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Horse latitudes

Jaimy Gordon interviewed by Thomas Bunstead.


3:AM: Could you talk about your experience of racing tracks like Indian Mound Downs in Lord of Misrule? What do you think it is about this milieu that prompted you to write about it? Are there really men like Medicine Ed who cook up mad alchemies to dope the horses?

JAIMY GORDON: I worked on the racetrack from 1967 to 1970, mainly on two rundown half-mile tracks – Shenandoah Downs and Charles Town Races – in Charles Town, West Virginia. Most of the grooms in my day were African American, many from the deep South, especially South Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi, where the practice of folk magic or ‘root-work’ was widespread. Medicine Ed mixes up his own special horse goofer, but he also references the name of a company whose root-working products he favoured in the past – Lucky Heart Curios, Memphis, Tennessee – and that company was still in business when I began work on Lord of Misrule some years ago. One of their popular items was Jockey Club Fast Luck Oil, whose name suggests that it was not unknown on the racetrack, to gamblers and grooms alike.

3:AM: ‘It was no need for studying and dreaming’ (Medicine Ed says); ‘You looked around for your twin’ (Tommy Hansel says, addressing himself when he has gone mad). The ventriloquism in Lord of Misrule is magnificent and, in my eyes, must have done much to recommend the novel to the National Book Award panel. Do you find writing in this way comes naturally?

JG: Voice is my first interest, in other people’s writing and my own. I don’t keep a diary but I do write down peculiarities of diction, idiom and sentence structure when I hear them. I hoard curious slang, proverbs, and proverbial tropes like ‘Some of them fellers wouldn’t work in a pie factory’ (which I overheard from a farmer in West Virginia who didn’t like unions). And by the way, I’m a sucker for voice as well in music, theatre, politics, history, law and religion. Some things I like: opera; Leadbelly; Abraham Lincoln; Jussi Björling; Bach cantatas; Shakespeare; Mary Wollstonecraft; Emma Goldman; Numbers, 22-24 (the story of Balaam and Balak); and virtually everything Captain Sir Richard F. Burton ever did, wrote, or translated.

3:AM: I read on a blog an interesting thread about the racetrack characters. Someone said they seemed caricatured, someone else was saying ‘but if you know the people in this world, they are so mad and damaged and have lived so fast, they are often caricatures of themselves’. Where do you stand on this – are they realistic representations of people or exaggerated to carry other aspects of the story?

JG: A few critics have complained that they hear echoes of Damon Runyon in Lord of Misrule, especially when the novel is in the loan shark, Two-Tie’s point of view. For Two-Tie’s Yiddish‑inflected wheeling and dealing, I borrowed the idiom of my mother’s shady uncles, especially my great uncle Willie, a loan shark who operated on the periphery of the racetrack and was murdered in Baltimore in 1980.

I do admit to having read Damon Runyon carefully. He was one of the most stylised American writers where voice is concerned and a great purveyor of vintage slang from the sporting life. When I landed on the racetrack in 1967, my first thought was: Wow, these people really do talk like Damon Runyon characters. For one, they favour perpetual present tense, especially when using the verb to win, which on the racetrack has only one form: ‘My horse Pelter win last week. Two dollars say he win today and I think he win next week too.’

3:AM: Some of the main characters in Lord of Misrule appear in a short story of yours that was included in the Best American Short Stories 1995 anthology. What is the link between the two? Why did Lord of Misrule take another 15 years to appear, and what passed in-between?

JG: Your readers need to understand that I am the slowest writer in America, not only absurdly meticulous but also shamelessly distractible, likely, for example, to start taking Italian lessons three months before my deadline for Lord of Misrule (I did that, but luckily came to my senses).

As the slowest writer in all the Americas, I had vague plans to write the racetrack novel for 25 years before I even got around to writing that short story, ‘A Night’s Work’,  in 1995. Favouring novels both to read and to write, I write few stories. This one, which introduces the loan shark, Two‑Tie, and the handsome drunken blacksmith, Kidstuff, was a conscious sketch for the novel, an experiment above all to see whether I could call up the voices of that raffish and woebegone world at such a distance of time.

