A tent revival in Kentucky, 1993.
Scott Cheshire’s High as the Horses’ Bridles, published by Henry Holt, is one of the most arresting debuts from a major imprint in recent memory. Its triptych structure explores strains of evangelism and madness in one family across two centuries, without recourse to “epic” narratives or traditional stories of generational strife. The bolder, more elliptical approach was praised by Colum McCann and Philipp Meyer upon the novel’s hardcover publication, and some chapters read like fireworks. Others demand patience, as they ruminate on the ambiguity between faithlessness and belief.
The novel opens in 1960s Queens, NY. Twelve-year-old Josiah Laudermilk, groomed to succeed his father in their Evangelical ministry, delights his congregation and his parents with an extemporaneous sermon on the fast-approaching apocalypse. From there we leap to the present day: “Josie” is divorced and ambivalent about his failing business. He’s summoned from California to contend with his ailing father, his own apostasy, and whether both men have wasted decades of their lives. The last section jumps backward to Kentucky in 1801, where a rural church gathering becomes the site of another filial betrayal and another ghostly vision.
I was curious how Cheshire arrived at a novel balancing formal adventurousness with such restraint. He and I conducted this interview over Skype on a Friday afternoon.
Ryan Chapman Let’s start with the history of religious fundamentalism in America.
Scott Cheshire The light stuff.
RC I want to chat about the writing of the book and bring up the literary touchstones that come to mind while reading it. It feels like a book that had to come about through struggle. No one organically arrives at this approach—or even the sequence of a third-person section, first-person section, and then another third-person section—unless they’ve tried it every other way first.
SC I’ve been asked a few times about how the book churns with regard to perspective. I always go to the easy response: “Oh, I’m interested in books that do that.” (laughter) But you’re right, because I wrestled like a motherfucker trying to figure out how to talk about things, who to talk to them about.
RC You’ve said the first section came first. And easily, relative to the rest of the drafting.
SC Yes. The first section I probably started around 2006, and as a short story. I was writing about a ceiling. I had a dream of a ceiling—one I’d stood under as a kid. I didn’t know why I was dreaming it.
RC Was it like the one in the book, in Queens?
SC Yes, it was painted like the night. This was a real one in Jersey, at the Stanley Theater, I think. The Jehovah’s Witnesses used to own it, and I would go there as a kid. I would go for convention.
For a long time I didn’t think about any of this stuff. I was writing regularly, like every day. Sending stories in the mail, that kind of thing. But I never wrote about anything like this. And I was going through a very hard time personally. It was before I got married. I had spent the last few years alone. And then meeting my wife Kate, she turned me all around in the best way. She also woke me up. She wanted to know about me, since I didn’t talk about where I came from. I think that came from a place of shame—which I disown now, I’m not ashamed—but I was then. I was too young. A place of shame, a place of denial. I didn’t talk to my family much anymore. We didn’t have a good relationship at all.
Maybe this is a bit Freudian, but I believe when I had that dream, it was my inner self shaking me: “Stop not thinking about this.” I woke up the next morning, going, “Why am I thinking about that ceiling?” I started writing about it, describing the ceiling, you know. And then it seemed so obvious to me. We’re in a room, talking about the heavens, and we’re under a fake heaven. The irony there is too rich. It’s so obvious that it’s almost ignorable. And then all of a sudden it seemed so stupid of me. I’m avoiding what other writers call the juice. The hot stuff. And so I started writing about where I came from, which I’d never done before.
RC Was this the period where you also doing your reading of the canon, absorbing all that Melville?
SC Yeah. I started that, in some ways, maybe as a teenager. I knew I didn’t want to be a part of it. Or rather, I just knew that I wasn’t a part of it. I wasn’t like the other people. Not better—just unlike them. I wasn’t feeling what they were feeling. My brother, to this day, is a minister. His life revolved around his ministry. I was on the track to do that, and I was really good at it. In the same way that you would be naturally good at it: you like people, you have to talk to people, you’re interested, you’re a reader… All that stuff is really valuable.
