Stolen promise

Taos author Susan Mihalic's debut novel chronicles a young girl's heroism amid horrific abuse

By Rick Romancito
Posted 4/3/20

Susan Mihalic's first novel -- recently picked up by Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., and scheduled for a September 1 release -- took several years before anyone decided to take a chance on it.

Given, it was a debut, and while Mihalic is an experienced writer and editor, agents still fell by the wayside time after time. Some, after asking the Taos resident to cut 100 pages or so for a rewrite.

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Stolen promise

Taos author Susan Mihalic's debut novel chronicles a young girl's heroism amid horrific abuse

Posted

"Dark Horses"

By Susan Mihalic

352 pages pp. Gallery/Scout Press. $27

Susan Mihalic's first novel -- recently picked up by Scout Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc., and scheduled for a September 1 release -- took several years before anyone decided to take a chance on it.

Given, it was a debut, and while Mihalic is an experienced writer and editor, agents still fell by the wayside time after time. Some, after asking the Taos resident to cut 100 pages or so for a rewrite.

Her book, titled "Dark Horses," follows the emotional roller coaster of a teenage girl who navigates the highly competitive world of professional horse eventing while steered by her father, an award-winning competitor and horse trainer with movie star looks. But, there is a very private secret between them. It is that aspect that likely was the reason potential agents were unwilling to take on the challenge of handing her book. In a word, it's incest.

Mihalic said she started working on it in 2005, "but a lot of that time was spent not writing." She said she maybe churned out a chapter once in a long time, but wasn't taking it seriously, thinking she had all the time in the world.

"Then, something sort of magical happened," she said. "I got rejected for a big residency program. It was truly an epiphany. I thought if I don't start working on this without the perfect environment, the perfect uninterrupted stretch of time, I'm never going to finish it. Or, any other book. That's when I really buckled down." That was in 2007.

So, she started writing in the evenings after work. When the process became a habit, she began to accumulate pages. "I finished the first draft (which was 600 pages) in 2009 and spent a year editing it, and then I had false starts with a couple of different agents, one I knew personally, one represented a friend. I sent it to the first agent, the one I knew personally. She read the first draft, she got right back to me and she said 'I love it. Cut 100 pages and send it back.' "

After she sent it, Mihalic said she never heard from her after that. Another year passed, but Mihalic did not want to get discouraged. More time passed until one day she decided she was going to make a spreadsheet and set about sending the manuscript out to agents, a lot of them, all at once.

She took a week off from her day job and concentrated on attacking the problem like an army general marshaling all the resources at her command. "At the end of one week, I had an agent," she said. "I truly did it from eight to five every single day."

Did she think one of the reasons for all the rejections had to do with the disturbing subject matter? "Oh yes," she said. "I would get really nice rejections, and in its own way that was sort of encouraging. 'You've got a really strong voice but we don't think we can sell this.' 'This is going to be a tough sell.' But, I always knew it would be."

"There have been a lot of books about incest and I really tried to take a different approach. I did that mindfully," Mihalic said. "I really wanted readers to see what the main character was going through in this relationship with her father. I didn't want to fade-to-black. I wanted the scenes to be explicit. I thought, 'Roan [the narrator] doesn't have the luxury of fading to black and the reader shouldn't have that luxury either."

Mihalic did exercise restraint. "I didn't want it to be so brutal that people would throw the book across the room. So, that was a fine line."

Her new agent knew what her intentions were but also knew how far readers might be willing follow her on their journey through the book, which meant toning down some elements and even cutting some passages. "So, it's tamer than the first draft," she said.

When she began the book, the MeToo# movement had yet to gain momentum, but certainly the issues involving sexual harassment and assault in schools and the workplace had been around for decades and even generations. As "Dark Horses" evolved from first draft to final sale, the aforementioned became front page news and Mihalic's book may be poised to expose a particularly troubling kind of power struggle largely kept hidden by society.

"A lot of the athletes and actresses and other people who have been victimized -- and I use the word victimized with such reluctance. These assaults were perpetrated on them but I don't like the word 'victim,' so, I guess for ease in conversation I will refer to them as victims. They had the ability to link arms. The gymnasts could link arms and say, yes, this happened to all of us. The actresses have a community, they know each other and they could link arms. Roan was not able to do that because she was totally alone in this."

In Mihalic's novel, protagonist Roan Montgomery is not a stereotypical victim. In fact, as Mihalic researched the subject's background, her character evolves as a combination of fierce dedication to her sport coupled with the constant fear of having all that she holds dear taken away if anyone finds out about her secret, much like many girls and women who have endured years of similar abuse. But, the choices she makes aren't what some readers might expect.

"I've always loved flawed characters," the author said. "I don't want the heroine of the story to be all good. I want her to be complex, and I want her to make bad decisions. I love giving characters the room to make poor decisions. And, her father, even though he was monstrous in so many ways, I didn't want to make him a caricature. I didn't want him to be an easy monster … That's why I made him the consummate sportsman -- gracious in defeat and generous in winning."

Inevitably, Mihalic says she expects some readers and the press to probe just how closely she knows the subject matter, especially since she writes "Dark Horses" in first person narrative. "I prefer first person because it puts me inside the character's skin whether I'm the writer or the reader. I identify more closely with a first person narrator."

The idea for the book, she said, stemmed from a conversation with an acquaintance about a real incident that happened to a child. The issues it brought up stayed with her a long time and became the basis for "Dark Horses."

Mihalic said she knows there is likely to be mixed reactions to this book, hopefully some positive, but she also expects to receive some hate mail, too. "I'm OK with that," she said. "Before Simon & Schuster's Scout Gallery Press bought this, I had a conversation with the editor. She wanted to make sure that I wasn't some fragile young thing who was going to crumple when criticism came."

It may also become a trigger for some readers who have experienced this form of abuse. To them, Mihalic says she would hope that "Dark Horses" might give them the inspiration to speak up, no matter what. In the book it is implied that this kind of crime exists in the shadows and if any healing can happen it must be brought into the light.

"Right now, I don't have any plans for a sequel -- although in my mind, I know where [Roan] is in 10, 20, 30 years," Mihalic said. "I am working on my next novel, which is set in a fundamentalist cult in Northern New Mexico."

SIDEBARS

Synopsis

A searing and darkly gripping debut novel about a teenage girl's fierce struggle to reclaim her life from her abusive father.

Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy. For as long as she can remember, her life inside and outside the ring has been ruled by her father, who demands strict obedience in all aspects of her life. The warped power dynamic of coach and rider extends far beyond the stables, and Roan's relationship with her father has long been inappropriate.

She has been able to compartmentalize that dark aspect of her life, ruthlessly focusing on her ambitions as a rider heading for the Olympics, just as her father had done. However, her developing relationship with Will Howard, a boy her own age, broadens the scope of her vision.

A riveting, urgent survivor story, "Dark Horses" takes up the themes of abuse and resilience of Gabriel Tallent's "My Absolute Darling" and applies the compelling exploration of female strength of Emma Donoghue's "Room." In much the same way that V.C. Andrews's "Flowers in the Attic" transfixed a generation, "Dark Horses" will keep you turning the pages.

What is "horse eventing"?

In "Dark Horses," Roan Montgomery participates in horse eventing. This is described as "an equestrian event where a single horse and rider combine and compete against other competitors across the three disciplines of dressage, cross-country and show jumping. This event has its roots in a comprehensive cavalry test that required mastery of several types of riding. The competition may be run as a one-day event [or] a three-day event." It is highly competitive and very dangerous. --en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eventing

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