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*Blue Horse Dreaming* author Melanie Wallace - author interviewAn interview with
Melanie Wallace

author of Blue Horse Dreaming

Interviewer Luan Gaines: Blue Horse Dreaming is described as haunting, and indeed it is. What drew you to this particular period of history?

Melanie Wallace: Postwar periods reveal the ravages of what came before in extraordinary ways, for in them the changes wrought by the experience of war—individual, collective—become apparent. The Civil War’s most violent aftermath was played out on the western American frontier; it was the ultimate reach of nation-building, which was overseen and directed by a government whose military whose officers had, by and large, fought in the Civil War on the side of the victors. I was drawn to this particular period because of its haunting complexity—it was a time of violent, imperial confrontation—and because the parallels with today are subtly transparent.

Was Blue Horse Dreaming based on a real story of a recovered hostage?

The kernel of Blue Horse Dreaming was inspired by an aside in Pioneer Women, a book by Joanne Stratton, in which a frontier woman recalled the captivity and redemption of a neighbor by the name of Morgan. After her return, Morgan refused to sell her story (captivity narratives were a popular form of journalistic entertainment); shortly after her redemption, she gave birth to a child who died two years later. Though Morgan lived for some years, “her mind gradually failed,” the neighbor recounted, “and I was told she died in an asylum.” Morgan once confided to her, “After I came back, the road seemed rough, and I often wished they had never found me.”

Isolation is a powerful force in your novel. Have Major Cutter and the soldiers allowed their discipline to deteriorate because of their distance from civilization?

The distance is, indeed, a part of the picture, as are nature’s unpredictable hostility and the landscape’s surreal unfamiliarity, all of which weigh heavily upon Cutter and the troops. Their actual dislocation—at the world’s end, as it were, cut off from supply and communication lines—is worsened by extreme deprivation; thus, their isolation becomes an existential catastrophe. Their discipline deteriorates not only because their situation is dire—the troops are starving, filthy, hopeless—but also because Cutter’s mission, one impossible to fulfill under the circumstances and one he doubts, has become incomprehensible to him.

Your novel painfully portrays the devastation of war and its aftermath. Do you mean to suggest the universality of war, regardless of the time frame?

I mean to suggest that all wars leave in their wake a form of devastation that is immeasurable, for those who fight them—victors and vanquished, both—and those caught up in them are always diminished, in some way, by the experience.

Why did so many, soldiers and citizens alike, lose their humanity in extremity rather than grow stronger from such adversity?

Extreme conditions breed both atavistic behavior and moral fortitude in Blue Horse Dreaming; though hardly in equal amounts. The troops, by and large, become more superstitious and unruly as the circumstances worsen, in contrast to Major Robert Cutter and Abigail Buwell and Cole, each of whom clings to their dignity as the only thing left to them.

Was Major Cutter responsible for the disintegration of those in his charge?

Circumstance is, I believe, more powerful than character; history more forceful than personality. The circumstances at the outpost to which Abigail Buwell is brought are responsible for the disintegration of those in Cutter’s charge; and if Cutter is at fault for the collapse in morale, it is because he alone cannot change the course of history.

How is this remote outpost a microcosm of civilization?

The outpost—like any ship, which Cutter constantly uses as a metaphor—is a world unto itself. Within that self-contained universe are characters as varied as in the larger world, familiar to any of us.

What effect does Abigail Buwell’s pregnancy have on her reception at the outpost?

That she “consorted”—this would have been the term used by the troops, though it is not mentioned—with the “enemy” could not be lost on anyone: her pregnancy places her firmly within the camp, as it were, of the Other. The subsequent birth and death of the infant, which she mourns in the way she has adopted, only serves to unhinge the troops further; they read into her appearance and the infant’s fate the reasons for their own downward spiral.

How does Abigail’s blue roan, her only real comfort, personify her reality?

The roan is her link to everything she has been wrenched away from; their relationship is profoundly—and, in a sense, somewhat magically—symbiotic. They belong only to one another, having come from a world to which neither will be returned, and their fates are mirrored. The horse, like Abigail Buwell, is unregenerate; it allows no one near it but those—the black smithy Cole and, later, Cutter—who make no demands that Abigail Buwell accept her redemption.

Would Abigail have wanted her baby?

Not, I try to make clear, in the world to which she has been returned, which is, according to Abigail Buwell and because of what she experienced in it, no world to be born into and one which Abigail Buwell will refuse to belong to.

How did you balance the terrible weight of the story with the small periods of joy, as seen in Abigail’s memories during captivity?

Tragedy without the counterpart of joy is always lessened; poignancy demands an underside to tragedy that reveals what was possible, what was hoped—what might have been—and what was fulfilled. Because the narrative arc is structured in such a way that its conclusion is foretold—the novel looks back on what fate has made familiar—Abigail Buwell’s joyous memories were made to balance, at least in part, what you call the story’s “terrible weight”; added to that balancing act are Cutter’s letters to his wife. Abigail’s memories and Cutter’s contemplations are somewhat like epiphanies: both allow a glimpse of human dignity, a depth of feeling, that circumstance and history do not.

