I can’t tell you how excited I am to start this new venture called Hashtag CNF, a podcast about reading and writing with authors in the genre of creative nonfiction. Batting lead off is author Susan Kushner Resnick. We talked about her latest book, You Saved Me Too.
An iTunes subscription link will be available soon. In the meantime, you can subscribe to my blog here to get email updates of my latest entries and interviews. For now, enjoy the great insights Susan shared about her wonderful book.
I won’t have to tell you much about Natalie Keller Reinart because Alex, the protagonist of her “The Head and Not the Heart”, is a good chunk of who Natalie is: a writer, a horseman, a believer.
Her indie book swoops the reader into the thoroughbred world. Alex is in her twenties, a strange decade where you’re trying to grab a toe-hold in the world, when college spits you out, and when you’re now a pro against other pros. It’s competition time. Alex is in that world and she tries to find out where she belongs.
While not a traditional “road novel”, Alex leaves her place in Ocala, Fl for a weekend in NYC to look at a horse at Aqueduct. She runs into people her own age and questions her place in the world. Ultimately, she follows her heart.
Here’s my interview with NKR.
What made you go with “The Head and Not the Heart” as the title, because Alex is all heart before she thinks?
It’s really about the horse business, in general. That hard-to-find balance between loving horses, and making money from horses. Can you distance yourself emotionally from your horses? Should you? A successful business plan shows turn-over, it shows tax depreciation, it shows dispersals of unprofitable goods… on horses. You know just to where to rub each horse so that they buckle their knees with pleasure; you know which filly likes cookies and which one likes peppermints and which one will tear down the barn for a bag of Doritos. And you have to reduce them to dollar amounts on a balance sheet.
It doesn’t feel right, and it shouldn’t feel right, to think of horses in the same way that you would a warehouse full of merchandise, but that’s how business decisions are made.
Alex needed to leave Ocala in order for her to realize its importance, right?
The best way to appreciate anything is to spend time without it.
Why do you suppose Alex has a hard time fitting in?
Alex is isolated on the farm. That’s typical of horse farms, in my experience. When I was eventing, we met up with our friends at events and horse shows; otherwise we were alone on our farms, scattered across rural areas. When I was galloping, everyone was much older than me. There aren’t that many twenty-something girls galloping racehorses.
The people that Alex does meet are Alexander’s friends, and they, like him, are much older than him and not the sort of people she’d have much in common with. There are a lot of good ol’ boys in the north Florida countryside. It’s a world apart from the south Florida subdivisions and show barns where Alex grew up.
It’s not a “road book” in the strictest sense, but in this instance, how did the destinations help Alex define herself?
Ocala and New York are both sides of Alex’s coin. There was a very common sort of girl at the stables I rode at when I was a kid: gifted, creative, full of intellectual potential, and not interested in anything outside of horses. These girls could have taken two different paths in life. Alex took the path with the horses, but she believes she could have lived some other life, as Someone Creative, Doing Creative Things, and New York represents that to her. When she’s tired of falling off horses, she’s wistful for that archetypal writer/artist’s lifestyle she thinks she might have led. Ocala, on the other hand, is pretty much heavenly for someone that thinks of nothing but horses, and hell on earth for anyone that might have other interests. The minute Alex thought there might be something else out there, Ocala became a nightmare.
I’ve heard many arguments for and against horse slaughter, but I had never heard the argument you presented, which was, these animals are biohazards, it was a different tack altogether.
Horses put down with chemicals really are biohazards. The chemicals used in a euthanasia procedure can taint groundwater, and so some places have laws preventing the burial of euthanized animals. Water contamination in Florida is a major concern because the water table is so high. Consider also that if you have a farm, you are probably drinking well water from your own land. You don’t want the same chemicals that just killed a thousand-pound animal seeping into your water supply, and the government doesn’t, either.
The chemical argument against horse slaughter is a little different. Basically, drugs, both topical and internal, leave residue in the body. Some have a withdrawal period, after which the meat from the horse is considered safe for consumption. Some, like phenylbutazone, do not. I’ve yet to meet a horse that has either never had bute, or whose owner could prove to me that the horse never had bute. Horses rarely have one owner. Who can account for the chemicals that they’ve consumed over a lifetime?
