|My mother riding champion Peace Corps at Hialeah in the winter of 1970.|
That summer was what every writer dreams of I suppose. I was struck by the lightning of an idea with the help of a box of letters and photographs I had inherited from my grandmother. Letters from my mother to my grandparents written in the late 1950s and early 60s. Letters from a girl living her dream fox hunting and riding great show horses for the best horsemen in America. There was romance too. My beautiful young mother meets my steeplechasing father at a dance and thus begins the merging of two families of horse people. And then I had to face the tragedy of my parents’ divorce, my going to live with my grandparents, and my mother’s flight to work on the New York race tracks like a refugee from her own life. Thing is, my mother was a pioneer on the race track, she’s a member of a small group of brave women who stood up to the men and worked her way to a New York Racing Association Trainer’s license in 1975. She made history really. I sat on the floor of my garret on those summer afternoons and arranged and re-arranged the photographs - pictures of my mother jumping over and over, pictures of my entire family, three generations riding and jumping horses, and then there were the race track photos of a world that barely exists anymore. The pictures spoke to me, they were telling me the story. I was just the messenger. But something else was happening, something much more personal - I was getting to know my mother’s story, something I had wanted all my life.
When I finished the book I was a fool for my talent. I was sure that nobody had ever written so wonderful a book. I sent the book to my mother, she bashfully approved. I sent the book to close friends and family and they were kind. I began sending letters to agents in New York certain they would be fighting over the privilege to represent me. I’d be the toast of the book tour train. NPR would want me. Oprah too. The book had a great and unusual gimmick to boot - a pictorial memoir, a photo on every page and the hook? Horses. Nobody can resist a Horse Book. My father wrote the best selling Secretariat back in 1975 and it was on The New York Times Best Seller List for ages and even now his book is in its 7th edition. That is staying power. My memoir about a family of horse people and most especially about my mother’s journey from the horse show ring to the man’s world of horse racing had all the elements necessary to go straight to Hollywood. And then the rejections began to trickle in from the agents, “The pictures are so cute . . . ” I was an overnight flop.
But a small miracle occurred; I met my agent. An old friend, who is a writer and well-published, came to town for a dinner and she invited me. We hadn’t seen each other in years. She had read my book and was gracious about it - all she said was it needed more of my story. There were several local literati at this dinner and at one point, my friend called across our crowded table, “Katharine, I want you to meet Shannon - she’s written a book!” At the end of the evening we exchanged numbers and within a day or two I gave Katharine my manuscript. A month or so went by, I didn’t dare call her. I was reaching the one year anniversary of completing the book, I wanted things to go faster, but I needed to be patient. Finally she called and asked to meet with me. Across a small table in the crowded local organic market Katharine held my manuscript in her hands and said to me, “I want to sell your book for you.” I almost cried. “But we have a lot of work to do, a lot of editing. I know why nobody in New York took it on, the book and you need a lot of baby sitting - they don’t have time for that up there. ” I was humbled by this first life lesson of writing a book - and I was ready to do whatever she wanted me to do. We agreed to edit 20 pages a week. She would read and edit, we would meet and discuss her changes and ideas, and I would spend the next week applying them. It was an incredible learning experience. It was like gardening in some ways. And I almost felt as though I was cheating, having someone with so much knowledge show me the way. I found out my grammar, my punctuation, and my spelling were really appalling. Me, an English major! But there it was, it was a mess. I was embarrassed I had sent it to so many people in such an awful state. I would call my mother and ask more questions, we had to dig a bit deeper. I gave her writing assignments. We spent hours on the phone talking about the family. All along we agreed that this book would not be a blood letting like so many memoirs on the market - there was no reason to reveal all the ugly, we wanted to inspire not gossip.
Nine months later we had a manuscript to be proud of - it was ready to start its tour of the Big Houses in New York. I was doing all the things that seemed writerly. I had started a blog and was filling it daily with stories. I was submitting stories and poems to contests. I was promoting myself on Facebook. I was on the edge of greatness, or was I?
The rejections began to trickle in again. The editor at Penguin loved the book, she really went to bat for it, but her boss told her "Penguin doesn’t do picture books." The editor at Ferrar, Strauss, and Giraux said there wasn't enough angst. Another editor wanted more “Horse Porn” whatever the hell that means. And Black Sparrow Press said, “If only it had been about Sailing or Gardening . . . ” to which my mother quipped, we'll change the title to My Mother Growing Tomatoes or My Mother Falling Off The Boat. But the complaint that we heard time and again was that there were just too many photographs, and photographs cost money. Katharine and I steeled ourselves and tweaked the manuscript, we promised flexibility, we weren’t married to all those photographs. The submissions went on for two years and in the meantime I didn’t try reading or editing the book anymore - I couldn’t. I had read it so many times and worked so hard on it that the sentences no longer made any sense to me. I couldn’t tell if it was good or bad anymore. I set it aside and built a vegetable garden.