I had good luck with ‘A Night’s Work’, and when I began to write Lord of Misrule, I aimed towards it and had every intention of wrapping the novel around it – that would have been 30 pages I wouldn’t have to write, after all – but I missed. There’s even a logical inconsistency between the two plots unless you consider the alcoholic blacksmith such a fixture of racetrack life as to be immortal, or anyway capable of coming back from the dead.

3:AM: A review in The Scotsman said that ‘because of the way in which [main characters] Tommy and Maggie are mutually enslaved by their passions, the bizarre list of writers to whom Gordon has been none too precisely compared – Laurence Sterne, Kathy Acker, John Barth, TC Boyle, Cynthia Ozick – should include Leonard Cohen too.’  Do you feel close to any of these writers?

JG: I certainly drank deep of Laurence Sterne for my more digressive and antic books (like She Drove Without Stopping, which was also modelled in some respects on Samuel Butler‘s The Way of All Flesh), but not for Lord of Misrule. Kathy Acker, whom I knew, cultivated a crudity in her prose that made her beloved of her English audience (since English writers, unlike most Americans, usually have some polish to lose), but that aspect of her work didn’t draw me closer to her. What I do have in common with Acker is a willingness to look unblinkingly at bodily affinities, functions and secretions, including but not limited to sex.

I consider John Barth a genuine influence, along with the other brilliant American postmodernists John Hawkes and Robert Coover – I read them all and they’re all old enough, or would be if they’d lived – but Updike, Bellow and Robert Stone were also influences. As for women, it was mostly the English novelists, Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, and even Margaret Drabble, who’s only a little older than I but showed me plenty. Cynthia Ozick I was delighted to discover at an age when my sense of style in prose was already fully formed. I think both of us were probably influenced by Isaac Bashevis Singer, vintage Gimpel the Fool. Leonard Cohen? I was more susceptible to Ray Charles, Leadbelly, Ma Rainey, Schumann‘s settings of Heine and Eichendorff, Janáček‘s  From the House of the Dead – and I used to weep to the old East Berliner Communist cabaret singer Ernst Busch.


3:AM: As well as the shuffling narrative – some scenes are completed and then begun again half way through from another character’s perspective – I was particularly interested in Lord of Misrule’s slipping between first and third person – like the un-signposted shifts between past and present in She Drove Without Stopping – which I understand from certain blogs some readers have found challenging, but I think others will enjoy for exactly that reason. I wanted to ask why you think you went for these techniques, why they were appropriate for this story, but also how you feel your concern for voice and technical ‘innovation’ fits into a tradition – if there are other writers you are speaking to?

JG: In a way, my earliest intention with Lord of Misrule was more retro than innovative: I wanted to write a social novel in which, Middlemarch-like, all the human types within that society would be represented – only, the society would be the cheapest, crookedest racetrack in West Virginia. I was going to use free indirect discourse, also known as third person effaced or limited narration, also known as third person interior point of view – the commonest choice in presenting point of view in fiction since Flaubert – and I was going to work from the discrete points of view of four different human characters.

For once I wasn’t going to include a character anything like me – there I fell down on the job, as you know – and although I always meant to follow the advice of my old teacher John Hawkes and make the horses into full characters, I didn’t know I would occasionally dip into a horse’s point of view; it just happened. I found myself departing from third person with the horse trainer, Tommy Hansel, who, as you noticed, is half mad from the start, and whose grandiloquent thoughts about himself and others always hover above his head in second person, looking eerily down.

What makes the book most unusual for readers, I think, is how heavily the exposition of view is inflected by the way those four characters would actually speak, including the Jewish loan shark and the old timey black groom. That the four points of view are somewhat incongruent, even when they observe the same scene – that I offer no ‘master narrative’, as one critic noted with some dismay. Well, haven’t we learned anything about the nature of truth in the last 150 years? And especially on a racetrack?