This story is pretty close to the marrow, isn’t it? To what extent is this book autobiographical?
The struggles to find a balanced life, one that isn’t tipped too far in any one direction… that’s very real.
Horses can very easily take up every breathing minute. The outside world can just disappear. That works for some people… it didn’t work for me. I need a little bit of horse, a little bit of society. Not just one or the other.
You opted to self-publish? How did you come to that decision and what steps did you take from drafting to your pub date?
I wanted to write a book that would ring true to horse-people. I wanted to dig into the emotions of loving horses, and look at all the tragedies and triumphs of life with horses. That’s not a huge audience to write for. The book I wanted to write was not going to have a shot with a big publisher. And I wasn’t particularly interested in smaller presses that specialize in equestrian books, because their books are so expensive and their print runs are so small. A self-published book has a print run that lasts as long as people want to buy the book, and I could price it reasonably. No one wants a $35.00 hardcover of The Head and Not The Heart. They don’t have to. That doesn’t hurt my feelings at all.
I also think that self-publishing is an opportunity for a writer to produce a book as a work of art as they meant it to be read. There are many musicians and artists producing work that hasn’t been edited into a commercially palatable form, and quite a lot of it is very, very good. I don’t think a book necessarily has to appeal to the widest possible audience. I’m not sure a book has to appeal to anyone but the writer. If the writer loves it, and feels it says everything the writer wanted it to say, then if someone else loves it as well, that’s just the cherry on top.
As for the steps that I took before production, I did everything myself at first. My husband, who is a bookseller and who has the same taste in books that I do, was my editor. If he doesn’t like something, he’s right and it’s wrong. I copy-edited. Ten times. I memorized the book. There are a few typos, but fewer than your average Big Six book. I created the print edition. I created the Kindle edition. I created the Nook edition. I created a cover in Gimp, which is the freeware version of Photoshop. I produced the print and ebook editions of this book on less than a hundred dollars.
My publicity largely came from my blog following. I run Retired Racehorse Blog, and was blogging daily at the time. I had incredible page view numbers, which contributed some book readers. I was running a weekly book review of horse books, to draw attention to the genre. Some authors and bloggers ran reviews of the book. And this is where self-publishing’s value really shows itself: it took about nine months for the book to really take off, but since mid-summer it has been a consistent best-seller on Amazon’s Horse Racing and Equestrian lists, and has been reviewed in mainstream publications. A commercially published book that took nearly a year to “hit” would probably not be in print by that point.
I’m a believer.
Which is harder, being a writer, or being a horseman?
Being a writer is a struggle for me; I fall back on the horses over and over again. I always have. It’s hard to live your own life and live other people’s lives in your head as well. Not to mention, as a writer I was paying the bills by writing all sorts of articles I couldn’t work up the slightest interest in, which was just depressing.
Now I do both. I found a day job that lets me work with horses, and I write when I can fit it in. At first, it seemed like a kind of failure: I had wanted to write full-time, and here I was going to work with my lunch-bag every day again. I produce a lot less, which I find frustrating. But I can’t deny that I’m a horsewoman, and I have to fulfill that side of my personality as well. It would be easier to just be a horsewoman, and concentrate 100% on horses and then come home and watch TV and fall asleep and not feel guilty that I didn’t write, but that wouldn’t be fulfilling either. I need to be both.
Your write, “I was sick to death of horsemen who did things a certain way because that’s the way they’d always been done.” Can the deep-seated culture and Old Kentucky Boys be changed? Will they allow it?
Isn’t the definition of good ol’ boys kind of that they just won’t change from the good ol’ days? They do things the way their pappy taught ‘em? The people I admire in racing come from the sport horse world, like Michael Matz and Rodney Jenkins. They have a more well-rounded understanding of horses, in my opinion. They are riders with first-hand knowledge of the athletic abilities of horses far beyond how fast a horse can run.
Where does your optimism lie in horse racing?
I don’t know that I am optimistic about racing. I know that I love it, but I am rarely successful in convincing other people to love it. It feels like there are just enough rich people buying horses every year to keep the races running, but the average American remains unconvinced.
