The 11 stories in Jennifer Caloyeras’ new collection, Unruly Creatures (released on October 3rd by West Virginia University Press), feature characters who find themselves in extreme situations and/or are let down by their bodies. Often, their tentative steps outside their own problematic situations involve making unexpected connections with the animal world: a neglected boy learns from a taxidermist, a trainer at the Institute for Privileged Primates is surprised by the depth of her feelings for one of the gorillas in her care, a woman who has just had a double mastectomy empathizes with a cow stuck in the crater left by a crashed meteor, and two teens realize they can only bond with their father when in animal costumes.
I appreciated the variety of forms and voices here. One story set in a dystopian future has an epistolary element, including letters and memos; two others use second-person or first-person plural narration, respectively. There’s also a lot to think about in terms of gender. For instance, one protagonist frets about out-of-control pubic hair, while another finds it difficult to maintain her trans identity on a male prison ward. “A Real Live Baby” was a stand-out for me. Its title is a tease, though, because Chloe is doing the Egg Baby project in school and ‘babysits’ for her delusional neighbor, who keeps a doll in a stroller. The conflation of dolls and babies is also an element in recent stories by Camilla Grudova and Lesley Nneka Arimah – proof, if we needed it, that modern motherhood is both an enigma and a work in progress.
I’d recommend this story collection to readers of Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler – and to book clubs. You certainly won’t run out of things to discuss!
Jennifer kindly offered to take part in a Q&A over e-mail. We talked about eco-lit, fairy tales gone wild, and how writing and marketing short stories is different from novels.
Animals take on a variety of roles in these stories: research subjects, art projects, friends. Are you an animal lover? Or was that linking theme incidental? And what did you hope to convey about the ways the human and animal worlds intersect?
I am an animal lover. I always have been. When I was younger I really wanted to be a marine biologist. I couldn’t quite get around the math. Then for a while, I thought, animal psychologist. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and animal behavior and the ways in which humans are constantly distancing themselves from animals and their behavior. We have a bit of an unfair superiority complex when it comes to the animal world. I ended up going down an entirely different path (musician and singer) before applying to graduate school for a MA in English and then a MFA in creative writing.
But to get back to your question, I didn’t set out to write a collection of linked animal stories; that ended up happening organically. I like to use animals as a mirror or lens through which we see ourselves: sometimes at our worst, most instinctive behavior – sometimes at our best. I think an apt metaphor is that of child staring at an animal at a cage in the zoo, internalizing the thought, “I am nothing like that animal. I am everything like that animal.”
Sometimes the humans are the truly unruly creatures – thinking especially of the obnoxious plane passenger in “Airborne” and Ernest, the persnickety postman in “Big Brother.” How does placing them alongside animal characters point up their flaws?
I am a huge fan of unlikable and unreliable narrators. And I think the short story genre lends itself to utilizing these types of narrators, because you don’t have to sustain this for the duration of an entire novel. In “Big Brother”, the reader aligns with everyone else in the story, not the protagonist. Ernest can’t get over the fact that Les, his co-worker, could have such a bond with a parrot, when Ernest has such a difficult time connecting with anyone, yet in the same story, Ernest’s earnest love for his dog is apparent. He has the key to connecting with people, he just doesn’t have the means to put this knowledge to use.
“H2O” imagines a future extreme drought situation in which only the elite can afford fresh water. Does this feel like a plausible scenario, especially where you live in California?
Oh, the water situation is really scary. I don’t think we’re far off from the scenario presented in this story. It’s always absurd to me when we hear about drought conditions and yet, here I am, driving by a huge verdant golf course. And the access for the wealthy in this particular story resonates in terms of access in general in a capitalistic society. In the story, which is a sort of eco-lit satire (I think I just made up that genre), water is the most coveted commodity, yet it’s marketed differently depending on economic status. Living in Los Angeles, there seems to be a production value to everything here, so I wanted to add that twist in the story – the commercialism of a commodity – how it would be talked about on a production set. How to do the perfect “hard sell” when it comes to water.
