Author takes risks with first novel, which explores love and atomic bombs in Las Vegas
photo by: Contributed photo
Kansas native Shannon Pufahl was mulling over the plot of her first novel long before she began writing “On Swift Horses.”
At first, she thought the story would focus on her grandparents, who moved from Kansas to Southern California after the Korean War. Her grandmother spent time in Las Vegas, where she developed a passion for gambling.
Along with Pufahl’s own family memories, including trips to Las Vegas with her grandmother, research led her to archival photos that spoke of a different world. She discovered a photo of one of the strip’s hotels with people standing on the rooftop, dressed to the nines, watching an atomic blast off in the distance.
Though the book’s female protagonist maintained her grandmother’s spirit, its setting moved to the transformation of the desert town from a haven for mobsters in the 1930s and 1940s into a big tourist destination for people from Southern California.
“They drew the people by advertising the atomic bomb tests,” Pufahl said, speaking by phone with the Journal-World from her home in Monterey, Calif. One of the book’s protagonists ends up in Las Vegas working surveillance and watching bombs being tested.
The book tackles the postwar west, as Pufahl writes about ordinary people dealing with their lives. The author admits that in certain ways, she took risks.
“Just writing what it would have been like for lesbian and gay people in that time period is one of the risks,” Pufahl said.
She also took risks with style.
“It’s not written the way the typical big page-turner is,” she said. Instead, she was interested in other ways of looking at the world and ordinary people who don’t get much play in books or any other media.
“When it feels like the right kind of work, it doesn’t feel risky,” she said. “It feels like what you are doing is the thing you have been called to do. That’s mostly how it felt to me.”
What scared Pufahl most about carrying the story around in her mind was not living up to the thing she had imagined.
“I was writing inspired by my grandparents; I wanted to do justice to their experiences,” she said. “I have so much respect for the lives they were able to make for themselves. Both were powerful and independent people. They survived the Depression and lived out the American dream. They came from nothing. And I wanted to show that.”
Pufahl grew up in Berryton and graduated from Shawnee Heights High School. She remembers her grandmother being so different from other grandmothers, who might have stayed home and baked cookies and attended clubs. Her grandmother was taking her to the casinos in Las Vegas.
“She was charismatic, funny and responsible,” Pufahl said. “She taught me how to take risks without messing up my life.”
After high school, she moved to Lawrence and commuted to Washburn University. She remained in Lawrence while working on her master’s degree in English at the University of Kansas.
“I had my first grown-up job as the bar manager at the Bourgeois Pig,” she said.
Pufahl moved to California in 2006 to work on her doctorate at the University of California, Davis. She was named a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University, which enabled her to write for several years, working on the book. She is currently on staff at Stanford teaching fiction, creative nonfiction and writing across genres.
Once she discovered her focus, she began the writing process in 2012. It took more than four years to write the book, and then the publishing process began with Riverhead Books. The book had its debut in November.
Pufahl is excited to return to Lawrence on her cross-country book tour. She will read from “On Swift Horses” at 7 p.m. Monday at The Raven Book Store, 6 E. Seventh St.