“I can’t begin to know who someone is until I know where they are”: Interview with Molly Gloss
Portland-based novelist Molly Gloss has forged her career from the crossroads of character and landscape, culminating in a number of novels about tough, resourceful Westerners. These characters tend to think big: even as they labor hard for subsistence, they also seem to be reaching out for more. They seek new vistas, new knowledge, and new fulfillment.
Her most recent novel, Falling From Horses, follows Bud Frazer—a young ranch hand and rodeo rider from Oregon. When Bud sets out for pre-WWII Hollywood, he’s eager to become a stunt rider for the ubiquitous cowboy pictures of the era. Right away, Bud begins to note a vast chasm between the Hollywood cowboy and the real thing:
You never saw a movie cowboy hauling salt up to the high pastures or building fence around a haystack or helping a heifer figure out what to do with her first calf. Those movies were full of bank robberies and stage holdups, feuds, galloping posses, murderous Indians, and claim jumpers—nothing I ever saw growing up. But in the movies it all made sense. A bad guy was to blame for whatever had gone wrong, and at the end everything turned out right. If death came for anybody in the picture, it was always clean, unlingering, unsuffering. If somebody you cared about was dying, they had the strength and breath for last words, and that seemed to make it okay.
–Excerpt from Falling From Horses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
EMILY CHOATE: Falling From Horses contains so much great detail about the cowboy picture business in pre-WWII Hollywood. How did you come to write about stunt riders like the book’s narrator, Bud Frazer?
MOLLY GLOSS: For years now, in almost all of my fiction, I’ve been drilling down into the western mythology that shapes American culture. This is a mythology that ultimately owes its shape—its tropes and icons and heroes—to the cowboy movies that flourished in the 1930s and 1940s, so it was probably inevitable that my work would eventually take me to Hollywood in the heyday of western films. I wouldn’t say I’ve been trying to demythologize the West in my novels—I believe we need a heroic mythology to help us understand who we are as a nation, what our values and beliefs are—but I’ve been trying, in all my work, to nudge the myth away from the outright lies and toward truth-telling. Toward the heroism of ordinary lives. So Bud Frazer, in Falling From Horses, goes to Hollywood looking for adventure, more or less as the heroes of cowboy films and novels have always done, but what he finds there is not what he expects. And what I found there, in the lives of all those anonymous riders like Bud, riders who made up the posses and outlaw gangs in the oaters of the 1930s, was the ordinary heroism that I’m always looking for in my fiction.
EC: You’re known for doing thorough research for your historical novels. Were there any major surprises in your research about this cowboy picture era?
I had read the famous stunt rider Yakima Canutt’s autobiography years ago, so I knew quite a bit about the abuse of horses in the cowboy movies before I undertook the novel. What came out in my research was a great callousness toward the stunt riders themselves, which I probably should have expected, but which nevertheless came as a surprise. And not a surprise, exactly, but news to me, was the history of women working behind the cameras—writers and readers and those who aspired to be directors and producers. The movie business, it turns out, had been a wide open field for women in the early silent days, with dozens of women writers and directors and producers; but by the 1930s the studios had begun to exclude them. I was struck by the way this parallels the history of women writing western fiction. There, too, the field had seemed wide open in the first decades of the twentieth century, but by the 1930s men had taken over the field, and the traditional western formula of cowboy heroes and two-gun lawmen had shut out the women, both on the page and in publishing.
EC: Speaking of those women behind the camera, Bud’s friend Lily Shaw faces particular resistance as she tries to become a screenwriter. How did her character take shape?
MOLLY GLOSS: I made Lily an aspiring writer because screenwriting was one of the few niches in Hollywood where women could find employment even after they began to be shut off from directing and producing. There is a wonderful history of those women called Script Girls by Lizzie Francke, published by the British Film Institute. Some of the details of Lily’s life and aspects of her character were pulled from four particular women I had read about in Francke’s book. When I mashed them together, Lily stood up out of the mash, her own person.
EC: I’m so intrigued by your belief in our need for a heroic mythology. Given the moment we’re in now—such a rapidly changing picture of what kind of nation we are and where we may be headed—might there be new possibilities for storytellers to uncover that mythology?
