Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions.
I’m not sure why certain regional writers remain regional; why someone along the way — a publicist, a reviewer, perhaps even the author himself — imagines that only those familiar with the setting, or particular sorts of characters, will “connect” with the work. Someone once said, “The more particular the detail, the more universally it strikes us” — it may have been a well-known author, or a student in one of my workshops (or both), I’m not sure. Regardless, I’ve been repeating this idea, to myself and to others, along with its converse — that generalized descriptions, and familiar or broadly-painted characters, are in fact harder to connect with as a reader.
In a brief blurb about Susan Starr Richards’s story collection The Hanging in the Foaling Barn — on a site called KentuckyLiving.com — the reader is told: “Those in the racing industry in particular will enjoy her writings on the horse world in Kentucky.” I found this site after reading the collection, while attempting to do research on Richards (and finding very little online); and it may have been that narrow idea of who “in particular” would enjoy this collection that confirmed my inclination to feature Richards in this column.
“Joel came around a curve on Sorter Ridge, hauling a mare to the breeding shed, and found the local murderer trying to choke a pony.” There is pretty much nothing about this opening sentence (to the story entitled, “The Murderer, The Pony, and Miss Brown to You”) that is personally familiar to me: I’ve never lived on anything like a ridge; I’m not at all sure what happens in a breeding shed, technically speaking; and I’m even less sure what sort of community spawns and maintains a “local murderer.” I may have seen a pony once, at a grade school jamboree, but who knows if what our suburban town was calling a pony wasn’t in fact a large dog wearing a wig and a party hat. My point being that I found this opening sentence masterful in its humor, particularity, menace, and mystery — even as (perhaps because) the world she is introducing is quite obviously going to be one with which I ostensibly have very little in common.
About half of the stories in Richards’s collection are immersed in the world of rural Kentucky and horse breeding (the other half might be described as dark romances). These characters are portrayed in predictable ways on the one hand—as simple, hard-working folk whose lives are closely tied to the land and the animals in their care. At the same time, it’s the complexity of their moral reasoning that strikes the reader, and reminds us urbane sophisticates that moral hazard — which is to say blind, unsophisticated non-thinking—occurs more often in complicated systems than in simpler ones.
“In Clarence Cummins and the Semi-Permanent Loan,” James Petrie, a level-headed foreman on a wealthy man’s tobacco farm, is faced with reconciling a conflict between his tenant farmer, the eponymous Clarence Cummins, and his employer, the money-minded Bud Finnell. Clarence is good-hearted but a simpleton, prone to self-delusion and wobbly judgment; James mostly humors him, seeing no harm in enjoying Clarence’s eccentricities. But Clarence is also proud, with a fierce sense of his own dignity, so when Bud Finnell accuses him of stealing his wife’s pony cart, all hell breaks loose, and Clarence threatens to shoot Finnell. The misunderstandings that led to the crisis comprise a jolly comedy of errors; but what interests me about the story is James’s interior considerations of whether he could have prevented the conflict:
Maybe he should have made Clarence sign an affidavit that he would never sell, try to sell, or let anybody else try to sell the pony cart. Maybe, earlier, he should have made it clear that he was running the farm, and not Clarence. Maybe he should have even pointed out to him that mares always have longer legs than their babies, and that Clarence was the one who thought the fence would hold.
In other words, maybe a man should not be allowed to be self-deluded, no matter how harmless he seems or how happy it makes him to live in his own reality; maybe this man is harming himself, if not others. Maybe it is one’s job, as friend and neighbor, to speak hard truth, and to encourage conformity of mind, for the other’s sake. And yet, the story ends on both a lofty and complex note (humorous, too): Clarence’s defense against Finnell’s accusation was that he loaned the cart to his shopkeeper friend to help draw in more business, which the friend desperately needed. It was the shopkeeper who then tried to sell the cart, to Finnell’s wife herself. When James asks Clarence if he made clear to the shopkeeper that he could not sell it, Clarence answers, “’Why no? I never told him that?’ Clarence looked over at James, a mild, amazed glance. ’Don’t you know? That would have broke his spirit?’” It’s an ending reminiscent of Chekhov.
When Finnell asks James if he thinks Clarence would really shoot him, James answers, “On the subject of Clarence it doesn’t pay to think. He’s a loose horse.” Other loose horses — human and equine—abound in this collection. In the title story — the O. Henry Prize-winner for 1994 — the nightman in a foaling barn calls the breeder in the middle of the night to announce that he is planning to hang himself in the barn. After a bit of banter, Luther, the breeder, preoccupied with the horses that are about to foal, says,
“You got to call up and want to kill yourself here in the middle of May. Couldn’t you wait till June, at least, when foaling season’s over?” He slammed the phone down. Then sighed.