3:AM: Would you talk about the relationship between Jane in She Drove Without Stopping and Maggie in Lord of Misrule? Both are runaways, and both have their relatively violent relationships with men humorously depicted. What interests you about them? Why do you find yourself driven to explore their experiences?

JG: As I said, I didn’t want to let that reckless young woman into Lord of Misrule, and when she wormed her way in anyway. I was so disgusted that I couldn’t bring myself to finish the novel for the next five years, until my old friend Bruce McPherson, the editor of McPherson & Company, trapped me into going back to work on it by sending me an old corrupt file in galley proofs. Not that I had disliked her all along. After all, Maggie or her near relations show up in She Drove Without Stopping, Bogeywoman, and also a book-length narrative poem I wrote about convicts and ex-convicts of my acquaintance, ‘The Bend, The Lip, The Kid’.

There was a time, when I was about thirty-five and began to feel more or less safe from her, that I thought that wild young woman I had been in my twenties could be my literary stock in trade. But she hadn’t panned out – others, it seemed, didn’t find her as fascinating a character type as I did – and so I blamed her for my deepening obscurity. Once Lord of Misrule did so well, I was glad to acknowledge my maternity, so to speak. What interests me about her? She’s an American romantic, a drifter, a seeker of adventure, but adventure looks different on women than it looks on men, likewise drifting from lover to lover, place to place.

I think that, like Robert Stone, I like to put my protagonists into peril of their lives because only then will they begin to fight for them, and to wake to the fact that maybe this was their purpose all along. But this trait too looks different in women than it looks in men.

3:AM: An enigmatic line from She Drove Without Stopping that I’d like you to comment on, if you would: ‘Books Jane liked, though in her care they were tinged, even brand new, with the melancholy of their early deaths.’

JG: I only meant that Jane isn’t any more careful of her books than she is of her own body. The better she likes them, the longer she hauls them around with her, exposes them to weather, drops them in bathtubs, shoves them into rucksacks, eats next to them, sleeps on top of them, floats them in the bilge of rowboats, etc. I wish I didn’t have this trait, and I’m better now than I was at Jane’s age, but compared to those of most writers, my books are a mess.

3:AM: What are you working on now?

JG: I’m working on a novel about a Jewish woman who is married to a German and living uneasily in his small town of Muckelried, where she finds six Jews who have been hiding in a cave since the war. Meanwhile she badgers her husband into inquiring into the wartime history of Muckelried, which he reluctantly does. In time their researches converge.

3:AM: What are you reading now and have you enjoyed reading recently?

JG: In connection with this project, I’m reading Victor Klemperer‘s wartime diaries, Gregor von Rezzori‘s Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, the correspondence of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal – as you can see, I’m taking the long way around.

What else have I read lately? My favourite novel of the last few years was Orhan Pamuk‘s Snow, so now I’m reading his Istanbul. I admire the Australian novelist Gail Jones; I have three books of hers on my table, including her latest, Five Bells. I get sent every new horse book in the world these days. The best of them, also from Australia, is Foal’s Bread, by Gillian Mears. I loved Karen Russell‘s Swamplandia, Karen tei Yamashita‘s I Hotel. I’m reading Anne Carson‘s The Beauty of the Husbandstunningly good, as absorbing as any novel. John Donatich’s new novel The Variations, about an inner city priest who’s losing his faith – extraordinary.


Thomas Bunstead writes regularly for the TLS and the Independent on Sunday. He has had fiction and essays published at >kill author, Days of Rosesreadysteadybook.com and the Paris Review Blog and has recently completed his first novel. As a Spanish translator, he has worked with Aixa de la Cruz,  Eduardo Halfon, Yuri Herrera and Enrique Vila-Matas, and was recently chosen by the British Centre for Literary Translation to take part in its inaugural mentorship programme, working with Margaret Jull Costa.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 29th, 2012.