration for Masie which is priceless. The path forward was clear at that point. Then I should mention, Masie aknowledged that this draft is not a great draft but it didn’t matter to her at all. She knew because she’d seen me that I’m a strong reviser and she knew that which was another benefit, she knew what I was capable of doing in revision. After she acquired that bad draft, we got on the phone, and it was just an hour phone call absolutely everything I could wish for and everything I knew her capable of as an editor, she just asked a handful of questions that I hadn’t had the courage to ask myself and some that simply delved into my childhood, which there wasn’t a lot of my childhood in the early draft because it was something I was trying to hide or embarrassed about it that I didn’t know how to address the privilege thing, I was skirting around a lot of stuff. She just asked these questions that made it so clear that this was going to be an act of excavation and that together we would excavate this. Ultimately, I really just needed her to ask these initial questions to break the ice dams. After that call, I sat down and she’d called up certain images. She’d asked me, “Courtney, what was your first horse?” I thought, “Oh, my. I was such a lucky girl. I think I was given a pony when I was–” she said, “No, but certainly before that, you saw horses.” I hadn’t thought about that. All of a sudden, I remembered this rocking horse, this ridiculous rocking horse—that’s quite a metaphor now in the book—that my mom had gotten and it was made of mahogany, it was so heavy you couldn’t actually rock it. Then I remembered the trapper keeper. I remembered all these things that my mind was flooded with so many images that when we hung up the phone, I was actually able to storyboard the entire book using these images as chapter guides. I storyboarded that book probably in an hour and a half and it resembled in terms of the outline exactly the way the book exists today. I truly needed her. I needed her specifically, and it’s just a really meaningful partnership to me.
DN: Sticking with this notion of strengths and weaknesses or success and failure with writers and writing, in other interviews, you’ve talked about how you feel like you’re good at world building and you’re good at dialogue, and that you’re really ruthless when it comes to revision (in a good way), but that you’re really terrible at plot. Yet when I look at your classes, they feel very much about plot and about shape and structure and how to structure scenes and story, which made me wonder if this is another example of flipping a weakness into a strength. But whether or not that’s true, you teach a class on story structure for personal narratives—in other words, non-fiction story structure—and it involves a three-act structure and a double timeline as “a foundation to write about real people and real stories in a way that captures the reader’s attention from the first page.” I wondered if you could talk about this structure and timeline, and you can also speak to whether this question around plot if you want to, but I would be curious to know if The Year of the Horses is an example of this three-act structure, double timeline, but also what this three-act structure, double timeline even is.
CM: Sure. I think to give myself credit, I’m just fine at plot. [laughter] I’ve gotten better. It’s my initial drafts that I’m not good at anything. But I’m just fine at plot. World building, I don’t know, it’s funny that I said that. Maybe it’s my agent who thinks I’m not good at plot. [laughter] This class I’ve designed—you can access it through my website on memoir—certainly came out of my experience writing, revising, throwing out large portions of The Year of the Horses. But the bulk of it has actually come out of my one-on-one coaching work with writers where specifically in memoir, let’s say I’ve got 10 people, 9 of them don’t have a memoir, they have a series of recollections, they have a looking back on all the things that have happened to them. Sometimes these projects are beautifully written, there is no way that they will be acquired by a publishing house because there’s no action in the narrative present. I do not like the word hack, but I am very big on pragmatic advice. When I am teaching or working one-on-one with writers, it could just be a personal essay or it could be a book length memoir, I always tell them, “Regardless of what you’re writing about and how long ago it took place, there has to be a timeline A that’s taking place in the narrative present. It won’t be your present because whatever this present is by the time the book comes out, it’ll be in the past, but for the reader meeting you on the page, there is something happening in timeline A, in the narrative present, that must see you, the narrator, accomplishing, getting, or avoiding something happening within a certain amount of time.” Beautifully and thankfully, it can be simplistic and seemingly kind of dumb, “By the end of the summer, Clarissa needs $500 back to purchase her brother’s guitar that she broke before he came back from Costa Rica, lest he find out, whatever, she dated his college roommate.” [laughter] Something needs to happen within a constricted amount of time, lest something else happens. The reader just needs to be rooting for you, not just to overcome something, my book, I don’t think people are going to read it just to see like, “Oh, will she stop being depressed?” It’s probably more interesting to see, “My gosh, is she ever going to learn to stop falling off the horse in polo? Is she going to give it up? Is she going to get really hurt?” I don’t necessarily think that’s the reason people will come to my book either, but you do start I think to fall for the characters on my arena team and they’re rooting for me and you think, “My gosh, I hope she gets her act together and learns to canter properly.” It’s a simple thing, it’s not the bulk of the story, and there is something that happens near the end of the book to that polo club that provides that constricted time thing, which is a spoiler. The three-act structure, these are just organizing principles. That one is taken from Hollywood where your act one, your act two, your act one is introduction of everything that’s at