I especially love the fairy tale-gone-wild mood of “Unruly”: Caroline loathes the Rapunzel-like abundance of her pubic hair, and instead of a glass slipper we get glass shards in Tom’s arm. How does twisting a fairy tale play with readers’ expectations for a story?
I’ve always been obsessed with fairy tales. My second young adult novel, Strays, has a whole component where a high school English teacher introduces 16-year-old Iris, the protagonist, to Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (if you’re a fairy tale fan, you have to read this one!), which is a feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales. I love how familiar all the fairy tale tropes are. I love the use of magical realism in fairy tales and I love the idea of playing with a familiar and predictable story and undercutting the reader’s expectations. To that end, I recently read (and loved) A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass – which was a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But instead of waking up as a cockroach, in this version – a black man in Lagos wakes up as a white man, afforded all of the benefits of white privilege. As a reader you’re thinking, “I know the story, but I don’t know this story.”
The story “Stuffed” was also inspired loosely by the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. The witch in the woods is replaced by a taxidermist (who is not evil) and instead, things with the child go dark pretty quickly.
Occasionally ersatz creatures are on display: doll babies, taxidermied animals, or animal costumes. What are we to make of that gulf between the real thing and the false one on display?
Surrogates are some of my favorite things to explore! I took a deep dive into the world of taxidermy while doing research for “Stuffed”. I really couldn’t get enough. I remember as a child getting lost for hours in the Hall of Mammals at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. I think, for me, it’s the idea of creating something to replace something, but the replacement is complete artifice. In terms of taxidermy, essentially, you are replacing death or recreating death to imitate life. A real dead animal is ugly, sunken, decayed. But we have these artists who take death, stuff it with synthetic material, replace eyeballs with beads and you have a recreation of an animal that sometimes looks better off than a live version of that animal. A lot of what is explored in these stories is a stripping down to raw human behavior. People hide behind the masks and costumes and artifice, but placed in certain situations, their animal instincts will always emerge.
[See also my review of the taxidermy-themed English Animals by Laura Kaye.]
Can you remember what the seed was for some of these stories? A particular line, scene, image, or character? Do you start writing a story with a title in mind, or does the title usually suggest itself later on?
Titles always come last for me. Always. I can’t name a thing until I know what that thing is. Writing is such a process and oftentimes I won’t end up where I think I’m going when I’m writing a story. They always surprise me. “Unruly” (the story of the pubic-haired Rapunzel) came directly out of this vivid dream I had when I was pregnant with my first child. I dreamed that I was naked with long flowing hair everywhere and a squirrel came out of a tree, nipped off a chunk of my hair and ran back to her nest and wove the hair into the nest. I remember waking up hysterically laughing. In hindsight it was such an obvious fertility dream; for the sake of the story, I made it a representation of coming-of-age/adolescence – a time where one’s body feels out of control, but I took it to the next level.
“The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” came directly from Koko the signing gorilla. It’s amazing that a gorilla can use sign language and communicate, but there was also something odd about people putting these very human ideas on a gorilla (remember they got her a pet kitten? And now I see they have her signing PSAs to save the environment?), so I started ruminating on what if we took this idea further – the gorilla communicates so well with her trainer that they begin to develop intimate feelings for one another.
Stories will often come out of an article I read (how leeches are being used in modern medicine led to “Bloodletting”) or from a friend, “Hey, did you know that people go to furry parties where they dress up in costumes and hug one another?” which led to “Plush” and I start playing around with what that might look like. It’s a lot of imaginative play involved. That’s my favorite part of writing – that dreamy time before I actually sit down to type – when it’s all just floating around my head and I’m trying to make a movie of it in my mind.
You’ve previously written YA novels. How different was the experience of writing these short stories? Do you see this work finding a dissimilar audience?