It’s the sighing — it’s own full sentence in that passage—that speaks to the dramatic, and literary, gravitas of a story that opens rather wryly. We laugh nervously at Maurice the nightman’s ridiculous threat, and yet at the same time we understand, as Luther does, that the tragic often comes in ridiculous packages. Maurice is dead serious about his despair, just as Clarence was about his rage. People’s lives are at stake, right alongside their livelihoods: Luther’s preoccupation with the foaling mares in the face of Maurice’s announcement is on the one hand ironic comedy, and on the other straight-faced reality. Which is to say that Richards is not sentimental about the difficulties of rural life and of human-animal relationships.
But foaling — that is, the birthing of these creatures who are as engaging and lively as the humans — is also a deep reality of this world, a kind of cyclical imprint. It’s the direct experience of a foal’s birth, orchestrated and witnessed by men, in both “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn” and the aforementioned pony murderer story, that offers powerful narrative and emotional opposition to the sheer physical grit of farm life and the rough-around-the-edges characters it engenders.
Two of the collection’s romantic stories, “Man Walking” and “Gawain and the Horsewoman,” are fantastical tales of not-quite-human passion. Of the two, the latter for me was more absorbing, fully immersed in the genre of myth (the story is based on Celtic legend), as opposed to the more cerebral, and a bit confusing, mystery-solving drive of the former. From “Gawain:”
The most beautiful mare he’d ever seen, he said to himself, and not a sign of a saddle or bridle on her. Pure white. A fine head, high withers, a strong shoulder; and she was long and deep, all her lines flowing together smoothly. A step like a dancer; neck drooping, easy.
Following the mare now through twilight meadows. It was a matter of faith to see her — the almost-shape, as if the mist thickened a little, there. If he looked hard at what he saw, he wouldn’t see it any more.
He, Gawain, follows the mare and comes upon its siblings, along with its mysterious, laconic mistress — “slim and brown, her dark hair clipped straight across by her ear.” This magical story of a stormy, sea-cliff horse race between Gawain and Dana the Horsewoman unfolds not only into lush, lyrical fantasy (“did you never see the horses’ heads, with their manes all silver, rising above the great combers on full-moon nights?” Dana asks) but also creeps up on you deliciously as feminist fiction:
He found himself, sometimes, almost wishing for some threat to the quiet life of the little farmstead, so that he might be of use in defending it — for a big cat preying on the foals? […] for an awful giant trying to carry off the younger woman on his horse? but […] What giant could catch her? […]
The two women [Dana and her sister Maude] seemed to have no curiosity about him. It was as if his life had begun, as far as they were concerned, when he appeared at their place […]
If women were confusing to him before—and they had been — now he was lost indeed, presented with a woman who apparently wanted nothing in the world from him but that he would ride in a race against her. Something in him warred with the idea of doing anything against a woman—he’d always been taught to do things for them. But he meant to oblige her in this way since he couldn’t in any other.
Richards doesn’t seem to have referred to herself publicly as a feminist per se, but in a 2004 interview with the Journal of Kentucky Studies, she did speak of the “fairly sexist environment” of writing classes in the late 1950s, “the ‘Southern boy’ world — that’s what I was thrown into, and […] that’s kind of a brutal world for a woman. Some of your sensibilities are ridiculed; you’re afraid to have them.”
Born and raised in Florida, Richards and her husband moved to Kentucky when she was in her 20s. She had a job teaching at the University of Kentucky, but they also quickly got into the horse business, starting as market breeders and then both breeding and racing their own horses (from which they’ve since retired). In an interview with her publisher Sarabande, she said:
I’ve walked the mares’ field in the dark, in the fog, checking to see if some mare’s decided to foal on the wrong night […] I’ve stayed up all night for nights on end with my husband, milking a mare out every two hours and lifting a sick foal up onto its feet, till it could get back to nursing on its own again. I’ve been kicked, I’ve been knocked down and jumped over, I’ve been shoved around innumerable times, I’ve been exhilarated by what just happened, I’ve been terrified by what just happened, I’ve been euphoric about what just happened, I’ve been in desperation about what just happened.
All these things in one way or another have influenced my life. My time was always fairly equally divided between the horses and my writing, the difference being that the horses always came first, and the writing had to be fitted in around their needs and their schedules. But in my imagination, there was always a confluence of visions. You don’t take up the horse business unless horses have already captured your imagination — it’s an abstraction to you before it becomes a reality.
Richards published a collection of “Horse Fables” in 1987, when she was 49, and began publishing her stories after that, when she was in her 50s. A poetry collection, The Life Horse, was published in 2005, and The Hanging in the Foaling Barn came out in 2006, when she was 68. Other than a few classes with Andrew Lytle at the University of Florida, she has not studied fiction writing formally in a workshop or conference setting. Her husband Dick, who was also in that class with Lytle, has been her primary reader. She has said that she is more influenced by her life in Kentucky than any particular author, but names Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and The Odyssey as influences.
Richards’s first novel, Chapel of Carnal Love, will be available as an e-book later this fall on Amazon. She is now 74 years old.
Listen to Susan Starr Richards read an excerpt — recorded in the shed on her farm where she writes — from the O. Henry Prize-winning story, “The Hanging in the Foaling Barn.”