Leah Angstman on Embracing the Imperfect Side of History

Leah Angstman’s debut short story collection, Shoot the Horses First, will transport you into histories — stories from the past set in and around the Civil War and the longer-ago versions of the World’s Fair. In these pages, characters are rescued by Native Americans, while others are pushed aside due to the color of their skin. The stories, no matter how far away from our present in time, still feel as true — and honest and important — as ever.

Leah Angstman is also the author of the historical novel of seventeenth-century New England, Out Front the Following Sea, and a novel of the French Revolution, Falcon in the Dive, forthcoming from Regal House in spring 2024. She serves as the executive editor for Alternating Current Press and The Coil magazine, and she is a founding Quartermaster member of the American Battlefield Trust. This is her first collection of short stories.

Let’s jump right in, Leah, and talk about Shoot the Horses First, which is your first collection of short fiction. I know many readers likely remember your novel, Out Front the Following Sea, from 2022. How different – or similar – was the writing process in putting together your collection compared to your novel?

Both books contain roughly the same number of years of dedication: Out Front the Following Sea took me 11 years to write, and Shoot the Horses First is 11 years’ worth of collected stories, so in that vein, I sat with each work for about the same amount of time. I’m a verbose creature, so short stories don’t come as easily to me as novels, the latter of which I tend to start regularly by the dozens, then finally finish one about a decade at a time, though the decades are always overlapping.

With novels, of course, you can spend so much time inside the created world, and, with stories, you’re in and out. It’s harder for me to get “in and out” when I want to wallow, so my stories usually end up stemming from half-formed thoughts that don’t have any other place in the canon, and the novels become whole worlds unto themselves that usually trap me inside.

One thing that’s different with collections is the laboring over how they are presented: Which story is first? Last? How do you space common threads and themes among the pages? Do you change a character’s name that might accidentally be the same as another unrelated character’s name because the pieces were written a decade apart? (Answer: Yes.) How do you get continuity from stories that were written a decade apart? When you approach a story collection, you are no longer looking at individual pieces, but rather, you must now look at the pieces as a whole, as a bridge from one to another, and how the reader will follow that bridge.

Usually, we hear the word “stories” when dealing with collections of short fiction, but you use the word “histories” instead for Shoot the Horses First. Can you talk about what the word “histories” means to you?

I’m on a mission to forge a new genre that exists somewhere between the literary and the historical. My work is not purely historical because it’s not commercial in form or structure, and it doesn’t follow genre rules. Yet, every piece in the book takes place between the 1500s and the 1920s, so, by default, it’s not purely literary because it’s historical. I’m breaking some rules, so why not go all the way with the Molotov cocktail? The word “histories” is evocative to me; it’s got the word “stories” in it, so you should be able to tell that it’s stories (if you’re my intended audience), but in acting as a more specific subtitle, it tells you exactly what sort of stories to expect. There’s history here, linking all the pieces, and that’s the most important part — the history and the poeticizing of it, to me, is the reason to pick up the book.

With histories comes research, and I know you did quite a lot for this book. Following the final story, there is a notes section that gives additional information about the histories we’ve just read. Did you ever find the real, historical aspects to be limiting to where your stories could go? Or did the realness further ignite your creativity?

The research is so fascinating to me that it’s usually more fun than writing the story. My background is in research and fact-checking, so I like to dig and read really obscure things that would be called boring by most accounts. To me, though, weird 1800s newspaper classifieds, business letters that cover the month’s expenses of a factory operation, and inventory lists for building a 1700s house, are like finding a chunk of gold in a riverbed. The devil is in the details, and the details are the breath of the world around us, especially the breath of the past. Doing the research is my favorite part, and most of the time, the story itself is just an accidental byproduct of doing a research assignment for some other project entirely, until I fall down a new rabbit hole.

The stories, though, are fiction, so within reason, I can play with things. I can leave out details that don’t fit the narrative, or add in something that could be plausible, even if I find no immediate evidence of it. I do challenge myself, however, not to bend the rules of the time period, so I have to work within the parameters of what could actually happen (except for one bizarre story collection I’m working on that has some historical surreality in it) or what might have happened, and I don’t get to venture outside of that. I don’t find the parameters limiting; it forces my story to grow inside its own environment, forces my world to find its own roots instead of creating wings. I must go deeper inside, because the answers can’t come from outside. I find working within these limitations more challenging to my imagination than trying to find a way to break out of them.

