An Interview with Malcolm Brooks, Author of Painted Horses

In August, I reviewed Malcolm Brooks’s excellent debut novel, Painted Horses. Mr. Brooks graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of Painted Horses?

Malcolm Brooks Author photo (c) Jeremy Lurgio

Malcolm Brooks
Author photo (c) Jeremy Lurgio

MB: I basically had to give myself permission to write an epic, after years of flailing around trying to be a hip, insouciant ironist. By the time I hit 30 or so, I realized that the books that struck me the hardest appealed as much to the heart as to the head. And topically, I’d had for years what I regarded as an ace-in-the-hole tucked away, which was the story of the ad hoc U.S. horse cavalry in World War II Italy. I’d met a retired veterinarian who told me about it when I was nineteen or twenty, and I pulled it out of my sleeve when I started to think about the novel that would eventually become Painted Horses . The web sort of spun out from there.

Painted Horses is a novel about the West, but the narrative also extends to England, Italy, and Basque country, and covers subjects as disparate as painting, horsemanship, and archaeology. With so much to research, how did you make a start?

photo 2 (18)MB: I thought about the major elements of the book a lot before I began the actual writing, and how these seemingly very disparate dimensions might work together in a coherent way. It’s important to note as well that the novel resulted from things I had a preexisting interest in, from Western history to Paleolithic art to the Basque region in Spain to the London Blitz, and so on. So I wasn’t starting from scratch, but more throwing all these longtime enthusiasms out like steppingstones across a creek, to see where they might lead on the other side. I made page after page of impressionistic notes at first, just character backstory and questions to myself about plot or theme, snippets of dialogue, etc. Eventually I got to a point where I knew as much as I could about the story without diving in and following the narrative through to the things I didn’t yet know. So I began at the beginning, with Catherine heading into Montana on the train, and just walked along with her, in a way.

Landscape, naturally, plays a central role in the novel; is there a particular place that inspired the canyon Catherine explores?

MB: The canyon in the novel is a fictionalized version of Bighorn Canyon, south of Billings, Montana, which really was dammed in the early 1960s. I co-opted not only terrain but also politics and controversy—Yellowtail Dam was a pretty major moment, when an organized tribal government attempted to have a stake and a say in modern land and water issues.

 Which section of Painted Horses was the most difficult for you to write, and why?

MB: I rewrote the first forty or so pages, right up to the initial boyhood flashback with John H, probably twenty times. On a micro level I mainly concentrate on writing pretty sentences and telling a story in a sort of organic, impressionistic way, so it took some doing to balance technique against the unavoidable, practical need to establish a plot. Following that, I had a tough time with the resolution sequence in the boardroom—I wanted Harris to deliver a sort of unassailable, philosophical defense of the ugly side of progress, but not in a way that made him sound like a cartoon villain.

In a novel that resists easy answers, it seems (to me, at least), that Miriam complicates the novel’s conflict between preservation and progress. Could you explain a bit about how her character developed?

MB: I honestly didn’t brood over Miriam much in advance at all. I always regarded a tribal presence as absolutely essential to the story, and I knew there were historically conflicting viewpoints within the Crow tribe over Yellowtail Dam. And I myself grew up within a subculture I wasn’t totally sure how to navigate by the time I was a teenager, which probably informs Miriam’s character. I guess it seemed logical to have Catherine ally herself with a young woman, and assume the role of mentor to some degree, in the way Audrey Williams mentored her in London. On another level, their relationship is and was always sort of intended to be a variation on the classic Western hero-and-sidekick trope.

What’s next?

MB: I’m hesitant to describe my next project in detail, except to say it’s set in the contemporary Southwest, and continues to explore the tension between the myth and the reality of the Western experience.

My thanks again to Mr. Brooks for his time and generous answers. You can read more about Painted Horses and Malcolm Brooks’s work at www.malcolmbrooks.net

“Please take / care of me”: Henri Cole’s “Dandelions (II)”

photo 1 (23)Two of the best presents I’ve ever gotten myself are subscriptions: one to the New York Review of Books (this takedown of Jeff Koons makes my heart sing), and one to Poetry.

It just so happens that this month’s issue of Poetry includes poems by a couple of my favorite poets, one of whom is Henri Cole. I’m declaring his poem “Dandelions (II)” the poem of the week, partly because it’s excellent and partly because it wrestles with questions I’ve been thinking about quite a bit this week, thanks to an interesting article in The Atlantic and Katy Butler’s book Knocking on Heaven’s Door (review to come).  From what do we derive value and pleasure in life, and how do we weigh those values and pleasures as we become old or sick? How can we best care for those who cannot care for themselves? How do we deal with endings?

photo 2 (20)On a related note, I just finished reading Louise Glück’s new collection, Faithful and Virtuous Night. It’s stunning, and I highly recommend it.

 

Writer to Watch: Nayomi Munaweera

photo (126)Island of a Thousand Mirrors* is Nayomi Munaweera’s first novel, and despite a few flaws, it is a moving and very promising debut.

