Everyone knows the signifiers of our national American myth, the western: Dusty boots, horses and cowboys, saloons and gamblers, manifest destinies. But those well-worn iconographies—and the heroic fictional figures who bring the myth to life—obscure the ordinary people who helped create the real history, particularly those living at the margins.
Shannon Pufahl is a lover of westerns, but not always all parts of them. A Midwesterner who was weaned on Gunsmoke and Cormac McCarthy, who accompanied her grandmother on trips to Las Vegas, and who ultimately went west to California herself, Pufahl wanted to write into the form by telling the stories of those who’d been othered: namely, queer people. People who didn’t necessarily have a place in the new western world of the mid-twentieth century and had to find small, offbeat spaces for themselves in a time when there were no words for what they sought.
Pufahl’s debut novel, On Swift Horses, follows three of those people across post-war California, Las Vegas, and Tijuana: Muriel, a woman who somewhat reluctantly married her Kansas hometown sweetheart and followed him west; her now-husband Lee, ploddingly supportive, simple, and sweet, whose one dream is to build a house in the hills above San Diego; and Julius, Lee’s magnetic brother, who Muriel feels drawn to from the first time they meet—when she discovers him laying calmly, bare-chested in the rain, on the ground outside the window of the bedroom where she and Lee have just made love.
Over cigarettes, Muriel and Julius share a moment, and from then on the recently orphaned Muriel feels an attraction to him she doesn’t fully understand. Julius made her feel that “the world was bigger than she had imagined,” and she agrees to marry Lee in part because “in loving his brother, he became both more interesting and more bracing.” The three plan to start a life together in San Diego but when Julius never shows, Muriel becomes unmoored. She begins to play the Del Mar racetracks in secret and wins a fortune, beginning an awakening that can’t be undone. Meanwhile Julius winds up in dusty Las Vegas just before it becomes a reputable town, and falls in love with a gambling cheat named Henry. When Henry disappears, both Julius and Muriel embark on separate quests to track him down—and find themselves, too.
A slow-burning epic, On Swift Horses is like East of Eden, if the promised land were a bar where men could dance with men and women with women and no one would say boo. With evocative language, Pufahl paints a new picture of our mythology, one we can really see and feel ourselves in; one where regular people are the real stars and no one is written out of history.
I spoke to Pufahl two weeks before her book’s debut about rewriting the western to be queer, inclusive, and attuned to the beauty of the everyday. While this writer loves the ordinary, her prose, and this book, are anything but.
— Mickie Meinhardt for Guernica
Guernica: This book unspools itself in quiet, unexpected ways. For quite a while, I didn’t really know where it would go, but was very okay with that. How did you manage this slow-rolling, almost epic unfolding of a book that isn’t a doorstop?
Shannon Pufahl: Well it was a doorstop, at one point. It went to my agent, a very old-school New Yorker, and she said cut 150 pages. No one wants to hear that, ever. But concision was always going to be in the service of subtlety, and subtlety was a thing I wanted in this book for a lot of reasons.
I was really interested in this era in part because I wondered what it must have been like as a queer person, in a time when there was almost no public discourse about that. Especially for characters who were outside the few urban areas that had, as we know now, documented communities of queer people. What that isolation would have been like, and how they would even be able to describe to themselves what they were experiencing. It seemed really essential that the book unfold slowly because it was about not just the plot and the causal series of events, but these people finding language for themselves in a world that offers virtually none.
Guernica: Finding ways to name the things we needed, as you’ve put it. So much of this is about people discovering what they actually need versus what they thought they needed—queer people, yes, but anyone really. Muriel and Julius are starting new lives after having somewhat tumultuous early lives, and they go about it in ways they think are right. But the whole course of the book is them finding out that those ways were, in fact, wrong.
Pufahl: And figuring out ways to take meaningful risks. For Julius, it was: How do I turn a kind of wildness that was a response to repression, really, into a way of venturing out into the world? How do I take risks that have outcomes besides my own destruction? For Muriel—this is my speculation and from my research on queer history in general, but particularly for that era—at the time, it must have been particularly difficult for women who didn’t have the same kind of public spaces in which to find each other, and a very different and more impoverished set of codes for finding each other. I know people who came out in the late ‘90s who thought the only people who could be gay were men. For Muriel, it’s much more about: How do I leave the orbit of the male universe? And find a way in which this desire is expressible, or even knowable, when there’s virtually nothing like it in the culture?
Guernica: In the beginning, she doesn’t know she has this desire. She finds it accidentally. As a reader, you’re as surprised as she is with what she ends up doing—which feels extremely authentic, because in a time when you didn’t have influences or names for things, how else would you discover them?
Pufahl: Yes! What sparked the book for me and really made these characters come to life was writing about Muriel and Julius meeting each other. Particularly from Muriel’s perspective. When they meet, Julius has already had all these experiences and knows a bit about the world. Muriel [knows some things], but only from her mother’s life, which was very centered on heterosexual romance, even as progressive as she was. When Muriel and Julius meet, she recognizes something in him that’s erotic, but it’s not about sex. That’s where I started to unravel it all. How is this person going to make sense of this moment?