Writing a short fiction collection is not for the faint of heart. I was actually shocked at how slim the collection looked when it arrived in the mail. I kept thinking, “but I did all that work!” Each story, in a way, is treated like a novel. And I’m not talking just about the structure from beginning to end. Every word in a short story is precious; you have to economize. And, in order to get momentum for the collection, you want to publish stories from the collection in literary journals, which takes the same amount of energy and query letters that sending out your novel to an agent or publisher takes!
The audience for this book is completely different than the 13–17 demographic of the two other books. I have had a few people say, “Oh I bought your latest book for my child” and I’m quick to say, “it’s not for kids!” But read at your own risk.
Who are some of your favorite writers? Who has inspired your prose style or your story strategies?
I have so many favorite writers! And I read across all genres. It’s hard to say exactly who has influenced my work, but I will share my favorites! I love Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. I think she is the best at synthesizing humor and pathos in the same space. I strive to do this in my stories. Pastoralia by George Saunders is another favorite collection. He is a master storyteller, satirist, humorist and his stories bring me to my knees from emotion in unexpected ways. I love Aimee Bender’s use of magical realism. I recently read Ottessa Moshfegh’s Homesick for Another World and loved it! There are so many amazing and varied voices when it comes to contemporary short fiction! The faculty member I worked closely with at the University of British Columbia when I was working on my MFA in creative writing was the Giller-nominated writer, Zsuzsi Gartner. In addition to being an incredible writer herself, she opened up the world of endless possibilities in short fiction, which was incredibly liberating.
What are you working on next?
Last year, I was selected as the writer-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and I began working on a contemporary novel about expectations and parenthood. I’m still working on it and hope to be finished by the beginning of the new year. (Now that it’s in writing, maybe I will be further motivated!) I was pretty sure that I was done with short fiction for a while, but then ideas started coming to me again, so it’s my job to listen.
I also teach writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program. I will be teaching a new course, “Writing the Young Adult Novel”, in the winter and my usual “Intro to Short Fiction” in the spring. The classes are online, so if any of your readers are interested, sign up!
I spend a good amount of my time editing and helping to develop manuscripts and stories for clients. So it’s a nice balance between writing, editing and teaching.
My father, screenwriter Ron Clark, and I are toying with starting a podcast. Stay tuned!
Other places to reach Jennifer on social media:
Facebook Author Page: Jennifer Caloyeras
I don’t know why I resisted reading Haruki Murakami for so long. I have some friends who are big fans of his work, but I always thought his fiction would be a bit too odd for me. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994), which I just finished last night, is certainly bizarre, but in the best possible way: it questions our comfort in the everyday by contorting familiar elements in the way that dreams do. This is the story of a young man who’s become lost in his own life and is looking for the way back. It’s a hero’s quest through a baffling, mystical underworld.
It all starts with a missing cat and a dirty phone call. It’s 1984. Thirty-year-old Toru Okada recently left his job as a law clerk and has been aimlessly spending days at home while his wife, Kumiko, goes out to her magazine editor job. A week ago the cat – named Noboru Wataya, after Toru’s hateful brother-in-law – disappeared, so he’s cooking himself some spaghetti and pondering his cat hunting strategy when he gets a call from what seems to be a phone sex hotline, except that the female speaker claims to know him well. And unexpected phone calls just keep coming, including from Malta Kano, a clairvoyant who foretells that he will experience “Bad things that seem good at first, and good things that seem bad at first.”
There’s a narrow alleyway behind their suburban Tokyo house that cuts between two rows of back gardens. On these hot June days, it’s an almost preternaturally still place, with the quiet broken only by the mechanical-sounding call of a creature Toru thinks of as the wind-up bird. He heads down the alley to look for the cat, but all he finds is the deserted (haunted?) Miyawaki house with a bird sculpture and an old, dry well in its yard. He also meets May Kasahara, a blunt sixteen-year-old who’s taking a year off school after a motorcycle accident.
