Luke Rolfes: We at Laurel Review have followed the career of St. Louis fiction writer Jess Bowers for a long time---ever since she won our fiction contest many years ago. We couldn’t be more thrilled to learn that her debut collection of stories, HORSE SHOW, is about to drop from Santa Fe Writers Project, and we are excited to talk to her about her work today. Congratulations, Jess, on publishing your first book!
HORSE SHOW is a collection of thirteen stories with an interesting slant. All these pieces are historical in nature, and they all revolve in some way around a horse (or sometimes a mule). Can you talk, Jess, a bit about the genesis of this project and how you went about selecting the thirteen pieces for this particular collection?
Jess Bowers: Funny you should mention mules. This project began when a friend forwarded me a blog about the United States military decapitating a mule for an instantaneous photography experiment. I’d been reluctant to write about horses my whole life, out of a stubborn and misguided fear of the “write what you know” cliché. Growing up with “big horse girl energy,” I was very aware that the coolest thing in my world was patently uncool to other people, and nothing could change their minds about that, even though I was befriending and controlling 1,200-pound animals who could kill me. For a long time, I didn’t even consider writing “horse stories,” letting all the Black Beauty, Saddle Club, and Marguerite Henry I’d grown up on convince me that the whole subgenre was stale, or “for kids.” Maybe the fact that it was a mule they’d decapitated, and not a horse, gave me the permission I needed to tell that story. I ended up drafting “Shooting a Mule” in a single sitting, which hasn’t happened to me before or since. It felt so good to write, that I investigated what other odd spectacles horses had been involved in throughout American history, hoping to maintain creative momentum. And then in that history, I found motifs—horses falling, death as spectacle, technological ambivalence, femininity and horses, masculinity and horses, capitalistic hubris, how the West was “won” and where it got us. These themes formed the core of HORSE SHOW, then I let myself get weird, pushing the boundaries of what a “horse story” could be.
LR: Another broad aspect of this book I am curious about is your use of artifacts like news clippings or old-time photographs---some of which appear in the pages of HORSE SHOW. Can you discuss your general process involving these pieces of memorabilia? What moves you to construct a narrative from these forgotten artifacts from years past, and how do you go about “filling in the blanks”?
JB: The stories with found text/image connections, like “Fred W. Loring and His Mule Evil Merodach, 24 Hours Before Death,” usually started with the artifact itself. With Loring, I found the titular stereogram in the Library of Congress’s online archives and saw that “Evil Merodach” had his long ears pinned back, suggesting he wasn’t loving the photo shoot. Also, who names an animal “Evil Merodach?” I had to know. From there, Fred W. Loring’s biography, including his queerness, was easy to discover thanks to digitized 19th-century periodicals, databases, and dirt-cheap facsimiles of public domain texts, like the Civil War novella he wrote, and all his poems—there’s so much out there to find if you know what you’re looking for and how to make Google work for you.
Most of the stories in HORSE SHOW have a similar rabbit hole of research under them, but they’re also full of details I invented whole cloth. I consider it historical fiction. When I do readings, people often say, “This sounds like nonfiction to me,” which I take as a compliment, because I make so much up when I write, I’m just tickled I tricked them into thinking it was all true.
LR: One more wide look before we dive in. After reading this book, (SPOILER ALERT) I was struck by how often these tales ended with the death of a horse. And that got me thinking about the title of the book itself---HORSE SHOW. Stereotypically, I often think of horse stories as stories revolving around companionship. These tales, however, often focus on the historical exploitation of horses. Is that something you want to highlight in your work?
JB: I probably have former workshop mates who think of me as “dead horse girl,” which is totally fair.
What happened was, while I was doing my Ph.D. in English at the University of Missouri, I worked part-time as a barn manager at Cedar Creek Therapeutic Riding Center, where people living with disabilities learn how to ride. Most horses donated for hippotherapy are “been there, done that” seniors, in their mid-to-late twenties, on their third or fourth career, “bomb-proof.” At Cedar Creek, we gave them top-notch care and an endless parade of kids to love them until their time came. The barns I’d worked at throughout childhood and college took a very hush-hush approach to horse illness and death. Lots of unseen “retirements” to “farms upstate.” When I came to Cedar Creek, I’d never seen a horse die except on screen. Suddenly I was intimately involved in the final moments of animals I’d ridden and fed and worked with—my friends. We’d lose a couple each year since they were already old when they came to us. One horse, Mr. Kid Bars, lived to be 42, which is just unheard of.