The novel is largely set in Sri Lanka, and it split in two parts. In Part One, the narrator, Yasohadra, tells the tales of her family history. Both sets of her grandparents had high hopes for their favored children—Yasohadra’s parents—hopes which both were and were not fulfilled.

As children, both Nishan and Visaka witness the dangers of being different. One of Nishan’s classmates is assaulted on a train because she’s thought to be Tamil, not Sinhalese; Visaka must hide her first love affair because the boy is Tamil and she is Sinhalese.

Visaka and Nishan’s children are Yasohadra and Lanka; their best friend, and upstairs neighbor is Shiva, a Tamil boy. When the civil war begins, tragedy strikes the girls’ family, and it’s only their grandmother’s courage that saves Shiva and his family from death at the hands of an angry mob.

Visaka, Nishan, Yasohadra, and Lanka move to the United States to escape the violence in Sri Lanka, and begin the difficult process of acclimating to a new culture. Every year, more and more families leave Sri Lanka:

It is impossible to tell what they have seen, what they are escaping, They do not ever talk about these things, They seem so foreign to us, they have not yet learned to suppress their smells and  moderate their voices. They are surprised by too much and too easily impressed by America.

In a few years, these children will be wearing jeans, their mothers will be perfectly coiffed, and their fathers will smell of cologne. But for now we keep our distance lest the aura of foreignness so laboriously shed rubs off on us. (124-125)

Part Two begins years after Yasohadra’s family has left their native country. In the northern part of Sri Lanka, Saraswathi lives with her parents and sister in a war zone. Her brothers are dead, after volunteering to fight with the Tamil Tigers or, like many children, kidnapped to serve with them. Saraswathi is smart, ambitious, and very afraid. She’s sixteen years old, and the Tigers want her too.

Back in the United States, Lanka and Yasohadra are dealing with turbulence in their personal lives. Lanka returns to Sri Lanka to teach children maimed by land mines. Yasohadra decides to join her, and finds that Lanka has reconnected with Shiva, their childhood friend.

In the north, Saraswathi is violently assaulted by soldiers from the national (Sinhalese) army, and, ashamed and afraid, her parents hand her over to the Tamil Tigers. Before long, she becomes a soldier, brutal and ruthless, convinced of her cause’s righteousness and envious of the suicide bombers (called Martyrs in the training camp) glorified all around her.

As Saraswathi and the sisters draw closer to each other, their end is almost inevitable; Island of a Thousand Mirrors gives us a glimpse of the thousand decisions that draw people together and rip them apart.

Ms. Munaweera’s prose, particularly her depictions of the sights, tastes, and smells of Sri Lanka, is assured and often lovely. Her sense for metaphor and detail is also very good: as children, Yasohadra and Lanka, listening to a storyteller, “lurch about the balcony like ocean-tossed fishermen, drunk on the picture he has painted with his words” (72); Saraswathi allows herself to remember only the taste of her family’s well water once she leaves home.  Given the strength of the writing in Island of a Thousand Mirrors, I look forward to reading more of Ms. Munaweera’s fiction.

However, I do have reservations about the structure of the novel. I think Saraswathi’s late entrance into the narrative is Ms. Munaweera’s way of showing us just how far removed Yasohadra and Lanka are from the desperate situation of the Tamil villagers on the northern part of the island. However, the thumbnail sketch of her family’s history and lifestyle, while skillfully drawn, falls flat when compared to the attention paid to Nishan, Visaka, and even their parents. Saraswathi’s transformation from mild-mannered mathematics student to vicious soldier (she kills children) is crucial to the novel’s plot and message, but that transition is rushed and not fully explicated. Her hatred toward Sinhlalese soldiers, and even the government, is understandable; her willingness to inflict pain and death on noncombatants is not. She needs a fuller portrait.

On a similar note, several other secondary characters fade from the narrative without satisfactory explanations, even when their backstories are incredibly interesting, which I found frustrating.

With those reservations attached, I recommend Island of Thousand Mirrors for its strong writing and its nuanced portrayals of Sri Lankan families facing traumatic upheaval.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“He wants to write a love song”: Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”

Dear Readers,

photo (125)As you know, I adore Leonard Cohen. Today happens to be the release date for his latest studio album, Popular Problems (which I have pre-ordered, of course), and Sunday was his eightieth birthday (which he shares with one of my dearest friends).

So the poem of the week is “Going Home,” and it also happens to be the lyrics to the song of the same name from Leonard Cohen’s last studio album, Old Ideas. [By the way, Leonard Cohen once remarked, regarding the simplicity of his album titles, that he'd like to call an album "Songs in English." I did mention that I love him, right?]

It’s my favorite song on Old Ideas; it’s both personal and universal, self-deprecating and serious, and above all, thoughtful. That second verse? Gets me every time.

You can read “Going Home” here. 

Recommended Reading: Euphoria, by Lily King

photo (124)Thanks to the beneficent offices of my husband, who kept our small son occupied for several hours, I devoured Lily King’s gorgeous novel Euphoria* in one sitting,

Ms. King has taken some of the elements of Margaret Mead‘s biography and transformed them into a lushly atmospheric novel that is keenly evocative of time and place. Euphoria asks, How can we study and attempt to understand another culture, when we do not even know ourselves?

