Shannon Pufahl’s ‘On Swift Horses’ explores identity in the 1950s American West

Stories about the American West in the 1950s are often told through the eyes of straight, white men. While On Swift Horses is set during that time period, Shannon Pufahl chose to explore identity in that time period through a group of unique characters.

First, there’s Muriel. She’s grows tired of her status as a housewife to Lee and becomes a waitress at a horse-racing track. There she becomes adept at gambling and finds a new part of her life to explore. Then there is her brother-in-law, Julius, who falls in love with a man. When the man goes missing without a trace, he sets out to figure out what happened.

We corresponded via email about writing unique characters, what drew her to the 1950s American West, and why identity is so important to her writing.

Author photo by Shay O’Brien.

Your novel is rich with detail and a strong sense of place. How and why did the setting of the 1950s West develop?

From the beginning, I was interested, thematically, in the relationship between progress, risk, and history.  I also knew I wanted to write a novel about gambling, and about queer life before the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s. It was clear to me very early that Las Vegas would be a primary setting –the 1950s Vegas was a fabulous, strange, and transitional place, a haven for misfits, and a perfect place for this novel to start. When I began researching, one archival photo stood out to me: tourists in fancy dress on a casino roof at 5 a.m., watching an atomic bomb explode in the desert beyond the city’s edge. This became a central image of the book, one that speaks to me of hubris, majesty, violence, and erasure – words that describe the West in the 1950s really well, I think.  

What drew you to writing about identity and longing for a sense of belonging?

The surprising image of that bomb spoke to a primary goal, actually, which was to rewrite the history of the 1950s to include forgotten people and places. I wanted to write about people who don’t get much play anywhere, in books or any other media, and whose stories I still struggle to find. The queer people of the past who were neither heroes nor victims, but ordinary working class folks trying to find their way in a culture that had yet to even name them, a culture whose punishment of the unnamed, of anything outside the narrowest definitions of sexual expression, was very often sadistic. How might people live in those circumstances? What joy can be found there? What does love look like in that world? Those questions drew me forward.

Of the three main characters – Muriel, Lee, and Julius – which was the easiest to develop and write?

Julius was really this guiding light from the beginning. I understood him very early – what he wanted, how he looked, how he stood and moved. He is so a product of that era, the mid-to-late 1950s, with its mixture of rebellion and repression, and of a fading cowboy culture in the West that was being supplanted by urbanism, suburbanism and technological progress. I just adored him instantly.

What about the most difficult?

Muriel, certainly.  Partly because she is based on my grandmother, whom I wanted to honor, and partly because her search for herself is different than my own has been in important ways. She is secretive and complex, yet she knows very little about herself for most of the book. She is someone trying to find ways to be independent, separate from her mother and her husband, when models for complex or singular identities for women were harder to find than they are now. She really wants to know how to be a woman in relation only to herself, to be contained, to have a private, protected life. 

Your book also has so many peripheral characters and moments that are terrific to visit with. What was your process to building out the cast that interacts with the trio?

I loved writing those peripheral characters – men in bars, horse racing aficionados.  They gave me an opportunity as a writer to explore that era and its places more deeply. A place only feels truly real in fiction when it is peopled, and characters like Rosie and Gail were enormously fun to write because they are deeply of that era. 

But I’m proudest of the characters of Sandra and Henry, who are (I hope!) very complex and interesting even though they get much less page time than the triangle of Lee, Muriel, and Julius. That was a great challenge, giving those characters depth in relatively few strokes.

I sat in awe at times when it came to your writing. It is so beautiful and filled with lyrical passages. When in your writing process do you focus on the beauty of your words? Early on or do you go back in the revision process?

What a wonderfully kind thing to say! Thank you. For me, the language itself is the process by which I understand things.  I couldn’t write these people or moments in language that was imprecise or claggy, simply because I would not have the insight I needed to write about them well. So I write slowly, which can be frustrating. Most of what I do in revision is cut things. I wanted the book to be beautiful but subtle, and concision is the best tool for that, I think.

You also have written on a variety of topics including eighteenth-century America. What draws you to writing about a particular topic?

I can be interested in almost anything. I particularly like stories about people doing things well or obsessively. And really anything: video games, spoon collecting, dog walking. I also love research, and I am grateful every day for the work of others. Usually, when I choose to write about something it’s because I’ve found a confluence somewhere – between a concept or theory and an experience, say, or a piece of art and an historical event. Those thematic echoes are what drive good writing forward, I think.

Looking ahead, what other interests might pop up in your next novel?

I’m working on a new novel set in the 1970s, a time with many eerie echoes to our own. I did a lot of research about the American West in the 1970s while working on OSH which simply didn’t make it into the book.  So much of what interested me about that era lingers and I’m working on finding a long form for it.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Shannon Pufahl at her website and follow her on Instagram.

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