“The Urge Towards Making Meaning”: A Conversation with Scott Cheshire, Part Two


In the first part of my conversation with High as the Horses’ Bridles author Scott Cheshire, we discussed his novel’s origins and his process for writing it. In the second half, we delve more into the novel’s use of theology, the ordering of its world, and the ways in which religion can shape language.

In terms of the religious group in the novel, were you drawing from your own experiences, or were you fictionalizing things?

That was one of the hardest things to deal with. I don’t want to presume too much, but most guys in their twenties are pissed at something. That, coupled with trying to disentangle myself from that world, started when I was about seventeen or eighteen. It was through novels; I started reading Vonnegut. If you’re in the right mindspace, and you happen to be a Mormon or a Witness or a Seventh-Day Adventist, that’s the worst thing for you to read. Cat’s Cradle will just destroy you.

I started to disentangle myself, and in my twenties, it was hard to do that. I was very angry, in a lot of ways. and writing all the time. But not writing about that. I was too angry. So when I finally started to wrestle with this stuff, I realized two things. One, I couldn’t really write about Jehovah’s Witnesses per se, because it was too close. There was an overwhelming emotion present every time I tried to sit down and write, and that’s not helping. It was turning into a sermon, the very thing I’m writing against. “You guys are wrong! I’m right!” That’s not art, you know?

Second, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that I want to have a respectful and healthy relationship with my family, because they’re all still Witnesses. Most of them. And if I wrote a book about them, I was afraid it would be taken the wrong way. And also, I tend to think that there’s something about it–the Witnesses are a very strange, very American phenomenon. They’re Christian, but they also don’t share a lot of the basic Christian beliefs–hence the name Jehovah’s Witness, not Jesus’s Witness.

At some point, I decided to invent a religion. One that was sort of a conflation of the Witnesses and your average millennialist American Protestant. Which there are a lot of.

It’s a novel that places that kind of religion in places where you might not expect to see it–New York City, for one. There’s a megachurch very close to where I grew up in New Jersey, and I did a doubletake the first time I saw it. I grew up Episcopalian; my friends growing up had a lot of religious backgrounds, but that was still fairly alien to me.

Look at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge–you have the Watchtower. What’s fascinating, and another reason I wanted to write about it, is… I hope it’s coming across that the book is a respectful interrogation of that life, but also a celebration of it, in a way. It’s a part of the American personality, and it’s also a part of the Northern personality. The whole apocalyptic millennial Christian perspective comes from up North, and they exported it down South, where it took off. There’s a great book by a guy named Whitney R. Cross, called The Burned-Over District, and it’s all about the development of apocalyptic Christianity. It’s not strange to me, but it’s strange to the people I tell it to.

At some point, the religious aspect, that particular conceit, started to fade into the background, and the people came forward. It became about the family, about the dad and the son. The religious motivation became more important than the religion itself.

A large portion of the book is set in 2005. Was there a particular reason for it being that year, as opposed to now?

Part of it was that I wanted Josie to be about 39 or so; the timing made it such. But then, at some point, I realized that I was writing this book, which I think is a book about America, but also about one particular family. Here it is, a book about a fundamentalist family, and someone who has extracted themselves from that, it’s in New York, it’s about the apocalypse, and I haven’t even mentioned 9/11. That was striking to me. I felt very strange about that. If I’m honest, I felt strange partly because I think that, for a lot of people from that perspective, it was sort of a welcome thing. It was a sign. When it did happen, I was heartbroken. But I was also aware, in hindsight, that it was a lot more abstract to me than it was to most people. I think, even years later, it was still somehow figured to me, the blueprint for this teleology. And I felt bad about that.

(Here, we briefly discussed Maud Newton’s essay about Harold Camping’s predictions of the Rapture. -ed.)

In a book where you have the possibility of the end of the world, there’s always that element, for me as a reader, where I wonder, “Well, what if this does happen?”

And I wanted [Josie] to experience that, too. If he was this boy prophet, I found myself believing that if in the next year after his year of prophecy, in 2001, we had this thing happen, I found myself believing that he would take a quicksilver moment of pride in it. And then it would dissipate immediately, and I’ll bet he would feel terrible about it.

Have you been working on any shorter fiction, while you were working on the novel or since you’ve finished it?

When I finished, I had not worked on a story for five or six years. I did exercises. I started stories that just died, and I didn’t spend much time with them. The last thing I published was in 2007, probably. A story, also, about religious yearning, that takes place in Death Valley. I went back in, and I found myself writing really long stories, which I’d never done before. I wrote two very long, fifty-page stories, which I eventually cut down to a more serviceable twenty-five, twenty-eight pages. And then I felt totally spent, and I found myself revisiting one of my old loves, which is Donald Barthelme. I started writing these weird things that looked nothing like the other stories and nothing like the book. So I’ve got five stories: two that are somewhat traditional and three that are somewhat…off. And hopefully someone likes them, somewhere in the universe.

