I devour memoirs and novels about horses—but I’m also a harsh critic when it comes to prose about our equine partners. That’s why I was so thrilled to read the stunning memoir, Still Life with Horses by Jean Harper, recently #9 on the Small Press Distributors’ bestseller list. Like a fangirl, as soon as I read the final sentence, I set out to connect with the author, who graciously agreed to answer my many nosy questions.
Jean teaches literature and writing at Indiana University East, is the author ofRose City: A Memoir of Workand wrote and directed the documentary film “essays have appeared in , andreceived fellowships from the , the Indiana Arts Commission, has been a Scholar in Residence at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and in residence at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Please welcome Jean Harper.
LR: So you were writing about your horse and how you came to riding as an adult, for a few years, but struggling with shaping those drafts into a coherent memoir—and then had a turning point. What changed?
JH: I was at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and my studio looked out over a field. The first day, I was standing at the window, staring into space, not writing or really thinking anything at all, and then I saw a horse. A large, black, gorgeous horse. I had an apple left over from lunch and went out to see this horse. He came trotting up and leaned his head over the fence; I took bites of the apple and gave him bites. We shared that apple and I felt as though – even though I’m not really a believer in these things – that this horse was some kind of sign. I remember holding my hand out, empty of apple now, and the horse breathing on my palm. I thought of the James Wright poem, “A Blessing,” the last lines, when the poem’s speaker has been nuzzled by a horse:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
And I knew that moment was how my book would end: with that black horse giving me a blessing, giving me permission to write. I went back into my studio, sat down, and wrote the chapter that would be the hardest to write. The rest unfolded from there.
LR: Your book was published as a result of winning the Howling Bird Press 2017 Nonfiction Prize at Augsburg College. I’d love to hear what that experience was like.
JH: Oh my, it was fantastic. I remember meeting the students at AWP in early 2017, and how interesting I found the idea of a publishing project working with MFA students. I liked the students, and liked the books they had on display, and so I decided I’d submit my manuscript. Their word limit was 40,000, which meant I needed to edit out about 15,000 words. Honestly, it was liberating. Whole chapters got the ax, plus anything that I had even slight doubts about. I was killing a lot of darlings. I highly recommend cutting a manuscript by 25 percent, even as an exercise! It will open up your work in ways you might not imagine.
Then, of course, you submit and you wait. Ironically, about a month before I got the call that told me I had won, I had a very disheartening meeting with a literary agent at a conference. The agent had read a portion of the memoir, and in our meeting, she pushed my pages across the table and said, “So, what’s the story?” I summarized it as best I could, and she shrugged and said, “Well, my horse died too. What’s the story?” The implication being, I suppose, that if I wasn’t famous, or my horse wasn’t famous, then the book was a waste of her time. I left that meeting about as discouraged as I had been in a long time.
Fortunately, the phone call telling me I’d won came soon enough. I’m a writer, but I am also a dedicated teacher, and the notion of working with students sounded just perfect. The editing process was the best I’ve ever been through. The publisher, and faculty mentor, Jim Cihlar, is a thorough, gentle, wise, and very particular editor, and the main student editor, Katherine Fagen, was exactly the same.
For me, as a writer, the process of being edited by them, and the rest of the student team, was truly enlightening. Through Jim and Kathy’s guidance, I was able to see where things needed to be tightened, expanded, tinkered with even slightly. And then there’s the experience of working with a small, independent press, where you and your book are given close, personal, scrupulous attention. It was kind of like an intense workshop with very skilled practitioners. I only wish I could publish my next book with Howling Bird Press.
LR: You employ a segmented form within each chapter, and – I loved this – in between chapters, short (flash?) pieces, no more than a paragraph or two. These are visually varied on the page and have a different feel/voice, more like prose poetry, rich in imagery. Some draw on the narrator’s girlhood memories, art and mythology, equine psychology or behavior. When and how did these bits come about, and what did they mean to you?
