Interviewed by Jackson Armstrong
Your story “Dead Dog” has deliberation and grace (and a lot of humor). To borrow an adjective from it, it is, in some ways, almost biblical. How conscious were you of the tone of the story, and perhaps the balance, during the process of writing it?
That’s nice of you to say! In a rare turn, this story had a specific set of language that seemed to belong to it: language that felt both florid and reticent. Normally, I think, I write more narratively—there’s more dialogue, more backstory, more plot points. This one felt very tied to a moment and to an internal, fluid, distorted state of mind. Because the narrator is spiraling a bit, the burden rests on the sentences to replicate that feeling: I wanted there to be a sense that the wife is experiencing emotions that she can’t contain, that they flow over the boundaries of a sentence (hence the run-ons!). I do feel strongly that lyricism can (and should) be funny—that that pairing is as true a reflection of life as any. I don’t like stories that take themselves too serious.
What, might I ask, was the genesis of this piece?
I don’t know a specific origin point, but when I originally wrote it, two years ago, it was much longer. It began before Thanksgiving and walked all the way through dinner and the dog killing and there were multiple characters and it was awful; it really didn’t work. So as an exercise I deleted everything except the scene after Thanksgiving, and then began to write within those parameters. And that felt right.
Generally speaking, I am interested by messy situations in which blame is unclear—which, with animals, is so often the case. We can feel so close to them, and feel that they understand us, and of course there’s this giant gap between us and the way they experience threat and sometimes simply don’t understand their own bodies and urges. I’m sure this isn’t the last story I’ll write about a dead animal.
I know you’re also a poet. How does that influence your prose writing, or vice versa? Do you prefer one over the other?
At some point this past fall, I taped a note to my mirror that said: “Poetry doesn’t have to be autobiographical and fiction doesn’t have to be nice.” Both forms and their autobiographical sourcing have become more loose for me, recently, and it’s a bit of a relief. I feel less pressure (though obviously that’s a lifelong tussle) to have stories reflect me as a person or the gracious Southern woman I was raised to be, rather than me as a writer. I like both stories and poems that have distance, that bleed into each other. Often a story will begin as a poem (and sometimes even vice-versa) and I think that an attention to emotional compression, to really fleshing a thought out in a single lyrical line, helps sentences to stand on their own. I want a story to do that, to powerlift with syntax. Or ideally that’d be nice, right? Many of my favorite writers write both fiction and poetry, or super short fiction that has the feeling of a poem. I don’t think I can pick one over the other!
If you had to cast this story with B-List actor (but the dog is literal human Tom Hanks, on all fours or not; we can discuss this) who would you choose and why?
Hmm. very good question. I can kinda see Leelee Sobieski in a prom dress wedding getup. Aaron Eckhart is way too handsome to be a normal person, but he definitely has youth pastor vibes, don’t you think? As does adult Jonathan Taylor Thomas. In a very different way, but they both kind of have that healthy—so robust as to be sinister—thing going on.
And wow, a literal Tom Hanks as the dog! That’s good. I guess I should really read your fiction, Jackson, if this suggestion is any indication of it.
There’s always time for a man to become a youth pastor. This is true. But what does a man need to become a youth pastor? An unusually well-manicured goatee? What are some other qualifications?
Hmm, probably a name like Clay or Harris or any kind of non-name that could also be the name of a neighborhood subdivision, maybe a goatee, a signature handshake, a suspicious overfamiliarity with the word “lust,” probably an internalized hatred toward women. I don’t know, I’ve met a few really kind and genuine youth pastors, but when I paint with a broad stroke (like I am right now) I don’t have a lot of good things to say.
Ultimately, youth pastors need to have a vicious competitive edge that is barely kept at bay, and more than a passing proficiency in table sports.
Lastly (noting that “Dead Dog” is your first prose publication), where can we read some of your poetry?
I do have one fiction piece up, though not in print. You can read it on Joyland. I don’t have a lot of linkable poems! There’s a couple in the upcoming issues of TYPO and The Sycamore Review. And then others in Prelude, Hobart, and The Hampden-Sydney Review.