DelBianco’s debut novel, Rough Animals (Arcade, June), is a gritty contemporary western in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.
You started your own cattle company at age 14. Can you explain to a tenderfoot what that entails?
I’d select steers from a feedlot and, over the course of 10 months, raise them to finishing weight. I focused on animal welfare and both economic and environmental sustainability, producing above-prime meat, in a program that earned my acceptances into MIT and Duke University. As a member of the youth organization 4-H, I showed cattle competitively. For a teenage girl in a conservative rural community, livestock showing was the great gender equalizer. When it comes to controlling a 1,600-pound animal, strength of arm is irrelevant.
Are there any ways in which running cattle prepares you for writing a novel?
There are very few experiences in life quite like getting the crap kicked out of you by an animal that doesn’t care who you are, where you’re from, or how smart you are, and getting back up again. Writing a novel is one of them.
You live in Bucks County, Pa. How does that affect your process?
Sometimes, flinging oneself into the middle of nowhere, with silence, solitude, and maybe some hay to shovel is what needs to happen to get the writing done. That’s Bucks County for me.
What about your stints living in Paris, Bali, Saigon, and Stockholm—were any of those places helpful in the writing of your novel?
Distance has always aided me in writing about my own experiences, especially cultural distance, but my experience in Bali is at the heart of Rough Animals as much as my cattle-wrangling past is. It was a 14-year-old ecstasy dealer who worked the local clubs, who I met while living in violent, gang-run Seminyak, that inspired “the girl” in my novel.
Do you find that there is a different set of expectations for a female writer writing in what might be considered a male-dominated genre?
I reject the notion that, with the limitless expanse of literary voices in the world, there’s any value in gendering them. Members of the publishing industry have asked me many times about my “authority” to write this book. My answer used to be, “I’ve lived more of those experiences than most of the men who write them,” but the more important answer is that in literature, as in any art, an artist needs no permission to create whatever it is in the world he or she is inspired to create.