JH: I have always loved playing with form in nonfiction, in service of the story, not simply form for form’s sake. In part, these prose poem pieces came about as an experiment, inspired by the “Entre’acte” pieces Mark Doty used in Dog Years. I found those short pieces between chapters to be very effective and intriguing as counterpoints to his main narrative, and thought I would try something like that. I’d also been playing with poetry and wanted to have the feel of poetry in the book, how through poetry we can come at things in a less direct, perhaps more mysterious and visual, even visceral, way.
So I was thinking about all this, and then when I decided to submit to Howling Bird, and had to cut those 15,000 words, I saved a few slices, images, moments, and re-fashioned them into the prose pieces. It was so interesting how it just clicked into place, and I found myself again thinking that the constraints of form—only 40,000 words—helped put a kind of creative pressure on the manuscript that really worked.
LR: In the book, the narrator begins to take control of a disappointing personal life as she’s learning to become a confident, capable horsewoman. Was that connection evident as you were living it?
JH: Absolutely, yes. When I got interested in horses I was about 40, and a complete and utter novice. I was also, and I think the book alludes to this more than once, terrified of just about everything related to horses: riding, lunging, ground work. All this fear, at the same time that I felt drawn to horses in profound ways, you’d think I would have taken a lesson or two and stopped. But I was also mentoring Mia, the young girl in the book, and I wanted, I think, to be a role model for her,to be that strong, determined, committed woman she could emulate and look up to. So I kept taking lessons, and kept going with Mia to hers, kept playing the role of a confident woman.
Then I got Buddy, and suddenly I was responsible for this beautiful, huge, unpredictable, wise, intuitive horse. That was really the tipping point: once I had Buddy, there was no turning back. I had to not simply play the role, I had to embody confidence and capability because he was a funny horse: brave about so many things, but terrified of others. We could trail ride anywhere, and he never shied once, not even the day we turned a corner on a trail and there was a fully opened bright blue umbrella on the path. He just kind of looked at it, and we kept going. But, he was afraid of very specific things: streams and puddles, wash stalls, horse trailers. So I felt my job was to teach, protect, and be his leader.
And when you learn how to be the trusted leader of a thousand pound animal, whose first instinct at any danger is flight, you learn a deep-seated sense of confidence in yourself. It’s confidence at the body level, the cellular level. You learn how to be calm in the face of fear, how to be centered, grounded. All of that did change me as a person, and did give me a new sense of self, allowing me to imagine a different personal life, both with and beyond horses. It also allowed me to be calm in the face of a somewhat turbulent personal life, and see a way past it, and thus, out of it.
LR: You’re a full-time college writing professor, so presumably much of your personal creative writing is completed on breaks, weekends, and other found hours, like other writers with “day jobs.” With each book, does that balance become any easier? Any advice for writers struggling to produce long works in short bursts of time?
JH: During the school year I have a small mantra I repeat to myself: “Touch the work every day.” Even if I only have ten spare minutes, and I can probably find that in any given day, I make a point of looking at what I am writing. I think about what I’ve got, where I’m going. I write one sentence, a phrase, a word. That’s incremental progress, of course, but it’s still progress.
On breaks between semesters, and in the summer, I work to create a large chunk of writing I can edit during the school year. I was fortunate to have a yearlong sabbatical last academic year and so wrote the first draft of my next book. It’s a bit of a mess, but that’s okay. It’s a draft.
You have to allow yourself to write badly. That’s what revision is all about: turning the bad writing into good writing. Now, back in the trenches of teaching, and committee work, and all the rest, I’m touching that draft every day. I would say that this particular process – create a full rough draft, then edit it over time – is something I have learned to do more fluently now, working on what will become my third book.
My best advice for writers is written on two notecards over my desk.
The first: "All real writers go through this." The this being anything related to writing: getting stuck, searching for the right word, getting rejected, getting published, fiddling endlessly with a paragraph, getting it right on the first try. If you are writing and going through whatever you are going through, you have company. You are a real writer.
And, from Chuck Close: "A quilt may take a year, but if you just keep doing it, you get a quilt."
