An Interview with Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
“When she learned that the baby was human, she felt disappointed. It rattled inside her, fearless and furless, alphabet of bones and thumbs.
An animal pregnancy was all soft tongues, lapping; pink silk and decoration. Multiples, so they took care of themselves. They nested inside each other, fully formed at birth.It wasn’t her fault, her husband reminded her. His DNA decided things. He was the carrier; he was the mail. Still, she talked to the baby animals. Named them as if she might keep them.
Of course mothers could only keep human infants. Baby animals were whisked away. Her first three pregnancies were bundled in yellow blankets and disappeared down the hall with the nurse. Of course they reassured her that her kittens, puppies, and pandas were loved; cuddled and coddled. Of course she didn’t look at the smoke that flew over the hospital, crooked gray birds.”
— from “WITH HUMAN” – by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
The stories in Carol Guess and Kelly Magee’s co-written collection, “WITH ANIMAL,” (forthcoming from BLACK LAWRENCE PRESS in 2015) are sudden and stunning, leading us to a place of relationships, tracing intimacy and birth, difference and understanding, all colored with quicksilver, reflecting the allegorical phenomena from which they were conceived. Distinctive narrative voices carry each story, and suspension of disbelief allows entry into their worlds, which cross from modern to fairytale, real to surreal. A woman in line at the P.O. births killer bees; sadomasochistic sex can lead to litters of kittens; scorched bed sheets are signs of a pregnancy with dragon; stung by jellyfish, a girl becomes a breeding ground for jelly babies; vying for love from her hybrid twins (one human, one horse), a mother realizes they will always love each other more.
Todd Horton, the Washington State painter, and cover artist for “WITH ANIMAL,” describes his work “as leading the viewer into the great unsaid… [with] attention to the wonders of the natural world, the signs of the precariousness of life in all living things.” This statement and the selected images of his paintings complement not only the authors’ responses in this interview, but the stories of “WITH ANIMAL” as well.
Together – By Todd Horton
Kelly and Carol, as co-authors, what is your collaborative process in creating stories? How do vision and voice, storyline and structure, fall together so beautifully?
Carol: Thanks for giving our work such a careful and generous read! Kelly and I came to this collaboration with different strengths, but similar interests. I’m a poet, focused on sound and musicality; my weakness as a writer is that I can’t construct a plot. Working with Kelly allowed me to experiment with moving a story forward in innovative ways. By the time we finished the manuscript, I felt as if we’d each grown a great deal as writers. Our process was simple: we each wrote half a story, then passed it along to the other person to finish. This meant matching or complimenting the other person’s voice, so imitation and influence emerged organically.
Kelly: First off, thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you think these things do ultimately fall together. I can say that, from my end, I didn’t often feel as if I needed to work to match Carol’s style or voice – it seemed to happen naturally by channeling the characters she’d created. Initially, this was the fun of collaborative writing. Later, it became exciting not to so much match the writing/voice I was given, but to see how leaps and shifts would take the stories in new directions. I loved when Carol would take the stories I sent her in a direction I never would have expected, but which was always the perfect place to take them.
Dreaming from the Bough – by Todd Horton
Carol, you come from a background of poetry and short prose, and Kelly, your work has concentrated more on stories of depth and length. How has this influenced your work together on this collection?
Carol: I’m suspicious of stories where something happens. Fiction is most interesting to me when it focuses on character, and when sound does the work of conveying emotion. This project was a huge challenge, because I needed things to happen in order to start or finish the stories! I had to ask a question I never ask: what is this piece about? Writing with Kelly forced me to face my anxiety about the role of narrative in my work: how much, how little space it needs. I’m so happy with how this book turned out, and I hope to use what I learned in forthcoming projects.
Kelly: I think of myself as a slow writer. My process is to let my imagination go crazy, then spend weeks, months, drafts, reigning it back in so the story makes sense. But with this collection, the pace was totally different, and in many ways, liberating. I haven’t written on a deadline in years, but Carol and I had a particular day of the week on which we exchanged stories, so I had to let the story go at that point, despite my love for (obsession with?) revising. This taught me another way of working that I’m very pleased to know. Starting a story, I could go a little crazy with the beginning and pass it on. Getting a story start from Carol, I’d work first to figure out what the underlying themes were, and what the threads were that I could weave through, and go with that. It was a really productive way of working, and something that I’d love to do again and highly recommend to other writers.
Quietly Waiting the Morning Fog Lingers – by Todd Horton
In the stories of “WITH ANIMAL,” playful and serious elements are at work, not necessarily at odds, in terms of storytelling. Lyricism, even cynicism, shapes the pieces. Would you talk about the use of language?
