Win, place or die

Crime novelist, horse racing junkie and former performance poet Maggie Estep talks about the Beats, touring with Lollapalooza and writing dirty fiction.

Published October 1, 2004 7:57PM (EDT)

I met Maggie Estep two years ago at an art colony where she and I were fellow fellows. When she told me she wrote crime novels I nodded politely and didn't ask to borrow a copy. Life is short. The list of books I'll never have time to read is long. I don't need to eat a corn dog to know I don't like corn dogs. For the same reason, I don't read crime novels.

Didn't. Until I picked up a copy of "Hex," the first in Estep's "horse noir" series, and was blown away by the gale force of Estep's talent. Her vividly drawn low-life characters, the wit of their interchanges set against the backdrop of their bleak circumstances, all ripped through the constraints of genre -- and my skeptical preconceptions.

Written in a chorus of six first-person narrators, "Hex" introduces the series' heroine, Ruby Murphy, a racetrack- and yoga-addicted, classical piano-playing, vegetarian drifter who has set down roots in Coney Island. Although each of the book's characters is satisfyingly strange, it's Ruby who elevates the narrative with passages like this one, describing her train ride home after a losing day at the Belmont track: "Where this morning's cargo was full of inflated hopes and swapped tips, now the mood is dour. Surly guys jab by, hurtling themselves to the nearest bar. Raspy older women set their mouths tight and disappear into the glaring burlesque of rush hour Penn Station..."

"Gargantuan," the second in the series, is just out from Three Rivers Press. This time Ruby Murphy has taken up with Attila Johnson, an apprentice jockey whose reluctance to fix races has landed him -- and Ruby -- in a vat of trouble. When Ruby is kidnapped by a sociopathic groom who stashes her in a remote cabin, offering only baloney sandwiches as sustenance, she upholds her vegetarian vow, feasting instead on the mangled volume of Balzac she finds in the trash. The New York Times Book Review called Ruby Murphy "such a ravishing original that it's love at first sight," and indeed, Ruby left me wondering if maybe I should try a corn dog after all.

While waiting for my next Estep fix -- "Flamethrower" is due out in 2005 -- I discovered that in her 41 years, Estep has lived many lives. Raised in France, Georgia, Pennsylvania and upstate New York by her nomadic horse-trainer parents, Estep fell in with the downtown poets' crowd in Manhattan circa 1982, then made the pilgrimage to Colorado to study with Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso at Naropa Institute, aka the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

There "Maggie Estep, performance poet" was born. Between 1993 and '97 she appeared on MTV and on HBO and PBS spoken-word specials, toured with Lollapalooza, performed at Woodstock II, opened for Hole, and released two spoken-word CDs featuring such cult hits as "Scab Maids on Speed" and "Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere."

In '97 Estep did what she'd been wanting to do all along: publish a novel. "Diary of an Emotional Idiot" (Harmony Books) was followed by a short-story collection, "Soft Maniacs" (1999), and then by contributions to several Susie Bright erotic anthologies, a steady stream of erotic crime tales on, and contributions to many other anthologies, including the much-heralded "Brooklyn Noir" (2004). Estep has just landed a deal for a nonfiction book that began as a biography of Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones and has, in the wake of Smarty's flameout, morphed into a history of 10 American racehorses and the era epitomized by each, due out from Miramax in 2006.

I spoke to Estep while she was reveling in her fourth residency at the artists' colony Yaddo -- conveniently located mere steps from the Saratoga racetrack.

Your life story is truly stranger than fiction -- even your own fiction. Let's start at the beginning. What kind of kid were you?

My parents were busy with the horses, and I was a wild only child. I ran away from home all the time -- not because I was unhappy, just because I felt like hitting the road. My first memory is of riding my tricycle to the end of the driveway and sticking my thumb out. Luckily, no one picked me up. When I was 7 my parents split up, my mom married a lawyer, and we moved to France, where I forgot how to speak English. When I was 12 we moved to the top of a mountain in Colorado and everything went all to hell. I started cutting school, shoplifting, smoking, drinking and reading Charles Bukowski.

Bukowski! Is that what made you quit high school, leave home, and move to the Lower East Side at age 17?

