Interview with Scott Cheshire, free writing class instructor
Our next free writing class is on Saturday, December 2, 2017 at 2:30 p.m. at the Queens Library in Jackson Heights. Richmond Hill native and professor at Queens College, Scott Cheshire, is the instructor. Scott and Executive Director Tim Fredrick sat down for a chat about Scott's book, High as the Horses' Bridles, his writing process, and Saturday's class.
Tim: Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be a writer?
Scott: I didn't always want to be a writer, but I've always written. My earliest memory of writing is as young kid—maybe 7, 8, 9—and my mother had scolded me for not cleaning my room. I was a filthy kid. Stuff everywhere. I remember going into my closet and writing a long letter to her, denouncing her as a mother, and what a terrible job she had done, which was totally unfair and terrible. But, I remember really getting a kick out of doing it. The thing that is most memorable is that when I was done I folded it up and put it in my pocket, and I carried it with me. I never gave it to her.
Tim: She never found it?
Scott: No. I still don't think she knows. But, having this letter in my pocket for a day or so, it had some kind of power. That's my earliest writing memory.
But some point around 18 or 19, I started writing. I think it had a lot to do with trying to figure out how to get out of the religion I was in. I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness and I was not happy in that particular world. So, I started to write short stories. I didn't know they were short stories, I was just writing, trying to make sense of the people that were in my church, trying to make sense of myself. That practice eventually led me to The New Yorker, somehow. I thought, "Oh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. I'm supposed to be sending short stories to this magazine." Which is ridiculous, but I did it, a totally green 21-year-old writer, I started sending stories to them and never getting any response, of course.
But there was something about that procedure—writing, putting a story in the mail, getting a rejection back—that I was thrilled by. I got addicted to it, and I decided I was going to be a short story writer, not a novelist because I didn't know anything about novels.
I started writing a short story about a young boy who was a preacher, and this short story then got longer, and longer, and longer, until I took my first writing class in Queens College with John Weir. He told me, "I think you should go for an MFA." So I go to do my MFA and I turn in this short story that was 75 pages long or something and they said, "You can't do that. Twenty pages tops, and also, you're writing a novel." That was the first time I heard that I was doing that.
It's pretty typical, I think, what happened to me. The only difference is the experience I was trying to wrangle. I was trying to make sense of where I came from. I still to this day can say that's where I write from. It works for me. I'm not famous or rich, but it works for me as a practice. That's why I think it's good for others to engage with writing in the same way. To use your own experience, and try and get to know yourself.
Tim: As a method of self-exploration.
Tim: Do you find that you start to figure things out about yourself? Or does that just open up more questions?
Scott: Probably both. I've tried to explore certain factors about myself that have led to dead ends. Like bad stories that will never see the light of day, but maybe I understand something about myself.
Tim: So the novel you're talking about is High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Scott: Right. It came out in 2014. It started off as a short story about the young Jehovah’s Witness boy who was convinced that the world was gonna end soon. Because the Witnesses believe that, and they pray for it on a daily basis. A little disturbing, I think, now that I'm older. So he believed the world was gonna end. It happens in Queens and there's some kind of ground shaking going on. Because when I was a kid, there was an earthquake—a small one. But enough to shake us all, clearly. So it was this boy who experiences this earthquake, and then tries to make sense of it in the context of, "Oh, the world must be ending."
At some point I realized, "Oh, that boy is simply based on me." Because, before then, I'd always made stuff up. It was all very organic, you know? And then I tried to remember back to my youth, "Was there one particular time that was most dramatic, when giving sermons?" And there was. I'll never forget. It was in the Stanley Theater in New Jersey, and I was beneath this tremendously beautiful and vast ceiling. It was painted as if it looked like the night sky. And it was a real aha moment for me, where I realized, "Oh, what a beautiful image." It was like sitting under heaven, but it was man-made. And there’s something about that juxtaposition really moved me as a writer. And I wanted to follow that kid and see what happened to him. So I spent the next seven years trying to figure out what happened to the boy, Josiah.