I wish you could see my copy of your book because I’ve highlighted so many passages – and made just as many margin notes – pointing to the beautiful prose. “The Light Ages; or, Holes in the Heart” and “A Lifetime of Fishes” are the two works that won me over the most. With the former, there’s some baseball and music on top of the fantastic writing, so it was an obvious one for me. With “A Lifetime of Fishes,” which follows a woman who is rescued by a group of Native Americans, I felt like I inhabited the world you give us. It’s such a vivid work, with a melodic-like rhythm to go along with its movement. Really, it’s a fantastic story. Will you talk about how you were able to bring this world to life so well? So vividly?

First of all, wow, that’s so nice to hear, and of course, if you read the notes at the back of the book, as you mentioned, then you know that “The Light Ages; or, Holes in the Heart” is a fictionalized account of an aunt I never met, so it’s incredibly personal to me, too. “A Lifetime of Fishes” is the first short story I ever wrote, so it’s hot and cold for me, but it’s been a favorite for a lot of readers.

Bringing the world to life is the most important thing in historical fiction; otherwise, you must ask yourself why are you writing historical fiction? I spend a lot of time just dreaming about the environment, the tastes, smells, visuals, seeing through the eyes of a character before I even start writing the story. I’m not afraid of details. If you’re not here for the sensory overload that buries you inside this environment, then I’m not the author for you. If I’m going to write a story about something historical, then I need my reader to understand all the ways in which this world is different from or similar to their own.

I start with the outer environment — weather, flowers, trees, animals, resource availability, the feel of the ground, the allergies from pollen — and I work my way into the minutiae: What food is going in their mouths? What cloth fabric do they have for dresses? Can they read? After that, I spend a lot of time actually learning their silly daily maneuvering. If they play faro, I learn to play faro; if they’re planting vegetables, I learn all the intricacies of seeding, soil types, seasons, what the root structures look like; if they’re in an army, I learn every position and what the vernacular is within the ranks. There are no shortcuts — I think this is what defines my writing style and makes it stand out as my own.

In several of your stories, the characters live lives that are grounded in pain and also hope. I’m thinking particularly of “The Orphan Train” and “Music Knows No Color.” In one story, a boy faces many cruelties as he searches for a family. In the other, racism prevents a young man from accessing the gifts his talent with the violin should automatically grant him. These hardships are difficult to read, but the end of each story offers a glimpse of hope for some kind of love and acceptance. I just found that balance of pain and hope, no matter the story, to be true to so many of our experiences, and I appreciate that truth in your work here. 

I’m a rather dark writer. History is ugly and brutal and shouldn’t be romanticized. A lot of mistakes were made; a lot of awful humans populated history’s plains; a lot of painful things were allowed to happen both by people who participated and by those who simply looked the other way. We are imperfect, and we come from imperfection. A lot of writers shy away from that because it can be depressing, but I try to embrace it and show how people endured not only in spite of the odds against them, but because of the odds against them. All through history, people still laughed at inappropriate times, made jokes at funerals, were sarcastic, found joy and comfort in family, loved their children’s goofy antics, took pride in making a good pie, thought farts were funny. Humans have always been human, and one thing that makes us human is hope. There will always be some spark of hope in my stories for those willing to look for it, but you must be willing to take the painful journey first.

I love title genesis stories, so let’s end with yours, if you don’t mind sharing it. Shoot the Horses First — what led you to it?

Being that the roots of my writing are in poetry, I tend to think of my books like epic poems and title them like poems. The titles grow in proportion as the story grows, and the book has to earn its own title. “Shoot the Horses First” refers to the age-old war tactic of shooting the horses out from under the opposing cavalry in a battle so that the horses and riders fall. This makes a big, bloody mess in the middle of the battlefield, so the soldiers can no longer advance, nor can they retreat with any dignity. A lot of the stories in the book feel a little bit David-and-Goliath to me — people fighting internally and externally against much bigger forces, whether physical, mental, or societal — so what’s a fitter metaphor than shooting a gigantic beast out from under its rider to keep them both from barreling down on you? Kill him before he kills you; take down the monster; stand your ground and fight — the title formed from that reoccurring thought line in the book.

Thank you, Leah, for talking with me, and congratulations on the release of your collection of histories!

Shoot the Horses First
By Leah Angstman 
Kernpunkt Press
Published February 28, 2023