If you read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, it’s about a minister, but it’s also about a writer. They kind of go hand in hand: a good minister is sort of a good writer. Maybe with different ends, but they have very similar kinds of missions.
So, I was reading, then discovered Vonnegut and Bradbury. They were really important to me. All of a sudden, it brought me to Crime and Punishment—I had to read it for class—which brought me to Moby-Dick, which weirdly enough somehow brought me to The Names. Those books I read at maybe eighteen or nineteen. Moby-Dick, I didn’t understand a word of it. The Names blew my head off.
RC DeLillo doesn’t write about religion often, but The Names is explicitly about a cult. Do you think that was an aspect of it, you saw a mirror to the Witnesses and your upbringing?
SC Definitely. It’s a cult that’s based on language. I’m not saying I was a part of that, but that book was about the power of language—which a lot of people will deny, saying a book can’t do anything. I think they’re not living in the same world that I’m living in. Tell that to ISIS. It’s that simple. Whether or not that’s what the Koran teaches is not the point. The point is you can take text, you can take language, and you can make it a foundation for getting bad or good things done.
RC Talk to Ted Cruz or Justice Scalia. This idea of deep scriptural reading of a chosen text and the way you can bend people’s lives around that. It comes up in cults and in some of the more fundamentalist tracts of Christianity.
RC One thing I enjoyed about this book is that you make room for other American voices and other religious points of view inside what is ostensibly a central thread of religious fundamentalism intertwined with (white) American history. The Sikh temple behind the father’s house, the cabdriver in Queens, the character of Ahmad.
SC Part of that I can place squarely on growing up in Queens. It’s just so diverse. I was really talking about Richmond Hill—that neighborhood in the book is the neighborhood I grew up in. I lived around the corner from a Sikh temple. I think a lot of that—while it serves the book, it also serves life, if you let it. I was in a family of seven, in one house, and it didn’t seem to affect the others. But it certainly affected me. “Oh, wow, there are lots of other ways of living.” I carried that with me. It’s why I still love Queens so much. I wound up going to Queens College, too.
But it wasn’t until I moved back to Queens in the late ’90s, and I was working at an Applebee’s, bartending, when I started what you’d call the American canon. Which in my view is the stuff that I was drawn to. All of a sudden I was deeply reading Melville again, and people like Marilynne Robinson and Flannery O’Connor, or Walker Percy. I felt like: Why am I trying to sound like Hemingway? Why am I trying to sound like Bukowski? Why am I trying to sound like Kerouac? Why try sounding like anybody?
It hit me that I have a toolbox. We all have a toolbox, you know, and they’re not the same, but mine looks a lot more like Walker Percy’s, or Flannery O’Connor’s, or Marilynne Robinson’s. Not in the sense of talent, but in the tools we have for metaphor, that kind of thing. I was reading those books, going, “Wow, people are making art out of the stuff that I come from.” That made me very excited.
RC I think the writers you mention deal very explicitly with the Protestant or Catholic background of their characters, or of the author’s own upbringing, but I think it’s rare to read a book that grapples with the more evangelical side of American history—that is, without essentially falling into cynicism or didacticism. How did you balance that tone?
SC I didn’t at first. At first, whatever pages I had sounded very much like an angry thirty-year-old, you know, telling his father what he really thinks, finally. And then at some point I realized I was giving a sermon of my own. Which is not art.
RC Not to spoil anything, but the book does end with the word “amen.”
SC (laughter) But amen just means “I agree.”
But who am I to write a sermon? I’m trying to make a book. …I think the book finally started to take shape when I started to wrestle with the middle section. I realized this book is about I don’t know. I came from a community that said, “We have it figured out.” I left that community, and then I was in a place saying, “No, I have it figured out.” Which is really just the immature way of saying nobody has it figured out.
It wasn’t until I realized that that I let Josie kind of live in a middle space, a constant vacillation. Which annoys some people, but that was the place I thought you might be able to concretely, in the best way you can, give the experience of doubt, and of vulnerability, and of searching, at the same time.
