Alyson Hagy is the author of seven books including the story collection Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press, 2010) and the novel Boleto (Graywolf Press, 2012). A graduate of Williams College and the University of Michigan, where she received her MFA, Hagy has been published in a number of journals and magazines, including Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Virginia Quarterly Review, Five Points, and the New York Times Magazine. Her fiction has also been recorded for National Public Radio. Hagy has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. Her short stories have been awarded a Nelson Algren Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and been included in Best American Short Stories. Hagy currently lives in Laramie and teaches at the University of Wyoming. Recent interests include collaborations with visual artists, designing artist’s books, research on the energy industry, hiking, camping, and stealthy fly-fishing.
1. I came to your remarkable body of work through your third novel, Boleto; and so it is here that I’d like to begin. A Publisher’s Weekly review quotes you as saying: “‘This was not the planned book….I was working on another novel and sitting in a lecture and this book just came to me.’” Would you discuss both your composition process and the genesis and evolution of Boleto?
My teacher and mentor George Garrett used to say previous books never prepare you for future books, that each book has its own rules and demands and surprises. I wasn’t able to absorb that advice for years – partly because I couldn’t imagine writing enough books for it to matter. I like to plan projects. Planning gives me a false sense of control. It allows me to gear up and pretend the road ahead will be smooth and solid. This is one of the ways I fool myself into spending years (sometimes fruitless years) working on a book. In 2010, I was 150 pages into a novel I’d been planning for quite a while when Boleto struck me like the proverbial bolt of lightning. I was taking notes at a lecture given by a pair of archaeologists when it just came to me: the characters, the three settings, the rough arc of the story. I’d met the model for Will Testerman probably seven years earlier. I had a couple of small scratches in my notebook about that young horse trainer, but I do a lot of scratching. Most of it doesn’t lead to much. This deus ex machina arrival of a story was brand new to me. I vowed I wouldn’t waste the opportunity. I do my share of dumb things as a writer. But this time I was smart enough to leap into the unplanned fray. I left that other novel far behind.
When I really think about it, my composition process has changed a lot over the years. I prefer to work in the morning after I’ve been outside running or getting some kind of fresh air view of the world. And I prefer to work steadily, a couple of hours every day of the week. But the truth is I’ve modified that process a lot when I’ve had to. I changed my habits completely when I had a baby. I changed them again when I got something that looked like a regular job. I’ve changed with technology. I’ve changed with age. And some projects are just flat-out more demanding – emotionally, intellectually – than others. Boleto was a real gift. It was a pleasure to follow Will and the filly. I don’t think writers deserve or should seek pleasure. We need to write the hard books we’re meant to write. But, this time, I caught a break.
2. Bravo, Alyson, for recognizing and foregrounding “the hard books” and the work ethic that comes with writing. I have a horse, and I ride. In reading Boleto—and later Keeneland—I trusted immediately your knowledge of horses, and I continue to admire the ways in which you write about these marvelous creatures and at times even inhabit their consciousness. What is your own experience with horses, and what compels you to continue to write about them with sensitivity, integrity and real wisdom?
The history is pretty simple. My dad bought a horse for the family when I was about five. I can still remember his delight. It was something he was doing for himself, though all of us kids would eventually benefit. We kept that horse, a gelding named Sentry, in a patch of yard next to our house with a single strand of electric fence as his boundary. This arrangement astonished kith and kin. Neighbors and farmers who passed by couldn’t fathom the urge to have a horse “in town.” But we did. By the time I was seven, my parents had bought the farm I would truly grow up on, and we had horses there until only a couple of years ago. We went from Sentry (who lived with us for more than 30 years) to as many as six mares and geldings – Welsh ponies, quarter horses, Appaloosas, anything that would tolerate both Western and English tack. I loved it. The pungent smells of the barn. The non-verbal communications. The physicality of working with large animals. The risk of riding fast and jumping over things. The show grounds with their ribbons and trophies and homemade pies. My parents hired a top-notch horsewoman to teach us to ride. She was as tough and stern as a sea captain, probably the most demanding teacher I’ve ever had. I discovered, through her, that I had a high capacity for failure – that I could keep working at something until I got it right.
