In Horse (Viking, June; reviewed on this page), Brooks draws on the true story of a 19th-century racehorse.
As someone with a longtime knowledge of horse racing, what drew you to the racehorse Lexington?
Lexington’s racing career was just a brief part of his extraordinary life. I was intrigued by what happened during the Civil War and the horse’s general celebrity, as well as the importance of the horse beyond what happened at the track. This horse was such a big deal in the 1850s and ’60s. When Lexington died, the obituary was over three or four columns in the newspaper. This horse was beloved, and to think that he’s been forgotten, well that’s catnip for a novelist, because I felt like I could be part of the rediscovery.
What did you unearth?
I came across the story of the artist who had painted the horse, and his story was so fantastic. He was an itinerant horse painter who then volunteered to be a soldier for the North in the Civil War and attended the wounded. And then the story of the paintings that he did of the horse led in so many directions. There was just so much to work with.
This story is primarily set in the mid-19th century with a present-day frame. What made you realize the story was relevant to the present after Lexington’s skeleton was discovered in 2010?
I was so intrigued with the science around the skeleton. I knew that there was going to be a contemporary story framing the historical spine of the book. As I got deeper into the story of the horse, I realized that a lot of the people responsible for this horse’s success were enslaved or formerly enslaved people. As I wrote about the incredible contribution of the Black horsemen, I realized that I couldn’t leave the story of race as if it was something done and dusted in the past, and that I would have to continue that element in the present story.
Much of the novel follows an enslaved boy’s ties to the famous horse. How were Black Americans involved in the horse racing industry?
They were fundamental. The skills of the Black trainers, jockeys, and grooms—their plundered labor created the wealth of the plantation owners who expressed their prestige through their racehorses.
The story’s narratives eventually connect. How long did it take you to figure out how to bring it all together?
This was a hard book to write, because it goes in so many directions. It took me a long time. You go to the coal face every day and you wield the pick and eventually you find the seam of ore, but it takes a lot of pick wielding to get there.