RC In many ways the meat and soul of the book is in the middle—easily by virtue of it being the longest part, but also as the part that most directly wrestles with that doubt and ambiguity.
SC And the hardest part to write.
RC One can tell, because you can almost feel all the ways it could have gone off. It’s that high-wire act: extended calls with Josie’s ex-wife, longer conversations with his father. The two novels that came to mind while reading were DeLillo’s Point Omega, because of the triptych structure, and how much he allows for a ruminative space in the middle; and then, because of the paternal/filial themes, Book 1 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. Even on a basic level, it’s a son entering his father’s home and realizing it is a disgusting mess, and he has to clean it up.
SC The sections with Knausgaard on his dad are heartbreaking.
RC There are issues of brokenness explored in the middle section that feel willfully ignored in the beginning. Things feel so concrete about Josie’s father in the beginning and Orren’s father in the end. Orren’s father is literally called a money changer in the house of god, by the Irish preacher. He’s called out for his heresy. But the middle is the opposite; the middle is dealing with that brokenness. The reader gets these glimpses in Josie’s father’s eyes, asking how much at the end of your life are you questioning how you’ve lived that life? It’s beautiful, but you’re in the mud for that section, and you’re not getting out. You keep the reader there.
SC It was very difficult to write. I had that whole section done and—this can show you how great an editor can be—I handed it in, and it was pretty chronological. Now, it’s all chopped up. But it went A to B. And my editor bought it that way, and we had lunch, and she said, “You know, there’s something missing in the middle. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t figure it out. It can’t be this simple.”
And that really struck me. So I worked on it for another eight months. It was a long birthing process, even after it was bought. I still had to stay in the mud.
I used a lot of prompts from The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. That book has been very important to me throughout my life. I’ve read it in lots of ways: reasons to get angry, reasons to forgive… There’s a lot of amazing, profoundly rich and resonant lines in that book. I would go through it and try and find something to respond to.
I remember very well coming across—and here I’m paraphrasing—something like: If a religion or religious person claims truth, then it’s not true religion. Whereas if a religion is purely about trying to find truth, then you’re on the right track. And there was something about that notion that made me realize, “Oh, this is not about trying to know something, to come to a decision. I have to do my best to render the struggle, to render what it is to want to know.” And I realized that to do that I would have to do Josie’s wanting to know and his father’s wanting to know. They’re both looking for meaning and want their years past to mean something now. At some point, I realized the best way to do that was to split it up geographically, East and West. It also made me feel like I’m writing about America. This grand feeling. It’s a bi-coastal book. (laughter)
RC You feel like they get to exhale once they get to California.
SC I like that. I know after the first section, most readers say they feel a little exhausted, and then they jump into the cab [in the second section], and it’s another version of exhaustion. I think when you get to California, it feels—it felt to me when I was writing like, “Oh, now I get to just look at the sun for a little while.”
RC About the third section: You can’t talk about the American South and the 1800s without talking about Twain. And you have a point where a young white boy is literally hoisted on the shoulders of a black adult male. I had to look up the chronology, because a part of me hoped so much that a couple states over in Missouri, like, Huck and Jim were hanging out. (laughter) But no, I think Huck Finn is supposed to take place in 1830s, 1840s, so there’s a seventy-year gap there. But, could you talk about where that third section came from? Was that a separate project that you felt fit into the book?
SC I’ll tell you something that I haven’t told anybody, except [my wife] Kate. I finished the end of the second section when I was still working at Picador. When it was done, I sat back from my computer, looked at it, and started crying. (laughter) How ridiculous is that? I was like, “Oh my god, I wrote my first novel. I can’t believe it.”
And I went home, and about a week or two later I went back and revisited it, and was like, “No, it’s not finished. It feels like the end of a book, but…”
RC Even now, the end of the second section reads like the end of the book.
SC I had thought I really screwed up. I left something out, like a big chunk, but I don’t know what it is. Incidentally, I think I quit Picador a month later.