So far, so realist (mostly). But things keep getting weirder, mainly through a series of further appearances and disappearances. The first to go is Kumiko, who says she’s been having an affair. Toru doesn’t believe, her, though. Or, rather, he doesn’t think a pattern of cheating is enough of an explanation for her leaving everything behind one morning. He knows there’s a deeper force driving this, and he’s determined to rescue his wife from it. Meanwhile, he has more encounters with and stories of pain from peculiar characters – everyone from a World War II lieutenant and a former fashion designer to Malta Kano’s ex-prostitute sister, Creta.
Rather like a Kafka antihero, Toru simply can’t grasp what’s happening to him.
I shook my head. Too many things were being left unexplained. The one thing I understood for sure was that I didn’t understand a thing. … “I’m sick of riddles. I need something concrete that I can get my hands on. Hard facts. Something I can use as a lever to pry the door open. That’s what I want.”
Yet his first-person narration anchors the book, making him an Everyman who we journey along with in his state of confusion. So even as the plot gets increasingly outlandish and somewhat taken over by other voices – via long monologues, letters, or tales stored in computer files – we always have this sympathetic protagonist to come home to. Like in Dickens’s novels, I noticed that minor characters like the Kano sisters keep turning up just when you’re in danger of forgetting them due to the weight of the intervening pages.
Yesterday I gave a gleeful squeal when a review copy of just 190 pages arrived. “So you love short books?” my husband asked. I do … but I also adore long ones that have a darn good reason to be that long – creating a whole world you can get lost in. That’s what I’m trying to celebrate with this year’s monthly Doorstopper series: books whose 500+ pages fly by, best consumed in big gulps. Such won’t always be the case: City on Fire and Hame both felt like a slog in places, though were ultimately worth engaging with. But my first encounter with Murakami showcased expansive storytelling at its best. I want to read more books like this.
I’m not entirely sure I comprehended all that happens at the end of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but that doesn’t really matter. The novel left me mesmerized, shaking my head as if waking up from the strangest dream but hoping to someday go back to its world. And for 99.8% of it I forgot that I was reading a work in translation.
If I were to make a word cloud of important phrases from the book, it would look off the wall: lemon drops, a necktie, wells, bald men, baseball bats, birthmarks, being skinned alive, zoo animals, a hotel room, a wig factory, and so on. That list might intrigue you; equally, it might put you off in the same way that I was always daunted by the idea of Japanese magic realism. Let me assure you, this stunning novel is so much more than the sum of its parts.
How do you feel about Murakami? Which of his books should I read next?
Taking a lead from Laura over at Reading in Bed, I’ve trawled my shelves and my current library pile for some blissfully short books. For this challenge I limited myself to books with fewer than 150 pages and came up with four fiction books and two ‘nonfiction novellas’.
The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry
This one-sitting read is a monologue by an embittered librarian who arrives one morning to discover a patron has been locked into the basement overnight—a captive audience. Responsible for Geography, she hopes for a promotion to History, her favorite subject. Alas, no one seems to appreciate this library as a bastion of learning anymore; they only come for DVDs and a place to keep warm. That is, except for Martin, a young PhD researcher who’s caught her eye. But he doesn’t even seem to notice she exists. In one uninterrupted paragraph, this celebrates all that books do for us but suggests that they still can’t fix a broken heart.
My verdict: There are lots of great one-liners about the value of books (“You’re never alone if you live surrounded by books”), but overall it’s a somewhat aimless little experiment and not particularly well translated.
The All of It by Jeannette Haien
When this won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction in 1987, the author was in her sixties. It’s since been championed by Ann Patchett, who contributed a Foreword to this 2011 edition. Father Declan de Loughry, fishing for salmon, reflects on the recent death of parishioner Kevin Dennehy. Before he died, Kevin admitted that he and Enda were never properly married. Yet Enda begs the priest to approve a death notice calling Kevin her “beloved husband,” promising she’ll then explain “the all of it” – the very good reason they never married. As she tells her full story, which occupies the bulk of the novella, Father Declan tries to strike a balance between the moral high ground and human compassion.