stake. The most important thing that needs to happen in the first act is the introduction of the plot point one. Plot point one, some people might think of it as an inciting incident. I happen to think inciting incidents are usually way in the past and they’ve already happened, but it’s something that spins the action in a new direction. For me in my book, that would be being at the bottom of the darkest barrel of my life and I was at this birthday party. It was very gruesome. I was really a wreck. I could not drive a car anymore because I hadn’t slept in so long and my child was two. At this birthday party, they’d strung up this piñata. I’ve always had a big thing against piñatas because it just looks like abuse, domestic abuse to me, and all these little kids were slamming the poor donkey pinata and the candy was coming out of it. I was watching on the candy fall and I knew, because it was a female hostess, that as a female guest, I was going to be expected to help clean up all the candy off the floor. I was just thinking, “I don’t want to be at this birthday party. I don’t want to clean up the candy. I don’t want to always go to these birthday parties. I don’t want to always have to go around buying the darn gifts. How come my husband can’t do this stuff? Why is this women’s work? This is awful.” Lo and behold, this very handsome gentleman came in who I didn’t know, who was the father of one of the girls, and just the fact that he was a father, was notable, and he said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t give you a kiss. I just came from the barn.” That was my plot point one, because right away I was like, “Tell me about your barn. Give me the number of your riding instructor.” [laughter] Then you’re in the three-act structure, act two will be confrontation; the person you need to confront whatever’s been introduced by plot point one. For me, she’s going to start to ride, she used to ride, she thinks she’s going to be hot s-h-i-c, and in fact, no, in her adult body everything is different and she’s a mess. Is she going to keep up with this or not? Then there’s other things going on in my personal life. Then there’ll be another plot point, plot point two. That moves you towards the resolution in act three. While these are simplistic ways of thinking, when you are setting out to write a book, especially a memoir, which sometimes seems simple because you are the lead character, you don’t need to make anything up, you lived your life, well in fact, organizing the material of a memoir is incredibly hard because you can’t really make things up. I think that having a framework, even if it feels gimmicky or prescriptive, can just help people take a more neutral stance towards the organization of very emotional material, and also allow them to share it with people. Because so many times when people approach me or I watch these conversations take place, it’s almost just this emotional vomit comes out of them because they don’t know how to talk about their memoir to people in the beginning stages. But if you think of it as a three-act structure with a double timeline, I tell people the timeline A should be the personal quest that you’re on and timeline B should be something larger and more universal that all readers can find some way to relate to. In my book, that is all the reported material about the relationship historically between women and horses and men’s attempt to tame them. If you can just wrap your mind, or force your mind rather, to fit your project into this structure, it’ll just help you. If you get into a situation, you’re AWP or something, and lo and behold, the agent that you’ve always dreamt of talking to is right there at the cocktail party, or you have a conversation on Twitter and someone approaches you, “Give me the pitch,” banking through your memoir in terms of the three three-act structure, double timeline will just set you up better to pitch your book, really.
DN: I have another writer-centric question before we return to horses again. One of them is writing your own story, which inevitably includes writing the lives of others, which is always the case. In telling your story, we learn about the ways your parents fell short as parents, about your critiques of your husband, about your couple’s therapy, about the medical condition of your brother is anger management issues, even his IQ, and your daughter is portrayed in the book. More principally, you don’t spare yourself, the amount of self-disclosure is considerable, from your own mental health struggles to your issues in your marriage, to some bad moments as a mother, to many bad moments with horses. But in the process, of course, all these others are in the story. In your book Before and After the Book Deal, you have a section called When The Private Becomes Public. In that section, when you touch on non-fiction, where this is an area that can often be particularly fraught, two memoirists talk about sharing their books in advance of publication with those portrayed in it: Alex Marzano-Lesnevich says that they were working on the book for a decade, and thus, the family had a lot of advance warning. But because the book was about people trying to control their narrative, they didn’t want to give the family the chance to do that. So it was shown to them when they were completely done with it but before it came out. The other memoirist Melissa Febos, who came on the show to talk about her memoir Abandon Me, she shares her books with a select group beforehand without giving them the power to make edits. She makes a short list of people in the book who will be affected but with whom she still wants to maintain a relationship. The only promise in sending it to them is to hear their thoughts, and by going through this process before publication, for her it minimizes her stress after publication. I guess I had two questions for you related to this. The first one is what is your process? I’m sure what you need to consider, or are willing to consider, around your child and your husband could be quite different from what you’re willing to consider around your parents, for instance. The second question is if you’ve shown it to others portrayed in the book pre-publication, or have had those conversations around portrayals, how’s that gone?