And there is great gulf between the sport/pleasure horse world and the racing world. On both sides, most participants are completely ignorant of how the other operates. There is no cooperation. There are no shared concerns for the future. There is such potential for collaboration, especially considering big legislative topics that affect everyone involved with horses: land use, the diversion of corn from feed into fuels, national regulation of animals. But racing continues to exist as something apart from the rest of the horse business, isolated.
America has this incredible population of horse-lovers who know nothing about racing and do not care to. Until this year, when the retired racehorse shows and programs started showing up at racetracks, the horse racing industry made it pretty clear they didn’t need the horse-lovers. Maybe that opinion is starting to change.
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I recently finished “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”, a novel by New York Times best-selling author Jonathan Evison. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. The book is wildly funny and punishingly sad.
It’s a first-person narrative told by Ben Benjamin, a former stay-at-home dad who takes a course in caregiving. The workforce has passed him by and this is his way of rebuilding himself. He works for the sexually frustrated and tyrannical 19-year-old Trev, who is disabled by MD. Trev’s world is small, limited by his physical body. Ben is disabled in another way. The two are an unlikely pair. They need each other and they hit the road in their van for adventure, for deliverance.
I reached out to Evison on Facebook, asking him if he’d answer some questions. He said he’s on the road a lot, but if I emailed him he’d answer them as timely as he could. I emailed him some questions. He answered them in about an hour. Yeah, he’s that kind of guy. Few authors would do that.
As fate should have it, I went to Maryland this past weekend and he was a featured author at the Baltimore Book Fest. He’s approachable and has earned his lot. He said at the festival, “I succeeded by failing.”
BO: You’re last novel “West of Here” is big in body and scope, “RFC” is tighter and narrower in its focus, what was the motivation for the change in tactical story telling? “RFC” is deeply personal for you.
JE: Every novel I try to challenge myself in some new way. With “West of Here”, those challenges were formal and structural. With The Revised Fundamentals, the challenges were emotional. I had to dig up a lot of old bones and strew them about, plum a lot of emotional depths, etc. In the end, it was nothing less than cathartic.
BO: Ben is broken. How did you come to nursing/caregiving for Ben to rebuild himself?
JE: My life was in the shit-can ten years ago. My first wife left me for a surfing Buddhist, I was working at an ice cream stand, and I was sitting on eight unpublished books. There were a couple of yeas that were just a blur. I took a night course in caregiving, which really helped turn my life around. Caring for others while I was barely able to care for myself, built me back up into something resembling a human being.
BO: Trev’s orbit is small, to expand it without risk, he watches the Weather Channel and puts pins on a map, how important was it for him to break free? Did you need a physically limited person for Ben to feel needed again?
JE: Man, I did everything within my power NOT to write a road novel—I was really resistant to the idea. You can feel me trying to subvert the road novel for the first hundred pages. Finally, I just had to give in. The characters made me. They needed the road to deliver them. I’d say Trev and Ben are equally limited. While Trev is physically disabled, Ben is emotionally and spiritually bereft. Also, I think they care for each other equally. Ben needs Trev every bit as Trev needs Ben. Wait, did I answer the question?
BO: How did you approach the writing? Ben has a crushingly sad history and that is carefully parsed out. How did you approach that strategy instead of just dumping it on the reader?
JE: I wanted Ben to earn the reader’s respect. I didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for any of my characters, not right from the get-go. I wanted to show them warts and all. Structurally, I always visualized this novel as an artichoke, where the reader peels back the layers of armor to get to the heart of the thing. Handling this just about any other way risked being mawkish, I think.
BO: How did you go about assembling this ensemble for the road trip?
JE: I think my unconscious mind did most of the heavy lifting. The cast just seemed to appear inevitably along the way. Each new character naturally addressed one of somebody else’s needs—usually Ben’s or Trev’s.
BO: Many—if not all—of the characters are in limbo, hinged to a heavy past, but trudging through the muck to move forward, talk about that commonality.
JE: Well, first, flawed as they are, they’re all doing the best they can to manage what they’ve got. Critics have called my characters losers, but they’re not. They’re not quitters. They’re not pessimists. They wanna believe things will get better, and so they grope their way through, often failing miserably along the way, but always meaning well. They want to re-invent themselves, they want to find hope, they want to be decent people.
