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When Velveteen Vargas, an eleven-year-old Fresh Air Fund kid from Brooklyn, comes to stay with a family in upstate New York, what begins as a two-week visit blossoms into something much more significant. Soon Velvet finds herself torn between her host family—Ginger, a failed artist and shakily recovered alcoholic; and Paul, a college professor—and her own deeply tormented mother. The one constant becomes Velvet’s newly discovered passion for horse riding—and especially for an abused, unruly mare named Fugly Girl. A stirring and deeply felt novel, The Mare is Mary Gaitskill’s most poignant and powerful work yet—a stunning exploration of a girl and her horse, and of the way we connect with people from all walks of life.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)|
About the Author
Mary Gaitskill is the author of the story collections Bad Behavior, Because They Wanted To (nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award), and Don’t Cry, and the novels Veronica (nominated for a National Book Award) and Two Girls, Fat and Thin. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, The Best American Short Stories, and The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:November 11, 1954
Place of Birth:Lexington, Kentucky
Education:B.A., University of Michigan, 1980
Read an Excerpt
That day I woke up from a dream the way I always woke up: pressed against my mom’s back, my face against her and her turned away. She holding Dante and he holding her, his head in her breasts, wrapped around each other like they’re falling down a hole. It was okay. I was a eleven-year-old girl, and I didn’t need to have my face in my mama’s titty no more—that is, if I ever did. Dante, my little brother, was only six.
It was summer, and the air conditioner was up too high, dripping dirty water on the floor, outside the pan I put there to catch it. Too loud too, but still I heard a shot from outside or maybe a shout from my dream. I was dreaming about my grandfather from DR; he was lost in a dark place, like a castle with a lot of rooms and rich white people doing scary things in all of them, and my grandfather somewhere shouting my name. Or maybe it was a shot. I sat up and listened, but there wasn’t anything.
That day we had to get on a bus and go stay with rich white people for two weeks. We signed up to do this at Puerto Rican Family Services in Williamsburg, even though we’re Dominican and we just moved to Crown Heights. The social worker walked around in little high heels, squishing out of tight pants like she’s a model, but with her face frowning like a mask on Halloween.
My mom talked to her about how our new neighborhood was all bad “negritas,” no Spanish people. She told her how she had to work all day and sometimes at night, keeping a roof over our heads. She said it was going to be summer and I was too old for day care, and because I was stupid she couldn’t trust me to stay inside and not go around the block talking to men. She laughed when she said this, like me talking to men was so stupid it was funny. But I don’t go around talking to men, and I told the social worker that with my face.
Which made the social worker with her eyes and her mouth tell my mom she’s shit. Which made me hate the woman, even if my mom was lying about me. My mom acted like she didn’t see what the social worker said with her eyes and mouth, but I knew she did see—she saw like she always does. But she kept talking and smiling with her hard mouth until the social worker handed her a shiny booklet—she stopped then. I looked to see what had shut my mother up; it was pictures of white people on some grass hugging dark children. Mask-Face told us we could go stay with people like this for two weeks. “It sounds like hell,” whispered Dante, but Mask-Face didn’t hear. We could swim and ride bicycles, she said. We could learn about animals. I took the booklet out of my mother’s hands. It said something about love and having fun. There was a picture of a girl darker than me petting a sheep. There was a picture of a woman with big white legs sitting in a chair with a hat on and a plastic orange flower in her hand, looking like she was waiting for somebody to have fun with.
My mom doesn’t write, so I filled out the forms. Dante just sat there talking to himself, not caring about anything like always. I didn’t want him to come with me, bothering me while I was trying to ride a bicycle or something, so when they asked how he gets along with people, I wrote, “He hits.” They asked how he resolves conflict and I wrote, “He hits.” It was true, anyway. Then my mom asked if we could go to the same family so I could take care of Dante, and Mask-Face said no, it’s against the rules. I was glad, and then I felt sorry for saying something bad about Dante for nothing. My mom started to fight about it, and Mask-Face said again, It’s against the rules. The way she said it was another way of saying “You’re shit,” and the smell of that shit was starting to fill up the room. I could feel Dante get small inside. He said, “I don’t want to go be with those people.” He said it so soft you could barely hear him, but my mother said, “Shut up, you ungrateful boy! You’re stupid!” The smell got stronger; it covered my mother’s head, and she scratched herself like she was trying to brush it off.
