Religious History and “Distorted Takes on Genre”: A Conversation with Scott Cheshire, Part One

Scott Cheshire by Beowulf Sheehan

I first met Scott Cheshire at an Electric Literature event in the winter; not long after that, I worked on a piece for the Tottenville Review, where he’s a contributing editor. Soon after that, I read his debut novel, High as the Horses’ Bridles. It’s a bold novel, abounding with contrasts: Cheshire is equally at home writing scenes of domestic conflict and theological debate; Queens and southern California are evoked in equal measures. There’s plenty to ponder here: long discussions of family, of friendship, of religious traditions and the rejection of them.

Cheshire and I met up earlier this year for a wide-ranging discussion over drinks in Manhattan. In the first half of this conversation, we discussed the genesis of High as the Horses’ Bridles, Cheshire’s work with the Tottenville Review, the influence of Don DeLillo, and more.

A large part of your novel is set in Richmond Hill, Queens, which isn’t a neighborhood I know much about. How did you zero in on it as a setting?

Well, I’m from there. Queens is huge; there’s a lot of it. There’s a lot of Queens that people just don’t know about. I mean, there’s Astoria and Long Island City, the hipper places…

My parents lived in Forest Hills when they were first married, in the early 70s. So I know a bit about that, too…

Forest Hills is sort of the beginning of that whole other world of Queens. When my wife and I first moved out here, about eleven years ago, we lived in Forest Hills for a while. I used to cut school and go to Forest Hills.

So: I was born in Richmond Hill. I’ve not been there in six or seven years. But it’s a very different place. When I was there as a very young kid, it was mostly Irish-American, white as hell. Something started happening where there was an influx of Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, West Indian families. It made for a totally different place, and a very vibrant place. I started noticing that when I was eight or nine or ten. It was a very vibrant mix of people.

I wanted to write about the place because I know it. Also, because no one really writes about Queens.

I feel like it’s you and Victor LaValle, and that’s pretty much it.

That’s how I got him to read my book, actually. I wrote him a note: “Mr. LaValle, I love your stuff; I’m from Queens.” He said, “Send it on.”

It turned out to be a really great palette, you know? And also, a great canvas. A lot of the things that I think I’m talking about in the book can be intensely talked about in Queens, in Richmond Hill.

The novel begins with this huge setpiece of a religious revival taking place. Was that where the novel first began for you? 

When people ask me that, I say, “Yes,” but now that I’m thinking about it, it’s not exactly true. I don’t know if you have this feeling when you transition between a shorter work and a longer work, but–I didn’t know I was allowed to. I wrote stories for a long time, sent them to shitty magazines, sent them to better and better magazines. I was avoiding writing about where I come from. I was raised in a Jehovah’s Witness family. I couldn’t write about that for lots of reasons. Probably the same as anyone who’s trying to write about that place. It’s good to get a kind of distance from it.

At some point, I started writing a short story about a kid who seemed to have some sort of power, which is really just an exaggeration of how it is in that culture. Kids have a lot of power, because they’re placed on a stage. They’re constantly in training to become ministers. It’s kind of a self-perpetuating world. Children bring the next wave; children knock on doors. So I started writing about this kid, and I didn’t know what to do with it; it wasn’t going anywhere. And then I had a dream one night, and I dreamt of this ceiling. It was in this building, the Stanley Theater in New Jersey. I gave a sermon in that building when I was young. In the dream, all I could see was the ceiling. When I woke up…I was aware of the irony, that they’re under the heavens, but they’re faux heavens. They’re talking to heaven, they’re pining for heaven. But I didn’t know what that meant. I just started describing the ceiling. I literally just wrote a description of the ceiling for twenty, thirty, forty pages. It wasn’t a scene; it was just me building the interior. I went on for a good sixty, seventy pages. And that was the beginning of the novel.

I was lucky enough to go to Hunter. When I got in, one of the first things Peter Carey said to me–I can remember it exactly–was something like, “Based on your work, we weren’t sure if you were interesting, or just a crazy motherfucker.” They bet on interesting. Colum [McCann] asked, “What have you got?” I said that I had a short story; it was kind of long, but I’d love to bring it in. I gave it to him when it was, like, eighty pages. He literally smacked me in the head; he said, “This is not a story; it’s not a short at all. You’re writing a novel.” And I had not realized it.

Did you start work on the novel proper when you were at Hunter?

Yeah. The opening section, I kept working on that during the first year at Hunter, which would have been 2008. And then I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happens next. I could not imagine the leap, and why that particular leap would be made. I wrote him when he was fifteen, I wrote him when he was twenty, I wrote him when he was twenty-five–I just couldn’t figure out what to do. So I spent a long time trying to imagine what would be the most useful way to tell the story.

The main character goes by both Josiah and Josie; do you think of him as one name constantly, or do you think of him as two separate–

No, I think of him as Josie. The two things I’m especially proud of, and where aesthetically I felt like I’d developed something interesting, were the structure of the book. At some point, I became aware that the opening was all told from Josie’s point of view, was all first person. But I had to tell it in third [person], and slowly move into that. Even though he’s writing Josiah, to me, it’s still Josie writing, Josie talking. It does feel like the same person.