Guernica: Muriel almost thinks she’s in love with Julius, then. She’s fascinated by him, by the men at the racetrack, yet she knows she doesn’t necessarily want to be beholden to or live so much for and around men. Can you speak to that?
Pufahl: I think she’s fascinated by their freedom, which looks so much more like the freedom that she wants than the freedom she has access to, which was her mother’s—largely expressed through choosing her own relationships and dictating her own sexual life. Muriel appreciates that but it doesn’t quite check the boxes she needs it to. Early on in the book, it’s about quite literally seeing those men do the things she wants to be able to do. And being able to do them with a kind of invisibility, because many of the spaces she walks into are largely masculine spaces where she feels very conspicuous. It’s an envy of their ability to disappear inside spaces she wants to be in, and to feel safe in them. In Julius, she recognizes a kind of rebellion she might be able to emulate.
Guernica: What he has, there’s a small chance she could also have it.
Pufahl: I went to a wedding a couple weeks ago and had some cocktails, as you do, and met a man who was a friend of my friend’s husband. Beautiful. And I kept going up to him and saying, “You know, just because I’m a lesbian doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate male beauty,” in that sort of tipsy way where you think, “You’re just gorgeous, and I can say that because it’s not threatening to you, I don’t want anything from you.” I think there’s something like that in Muriel’s response to men, too, where there is a kind of aesthetic appreciation, or an appreciation and empathy for what’s lovely about them.
Guernica: You see that with the way she looks at and admires Rosie, the jockey. She’s drawn to him and fascinated by him and it’s romantic, but not in the love/relationship sense.
Pufahl: I like that about her, too. She’s very much an observer, by temperament but also for reasons of safety—as I think many women are, certainly many vulnerable women or people. Those who find themselves on the periphery do a lot of passive watching. She’s interested in anybody who’s different. One of the things I wanted to try to convey in the book was exactly that: How do you have attraction without sexual desire? How can it be romantic without feeling like it needs to culminate in love and relationships? And how do you describe that kind of magnetism? Which I think very many of us experience quite often. And particularly in that time, it would have been difficult. Of course the first thing someone would think is that what they feel is love and attraction and desire, because that’s the language that’s available for them to describe what they feel. So they have to work through that to discover what it is they actually want.
Guernica: It almost works to their advantage that there aren’t any frameworks for queer relationships because they don’t know that’s what they should be seeking out. They get to explore this boundary of attraction in general because they don’t know there could be a name for any of it.
Pufahl: What kind of freedom might there have been, and how would that freedom have expressed itself before the there were categorical definitions for what people are? It’s not meant to be a critique of identity politics or liberation, just a question. Take away these structures, which have given us so much in the fifty years following this moment. What freedoms might they have experienced?
Guernica: The plight of queer people throughout history is not absent here, but it’s not heavy. You know that it’s difficult—Julius experiences a fair amount of violence—but the threats don’t hang as heavy over this book, which shows a really careful hand. I wondered if you had to reign in some of your desires to include more politics.
Pufahl: Moving from violence to greater forms of acceptance was in many ways the basis for this story. I didn’t really want to trod that ground, yet I believe that that story needs to be told over and over so it’s not lost to history, or lost in the brightness of this moment where things are much better for lots of people overall.
I was much more interested in the historical moment and the confluence of forces that would have allowed these lives to exist in this way; the kinds of futures people could begin glimpsing at the end of the ‘50s that were really kind of unimaginable, not just for queer people but for all kinds of people. When I first started the book and was younger, oftentimes I wanted my own political desires to dictate what happened to the characters and what they did. For example, I was really reluctant to tell a “coming out story.” And yet, that was what needed to happen. So I tried to find ways to make that interesting and different. There were times early on I had to get over myself, had to write this in a discovery mode, and it turned out that there were certain avenues that were open and others that were closed and if I shut down paths that would be profitable or beautiful or lyrical because I didn’t like what they meant politically, there was something I and the readers and characters would lose.
Guernica: Like what?
Pufahl: There’s not a lot of narrative internality. There were definitely moments where my editor asked me to be more explicit about what was being felt. People who read early drafts would say, “You know, your characters really need to feel something here.” Instead of looking askance and describing the landscape.
Guernica: But it’s a western!
Pufahl: But it’s a western and I love landscapes! And I’m much more comfortable writing about them than I am about feelings—I am from the Midwest. Once I started having people read it, a little push toward internality was good. It wasn’t going to disrupt the form and the critique of western adventure forms I wanted to make, and it wasn’t going to mess up what I wanted to do with the prose.
Guernica: I want to ask you a bit about your writing process. How did you write this book, and how long did it take?
Pufahl: It took a long time to figure out the form the novel needed to have. I think that’s partly from doing it for the first time and because that’s how novel writing is. You spend a long time working your way into the form. I was lucky enough to have a two-year fellowship at Stanford. I still taught a little and did some editing work, but I had a lot of time to write, and a lot of freedom. I kind of let myself make mistakes and I tried to get up and write every day. I know people who have word count quotas; I never did that but I did try to spend four or five hours of my day writing or going back and reading what I had done. You take a lot of wrong turns. But I try to remember that none of that is actually “lost” material. For one thing, you can save it, and maybe some of it belongs somewhere else, some other time. But also you’re learning constantly learning from those wrong turns and making a bigger map for how you write novels.