I met with Katharine late last summer in a little restaurant in Chapel Hill. The street outside was teeming with new students arriving for the fall semester at UNC. She had the manuscript with her and she put it on the table. Oh the tales that manuscript could tell now, it had been to the big city where editors never sleep. It was world weary and ready to come home. Katharine had some ideas about where to go next, I stopped her. I said I think I need to take it back and read it again, it needs more work. I didn’t let on to Katharine how sad I had been, and then something unexpected happened, Katharine broke down in tears, she was so disappointed and so sure that the book was going to make it. She had worked so hard, it wasn't just my book, it was her book too. There I was on a bright August afternoon telling my agent that everything was okay, there was a good reason why the book hadn’t made it, we just didn't exactly know what it was yet. We both agreed the introduction was awful, so that was the first thing to go. Next? I was going to edit the pictures, brutally. And I wanted to work on the story itself. I drove home with the manuscript sitting quietly in the passenger seat next to me. I was taking it home for some R and R.
I opened it two nights later and began to read, and I could understand it again, and it wasn’t half bad, but I stopped breathing. I couldn’t get past the third page. I put it on a shelf and said I would look at it next week. Well next week turned into next year, and in late February I resolved to edit the book. I emailed Katharine and promised I would have it all spiffed up and ready to go the races by the end of March. I began to dig in. I opened all the huge files on my Mac and started tearing into the manuscript. I took the advice of a dear friend who said, "Why don’t you remove all the photos and just see what you’ve got left, then add photos back as you need them to punctuate the story." As I deleted the photos I began to cry, it was as though I was destroying the garden I had planted. But I forged on with the text-only manuscript. My husband saw me struggling and told me something I hadn’t thought of, “You know, you’re not the same person you were five years ago, you’ve changed, your mother’s changed, you might have to re-write the whole thing or just let it go.” He was right. And as I looked at the book a gaping hole appeared. One that I had never noticed before. And I am certain the editors, all of them, saw it; a flaw that could not be glossed over. My mother’s story was incomplete. I wrote this big build up to her career on the race track, and when she gets to the race track, you only get part of the story. I called my mother, I told her I was having a terrible time editing the book, that it seemed like something was missing. She was quiet. Maybe she could write some more material for me? She said she would consider it, but I didn’t pressure her. She’s painting these days, she’s got a farm still to take care of. Maybe it was time to put the book away. All those helpful hints from well-meaning friends and family came rushing back: Maybe you should fictionalize it. Change the title. Write another book just about you. Self publish it. Write some more poetry. Work on your vegetable garden.
March came and I hadn’t made any progress. I was stuck. I tried to think about starting on this great novella idea I had, but My Mother Jumping brooded in the corner of my garret. It began throwing little temper tantrums, it wanted my attention and I was completely out of ideas. I decided to take a trip, get out of town for a couple of days, to go to my favorite place on earth, my mother’s farm in South Carolina. There in the backwaters of the Wateree River I could contemplate my navel and sit up late listening to stories told by my mother and my stepfather. When I arrived my stepfather announced that my mother and I were going to spend a day in Charleston together, and he would stay behind, paint a new painting of a horse he had been thinking about and take care of the dogs and horses. He insisted that I must be bored when I come to the farm, that Charleston would be good for me and my mother. I tried to tell him that being bored at the farm is exactly why I like to go there, but he handed me twenty-five bucks to buy lunch for my mother in Charleston town, so I couldn’t refuse.
At this point I realized there was another hole in the book; my stepfather’s story. He and my mother met in Saratoga in 1970. He had been a stunt man in Hollywood and he had trained race horses from California to Mexico to New York. In some ways he has been in the shadows of my mother’s racing career from the very start, and I always assumed it was because she was the people person and he was the type who preferred the company of the horses. His ability with horses is magical, he knows all the old tricks to cure horses, he’s what they call in the business a Leg Man. My grandparents disagreed on my stepfather’s influence on my mother’s career. My grandfather honestly thought my mother was tangled up with a guy who was cantankerous and holding her back from the greater things in life. My grandmother adored my stepfather, maybe she just fell for his charm and handsome face. Whatever they felt, as a kid, I certainly never knew the real story.
