Mild Curiosity and No Angst: Author Interview with Kim O’Neil

Kim O’Neil’s debut collection Fever Dogs is the freshest, most crushing book I read in 2017. These interconnected stories form a fictional family biography unlike others I’ve encountered: in O’Neil’s hands, the genre transforms itself into something haunting, dizzying, surprisingly funny, and gut-punchingly resonant. As a reader, I’m grateful for the initiation in to this world. As a writer, I marvel. Kim was kind enough to answer some questions via email in November. You can also read the titular story “Fever Dogs” here.

How did you begin this collection? Where did it start for you?

It began as disparate stories, bildungsroman-ish stories that to my mind were about unrelated girls. This was wishful thinking! Nothing disabuses as quick as workshop. These were pretty transparently all versions of me, at different ages, in various forms of poorly got-up fictional drag.

I tried throwing the line out farther. I interviewed my mother about her family and life growing up in Boston projects, her homeless adolescence, had the little digital recorder rigged up and everything. I knew her father had been a rumrunner and abused her, her mother and aunt had gypsy roots, there was a dead sister and older siblings she had broken with—we spoke nothing of them and little of anything, and I thought, if nothing else, an interview was a good pretext for some conversation. A nutty idea of intimacy, in hindsight. But the past was all pretty thickly scabbed over and I saw that digging was not helpful or kind, and to write this, I’d have to imagine my way into it. I did a few runs at those backstories. I enjoyed the fun of research as high-minded stalling. I read a lot more than needed about Nova Scotia lobstermen.

Then adjunct life subsumed everything, I put myself into trying to make teaching sustainable and put writing aside for almost ten years. I think that was good. When I came back to these stories, it was with mild curiosity and no angst. I could see like an editor, and it occurred to me how it might all fit together as a failed Q&A. The first stories became the Jean stories, and the others became the imagined answers to Jean’s questions, moving backward in time. Once I had that frame, I could paint into it.

Your use of language is wholly original. On each page, the reader encounters a jolt or an off-kilter expression or the rendering of something familiar in a way that twists her head. It’s addictive (my copy is dog-eared and scribbled!). Could you speak a bit about how/if you’re actively working with language on the sentence level as you write? Are these conscious choices? The results of revision? Simply your style?

I think it may be a sort of a writing pathology, beneath the notice of DSM. Maybe we need a writer’s DSM. I can’t seem to think in plot. The unit of my writerly cognition is the sentence, and I think at the speed of sentences, and I don’t much revise. It’s a liability in trying to build a bigger work like a novel because you’re like a nearsighted muralist who just noodles with paint tubes and can’t see more than two inches in front of you.

I sometimes think too that my ear got shaped by my career as animator. I spent about nine years storyboarding to retroscripted soundtracks of improv comics, thinking about timing and framing. When should I cut? What would be funny to see next? Maybe some of that works into your lexical DNA. The sentence functions a bit like the frame.

As a disability specialist and dyslexic and former teacher of first and second grade, I wonder too if it’s an upshot of being a terribly slow reader who has spent a lot of time with slow readers. I read at the rate of speech, subvocalizing, a horror show in college, but maybe that labored processing has the effect of shallow focus. You necessarily weight sentences if you’re slow—they take so long to ingest.

Your use of language dovetails with this ability to render a multigenerational narrative in the micro rather than the macro. Whether its the “fingernails that were claw thick and injurious as weevils,” a tree with “an incumbent swagger,” “a kitchen packed with superb knives,” or a neighborhood with “the low-lying breathing of the recently bullied,” these particularities are poignant and strange. How do you balance attention to the micro with the larger story?

Not well! I came to writing late, entered an MFA program as a nearly 40 year-old art major having written a couple stories in night school, and I don’t think I knew how to do both at once. It was ten years’ hiatus that did the trick—that totally bisected the writing-editing process, and flipped the switch from micro to macro. I almost needed to become a different person, a person with arthritis and a spouse, to figure out how to corral this into something resembling a book. With luck, I’ve got the muscle memory now and micro and macro won’t require different decades the next time.

I’m interested in the role that animals—particularly the domesticated family dog—play in the book, as it’s where we begin and end. Could you speak to how they made their way into the work? How they tether the families together or reflect aspects of them?

My mom always had dogs, is devoted to rescues, and they were constants in my life, a sort of mammalian barometer. Little states of the union. Yet also unto themselves, in service to no tragedy but their own. They entered the book as bit players. They seemed natural and important, but I couldn’t have told you why. Later, revisiting these stories, I noticed them, haunting the proceedings, and they seemed like one of those things that recurs with purpose, whether you’re in on it or not. Thinking on it now, I see the larger family story revolving around the unspeakable, and how the dog, a mute, of the family but also not, becomes the vehicle and target and witness and sponge for a lot of unspoken longing.

I admire the way the collection is structured with each story answering a question that Jean poses about her family’s history. What were the challenges in writing through different generations and organizing a project that spans broad swaths of time? How did you come to land on the order? The final pages of the last story felt like such an emotionally resonant way to bring the book to a close . . .

I’m so glad to hear that the order and ending work! They came so belatedly. I was overfamiliar with the stories as stories, had written them independently with no real view of them as linked in a book. The decision of how to sequence came when I returned older and saw them as part of a larger narrative. It made logical sense to me that as Jean reaches for an origin story that the stories she invents as answers to her questions progress backwards in time and gradually lose footing in fact. The ending felt a sort of like an emotional Mobius strip. I hoped it would work for readers, but I was (and remain) too close to judge the effect.

What inspired you while you were writing Fever Dogs? What were the books or people or music or objects that informed the project while you were working on it?

In whole, it’s a kind of an inarticulate love letter to my mom.

While I was working on making a book of it, I was getting into gardens. For the first time I lived in a totally flat state without a speck of natural grandeur, and it was disheartening. We got a place with a tiny yard. My partner tells me that, in a matter of months, I became an idiot-savant of botanical nomenclature. I had plantvision. I’d be walking to get milk, cataloging every yard, muttering hellebore, baptisia, mugwort. I began thinking a lot about garden design—there are so many variables to hold in your head—soil, zone, sun, height, color, shape, texture, season—in order to achieve an effect that unfolds over time, and how it’s like animation, and how it’s also like a novel. They’re all so multivariate, they outstrip calculation and make you fall back on gut. It helped me to have a project alongside the book, something that kept my design brain in shape but used other senses and required standing and ideally walking.

As someone who’s interested in writing about family history, I loved that this collection was less about what actually happened to Jean and the women who came before her but more about Jean’s desire to ask, seek, and piece together in the absence of concrete answers. This takes a familiar mode of storytelling (generations of women in a family) and makes it unfamiliar, new. Was this something you set out to do?

That was my hope, by necessity as much as design.

In the end, it feels like Jean writes her family’s story. Do you think that’s what all of us do?

I think so—again, by necessity. I may be developmentally delayed, but my sense is that the urge strikes at some point in adulthood when we have the mental leisure, when some of the more pressing questions of work and love are secured and we can afford to look at the people who made us interrogatively, if only through the lens of our own need.

What are you working on now?

My current project is a book of creative nonfiction, totally nonautobiographical, a very different history. A palate cleanser. One byproduct of this book was that I found I love research and archives and this next lets me indulge that.

Thanks for this conversation, Kim. Fever Dogs is available from Northwestern University Press.  

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