My verdict: Enda’s initial confession on page 27 is explosive, but the rest of this quiet book doesn’t ever live up to it. I was reminded of Mary Costello’s Academy Street, a more successful short book about an Irish life.
Favorite passage: “One thing I’ve learned, Father—that in this life it’s best to keep the then and the now and the what’s-to-be as close together in your thoughts as you can. It’s when you let gaps creep in, when you separate out the intervals and dwell on them, that you can’t bear the sorrow.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann
This starts off as the simple story of J. Mendelssohn, an octogenarian who wakes up on a snowy morning in his New York City apartment, contemplating his past – Lithuanian/Polish ancestry, work as a judge and marriage to Eileen, whom he met as a boy in Dublin – and planning to meet his son at a restaurant for lunch. But all of a sudden it turns into a murder mystery on page 24: “Later the homicide detectives will be surprised…” In 13 sections headed by epigraphs from the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” McCann flits through Mendelssohn’s thoughts and flips between the events preceding and immediately following the murder. A late interrogation scene is particularly strong – “unlike our poetry, we like our murders to be fully solved.”
My verdict: This is the first I’ve read from McCann, and it’s terrific. He stuffs so much plot and characterization into not many pages. Mendelssohn’s thought life is rich with allusions and wordplay. I was particularly intrigued to read about the autobiographical overlap in the Author’s Note. I haven’t yet read the short stories included in the volume, but for the novella on its own it’s .
As We Are Now by May Sarton
On the surface this is similar to a novel I reviewed earlier in the month, The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old. But where spunky Hendrik determines to outwit his care home’s sullen staff, Sarton’s narrator, seventy-six-year-old Caroline Spencer, has given in. A retired high school math teacher, she’s landed in a New England old folks’ home because during her recovery from a heart attack she failed to get along with her brother’s younger wife. She finds kindred spirits in Standish Flint, a tough old farmer, and Reverend Thornhill, but her growing confusion and the home’s pretty appalling conditions drive her to despair.
My verdict: This is enjoyable for the unreliable narrator and the twist ending, but overall it struck me as rather melodramatic. However, I appreciated a lot of Caro’s sentiments.
Favorite passages: “Am I senile, I wonder? The trouble is that old age is not interesting until one gets there, a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle-aged. I wish now that I had found out more about it.” & “And what is left of you? A lapis lazuli pin, a faded rose petal, once pink, slipped into the pages of this copybook.”
And two short works of nonfiction:
Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary by Rebecca Brown
Brown is a novelist from Seattle. This is an account of her mother’s death from what sounds like stomach cancer. The disease progressed quickly and her mother died at home, under hospice care, in New Mexico in 1997. As the title suggests, the brief thematic chapters are arranged around vocabulary words like “anemia” and “metastasis.” My favorite chapters were about washing: her mother’s habit of reading while taking long baths, and the ways Brown and her sister tried to care for their mother’s disintegrating body, including a plan to prepare the corpse themselves. Clinical descriptions of vomiting alternate with magical thinking to accompany her mother’s hallucinations: “You’re packed, Mom, but all of us aren’t going, just you. But you’ve got everything you need.”
My verdict: Brown covers a lot of emotional ground in a very few pages, but I prefer my medical/bereavement memoirs to have more of a narrative and more detail than “when she died it was not peacefully or easy, it was hard.”
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz
This 1996 memoir was sparked by reading a quote from a Chinese Buddhist in a New York Times article: he suggested that reading is dangerous as it imposes others’ ideas on you and doesn’t allow you to use your own mind freely. Schwartz, of course, begs to differ. As a novelist, reading has been her lifeline. She looks back at her childhood reading and her pretentious college student opinions on Franz Kafka and Henry James, and explains that she lets serendipity guide her reading choices nowadays, rather than a strict TBR list: “reading at random – letting desire lead – feels like the most faithful kind.”
My verdict: It’s a bibliomemoir; I should have loved it. Instead I thought it unstructured and thin. There are some great lines dotted through, but I wasn’t very interested in the examples she focuses on. Five pages about a children’s book by Eleanor Farjeon? Yawn!