MG: Myths aren’t lies, of course, they’re the heroic stories we tell about our past so we can try to understand who we are as a country, what shaped us, what we care about, how to conduct ourselves. But we’re very young, as nations go, we don’t have ancient roots to look back to—no Beowulf, no Icelandic Sagas, no Galahad. The only period of our short history that might pass for an heroic age is the roughly twenty-five years of our westering experience. And the central figure in that mythology—a mythology shaped by the movies and the pulp novels—is the solitary, wandering gunslinger, a man with no childhood history, no wife, children, siblings, parents, a man who solves every problem with violence. It seems to me that the deadbeat dad owes something to that western hero; that the street gangs are acting out a scenario of vigilante justice and posse law and the draw-down in the dusty street; that the stand-your-ground laws and open-carry laws are an inheritance of western film. I don’t know if storytellers can really shift the myth but I think we have to try. We have to expose the dark side of the myth of course, but also tell the missing stories, the untold stories of women, of nonwhite peoples, natives and immigrants, people finding ways to live together respectfully, generation after generation, on this land. Truer stories than the ones we’ve been telling for a hundred and fifty years—stories that keep the values of the old myth, the courage, the self-reliance, the toughness, but stories in which those values are informed and mindful.
EC: You’ve said in previous interviews that depicting landscape’s relationship to characters’ lives has been an important unfolding project of your writing life. How has Falling From Horses contributed to that part of your evolution?
MG: A good chunk of the novel is set in Oregon—Bud Frazer’s childhood on a ranch in Harney County. But if landscape and character are tightly bound together, as I believe they are, then who is Bud when he lands in Hollywood? This was a question I frankly worried about—I wondered if I would be able to find my way into a story that takes place mostly in unfamiliar territory, unfamiliar to me as to Bud. But the long bus ride south gave both of us time to explore that question. I had made that drive myself, following old Highway 99 on a long research trip to southern California, and some of my own amazement and enchantment with that unfamiliar landscape made it into Bud’s mind and onto the page. And later, when the fake West of the movies—the cityscape of Los Angeles, with its back lots and studio sets, phony plaster rocks and so forth—was set alongside the real West where Bud grew up, that intersection became one of the hinge points of the novel.
EC: Did these concerns factor into your choice to have Bud eventually become a painter of Western subjects?
MG: For a while I toyed with other possibilities, including the possibility that he might become a serious western writer along the lines of A.B. Guthrie, Jr. But one day, looking at images of western book covers on Pinterest (!!), I happened to see a painting by Thomas Hart Benton titled “Hollywood” that seemed to be saying something about the seamy underbelly of the movie machine…and after that I always knew that Bud’s fame would come as a painter, an acolyte of Benton’s, and that his work would look at the intersection of the real and the cinematic West.
EC: You’ve alluded to being frustrated by fiction that lacks action and relies too heavily on angst and afflicted childhoods. Certainly a strength of your own work is the bold dramatization of the stories’ conflicts. As you craft the action, how do you make sure not to shortchange the characters’ inner lives?
MG: It’s true, I’ve whined once or twice about the novels I think of as Urban Dysfunctional Fiction: It seems to me there is often more internal angst in them than actual storytelling, and as a reader I guess I’m always looking for story. But for me, story is not necessarily found in conflict or action. So I’m not sure I agree that my own work boldly dramatizes the stories’ conflicts. I would argue (or perhaps I’m just admitting) that the action and conflict in my novels is often slow to unfold. And as I’m almost always writing about the lives of people at work, living their lives, I find that their inner lives simply disclose themselves through the slow unfolding of events…the telling of their stories.
EC: As you first begin to develop your characters, is there a typical point of entry for you? How do your characters tend to emerge?
MG: Place and character are very much intertwined for me. I can’t begin to know who someone is until I know where they are; and since I often write about the past, where also means when. So I start with just a person and a situation: a single woman coming West to homestead; a young girl breaking horses for some farmers and ranchers; a writer of popular fiction who goes in search of a lost child; a young man heading to Hollywood to ride in the movies. And then I put them somewhere—a particular place and time—and the way they respond to that place helps me see who they are. In Falling From Horses, just to take a simple example, Bud peers out the window of the bus to stare at Mt. Shasta, a mountain he’s never seen up close before; he watches birds flying up from the sloughs and rice fields, and it makes him think of his mother; and these moments—the way he responds to the landscape—begin to define his character for me.
Find a copy of Falling From Horses on IndieBound.
Molly Gloss is the author of four novels, including the bestselling The Hearts of Horses, The Jump-Off Creek, a winner of both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Oregon Book Award, The Dazzle of Day, a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the PEN Center West Fiction Prize, and Wild Life, winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award. She is a fourth generation Oregonian and lives in Portland.
Emily Choate holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, Chapter 16, The Double Dealer, Yemassee, Nashville Scene, and elsewhere. Her short fiction is a runner-up in the 2014 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition, and she has held writer’s residencies at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and Vermont Studio Center. Emily lives in Nashville, where she’s working on a novel.