Sunday, October 2, 2022

Q&A with Leah Angstman


Photo by Jena McShane



Leah Angstman is the author of the new story collection Shoot the Horses First. She also has written the novel Out Front the Following Sea.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in your collection?


A: I wrote my first short story ever as an answer to a themed call for a now-defunct journal back in 2009, and though substantially reworked since its inception, that story is included in my new collection, Shoot the Horses First.


The final piece that was written specifically as a longer story for the collection, in order to balance some of the shorter pieces, was written in late 2019, the last thing I wrote in my old house before moving across town to my new place.


My first novel took me 11 years to complete, so I guess I did slightly better with the timeline for this second book, coming in at only 10 years of writing and editing. I shaved off a full year!


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the book?


A: I used a couple of metrics to keep a good balance in the book. I started out with a few short pieces before I got to the lengthy novelette that is kind of the centerpiece of the collection, but the stories upfront are winners and finalists for various awards throughout the years, so I wanted to start with my best foot forward.


Likewise, I ended the book with a couple shorter award-winning pieces to go out on a high note, and I made the ending line an overall metaphor for the book, so the final story wraps up the collection nicely. I spaced the longer pieces evenly throughout the book and put the shorter pieces in between, to give the reader a brief reprieve before launching into the depths again.


And lastly, I paid attention to themes and time periods, then spaced like-themed stories away from one another, to keep the topics and places balanced throughout. I was open to change for the collection’s order, but the editor thought the flow worked well, so we went with it.


Q: The author Ethan Rutherford said of the book, “I’m astonished by the historical breadth in this collection of stories and by the sensibility that unites them. It’s a thrill to be dropped, so vividly, into such a wide variety of settings and periods....” What do you think of that description, and how did you research the history involved?


A: Ethan Rutherford is an author I highly admire, and his Peripatetic Coffin collection is ungodly good, so to have such high praise from him was a dream.


We connected briefly over his name, Ethan, and how Ethan Allen of Green Mountain Boys/Fort Ticonderoga fame/infamy/myth was my twelfth-great uncle, and the next thing I know, Rutherford is reading my book and actually liking it. Pretty surreal. If you aren’t familiar with his work, go check it out!

It’s hard for me to comment on someone else’s comment, but I think Rutherford really tapped into the heart of the collection with his description.


The book does cover a lot of time, 16th through early 20th centuries; a lot of places, from the Wild West to colonial Nantucket to northern France during the Revolution to the late Middle Ages England; and a lot of topics, from PTSD in Civil War soldiers to early feminism, the historical treatment of people who are differently abled, to Native American cultures, to women denied their places in science education because they’re female.


Threaded through all these stories is a deep hope and sensibility that overcomes dark spaces.


Most of the historical research in my short stories comes from the research of other projects, and indeed, you’ll see a couple in here that became springboards for fuller novels or that came from the research of a novel-in-progress.


I get sucked into a rabbit hole, and that will inevitably lead to a side story about some fascinating new thing I’ve discovered, just to get it out of my system. I aim for writing one short story per month, so I can have a collection completed every couple years (sorry to my agent because story collections never sell!).


My go-to places for research are thesis papers, academic articles, old newspapers, letters, diaries, Internet Archive, Library of Congress, and town history records. I try to reserve my deep-stacks research for only my novels, or I’d never get to leave the library.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: Despite having to comfort readers that there’s no actual shot horses in the book, the title, Shoot the Horses First, lands the overall theme of the book in tone (darkness) and goal (victory), so it’s a pretty fitting title.


I started out my writing career as a poet back in the '90s, so I like evocative titles that make you want to pick up a book. The title refers to a strategy of war in which one side would aim for the horses of the cavalry on the opposing side, to bring down the riders, trip up other horses, and generally make a mess of a battlefield and any attempts at retreating.


Horses in combat are mighty weapons, yet shooting the horses would basically render a cavalry useless. The title signifies strategizing to me, defying odds, overcoming obstacles in unique ways. The book is filled with characters facing down metaphorical charging horses, and the characters must think and act quickly in order to survive.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I accidentally just started another novel (sorry to my agent!) about a weird focus of the French Revolution that no one talks about, and I’ve barreled through the first draft, which now includes almost 10 chapters within a handful of weeks.


I didn’t intend to write this book, but it doesn’t intend to leave me alone until I finish it. Once the first draft of that book is done, I can breathe again and get back to my normal routine.


The short story I’m currently working on is actually set in World War II, which, as my fellow author Andrew Farkas said recently, “is practically science fiction” for me. It’s a strange time period for me to have wandered into, far outside my usual purview, and I doubt I’ll be back here again, but I have an idea and will at least carry this one out. That story will appear in my second collection (sorry to my agent!), which is about halfway complete.


I haven’t even gotten to write past the first few lines of chapter one on my years-long trilogy project because it has me reading massive tomes and biographies of the real-life individuals and complicated events involved in the story, so … I’ll circle back and tell you about that one in 2035.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Shoot the Horses First took first place in the Americana Fiction category for the Shorts Award, and it contains my favorite thing I’ve ever written, a novelette called “Casting Grand Titans,” which I’m thrilled to see get such a perfect home and such prominent placement in this collection. If you only read one story, read that one.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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