CM: This is such a vital question for people setting out to write memoir, even if they don’t know whether or not their project will be published. A lot of people are held back from ever trying because they’re scared of what the family would think. That is valid. It’s a frightening consideration. I always tell people though, if you get to a point where that really does matter, where your father might disown you, there’s an element of that that’s good news because that means that it’s becoming an actual book. Up until that point, don’t worry. Write your truth. Write for yourself. Keep a password on your computer if you need to, do what you need to, but write it for yourself. The permission-seeking can come later. Now with memoir, there will be some books I think that Alex says was an example, where your publisher, the legal department requires that you share the book with some people in it because of questions of defamation of character. Some authors do not even get the choice. Their material, whether they are ready for it or not, is going to have to be shared in order to get out ahead of any lawsuits. That for me was not the case. Actually, Masie had said to me, “Oh, I think the only case for defamation of character would be against yourself in this book because you’re pretty hard on yourself,” and I’m not going to sue myself. I’ll start with your first question. My husband and my daughter, I changed their names in the book, which some people have said to me is a bit silly because you don’t have to work too hard to find out what their real names are. That was a craft decision for me. I could not write about them looking at their real names on the page, especially my daughter because we gave her that name. I just emotionally couldn’t do it, couldn’t get there. That was a craft choice. As for everything else, I decided to share this with everyone in it as early as I could because having been toured for four books before this, the way that you feel doesn’t matter, if non-fiction fiction, whatever, short story collection, you feel so raw, so vulnerable, so hopeful, so dejected, you’re such a mess, and also for me, I stopped sleeping. I just come to accept that book tour for me is going to be a period of high insomnia, which means a major everyday struggle to present in a sane eloquent manner and keep the hot storm, the tropical storm hidden. [laughs] That requires that any frayed nerve endings or messed up relationships in my life, if I can heal them—I’m mixing my metaphors left and right—but try to clean things up before book tour. When I thought about the horror of what it would be like to go out on tour and maybe be feeling really good or not good, it doesn’t matter, right before I go to a book event getting a text or something from my stepmother, “How could you do this to us?” when I thought about what that would feel like, I decided I will do absolutely everything I can to try to get out ahead of this, give people time to weigh in. With family members, my husband, all my family members, I gave them full early copies of the manuscripts. I actually just wrote about this for poets and writers if people are interested in learning more, but Dani Shapiro had given me great advice. She said, “If you choose to share it with your family, give them something that looks as close to final as possible. Not the final book, but if you can get it in galley form or even bound, if you tell them, “I’m here to listen to your thoughts,” and you give them a galley that has a book cover on it, they’re just going to be clued in their head, they’ll be less likely to give you major revisions. Whereas if you just hand out just a PDF or a printed manuscript that’s just loose leafs of paper, it’s actually easier for them, first of all, to mark up, it’s hard, people still have a taboo against marking up books, so make sure it’s bound. That was really good advice, so I gave bound manuscripts to all the VIPs. Then the people on my arena team or other horse people, I gave them either large swaths of the book or I’d show them the whole chapter if they only appeared in a paragraph and just made sure I gave them time to weigh in. I’m so glad I did because my mom especially, I’m very, very candid about our relationship and the way that I see her as a woman and as a mother, and how, for better or for worse, the way she mothered me was not how I wanted to mother my own daughter. The way she is as a woman is not how I want to be as a woman. Obviously, there’s a lot of intimate information in this book. She’s a very, very sensitive person and easy to be hurt. I was petrified what is she going to think, and she was overjoyed. She loves the book. She says it’s her favorite of mine to date. She’s telling all her friends. You think you can expect how people are going to react and you absolutely can’t. Things were dicier with the rest of my family. My husband, it was an uphill battle. Ultimately, a lot of these discussions that were hard led me to be publishing what I think is truly the most honest book I can put out there because, for example, there’s a pretty pivotal car accident that takes place in this book and my memories and the overall meaning and takeaways of that accident are night and day from what my husbands are. We had some real arguments about this. I was unwilling to concede and only put his point of view in and he said, “You cannot publish the book with only your point of view in it.” So I chewed on this quite a bit and it was a real unpleasant week, the week of that conversation, and then I thought, “Well, I’ll put both in. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll put both in.” Once I realized you can do that, I hadn’t seen that done, I don’t think, or I couldn’t recall, I thought, “Oh, my gosh. I’ll do this for everything.” I had all these memories of things when I was a child and then when my mom read it, she would say, “Well, honey, I loved that section but you got this wrong.” I thought, “Okay, well, but that is what I believed as a child and it’s only now because I’ve asked my mom to read this and I’m learning the truth, but it wasn’t the truth for 41 years.” Once again, I was like, “I’m going to let that first section stand where it’s a flashback and I’m writing as a child, and then I’ll simply put in the conversation I had with my mom.” That seems as honest as possible and also better reflects the sometimes ludicrous miscommunication within my own family that’s very endearing and enraging, which is how I speak to my husband too. We have really sometimes wonderful communication and sometimes just unbelievably terrible communication. My daughter, she’s just too young to consent really to anything. That was another reason I changed her name. My brother can’t read. He’s developmentally disabled so I asked him and he said, “Mom’s read it and she loves it. I trust you and I’ll listen to the audiobook.”
