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Kay Ellington, a native of Snyder, Texas, and a graduate of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, has worked in newspaper management with Gannett, Knight-Ridder, Hearst, New York Times Regional Group, and family-owned papers from Texas to New York to California to the Carolinas and back again to Texas. She is the coauthor, with Barbara Brannon, of the West Texas novel The Paragraph Ranch.
Thomas H. McNeely is a former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer in fiction at Stanford University whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and Epoch, and has been anthologized in The Best American Mystery Stories; What If?: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers; and Algonquin Books’s Best of the South: From the Second Decade of New Stories from the South.
He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Dobie Paisano Program at the University of Texas at Austin, and the MacDowell Colony. He currently teaches in the Stanford Online Writers’ Studio and the Emerson College Honors Program.
was winner of the 2013 Gival Press Novel Award and published in 2014.
GHOST HORSE is the story of one boy, Buddy Turner, and his struggle to navigate the secrets and lies of his family as it dissolves in a bitter divorce. Set amidst the social tensions of 1970's Houston, it is also the story of a friendship between him and another boy, who is Latino, and the pressures that both boys face to end their friendship, as they seek to make an animated movie about a magical horse. This critically acclaimed novel captures a moment about family and society in the South that still resonates today.
Children of 1970s divorce, your book is here ... In “Ghost Horse,” his lucid debut novel, Cambridge author Thomas H. McNeely has captured something harrowing about an era of chaos and unease.
—Laura Collins-Hughes, Boston Globe
The writing is sensitive, beautiful, and ominous throughout— as if Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson teamed up to write a 1970s Texas YA novel that went off the rails somewhere—in a very, very good way.
—Lisa Peet, Library Journal
McNeely beautifully portrays the confusion of a boy doing his best to deal with matters that are beyond his understanding but fully capable of doing him harm.... A dark, deeply stirring novel about the quiet tragedy of growing up in a broken family. —Kirkus Reviews
[T]his former Dobie Paisano fellow’s haunting debut novel ... never allows its pop culture references or beautifully rendered sentences to soften the violence that life...visits upon its sensitive protagonist.
—Jeff Salamon, Texas Monthly
Houston native Thomas H. McNeely explores the heartbreak and confusion of adolescence through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy .... It’s a shattering portrait, not only in the ways that divorce can unhinge a boy’s life, but also in the ways that wayward adults can corrupt childhood innocence.
—Charles Ealy, Austin American-Statesman
McNeely writes with eerie precision the feelings of a child .... If you believe that a book should push you off balance and take you somewhere new, then Ghost Horse will deliver.
—Ada Fetters, Commonline Journal
LSLL corresponded with Texas native Thomas H. McNeely, now living and teaching at Emerson College, by email on a day when Boston was nearly immobilized by snow and Lubbock had an eighty-degree January afternoon. We didn’t envy him.
LSLL: First, kudos on Ghost Horse, and a lifetime of impressive literary and professional experiences. How do you think the time frame defines each of these experiences for you?
Thank you, Kay, for having me on Lone Star Literary Life. I am honored by this invitation, and grateful that you are providing this service to the Texas literary community.
I grew up in Houston, which is where Ghost Horse, my debut novel, is set. I have been a Dobie Paisano fellow, a Wallace Stegner fellow at Stanford, a defense investigator of capital murder cases, and a staffer at the Daily Texan.
When I was growing up in Houston, I wanted to be a writer. This came to me, I think, from my grandmother, Alice Cochran, who won the Intercollegiate Cup for Elocution in 1918. She could recite poetry well into her eighties and continues to be an inspiration to me. Writing on deadline for the Texan was my first exposure to what it would mean to be a professional writer—I was very lucky to work with some amazingly talented writers and editors, and also to have wonderful writing teachers at UT—James Magnuson, Elizabeth Harris, and Thomas Whitbread. The lessons I learned in those classes are ones I still call upon in my writing and teaching.