My main commitment is always to the sentence and to the prose. So if I have days where I wake up with a tin ear and I can’t find it, I’ll walk away. I’m not one of those writers who’s good at persisting when the language isn’t right to get to an idea or moment. For me it’s all about that one thing. To understand something that needs to happen in a scene or at a particular moment in the story I have to get there through language and not the other way around. It’s arduous.
Guernica: You have such a loving hand with ordinariness. A friend sent me a song recently called “People’s Faces” by Kate Tempest.
Pufahl: Yes, she’s British, does spoken word poetry?
Guernica: Yes! One of the major lines is: “There’s so much beauty to be found in people’s faces.” I kept thinking about that while reading this book. Especially when Muriel is at the Chester Hotel and sees men with men for the first time, she keeps calling all of them beautiful. I loved that, because probably not all of them are actually beautiful but she just sees everyone that way. That’s evident throughout the book, from both perspectives. There’s a lot of appreciation of beauty. You mention in your introductory note that you were seeking to write about the ordinary person.
Pufahl: I really was. Also to recreate, and in some cases to create almost from nothing, a world that not many people still living would have seen because it went largely undocumented or was documented only by people who had a vested interest in the punitive. So it felt imperative that the details were careful and visual, that they attended to the ordinary, because that’s how you make places feel real. I teach creative writing to beginners mostly, and they want to be relatable so they don’t want to be too specific. And I’m always saying that intricate detail is what actually makes things relatable. The more people can see and know and feel a thing, or what it felt like to be there in a sensory way, the more it feels like something a reader can relate to their own experience. A lot of the detail in my book had to do with creating a world people can see themselves in, even though it’s one very few people have experienced. And also, that’s the kind of writing I love best. I like to look really, really closely.
Guernica: You’re from Kansas and I know Las Vegas is important to you, too. Was there a certain germ that brought you to this book idea? How did you decide on this story, and this time period?
Pufahl: I was mostly interested in Las Vegas in the ‘70s. I’ve been to Vegas a million times, and as a young person so it was really formative. In doing research, I learned that in the early-to-late-‘50s, Las Vegas was really trying to form itself from a dusty mobster-run backwater into a sunny haven for the middle class; people coming from Los Angeles and the like. One of the ways they did that was to stage very elaborate parties on the roofs of the casinos at dawn, sending people up there—often very well-dressed, ties and gloves and the whole deal—to watch the atomic tests in the desert. It’s crazy! When I learned that really happened and was a thing Las Vegas used successfully to transform itself into a tourist destination, well, someone had to write about that. It was such an arresting image: These people up there in their finest, sipping champagne and watching. At the time, at the center of the Cold War, it felt like a necessary defense; a symbol of American might. Now of course it seems like the most insane kind of hubris. But the meaning of a moment can change so profoundly over thirty to fifty years.
Guernica: You mentioned you were influenced by other queer literature and westerns. Can you name some of them?
Pufahl: I don’t know any queer westerns. I was interested in the western in general—even Cormac McCarthy and late-twentieth century western writers, who were also critiquing the western. People don’t think about McCarthy in that way all that often, because his books are so violent and glorify masculinity. That’s what the western is. But I can’t think of a western where the protagonist is queer. I was responding to a dearth. Because I love westerns! I’m from the Midwest, I’m an American.
Guernica: It’s our national mythology in many ways.
Pufahl: It is, and most people besides white men have been excluded from that story. There has been a push in the last few years to re-tell this story, including many more of the people who were actually there. Those tend to be nineteenth century historicals, though. Most of the things that made the west what it is—the movement toward the edge of the continent, the changing of geopolitical boundaries through war and treaty, the removal of Native Americans, the railroads laid through largely Chinese immigrants—that story was over, in certain ways, by the late ‘50s. But the western as a progress narrative and a movement through landscapes isn’t. I moved to California fifteen years ago because that story was a part of what built me. I understood myself to be moving west toward a kind of freedom. That story, the essence of that story, is still a major motivating force in American life.
Guernica: On the New York Times podcast Still Processing, with Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris, they said that one in every four cowboys was black. They mentioned that there’s a kind of movement of black Americans reclaiming the west. Which I loved because I also love westerns, and I think it’s so disingenuous to not think of them as including everyone.
Pufahl: Absolutely. And one of the things that interested me was that it’s very hard for me now to watch the movies I watched with my dad and not see them as kind of terrifying, misogynistic acts of the oppression of others. It’s hard for me to see those guys as heroic anymore, and yet something about the aesthetics of them remain really visceral and moving. I did want to offer a correction to that, while also retaining the things I love. Horses and boots and all that.
Guernica: You don’t have to throw away or cancel the genre just to tell new stories.
Pufahl: No, and you do it partly through depicting and recognizing the lives of other kinds of people who were present in the making of the myth.