Lara Prior-Palmer never considered herself a writer — but then, she didn’t consider herself a champion horse racer either.
As a 19-year-old headed to university, Prior-Palmer abruptly left her U.K. hometown in 2013 to enter the Mongol Derby — the world’s longest horse race, and considered the toughest — despite not having any training. All she could offer was her lifelong love of horses and the kind of blind, reckless faith only teenagers could have. Then she became the first woman and youngest person ever to win it.
It’s taken Prior-Palmer, now 24, years to process this. “It made no sense to me that I hadn’t spent my whole life feeling that tired and alive at once,” she tells EW. Right after her victory, she got the narrative of the race onto the page — the exhausting heat, the apocalyptic storms, the 11th-hour thrill of her win — but hardly conceived of a book. She showed her writing to others, and was hit with the same note often: “Who were you in the beginning of the race? How did it change you?”
Forcing herself to consider these questions, Prior-Palmer produced Rough Magic: a lyrical memoir, written over five years, about a young woman pushing herself to the absolute limit — and finding herself. The author’s prose is poetic, and while the race and Mongolian landscape are conjured beautifully and intensely, the book’s emotional impact lies in the nuanced portrait of its subject searching for answers beyond the life she’s lived so far.
EW spoke with Prior-Palmer about revisiting her triumph, digging deep into herself, and more. Rough Magic is now available for purchase.
Richard Dunwoody; Catapult
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Given how arduous and intense this journey was, what was your decision process like to recount and write about it?
LARA PRIOR-PALMER: I’m an indecisive person, and I never made a decision. As soon as I got off the horse, I wanted to put ink to paper. I had no energy or time to write down anything that was happening during the race, and I was so overwhelmed by the experience. I was trying to find the words. I was writing it to myself. A month after the race, people were like, “Do you want to write a book about that?” No 19- or 20-year-old wouldn’t think of [doing it] otherwise, because it’s such a grown-up thing to do — a thing you do if you’re a writer. I wasn’t a writer or anything. So it ebbed and flowed. I was at university, so I put it away. I took some classes in the creative writing department and worked on the manuscript occasionally with a lecturer.
How long did it take you to write it?
It was really from the race’s end in 2013 right up until the end of last year — a four-and-a-half year project, but lots of six-month periods of not looking at it.
How did it evolve as a book, going from the immediate haze of the experience to having a bit more distance from it?
I haven’t really had to think about that before! At first I wanted to get down the narrative. I’m a very episodic person. I don’t think in narrative; it’s unusual I wrote down that narrative. But I thought if I put it down, I was somehow near truth. I would understand what had happened. I had no idea what was happening! I didn’t understand. It made no sense to me that I would end up winning. It made no sense to me that I hadn’t spent my whole life feeling that tired and alive at once. As time went on, I read more memoirs and understood a little more of the lyric and the braided memoir.
No one ever read the whole thing through, but lots of people looked at instruction and said, “No, I want to know about you. Why did you take The Tempest with you? Who were you in the beginning of the race? How did it change you?” All these reflective questions that I’m more interested in now than the actual narrative. I’m amused people might enjoy reading about a plodding pony when they could be reading about existential questions. But that’s the change within me. I’m no longer interested in fact, really. A certain kind of fact no longer interests me. And if I wrote the book now, it would be utterly different. It would not be chronological. It’s almost lucky. It’d be too experimental, probably! I’d be all over the place and hardly mention the race. It’d probably be fiction if I wrote it again.
A happy medium, then?
I hope so. I have no idea!
Well for you: When you were told that people wanted more of that reflective aspect, what was your initial reaction?
I don’t exist! No! I as a person am an authority beyond questioning and there’s nothing more to know. I’ve never been that psychologically questioned. I was slightly allergic to the idea that I should have to write down a bit of my context about my family, that I was privileged — because I very much didn’t want to go into it, didn’t want any of that to be in there — and then I realized a lot of the sensations about escape and so-on. I was always trying to run away from my family. The race was the apex of that. You can’t not write about your upbringing when you do something as a 19-year-old. I was trying to extract it and keep it as pure as I felt it was.
What was the most difficult part of writing this?
The most difficult part for me was the most dangerous part: writing about Mongolian culture, Mongolian people I met who may never read the book, but it doesn’t matter. It’s almost worse that I’m writing about them in a language that isn’t theirs. Just feeling so terrified, the weight of that colonial travel-writing tradition, really wanting to not fall into it. I was just feeling a bit queasy about all of that, and wondering nonstop about how someone of Mongolian heritage might feel if they read this book. What would it be like, and how much of it was othered? It’s a sensitive subject.
But then, the most difficult part was what we just touched on: writing about myself. I could not come to terms with the fact that I’d written a book about my own story. That just seemed so antithetical to my whole persona, which was always self-effacing and extreme modesty — which is actually just the same in the end, anyway! [Laughs]
You mentioned reading a lot of memoirs. What books specifically stuck with you as you were writing this book?
I never found anything in the same tradition of genre as Rough Magic. But I fell in love with Annie Dillard and Anne Carson and their way of using language. I remember Holy the Firm, which is one of Annie Dillard’s lesser-known, very-short books. And I read a lot of biographical memoirs, but was becoming more and more interested in language, and less interested in narrative. So I don’t think they stuck out.
In preliminary conversations with people who have read the book early, I’ve heard multiple instances of people saying you’re their new hero. That’s anecdotal, but pretty intense! Have you heard similar sentiments? How do you feel about that?
[Pause] I guess I understand it — not me, Lara, as their hero, but there is a spot in everyone’s mind for a hero, and a certain story with a certain energy can get into that. It’s cool to think that of Rough Magic — which I feel is slightly beyond me now, in control of herself. I’d be very touched if she was able to shed some energy. I don’t know about the word “hero,” because that implies the person isn’t a hero for themselves. We have a lot inside us already. I hope people realize that whatever was in me to do that race is there, dormant, in a lot of us.
You write about it in the book, but now that you have this book coming out: How did the race change you?
God, the race is so strong! [Laughs] When people like you make me really think about it. I usually can just talk about it without opening my heart to it, but it was such… I don’t even think I managed to convey this in the book. But it was so powerful. It’s hard to say in any logistical sense, that it made me be X, Y, or Z. It didn’t do anything obvious. But as I think of it, I feel like I’ve been to another planet and back. The sensation of being in that zone of extremity. There’s a huge force there — you can go back to it in your imagination and draw from it and think about what the race is. A lot of people ask me, “What’s going to be your next race?” Literally and metaphorically. That really stumps me, because I suddenly have a moment of, “Have I found my next race yet? What will it be? Maybe I should just fall in love!” [Laughs]
And how did the experience of writing about it change you?
Writing it changed me in more obvious ways. You realize your fallibility. Writing makes you realize you’re one mind in a million, and we’re all going in these different angles. We can all inhabit each other’s angles, but are looking at the same thing. In a way, it made me want to listen more to other people and hear what they had to say. I like inhabiting other people’s bodies. It made me self-reflective. It makes you less inclined to assume your anger as someone else’s fault. What did the writing do to me? [Sighs] It just takes you to another level, doesn’t it?
This interview has been edited and condensed.