[Laughs.] That, and one of my dad's riding students who heard me blasting the Sex Pistols in my room every time she came over for a lesson. Somehow she knew that I needed to be rescued from my peculiar life. She got me a job at Arista Records. I moved to New York and got myself an apartment in the only neighborhood I could afford.

How did the Lower East Side treat you?

I loved it. It was so wild then. It was an open drug marketplace; there were guys with Uzis on every corner. It was a little scary -- I got a knife held to my throat a few times -- but the neighborhood people looked out for me. I became a debauched club-goer and got to know a lot of interesting people.

Including William Burroughs?

I met him at an opening [of a show] of his paintings. He was very gracious to me. He told me he was teaching at Naropa, so I moved back to Colorado, lived in my mom's basement, and started taking workshops with Burroughs, Corso and Ginsberg. I was a fledgling writer -- I'd been writing terrible guitar lyrics and sci-fi novels for years -- and those guys influenced me profoundly. They were intelligent people doing this great stuff that was accessible, not alienating and academic. It was really sexy. Allen, especially, was a great reader. I loved the relationship he had to his audience.

How did you get into performing yourself?

At Naropa I started writing very short prose pieces and reading them out loud. I loved the immediacy of standing at that mic. The performance stuff was so alive. When I finally got a contract to write a novel, I worked very hard at bringing some of that immediacy to the written word.

It's a long way from Naropa to Lollapalooza.

Everything that's ever happened to me has been an accident. That was no exception. I went back to New York and people started paying me to read -- 20 bucks here, 50 bucks there. In 1993, I got on a PBS spoken-word show and "Poetry Unplugged" on MTV. Then a record company offered me a deal, so I put together a backup band and made a CD ["No More Mister Nice Girl," 1994]. Next thing I knew I was on the Lollapalooza tour bus. That was the most fun ever -- oh man, it was just delicious. I got to watch and hang around with some amazing musicians, and all I had to do was get on a stage three times a day and scream out my rants. It was the pinnacle of the '90s, and I was traveling in style.

But then?

I got tired of the limitations. I was doing the same 12 pieces all day every day, and I didn't have time to write. It was fun, but it wasn't a writer's life. I did a few more spoken-word tours, did Woodstock II. Then in '95 I hung it up. All I wanted to do was sit down and write for five years straight.

How did you get your first book deal?

One day there was a big piece in the New York Times about me. The next day I got calls from five editors wanting to meet with me -- none of whom had seen a word I'd written. I signed with Shaye Arehart at Harmony because she was the only one who wanted more than a one-off confessional about my rocker life. She seemed interested in seeing me develop as a novelist. Shaye published my first book. She's still publishing my novels.

Was it daunting to face a novel after writing two-minute-long poems and songs?

I wanted a complete shock to my system. I got it. In retrospect, that first novel is kind of a mess. But all I'd ever wanted to do, really, was finish a novel. I learned a lot as I stumbled through it.

The heroine of that novel, a woman not entirely unlike yourself, writes porn novels for a living, an avocation not unknown to you.

It all started as a joke. I wrote a rant called "Fuck Me." Then a poet I was reading with challenged me to write about sex from the point of view of a man. I did it, and that story turned into my next book. After "Soft Maniacs" came out, asked me to write for them. Susie Bright anthologized some of those stories. I love writing about sex, but it's too easy now. Time to push it further.

Besides publishing poetry, crime novels, erotic fiction, short stories and essays, and now writing journalistic nonfiction, rumor has it that you also own a Steinway and play classical piano, bike ride 30 miles a day, do yoga daily, and enjoy passionate relationships with your dog and your boyfriend of three years. Am I missing anything?

It seems like most of the time I'm sitting at my desk staring at my feet. [Pauses.] Oh. I swim, too.

That's some pretty prolific foot-staring. Is it always the same Maggie Estep hopscotching across all those boxes?

I don't like it when things are easy, I guess. That may destroy the trajectory of my career. [Laughs.] When I was doing spoken word I was being sent on auditions for big Hollywood movies and TV shows. If I'd stayed with that ... but ix-nay on Hollywood, I became a crime novelist. My career path is hard to follow. That might be bad.

But there must be some connection.