DN: Yeah. I love that solution of including. As I read it, not until you just spoke it out loud did I notice that is what you do and I think it really works. I want to stay with this question of writing your most honest book or how to solve these questions of truthfulness and disclosure in the real world. Because when I think back to that chapter that I referenced from Before and After the Book Deal, the issues around Febos’s book Abandon Me in your guidebook are framed as being around the father who abandoned her. But the book is also about an abusive romantic relationship which doesn’t get touched on in your guidebook and it opens with an author’s note that many identifying characteristics of certain people are changed to protect their identities. There isn’t a section in your book on the legal questions around representation and memoir writing, I don’t think. We don’t know, and I don’t think we need to know, whether Febos changed those details so as not to have to engage with her abuser or change them because of an interaction with them, and that was part of the interaction with them, or changed at the behest of the publisher due to questions of liability. But I think you’ve already spoken to some of these questions about revealing and concealing like the changing of your husband and daughter’s names. But you have an author’s note of a different sort at the beginning of your book that goes, “To write this book, I returned to my child’s mind and embraced its bias, its subjectivity, and its tenderness. Allowing for the indulgences of my adult memory, this is a work of nonfiction, except for a handful of names and identifying details I have changed to respect individuals’ privacy.” I read it now because of the first part, returning to a child’s mind and its biases, and also your nod to the fallibility of adult memory. I guess I was wondering, and you’ve already spoken to this with this I think really ingenious solution of just including these other voices but also being true to your own recollection and testimony simultaneously, but I guess I would love to hear about the limits of what you’re willing to change within nonfiction a little bit more. For instance, in Costalegre, which is historical fiction, you do create composite characters. You have a character that’s a hybrid between Leonora Carrington and Djuna Barnes, for instance, where even though those are real people, you are, in this case, writing a fiction and you’re creating a fictional character through this composite. But at the same time, of course, there are always fictional elements in storytelling with a memoir; your life did not actually happen in three-acts or a double timeline, for instance. I’m curious if there is any other element to a personal ethos around what you can change in a memoir and what you absolutely can’t.
CM: Gosh, it was a journey. It’s funny because it was ultimately my editor Masie who gave me permission to almost put more fiction into my non-fiction. Because what was happening with my early drafts was, especially because this is my first memoir, I was so obsessed with everything being factual and chronological that the book was almost unreadable. One of the first things she said to me was, “Okay, Courtney, we have you going to I think I’ve counted nine barns in this draft trying to find a barn that you could afford or they would let you work off against lessons, or whatever. We don’t care. That’s too many. We need the Goldilocks principle here. Pick three and the third one’s the winner.” I freaked out a little bit and I thought, “Oh my god, there’s someone listening to this conversation, but there were nine.” She’s like, “It’s okay. All memoirs would be absolutely unreadable if we included everything in the order that it happened and we didn’t skirt over some things.” That was not comfortable for me. It was only when I finally got to that sweet spot of revision, where I let go of my own life and memory and realized, “Oh, wait a minute, this is the same thing I do with fiction. I have to make an overture toward the reader.” Like with Touch, my early drafts were also not very good because I had so many things to get off my chest. I was on a soapbox about lots of different stuff: Amazon, Uber, many things I was angry about. I was trying to prove all these points. I’d forgotten ultimately I needed to tell a good story and the soapbox stuff is for op-eds. This was the same kind of process. I kept trying to recreate my Moleskine calendar notebook or my Google calendar, nobody wants to read my Google calendar, they want themes pulled out of the Google calendar, they want a story, they want connected dots. Little by little giving myself permission to condensed dialogue or only show three barns when in fact there were seven, eight, or nine, those were little adjustments but I could feel within my brain like, “Okay, this is how you write a memoir, you write it like fiction. You tell a story, you build a story, you leave out the minutiae and the admin and the boring stuff.” Whereas I just thought legally, all that stuff had to be in there. I knew as a reader that it’s not, of course, because I read memoir all the time. For me, it wasn’t so much what I was willing to change, it was what I was willing to thematically connect, I suppose. I understand now why some writers write so many memoirs, it’s because in order to tell a really, really good story. It’s not an autobiography. It’s a memoir of a specific time in a specific moment, and that means that you’re leaving a lot out. I still think that there’s a lot more I have to say about the way I was treated in the medical establishments. There’s a miscarriage at the heart of the story and I have a lot more shouting to do about certain aspects of this book, but not everything can be in there. You do have a word count. [laughter] I mean, not really, in theory, no, but there is, there is kind of a word count with memoir. Some memoirists have surpassed it and some rightly so, and some perhaps should have been edited more. But I did want to hit a certain word count and by that, I mean I want to tell a story in a certain amount of time and only ask so much of a reader, and thus, it doesn’t behoove me to include everything.
