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.

Scott: Yeah.

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