I couldn’t figure out what was missing. And then I was reading a book, Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. It’s by a scholar at Yale who is one of the leading historians of American religion. And importantly, not a religious man per se, just an historian of American religion. He wrote this book that makes a very powerful claim that we at our beginnings were not nascently a Christian country at all. In fact, we were so diverse that most states or even on the frontier, you would have a Christian house, a Jewish house, an Athiest home, a house where people practice pagan witchery. Tremendous variety. I was reading and came across a mention of this thing called the witch jar.
RC The lucky piss jar!
SC Or a “beard man jar.” This is a contemporary one [below]. I got it from Bill Cheng. He sent it to me as a gift the day the book came out. They were called beard men jars because of the beard; most often they would have a beard. Usually scripture, trinkets, things with superstitious value, and then animal urine. And a crucifix.
Photo courtesy Scott Cheshire.
When I read that the first thing I thought of was Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. What a crazy wonderful irony, that a thing that perfectly represented the variety in religion at the time—urine, crucifix, iconography—was just a superstitious thing, and then you have the 1980s, with the rise of conservative America, that very thing, which was beautiful to look at—
RC It has a kind of ecclesiastical goldenness to it.
SC Meanwhile, the height of the Christian right in America was saying, “How dare you!” I just knew that somehow I was going to write something around Piss Christ.
To me the opening is about a young boy going on stage—and getting off. It’s the loss of his faith.
RC He’s seen behind the curtain, literally and figuratively.
SC Exactly. I thought I needed to write about a young boy who has no faith, and he goes on stage, and it’s the beginning of his faith. A turning away from his father, even. And accepting a different father.
RC Orren feels his vision to be real, right? He’s seeing a vision of his mother, her ghost. And that sets him off on this path. You can see the Laudermilk family entering the twentieth century with that moment.
SC What I like about it is it’s implied that it’s in the blood. Even Josie says it is. But the fact that it so explicitly happens at a time in history means that it’s not in the blood. It’s in practice. Somebody decides, “Oh, I’m going to be this way now.” Which means their kids will, and their kids will, until one of those kids says no.
It really is that simple. It’s about practice. Josie fears it’s his DNA, fears it’s in his blood. As I fear it’s in our national blood, you know? Of course, it’s not. But it feels like it is.
RC I think there’s a yoking in the book that’s very constant between the longer arc of patrimony and the shorter, day-to-day arc: Josie smoking with his father, making sure he’s eating, all the way to arguing with him about the way he treats Josie’s mother.
The line that jumped out at me: “A father’s face can be a frightening thing. A bridge between two voids. He was in me, I was in him.” That’s when Josie’s with his father in Queens. It’s a great line.
Going back to the lack of cynicism in the book, and the parts that felt to me reminiscent of Franzen’s Freedom were dealing with this idea: How do you love someone when you have different definitions of the word than the person you are trying to love?
SC That’s heavy. (laughter) At some point I had to accept that I was writing a book about my dad. And you know, that’s not my dad [in the book]. My dad and I are fine. But you put it beautifully: it was about trying to understand the difference between two people, how they both define and enact love. For a long time I felt like we had very different definitions, very different behaviors. A lot of that, now I know, was about me. I was in many ways the problem.
It sounds so therapeutic, kind of pat, but also, to me, terrifically like good writing advice. (laughter) Advice I’ve been given a million times, which is: care about your characters. Make them real people. So in a lot of ways I was doing that with my own family. I was not granting them full, three-dimensional, emotional human lives. They’d become straw men for me. That was the kind of character I was building for the father in the book, at one point. Later I realized that I have to understand who this person is. I need to know who he is. Especially if Josie comes from him. Especially if I come from him.
And when I’m reading about the history of the American change, where we go from the absent, fire-and-brimstone god to the personal god, who knows your name and knows what you dreamt about last night—which didn’t happen, by the way, prior to America. That’s an invention of ours, as far as Christ is concerned. But when that happened, I thought, this is a very particular kind of person, and a very particular kind of American. I really want to know who they are. Especially because I need to stop feeling shame, and I need to start accepting the fact, “Oh, this is me.” It’s all of us; it’s where we come from.