Gorgeous and lyrical and inspired response.
I can’t say what compels me to write about horses. I’ve only done it in Boleto and Keeneland. It’s probably important that horses don’t speak, that I have to provide language where there is none. It’s probably important that I had a flamboyant, unpredictable early teacher. And it may be essential that I come, oddly enough, from a long line of blacksmiths. I didn’t make that connection for a very long time, but my father’s joy at bringing Sentry into the family is surely linked to his memories of the ponies and draft horses that waited at his father’s/uncle’s/grandfather’s shop when he was a young boy. I’m Southern. I’m willing to believe there’s just some connection to horses – one that goes back a long way – in my blood.
3. Along these lines, what challenges and responsibilities come with writing about sentient beings that are not human?
A very good question. I don’t want to anthropomorphize characters like the filly, but I do want to convey, as well as I’m able, the nuanced relationships that are possible with certain animals. And I want to accomplish that without gooey sentimentality. Humans have lived with animals for a long time. Some of us are well suited to working with those animals, just as some of us are suited to be healers and some are drawn to war or matters of the spirit. In the last few years, our privileged American lives have become less physical, less involved with creatures of any sort, even each other. I feel that absence whenever I see a child recoil from a dog or an adult freeze in the presence of a steer or a pig. But the connections are still there, right? They may even be hard-wired. What happens to the folks who are still good with cattle or dogs or raptors or horses or whatever as we sever those connections? And what happens when most of us are wholly cut off from the complex ecologies of other species? Those questions interest me.
4. A follow up question stems from this passage early on in Boleto when Will contemplates his newly-bought filly and the future they will share together:
“He wondered what it was like to be inside her head, where her ears and binocular eyes and large nose put together a version of the world that was so different from his own. What did she think of the scent of the yearling cows? Was their smell a good smell to her? And what about the diesel-fuel tank? What did she make of that stink?”
I single out this passage both for its intimacy and for the way in which you allow the reader to understand the filly. What drew you to her as a character? Put another way: we write to understand. What were you trying to understand about her, and what did you discover along the way?
I like how you put that: We write to understand. When I first met the wrangler who inspired the character of Will, he was working this elegant bay filly in a round pen. She was one of the most beautiful, subtly put-together horses I’d ever seen. Truly lovely. But she was also young. Lean. Small-boned. Unscarred. Comfortable with the world she knew. She was going to face challenge and change very soon, and I wondered what that would feel like to her. Her owner was going to take her to California. Then he would saddle her. Eventually, she’d be asked to compete, to measure herself against other horses.
I discovered that I couldn’t entirely intuit the end of her story. And I decided that was all right. The novel is, first and foremost, about Will and how a young person like that, with an old-fashioned skill, tries to make it in a market-driven world. I also discovered, and not for the first time, how sharp the edge is between love and money. As you noted earlier, horses are something we “buy” and “sell.” In America, everything is a commodity – even beauty.
5. Boleto, like your fourth story collection, Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf, 2010), is set in Wyoming. Much of the tension in your work lies in chronicling the more traditional lives of characters like Will who are losing their way of life through the arrival of rich, often absentee landowners and non-natives who exploit as much as they participate in the mythology of the “new” West. Yet I’d say the tension goes even deeper than that. Will is fundamentally an artisan in a world where mass production reigns. Would you comment on these observations, either to expand upon what I believe I’m seeing or to steer my observations onto firmer ground? Basically, I’d like to better understand your perspective on the “new” West and what is happening to men like Will and to women, in the process.