Carol: My favorite unit of meaning is the sentence. I think it’s useful to figure out what unit of meaning you’re attracted to. It’s like your sexuality as a writer. You just gravitate. I love sentences so much, and I move poems, stories, and novels forward sentence by sentence, always trying to link the next line through sound. This comes from my training as a poet, but it’s also about wanting to be surprised by my own work. I never know where a piece is going when I start writing. The shape emerges sentence by sentence, which leads to lyricism. Holding the pieces together is harder, which is why I often impose structure or constraint on any long project.
Kelly: I’ve admired Carol’s work for a long time, so I was intimidated to begin this project, and the playful elements in Carol’s story starts helped me to loosen up. Some of her lines made me laugh out loud. I also learned a lot about economy in writing from working with someone who’s drawn to poetry. My own use of language tends to be voice-driven. I can’t write until I’ve found a voice that interests me, and once in a while, interesting story ideas have fallen by the wayside because I can’t find the right voice. But once I do, the story always takes off.
Young Fir Listens Nearby – by Todd Horton
Difference plays an enormous role in these stories. It arises in terms of gender, species, and relationships and is filtered through individual perspectives and societal expectations: what it is like to mother a dragon; how arachnid adoptions are difficult; who is chosen for immaculate conception; why hybrid twins are inseparable; where a woman, pregnant with fish, disappears when engulfed by parenthood. Tell us more about the ways in which difference is employed in this collection.
Carol: One intriguing fact about our collaboration is that Kelly is a fabulous parent to two great kids, while I very deliberately chose never to have or raise children. The magical realist themes in this book allowed me to imagine myself as a parent without sounding polemical or digressing about politics. I see a real connection between “WITH ANIMAL” and my second novel, “SWITCH,” which was published in 1998. In “SWITCH,” I wanted to explore gender and sexuality, specifically my own attraction to masculine-identified women, as well as my frustration with passing as straight because of my feminine gender identification. Rather than preach, I created characters who pushed all kinds of boundaries, including a woman who transformed herself into a cat. I’ve always loved using the theme of transformation to talk about difference in subtle ways. Beyond that, I’m bored with the assimilationist branch of the LGBT movement. Queer sexuality and gender play deserve more than matching cake toppers. I’m not downplaying the significance of equal rights for all people – I’ve literally put my life on the line for LGBT civil rights, as well as other forms of activism – but the current movement has sold out the needs and desires of non-mainstream humans. Let’s celebrate pleasure; let’s celebrate uniqueness; let’s create new forms of kinship beyond marriage and monogamy. That’s where I am now, and this collection allowed me to think these things through using non-human animals as the central characters.
Kelly: Like Carol, I’m drawn to the idea of transformation, of boundary-crossing, of gray areas. One of my favorite writing assignments is to take two completely different objects, ideas, or characters, and try to make them work together in a story. This is the analytical part of writing: making sense, making story, out of something random. I bristle at the kind of rhetoric that seeks to erase difference and make everyone appear the same: genders, races, sexualities, abilities. There was a video circulated on social media a while back, a young man defending his family – which included his two queer moms – in court, and while I admired his bravery and ambition, the gist of his speech was that his family was just like non-queer families, and I thought, No! Your family is beautifully different! I think the order of the day is not to point out all the ways people are the same, but to find the logic, the story, in how we are different. The fiction in this collection, for me, sought to do that through the mechanism of species, but this impulse permeates all of my writing.
Standing Outside Ones Own Dream – by Todd Horton
How do you strike a balance between realism and allegory in “WITH ANIMAL”?
Carol: So many good questions! Now I have a confession to make: I live in my imagination. I mean, I stop at red lights and obey the speed limit, but in many ways I live in the world I create. I assume that people have secret lives; animals, too. Certainly secret to us! So the magical realism in this collection didn’t feel allegorical to me. I never use fantastical elements for their own sake, only to highlight the fantastical in the everyday. As I mentioned earlier, I’m resistant to an assimilationist path and resistant to conformity. Ultimately, I think most people walk around with secret wishes, hopes, and fears. It’s my job as an artist to make that shadow life visible.
Kelly: I love stories that can be two (or more) things simultaneously. The more layers, the better. So I’m always conscious of not only what the story I’m writing or reading is, but what else it could be.
All writers do this, probably, but there are certain stories that do it particularly well: the work of Kelly Link comes to mind. A story like “STONE ANIMALS,” one of my all-time favorite stories, is both an allegory for a fading suburban family life, and a great haunted house story. It’s not one or the other; it’s both, simultaneously. So in “WITH ANIMAL,” I tried to create that same effect by privileging the story at hand – these people really do become pregnant with animals – but being alert to other stories going on in the margins, between the lines, and in the subtext.
