When I call Anton DiSclafani, I almost expect her to answer in a frail, quivering, 90-year-old voice, though I know it would be absurd if she did. DiSclafani’s picture on the back cover of her debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, clearly shows a 30-something with a mop of thick black hair, a wide smile, and not a wrinkle in sight. But I’m convinced that really, she’s an old soul beneath that young façade. It’s the only explanation for how she can write so naturally about life in the 1930’s at the brink of the Great Depression, how she can matter-of-factly describe the “paint” on the faces of the girls at a camp dance, comment that only stars in Hollywood found black to be fashionable, or remark that bathing every third day during winter constituted a high standard of hygiene.
It’s surprising that she’s not a historian, not even an amateur one, because her debut novel sits firmly in historical fiction territory and she teaches historical fiction at Washington University in St. Louis. “The 1930’s backdrop definitely made writing (the book) a little difficult,” she confesses. It was easy for her to know when the president said something important, for example. But the more ineffable social codes of the time were harder to detect. “Would it have been okay for a boy to touch a girl's shoulder back then?” she asks. “Things like that are just so hard to locate.” She sifted through more than a dozen memoirs written by people who grew up during the ‘20s and early ‘30s as well as newspaper articles, to get details like that.
It works because the historical backdrop is a prop in this coming-of-age story (the likes of Prep and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) of 15-year old Thea Atwell, who is sent away from her seemingly close-knit family in Florida to Yonahlossee, a horse-riding camp and boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains, because of a mysterious, scandalous offense. “Yonahlossee did really exist, near Blowing Rock, though it closed in the ‘80s,” DiSclafani reveals. A restaurant that’s housed in what used to be the headmaster’s cabin gave her the idea for the book. “They had some old photos on the walls of girls from Yonahlossee and the images just struck me,” she recounts. “It was intriguing to think of a girl so long ago being sent away from her family to a camp like that, in the middle of the mountains.”
At the time, DiScalafani had just finished an MFA writing workshop at Washington University and was gearing up to join there as a faculty member. “I liked my program and learned a lot from it but after the workshop I only wanted to hear my own voice for a while,” she says. “So I really enjoyed writing this thing that nobody was going to see until I'd finished.” As she started writing the book, she drew on her childhood in the South and her own love for horses. Sitting day after day in a decidedly modern Panera restaurant close to her non-heated apartment (at the time), she dreamt up all kinds of historic details about Florida, Yonahlossee and the life of a teenaged girl at the brink of the Depression.
“I would wonder if it would pay off, if there was going to be an audience for the book,” she says with amusement. It’s right of her to be amused, because boy, has it paid off. In early 2012, her novel was bought for a reported seven-figure deal after being at the center of a heated bidding war between seven publishers. But life has stayed pretty much the same for DiSclafani. “I still teach at Washington University though it is more comfortable writing knowing that I have a book that's sold,” she admits.
As our call comes to a close, I can’t help commenting how the name of her book is quite a mouthful. She bursts out into a laugh that begins with a full-lunged exhalation. I can tell it’s a comment she’s heard several times over. “Before your eyes can orient to it, it's just a frickin’ jumble–like every letter of the alphabet on the cover,” she admits. “It’s Yonah as in Jonah and Lossee as in flossy,” she adds helpfully. Either way, it’s a damn fine read.