On the Books: Ashley Wells

ashley wells author photo

Our blog’s ongoing “On the Books” series introduces you to writers from our growing list of Fresno State MFA alumni who are getting their first books published. The 17th installment profiles Ashley Wells.

She is a writer and educator whose work has appeared in Jezebel, Connotation Press, and Women in Higher Education. Her 16-post guest blog series on cowgirl narratives, power, and gender was featured in Bitch magazine. She lives in Logan, Utah with her husband and menagerie of animals.

In a February email interview, communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Ashley about traveling the long road to publishing, finding the right moment for the horse-girl narrative, and re-imagining the American West.

When were you in the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study?

I was in the MFA program from 2009 to 2012 and studied creative nonfiction. In my last semester of undergrad, I took a creative nonfiction course with John Hales, and I realized it was the genre I had been looking for but didn’t know I could write, much less study in depth. My plan had been to go into the credential program to teach high school English, but I completely changed course to instead earn my MFA.

What is your day job now?

I am a full-time faculty lecturer in the English department at Utah State University, teaching composition and creative nonfiction courses. Prior to joining USU, I was on the rhetoric faculty at the University of Iowa, where I taught first-year writing, as well courses on the persuasive qualities of cowgirl narratives.

What were your first thoughts when you learned that your nonfiction book, The Cowgirl and the Racehorse: A Recovery, would be published?

It was incredibly exciting but scary at the same time. Nonfiction is such a vulnerable genre to write. I suddenly felt very exposed because I was mining intimate experiences. Paradoxically, that’s what drew me to nonfiction in the first place. At the same time, I had devoted so many years to the book and so much of my heart, I was thrilled for it to have found its perfect home.

Did parts of your book grow out of your Fresno State MFA thesis manuscript? What was the process like, taking what was your thesis and making it into something more?

The book very much grew out of my MFA thesis. Nearly all of the chapters are adapted from essays I originally included in the thesis. At the beginning of the MFA program, I was hesitant to write about girls and horses because so often it was being treated as non-literary, as soft. But I was also obsessed with the question of why girls and horses, particularly as I delved deeper into horsemanship. Fortunately, both John and Steven Church were encouraging and supportive.

After the MFA program, I spent a lot of time shifting the essays to become cohesive chapters. My thinking on girls and horses, as well as animal ethics, also evolved over the years I worked on the book. I braided animal ethics into the book, as well as more pop culture, because it was clear to me cowgirl narratives hung over my experiences with horses while also clouding the true nature of the horse world.

How did you land your publishing deal with Lantern Media, and what about their work is a good fit for your book?

It was a long process. After the MFA program and revising the manuscript, I pitched agents, and several were immediately interested in the idea of a girl and horse story, but because the book is darker and not necessarily “feel-good” they all passed.

Years down the road, though, I met Martin Rowe from Lantern Publishing and Media at an animal studies conference where I was presenting on cowgirl narratives. We got to talking about animal-human relationships, and they just so happened to be looking for a book like mine. Lantern publishes folks from the animal advocacy and ethics world who I admire a great deal, like photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur and ecofeminist scholar Carol Adams, so I knew they’d be the ideal fit for this book.

How did you decide on your book’s title?

When it was my MFA thesis, it drew from themes that weighed heavy on my mind, such as power and risk. I fractured my vertebrae in a horseback riding accident shortly after starting the MFA program, which also inspired parts of the book, so it felt pressing to me.

The book is part of Lantern’s {bio}graphies series, and the books all have a similar structure for their titles. We brainstormed some, and I liked the idea of centering my horse Treasure (the racehorse) because he motivated nearly all of the questions I explore in the book. Because I argue that the true nature of the horse is often overlooked in favor of the human agenda, it only seemed right to center the horses, which we also did with the chapter titles, too.

I understand that you’ve collaborated recently with Bri Noble and her Appaloosa, Dapper Dan, who were depicted in iconic images from the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland, California this past summer. How did that connection happen, and what have you worked on together?

