What prompted you to write “Dog People”?
Long ago I discovered that my particular writing strengths were best suited to long-form fiction and I have concentrated on novels ever since. Novels take years to write, however, and I felt I wanted to get something “out there” while I worked on the latest novel. Despite my conviction that I had never been able to make a short story quite work, I had a multitude of ideas for stories and decided to tackle the one that turned into “Dog People.”
What inspired “Dog People”?
I’ve been known to talk in my sleep on occasion, though apparently I mumble too much for anyone to make out what I say. I find the idea of people talking in their sleep interesting and, like my narrator, I wonder what it means. Do the words sleeping people say make sense, or are they simply a dream spoken aloud? Is talking in your sleep some sort of complaint or plea or articulated fear? Anyway, one day I thought how strange it would be if someone growled or barked in his sleep—which begged the question: what would that mean, if anything?
At 10,000 words, this is a long short story. You normally write novels. In fact, this is your first published short story. Were there things you found constricting in keeping this a story? Things you found freeing?
Short stories—even when they’re as long as mine—are extremely constricting to me. I thrive on the space a novel gives me to develop “gray” characters through more developed exposition, back story and interior thought. And I like the space a novel gives to have more of those characters. The pressure in a short story to hold back on telling the reader everything I know about my characters, the limited room I have to present them in all their glorious contradictions and reveal why they are who they are, is hell to me. “Dog People” was probably about 15,000 words at one point and it could easily have been 20,000. The problem with even a 10,000-word short story, of course, is that the avenues for publication are extremely limited. How fortunate for me this story just made it within Stoneslide’s contest guidelines!
Can you tell us about the composition of the rough draft? One or several long sessions? Months? Was the rough draft easy or difficult to write?
Yikes, I was afraid you’d ask. Out of curiosity, I looked on my computer for the original draft and was shocked to find it was dated May 2011. It wasn’t even a full draft (only 9,000 words—ha!). There were lots of flashbacks to the couple’s relationship (Tess was named Poppy then) and an appearance by Matt’s mother, and Poppy bought a dog midway through the story that she named Charles Dickens. In others words, very little of the original appears in the final story.
There was always a barking husband and there was always the idea that the two were or would be a childless couple with a dog (I had the title almost from the beginning), but I wrote and wrote and could never figure out how all my various (and many) story lines hung together. And I definitely couldn’t see how it ended. So the story got filed away and, every few months, I would reread it. Even though it didn’t all come together in any way that made sense, I felt the writing wasn’t too bad and that there was something there—if only I could figure out what it was! At some point, I forced myself to sit at my desk and tear it apart to put it back together again. I probably did three or four major rewrites in total. When I won Stoneslide’s contest, I still wasn’t pleased with it and did some more rewriting, particularly with regard to the ending.
The narrator and her husband are the emotional center of the story. And although they and their trouble are the focus, the story is very rich, with depth and breadth in terms of character and event. Did you find it easy or difficult to weave in such layered, nuanced material?
It’s flattering to hear you found the story to be so rich and nuanced. It may sound odd, but I think that kind of layering and nuancing in terms of character development is something that does come fairly easily to me. Not necessarily in the first draft, of course—we’re still getting acquainted, after all. It takes quite a bit of rewriting and finessing to get it exactly right, but my characters are usually very alive to me from the beginning. I aim always for subtlety and that requires a skillful balancing act: how much explicit information do I need to provide to let the reader figure it out for herself? Too much and I’m insulting her; too little and I’m frustrating her.
“Event” is another matter entirely. When I think event, I think of that dreaded word: plot. I revel in character development; I wage war with plot and structure. What a pain that something has to happen in our stories. The events in this story were constantly changing from draft to draft and the scissors got a good workout figuring out what would happen when, or if it should happen at all.
Not only do you have an MFA, you graduated from the prestigious program at Emerson College, Boston. There seems to be a near-constant discussion of whether or not there’s value to getting an MFA. Was it worthwhile to you to spend your time and money that way? Why or why not?
Ah, the MFA debate. It’s such an individual decision and I can only speak to my own experience. I’m a late bloomer. I started college at 26 and earned my degree while working full-time. Encouraged by an undergraduate professor, I then went to Emerson. Since I was 30 years old when I began the program, I was one of the oldest and one of the few with a full-time job. I feel I missed out on the camaraderie aspects, but it was the first time I’d had “permission” to write. Not only did I have permission, I was being forced to! That was the silver lining, as far as I’m concerned, not to mention I had the opportunity to work closely with Andre Dubus III, a talented writer and generous mentor.
That said, in some ways I feel I gained more insight into both the craft and the writer’s life from the conferences I’ve attended in more recent years; namely, the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Sirenland Writers Conference. (Sirenland is held in Positano, Italy—a terrible sacrifice to make for your art, but if it must be done….) I was thrilled to attend Sirenland for a second time in 2014, where I was reunited with Andre after so many years. These highly competitive conferences offer high quality instruction and workshopping, craft talks and insights on writing from well respected writers, but more than that, they offer real bonding experiences with fellow writers. The friendships forged at those conferences become valuable support in this lonely occupation of ours.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on and off on a novel about the way physical abuse is handed down in a family and the ripple effect it has across the generations. As of now, it’s told from dual points-of-view—from the mother who abused her young son and from the now-grown son who abuses his wife. It’s not light stuff, but having grown up in an abusive home myself, it resonates for me and it’s a story I need to tell. Of course, my last novel, also about abuse (a wife who abuses her husband), failed to find a home because while editors were highly complimentary about the writing, they found it too dark/sad/depressing to market. We can’t worry about the market, though, or even about being published. It has to come from the heart or what’s the point?