After college, I worked for the Texas Resource Center, a law firm that defended death row inmates in their appeals. I got to work with a brilliant, committed group of people. I also got to see human strength and tragedy on a grand scale—in the work of those lawyers, the families of defendants and victims, law enforcement, and the police. Those experiences shaped me as a writer, and years later, became the basis for my first published story, “Sheep,” in the Atlantic Monthly.
I wrote “Sheep” while I was working on my MFA at Emerson College, where again I was lucky to have some amazing teachers: Pamela Painter, Margot Livesey, and James Carroll. It was there that I really began to take myself seriously as a writer, which in itself was a struggle. Most of what I wrote from that time is an embarrassment to me, but I worked constantly, holed up in a closet in my studio apartment on Beacon Street.
In 2000, the Dobie Paisano Program generously gave me a fellowship. I wrote the first draft of Ghost Horse on the Paisano Ranch—it is a special place and program for Texas writers, which I hope will be preserved by the University. [Editor's note: the Austin Chronicle's 2013 "Range War at the Dobie Ranch" described this ongoing issue early on; more on the Dobie Ranch and fellowship program is found on the University of Texas website.]
In 2001, I received a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, which was both a wonderful and humbling experience. I was surrounded by immensely talented writers—Adam Johnson, Kaui Hart Hemmings, ZZ Packer, Julie Orringer—and again very lucky to have amazing teachers, like Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Tallent, and John L’Heureux.
During the time I was teaching at Stanford, my father took his own life, an event that nearly ended my work on Ghost Horse. That loss is buried deep inside this book. I’ve also been writing short stories and pieces of a memoir, a section of which will be published in Texas Monthly this spring.
LSLL: I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities between Ghost Horse and Richard Linklater's celebrated film Boyhood. Have others mentioned this?
Wow. I am so flattered by that comparison. I have heard that before, and am not sure what to do with it. The human and artistic vision of Boyhood is epic, extending from childhood through the departure of the main character, Mason, for college. In Ghost Horse, I was trying to focus on a more discrete moment for my hero, Buddy, when he transitions from the private world of childhood to the larger social world, a transition complicated by the disintegration of his family and the race and class tensions in Houston at that time. I was very interested, in writing Ghost Horse, in focusing on that moment, unfortunately familiar to many Anglo Texans of my generation, when friendships with people of other races were discouraged, and how this shapes our identities.
That said, I think Ghost Horse shares a lot of affinities with Boyhood, not only in its evocation of a Houston childhood, and the ways in which children are always watching and learning from adults, but in other ways that I find harder to define. I have tremendous respect for both Linklater’s and Wes Anderson’s films, and I like to think that Ghost Horse shares something with both of them—the tension between past and present in Linklater, the use of art and imagination—in Ghost Horse, an animated movie two boys are making—as in Anderson.
LSLL: As a child of the ’70s, I find that that decade has gotten lost in the shuffle of the cultural limelight of the turbulent ’60s and the greedy ’80s. What was particularly distinctive about Houston in the ’70s?
If I had to boil it down to a couple of words, it was a sense of danger, and also a sense of community that still existed at that time, as a protection against that danger.
I grew up south of downtown Houston, a few blocks from Hughes Tool, in a working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood. One of my earliest visions of the larger city came through the Dean Corll serial murder case, in part because his accomplice’s confession was captured live on the TV news, and in part because our neighbors’ daughter knew one of the boys who’d disappeared. Houston was still a small enough place, then, for such connections to be made.
All of this was mixed in with my perceptions of race—it was made clear to me, in a variety of different ways, that as an Anglo kid, I was safer.
So, it was dangerous, and the racial politics were ugly, but there was also a sense of coherence that seems to me to be missing now, though perhaps this is only because I am not raising children there. This might also be nostalgia clouding my memories. But I do remember parents and kids from different backgrounds mixing together, a sense of shared responsibility and concern, perhaps in the face of that danger.
