Martin Oliphant had always hated horses. Their staggering stupidity. Their unexplained, unexpected, and ever explosive snorting. The way they twitched distinct patches of their skin to dislodge flies. The way they shied madly at the most innocuous occurrences: a golf umbrella at fifty feet; a leaf falling from, of all places, a tree; a bale of hay stacked exactly where it’s supposed to be stacked and had been stacked for the last month.
Martin Oliphant hated horses but he didn’t, it must be said, wish horses dead. It must be said because horses died around him. Died or almost died. At Martin’s hand or almost at Martin’s hand. And it was horses, dead ones mostly, that blazed the trail to his life-forging passion. Horses brought Martin to cowboy poetry, and horses, live ones mostly, were cowboy poetry’s central theme.
Opening lines of KT Sparks’ Petrichor Prize winning novel Four Dead Horses (Regal House, spring 2021)
Regal House: So, as a debut author who no one has ever heard of, isn’t it a bit pretentious to start an interview quoting yourself? It’s not like you just finished penning Profiles in Courage.
KT: Oh, absolutely. But I’m a complete egomaniac. It’s why I’ve been able to start writing novels at my late age (I’ll be 116 when Four Dead Horses comes out). It takes a unique brand of self-focused tunnel vision to say to your family: “Yeah, I’m sure you all need college funds and health insurance and not to have your decrepit old mother showing up on your doorstep having blown through her retirement savings and needing a loan for a knee replacement. But the world is calling on me to lock myself in a trailer, drink an Olympic swimming pool of coffee, and send forth 300 pages worth of words on the subjects of folk literary arts, midwestern men, western values, and equine mortuary science.”
But that’s not why I wanted the book’s opening up top. It’s because, when you decide to title a book Four Dead Horses, you better be ready to explain quickly why that’s the case.
Regal House: Four Dead Horses is the story of a corpulent middle-aged Midwestern pet mortician who, despite hating horses and occasionally (and always unintentionally) contributing to their deaths, dreams of performing with the real cowboys at the Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence. Is the novel autobiographical?
KT: Well, I’m neither male nor in the business of burying animals nor residing in Michigan (any longer). And my BMI is in the normal range for a woman my age, though I’d love to do something about that visceral fat, but hormones, what are you going to do? The small town on the shores of Lake Michigan in which Martin is raised is based on my home town as it was in the early eighties, and Martin and I would have been at the University of Chicago around the same time (I’m sure he was in my Political Order and Change class). I also, much to my own surprise and like Martin, fell in love with cowboy poetry while writing the novel. I even went to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada on which my fictional Annual Elko Cowboy Poetry Confluence is based. It was fantastic—cowboys (and cowgirls and Mexican vaqueros and Native Americans) with rodeo belt buckles the size of dinner plates and dents in their foreheads from bull busting in standing-room-only crowds straining to hear other identical cowboys (and cowgirls, etc., etc.) perform poetry. It was art integrated with real life and hard work and dusty open plains in a way you just don’t see on the literary circuit out East.
Regal House: What led you to hone in on Martin Oliphant as a main character? Aren’t you afraid the sad-sack-Midwestern-white-guy-hero’s-quest market is already saturated?
KT: There’s always room for another entry in the poetry-spouting-pet-mortician canon, don’t you think? And I’m a sucker for a character who, despite relentless failure, pursues a completely improbable and inappropriate set of life goals. It’s funny (I hope) and also tragic in a particularly Midwestern way, the lengths to which Martin will go and what he’s willing to sacrifice to hitch his chuck wagon to an idealized vision of the West. He misses out on a lot of opportunities for a rich life at home in order to pursue a version of the American dream that probably doesn’t exist, and certainly not for him.
Regal House: So you’re saying Martin’s a MAGA-type?
KT: Absolutely not. He supports the arts! He’s with Hickenlooper all the way.
Regal House: OK then, what about the movie? Who plays Martin?
KT: Jonah Hill, no question about it. But he’d have to put the weight back on.
KT Sparks is a farmer living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in a numerous literary magazines. Her first novel, Four Dead Horses, won Regal House Publishing’s 2019 Petrichor Prize and will be published by that Regal House in spring 2021.