When I first saw the images of Bri and Dapper Dan I was floored by the power she exuded. At the time, I thought I would just include them in my unit on activism on horseback in my cowgirl narratives course. A few months later, around the time the book came out, I ended up reaching out to Bri to see if there is any opportunity to use the book to help her organization Humble, which provides equestrian activities to marginalized youth. This led to an opportunity to interview Bri about her activism and life as a horsewoman. Calling All Horse Girls magazine will publish my interview with Bri this June, and I am so thrilled to have it out in the world.

Tell me more about horse culture and the image of the “horse girl” at this moment. How do you and your book embody (and not embody) this image?

The horse girl is seeing a real moment, and I love it. When I started my thesis, it was seen as niche and sort of soft. It’s something I teach in my cowgirl stories classes actually because frequently if girls are interested in something, it’s dismissed or treated as not particularly rigorous or intellectual.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s Dark Horses and Black Beauties was my North Star book while writing mine because it was the only one on the subject, treating the relationship with the seriousness I knew it deserved. This year a new magazine, Calling All Horse Girls, came out and next year an anthology on the horse girl trope will be published, featuring writers like Carmen Maria Machado, Allie Rowbottom, and T Kira Madden. These writers are, in my mind, some of the very best on girlhood, gender, and feminism right now, so I can’t wait to read it.

I always knew I was a horse girl — from sketches of horses in the margins of my notebooks to my obsession with my childhood horse, Shoshona — but I think I started to embrace it as a matter of principle. Any time a girl likes something, it’s disparaged, so to me embodying the horse girl was essential. And the book was a way to explore that.

What do you hope for the future of horse-girl narratives?

In my book, I argue the modern cowgirl needs a reckoning. The horse world needs to grapple with histories of colonization, misogyny, and racism, and I think we’re starting to see some of that happen in the horse world. Mainly, I hope that it continues in earnest and we see more diverse cowgirl narratives, because I know these stories can be meaningful especially for young people.

All young folks interested in horses should get to see themselves represented. I think this, like everything else regarding white supremacy and patriarchy, requires actual systemic change. The West has been whitewashed. The history shows Black, Indigenous, and persons of color have always ridden horses, ranched, and done this work — and we’re seeing great writing that highlights this — but I think the horse world needs change at the highest levels of competition on down.

I also hope that horse girl narratives shift toward truly representing the nature of the horse. Often, they perpetuate misconceptions, which can have real-world implications for the horse. While they are empowering for many horse-girl viewers, they are less so for the horse. There are a couple narratives I write about in the book, like Black Beauty and The Horse Whisperer, that are relatively unique in their portrayal of the horse, but I’d love to see more of these in the mainstream for the horse’s sake.

What about your MFA experience at Fresno State were positive and have stuck with you, and what do you wish you might have done differently?

Truly, I loved all of it. It was an incredible experience. Because I foolishly bought a retired racehorse right as I started the program, then fractured my vertebrae, I felt like I was writing about the most pressing questions, discoveries, and fears in my life, all while learning from writers I admired. The classes and professors were challenging, engaging, and fascinating.

In a practical sense, I benefitted a great deal from the opportunities the program afforded me, including my experience with The Normal School magazine and with teaching. As a T.A., I found that I absolutely love teaching first-year writing. It helped me uncover and develop my passions, which became my career.

I wish I would have carved out time for my writing practice earlier. In my first semester, I still hadn’t hit my stride with drafting and revision and my writing certainly suffered. Once I actually gave myself the gift of time, my practice and understanding of the process deepened.

What’s your next writing project?

I’ve started writing essays on generational trauma, family history in Fresno, addiction, and chronic pain. Dealing with chronic pain for the past 10 years, I’ve learned that how I am treated and seen by the medical establishment is very much influenced by culture, politics, stigma, and addiction. It doesn’t matter if I clearly need treatment or am compliant and responsible, I still run the risk of being seen as drug seeking due to policy, law, and misperception. Meanwhile, personal context and family history of crime and addiction has raised the stakes for me. So, I’ve been attempting to make sense of that complicated confluence of factors.

Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the English Department. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the MFA program in creative nonfiction.

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