Anton DiSclafani talks The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls with Arleigh Johnson
AJ: Your protagonist, Thea, grows up on a citrus farm in Florida, but is placed in a boarding school in the mountains of North Carolina. How did you decide on the locations for the novel, and what personal knowledge do you have of each setting?
AD: The settings are the only thing in the novel–beside the horses–that I took from my own life. I grew up in northern Florida, and the house Thea lives in was based, pretty closely, on the house my family lived in, which was built in the 1920s. The house used to have an orange grove behind it, and though it no longer does, the house itself remains almost unchanged.
My family has a cabin in Valle Crucis, North Carolina, a stone’s throw from the “real” Yonahlossee, which was long closed by the time I started visiting the area. I love the mountains, and always have, even as a child. So I would say I have a lot of personal knowledge of each place in terms of atmosphere. And nothing has changed, in terms of atmosphere–the mountains are the same now as in the 1920s; the thick, muggy heat of northern Florida has always been thick and muggy.
AD: I think that seclusion was absolutely more common in the late 1920s/early 30s, but Thea and Sam’s childhood, as I imagined it, was more isolated than most. Their father served the town, as its doctor, but Thea’s mother made a decision to draw a very thick line between the town and herself and her children. Most children in Thea’s day and age went to school, at least for a little while, and met other children; Thea and Sam do not. And from a practical standpoint, you had to meet other people so that you could find someone to marry. There isn’t any way for either Thea or Sam to learn how to behave with anybody who isn’t family, and isn’t that what growing up is all about? Learning to live in a world beyond your family? I think so.
AJ: Thea experiences different friendships throughout the story. Which characters do you feel were most important for building her character?
AD: Sissy, definitely. At that age, a girl making, and keeping, a best friend (also a girl!) is such an important, particular moment. It’s the first time you really trust someone who isn’t your family member or an adult. And this moment was amplified for Thea because it was her first real friendship.
AJ: A modern view of Thea’s plight would surely place partial blame with her parents, but during the time it was common for girls to be sent away for youthful indiscretions. However, you also present the Great Depression as a time of change for American families. What in particular made you choose this era, and what do you think is the most poignant theme of your novel?
AD: I don’t think this story could take place in a modern world. The historical pressures that act upon Thea and her family don’t exist, now, at least not in the same form. Move the story forward fifty years and Thea would be in therapy, not an old-fashioned girls’ school.
I chose the cusp of the Depression–the moment where everybody was still a little bit hopeful, because it seemed like things might get better, that the worst was behind everyone. Of course it wasn’t, but no one knew; that moment is so sad and rich, and I wanted my characters to exist in it.
AJ: You are quite obviously knowledgeable about horses and riding. Can you tell us about your equestrian background?
AD: I rode all through childhood and adolescence, and I ride now. I do dressage, which is a very technical, subtle kind of riding–the golf of the horse world–and would not make good fictional territory. And plus, Thea’s fearlessness makes her a good jumper, and dressage doesn’t require fearlessness (which is why I like it).
AJ: The layout of story is expertly executed to give readers tidbits at a time—narrated by an older Thea, alternating her time at Yonahlossee with her life leading up to that point via flashbacks and letters. Why did you decide on this style?
AD: Thank you! The style made sense, because Thea is the kind of person (very unlike myself) who is able to draw lines in her brain between what she wants to think about and what she doesn’t. This ability meant that she could involve herself in a scandal at home, and not worry about the consequences; it also meant that she could survive at camp by not thinking much about what had happened at home. Thea thinks about what happened when she’s able to, and the novel’s form reflects that.
AJ: Did you find any surprising information when researching this book?
AD: Tons. For example, I learned a lot about indoor plumbing, even though that information doesn’t make it into the book. For every historical detail that appears in the book, I know ten times more about through research. Such is the way of historical fiction. And I enjoyed the process.
AJ: Can you tell us about your next writing project?
AD: A modern-day novel, set in the South.