DN: Your speaking about word count makes me think of Karl Ove Knausgård.
CM: Well, okay. I was subtweeting him in there. [laughter]
DN: The reason I was thinking of him because he has some really provocative things that I think are really interesting. There’s this sense of exhaustiveness as if somehow language is able to capture everything. He’ll have these scenes of his mom cutting potatoes when he’s like six years old and you and he describes the way the light comes in and lands on the table. He says, “Yeah, I’m just imagining all that. I have no idea if that happened on the fateful day. I don’t know if she cut the potatoes that way or if the light went in that way on the day that this thing that I do remember happened. But I do try to evoke the way I remember her cutting the potato and the way the light would feel if I think it happened on that day,” or whatever. I’m not even giving him justice, I’m sure, but there’s a truth effect that he’s creating through this exhaustive imagination effort, it seems to me.
CM: Well, yes, but at the same time, I think he had a license to go over his allotted word count, things have changed a little bit, but because he’s a man.
DN: For sure.
CM: I would say with total confidence that if I had submitted part one of six to my agent that had 30 pages on what it was like to purchase beer for the first time, which is exactly the point at which I put his first book down, I was like, “I have counted 30 pages and you still haven’t purchased this darn beer, Karl, get it together.” [laughter] Or I’m writing however many pages on the light falling on a horse, I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that. I do think it’s a stylistic thing that he’s going for but a lot of it is also just being given more runway as a white man I think.
DN: That’s a perfect way to return to horses, I think, because I want to talk about gender with regards to horses, but I also want to talk about gender with regards to memoir, but let’s start with horses. Returning to the first line of the excerpt you read, “We have Freud to thank (or curse) for the fallacy that women love to ride because it allows them to experience the power and agency of a penis.” I guess I wanted to hear about gender in equestrian sports in light of this quote, and your thoughts on the gendered connection between the horse and the human. From what I’ve read, 75% of equestrian participants, if we combine amateur and professional participants, are women, and that equestrian olympic events are the only ones where men and women compete on an equal playing field, and that in contrast, polo was largely dominated by men, where women, up until the 1970s, weren’t even allowed into the Polo Association in the United States. As you describe in the book, some women would infiltrate the community by binding their breasts and drawing mustaches on with mascara. But now today 40% of the membership in the United States is women. But presuming that you don’t agree with Freud that this interesting demographical connection with horses and women, that you don’t think this is penis envy, what are your thoughts about the preponderance of women, in particular, in the equestrian world? Especially because, of course, there are men doing it and there are neurotic men. Let’s return to Nervous Women, Nervous Horses in this regard, do you have any thoughts on gender in this specific way around horses?