Humans like to see horses as emblems of strength, speed, power, and dominance. But when a horse dies it’s almost never peaceful, like the deaths we want for ourselves. Horses fall, hard. And a falling horse is an awful, spectacular motif you can trace across the history of art, commerce, photography, film, and ultimately America. I’m reminded of Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1927), Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, or the horses who fall at racetracks across the country daily, put to sleep on the backstretch. The writer Elena Passarello put it so well: “An overturned horse is a sickly lurch in the human gut. Something about that body twisted—robbed of the grace we demand from it—nauseates.”
For me, there’s a grand betrayal at the heart of humanity’s “love” of horses. The postmodern world we know was literally built using equine power and loyalty, but most people today are completely alienated from that shared history. We call dogs, not horses, “man’s best friend.” As I immersed myself in horsey history, I was struck by how often the same individual horses who were presented as wondrous spectacles or valuable commodities succumbed to unthinkable violence. In HORSE SHOW, I wanted those deaths to accrete one atop the other, reinforcing the stubborn way we humans never learn.
LR: Let’s look at a couple of specific pieces. “Two on a Horse” discusses the long-gone Steeplechase ride from Coney Island---a roller-coaster-esque thrill ride that allowed patrons to race down several metal tracks on different colored steeds. What drew you to this ancient ride? Can you talk a little bit about the research you did to bring this attraction to life?
JB: I first read about the Coney Island Steeplechase in Amusing the Million by John F. Kasson. From there, I found Ric (not Ken!) Burns’ documentary on Coney Island, which included archival footage of the ride in motion, everyone having a giddy time as they ride this deadly thing that’s only deemed “safe” by the context it’s presented in. I’m fascinated by the way carnivalesque atmospheres can trick people into accepting genuine peril as “thrills.”
During my research for “Two on a Horse,” I learned a lot of the rides and attractions at late 19th-century amusement parks were co-ed and designed specifically to promote “accidental” body contact. So, I started to wonder what it might be like riding this Steeplechase thing as a woman, in a skirt, paired with some guy you barely know, no seatbelt, no brakes. Or how it felt to ride it as a young girl and find freedom through a mechanical horse, instead of the real ones I grew up galloping. Or what suffragists might say about the fact that women sat sidesaddle, which made the ride even more dangerous. Last time I checked, a modern version of the Steeplechase was still being manufactured by a German amusement company. I’d love to ride one someday, although I hate rollercoasters. Sometimes I force myself to do things because they feel momentous.
LR: Another one of my favorites---“One Trick Pony” ---dramatizes the filming of the climactic moment in the movie JESSE JAMES. After many failed takes, filmmakers decide to push/force a horse off a cliff when the stuntman cannot get it to jump. After taking a quick look online, I learned that this moment in the movie is quite infamous and triggered changes involving the treatment of animals in films. I’m curious: Is it easier or harder to dramatize an event that actually has video evidence and Reddit pages devoted to its lore?
JB: Oh, way easier. With the magic of YouTube, I can rewatch a clip thirty or forty times to figure out how to translate it into words. I think about the popularity of reaction videos on YouTube and TikTok, where visual pleasure comes as much from the content being viewed as it does from watching the person you’re watching watch it, in an infinite scopophilic regress. People love to watch other people watch things—it’s part of why movie theatres are still limping along.
If a story or historical figure is known in that vague Internet way most of us “know” history, I often get to correct the record, because I find and use primary sources, not just secondhand accounts. I want the reader to get an accurate version of events, and I want to be reasonably sure that anyone I present as a villain or hero really earned that reputation. But I also want to have fun at the sentence level, and tell jokes, and lift the curtain to show you the freaky stuff I keep backstage.
LR: The piece “Based on a True Story” is incredibly original. It is almost presented as a creative essay revolving around John Travolta’s made-for-tv movie THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE and the two immunodeficient children the movie was inspired by. Can you walk us through the creation of this one? What inspired you to use this film as a subject for a story?