Oh yeah, it's all wildly connected. My earliest influence was Camus, whom I read as a kid in France. He writes so simply. That was my aim, and spoken word taught me how to write the way I wanted to: simple, clean sentences that are direct but have some beauty in them as well. Then it became a matter of getting older, embracing my roots -- which are horses and horse people. I love them. They're insane. It's natural that that's what I'm writing about.

Is it the same drive that moves you to perform a rant, write a noir thriller, and write sex stories?

I'm a little more emotionally developed than I was when I was writing rants. What I write now is more psychologically complex. That's a result of growing up. But it all comes from the same feeling: If I don't do this, I'm gonna snap.

Do you get a particular thrill out of working in traditionally lowbrow genres and rendering them in your own highbrow style?

I love that. It's so perverse. Being at Yaddo right now, my fellow colonists are like, "Oh, your books come out in paperback?" I hate the highbrow-lowbrow distinction. I think it's classist and ignorant. It contributes to why people don't read books anymore. There's nothing wrong with writing a book that people actually want to read.

"Hex" and "Gargantuan" seem to fit the bill -- and the Times even liked them.

I don't know how many people consider Burroughs accessible, but he and those other guys at Naropa transcended the notion of literature as a stuffy and exclusive thing. Reading Bukowski, Jean Genet, all those folks with their wild confessional exuberance, opened a lot of doors.

The Ruby Murphy mysteries are written in the first-person voices of several narrators. Have you ever felt trapped in that form?

I've hit a point where I can't get everything I need accomplished in the first person, so I'm abandoning it. I wrote three-quarters of "Flamethrower," then I scrapped it and switched to third-person. [Laughs.] Yet again, it's a case of "I mastered that. Let's move on." I'm really taking pleasure in the scope of the third person right now.

Your editor's OK with that -- changing horses midstream, so to speak?

She lets me do what I want. It's been our experience together that I stagger along, and if I start down the wrong path I catch myself. She hasn't really had to rein me in. So to speak. My editor at Miramax is going to be more iron-fisted, I can tell. Nonfiction is a whole different thing.

What do your accomplishments say about the benefits of an unstable, crazy childhood?

I wouldn't trade any of it. Not for 20 million bucks. [Pauses.] Well ... maybe for 20 million. My parents didn't know what they were doing, but they did love me. That's all that really matters. Unless you're getting abused, it's better to have a bizarre childhood.

You're a devoted and frequent art-colony resident. How does that contribute to your ever evolving literary identity?

I love Yaddo. I don't have to answer the phone. I don't have to feed my dog. More importantly, I don't have to feed myself, which is the bane of my existence. You go to dinner here, there are 30 people, the best and the brightest, sitting next to you. It makes me go back to my room and work really hard. It inspires the shit out of me. And they have the nicest piano on the face of this earth ... I tend to go to a colony for a month in summer and a month in winter. It focuses me, and I come home with excellent work habits. That lasts for a few months. Then I start to get distracted, start spending too much time riding my bike and going to the racetrack. Then I go to another colony.

Right now you're working on two books at once: the third in the Ruby Murphy series and the new book of nonfiction.

The new book happened because I fell in love with Smarty Jones. Every time he won a race, I thought, "Someone's gonna write a book about him." When he won the Derby I thought, "I could write a book about him." I wrote a proposal and we got a bunch of offers. Then bad things happened. The horse lost the last race of the Triple Crown. I talked to his humans and they wanted money to tell their story.

I had this nice new book contract but nothing was going right. I went and talked to my new editor, who happens to have grown up around horse racing. He said, "Why don't we do an overview of racing in the U.S.?" I jumped up and hugged him, because I realized that's exactly the book I've been wanting to write for a long time: the rise and slow decline of racing in America.

Once again, new genre, new challenges.

I'm a little nervous about it. But I'm still in the meandering, delicious stage of researching, reading, going to the racing museum. Once I have to start actually organizing it I'm sure I'll panic. But you know what? It'll probably be fine. I love reading about racing, and I love going to the track. Plus, I don't have to talk to too many living people, which is not my forte and which I would have had to do if Smarty had won that race.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

[Laughs for a long time.] The first female winner of the Tour de France.

By Meredith Maran

Meredith Maran, a frequent Salon contributor, is the LA-based author of 14 books including "The New Old Me" and "Why We Write." A book critic and book editor, she’s on Twitter and Instagram at @meredithmaran

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