Will is an artisan. I like how you frame that. He has a real skill, and it’s a skill valued by those who have it (other trainers) or those who want to possess the results (big money horse buyers). Artisans often struggle in rural places, not because they’re underappreciated (though that’s sometimes true), but because there aren’t enough people around to support their way of life. As you probably know, the horse world can be pretty medieval. It really helps to have a deep-pocketed patron if you want to breed and train and make even a blue-collar living. You may have to move all the way across the continent to find that patron. And when you find him or her, you’ll have to pay the piper many times over to keep your gig. This dynamic is not limited to horse people or Westerners – not at all. What’s Western about Will’s dilemma, to me, is that everyone pretends he can make it in Wyoming. The American West is a beautiful, heart-stopping place. But it’s not spilling over with great jobs. Young people leave our small towns all the time, even if they don’t want to. Westerners romanticize their home turf in lots of complex ways. And they are reluctant to eyeball the economics. Will’s father is bitter about his failure to ranch independently. Will’s brother Everett seems headed down the same path. The “new” West features Will’s mother (a teacher and public employee) and his brother Chad (a gas field engineer and part of the commodity culture) as the economic successes. People who just want to work with horses and cattle really feel the squeeze out here. They have for a very long time. Many of them, honestly, end up like Campion – working for the absentee rich guys.
6. You are a writer who thinks very carefully about sentences. Take this moment from the close of Part I. Will is leaving his family’s Wyoming home, and he is thinking about memory, about what one keeps as well as what one loses:
“The things that never changed for him were the details of home. The
furl of light on the tin roof of the barn. The contours of the two-track that ran
along the edge of the meadow, all the way to the property line of the ranch. The hard kick the old furnace made when it turned on in the basement of the house. He could always recall the peculiar stink of his mother’s lilac blossoms when they thawed out in the spring. He could practically write lyrics to the music the field mice made in his bedroom walls, or the midnight bawling of cows and calves. These were the truths that were fixed inside him. They hung like well-used tools on a workshop wall. People were not fixed. People slipped like weather over a horizon….”
A passage like this one embodies a wisdom—a truth—made all the more powerful for the way in which you deliver it. How does a passage like this one evolve?
I can only hope I’m able to get at some truths, that I can convey what I so fervently believe – that even the most broken or lost or aggrieved of us has access to a complicated interior life. We diminish one another with our stereotypes and fixed expectations, and that’s the source of some grief for me. We behave as though we’re either “liberal” or “conservative,” “Southern” or “Western,” when the truth is each of us harbors many contradictions. Those contradictions should lead to empathy. Fiction can inspire empathy. All art can.
Yes, absolutely. That’s a central reason for writing—enabling that empathy with other sentient beings.
I do think about sentences, maybe too much. My first loves are character and language. My parents are musical. I’m not. I sometimes think my feeble attempts at lyricism are my way of singing myself through the world. I read quite a bit of poetry, too, though I’m smart enough not to write it. I might not have made a habit of reading poetry if the poet David Rivard hadn’t challenged me many years ago. He reads a lot of fiction. He wanted to know what my excuse was, and I didn’t have one. So I vowed to turn the tables. For me, a passage like the one above is the result of a quiet morning, a slow re-reading of the paragraphs that come before, then a kind of “listening” that’s familiar to most writers — a kind of meditative state where you imagine the next notes in the score. I rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. The driving force during those revisions is often sheer rhythm. I want the sentences to sound right, to roll off a reader’s tongue.
7. I find myself musing about the relationship of Keeneland and Boleto in your body of work. The last section of Boleto finds Will in California on the ranch of a rich Argentine who raises and trains polo ponies. In the process, Will’s integrity—his sense of who he is at the core—is nearly destroyed. The moment that encapsulates how much of himself Will has lost occurs very late when he parts with the filly:
“He placed his trembling hands on her, one on her sleek neck, the other on the wood-carver’s bow of her ribs. How about that’s the promise you pretend to maketo me? he said. It can be your turn to lie. You can say to me that nobody and nothing will ever own you. You can say to me that you’re gonna stand tall in your pretty little life and always be free.”
This passage cuts me to the quick, and I find it so much more effective precisely because Will addresses his experience to the filly, who he has also sold out. Keeneland, in contrast, begins with the protagonist, Kerry, fleeing her speed-addicted horse trainer husband who sold her and her horse—a promising thoroughbred—out in the high stakes world of thoroughbred racing. Yet the place she flees to, a Kentucky race track, is not much of a reprieve.
I am very curious about the relationship of these two novels. Kerry expects to have her self-respect trod on. For Will, such experience comes as more of a surprise. How do the main characters speak to each other? Both novels could be considered Bildungsromane in the traditional sense, for they are about two young people trying to find their way in the world.