But she couldn’t and so when we left, she hit Dante on the head and called him stupid some more. Going to this place with bicycles and sheep had been turned into a punishment.
Still, I had hope that it would be fun. The lady I would stay with had called to talk to me and she sounded nice. Her voice was little, like she was scared. She said we were going to ride a Ferris wheel at the county fair and swim at the lake and see horses. She didn’t sound like the lady with the big legs, but that’s how I pictured her, with a plastic flower. I thought of that picture and that voice and I got excited.
I got up and went out into the hall and got into the closet where our coats were. I dug into the back and found my things I keep in the old cotton ball box. I took them out through our living room into the kitchen, where it was heavy-warm from all the hot days so far. I poured orange juice in my favorite glass with purple flowers on it. I took the juice and my box to the open window and leaned out on the ledge. It was so early there was nobody on the street except a raggedy man creeping against a building down below us, holding on to it with one hand like for balance. He was holding the wall where somebody had written “Cookie” in big red paint. That was because this boy called Cookie used to stand there a lot. He was called that because he ate big cookies all the time. We used to see him in Mr. Nelson’s store downstairs and we weren’t supposed to talk to him because he was from the project over on Troy Avenue. But I did talk to him and he was nice. Even if he told me once that even though he liked me, if somebody paid him enough, he’d kill me. He wouldn’t want to because I was gonna grow up fine, but he’d have to. He said it like he was making friends with me. We stood there talking for a while and then he broke off a piece of soft cookie and gave it to Dante. He said, “Stay fine, girl.” A little while later a cop killed him for nothing and his name got put on a wall.
I took my things out of the box and laid them out on the ledge. They looked nice together: a silver bell I got from a prize machine, a plastic orange sun I tore off a get-well card somebody gave my mom, a blond key-chain doll with only one leg wearing a checkered coat, a dried sea horse from DR that my grandfather sent me, and a blue shell my father gave me when I was a baby and he lived with us. My father gave me two shells, but I gave the brown-and-pink one to this girl Strawberry because her brother died.
I held the blue shell against my lip to feel how smooth it was. I looked up and saw the sun had put a gold outline on the building across from us. I looked down and saw the raggedy man stop against the wall, like he was trying to get the strength to breathe.
After Cookie got shot I heard these men talking about him at Mr. Nelson’s. I heard his name and this man said, “Suicide by cop.” I thought, What does that mean? so loud it was like they heard me because they got quiet. When we left, my mom whispered, “Gangbangers.”
On the street, the raggedy man stretched up against the wall, his arms and hands spread out like he was crying on the red-painted word. For a second, everything was hard and clear and pounding beautiful.
The last time I saw my father I was almost ten and Dante was four. We had to leave our old apartment in Williamsburg, and my mom was staying with a friend and trying to find a new place, so he came and took us to Philadelphia in the car with his friend Manuel. I remember blowing bubbles on the fire escape with his other kids from this woman Sophia; she had soft breasts pushed together in a green dress, and she made asopao with shrimp, and mango pudding. She never liked me, but her girls were nice. We slept in the same bed and told stories about a disgusting white guy in history who cut people up with a chain saw and danced around in their skins. And the littlest girl would rap Missy Elliott, like, I heard the bitch got hit with three zebras and a monkey / I can’t stand the bitch no way. And it made me and Dante laugh, ’cause she’s so cute—she’s only three. There were dogs going in and out, and Dante was scared at first, then he loved them. It was fun, but on the way back in the car, my father took my emergency money out of my pocket to pay the tolls and didn’t give it back. Manuel was in the car and he made fun of me for being mad. Then he came to New York and started renting a room from us.
My father sends Dante a dollar in a card for his birthday sometimes. Never me.
