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

Recommended Reading: Malcolm Brooks’s Painted Horses

photo 2 (18)Malcolm Brooks’s debut novel, Painted Horses*, is a Western that’s not limited to the West. It’s ambitious, engaging, and sure to be the start of a long literary career.

In 1956, graduate student Catherine LeMay is hired by the Smithsonian to spend a few months in Montana proving that a canyon set to be destroyed by a proposed dam isn’t the site of any artifacts of archaeological significance. Catherine made a name for herself in London, and wjile North American archaeology isn’t her field of expertise, she’s eager to prove up to the challenge, facing down doubts from her parents, her fiancé, and her colleagues.

In Montana, Catherine is daunted by the canyon “as deep as Satan’s own appetites” and finds her guide, a horse breaker named Jack Allen, more adversarial than helpful. Still, in the small town near the canyon she finds people sympathetic to her project: Mr. Caldwell, a gas station owner and former dam worker himself; Miriam, a young Native American woman with loyalties to both the past and the future; and John H, a mysterious horseman with a penchant for painting and a knack for coming across Catherine when she least expects it.

The novel revolves around Catherine and John H. Their histories are slowly revealed as their paths start to intersect, and it’s in John H’s sections that Mr. Brooks’s writing shines brightest. John H is in many ways a classic Western (and Hemingway) hero: strong, silent, skilled, and deeply wounded by what he’s witnessed. By giving John H an early life far from Montana, and war experiences in Europe, Mr. Brooks expertly shows the lure of the West as it was.

Painted Horses is a novel of competing interests, particularly the perils of preservation and progress. Catherine in some ways embodies this tension, focused as she is on preserving history, while at the same time, both as a woman in a male-dominated field and also as an Easterner acclimating to the West, embodying different kinds of progress. John H, too, appears as a relic of a way of life that’s dead or dying, while also carrying with him the scars of the modern world. Like the best literature, Painted Horses offers more questions than answers, and resists easy political interpretations by giving us Miriam, who whirls in traditional tribal dances but wonders whether her family, too, shouldn’t want power and light.

The novel is filled to the brim with beautiful scenery, and unexpected scenes; a woman lining her eyes with kohl, a grove of carved aspens, a particular hat trod underneath a horse’s hoof. Mr. Brooks pokes fun at some of the Western’s favorite tropes; for every laconic horse breaker or sheep herder in Painted Horses, there is a character who speaks in paragraphs, a loquaciousness that seems unusual and a bit funny. Also unexpected, but most welcome, are the novel’s many references to Basque culture and language.

Painted Horses is a pleasure to read, bringing together as it does painting, history, archaeology, horses, and landscape into sharp focus. It’s a gorgeous exploration of the American West on the knife’s edge of change.

Coming soon: An interview with Malcolm Brooks, author of Painted Horses

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