CM: I definitely do. The statistics that you’re quoting all of this, as far as I know, is quite true. Just from experience, the barn I’m at now, I think I’d drop down dead if there was a man in the barn, but I’ve been there since November or something, my farrier, the person who does the shoes on the horse, he’s a man and the dentist came and he’s a man, but other than that, it’s all estrogen. There’s quite a lot of borders there and there’s no men riding. The barn I was at before, there was one man out of about 15 women but he did not ride, he just fed carrots to the horse. That repeated itself at every barn I’ve ever been to. It’s mostly female teachers and female boarders. Now the horse, there’s more gender diversity with the horses. Freud, I wish I have my book on Freud on questions back in my house and right now I’m in my husband’s man hut in the backyard so I don’t have access to it. But I can tell you that he was very literal about it, grossly literal. Women get on a horse to have this big thing between their legs. [laughter] He’s so embarrassing. [laughter] For him, not for us. Then in some other writings, there’s suggestion of clitoral stimulation, which honestly, if you’re leaning that far forward, you have terrible form, and you’re injuring the horse because you’d have to basically be on his neck to stimulate your clitoris if you’re riding a horse. That would be very poor form indeed, and certainly, a trainer would correct you if you were leaning that far forward, shall we say. As for very privileged bond between women and horses, this is the big money question that quite a lot of books out there are trying to answer. Possibly mine, definitely Halimah Marcus’s anthology Horse Girls, which I contributed to and it’s just filled with, gosh, the best writers are in that book, Horse Crazy, Sarah Maslin Nir, Why Women Ride, there are lots of books trying to get at this. I’m not fully formed on my answer but I’ve started to think that a lot of it is because women in society, really regardless of culture, are very much prized and given a value based on our physical body and our physical casing, and also that body’s ability to reproduce and to achieve things out in space. Women are usually judged, valued, or put down for their looks just like horses, oh, my gosh, that’s beautiful. Just looking at a horse’s pace, it’s a beautiful horse or not. Then the things that we’re asked to contend with, we’re not given as physical tasks like horses are, but we are expected to carry these loads and to do whatever is asked of us without balking. You want me to work all day at what my career is and also find time to shop and put together a healthy meal and remember the children’s permission slips and also tell you where your dang socks are because you can’t remember, of course, I’ll do that. In the same way, we expect a horse, “Oh, I know that you’re sitting here eating your grass, but actually I’m going to yank you out and make you jump over, jump, simply because I want you to.” These demands that are put on horses match in some ways the demands and expectations put on women. Then there’s the reproductive element. Regardless of what we’re doing with our bodies as women out in time and space, there is an expectation that we will reproduce. There’s a value put on our bodies in respect to our ability to reproduce, or not willingness, ability to reproduce or not. Just like with horses, obviously, here I would be talking about mares, the female horses, if they can be broodmares, if they can reproduce, that gives them a certain value. On the other side of the coin, if a female horse is injured and is no longer a good jumper or can’t play polo or something, well, great, they can be a broodmare. Fantastic. We can still get the stallion to jump on top of them and make some babies, and thus, they will be useful. Horses, much like women, are not always valued for their intellect and their emotion. They’re valued for the benefit and enjoyment that we get out of their bodies.
DN: I’m speaking from a place of mostly ignorance and naivete around this question, but I wonder about this notion of mirroring and if we think in the most generic and stereotypic way around the cultural notions of masculinity and around asserting one’s will, asserting oneself in the world, I wonder if mirroring would not be as attractive a path of interaction. I think of your article, you have an essay on Roy Moore, the senator and the way he was riding his horse, and all the signs on that horse. I think I’m thinking of the right senator, am I?
CM: Yeah, exactly, with his poor mare, Sassy.
DN: Yeah, when he’s riding. Clearly, he’s not mirroring, he’s imposing a template and a will on top of this creature regardless of what the creature gives him back.
CM: Exactly, because he needed her to portray a certain image of himself which was this cocksure cowboy riding to the polls to vote for himself. Unfortunately for him, she did not exactly participate in that marketing moment because she was so upset by the way that he was riding her and also scared by the crowds that her ears are pinned in all the photos. Instead of trying to help her through that, he made it worse. He had a really rough bit in her mouth and he’s yanking. She’s trying to rear and she’s giving him all these signals that he is denying but the thing that’s incredible about photos and videos of that particular press event is that the equestrians, I wrote about that for a Medium and I got such incredible feedback from equestrians who shared it and were saying, “Okay, the proof is in the pudding. You really think that this guy who won’t even let his mare speak is letting these underage women speak?” This is being played out for everyone to see. It’s certainly with a horse, as a woman just going to see this animal who’s not asking you for anything, we’re asking them something, women are rarely in a situation where we can ask someone else or even demand something of someone else, so it does feel good to just get there and look at this creature and they don’t want anything of you. But on the flip side, something I’m going through right now, especially because I’m a horse owner for the very first time, I’ve always leased before and now I rescued this horse, I find myself asking quite a lot. My gosh, if I really am a feminist, should I even be riding this horse? This question that most of us equestrians deny because we do want to ride and it brings enormous joy, do horses want to be ridden? Does my rescue horse want me to ride her? Honestly, I seriously doubt it. She just wants to eat grass and be with her friends. My knowledge that I am imposing, my desires and wishes on an animal who doesn’t have that much consent—she does and she can throw me off if she wants to, but still where does that leave me is that anti-feminist, this is something I think about a lot, but at the same time as a woman, it’s true, Freud to be damned, it is true there’s not a lot of feelings equivalent to galloping on a 1200 or 1400 pound animal in an open field as a woman when you’ve been taught, certain women, myself definitely, to be clean and not too athletic and a nice party hostess and don’t run around and don’t get dirty. That’s an incredible feeling but it does necessitate imposing, demanding something of another being. That is just something that I’m sitting with right now and trying to think through.