I put down the shell and picked up the sea horse. I never met my grandfather, but he loved me. He talked to me on the phone and when I sent him my picture, he said I was beautiful. He called me “mi niña.” He told me stories about how bad my mom was when she was little, and how she got punished. He sent the sea horse. He said one day my mom would bring me and Dante to visit and he would take us to the ocean. I remember his voice: tired and rough but mad fun inside. I never saw him and I almost never talked to him on the phone, but when I did, it was like arms around me. Then his voice started getting more tired and the fun was far away in him. He said, “I’m always gonna be with you. Just think of me, I’m there.” It scared me. I wanted to say, Grandpa, why are you talking like this? But I was too scared. “Even in your dreams,” he said. “I’m gonna be there.” I said, “Bendición, Abuelo,” and he answered, “Dios te bendiga.” A month later, he died.
I put my things back in the box. I looked down in the street. The raggedy man was gone. The gold outline on the building was gone too, spread out through the sky, making it shiny with invisible light. For some reason I thought of a TV commercial where a million butterflies burst out from some shampoo bottle or cereal box. I thought of Cookie’s face when he gave my brother a cookie. I thought of the big-legs lady in the booklet holding the fake orange flower, looking like she was hoping for someone to come have fun with her.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of The Mare by Mary Gaitskill. In Gaitskill’s hands, the timeless story of a girl and a horse is joined with a timely story of people from different races and classes trying to meet one another honestly. The Mare is raw, heart-stirring, and original.
1. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Gaitskill takes a premise that could have been preachy, sentimental, or simplistic—juxtaposing urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, brown and white—and makes it candid and emotionally complex, spare, real, and deeply affecting.” How does Gaitskill manage to do this?
2. Why do you think the book opens with an epigraph from National Velvet? Why do you think Gaitskill refers to another famous horse book/movie? What does “intolerance” have to do with this book? And why do you think she named one of her main characters Velvet?
3. Why this title? Is Ginger The Mare as much as the horse is? Is Velvet’s mom also the mare? “‘My mare,’ like ‘mah mere’ or ‘ma mère’” (p. 99).
4. Describe the structure of the novel. Why do you think there are no chapters, just short sections interweaving different voices together? What is the effect on you as a reader to hear Ginger’s and Velvet’s perspectives, sometimes on the same events or subjects? Do you think this makes the novel a more compelling, more personal story? What effect do the various viewpoints and voices have on your reading experience?
5. Describe the home environments of Velvet and Ginger. How and why are they different? How are they similar?
6. Describe Velvet’s relationship with her mother. How does it compare with what we learn of Ginger’s relationship with her mother and sister?
7. Compare and contrast Velvet’s friendships with the other girls in her class with Ginger’s relationships with the other women in the novel. How and why are both Velvet and Ginger outsiders? How have both of them “created ways to keep others at a distance” (p. 10)? How are both rootless?
8. How do Velvet’s stereotypes of “rich white people” and Ginger’s stereotypes of inner-city kids evolve over the course of the novel?
9. Why do Ginger and her husband fall for the Fresh Air Fund brochures? “It was sentimental and flattering to white vanity and manipulative as hell. It was also irresistible” (p. 14).
10. Why is Ginger enchanted by Velvet? “Her presence made everything special” (p. 55).
11. After Fiery Girl accepts her, how is Velvet enchanted by the horse?
12. How is Pat different from other horse trainers? Do you like her style and way with horses? Contrast her methods with Beverly’s.
13. How does Ginger’s past haunt her present? The abusive boyfriend? The drinking? When do the two coincide and meet her directly in the present?
14. Describe Velvet’s relationship with Fiery Girl. Why do the two gravitate toward each other? What does each get from the other?
15. Cosmopolitan magazine said, “Gaitskill’s clear, raw prose rips open notions of race, class, age, and what it means to love something greater than yourself.” How does the author open up notions of race, class, and age?
16. Did you find The Mare a hopeful novel? Was it depressing? How could it be both?
17. There are numerous instances of Velvet describing people as being like horses. Reread those passages and discuss: “We were moving like the horses” (p. 185); “This angry was big and warm like a horse” (p. 196); “They get beat down and locked up but still, when they run, nobody can stop them” (p. 288).