Tim: So that’s the first part of the book, the second part of the book, where he's an adult, and he goes back to Richmond Hill. Does that also come from you?
Scott: Yeah. That was the hardest to write. I kept trying to figure out what happens next. Because in the first section, he’s at 12 years old, and it ends with him being 12. And I’m trying to figure out, for years, what happens at 13, at 14, at 15, and 17, and 18, and 21. None of them were particularly interesting to me. But then thought to myself, What if he’s 33? And divorced? And he's still working in the computer field? Not as a technician or anything, but as a salesman. And lost his faith. What if he moved to California? What if he has a troubling but slowly healing relationship with his parents? Which, of course, was all me. So I gave all of my burdens to Josie.
Of course, it changes once it hits the page. As my father is a totally sane and kind man, whereas in the book, the father had some mental health issues. My mother is alive and well, his is not.
Tim: And did you have to think about, or did you go through the process thinking about, "How do I make him different from me?" Or did that just come out organically as you were doing it?
Scott: There were times I had to figure out, "How can I make this a more effective story?" Especially in the case of the ex-wife. I'm divorced, and I took my knowledge of divorce, the pain of divorce, and applied it. But I also wanted him to be cripplingly still in love with her. And so I applied my current wife, who I'm mad about, to the ex-wife. And made her this commingled character that was an amalgam of both my experience in divorce, my experience a happy married man, an invention.
Tim: It sounds like it’s more about taking the emotional aspect of your life, rather than the details, per se.
Scott: Yes. There are details like, California, you know? But those are more like canvasses. California’s a big state. You can do whatever you want. I spent a lot of time at a place called Seagull Beach, which I just changed to Otter Beach [in the book]. It's amazing how much license that gives you. Or even the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses only get mentioned once in the book. Very briefly. That the family used to be Jehovah’s Witnesses, but now they're with the Brothers in the Lord.
Tim: Your class on December 2 is called “Never Have Writer’s Block Again,” and from the description of your class, it seems apropos of the process for how you to wrote the novel. What will students in the class experience?
Scott: I won’t lie, part of it was to get people’s attention."What? He's promising what?" But I’m a believer in the very process that you mentioned, which is if you’re mining your own experience and your own emotional life, there is no end to possibility. I’m a big believer in the Aristotelian sense of story. I’m in no way an Aristotelian scholar, not even on his book, Poetics. But I’ve read it probably ten times, and I’ve taken from that the bare essence of what prose is. It provides profound and sometimes disconcerting prompts, if you take him seriously. So if Aristotle talks about a character wanting something, and you apply that to yourself and ask, “What do I want?”. When was the last time we considered that question?
The prompts I pull from him all make the actual story appear to resemble life in many ways. Of course, in one way, it doesn’t, and that is it’s not random. But with prompts like, “What do I want, and what's in my way?”—those are almost therapeutic, self-digging questions, and if you apply those to story, there's no end to where that can take you. I'll give you an example—and also, to answer a question you asked before about if it ever answered any questions for me—I had a bag of serial killer trading cards.
Tim: Of what?
Scott: Serial killer trading cards.
Scott: I had this for, like, five years. Why would I keep that? Why did my wife keep that? And I asked myself that one day, and that falls under "What do you want?" Well, apparently, I want to keep a bag of serial killers in my living room. Why? I decided I was gonna write a short story about it. And I did. And it got published. Afterward, I got rid of the bag of serial killer cards. Perhaps I just kept them so I could write that story, I don’t know.
Tim: So what are you working on now?
Scott: I'm a writing a book now about memory, and teaching a class at Queens College on memory, and how it works. It's been an amazing experience, and it has turned what I was working on completely on its head, leading to a novel that's probably about memory. So as it is, it's about two sisters, and one sister is telling the story of what happened to her sister who has long passed away.
In fact, the opening line is, "This is the story of what happened to my sister," which my wife gave me because I couldn't think of the perfect line. She said, "So what about, 'This is the story of what happened to my sister.'" And I said, “I like that!"
Thanks, Scott! See everyone on Saturday!