I think you’re right. Kerry is banged-up and beaten. She’s been cheated. She gets robbed. Like a lot of women she doesn’t think she deserves better. Will, on the other hand, possesses an easy-going confidence. I see that a lot in the West. It’s partly earned. Men are physically competent out here. They are prepared for the outdoor world. That cowboy confidence is also part of a cultural code, a near-affectation that can quickly slide into masculine arrogance. But Will (unlike his brother Everett) doesn’t make that slide, partly because he’s young, partly because he’s not interested in social poses. He wants to earn his place in the world beyond his hometown – and he knows it’ll be a steep climb. You see that out here too, the ranch kid who wants to be underestimated. Those are the ones to keep an eye on.
Kerry and Will are very different people. But you’re right to note that I place them both in a “gilded” world. I subject them both to the vagaries of class and cash, greed and power. Those forces seem very alive to me. They are attractive and destructive. I also reckon the bildungsroman is forever alluring to writers, especially novelists. Who can look away when innocence is being transformed into experience, always at some cost? It may be important that I wrote Keeneland when I was a younger adult and Boleto when I was the mother of a young man. I see a cloudy mirror image of myself in Kerry. She’s one of the women I could have become and didn’t. I chose different paths, but in writing about Kerry, it’s possible I was engaging in a “What if?” exercise about my own life. In Will, I see evidence of the hopes and fears of a tested parent.
8. I’d like to consider point of view, narrative pacing and plot in these novels. Keeneland is written in the first person. It’s a more fast-paced, frenetic novel. Boleto is far quieter, and the pace is slower, the writing more distilled. Would you talk about style and structure in these two novels?
Keeneland is frenetic. The only way I could get the story down was to let Kerry talk to me. And she talked and talked. I tried to write a page a day. At the end of a year I had a mess of a draft – but I had it. Voice was my linchpin in that book. And it was probably my downfall, too. I tried to do so much, to convey the richness of that setting and the mixed allegiances of the characters, the range of their backgrounds. I wanted readers to be steeped in the backside life – absorbed into it, appalled by it. I remember experiencing a lot of exuberance while I was working on the novel. Fast-paced. Chaotic. That’s the track. And the lives at the track.
My writing has changed since I’ve moved West. It’s quieter here. But the world is also bigger in some ways, dominated by weather, by distances between places, by the barriers of geography. I like how the West overwhelms us with its storms and fires, how it thwarts us with its droughts and floods. Humans aren’t very much in charge out here. I can’t yet say whether I’ve “come into my own” with Boleto. The project I’m working on now is very different, distinctly Appalachian. It did seem important to “distill” things in Boleto, though. Will is the product of a culture that’s less verbal, more physical, more isolated, and more reticent than the Kentucky of Keeneland. His head – and perhaps his heart – aren’t as busy or as cluttered. And, unlike Kerry, he’s a very focused young man.
9. Beautifully and convincingly put. What kind of research did you have to do to write Keeneland? You seem to know the world of horse-racing so incredibly well, and you have the voices of the characters down. How do you avoid letting the reader see your research?
I did myself the favor of visiting Keeneland several times while I was writing the book. I got myself to Lexington, went to the track early in the morning and during the races. I eavesdropped, asked questions, fell into conversations with riders and grooms. There wasn’t any security at Keeneland then, not really. You could wander right by the zillion dollar colts and quickly find yourself on the shedrow with the claiming horses. I read all the books I could find about thoroughbred racing, memoirs and fiction. But, mostly, I had to fly by the seat of my pants. I just had to let my imagination roll. I knew the Keeneland I wrote about wouldn’t be the Keeneland most Kentuckians idolize, but my Keeneland would be true, at least to me.
I love to do research when it’s warranted. Snow, Ashes required heaps of research. So have stories like “The Sin Eaters.” But you have to put aside the desire for the authentic and let yourself seek what’s true. George Garrett and E.L Doctorow gave me similar tips when I was a young writer. George suggested we read period documents and histories, but that we not worry about taking notes. We’d remember what we needed to remember when the time came. Doctorow talked about writing Ragtime using photographs as a starting point, rather than texts. He looked at period pictures, really looked, then cut himself loose to imagine the lives behind those pictures. All of that advice has been helpful to me. Research is a siren. She’ll sing you onto the shoals every time. So you can’t use it as a crutch or an excuse not to do the hard part – your writing.