18. Describe Velvet’s relationship with Dominic. How does it contrast with Ginger’s relationships with men? Despite their age difference, are there similarities in their relationships with males?
19. Why is Velvet’s mother so opposed to her daughter riding horses? How do you think she feels at the end of the novel?
20. Ginger thinks at one raw point with Velvet, when she wonders if she’s doing any good in the girl’s life, “Maybe they really are different from us. More violent, more dishonest—nicer in some ways, yes, warm, physical, passionate . . . Everybody was right. I’m racist. At least now I know.” Why does she think so? How do you feel about the way race plays into the novel? How does Ginger try to connect with this girl from another background? How does she connect and how does she misstep?
21. "I can’t even be her pretend mother. I give in. I agree. I’m over. It is what it is. But I can still get her on that fucking horse. I can help her win” (p. 452). Discuss the significance of these lines spoken by Ginger in the context of the entire novel.
22. How does the author deal with Velvet’s preteen desire, evolving sexuality, and falling in love? How does she juxtapose it with Paul’s infidelity and Ginger’s fleeting interest in an abusive ex-boyfriend?
23. How does the author capture the energy and excitement and anxiety of horseback riding?
24. What do you think of the ending of The Mare?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Mary
Mary Gaitskill's short stories and novels are often dark and complex considerations of loneliness and relationships, such as Veronica, nominated for the National Book Award. Referred to as "the best practitioner of dark literary arts" by Elisabeth Donnelly in the LA Times, Gaitskill casts a spell on the reader, exposing what is raw and true.
The Mare is less interior than her previous novels, and therefore very different from her previous work. Writing from multiple perspectives, Gaitskill tells the story of a Dominican girl, Velvet, a Fresh Air Fund kid who is introduced to horseback riding by her host family, Ginger and Paul. Silvia, Velvet's mother, is another prominent character in the book. When Velvet's outside the confines of her Brooklyn life, she forms a deep attachment with a difficult horse, and in doing so, challenges herself.
Gaitskill herself was a Fresh Air Fund host, and in order to research this book, she spent three years learning how to ride horses. I recently chatted with her on a beautiful fall day while sitting outside of a restaurant near her apartment in Williamsburg.
The Barnes & Noble Review: The Mare feels like a big departure from your other books. There's darkness, but there's also a lot of hope, and I'm wondering if the writing process was different for this particular novel than your previous books.
Mary Gaitskill: It was. It's stylistically different as well, I'm sure you noticed . . . It's more direct, both in the way the sentences are structured and then the emotional expression. In a way, it's not as much of a departure as it seems because it's really a more direct expression of a particular type of emotional way of being in the world. And it's different in that many of the characters are from a different socioeconomic place, but in some ways they struggle with the same things as my previous characters have. How much you can trust people, how much you value love, what is love, what does love come with? Is it love that's being cruel, or is it the attachment of things to it? I mean, people in my stories aren't asking themselves these questions directly, and neither are the people in The Mare, but I think that's part of it for all of them.
BNR: Ginger feels judged by the other women in her town, but in many ways she's kind of her own worst critic. And I kept thinking of performance while reading The Mare, because Velvet performs her role as a tough city kid who manages to get a scarred and scared horse to like her, and her mother plays the fearful, ignorant mother who takes out her anger on her oldest child. Ginger plays the artist trying to repair by helping out another person and even resorts to community theatre. Did you think a lot about the roles we play in our lives and authenticity while writing this book?
MG: Actually, I don't think Velvet's mother is playing a role. You're probably thinking about the section in which she thinks, Why are people acting the way they are? It's like they're playing parts like the kids in her school. And I think Ginger also is very aware of that, the role of a mother, what is a mother supposed to do? How am I supposed to act?
But I don't think Silvia is doing that. I think she kind of has to do what she does, and there's no acting involved whatever. But I can see why you asked the question . . . I would say Silvia's not like this because she's not really a product of American culture, but American culture now has become unbelievably self-conscious and unbearable, almost. It's like everybody, even small children.
I remember feeling that way when I was a kid, too, sometimes. Having watched television, I would kind of play the role or picture myself on a television show or something like that. That's maybe always been true of a certain type of kid, even before television, maybe, but I think it's been amplified to an insane level.
