Alum’s Novel Adapted for Film
When author Shannon Pufahl, Ph.D. ’20, moved to Davis, the impact of the change was immediate.
“I was suddenly not just a kid in small town Kansas with big dreams,” she said. “I was in California, the land of milk and honey. I was a graduate student.”
Pufahl earned her Ph.D. in English at UC Davis in 2020.
“I loved Davis because it was the small town in an agricultural zone. It’s where all the landscapes kind of come together,” she described. “I think if I ended up somewhere in Southern California, I never would have learned that; I never would have felt that truth.”
Pufahl is a lecturer in creative writing at Stanford University. Her novel, On Swift Horses (Riverhead Press, 2019), was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, which champions LGBTQ books and writers. In 2021, Emmy-Award winning producer and director Daniel Minahan and Oscar-winning producer Peter Spears teamed up with Ley Line Entertainment to acquire the manuscript for film adaptation. Set in the post-war American West and shot throughout California and Nevada, the film is expected to hit theaters sometime in 2024.
Daisy Edgar-Jones plays the protagonist Maribel, a gambling, cunning woman inspired by Pufahl’s grandmother. Maribel is married to Lee (Will Poulter), while actor Jacob Elordi, featured in HBO’s Euphoria, plays Lee’s brother, Julius, a kind of man that Maribel has never met before. Tasked with surveilling card cheats from the casino’s rafters, Julius is also in a closeted, queer relationship that’s eventually exposed.
Pufahl maintains a close relationship with her novel, but the screenplay is “very separate from the thing that I made,” according to the author, who described feeling “weirdly detached from it. My involvement has been very minimal.”
Pufahl visited the set early in 2023. The production team had recreated an “amazing” 1950s-era casino in a defunct movie theater. The productions team’s attention to detail was “pretty intense,” Pufahl said. “They couldn’t get licensing for some of the old casinos, so they had to make up a casino name and then they, like, made ashtrays and matchboxes.”
One thing Pufahl quickly learned about film sets — “they’re pretty boring. I was there for like six or seven hours shooting what will become like 30 seconds.”
Still, the experience she said was worthwhile.
“That was a fun contrast for me — the excitement of seeing a world that you had created,” she said, “and people that you had invented brought to life in this particular way — and the rush of that.”
Pre-production conversations with the film’s director and executive producer made Pufahl assured of an empathy driven approach for her “book about queer life.”
“They were just really wonderful conversations about what we think might be different about other kinds of stories,” she recalled, and “how they might make a movie that wasn’t, like, Brokeback Mountain Part Two.”
“I think they have a sense of, from their own experience, what it’s like to feel a little bit out of place, but also camouflaged,” Pufahl described, “a sort of form of code switching in traditionally straight or traditionally male spaces. When we were talking about what it would be like for Mariel to be at a racetrack or at a lounge frequented mostly by men, I think they were really able to make the connection between what that would be like.”
Shannon Pufahl's debut novel, "On Swift Horses," sets an incestuous web of romantic entanglements against the backdrop of 1950s California https://t.co/7v8Jx8XAcb
— New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks) November 5, 2019
It was just a few years ago that Pufahl was pursuing her Ph.D. at UC Davis. She spent time working with faculty like Mike Ziser and Elizabeth Freeman. “I found both of them to be just incredible readers,” she said, “just really wonderful people to be around.”
And she said she received tough counsel from one candid professor: “Nobody is waiting for your first novel. If it never exists, everything will be fine and will go on as before.” Writing for self-satisfaction, not an audience, is a lesson Pufahl took to heart as a writer and, now, teacher.
“I feel like I’m telling students all the time, your enthusiasm for what you’re doing translates to the person who’s reading it,” she said. “And if you love it, then we like to watch people do things that they love.”
Ultimately, Pufahl said she learned that her goal of writing isn’t a novel or even its publication.
“The only real reason to do it and the only thing that you experience,” Pufahl said, “is your own sustained pleasure.”