10. To bring in your second novel, Snow, Ashes: unlike Boleto and Keeneland which are held to the space of a few months, Snow, Ashes spans the 1940s to the 1990s. It chronicles ranch life but also the Korean war. What challenges did you face in writing a tight novel that covered so much ground? Who were your models? And what drew you to telling this story, one in which redemption is rarely glimpsed—.
Snow, Ashes was a tough trip. I wouldn’t have written it if I could have shaken Adams out of my head. But I couldn’t. I was drawn to write the book after hearing a colleague talk about a rancher she’d seen at a UFO conference. (Yes, truth is stranger than fiction.) This dignified man wept as he tried to explain his abduction by aliens by acting it out with tiny cardboard figures in a diorama. That story stabbed me right between the ribs. How does a man maintain his sense of self in a reality like that? What does it mean to lose language in the face of trauma and to resort to other kinds of cries for help?
I couldn’t find any models to help me with the novel except a couple of bare combat memoirs from the Chosin Reservoir campaign. Very little fiction has been written about the Korean War. Only a couple of films have been made. I was writing the novel as we were entering the war in Iraq, and I felt as though I could see another disaster coming – the historical hubris, the self-satisfied heroism, the miscalculations of cultural intrusion. Once I knew Adams and Hobbs had fought in Korea, I felt a real sense of duty to try to convey what that war, the one we never talk about, might have been like. I was in over my head, that’s for sure. I don’t know sheep. I don’t know combat. When my agent suggested no one would read a war novel written by a woman, I just had to toughen up. And the book didn’t find a home in New York. Graywolf Press took it on – I’m ever grateful for that. I guess I learned an odd object lesson from the whole experience: If you can’t talk yourself out of a project, it’s yours, even if you’re not the logical one to write it.
11. Turning to the stories, specifically to Ghosts of Wyoming, what are the seeds of this collection? Which stories grounded its thematic focus?
The stories came to me, fast and slow, over a period of nearly ten years. When I moved out here, I was wrapping up Keeneland and finishing the collection Graveyard of the Atlantic. I was sure I could write in Laramie. It’s my kind of place – smallish, austere, near mountains. But I wasn’t certain I’d be drawn to write about Wyoming. I figured I’d let that sort itself out. So the seeds of Ghosts are scattered seeds. A chance conversation with a historian. Observations during a visit to Devil’s Tower. A glimpse of some border collie puppies. A photograph of a work train. After a while, I had a small group of stories. I could see some patterns. I thought it might be interesting if I mixed stories that were contemporary with stories set in the past. It might be good to blend both “old” tales and “new” voices of the kind that aren’t usually at the center of Western fiction. It’s not hard to see how haunted this state is. People still can’t have calm conversations about some of the crimes that occurred in the late 19th c. But the West is also robust in its way. It attracts people who want to change or shift identity. Newcomers are often exuberant. The old hands can be both resentful and kind. To finish the book, I added a comic story, “Superstitions of the Indians,” to lighten the tone a little. And I wrote “Oil & Gas,” my attempt to replicate the many competing points of view you might hear in the rural West if you care to listen.
12. I often find endings in short stories very difficult. How do you find your way out of a story?
Endings are difficult. They can be satisfying, but they are always artificial. False constructs. It’s impossible to know how a story should end until you fully understand what it’s about, and that can sometimes take a very long time. In a story like “Border,” the end came to me – and I knew it was right – after I drafted the first eleven pages. The boy can’t have the ending that he wants, even if he deserves it. He had to get the ending the world insists on, even if it’s an ending without love. A story like “The Sin Eaters” is based on historical events, so certain parts of the plot were pre-ordained. But I couldn’t see Porterfield walking away from his duties as a missionary. He has to go forward into his life, even if he’s utterly changed. I also try to mess with a reader’s expectations of what an ending should be or do in Ghosts of Wyoming. There is no clear-cut “end” to “Oil & Gas.” There’s a through line. Characters pass one another on the roads. Things happen. But I want readers to imagine that the conversations in that story are still going on, every day, in those oil and gas fields that seem to be so empty when they’re not. And a story like “Brief Lives of the Trainmen” is meant to be a riff on genre. My mini-biographies of the men on that train echo the mini-biographies Plutarch wrote of Greek and Roman heroes. They’re portraits. So the story is more a “gallery” of characters than a resolved plot even though I put the cook’s prized chickens in peril.