I saw when I was coming back on the train today a mother filming on her phone her small child looking out the window and watching the water, and the child, of course, is very aware of it. When looking out the window and watching the water becomes a drama, then literally everything is a drama. And people are watching, and there's no room for just being there, doing something without thinking about what you look like. I set the book in a time somewhat before phones and people filming everything was so prominent, but it was starting to happen even then. I think the story starts in 2006 and ends in 2009 or '10 maybe, I'm not sure.
But yes, I think that that's become a huge issue in the last I would say twenty years. I remember hearing people talking about it a lot. Though actually people were doing that even before -- I think in the '80s maybe is when I remember people first talking about authenticity like a little too much . . . Maybe it's now an assumption that it's not there. I don't know. I had a friend who commented to me that he thinks everyone is acting as if they don't know it. I think she thinks she's not doing it, but everyone else is, and they don't know it. And I've thought about that. What does that mean? Is that true? Because there is a sense in which we have -- like I go in to teach a class, I may be somewhat different than I would be talking to you, although it's related because it's public. I'm very different with my roommate or my lover or my cats. But I don't know if that means you're acting really, if you're being truthful. I think of acting as something you do almost by definition on purpose. I think people in like Velvet's socioeconomic group are very aware they've been cast in a certain role by how they're talked about, like terms like "at risk" or "making a difference" or hearing those women at the bus stop talk about Latino and black people, like we have to show them another way. That's really aggressively being cast in a role by people who do not know you.
And as much as you might hate and resist that role, it affects you, especially if you're a kid. And I'm not speaking as if I know about Latino people having this experience, but there's other ways to have it. You know, if you're one person or a minority in a large group and that large group is saying you're this way and saying you're this way over and over again, you're going to become aware that's your role. Some people are strong enough to resist it completely, but other people survive it by acting the role. They're like "Oh, okay, that's what I am. And fuck you if you don't like it."
And again, white people can do that, too. It's not a phenomenon about any particular one group, but it's just what people will do if they're cast in a role. But then somebody like Velvet, you question it. Why? Where did this come from? Who invented this?
And somebody like Ginger will also be aware of motherhood. As a woman, she feels very strongly. And again, you're right, she's her own worst critic. The other people may not even judge her that much, but she thinks they are because she's had it impressed upon her at various times in her life that this is what women are supposed to do.
BNR: Did you do a lot of research for the novel? I'm wondering if you interviewed Fresh Air Fund kids and hosts and if you already knew a lot about horses before you started writing.
MG: Most of the research I did was about horses. I didn't know anything about them.
BNR: Did that involve going and riding horses?
MG: Yeah. I learned how to ride at fifty-six.
BNR: That's wonderful.
MG: It was terrifying.
BNR: Did you like it?
MG: I seemed to. I didn't at first. At first I hated it because I was scared. I was a Fresh Air Fund person. My husband and I did that starting in 2002 and it was quite the experience . . . It was a really involved relationship. They were really, really great. They were so wonderful, these kids. I don't know how much it helped them, but it certainly helped me to be involved with them. It made my life better.
So that's how I knew that experience. And horses were . . . I was so dumb at first. I actually thought I could learn what I needed to know. And the girl, by the way, did really like to ride. That's where I got the idea. She didn't do what Velvet does because she didn't come up that much. I mean, Velvet comes up every month and does it a lot. She would not be able to ride at the end as well as she did if she did not do that. The girl didn't have the opportunity for that. She wouldn't have done it anyway. That wasn't her nature.
But I actually thought that I could go to the stable with my notebook and ask, "Have you ever had a connection with a horse? What did it feel like?" I realized quickly that I was not going to get what I needed by that. So I thought, Well, I'll just take maybe ten lessons, but again I realized that really wasn't adequate, especially for me. It's hard to learn anything new when you're older, and that really takes a lot. So I spent three years. [Horses are] quite sensitive, and they react to you. If they know you're nervous, it makes them uncomfortable. There's a "lesson horse" that can be used with nervous people, but I was really nervous, and some of the horses I was on were lesson horses, but they were at barns that didn't necessarily get a lot of business, so they weren't the type of lesson horse that every day they had five people come in and ride them one after the other. They were horses that were ridden maybe a couple times per week by different people, and I was probably one of the least experienced people. And also frequently, although not always, children are -- even if they're really new, they're less nervous because they're kids and they aren't imagining they could fall off and have every bone in their body broken and be in the hospital forever.
