Sometimes the people who leave the biggest impression on you are the most surprising. In Oakland Ross's Swimming with Horses (Dundurn Press), Sam Mitchell is an average teen when he meets Hilary Anson, a friend his age who is a beautiful and mysterious South African transplant to Canada.
Though their lives have been very different, their summer friendship is a happy one. But when Hilary disappears, she, and her absence, become a central focus of Sam's life. Her memory stays with him over the years, through two marriages, until he finds himself compelled to visit South Africa and see what he can discover about the girl who he's never forgotten.
We're excited to welcome Oakland to Open Book to answer our It's a Long Story novelist interview. He tells us about the short story that decided it was a novel, how the titular horses feature in the story, and the incredible breakthrough moment for this novel that he'll never forget.
Do you remember how your first started this novel or the very first bit of writing you did for it?
A very long time ago, I began to write what I thought might turn into a short story, a tale set partly in Canada and partly in southern Africa. It involved the same three main characters who now appear in Swimming with Horses, but it was a far less ambitious undertaking, one that I expected might stretch over about three months of story time (rather than the three decades of the finished book). In any case, I eventually set that unfinished story aside in favour of some other idea, and I pretty much forgot about it. Several years ago, shortly after the publication of my second novel, I was casting about for a new project, and I remembered this abandoned short story. I somehow managed to find it in the silicon depths of a superannuated computer. I read it and kind of liked it, and so I got to work. I had no suspicion then that the writing would take me about four years to complete, but so it has. The book just grew and grew, becoming a vastly more complicated enterprise than the simple short story I had originally expected. In the end, I put my faith in those three main characters of mine, and they led the way, mounted on horseback much of the time.
How did you choose the setting of your novel? What connection, if any, did you have to the setting when you began writing?
I don’t want to seem too Delphic about this, but I don’t think I chose the setting of Swimming with Horses. (Or the settings, plural: there’s more than one.) I think they chose me. About half of the novel unfolds in southern Ontario horse country, a quiet, parochial region of the world, much like the countryside where I grew up, on a horse farm northwest of Toronto. Inevitably, some of the novel’s Canadian narrative is semi-autobiographical. Like Sam Mitchell, the book’s 15-year-old protagonist, I spent most of my early life surrounded and enthralled by horses, and the novel draws heavily on those experiences. In these sections of the novel, I was writing at least partly from memory. The rest of the book is set in southern Africa, mainly South Africa. As it happens, I used to live in Zimbabwe, whose white anglo community is culturally very similar to its South African counterpart. I have also travelled pretty extensively in South Africa itself, mostly during apartheid times, so I do have some familiarity with that part of the world. There was never any doubt in my mind that much of the novel had to take place in South Africa. The country’s political and moral turmoil at the time made sure of that. Besides, Hilary Anson — one of the book’s three main characters — is 100 percent South African, and couldn’t be anything else. She brought the African setting with her, along with a great playlist of African music and her African memories. It was a package deal.
Did the ending of your novel change at all through your drafts? If so, how?
Did the ending change? That’s putting it mildly! My original conception of the novel’s ending, vague though it was, had almost nothing whatever to do with the ending that eventually materialized. I think this is more or less as it should be. I have sometimes heard writers say with a certain pride that they already know how or where their current work-in-progress is going to end. In my experience, that’s almost always a bad idea. It’s a good thing to have some sort of ending in mind — you probably need that gravitational heft — but I don’t think you should commit yourself to it. Far better to let the novel find its own ending, part of a process that U.S. writer Walker Percy once called “the discipline of the narrative.” Otherwise, a book is likely to wind up with an ending that seems “willed,” as if the writer were putting his or her thumb on the scales to produce a pre-ordained conclusion. It’s a rare reader who falls for that.
Did you find yourself having a "favourite" amongst your characters? If so, who was it and why?
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Definitely. Hilary Anson, the novel’s rebellious “bad girl” character, had me in her corner from start to finish, despite her contrarian, high-handed, and self-destructive ways (or maybe because of them). I am also in awe of her sensational equestrian skills. As a teenager, I once or twice encountered young women who were something like Hilary, seemingly reckless women who inhabited a dangerous world that was terra incognita to me. They fascinated me even though I perceived them only vaguely and only when their orbits briefly intersected with mine. In one case, I spent an unforgettable evening in the company of one such woman, a scene I reinvent in the novel as the bathroom encounter between Hilary and Sam, an episode that takes place early in the book. In that scene, Hilary smokes too many cigarettes and reads aloud from the Alan Paton novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. In real life, the woman in question smoked too many cigarettes and read aloud from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. As it turned out, I never saw her again, but I have loved her ever since and always will.
If you had to describe your book in one sentence, what would you say?
Swimming with Horses charts the unlikely friendship between Canadian teenager Sam Mitchell and Hilary Anson — a raven-haired, gun-toting South African bad girl — during an idyllic summer in Ontario horse country, a season that unfolds against the backdrop of Hilary’s sexually tormented, racially riven past in apartheid-era South Africa; bloodshed ensues.
Did you do any specific research for this novel? Tell us a bit about that process.
I didn’t have to do much research for the Ontario sections of Swimming with Horses, which mainly revolve around small-town burghers and rural roughnecks, plus horses, horses, horses. I believe I knew those subjects pretty thoroughly from my own experiences as a teenager growing up on a horse farm northwest of Toronto. As for the South African sections, I had to bone up on lots of subjects, especially geography, meteorology, and language. Language was the trickiest part. I had to replicate not just the idiom of anglo white South Africans and black South Africans, but also the idiom of anglo white South Africans and black South Africans roughly 60 years ago. That took some digging of my own, abetted by the very generous and able help of Cape Town resident Sandy Mattison. Oddly, one of the most difficult issues was sorting out which term white anglo South African youngsters use to address their mother — "Mom" or "Mum." The answer? It depends.
What was the strangest or most memorable moment or experience during the writing process for you?
That’s easy. I had a wonderful breakthrough experience in the writing of this novel when I finally figured out the ending. In all the early drafts of the book, the big problem was the ending, of which I wrote many versions — all very different and each one weaker than the one before. I tried every ending I could think of, and all were inadequate. I realized that I needed some kind of revelation, some kind of “aha-ha” moment, but I didn’t think a new revelation was possible, not after more than three years of fairly exhaustive work. I didn’t think I had much chance of coming up with something new at this point — and then I did! Sort of. More or less on a whim, I went back to an idea that I had considered early on but that I’d rejected because it was too outlandish. I thought that no one would believe it. But I realized now that this had to be the ending. There was no other possibility. The challenge did not involve coming up with a new idea. It turned out that I already had an idea — this far-fetched, previously rejected outcome. The challenge was to make it seem credible. I had to go back through the novel and embed an invisible foundation for this ending, a foundation the reader would not grasp on first reading but that would support and justify the unexpected ending when it came. You can tell me whether it works.
Oakland Ross has written two previous novels, a travel memoir, and a short story collection. He worked as a foreign correspondent for several years and received two National Newspaper Awards and a National Magazine Award for fiction. Oakland lives in Toronto.