Lara Prior-Palmer was 19 years old when she embarked on what is known as the world's "longest, toughest horse race": the Mongolian Derby. And, Prior-Palmer didn't just participate in the race—she won, becoming not only its youngest victor but also its first female champion. It is, as I discussed with Prior-Palmer recently over video-chat, the kind of experience that induces everyone in your life to say, "You really ought to write a book about this!"
And while Prior-Palmer isn't actually the kind of person who does anything because people tell her she ought to, and while it would be wrong to say that she wrote her new memoir, Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race, simply because she was encouraged to, it is right to say that we are all lucky she did write it, because it's the rare read that offers what Rough Magic does: a type of pure exhilaration, the kind that snakes through your body in moments both still and hurried. Reading it is a visceral, sensorily charged experience; a, yes, rough and magical ride through one of the planet's most desolate landscapes, and into the mind of a young woman whose fearlessness and curiosity take her—and us—to countless unexpected places.
Below, Prior-Palmer and I talk about how this memoir came into being, what it felt like to really want to crush her primary competitor, and if there's anything of which she's really scared.
How did you approach telling this story? Because the book shares both a very discrete part of your life—your experience in the Derby—but then also it's colored with experiences from your childhood and bits of Mongolian history. How was it striking that balance and creating a structure that would allow you to do all of this in one volume?
When I originally wrote down the race, I wasn't thinking about a book, I was thinking about truth and trying to lay down a map of it, both from my own sense that I didn't understand why I'd won, and because I was like, This is strange and wonderful and should be recorded. And I just chronologically wrote it down, as though accuracy would give me an answer. It was quite childish in a way, or quite rational.
[Initially] when people were like, "Oh, will you write a book about [the race]?" I was like, "No, no way!" But then I started reading other books—I mean, not that I wasn't reading before, but I was reading with my writing in mind, whereas before I just read for pleasure. I was introduced, especially at university, to writers like Joan Didion and Annie Dillard—that sort of lyrical, braided memoir. And I was like, Whoa, this is cool! I should do this with the book!
I sat down so many times to try and get rid of the chronology and the structure—I thought the race wasn't important, I thought it didn't hold; I didn't think it would be a good enough container because it was so short: How could you make a whole book out of seven days? But, every time I tried to sort of mix it up, I just couldn't do it, I couldn't dismantle the scaffolding. And I think the moment it really settled for itself as a chronological structure of a race book was when I spoke to Josephine Rowe, who's an Australian writer, and she gave me some help with the book; she said, "You could have a chapter for each pony," and suddenly it was like, all these little characters... we have 25 different characters, oh my god, there's so much space in this book, because there's so many different types of being. So then, the more I thought about it, that thought lubricated the structure of the race, it helped me sort understand—and other people really helped me understand—how it could function in that way.
Of course there were countless people who were like, "Oh, you have to write a book about this," because it's such an epic-feeling thing you did: You were 19, and you were the youngest person and a woman to win the longest horse race in the world; it's so many superlatives. So, why wouldn't you write a book about it? But also, that mandate [to narrate an experience] can both elevate and minimize achievements, because then you start thinking about your life experiences in these weird narrative structures that can really diminish them in a way, potentially. Unless you do it well, like you did, and get to the place where you allow yourself to tell the story that is yours to tell. But it's pretty daunting and disorienting, in a way.
I was very uncertain about whether it was worth telling. In fact, maybe that uncertainty, the energy of that, is in the book, in another way.
Photo by Richard Dunwoody
There is an uncertainty reflected in your experience of starting this race and neither thinking you're going to win, nor even allowing yourself to consider the race within that framework. And then, there's that switch where you realize you can catch the race's leader, Devon, and it's not just that you can catch her, but that you want to; and it's not just that you want to catch her, but that you want to crush her. I think there's something really analogous and fascinating there, related to just leaning in to writing the book once you started really writing it. And I want to ask you, also, what it meant to you to allow yourself to get to a place where you could admit how much you wanted to win and then just go for it?
So the psychology of the whole winning thing I had to really grapple with, when I was writing. I hadn't thought it through; I hadn't owned up to myself about it. I wanted all of the modesty and the apples and the fruit that you get from that, with all of the same desire to win and have power and security. It was all wound up in the same pursuit, I think. So I was in denial that I really wanted it. It was slightly out of control and very thoughtless, when I was on the race. Never in my mind, did I go, I want to win this. It was like there was a rope through me, through the whole race. I was on this lift, sort of ski lift thing, and it was just pulling me forward. Races are quite simplistic in a way, they're just like, "Go as fast as you can." So I was doing that, I was conforming to the race, which I don't normally do generally, in races and other metaphorical senses; I find it hard to conform with the structure of the thing; I sort of try to think my way around it, and then I end up not doing it, or not making the most of it, or not taking it seriously. So part of the winning thing was just extraordinary to me, because I was taking it seriously. I was like, I'm doing the race, I'm doing the race. And to do the race, in my mind, I was going to win it. I don't actually think that now, lots of people have an amazing time who don't care about winning. I did not care about winning when I got to Mongolia; I was not interested, that was so beyond me. I thought everybody was so professional. I just wanted to finish. I thought it would be so cool to be the youngest person that had finished it.
