Kathryn Scanlan’s first novel, Aug 9 – Fog (2019), was created from a stranger’s five-year diary found at an estate auction in Illinois; the book’s title comes from a note written on a fragment of loose paper pressed into the pages. After publishing a volume of enigmatic, short slips of stories, The Dominant Animal in 2020, this year Kathryn has published Kick the Latch (Daunt, 2023), a novel based on a series of interviews with Sonia, a horse trainer from Iowa. The brutality and beauty of horsetrack life is compressed into a set of poised, narratively precise and tonally mesmerising stories, pinned to the middle of the page’s white space. In Kick the Latch, Kathryn’s exceptionally sensitive attention to the rhythms of speech and the idiosyncrasies of self-expression gives rise to a book of startling and enormous power.
NELL WHITTAKER I have given Kick the Latch to three people in my life who are all quite different from one another, and each of those people has given it or recommended it to other people. Not every book has that ability to make its own route through the world, and I wonder if that’s because it’s difficult to pin down generically. I’ve seen it described as a form of prose poetry, or an act of ventriloquy or a novel. How do you think of it?
KATHRYN SCANLAN I think of it as a novel – it is a novel – but I like hearing the other ways people want to describe it or talk about it. I think they’re all pretty interesting.
NW You and Sonia are both from Iowa. What is Iowa like?
KS I’m from eastern Iowa, on the Mississippi River – lots of bluffs and woods and ravines. It’s an old industrial area, near Davenport, sort of a sprawling metropolis of small cities and towns, with trains that run along the river. As you move west the land flattens out and becomes largely agricultural – largely monoculture industrial farming. Sonia grew up a few hours northwest of where I did. I’ve been in California for 13 years, but I still spend a lot of time in Iowa because my family lives there. It continues to be a very interesting place to me and is the source of a lot of my writing and thinking.
NW The book is so funny in parts. Sonia is evidently such an incredible storyteller and storytellers are generally funny people. Is humour something you think about much when writing, or is it inherent to the thought itself?
KS A lot of the stories Sonia told are funny, and she’s a funny person with a great sense of humour. I do think about humour a lot – I’m drawn to it, I pay attention to it. I grew up in a funny family. My family’s sense of humour has a lot to do with language and storytelling. It’s also sort of slapstick, absurdist body humour, humour that comes from misfortune, bad luck. If I can write something funny, that’s what pleases me most.
NW Were you mindful of the quality of your listening as you were speaking to Sonia?
KS I was, because I didn’t play the part of an active interviewer or journalist. I was listening to whatever she had to say. She’s someone who will talk at length, without needing questions or prompts, which is not really my disposition. I have the tendency to hang back and listen and observe instead of interjecting myself into situations or conversations.
NW Your mother met Sonia originally at an antique fair. You have said that you want to craft a sentence like an object, and this book does have a kind of objecthood. Does that feel true to you?
KS Yes, I do think of the stories and books I write as objects – a text with a discrete physical presence. This might be why I like to work in a compressed form. A story that fits on one page, or a book that can be read in a few hours – they arrive in the mind, complete. They can be picked up and reread like you might pick up an object and turn it over in your hands. I’m also always starting with and returning to the physical world when I work – the Objectivist poetry mode of “no ideas but in things”. Sonia’s stories are full of specific physical detail, which was very pleasing to work with – the particularity and strangeness of it. In language, particularity indicates, I think, a level of care and interest in what you’re doing.
NW It’s a vision of care that’s very close to violence – the physical damage that the horses experience on the track and also their treatment, the trainer drawing blood out of the horse’s neck with a syringe so it doesn’t froth up in its lungs and the horse kicking the bucket over. These are extravagantly gory images, but it illustrates that care is often brutal. Was it difficult to hear some of those stories?
KS It’s always difficult to hear stories about suffering, whether it’s human or animal. Sometimes, maybe, it feels harder to hear about the suffering of animals because they don’t have autonomy in this world that we’ve created for them. They don’t have much choice in what’s done to them, and the dependence they have on us is orchestrated by us. I think it was also difficult for Sonia to have witnessed those things, and it’s part of why she’s compelled to tell these stories.
NW The link between animal suffering and female suffering has been made by lots of writers in various forms, probably reaching back to the story of Philomela. Is that parallel fruitful to you?
KS Yes, and it seems to come up again and again in my writing, whether in this book or in my other work. But I also think there’s a relationship between animal suffering and the suffering of any person or group who has been suppressed, controlled, disrespected and maltreated.
NW Much of the violence in the book isn’t attached to an explicitly humane language of extreme emotion. What do you find valuable in writing through this frankness, or endurance?
KS Animal suffering is disputed by some people, I think, because animals can’t speak. I’m interested in the idea that you have to be able to eloquently express your pain in order to receive sympathy or even recognition of it. But violence and pain are often inexpressible. The treatment of violence in Kick the Latch is largely shaped by the way Sonia described it to me, which was straightforward and frank and plainspoken. What is said might have a stronger impact because of what isn’t said. It leaves room for the reader.
NW Sonia is an intermediary, or positions herself as an intermediary, between people and the horses, treating them more kindly or more perceptively than others. When she’s working in a prison, there’s a parallel between the horses and the incarcerated people. Was that an uncomfortable parallel to reveal?
KS It was important to me to include the prison in the book as a parallel or contrast to her time at the race track. There were some stories about the prison that I ultimately left out, but they were similar anecdotally to those of the racetrack – incarcerated people that she felt in some ways responsible for. She seemed to be deeply disturbed on their behalf, yet was unavoidably involved in their experiences there.
NW Why did you leave those stories out?
KS There was one long story in particular, about an inmate, that was unbearable. The prison stories were heavy in a way the racetrack stories were not. Ultimately, the longer the prison section was, the more it felt like an anchor sinking the end of the book. I wanted a feeling of lightness and speed. It’s a disturbing book but I think it’s also a funny and hopeful book. I wanted the narrative to mimic the energy and exhilaration of a race.
NW The postscript in the book says that you had four long phone conversations, so there must have been vastly more left out than put in. Was there a thread that was clear from the beginning, or was it more a case of whittling down until the form emerged?
KS The first conversation I had with Sonia set up the shape for the book. The first sentence she said to me was, “Well, so I was born…” and she drew a full arc of her life, start to present. I wrote the initial draft of the book from that single conversation, but it wasn’t enough, so I ended up having three additional long conversations with her. Then it was a process of going back and filling in, but also whittling, rearranging and finding order.
NW There are two moments where an authoritative presence slips through into the book. The first comes early, where a kind of stutter betrays the fact that this is transcribed conversation, not prose – Sonia is speaking about her mother buying [her first horse] Rowdy: “My mom, she sacrificed a lot of her own little life so that I—I had to get the horse.” Later on, there’s a moment when Sonia says, “I’ve got to get those pictures of Rowdy in the mail for you.” Tell me about those two moments – the first one establishing the transcribed nature of the book, and the second being a gesture towards a relationship.
KS A lot of people have pointed out the last one, but no one’s mentioned the first. A lot of novels are written about real people, but one of the things I was interested in doing with this book was eliminating the artifice of the novel, what you would normally find scaffolded around this material in a more traditional fictional approach. It involved removing as much as I could of myself as a perceptible presence in the narration. But I also wanted to snag that in a couple of places and to slightly complicate this first person – while there is an intense first-person voice a reader might feel is speaking directly to them, I also didn't want to let them be quite as comfortable as that. ◉