Anthropologist Andrew Bankson is despondent and suicidal when he runs across Nell Stone, a famous American anthropologist (modeled on Mead) and her volatile Australian husband Fen at a Christmas party in New Guinea. Both are ill and unhappy with their work researching a tribe prone to infanticide; Bankson convinces them to study a different tribe, the Tam, whose territory is just a few miles from where he works.

Grief-stricken over the untimely deaths of his brothers and hounded by his high-strung mother, Bankson falls for Nell immediately. He’s entranced by her quick mind, her openness, her unusual but effective methods for collecting data. In his loneliness, he also falls for the idea of Nell and Fen, for their very geographical closeness.

Bankson is the novel’s narrator, a world-weary voice reconstructing the past. He reminded me of Charles Ryder, the narrator of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited; his sorrowful, sometimes wry tone and sharp eye for detail is perfect for a reminiscence in which we know things will end badly.

And end badly they do, but along the way Ms. King brings us a beautifully sensitive portrayal of not only Fen, Nell, and Bankson and the kind of anthropology they practice, but also the Tam and their particular part of New Guinea. The impulse to learn, to record, to understand may be noble, but it can have disastrous consequences.

I highly recommend Euphoria; definitely rush to pick it up if you loved Brideshead Revisited or Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees or stunningly beautiful book covers.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Entries, by Wendell Berry

EntriesI find myself rushed this week, Dear Readers, so this post will not be as long as it ought to be given its subject: Wendell Berry.

Mr. Berry is a noted essayist, novelist, poet, and environmentalist; he is particularly concerned with the loss of small farms in America. He practices what he preaches, living and working on his own farm in Kentucky.

Entries is the first book of his that I’ve ever picked up; I wish I’d come across it sooner, because the poems in it are wonderful. They are human and humble, agile and grounded. Though I admired all the poems, and the poet’s fine sense of our relationship to nature, I particularly loved a poem called “The Wild Rose,” which is a tribute to his wife, and In Extremis, a series of poems about his father’s illness and death. If you’d like to get a sense of Mr. Berry’s style, the Poetry Foundation has links to quite a few poems on this page.

I highly recommend Entries; I’ll be on the lookout for more books by Wendell Berry. If you have a favorite book or poem, please let me know what it is!

Recommended Reading: Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

“there was a conflagration to come; I wanted to lend it my spark.” 

NeverhomeFrom its very first sentence—“I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”—it is clear that Laird Hunt’s Neverhome* is a masterful addition to writing about the Civil War.

Like Katy Simpson Smith’s The Story of Land and Sea, Neverhome is a slim volume. It manages to tell an epic story of war, deception, madness, and even, sometimes, very great beauty, in less than 250 pages, which is just a stunning feat. Mr. Hunt’s command of language is incredibly good; his swift portraits of his heroine’s world are quietly stunning, each one more impressive than the last. “Impressionistic” is an adjective that comes to mind.  If I could choose a director to turn Neverhome into a film (and good lord, someone should!) I’d choose Terrence Malick and it would be a perfect match.


Constance Thompson, who renames herself Ash when she decides to leave for war, is a singular woman, canny and strong and very brave. As she recounts her war experiences, she doles out pieces of her past, leaving out just enough that the reader is left desperately wishing for more ways to understand who she is and what made her.

As Ash joins the Union Army, sees action, and begins a circuitous route home, we are introduced not only to the fighting men and less savory characters you’d expect to find in a war novel, but also to other unusual women. Some, like Ash, are disguised as men. Some are waiting out the war the best they can at home, and others are on the run. All of them are fascinating, and it’s glorious to find a war novel in which half the characters are women.

Ash is plainspoken and careful, clearheaded and well-intentioned, but still unprepared for what exactly war will be like. When Ash is issued her rifle, accurate enough to “that you could use it kill a quarter mile away,” she thinks,

That was something to think about, How you could rifle a man down was looking at you and you at him but never see his face. I hadn’t figured it that way when I had thought on it back home. I had figured it would be fine big faces firing back and forth at each other, not threads of color off the horizon. A dance of men and not just their musket balls. (5)

Ash proves to be an excellent shot, and draws the attention of the men in her regiment, more attention than she’d like, given what she’s hiding. She finds calm and benevolent interest in the form of the regiment’s colonel, who keeps an eye out for her, so far as that goes; after all, Ash says, “death was the underclothing we all wore.”

An injury leads Ash not to death, but to her own particular version of hell. I won’t go into the specifics, since I hope you’ll discover Neverhome for yourself, but suffice to say that the second half of the novel is especially harrowing. Mr. Hunt’s pacing is impeccable, and keeps us wondering to the very end if Ash’s odyssey will ever end in homecoming.

Neverhome is a gorgeous, spellbinding book. Highly recommended.

Boston: Laird Hunt will be reading at Porter Square Books on Sunday, September 21.

And a special shout-out to Cleveland: Laird Hunt will be at the Beachwood Library on Tuesday, September 23. 

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.