But then when I was writing, Jonathan [Lee], who's the editor, had read it through, and he was like, "Don't you need to be a bit more honest? About the fact you can ride, and you need to own up to the fact that at this stage in the race, toward the end, you're on it, you want to win. You've got to stop being modest."
For quite a few years I'd maintained to myself that I didn't want to win, I just wanted to beat Devon—partly because I thought it was a funnier thing to say, and I always wanted to be entertaining, basically. I'm just trying to imagine if it would have been any different if it was [about beating] someone who I felt more friendly towards, who was ahead of me, and, like, would have I had the same compulsion, just with a lighter edge? You know, just the same, pure momentum, like a horse not knowing why it's racing, sort of thoughtless, in the moment, illogical. Do you know what I mean? It's illogical in the moment, but, afterward, you can see it.
It's such a surreal thing to maintain that desire to win, to compete for such an extended period of time, especially when it involves so many variables that aren't really in your control—like what horse you end up being on, and what's happening with the weather—it's a race in the classic sense, but then it also feels so separate from any kind of conventional idea we have of racing, and of time, because it is and it isn't about having a start and a finish. Time does so many funny things in this book, actually, and I'm sure that's also really reflective of what you experienced, because you were alone for so much of it. Even though there are so many other people who are coming in and out of the story and of your experience, whether it's the families you're staying with or the doctors or the cameramen or obviously your fellow racers, still, there's a lot of time when you're just in your head. It's an interesting, potentially alienating place for anyone to be, but particularly, I think, for a 19-year-old.
It's difficult now, as I can very much see that keenness to throw myself into a sort of unknown oblivion. [That feeling] was so strong because I think I was trapped without knowing it in a certain way of thinking, among certain people. England is very classist, and it's hard to get out of it—I mean, America has the same class issues, but I was very stuck in this, and I wouldn't have had the toolkit to articulate what it was that was happening or going on. So part of [joining the race] was escapist, in a way; not escapist in the way that you think it's going to fix you or find you or sort you out, but the mundanity and the pain of [your regular life], you're just so done with it. You're just ready to throw yourself into something. It's probably something symbolic, it's just like trying out a little dare. It's that danger, eventually, it's danger and lots of fear. Why did I want to do something so strange? It looked so cool. It didn't scare me when I found out about it. Maybe I was taking my fearlessness for granted, in a way, because I did get a bit scared. But [there was] definitely an urge to—I mean, it's the same sort of thing as leaving the U.K. to go to university in California, that same strain of just trying to get into a different psychological world somehow.
Photo by Richard Dunwoody
Obviously, I just did frame that question around your age, but that impulse, that drive, to explore or to take these risks and to go to these places is something that was present in you when you're 11 years old and will still be present when you're 55 years old. It's something that you allude to at the end of the book when you mention the saying that once a pilgrim reaches her destination, it's just the beginning of the next journey or something along those lines. And I feel like that is also what this book is really a testament to, this desire and drive just to be out in the world. But writing about exploring can be tricky, and can feel touristy, and complicated. How did you deal with those cultural complications while writing?
So, the crux of the book for me, and the most painful things about writing it, and one of the things that almost stopped me from writing it was that the race took place in Mongolia, and therefore I would be writing about Mongolian people without having grown up there, with having no friends from Mongolia, which I think is important; I have a lot of friends from a lot of countries—I mean, comparatively, in Iran and India—but I don't know anyone who grew up in Mongolia. I poured a lot of myself into just... I remember going back through the book and adjusting sentences over and over again. I still don't think the book is okay, and I think I'll read it in two decades and be slightly appalled, perhaps, just because I said, "Oh, I'm conscious of all of this, and I'm scared about it, this is so delicate, it's not really for me to talk about." There's an author note in the back that says, "This is just my life experiences over three weeks, here's some great Mongolian literature," and then I've listed some of my favorite Mongolian poetry by a contemporary writer, and some novels I've read and some academic stuff by Mongolian writers... In the end, I was able to connect back with some of the people who organized the race, and they were really helpful with some of my transliterations. I still feel like the whole book hasn't been read through to my knowledge by someone of Mongolian heritage. So, that's a regret of mine. I would have liked to make that happen.
Self-critique can be endless, though. I think that that's often the case with writing in general, and certainly personal experience writing. Especially when you're considering all of the complications of how your work is being read by other people whose own experiences are going to inform so strongly how they see your work. You can't account for what they're bringing into their reading of your work, but once you start thinking about it, that's it. It becomes kind of crippling. I have one final question, though, which is kind of broad: Does anything scare you?
I'm scared of things that other people find quite easy. I have issues with intimacy. Things like that. One of my best friends, she loves intimacy, and it's her way of connecting; she gets into it. I'm the opposite, and find it really scary and don't know what's happening and don't get involved with anyone very often. I think it's different kinds of bravery for different kinds of people. For some people, they do that before breakfast, and for me, I would love to go to a race again, easy. I'm okay with physical pain. There are different kinds of fear.
Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race is available for purchase, here.
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