When I started doing that, the people became real in the book, very sloppy and messy in some ways—which I was fine with—and it also made me have more respect for the characters. And outside of it, more respect for people who are of that ilk, who I’d written off for a good decade.
RC Going back to this question of how we approach each other, I’m curious to ask how the character of Sarah came about? She’s a counterpoint in the book, and she’s more similar to Josie than Josie and his father are to each another. But Josie and Sarah are talking across a gulf for all of their conversations.
SC We’ve all had ended relationships. I was trying to process some divorce stuff I had been through. Which is not to say Sarah’s my ex-wife, because actually Sarah’s based on Kate. She’s tiny, she’s fiery, she has red hair, she’s a runner, she’s fierce and smart and will not put up with any bullshit.
RC Speaking of therapy.
SC (laughter) I knew I wanted to make her Jewish, secular, and literary. Just by doing that, it would force Josie into conversations he would not have had. So I made Sarah a translator of Hebrew poetry. Super niche. It forced him to reckon with the Bible as a book for the first time.
RC It was not the word of God handed down. His father is a literalist.
SC When Josie and Sarah first meet he’s holding a giant King James and looking for typos. He admits to ripping off a piece of paper and putting it on his tongue. And it “tasted the way old pillows smell,” or something like that.
She just switches his viewpoint a full 360. He’s in the same spot but in a totally different light.
And the whole first part of the book is very apocalyptic in its structure. It’s all about the building up, what we in the general parlance would call apocalyptic: “The end is coming!” Though the real apocalypse refers to what comes after, what’s been revealed. It’s about the change, you know?
But the whole beginning is this build up, this rev up. And in the second section I wanted to see if I could pull off writing about somebody who’s post-everything: he’s post-love, post-work, post-faith, post-home. What’s left?
RC His existence in New York is smoking cigarettes on the front lawn, watching the world go by, calling Sarah, calling Ahmad, and dealing with his father. Going back to the character of Sarah and the end of the book, there’s a sense of opening the windows: you have to let more light in, you have to let more oxygen in. That’s what is punishing to read about Josie’s life in the middle section.
SC It’s claustrophobic.
RC Reading it, you think that he’s going to watch his father meet a pretty crushing end. But I like that note of optimism. Josie meets someone, goes to California. His father is degenerating, but at least he’s gotten out of that house.
SC I think everybody around Josie is simply doing the thing that he is not doing, which is living. Which means moving on, changing, and he’s afraid of all that. The only thing he has left in his life is his father, and he’s refusing to participate. And by refusing to participate, he’s not really living. He’s not opening himself up to any change, any possibility for damnation or redemption. It’s just static. I would say a lot of us live our lives that way, at least at some point. I did that for a few years, and it’s horrific. You find yourself casting a wide net for things to mean something. Or, a very tiny net, such as, “I’m just going to get drunk every night.”
Then he decides, “I’m going to participate in the death of my father,” or the collapse of his father—by doing that, weirdly enough, that is life! That is life.
When his father dies, I felt terrible for killing him. I figured I must have done something right, because I felt really bad about killing the poor man. But it also seemed unavoidable. He had to go.
RC He had to go.
SC You know what’s really funny? I went through the three main stages of writing while I was writing the book. Maybe I’m making this shit up, but I built a wall and polished it brick by brick, that opening section. It took me years and years.
The middle I wrote very sloppily and very quickly, plotted it out, and then spent two or three years breaking it in half and then in quarters, trying to make it work.
And the final section I felt like I just dreamed the whole thing. I had a couple of ideas, I knew it would end with a vision—each section revolves around a vision—I just sat down and said, “Let’s go.” And I wrote that thing in three weeks. And stuff changed, it got better, but because I just trusted in the process, it came out, like, boom! I was done. To this day nothing has been that easy. (laughter) And I doubt it’ll ever happen again.