Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks


Painted Horses
by Malcolm Brooks
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Cowboy West Meets Modern Era in Brooks’ Debut Novel

An exclusive Authorlink interview with Malcolm Brooks,
Author of Painted Horses

By Diane Slocum

November 2014

Going against her parents’ wishes, Catherine abandons her music studies for her true love of archeology, not a typical occupation for a 1950s woman. She lands an assignment with the Smithsonian to explore a canyon in Montana for artifacts before the construction of a dam will flood the canyon and destroy them. Her guide is not only a brutal mustanger who captures horses for pet food, but he is also an employee of the power company which would prefer that she find nothing to keep the project from continuing. She encounters another horseman, John H, a WWII cavalry veteran, who literally paints his horse and has a deep understanding and respect for the wild mustangs that still roam the canyon.

“. . . the entire novel came from an encounter I had in my late teens with a retired equine veterinarian . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What aspect of your story came to you first?

BROOKS: The springboard for the entire novel came from an encounter I had in my late teens with a retired equine veterinarian, who also happened to have ridden with the ad hoc U.S. recon cavalry in WWII Italy. I had never heard of this particular aspect of the war, and was instantly fascinated. I tried over the years to find additional references, without much luck. Then when the web came more or less into full flower, I found a U.S. Army publication from the early ‘40s called Cavalry Journal, which had a feature on this unit, including a bunch of great old photos. I guess I just intuited that it would work better as backstory than as a centerpiece, given I wanted from the outset to write a sort of hybrid of Western epic and existential novel.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you set the story in 1950s Montana?

BROOKS: The ‘50s were a fascinating time, more important in terms of shifting social norms and political concerns than we tend to remember, probably because the ‘60s loom so large in the collective consciousness in regards to music and ideas and upheaval. But the ‘50s worked perfectly for my needs both thematically and historically—it was the era of progress and the race toward the future on the one hand, but also the high point of the Western myth in popular culture, with the Davy Crockett craze and television westerns and so on. It was also the era of dam and water reclamation projects in the western U.S.—important to note here that the canyon and proposed dam in the novel are inspired by actual historical events, right down to the controversy with and within the Crow tribe.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide to make Catherine the primary protagonist?

BROOKS: Initially I intended, really by default, to tell the entire story from John H’s point of view. But I wanted to have a sort of intense love story play out against the backdrop of these sweeping historical changes, and realized I could only effectively do that if both characters were equally represented, so that the reader could sort of fall in love first with each of them. Eventually, Catherine just became sort of a lynchpin to the whole story. I realized immediately I was out on a limb to write so closely from a female point of view, but I also knew it would be a pretty big achievement if it worked.

“The novel was really borne out of my pre-existing interests and enthusiasms”

AUTHORLINK: Do you have a background in art, archeology, horses, the west? What did you do for research?

BROOKS: My grandparents had horses, and I started riding early. Later my parents moved to the epicenter of gold rush history in the California Sierras, and my interest in archaeology and history probably really gelled there. We used to ride on property that had both tribal and 49er sites and artifacts. The novel was really borne out of my pre-existing interests and enthusiasms, so a lot of the research was done before I ever knew I was going to write this particular book. I’m also lucky in that the University of Montana here in Missoula happens to hold a few anthropological and archaeological archives that were helpful if not essential. Beyond that, I read a lot!

AUTHORLINK: You use a lot of backstory, sometimes whole chapters, like John H’s experience with horses in the war. How did you work on the structure of the story?

BROOKS: Despite the circularity of the story’s arc, I actually wrote it in a very linear fashion relative to its final form—i.e., I started with Catherine coming into Montana on the train, and followed along with her until I got to the obvious marker for the first John H flashback, wrote that, and then jumped right back to where I’d left off until I got to the next logical place for a flashback sequence. I wanted the narrative itself to have a sort of archaeological dimension, with John H surfacing in fragments throughout the novel, so that by the end both Catherine and the reader are able to assemble his story.

“I was trying to find my own voice, trying to figure out what kind of novel fit my sensibilities.”

AUTHORLINK: This is your debut novel. What did you publish before this? Did you write any novels you tried to sell before this one? How did these experiences help with this novel?

BROOKS: I finished my first full-length novel when I was nineteen. It’s cringe-inducing, but it showed me early-on that I could in fact write a two-hundred page start-to-finish manuscript. I wrote a couple of others and partials of several more over the next decade, but nothing I felt really happy with or vindicated by, although I was publishing magazine essays and articles and short stories during that time. Mostly with those earlier attempts at novels I think I was trying to find my own voice, trying to figure out what kind of novel fit my sensibilities. I guess I finally figured it out!

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

BROOKS: My next novel bears a thematic relationship to Painted Horses in that it deals on one level with the tension between the past and the present, and also the myth of the West relative to the reality of the West, but otherwise it’s very much a departure. I don’t want to give too much of it away this early-on, but I will say it’s set in our own era, and not in Montana.

About Malcolm Brooks:

Brooks was influenced in his youth by Larry McMurtry, Tom McGuane and other western authors and wanted to write like them. He is a carpenter by trade. He has published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Outside, Montana Quarterly and others. He lives in Missoula.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.