Favorite passages: “Like the bodies of dancers or athletes, the minds of readers are genuinely happy and self-possessed only when cavorting around, doing their stretches and leaps and jumps to the tune of words.” & “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself – the task of a lifetime – becomes the answer.”
Have you read any of these? Which one takes your fancy?
How do you feel about novellas in general?
Linda Grant’s seventh novel, The Dark Circle, stars Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, nineteen-year-old twins and representatives of London’s small Jewish population. It is 1949; Miriam works in a flower shop and Lenny has just been rejected by the army at his National Service medical appointment. He has tuberculosis and there are worries about Miriam’s lungs, too, so it’s off to the Gwendo (the Gwendolyn Downie Memorial Hospital for the Care of Chronic Cases of Tuberculosis, that is) for both of them. We briefly see them through the eyes of the cab driver who takes them down to Kent: “The pair in the back were common as muck.”
It’s clear this is no ordinary sanatorium; it has a “reputation for being a modern, iconoclastic facility for the very best people,” like Lady Anne and Miriam’s Oxford-educated roommate, Valerie. The Lynskeys, as NHS rather than private patients, may be looked down on as a different class of people, but they bring fresh life into the place. That’s doubly true of new arrival Arthur Persky, a twenty-six-year-old Navy man from Brooklyn. He enlivens the bleak, clinical surroundings with rock ’n roll music and a certain sex act. The Gwendo, once a place of boredom and conformity, now seems like a site of quiet rebellion.
One of Grant’s key skills is characterization, and short chapters from different characters’ perspectives give us access to their backstories. I especially liked getting to know German refugee Hannah Spiegel. Kafka, oddly enough, forms a link between her and the Lynskeys: Valerie has been reading The Metamorphosis aloud to Miriam to try to educate her; Miriam, absolutely captivated, gets Lenny in on the listening sessions, and he asks Hannah to interpret the book for them since she’s read the original German. “No, no-one can explain, it’s not possible to do so,” she replies. “You experience it in your way, it’s a labyrinth you must pass through but the labyrinth is yourself.”
The same might be said of tuberculosis. Each of these patients has the same disease, so Dr. Limb and his nurses sometimes treat them as interchangeable, yet each medical journey is individual and unpredictable. The typical approach was a pneumothorax injection to temporarily collapse one lung so it could ‘rest’, but in extreme cases some patients would have ribs removed. Great hopes were pinned on streptomycin treatment, and on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish day of reckoning in 1950, Dr. Limb takes on the role of God, weighing up who live and who will die in the coming year. He has seven courses of streptomycin to distribute, but who will get them? The weakest? The woman he’s in love with? Or the ones with the most chance of improving? Meanwhile, Miriam’s condition is worsening, and Lenny and Persky decide they’ll do whatever it takes to make sure she gets one of those injections.
I was impressed by how Grant evokes her period setting through dialogue, slang and music. The novel’s tone is wry yet melancholy, almost nostalgic. The terrific opening paragraph gives you a taste of the no-nonsense style:
London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street was laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.
The final 60 pages are set in the future and reveal what happens to Lenny, Miriam and key others in the decades after they leave the sanatorium. These former patients are bound together in the title’s “dark circle” of suffering, but because TB has been eradicated no one remembers their pain. “From a death sentence to a course of antibiotics in a decade,” Lenny marvels. The novel loses momentum a bit in this short final section. I felt it would have been more powerful if Parts II and III were cut and the book simply ended with the plot coming full circle and Lenny and Miriam leaving the Gwendo in a taxi. But this is a minor quibble. The Dark Circle does what the best fiction does: drops you right into a situation you’ve never thought about and can’t begin to imagine—until a first-class novelist does so for you.
The Dark Circle was published by Virago on November 3rd. My thanks to Poppy Stimpson of Little, Brown for the free review copy.
It was a delight to participate in my first blog tour. See below for details of where other reviews have appeared and will be appearing soon.