Morning came and my mom and I dressed and piled in the car to head for Charleston. It would be a two-hour drive through the wilds of South Carolina. What would we talk about for two hours? We talked about the landscape in the beginning and then we talked about the paintings she was working on for the Horse Expo coming up in May, which led to us talking about an interview she did with a magazine back in the fall and how my stepfather was mad at her about it. He felt like she had left out his part of the story on the track, but she insisted the writer left it out. The door opened suddenly and I said to her, “That’s it, that’s what’s wrong with my book about you, I don’t know the part about Ed and well, really, it seems like there’s four years there that you just skip over.” I was grabbing for something I had never grabbed for before, I didn’t even know if there was something there, maybe the story really was just what I had, nothing more, that she went to the track, worked for Allen Jerkins, overcame the grooms not speaking to her because she was a woman, and bam, four years later she got her license, end of tale. The road opened up ahead of us, there were marshes and flat flat fields, South Carolina was giving us all she knew how to give of her rural views and then my mother began to tell me stories. These were not the stories of horse show people or the simple funny stories of the track, like the night Woody Stevens left his hat at her apartment after a party and when she returned it innocently to him the next day at the races, everyone got the wrong idea! No, the stories she began to tell me were of the Hard Times. How in '71 Ed was about to get a barn full of horses for Mrs. DuPont through his friend Garth who managed the DuPont’s horses on the farm in Delaware, but then Garth got sick and died and well the DuPonts sent the horses somewhere else. And then Ed got a barn full of horses from this rich South American owner and within a month he runs a horse to be third in the Illinois Derby and so they think they’ve got a shot at the Kentucky Derby and the South American owner dies and some lawyer comes and takes all the horses away to sell. The bad luck abounded. And then she tells me about the trainers she worked for and why she had to leave one of them, how she lost her nerve at one point and had to just leave all together to get it back, and the words are flying around the car and I’m without a pad and a pencil and I have to just listen and store it all in my head, because she was never going to be brave enough to tell me all this stuff again. And it was as though she finally thought I was old enough and trustworthy enough to hear it all, to hear what her life was like back then, on the track. And how bad some people were and how wonderful my stepfather was to be at her side the whole time - he watched over her, he protected her. I was sitting there in the car thinking, is this my mother telling me all this? Wow.
She told me that a year before she got her trainer’s license, she almost became a jockey. She was breezing 12 horses a day and fit as she had ever been in her life. She had become fearless because all she was doing was breezing horses and the horses were doing anything she asked, she said to me, “one day they just start running for you, it’s an out of body experience - if you try too hard they won’t run for you, but then something takes over, you just ride the speed.” She was galloping one horse for an older gentleman named Blackburn early in the mornings before she went to her regular job with trainer George Poole. Nobody knew she was galloping this horse for Blackburn and they were galloping him in the dark so the clockers couldn’t record his works. My mother said Mr. Blackburn and his wife were the reason she never wanted to grow old on the track, she said they were the nicest people in the world and they had everything they owned invested in the two or three horses they had at Belmont Park. But she said that horse was always perfectly groomed and tacked up and ready for her to ride when she would get there at 4 in the morning, tied up in his stall with his blinkers on. After she had been breezing the horse for a few weeks, my mom was walking down the aisle of Mr. Poole’s barn at the end of one morning and the jockey room valet comes around the corner and says, “Hey Sandy, I been looking for you! I got your colors all ready for you, Blackburn has named you for Saturday.” She had no idea what he was talking about. Blackwell had named my mother to ride his colt in a race on that coming Saturday afternoon at Belmont. My mother had never had any intention of being a jockey. Robin Smith was making all the big headlines that year being the girl jockey, she was going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but my mother liked her job working horses in the morning. She was in her thirties, and she didn’t want to get hurt. Everyone heard through the grapevine that she was going to ride Blackburn’s colt in a race. She told everyone she wouldn’t do it - she was too old to get her “bug weight” and she didn’t want to ride against people like Angel Cordero. There was just too much risk in her mind. Everyone tried to change her mind, Allen Jerkins called her and said he’d give her rides, all the trainers she had worked for said they would ride her on their horses in the races. My stepfather wanted her to do it, he told her it could lead to so many things. But she called Mr. Blackburn and said she was sorry, she didn’t want to do it. Mr. Blackburn stopped speaking to her.
My heart raced when my mother told me this story - there was a part of me that wished she had ridden Mr. Blackburn’s horse that Saturday long ago, but I understood, after everything she had been through, I could see why she didn’t want to take her career that far. She got her trainer’s license not long after that and that’s where she was happiest, on the backstretch and not in the spotlight.
By the time we got to Charleston I was so exhausted I just wanted to go home and write it all down. But we walked all around Charleston and looked at bad art in expensive galleries and ate lunch and marveled at the fat tourists in the horse carts and felt sorry for the horses having to pull these people and their shopping bags around the city during Flower Week. And as we walked around she told me more stories and then we got in the car and she told me even more. She told me everything - the most private of things that happened to her and it was dynamite and it made my heart ache that she went through all that. And when we were almost home, she was finished and I said, “Wow, I guess we can’t publish all that . . . ”
“Well, not until everyone is dead. ” She laughed and I laughed.
And that night after a few glasses of wine and some dinner with Ed, they went to sleep and I tried to stay up and write notes at least in my iPhone. And the next morning I drove back to North Carolina and I cried part of the way, because I couldn’t believe that writing the book had led to this. That night I called to say I had gotten home safely and my stepdad answered the phone and I told him thank you and he asked for what? “She told me what you did for her, all those years ago on the track, and I want to thank you because I suspected it, but I never really knew.”
“Oh that,” he said, “That was a million years ago. And by the way do you know that damn South American told me a week before he died he was going to be measured for his casket?”
“Did he know he was going to die?”
“No, not at all, apparently it was just what he thought he should do. So let that be a lesson to you.”
A good friend who I grew up with and who designs book covers for Grove Press in the city once told me, “You know publishing your book doesn’t change your life. People think it’s going to, but it doesn’t.” It turns out after all, for me, that not publishing my book changed my life forever.