In "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls," the much-buzzed-about debut novel by Anton DiSclafani, a teenage girl named Thea Atwell is sent from her home on an orange plantation in central Florida in the Great Depression to the camp of the title (once an actual riding camp for wealthy young ladies near Blowing Rock, N.C.), where she must find her place in a surprisingly Darwinian pecking order based on class and beauty. The reasons for Thea's banishment to Yonahlossee reveal themselves only gradually, and are related to her sexual awakening — an awakening that, in the time-honored way of coming-of-age novels, advances even further at the camp.
Much of the novel revolves around dressage, an equestrian sport in which horses and their riders execute a series of precise movements in a ring. It's a subject that DiSclafani, 31 — whose first name is pronounced ANT-un, and who received a reported $1 million advance for her novel in one of the most competitive book auctions of recent years — knows very well from her own experience as a serious dressage rider. Printers Row Journal caught up with the author, who teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, by phone. Here's an edited transcript of our chat.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Q: The details in the book about horses and dressage come from personal experience, yes?
A: Yes. I started riding when I was in fifth grade, and I rode all throughout middle school and high school. It was my life, in the way you can make hobbies your life when you're in high school. Then I went to college, and it was either pursue riding really, really seriously, or not. I wasn't going to be a professional, although I did start with that idea. So I took a break. And I started riding again about a year and a half ago.
Q: What made you start again?
A: I flirted with the idea for a really long time, but I was hesitant because it's such a hard thing to do halfway. You're either really involved or it's just kind of unsatisfying, because the horse is such a big part of the equation. It's hard to find a nice horse, to find a good barn. It's not like, if you play tennis, you just need a court and a good racquet. But I finally decided to take the plunge and take lessons and see where it went. And it worked out really well. I lease a horse now whose owner is in college.
Q: You lease a horse? Like leasing a car?
A: Yes. (Laughs.) It's all the pleasures of owning a horse without any of the responsibility, so it works out well.
Q: Of course, people have certain associations with dressage —
A: Ann Romney.
Q: You beat me to it!
A: (Laughs.) Yes, people think "horseback riding" and then they think "enormous wealth," and how expensive it is. And certainly the way Ann Romney does it is quite expensive. But just like in any other sport, there's a huge spectrum of cost. It's expensive compared to joining a soccer league and playing soccer on the weekend, but it's not nearly (as) expensive as it is for the Ann Romneys of the world.
Q: Would it be fair, though, to say that dressage is a sport one tends to enter from a certain socioeconomic background, as it is in your book?
A: Well, I don't think dressage is any different from any other kind of horseback riding genre. There isn't any difference between people who do dressage and people who ride Western, say. But certainly dressage is viewed as a sort of fussy sport. It's kind of rarefied, and if you don't know what you're looking at, it can seem incredibly boring. But it's really not like that. The people who do it, we're all kind of obsessive.
Q: Are you obsessive?
A: Yes! (Laughs.) Yes, I am.
Q: How so?
A: Well, nothing is ever done in dressage. There are so many details, and it's just so hard. It's so hard to just get your horse to trot in a straight line. To get a horse to execute any sort of movement is difficult, and I think it lends itself to people who are a little obsessive. In writing, I can hammer away at something, kind of like a dog with a bone, forever.
Q: So writing and riding share certain characteristics for you.
A: Definitely. Neither one is ever perfect. There's always something you can change in your draft, and there's always something you can do better when you're on a horse. And the progress is very incremental, and takes a long time to be good at either one. If I had known how many drafts this novel would go through before it was finished, I would have thought twice about starting. (Laughs.)
Q: How many drafts did you do?
A: Many. I revised it pretty constantly for about three years.
Q: A lot of people have experience with summer camp, but nothing like the camp that Thea goes to. Is it based on a real place?
A: There was a real Camp Yonahlossee, but it closed in the 1980s. At the time, it was the oldest girls' camp in North Carolina. My family had a cabin near the camp, but it was closed by the time we started going to the area. But there's a Yonahlossee (Racquet) Club, and we eat in a restaurant called the Gamekeeper, which was the Yonahlossee headmaster's cabin. So there are all these remnants of Yonahlossee in the area. I purposely did no research into the real camp, because I wanted it to be a totally separate thing. I loved the name and I loved the setting; everything else I made up.