So it was awkward because the horses would just look at me and be like, "Oh no, not her again." And I knew they were feeling that way. And I remember I would be tacking them up, and they would do a perfectly normal horse thing like toss their head or stamp their feet and I would flinch because it looked like aggression to me. I would flinch, and then they would be like what's wrong? And it would be this horrible feedback loop.
And at one point, oddly enough, I was more comfortable -- I wanted to ride bareback for a minute because I saw this young girl riding a horse bareback, and she was trotting, and I thought Oh, I'd like to try that, just because I thought my character would want to do that. So I said "Can I try that?" And I'd really not done posting before. I think I'd experimented a little with posting, but it was really early. So the instructor was like, "Are you sure?" And I was like, "Yeah, I just want to get a feel for it."
And it was in the winter, and it was such an experiment when I got on because paradoxically, although I was afraid of them, the more connected I felt, the more relaxed I felt. And so when I got on the horse without the saddle, and the warmth was so striking because it was cold, I was like "Oh my God, this feels so good." And so I was much more relaxed. I just felt literally more connected with the animal because I was calmer, so the horse was calmer, and the lesson went much better.
And the next time -- we didn't trot; we just walked. I was just practicing steering and basic things. So the next time we did it again. And I said, "I think I want to try posting." She said, "Are you sure?" And I was like, "Yeah." And the first time I did it, it worked. I could do it.
So the second time I was a little overconfident. And something happened also to startle the horse. It's one of these horses that's normally bulletproof, nothing disturbs it, and I don't remember what it was. I think maybe it was hunting season and somebody fired a gun close by. I think what happened too is I squeezed it inadvertently and he thought I was telling him to trot so he did and I first fell off. And it really scared me. I was lucky because I didn't break anything, but I bizarrely cut my chin on a rock on the ground.
Because I tried to do what's called a quick dismount. I tried to get off when I could feel I was falling. That's how I fell on my front instead of my back. It was very jarring. I didn't break anything, but I pulled a muscle, and I was really shaken up. I'm ashamed to say that I did not get back on the horse.
BNR: You didn't after that?
MG: The trainer was like, "Get back on." I was like, "No, no, no, no." So I didn't, and I went back to another barn I was working at and decided I'm not going to do this. I'm going to break my stupid ass if I keep trying to do this. So instead I just groomed them and cleaned their stalls, and I did that for months.
I realized, gradually, that I was no longer nervous around these horses because I knew them. And I realized not only were they not nervous around me, they actually kind of liked me because I was very gentle with them. And I had learned how they liked to be touched; I learned how they liked to be groomed; I knew when they liked being scratched in a certain place; and I did a really good job cleaning their stalls, and they knew that. And I suddenly realized I want to ride them. I want to ride one. So I went back, and because I was more calm, things went much better. I still wasn't a very good rider. I never became really good or skilled, but I did basically learn how. And I actually could learn at that point because I wasn't so frightened at everything that I would tense up at anything the horse did. And I also became very attached -- I would say I fell in love with a particular horse.
BNR: Is it like the horse in the book at all?
MG: No, he was a very mild horse, very gentle. Although he did shove me with his head a few times and almost knocked me down, but not out of meanness. I don't know about the head thing. I think because I was talking on the wrong side, and he was trying to say "Hey, over there." But I didn't know that, and it scared me. And as I put in the book, it was a mistake. The place that I was going to -- you shouldn't actually do this, but some people do it -- with some of the larger horses, they didn't walk them into the stall and turn them all the way around and take all the efforts that you're supposed to do. They would just walk them up to the door and unclip them and kind of gesture them in. And that's what this horse was used to, and I didn't know that. So while I was leading, I was leading him in and he was just expecting to run right in. So even though I put my elbow in his side so he'd remember I was there, boom, he just ran right into me. Because my elbow was there, he basically flung me against the wall. I was like, Never again. I don't know why, but this horse doesn't like me and I won't deal with him ever again. But another time I was in there and it was an emergency and his stall was really dirty, and he literally said, "Please help me. It's gross in here. Please help." And so I did. I went in and helped him.