DN: Let’s also talk about memoir, gender, and sexism for a minute too. You go into motherhood territory that I still think is taboo motherhood territory for some people. For instance, you’ll share thoughts like, “Do I want to check Facebook or Twitter or watch my daughter’s 18th cartwheel?” Or having essays like A Miscarriage Saved My Marriage. But even just the genre overall, the notion of the confessional, and the way it often gets feminized and then diminished as something less crafted or less artistic, it’s just a container for feelings perhaps, I’m going to return to Melissa Febos. She has an essay called The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act where she says, “At a recent writers conference, during a panel of literary magazine editors, a female audience member posed a question about the potential audience for her story of trauma survival. One of the male editors rolled his eyes and shrugged. ‘I mean, I’m not sure we need any more of those stories.’ The other panelists nodded in consensus: Stories like hers belonged on Oprah’s talk show, not in the hallowed realm of literary prose. Everyone knows we don’t need another one of those. The genre of victimhood is already so crowded. So gauche.” “As if anything could be more gauche than the male writers who compliment female-identifying writers by describing their prose as ‘muscular’ or dropping comparisons to Hemingway. As if we haven’t spent decades parsing the traumatic boredom of the American male novelist, studying its specific cocktails and alcoholisms.” “That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being is not a coincidence. What I mean is, this bias against ‘personal writing’ is a sexist mechanism, founded on the false binary between the emotional (female) and the intellectual (male), and intended to subordinate the former.” I know we are talking about your memoir before it’s come out. You haven’t toured yet even though this will come out, people are listening to it right now with your book out in the world, that hasn’t happened yet while we talk, so perhaps you can’t really compare the questions you will get and the responses to this book and how it will compare to your books of fiction versus this personal memoir. But I wondered if you had any inkling at this point, and also more generally, any thoughts about the issue at large.
CM: First of all, I just think that Melissa Febos is a national treasure. I adore her as a person and as a writer. She is just a great teacher and role model in the art of memoir writing and essay writing as well, and also someone who is working hard to remind women and people who identify as women that our stories and feelings and minutia even that we want to communicate is valid and important. As you were reading her incredible excerpt, oh god, especially about the traumatic boredom of the American male novelist, which, yeah, [laughter] I was thinking, I feel absolutely confident saying that if men had to have annual pap smears, there would be a genre of literature just dedicated to men simply having a pap smear. Even having a period, Chloe Caldwell has a great book out right now called The Red Zone that is simply about menstruation, which is getting quite a lot of buzz because finally someone gets a book deal that has to do with menstruation, when in fact, this is, again, if men menstruated, we would have all the Updikes of the world writing about it in fiction and non-fiction. I think my hope with this book is that it manages to reach women who are like my own mother, who were socialized and educated to never put themselves first, and to believe that self-sacrifice and self-erasure is noble and also acquainted with being a good mother, a good spouse, a good sister, and a good friend. Even if it just gets women of that ilk to think about signing up for, I have a watercolor painting class, or maybe a weekend away from the very unloving partner that they’re with, or the next time they hang up the phone with a friend who isn’t real friend, who takes up too much time in their life, they don’t actually like that person, even if there’s not a drastic outcome, just putting a little glimmer of rage and a desire to change things and shake things up, and perhaps, start putting themselves first and prioritize their own joy, and stop thinking, “Oh, to be a good American woman means drop everything, show up for people, be selfless.” I just wrote an essay about how hard it used to be for me in Mother’s Day because my mom, her birthday is right before Mother’s Day, and she’s obsessed with store-bought cards, she does not consider a gift as a gift unless it comes with store-bought card, and when I was younger—it’s gotten better now—but when I was younger, I just couldn’t stand the whole thing because the cards were all, “Oh, Mom, even though I never tell you or no one really sees you but you’ve allowed me to shine and that’s what makes you a great mom,” and I just would remember standing in CVS like, “What the hell is this? I’m supposed to congratulate my long-suffering mother who’s being cheated on willy-nilly for being selfless?” I don’t know. Where’s the card that says, “Hey, Mom. It means a lot to me that you come to every piano recital but why don’t you go out on a walk with your girlfriends instead and ditch this awful boyfriend you have?” Where’s that card?
DN: I see a new business for you.