At the very end of the book, there is–without spoiling too much–a section that compliments and echoes all that’s come before.

It almost bookends it, I think.

Did you know from the outset that the book wasn’t just going to end with Josie and his father?

Not at all. I think it’s pretty clear that I’m a big DeLillo fan. I adore him. Underworld was a tremendous book to me. All of his books, I love, for one reason or another. Even his books that aren’t as good are better than most books, or are at least more interesting. But Underworld was tremendous for me. I find a lot of writers–or at least a lot of the writers that I read interviews with–are sheepish about where their ideas or their influences come from. I find that to be kind of annoyingly coy. I love that book. I found it important to find a model, to use a scaffolding, if that makes sense. For me, the opening of Underworld is an epic, beautiful piece of work.

When I was doing research for this interview, I had found myself wondering about the parallels there.

Yeah. Especially the novella version of it, “Pafko at the Wall.”

So, I did that–that was the genesis of the idea. I was already writing this ceiling and this building and this space and this group of people. And then I realized, essentially, that I also wanted to write about this communal calling that’s happening, that’s also happening in the opening of Underworld.

And then I couldn’t figure out where to go next. One day, I thought, “If the opening of Underworld was enough to propel my imagination forward, what does he do after that?” And I turned the page, and you meet Nick Shay, who’s in his forties; it’s something like, “I was in a Lexus, driving in the desert wind.” Something like that. And for some reason, it jarred something for me: he was a grown man; that’s where he is. And I worked on that for years, maybe two or three years, the whole middle section. And then I was done. I sent it to agents, I sent it to editors that I knew, to give me notes. And everyone was saying it wasn’t ready, it wasn’t ready. I don’t know what happened.

At some point, I was reading a book by a guy named John Butler; a history of American religion. He used to teach at Yale. He wrote this really fantastic book called Awash in a Sea of Faith. It’s basically a portrait of early American religion that’s completely at odds with the popular notion of what that looked like. As in, out on the homestead, you’d have a Catholic family, an atheist family, a Muslim family, a witch–it was really varied. And we romanticize this notion of Christian roots. I came across this scene that I’d known about, I’d read it in fiction. Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists is kind of based on the Millerite movement. I read this scene, and I thought, I have another communal space.

One of the things I liked about casting the opening was casting it through the eye of a boy. Everything was new to the boy, and I would imagine, to most readers, all of this is new to them. The average literary reader has not been to a Christian Bible college, you know? The boy could show things as new to the reader–so what if I put a boy in the middle of this as well? It came together from there. The whole book took four or five years, and then I wrote that thing in a month and a half. It just happened, you know?

And then, there was the question of where it should go. That took a long time. At one point, it opened the book, but it never felt right to me. At one point, it came in the middle of the contemporary section. And that didn’t feel right, either.

When did the Tottenville Review start up?

Alex [Gilvarry] started that back in 2007, before I knew him. We went to school together for one year: I was the newbie, and he was the guy heading out. We were talking after class about building this community that would support work that wasn’t getting, in his opinion, due attention. Frankly, I thought it was crazy; within a year, it had become this fantastic thing. I jumped on in 2008, 2009, just helping as much as I could. Writing a little bit, but mostly just helping. He sold his book and got very busy, and so I was the editor for about a year or so. And then I had to step back. It’s a pretty fantastic thing that he built.

Do you find that the experiences you’ve had there have affected your own work?

Definitely. One of the reasons I felt that I had to leave Picador, that that side of publishing wasn’t for me, was daily dealing with resentment. Which is silly, but can be necessary. And there’s something about seeing how, as the saying goes, the sausage is made. At the same time, it was great to see how the actual book is made, from beginning to end, which was invaluable.

The most valuable thing that happened was coming to understand that art and commerce, regrettably, live together. It’s better to come to an understanding of that in a way that you can still do your art with dignity and grapple with it, rather than ignoring it. When I learned what it was that was expected of me, or of a writer with a submission, these checklists that agents and editors go through, I realized that I could still obey these things and provide the thing that someone’s looking for, but do it in my own artful or even perverse way. Do it with integrity, if that makes sense.

Not to always bring up DeLillo, but if you look at his first six novels, they’re all genre-esque books, and that’s how he sold them. Meanwhile, they’re all these distorted takes on genre, you know?

The thing that I love most about DeLillo is that very particular, clear, concise language. My wife is a big proponent of audiobooks, and he’s the only writer she can’t listen to on audiobook, because every sentence is so packed with specific meaning that it moves too fast for her.

I’m writing an essay on books that have meant a lot to me, and I’m writing about his novel The Names. I get people not enjoying him, because even though every book is completely different, they’re all utterly him. They’re all still coming from the same perspective. If you don’t agree, or you’re not attracted to that perspective…


Part two is now up. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Beowulf Sheehan

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebookGoogle +, our Tumblr, and sign up for our mailing list.