Underneath all the suffering, isn’t there a small love story?

There are several very small love stories, as there always are, given the human condition. The journalist Reed Gabriel becomes smitten by Abigail Buwell, who is more considerate of him than he ever knows; Abigail’s relationship with Eugene Buwell touches upon the fringes of love; her love for the man who is the father of her children is a given. Her relationship with Major Robert Cutter has a great basis for love—trust—while Cutter’s undying love for his wife is something utterly heartrending.

What do you consider Major Cutter’s most redeeming qualities? His faults?

Cutter’s most redeeming qualities are his capacity for reflection and his deep sense of loyalty. An officer who no longer believes in his mission, Cutter sees that circumstances are beyond his control, knows that he should abandon the outpost, and yet awaits orders. He’s a man of conscience who is at odds with his times, and he desperately tries to balance his bitter realization of this with reason. If he has a fault, it is his insularity, which mirrors Abigail Buwell’s.

Could Cole, also an outcast, have protected Abigail? Or did her ferocity offer all the protection she needed?

Cole knows things; he’s the most prescient character in the novel. Because he’s also an outcast, except in Cutter’s eyes, Cole understands Abigail Buwell’s plight and protects her the only way he can—which also saves Cutter and the outpost from a possible mutiny—but he also understands that, no matter what, her fate is sealed. Only Abigail Buwell’s dignity, which is ferocious, affords her the courage to refuse her redemption; that refusal both saves her from the society to which she is returned and dooms her.

Did you intend the female characters to make a statement about their roles in that particular society? For all their differences, what did these women have in common?

What I’ve tried to make evident (in lieu of any statement) is the obvious: that under harsh conditions, for complex reasons, women (and, by extension, children) tend to suffer differently than, and frequently at the hands of, men. The three women on the outpost in this novel (Abigail Buwell, her fellow captive Constance Smith, and the outpost’s washerwoman, Maria) react each in a unique way to their lot; they have varying capacities for resilience and dissimilar ways of struggling against a very bleak existence.

The reporter, Reed Gabriel, is as familiar a figure today as he was in the novel. Was his curiosity a disguise for self-aggrandizement?

Reed Gabriel is after a story, and his impulse to get to the bottom of things is as admirable as his desire for success is relentless. He’s a man of feeling, and a man who is hard; his contradictions give him a fragility and an edge that make him all too human.

I found Abigail’s strength of character and ability to survive fascinating. Did you have a favorite character when writing the book?

Abigail Buwell and Major Robert Cutter, who came to reflect one another in curious, apposite ways as they evolved, were—and remain—my favorite characters.

How did you research your novel?

I read, in a very haphazard manner, captivity narratives (of boys, girls, and women), Civil War fiction and history, frontier histories and pioneer accounts, some Native American history and folklore, military journals and diaries from the post-Civil War period, books on fort architecture, emigrant trail stories, and the occasional book on 19th-century psychiatry and asylums. What stayed with me when writing the novel, however, was the strangeness of the past.

What did you find the most challenging aspect of writing Blue Horse Dreaming?

Translating what I call the strangeness of the past into something coherent was the greatest challenge. The label “historical fiction” is a frightening one, precisely because in any re-creation of history the fantastic creeps in; giving in to that reality was critical.

Have you already started another novel? If so, is the process easier or more difficult this time?

I’m almost finished with Freefall, a book about life in the agrarian village on southern Evia (in Greece) where I’ve lived the last few years; it’s also a book about the past, and about identity, memory, language, Otherness, and the nature of return—concerns central to Blue Horse Dreaming. I’d say the process of writing Freefall has been more problematic, as nonfiction does not allow for the fantastic; the book is also, in part, a personal account, which creates its own difficulties because I’m an intensely private person.

Your publisher, MacAdam/Cage, offers a unique opportunity for new authors of quality fiction. Considering the competition in the market, has MacAdam/Cage been a good fit for an author like you, with a particular vision?

MacAdam/Cage has been a perfect fit: David Poindexter and his staff are dedicated to a kind of literary fiction that deserves an audience, despite and because of its unconventionality; the fact that MacAdam/Cage is there allows writers to write outside of certain narrative restrictions and (perceived popular) contexts, and still stand a chance. That chance is all we need, for we all write for those who don't, or who can't, and we write to be read: MacAdam/Cage provides us that, as well as unqualified support, deft - and extraordinarily attuned - editors, and a dedicated promotions staff.

Any tips to pass along to would-be writers?

Keep writing.

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Melanie Wallace exclusively for Click here to read her review of Blue Horse Dreaming.


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