CM: Thank you. Yeah, maybe. Call me, Hallmark. [laughter] To me, just getting women to quit that knee-jerk reaction of, “Oh, the school needs people to show up for the bake sale? Okay. Gosh, I have a really busy day tomorrow but that’s lovely, it’s wonderful. I have to say I’m not that person and my daughter’s school really wouldn’t function without some of the people that show up and do that. Also, if that is your joy, by all means, continue doing it.” I want to reach the women who think, “Gosh, darn it. Ugh, every Tuesday night, I stay home so my partner can have whatever the hell night and what I’d really like to do is be at a synchronized swim class. Well, maybe tell that other person, whether it’s your own kid, your spouse, partner, or boss, ‘You know what, screw you, I need to go to synchronized swimming tonight. I have to.’” “Are you good at it?” “No, I’m terrible, but it makes me happy.” I think it’s so exciting when women start to really come into their own and just celebrate their own anger and weirdness and honor the truest versions of themselves. That’s what’s happening to me and that’s what I would like for my lady cohorts.
DN: Another person that I’ve recently talked to is the Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza. When I talked to her, I also did a second conversation with her translator, Sarah Booker. Sarah Booker was talking about how Cristina is a writer who tries to create a real horizontal relationship between her and her translator where she considers Sarah a co-author and considers this horizontal relationship a part of feminist ethics. While I mentioned in my introduction that one thing that I think unites all of your books is this creative pursuit, the dramatization of a creative pursuit in many of them, another thing that I think connects at least a good number of your books is the question itself of connection with the people in your life. Because you could say Touch, which is about social media and technology, is also about the inability to connect with those in your life. Before and After the Book Deal isn’t just connecting with others because it’s a guide to help others, but because it contains 150 voices and advice from tons of other writers. This book, Year of the Horses, could be seen as a returning to connection with family and also a connection with writing and a connection with your own joy through a connection with a horse, but also it’s about a connection with the horse in its own right too. It’s my long preamble to my final question which is do you know what we can expect from you next? If so, does it extend the theme of creative pursuit and of connection, and perhaps at the same time, continue to exasperate your your agent that you’ve chosen in another genre in doing so?
CM: My beloved agent. I’ve warned her about, yeah, I have an idea for children’s book and also for erotic fiction. She’s been forewarned that anything could be coming out of me and she’s up for it. Bless her. I think that the things I’ve been tinkering with are back in the novel realm. We’ll definitely feature creative people at the helm for sure. In my gut I feel like I’m going to turn back to satire because I don’t know how else to write about the world these days. If you want to incorporate humor, it’s hard to do if you’re not satirical because everything else is just so, gosh, darn depressing, but at the time in which we’re speaking, summer is coming my way and my real hope is to allow some boredom in my life. I’d really like to gift myself with not an entire summer, that just seems impossible, but maybe at least three weeks of real unstructured time to allow for boredom, be in a hammock with a bunch of books I’ve been wanting to read, and just relax and renew. Again, when we’re speaking, I’m about to go on book tour, and I expect, regardless of how the book is received, that it will be tiring and emotionally taxing, so I’m hoping my husband will pick up some slack and just allow me to rest. That is my next big project.
DN: I hope that for you too. Thank you for being on the show today, Courtney.
CM: Oh my goodness. It’s so exciting for me to be here. Thank you so much for having me.
DN: We’re talking today to Courtney Maum about her memoir, The Year of the Horses, from Tin House. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Today’s program was recorded at the volunteer-powered, non-commercial, listener-sponsored, full-strength, makeshift home office of me, David Naimon. You can find more of Courtney Maum’s work for books, essays, classes, and consulting service, at courtneymaum.com. For the bonus audio archive, Courtney contributes a discussion of an essay by poet and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir called Clown School. Which joins contributions by everyone from Layli Long Soldier, to Pádraig Ó Tuama, to Ada Limón, to Jorie Graham. If you enjoyed today’s conversation, help ensure the future of conversations just like this by joining the community of Between The Covers listener-supporters at patreon.com/betweenthecovers where you can check out a wide variety of potential benefits of doing so. Or if you prefer a one-time donation, you can do so via PayPal at tinhouse.com/support. I’d like to thank the Tin House team: Elizabeth Demeo and Alyssa Ogie in the Book Division, Jacob Vala in the Art Department, Becky Kraemer in Publicity, and Lance Cleland, the Director of the summer and winter Tin House Writers Workshops. Finally, I’d like to thank Imre Lodbrog and Barbara Browning for creating the outro. Their album Imre Lodbrog et sa Petite Amie can be found on iTunes and Barbara Browning’s trove of ukulele covers can be found at soundcloud.com/barbarabrowning.