This was your first published story and one that continues to resonate for readers. What inspired it?
I hadn’t written many stories at this point. I was in my first year of the MFA program at University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and needed to turn something in to workshop for the first time. Someone I knew had told me the story about how as a teenager, they had masturbated into Kleenex, and then had the problem of their dog wanting to eat the Kleenex. I also wanted to write about a mother with a wooden leg, and a surplus of dogs. I liked the idea of an awkward dinner.
Why does Rachel want Carroll to choose between love and water?
Well, one of them is necessary. The other is also maybe necessary, but the need for it is harder to define. It seems to be one of the things that only jerks make you choose between.
Rachel keeps a lot of secrets. Did you start with her character or with the idea of how loss might affect an individual and her family?
Hard to say! I did like the idea of a family who felt, reasonably or unreasonably, that they lost more than other people had to, and resented it. And stories are all about secrets, right? Keeping them or not keeping them.
Do you usually start with character, setting, or theme?
I don’t ever start with a theme. In general, I try to describe setting as little as possible. So I guess that leaves character, except I’m not really sure that this is where I start either. At least not all the time.
Why did you use dogs as a motif in this story?
Well, snakes would have been too obvious and guinea pigs not ominous enough. And there’s that whole thing in the literature of the weird, in folktales, etc., about black dogs. But I think the real question is why Christmas trees.
Carroll is hopeful at the end, despite the “heavy dragging noise” coming toward him and the moody tension of his wedding dream. Do you think he will find his Rachel or experience true loss?
Nice try! Awful, isn’t it, the way I never end things.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished a story — the last story to go into my next collection. The collection is Get in Trouble. The story is called “The Lesson.” I’ll also have a new story out in Stephanie Perkins’ anthology My True Love Gave to Me. That one’s called “The Fox and the Lady.” And then there’s Monstrous Affections, which Gavin and I co-edited for Candlewick. I’m taking a bit of a break to read novels. Because the next thing I have to do is write a novel.
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