Do you find that they were attempts to do things that you hadn’t done in the novel, either thematically or stylistically? It sound like it, with the Barthelme thing.

What I find myself doing, and I don’t think this is particularly unique, is finding an image. I see something, and then I try to imagine how to get there. I remember, when I was a kid, we left when I was about sixteen; we moved down south to Atlanta. I lived there for quite a while. We did a lot of things called quick-builds, which is a church raising. Which I had not, before that, given much thought to how American it is; it’s like a barn raising or a house raising. I did a lot of those when I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. It was a communal moment where a neighborhood comes together. People who are not part of the church come and help: donate their time, lay a foundation. I remembered that, and I wanted to write about that. So I ended up writing about one of those.

There’s a friend of mine, a super writer, who teaches at Virginia Tech; he’s named Matthew Vollmer. There’s an anthology that came out a year or two ago called Fakes. It was co-edited by him and David Shields. It’s all stories that were written using fraudulent texts. He grew up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, which is how we met each other. There’s some kind of inner magnet, where you’re like, “Hey! I came from that fucked-up place, too! Talk to me!” He had this idea, and I think it’s a beautiful idea: the Book of Common Prayer, which is not part of the Witness canon. The Witness canon is all Witness-made material. It’s very insular. He had this book, and he sent it out to all of his writer friends, and he said, “I want all of you to take a look at this as though it’s an inspiration for stories.” The book is full of these forms which have not been, to my knowledge, used. I can’t think of a story in prayer form, believe it or not. As much as Gilead approximates that, it’s not a prayer, you know?

That is fascinating. I mean, growing up Episcopalian, we had a stack of those in every pew in church. 

Absolutely. Prayers, exhortations, vows, lots of really wonderful forms. I picked an exhortation, and wrote a story based on that exhortation. That was really formally different than what I’d been doing for a long time. And it was exciting, too.

I grew up going to church regularly, and I feel like the language of the Episcopal liturgy has definitely made its way into the way that I write.

Isn’t that amazing? 

Do you find something similar in your own work? 

Absolutely. I love hearing that; it makes me feel less odd. Every community has some jargon. My brother, who left before I did–he left when he was sixteen–was my inspiration. The other say, he was telling me about a song he was writing–he’s a musician–and was showing me the lyrics. One of them was, “Faith without works is dead,” which is straight Biblical scripture, but it’s also about a woman cheating on him. I said, “Do you know what this is?” “Oh yeah!”

What’s fascinating, too, is how the words themselves change. A lot of the millennial Christian sects like the Adventists or the Mormons, they use the term “worldly” as a bad thing. Of course, when you leave, “worldly” is a good thing.

I feel like, during election years, I’ll see a host of pieces explaining various coded phrases in different politicians’ speeches.

It’s sort of a secret language that exists. Even Fox News using terms like “truth,” which for a writer or a reader is a really fantastic word, but has a completely different connotation.

When I’m around my family, they speak a certain way that I’m not used to any more. It’s jarring. It’s sort of like when you go somewhere and your accent comes back; I find myself talking a certain way. The first time I did a reading of a short story in front of my wife, years ago, was this older story called “Watchers.” It’s about people who go into the desert and–do you know what sailing stones are? They’re these big stones that move. So I wrote a story about people who go there, waiting for them to move. I was supposed to read it at some bar, and she said, “Whoa! Slow down. You sound like a preacher.” I had somehow fallen into some strange cadence.

We haven’t touched on this yet, but: a lot of the novel is also set in California, and the friendship that Josie has out there was something I found very affecting. And the small business he runs–was having that being focused on technology intended to be at odds with the faith-based upbringing he had?

I lived in California; I worked in computers when I was out there. That’s the easy answer. Which is a true answer, too. But at a certain point, I asked myself, “Why am I writing?” Why am I doing this? I’ve been doing it for over twenty years: getting up, writing every day. I’ve been published in magazines, and then I was in better magazines; when does that stop? Now I have a book; what next? Do I have to write a million-dollar movie? Why do I do any of it?

At a certain point, and maybe this is a religious impulse, I came to realize that it has to be about me reading my own life. Which is nothing new. It has to be that way. And I find that when you do that, when I do that, at least, I’m shocked at what I find, and the synchronicity that happens.

I’m writing about this particular setting, and I move it out to California because I know California. But also, there’s something about California that represents something very mythically American. Manifest Destiny; there’s the concept of a golden land. I was amazed to find that it fit within the very things I was writing about.