BNR: Were you scared at that point, or no?
MG: I was. I actually said, "No, I would like to, but you shoved me with your head. You knocked me against the wall. I'm not coming in there. I'm sorry. Somebody else will be here." I swear he looked back at me and said, "I'm not going to do that. I need help." And so I put some hay in his feed dish so he would get out of the way. This is something you also shouldn't do. It's actually much safer to take the horse out of his stall, but because I'd had trouble with him while I was leading him I didn't want to do that. Instead I blocked the door with the wheelbarrow and went in. But as soon as I walked in, I knew it was fine. I just knew nothing was going to happen. He was actually very gentle. So, anyway, he was the horse I really fell in love with.
BNR: Velvet has a strong will, much like the horses she learns to ride, and you write: "The horses have what the people here have. They get beat down and locked up but still, when they run, nobody can stop them." When writing about someone trying to rise above the world they were born into, it's easy to tread into sentimental or kind of saccharine territory, and I wonder how you managed to avoid that while writing this book.
MG: I don't know if I did -- to me, even if something is romantic or very emotional, it isn't sentimental if there's some reality to it.
I think people are more frightened of sentiment than they have to be. Writers. They think any strong emotion is sentimentality, and that's really bad. I think a lot of writing, or a lot of young writers especially, hold themselves back unnecessarily because they're so upset about the idea that they might be sentimental or so concerned about being criticized that way or even being that way that they just shy away from any strong expression or emotion. And you can be really emotional, too emotional almost, and not be sentimental if it's genuine.
BNR: The title of the book refers to the horse, but it also refers to the French word for mother (mère), and at one point Silvia even compares herself to a horse and says "I am blocked inside the hardness and nothingness and I can't get out. Like the horse Velvet talks about the one who kicks the walls. Striking the hard thing, trying to break it. No one sees. No one hears." Do you see a lot of similarities between the two?
MG: Not really, but I don't know if there can be a similarity between a person and an animal really but there is something beautiful trapped in Silvia. And she knows it. Just the ability to be yourself, even, because she has to work so hard, and each one is constantly pushing against survival, the need for survival. There are so many things you need to do that you can't come out. Like I think at one point she says "I work so much I can't think." I can't remember exactly. But that's true, if you're constantly having to do things just to live, you're not able to think as well as you can or relax and feel things. So in that sense, she is confined.
Did you ever see the movie National Velvet?
BNR: No, I haven't.
MG: I was frankly inspired to write this by seeing a little film clip of it -- I hadn't yet seen the movie at that point. Liz Taylor, fifteen years old, riding across a Technicolor meadow. And I learned it is about a young farm girl who's pretty naturally poor, but pretty naturally talented. She wants this horse. Her family can't afford it. But it's such a fucked-up horse that nobody else wants it, so she gets to take care of it. And she winds up, through various circumstances, entering the National. It's called National Velvet because she enters this big national race. But nobody knows it's a girl. She's replacing a jockey because he can't ride for some reason.
So she rides her horse and wins, and then when they find out it's her, she's disqualified. She's a fourteen-year-old girl. So it doesn't change her life, and her mother actually says ,"Don't worry about it. You don't need to win anything. You're going to go on and have kids and women are great." And that's the end.
So in an odd way I wanted to do something similar here. I intentioned originally for her to win big, and I realized because of the way these contests are structured it would be impossible. She'd have to enter repeatedly. She can't do that. She would be up against girls who had such an advantage over her in terms of their horses being trained, being bred, being just the best possible quality horse in existence, and also they've been riding since they were seven years old and they can do it every day if they want to. So she couldn't possibly consistently win against girls like that. So I mean for her to triumph and it's meaningful, but is it going to change her life in a material way? Probably not.
--November 11, 2015