Anton DiSclafani's new novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (coming out on June 4 from Riverhead books), tells the Depression Era coming-of-age story of Thea Atwell, a complicated and willful 15-year old girl who is shipped off to an equestrienne boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina for her role in a mysterious family tragedy. Thea is a nuanced character whose relationship with horses and riding lends a sense of power and steadiness to life as she confronts what it means to be a young woman of her time.
Anton Disclafani herself is a horse-lover herself and was gracious enough to take time off from her writing, teaching, and caring for her horse, Val, to speak with me about her new book and what horses mean to young girls.
ASHLEY WELLS: The power, fear, and control Thea experiences in riding horses seems to translate to her life outside of the arena, particularly after being sent away. Could you speak to that a little bit?
ANTON DiSCLAFANI: Yes, I rode when I was young and it was something I loved doing. I lacked the introspection as to why I loved doing it and exactly what I was doing. It is unsurprising to me that so many girls love horses, a horse is over a 1000 pounds, there's no way you are going to dominate them. The movements of the horse—you can't make them do it. it's a partnership of really delicate nonverbal communication. There's something so instinctive about the bond between people and horses. They aren't like dogs in that they get really excited to see you, but you do have a connection. Just looking at them, they look like they are meant to ride.
Was it difficult writing about her fearlessness?
Thea is the opposite of me so it was like tapping into absences in me. Even the way she approaches life is the opposite of me. There is always risk involved in riding horses. You're on a big animal with no off button, to do it I have to make myself fearless. It's like a rite of passage. There's an unpredictability in it, you're not playing with an inanimate object. It seems so primal. Like when I started riding again as an adult and getting my sea legs. I was trying to measure my horse, Val's, girth with a tape measurer. He flipped out, he thought it was a snake. In those moments they are so delicate and so strong.
I don't think people realize how fragile they are sometimes, it's shocking.
Do you think the fact that horses are prey animals has anything to do with girls being attracted to them?
You have to be so careful with them, and we are taught to be so careful as girls—a benefit with horses. It's a thinking sport. It's the only part of my day where I am fully mentally and physically engaged. We look at computer screens all day, it's just so rare in modern life to find something so mentally and physically engaging, so soothing.
Did you find it challenging to write literary fiction that included a strong relationship between a girl and horses? Were you worried about it getting lumped in with the sort of fluffy girl and horse stories?
I was aware of that, but once you're around horses that over-feminized trope disappears. It wasn't as hard as I thought. The reality of the world is so different from that, and when a non-horse person is writing it is so apparent. They fall into the familiar ways.
So obligatory, girl and horse story question, what were your favorites growing up?
I loved Wild Hearts Can't be Broken, Saddle Club, Misty of Chincoteague—it's a different, fantastic setting, a different kind of horse. And I read all of the Black Stallion stories.