I’m not a computer person. I worked at a wholesale outlet. And I wondered why I was terrible at it, and I think it’s because, on some level, I resist demystification. It’s probably why, when I first read Pynchon, I was in love, because it’s all about mystification, even though it’s trying to tear it down at the same time.

Also, I think I started to get sad when I was writing the book. Josie’s a sad dude; he’s depressed. He’s got some problems. But I was letting him, hopefully, be funny, and find himself in these situations. I was enjoying him have Amad’s friendship, and the way he challenges all of these assumptions that a white Protestant has. I was enjoying that, but at some point, I was writing the father, who was making me so sad. Everything about the man was breaking my heart. I had to get Josie away from him to let him breathe. I was afraid that the father would become cartoonish and exaggerated; I think that’s another reason why I moved him away.

Do you have plans for your next novel? Were there things that came up when you were writing this that you want to address, or are there other things that you didn’t get to address in this at all? 

Yeah, there are. In my case, I didn’t know how to write a novel. Who does, until you finish it? What would it be like if I was thrown onto the court at an NBA game? I’d die. I’d get trampled. The idea of having to learn something in the midst of doing it is crazy, but that’s what a novel is, in a lot of ways. So you end up learning lots of things that you’ll end up employing next time around.

I think what I got most excited about was the idea, from William James, in the Varieties of Religious Experience. It was a book that helped me come to better respect other people. I could get rid of my anger and realized that we’re all fighting the same fight here, all from different angles. In that book, two or three times, he says that to truly understand something, you should consider its perversions, its distortions, and its exaggerations, and then you can see what it’s capable of. You can see the nature of the thing. That was very important to me, with regard to making the book happen, especially with regard to the father. I took a lot of his core beliefs and exaggerated them. Learning that was probably the most exciting thing that I learned for later.

With new projects now, I find myself thinking of a thing, and then exaggerating it to some distorted place, and often being surprised at what I find. There’s something there that’s rich and strange and surprising. For instance, I’m writing something about the idea that the devil was alive and well in America only about twenty years ago. If you were in New Jersey, you have to remember; it was on the news all the time! KISS, Ozzy Osbourne, the Judas Priest trial. The idea that the devil was alive and well. There were Satan experts brought into court, which is amazing. Now, it’s only twenty years later; the idea of that would be laughed at. And there’s something really fascinating and frightening about that.

A couple of months ago, I was taking the 2 or 3 train to Park Slope, and this guy got up and started delivering this sermon. He was telling people to search things out on YouTube, and was talking about footage of, say, Beyoncé possessed by a demon and speaking in tongues. I didn’t believe any of that, but at the same time, there was a morbidly curious part of me that wanted to see what he was talking about.

I want to look for that right now.

There was also a part of me that was curious, though I couldn’t follow him: at what point on the ride does that guy stop? Does he get to his station and just, you know, wave goodbye to everyone?

Does he go home and watch Seinfeld?

That’s the very notion that moves me, so much. When you try to imagine somebody that believes something, and on that level, I’m not sure that belief is even involved. It seems more like a mania. When you have really strident blood deep in you, it doesn’t stop. Which is neither good nor bad; it just is. And I don’t really have that, with the exception of my love of books. I’m constantly reading.

My day is often informed by what I’ve just read, or what I’m going to read. You can imagine this guy on the train, that level of investment–there’s something almost admirable, in a frightening way, about that. What I really love is that it’s a totally human urge. I would bet that the reason that you read as much as you do is not the same as someone who reads their Beyoncé YouTube video, or the Bible, for that matter. But there’s a kinship there, in that the urge towards making meaning. That, I think, is missing from the conversation in our country, the condescension that we, especially New York liberals, have towards the religious. We’re kind of, in some weird way, fighting the same fight, but our tools are completely different, and our enemies are very different.

I grew up in a very liberal church; there are times when I wish that I identified more as an Episcopalian, so I could say, “I totally identify with going to church and being super-liberal.”

I find myself jealous sometimes of people’s capacity for faith. It’s a very different thing to develop faith, to enrich faith. There’s something about the thing that was given to me, and none of it stuck. There’s something very strange about that.

How can I put it? The urge to believe is beautiful, I think, and fleeting. And yet, I have this reflex, almost. If I walk into a room where there’s someone at a podium and there’s fifty people, and it’s a reading, I get a chill. Just the settings of church make me uneasy. And yet, if I’m going to call anything holy, the two holiest things I can think of, aside from love and my wife, are Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Those two books, to me, just vibrate with something sacred. And yet, I don’t even know what that correlates to, with divinity. If there’s something sacred, it’s those books, to me.


Part one of this interview appeared yesterday. This interview has been condensed and edited.

Photo: Scott Cheshire reads at BookCourt at Lit Crawl Brooklyn

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