LR: It’s easy to get sentimental when writing about the profound relationships between a horse and human being, but sentimentality usually pulls down the prose. Your book is frequently loving, saturated with memory and meaning—but never sentimental or sappy. What was it like to write about an experience that clearly meant so much to you, without getting nostalgic?
JH: When I was first writing about Buddy, it was awful, to be honest. I adored that horse, and right after he died, I was completely wrecked. For months, I wrote in ragged fragments, just flashes of memory, words, images. And then I couldn’t write at all. It was just too difficult. When I finally went to the writing retreat for two weeks, I had the solitude and unbroken time to focus on the chapter about his death. I spent a lot of those two weeks just weeping. But I also was writing. I wanted to get his story right, to honor the life of that brilliant animal. When you love an animal, it's almost a primal thing. Especially with horses, you speak to each other in ways beyond language, through the body; so when I was writing about Buddy, it was as though my whole body was writing. It was exhausting; it was exhilarating.
I also had to give a reading at the end of the residency, and when I finally had a draft chapter, I practiced reading aloud what I had written about 25 times before I could read it without tears streaming down my face. And when I did read it for an audience of my new writer and artist friends, I was not the one weeping. They were. A painter came up to me afterwards and said something like, you know you’ve described the Pieta, don’t you? I hadn’t intended to do that, but I understood what he meant: the death scene I wrote was intimate, raw, a physical manifestation of grief. I think it’s that physicality, the details we can see and touch, that keep us from sentimentality. I know it keeps me from sentimentality.
LR: The artwork on the cover is gorgeous. The horse’s large brown eye, the way it’s mirrored in the sketchy lines, is so hauntingly, achingly lovely—to me it evokes the depth of love between horse and narrator. Is there a story behind how you came to find the artwork or what it means to you?
JH: I have a dear friend who works at an art museum; my friend is also a poet, and she and I were writing back and forth about what we thought the cover ought to look like. This was at the same time that design students working with Howling Bird Press were coming up with their cover ideas. My poet friend found the artist’s website and told me to go look. I don’t remember now if she found this particular painting, or if I did, but it was my poet friend who led me to it.
It took some back and forth between the press as we hashed out what the cover should look like, but I was certain this was the right image and so gently kept putting it before them. I think that’s the beauty of a small press too: they listen to the author, and care about the author’s vision for the cover art. I love this artwork too, and I’ve gotten to know the artist a bit, and she is just a delightful person, who really understands horses on a visceral level.
LR: You describe horse-related activities, behaviors, equipment, and medical issues so that those without horse experience can understand, but without talking down to knowledgeable horse-people. Was that was particularly challenging? Any advice for writers dealing with specialty topics?
JH: It was challenging, yes. I’ve read so many horse books that struggle to do this well, that it became a particular writing goal of mine to write good prose about horse “stuff.” Too often the prose is too technical and dreadfully dull, or overly explained and awkward, or convoluted descriptions of nuanced things that end up killing the nuance.
As a writer, I grew up learning to write by way of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and still keep copies of that thin brilliant book in my office, so I can give it away to students. Strunk (and White) stressed the beauty of plain prose, and that is what I have come to value most. The ability to write plain, luminous sentences comes with practice and patience and more practice. I appreciate well-crafted extravagant prose, but I much prefer plain prose, the kind of writing that becomes almost invisible, allowing meaning to rise from the page without calling attention to the way meaning is made.
I also read widely, looking for this kind of prose, writers like Michael Cunningham, JoAnn Beard, John McPhee, Joan Didion. That, and I read everything that I write aloud, listening for the music of the sentences. If it falls flat on my ear, back to the drawing board.
LR: You mentioned you have a current work-in-progress. Care to elaborate?
JH: I'm writing about five generations of women in my family, going back to a whaleship captain's wife in Nantucket. I am very interested in how women in this family, probably many families, tell stories about themselves and to themselves. I'm interested in how stories of the past shape our present, how stories get passed down, passed around, altered, the alterations becoming accepted as true, about the power stories have over us, how arguments are embedded in stories, yet in a way we almost don't see them, we just see the story.
Currently, I have a draft of this book done, and am slowly but surely working on revisions.