LSLL seeks to celebrate the uniqueness of Texas voices while recognizing that our state is a melting pot of rural and urban sensibilities. How is Ghost Horse a uniquely Texas book? Do you consider yourself to be a distinctively Texas author?
Ghost Horse is Texan, specifically Houstonian, through and through. My aim in the book, which I meant only half-jokingly, was to preserve in amber Houston at a certain moment in time, a task which I think will inform whatever books I will be lucky enough to write. Houston, not to mention Texas, is inexhaustible in its complexity and diversity, and I feel urgency in capturing all I can about it, especially Houston, which changes so rapidly.
I do feel an affinity with many Texan authors. Ghost Horse was influenced by Southern coming-of-age books, especially Flannery O’Connor’s great, overlooked novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Closer to home, I count C. W. Smith’s Thin Men of Haddam, William Goyen’s House of Breath, and J. Frank Dobie’s and Frederick Barthelme’s wonderful stories—also Carolyn Osborn’s Uncertain Ground and Elizabeth Harris’s The Ant Generator, which was a revelation to me. I’ve admired Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, Mary Helen Specht’s Migratory Animals, and Joe Milazzo’s amazing Crepuscule w/Nellie. Thomas Derr’s Telephone Road is a wonderful collection of stories about growing up in Houston.
All of this is a lame attempt to answer your question, which I can’t really answer. What it means to be a Texan author is changing rapidly (I didn’t even mention my expat friend Doug Dorst, and the redoubtable Clyde Edgerton, who are central to the Austin literary scene). To me, Frederick Barthelme is as Texan as Larry McMurtry. I think the challenge for Texas authors is to communicate the uniqueness of this culture without getting lost either in provincialism or the placelessness of the larger culture—Specht’s Migratory Animals is one answer to that problem, I think. Ghost Horse, in its work of recording Houston at a particular time, is another.
LSLL: What observations would you offer on the rapidly changing world of publishing?
When I graduated from Emerson College, my closest friend, Andrea Dupree, went out to Denver, Colorado, to start a writing workshop, Lighthouse Writers Workshops. Everyone, Andrea included, doubted whether she would succeed. Twenty years later, Lighthouse Writers is a force in Denver literary and civic life, as is Grub Street Writers, started at exactly the same time, in Boston. I don’t think anyone could have predicted the explosion of writing programs, or the confluence of printing and Internet technologies which have made publishing so accessible, or the desire for people to connect through sharing their stories, talking about literature, and engaging together in the discipline of self-reflection which writing and thinking about literature requires.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to have entered the writing and teaching profession when I did. Along with my work in the Emerson College Honors Program, I teach in the Stanford Online Writing Studio, which would obviously not have been possible before the Internet. My students have changed over the years in that they are much more sophisticated in their reading, writing, and knowledge of the publishing business, even as that business has become much more complex. We have a lot of fun and do a lot of good work in those classes.
As far as the business of publishing goes, I don’t think anyone, least of all the big five houses, know what will come next. It’s the Wild West. But the consistent theme in all of this—whether through telling their own stories, participating in reading groups, chatting on Goodreads or book blogs, attending readings at local bookstores—is people’s desire to connect. All of the new technology is just a means to that one end, and without it, none of this incredible growth would have happened.
LSLL: What are the three most valuable sources of information you use as a writer?
Poets & Writers, The Writer’s Chronicle, and now, Lone Star Literary Life.
LSLL: Well said. Now, the most important question: Define the quintessential Texas meal for you.
How do I choose? Barbecue at Snow’s or Kreuz Market? Tex-Mex at El Real or banh mi at Mai’s in Houston? The amazing tofu banh mi I had at a food truck?
All of this is tempting, but I have to confess, my Houston roots win out . . . Gulf blue crab boiled with new potatoes and corn on the cob and Zatarain’s, cracked open on newspapers.
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