I almost never know how a story will end when I begin it. With novels, on the other hand, I am usually writing toward an end I can dimly see. And perfect endings mean less to me now than they used to. I want my stories to brim, to hold more than a reader expects. I want a story’s questions to spill over into the white space, for readers to carry those gnawing questions away with them.
13. I’d like to close with 2-3 questions about your history as a writer. One of your first mentors, if not your first, was Richard Ford with whom you studied at Williams College. What did Ford teach you about writing? How does his legacy continue to impact you? And how do you translate his influence to your own students, both at the undergraduate and at the graduate levels?
I only worked with Richard for one semester. He was my thesis advisor at Williams, a place he was visiting for the term. I had one other teacher before him, a man who was enthusiastic and cultivating. Richard was soft-spoken and deadly serious. He had no interest in student dilettantes or undergraduate excuses. Writing wasn’t hip or fun. Writing was the hardest thing you’d ever have to do. His intensity had a tremendous impact on me. If I wanted child’s play, I could go elsewhere. If I wanted to make art, I’d better be prepared to work harder than I’d ever imagined. I don’t expect my students to meet Richard’s standards. There is no one path to being a writer. But I’ve never seen anyone create what I’d call literature without some brand of Richard’s ferocity. He was generous to me back in the day – with his time and his advice. And he called a spade a spade, every time. When I wrote a bad story, he told me it was bad. And I went back and started over. Again.
14. You teach in the MFA Program at the University of Wyoming. What unique challenges to aspiring writers face today, and how do you help prepare your students to meet those challenges?
We have a small program here. It’s interdisciplinary. Students have to work in more than one genre. They are encouraged to explore the sciences or the arts – or both. I enjoy being around all that discovery. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. There are more venues for publication, and the opportunities to collaborate and test genre/media boundaries and absorb what writers are doing around the world have never been better. I’m not sure this challenge is unique to the writing life, but young writers have to develop the persistence and stamina to work long and hard. That’s always been true. It still is. What I can’t tell yet is how the “smart phone” generation will manage the habits of concentration that complex fiction demands. Maybe they won’t. And that’s fine, too. They will surely produce other forms that delight us.
15. Finally: writing is a passion, an obsession, and a way into understanding or at least a way into wrapping ourselves around the unimaginable. Why do you write, and please bring in a little bit about your writing process, specifically your self-discipline as a writer who has published a remarkable body of work by the time you were fifty.
I used to say I was obsessed with other people’s obsessions. That’s probably still true. I am drawn to human passion. I love talking to people about the things they care about. Gardens, bulldozers, atmospheric science, terriers, politics in the mayor’s office, dental care. The topic doesn’t matter. The convictions do. Fiction was a way for me to make sense of the turmoil of college life, and it’s remained central to my way of navigating the world. Language is both my sword and my shield, I suppose.
As I noted earlier, I have (apparently) a high tolerance for failure. The time it takes to rewrite or re-imagine fiction never seems wasted to me. It feels like what I’m meant to do. But I think I’ve become both more meditative and more compulsive over time. I’m less in a rush to “solve” a situation I see with fiction than I once was. I hope I have more patience for nuance. But I’m also more aware of certain injustices than I once was. I have some things I want to say. About class. About the mythologies of American independence. About the false anthems of war and the cocoons of privilege (even my own). I am very lucky I’ve found a way to make a life doing what’s essential to my spiritual and psychological survival. I know that. I try not to take my good luck for granted. My head was on fire with stories when I was young, and a small number of people validated that conflagration when it mattered. I try to do the same as often as I’m able – validate, pass it on.