In your story, “Sun Dogs,” you start from historical fact. What drew you to this subject, and how did you research it?
I believe at some point during my stint at the Clarion Writers’ Workshop I stumbled across an old film strip with actual footage of Laika, and to see this happy, healthy, unassuming dog—a very charismatic one, too; she looked a lot like a Jack Russell—and to know how her story ended was sort of heart-rending. I started reading about her and learning things (I never knew she was a random stray, for example) and the story went from there.
Is this your first story to take such an unusual point of view? What challenges did it pose? Do you feel a lot of empathy for animals?
The first one published, anyway. Early on I tried writing from a dog POV once or twice, but it’s very difficult to strike a balance between thought and instinct and not have it come out either horribly saccharine or confusing to the point of unreadability. Animals, especially the smarter ones, are essentially aliens living among us. They don’t think like us, they don’t see the world in the same way; they are coming from a completely different place. And yet they are thinking. That enormous chasm between their world and ours is what makes how much we do understand one another so amazing. Anyone who has ever watched a sheepdog trial or an agility competition is in essence watching a human and an alien intelligence work together to solve a problem. That is just incredible to me.
The best fiction about animals takes this otherness into consideration. Dogs aren’t tiny humans wearing fur coats. They are what they are, and on a certain level it’s just as mysterious as anything from Mars.
You give your main character a choice in this story, the possibility of a happy ending, when its real life counterpoint had neither. Was this a conscious decision? Do you believe in choices, in happy endings?
She deserved it, didn’t she? In real life none of us are assured happy endings. We have choice and free will, but that also means we’re free to make terrible, wrongheaded decisions. That’s just part of being alive. If anyone is helpless at the hands of fate, it’s a dog, which is part of what makes the Laika story so heart-wrenching. It’s not like she got into a bad relationship, dropped out of college, and had to sign up with the space program to make ends meet. She was a Moscow stray that humans plucked off the street and shot into the stars. We’re such mercurial gods. It’s a wonder dogs don’t stay terrified 24/7.
Was this a difficult story to write?
It was a Clarion story, so maybe difficult in some ways and quite easy in others. My method during those six weeks—and I would not recommend it to any aspiring workshop students, let me throw that disclaimer out there first—was to get an idea, ruminate over it until the evening before my turn-in day, then spend the entire night writing in a delirious, caffeine-wired fugue state. “Vixens,” “Tornado’s Siren,” and “Sun Dogs” were all finished that way. Deadlines and large doses of stimulants are a girl’s best friend, apparently.
What else do you have coming down the pipeline?
I’ve got a flash piece coming up in Superficial Flesh at some point in the next few months, and the griffin novel I mentioned last time continues to percolate in the busted drip coffee machine that is my brain. Will something delicious pour out, or a charred, tarry mess? Stay tuned.