JB: I first experienced THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE in undergrad, as a stoner comedy. Two decades later, once I was deep in the “horse story” weeds, I had a hazy memory of there being a horse in it, which was nuts, right? But when I dug out the old DVD my friend had burnt for me, it turned out to be true. There really is a random horse stunt shoehorned into this Very Special Movie about immunodeficiency and loneliness and confinement starring John Travolta. And the film's in the public domain…Once I knew that I was off to the races.
The more I researched the real children it was based on, Tod Lubitch and David Vetter, the fact that this movie ever aired, let alone during their lifetimes, became completely surreal. I wanted “Based on a True Story” to address how tragedy is commercialized even as it happens, victims be damned. I’ve probably watched THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE more than anyone else on Earth, which is a dubious distinction. “Based on a True Story” is essayistic in tone, but still fiction—of course, I don’t know what the director, stars, kids, or horses were really thinking! I wasn’t even born yet!
LR: As an organization tool, you’ve utilized a structured list several times in this book, such as in “Motion Studies,” and the aforementioned “Based on a True Story” and “One Trick Pony.” It seems to me that you like to attack these narratives methodically/analytically rather than linearly and that these structured lists allow you to leap in ways that a linear narrative would not. Would you go into more detail about this technique?
JB: I find it comforting how lists try to order chaos or force us to define it, and I can’t get a damned thing done in my day-to-day life without them, so writing stories as lists feels very natural to me. I also love how easily a modular story can leap through time and space or perspectives without disorienting the reader. Stories-as-lists can set up patterns early on, which is structurally useful for breaking them later. The fragmentation lists create, just by being lists, felt right for stories I constructed from individual film scenes or takes, like “One Trick Pony” or “Motion Studies.” Fiction where form follows function is my favorite.
LR: Was there a piece in this book that came quite easily? What about one that was difficult to write?
JB: Like I said, “Shooting a Mule” fell out in one enchanted afternoon, and I’ve been chasing that high ever since. I’m such a slowpoke at drafting, the most difficult story is the one that took the longest to write. I remember taking multiple stabs at “Granddad Swam,” trying to figure out what I wanted to say. I began with some random Redditor’s anecdote about a neighbor’s horse drowning in their homemade cement pond. Then I layered in other images from my own childhood, and my mother’s, and memories of my late Papaw and Paps, neither of whom was called “Granddad” and only one of whom loved to swim.
LR: History is such a broad field, even when limited to history somehow involving an equine. I’m curious: Do you go out intentionally looking for inspiration or does it come to you organically? When you see an old photograph or film, is there something that jumps out to you that makes you say, “This is one that I want to examine under my fiction microscope”?
JB: Sometimes I seek inspiration at museums or online, and other times ideas just happen to me. For HORSE SHOW, whether a picture, show, or film ended up inspiring a story had a lot to do with its subtext. What else could it evoke, beyond simply including a horse? What other themes, obsessions, or issues could I use to explore? If I couldn’t answer those questions, the idea just didn’t have legs.
LR: Following up on that: Are there stories out there you want to tell but haven’t gotten around to yet? Are there recent horses (real or fictional) you want to write a piece about?
JB: There are a few “also-rans” in my unfinished pile. Like a rambling draft about this 1920s tennis champion Eben Byers, whose jaw fell off from drinking radioactive “health tonic.” He even fed it to his prized Thoroughbred racehorses daily, which is just wild to me, considering how fragile Thoroughbred legs already are…but I don’t know what else to say about that! Maybe it’s more anecdote than story? I try to know the difference…it’s not always clear at first.
LR: What a wonderful debut, Jess! Incredibly original and beautifully written. What’s next for you and your writing?
JB: Thanks, Luke! Right now, I’m writing some new stories about historical animals. I have a whole folder of story ideas in a desktop file labeled “not horses” that’s been fun to dip into, now that HORSE SHOW is a reality. And I’m always hoping for an idea that’s big enough to become a novel. Whenever I’m not writing or teaching people about writing, I ride my horse, Teddy, who is as high-strung as he is talented, loves orange Gatorade, and spooks at mundane objects like buckets and mounting blocks. Honestly, we might as well be the same person.
Bio: Jess Bowers’s work has appeared in: The Indiana Review, Redivider, StoryQuarterly, The Portland Review, and other national journals. She writes, teaches, and rides horses in St. Louis, MO, where she works as an Associate Professor of English at Maryville University. Her debut story collection, Horse Show, will be released by Santa Fe Writers Project in April 2024. Find her at www.jessbowers.org.