BO: Now, either you had a blast on Urban Dictionary.com, or you’re incredibly depraved—or both—which is it? Ha!
JE: All of the above! I’m pretty sure I made up a few of those sex acts.
BO: How did you strike a tonal balance between humor and somber in the book?
JE: Necessity. I don’t think I could write about irredeemable loss without a lot of comic relief. Tragedy and comedy are all tangled up in my mind, always have been. So striking this tonal balance came very naturally to me. I grew up around gallows humor. Some of the most tragic events in my life have been tinged by humor. Like finding my grandmother dead, with Tums antacids bubbling out of her mouth, and discovering a TV dinner at her bedside, and seeing she only ate the cherry pie, and left the rest. Now, that’s not funny, but c’mon, it is, right?
BO: One of my favorite turns of phrase comes toward the end when talking about, of all things, Mr. Baxter the fish, “I’m guessing he’s bat-shit crazy from turning circles in that murky little bowl his whole life, and that he doesn’t care anymore whether he lives or dies. Then a few pages later when he’s expelled from his bowl, “Mr. Baxter, who I’ve sorely misjudged, is flopping furiously for life on the nearby throw rug …” How did you come to these hysterical places in the book?
JE: Again, my poor bumbling characters led me to them, more often than not. In the case of Mr. Baxter, his life is a perfect reflection of Ben’s own circumstances—stuck, dissolute, depressed. Ben empathizes with him.
BO: The men in your books—Ethan Thornburgh (West of Here), Ben, Bob, etc.—feel shrouded in inadequacy, have something to prove, where does that come from?
JE: I love the theme of masculinity in crisis. Hell, I was raised by bodybuilders, how could I not? As much as I imagine it sometimes sucks being a woman in a world that is all-too-often tailored to the masculine sensibility, it’s anything but easy being a dad in our culture, and living up to the various expectations foist upon us by ourselves, and by women, and by our children. I’m just fascinated by the nuances.
BO: On your epitaph you write, ‘… Mostly, he lasted.’ The same can be said for Ben, right?
JE: And the same can be said for your beloved Red Sox.
BO: Changing gears, give me as sense of the work you put in to illustrate the difference between BEING a writer and those who crave to occupy the writer’s space (Every book signing I’ve done, I get a couple of people ‘writing their books’ but they never do, partly because they don’t realize that it’s WORK)?
JE: Oh, I work my ass off. I get up at four in the morning to write. Do you think I wanna be up at that hour? Hell no. That said, it doesn’t feel like work to me, because rather than draining my stores of energy, it begets more energy. The work makes me a more expansive person—a better husband, a better dad, a better friend. It’s pretty sill to want to occupy the writer’s space, because by and large, it is an exercise in humiliation. The work is where it’s at.
BO: For writers, what has been you experience in promotion your work Is there anything that’s a waste of time and/or money? What should a writer do YESTERDAY that he or she isn’t doing today?
JE: Don’t think of it as promoting, for one. I think of it as an extension of the work. Me, the artist, reaching out, trying to connect with readers. It’s always better to start a dialogue, rather than just blow your own horn. Nobody will listen. You have to engage your readership, not recruit them.
BO: What types of rejection have you faced?
JE: Easily 400 form rejections. Not to mention all manner of other rejections in life. Failure makes me stronger.
BO: Can a great writer be made, or, like a gifted singer, is greatness handed out to the few, like Pavarotti? Can it be earned?
JE: Beats me. I guess I think, like Kierkegaard, that the artist herself should be the first work of art. If you can make yourself into a good, kind, empathetic, observant person who cares deeply about the human condition, and you entertain an endless curiosity, well, then you can probably learn to string some sentences together.
BO: How do you spend your non-writing time?
JE: Drinking and chasing my kid, in no particular order. I walk in the woods a lot, play scrabble with my wife, play a lot of ping pong with my nephew.
BO: How much do you THINK about the act of writing?
JE: Always. I AM the act of writing.
[Brendan’s back] And if that wasn’t entertaining enough, you should take a look at the book trailer for “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving.” I love it. I actually have some commercials in this vein in the hopper. It’s what Seth Godin would call a “purple cow.” Great to see someone of Evison’s profile adopting it. Take a look: