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.
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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.