Q: So you don't know whether your portrait of the camp is true to life or not?
A: I'm pretty sure it's not. (Laughs.) First of all, Camp Yonahlossee was just a summer camp. It was never a year-round thing, as in the book. And since word about the book has gotten out, I've heard from some real campers at Yonahlossee, and the real thing was totally different.
Q: Like Thea, you're from central Florida.
A: Yes, I lived in Ocala, about an hour and a half north of Orlando.
Q: Also a horsey place.
A: Totally horse country, yes. Everything in the book kind of sprang from setting. I knew I wanted the Florida stuff to take place in the area that I grew up in. It's totally different now than it was in the '20s and '30s, obviously, but the physical atmosphere is the same: the heat, the seasons, the orange groves, the horses. When I was thinking of Thea's childhood, I was trying to think of what would make it the perfect, idyllic childhood, and to me it was having 24/7 access to a horse in your backyard.
Q: There's a literature of horses, of course, dating back to "Black Beauty" all the way up to "Seabiscuit" and other books. Did that tradition inform your book at all?
A: Well, I don't tend to love literature about horses, because it so often seems like it's written by somebody who doesn't know horses. The horse stuff in my book, I didn't have to research any of that, because it's all second nature to me.
Q: When she enters the camp, Thea is thrown into a whole new world that's very different from her previous life back in Florida. She has to find her place in this new pecking order that's somewhat based on class, but also there's also an interesting survival-of-the-fittest thing going on, based on beauty. It's not a subject I've read a lot about, girls comparing each other based on their looks.
A: I was interested in writing about how it would feel to come into a place like that as a complete outsider. And yes, it's something girls do. They compare how they look, and there's currency in being perceived as the most beautiful. But I was more interested in the variations of Southernness that gave you an edge at camp. The pecking order at Yonahlossee is very much associated with where people are from in the South.
Q: It's also related to the extent to which that's audible in their voices, their accents. It's an interesting subject, in part because there's a kind of affected Southern accent that's connected not so much to geography but to class.
A: Oh, totally. There's a hillbilly Southern accent, and there's a moneyed Southern accent, and there are all the variations in between. I was just in England, and an English accent is just an English accent to me. But I know from reading that somebody from England can hear an English accent and tell exactly where somebody's from, and what class they're from.
Q: The Henry Higgins phenomenon.
A: Yes, and in the South, it's absolutely like that. There's not just one Southern accent, there are lots of Southern accents, and you can tell so much by what kind it is.
Q: When you hear people speaking of "the Civil Woe-wah," you know they have money.
A: (Laughs.) Yes, yes, yes! The girls at the camp are so ensconced in being Southern, and so interested in being Southern, that it's really key to who they are.
Q: It's also a novel about romantic and sexual awakening.
A: When I set out to write the book, I knew the big things that happened, and that included Thea's sexual awakening, for lack of a better term. I wanted to write about a girl who does something bad and then does something bad again, and what that means to her and her family. It was important to the book that her transgression was repeated. That's the classic coming of age story, the story of someone becoming themselves by destroying themselves, or destroying the old version of themselves.
Q: It's a matter of public record that your manuscript was the subject of an auction among New York publishers, and that you hit the jackpot, as it were. When something similar happened to Audrey Niffenegger, a novelist in Chicago, she later told me she felt like it put a big target on her forehead. How do you feel about the fact that the story of the acquisition of your novel became so public?
A: Well, it all happened so quickly. I went from working on the book for a really long time, and wondering if it would ever sell, to the auction. It went out on a Tuesday, and by Wednesday we knew people were interested, and the auction happened the next week. The whole thing was overwhelming, in an exciting way, but also just kind of mind-boggling.
But you know, I don't think readers know or care about advances. They can Google an author, sure, but even if they do, I don't think readers are really interested in the subtleties of the publishing world. And it's just part of being a writer now, that everything is so public. It took a while to get used to, but it's just part of the game. The thing I like about it is having contact with readers. I haven't had any bad contact with them; everyone who's read the book has been really lovely.
Q: So there's no downside at all to the fact that people know you got a big chunk of money?
A: (Laughs.) I guess that remains to be seen.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls
Riverhead, 400 pages, $27.95
DiSclafani will appear at a Printers Row event in Tribune Tower on June 27. Visit printersrowjournal.com for details.