Owl Posse – by Todd Horton
Samish Land – by Todd Horton
“WITH HUMAN” alludes to an authoritarian world, in which human babies are allowed, but animal babies are whisked away somewhere unknown and final, a world from which mother and child attempt escape. The tone, the language, the images all give the piece a futuristic feel and, at the same time, call up historical notes—though, I may be overreaching here. This piece is intensely poetic and has an eerie depth, the idea of oppression as undercurrent and a mother’s love as all powerful. Was there intention in terms of the allusions and the careful language?
Carol: Thanks for your kind words! This was one of the first stories we wrote. It’s the companion piece to “With Dragon,” since Kelly wrote the beginning to that piece and I wrote the beginning to this one. “With Dragon” was Kelly teaching me how to write fiction, and “With Human” was me teaching Kelly how to write poetry. Here I was still focused almost entirely on sound and musicality. It was so exciting when Kelly finished this story, and I finished “With Dragon.” I knew the collaboration would be a success, because it was clear that we were both capable of moving outside of our comfort zones.
Kelly: I’m so glad you brought this up, and I don’t think it’s overreaching at all. The historical notes you mention – YES. As a queer mom myself, I am privileged to live in a place and time where I can be fairly certain my children won’t be taken from me because of my sexuality. That’s not the case for everyone, though, and the thought of children being taken from their parents because of their parent’s sexuality, or their race, or their culture (I live in Washington state, which was the first state to establish “Indian boarding schools”) weighed heavily on me when I wrote this, and other, stories in this collection. That said, Carol mentioned that this story was her teaching me how to write poetry, and I totally agree with that. I got the beginning of this story and had to just sit with it, read it out loud, retype her words before I was able to figure out how to keep going with it, and her poetic style and careful language certainly influenced the way I proceeded.
Memory of a Spring Flight – by Todd Horton
“People live in rooms I’ve lifted. Walk on beams I’ve flown through air. Every day I climb 150 feet above concrete and steel, all the lights of my city. Alone in my crane I’m pregnant with buildings. But sometimes the view seems to beckon me down. When Chrissy died, I thought about jumping. My depression was gravity; I knew it could kill me. Raising buildings was part of staying alive. If I could bring buildings up to meet me, there’d be no jumping and nowhere to fall.”
— from “WITH RACCOON” – by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
“WITH RACCOON” is quite different from the other stories, in that understanding is born out of loss and grief, but none of the characters take on the parenting of another species. The narrator is a crane operator, whose sense of the world comes of compassion and staying on task, raising buildings so as not to fall into sadness. The raccoons here create mess and menace, but also act as a reminder of family. Pregnancy, defined differently here, becomes metaphor, as in the other stories in the collection, but opens up in another way. Was the process for this story unlike that of the others, from onset to outcome?
Carol: That’s really intuitive. Yes, the process was different because “With Raccoon” started from nonfiction. Almost all of the other stories begin and end in imagination, but I started this story while I was living in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, a few blocks away from a construction site. A crane operator really did find raccoons at the top of his giant crane; they had to halt construction while everyone tried to figure out what to do. Mysteriously, the raccoons disappeared overnight. It was a striking story, and I wanted to include it. We ended up sending “With Raccoon” to the construction workers and they liked it!
But there’s a sad side, too. My little dog Theo got attacked by a raccoon in my backyard in Ballard. I made the difficult decision to set out a trap for the raccoon. It was really aggressive and had taken over my yard; I literally couldn’t let my dog go outside, couldn’t walk in my own backyard. I feel awful about this, though. I can’t really think about it, I feel so guilty; maybe I did the wrong thing. It was the raccoon’s backyard, too. Such a hard decision, choosing between my safety and my pet’s safety and the life of this beautiful, wild creature. I hate thinking about it. So that sense of sadness and loss made its way into our story, too.
Kelly: This story was tough for me. Though it’s told from the point of view of the grieving father, the mother who has lost her child was central for me, and something I had to work around and through as I was finishing it. One of the great pleasures of collaboration is being pushed out of your comfort zone, called to write things you haven’t considered or that you’ve avoided. Since having children, I hadn’t written about the death of a child. It seemed too hard, too close, too gratuitous in a way. Then there she was, the mother I’d avoided writing about, losing her sanity in a way that seemed entirely authentic but also terrifying to me. Focusing on the raccoon family helped, but this was still a hard story for me to finish. Interestingly, in a previous draft (I hope this isn’t giving too much away!), I wrote that the father dropped the baby raccoons over the edge of the crane, essentially killing them. A journal editor suggested I change the line because it made him too unlikeable a character. I found it interesting that in a story about a dead child, it was the death of the animal that offended the sensibilities. There’s a way in which contemporary readers have become desensitized to human death in a way we haven’t for animal deaths. I’m interested in challenging that response… but I did end up changing the line.
Bees in Moonlight – by Todd Horton
“That night and the next I lay awake while she slept, watching her stomach as she tossed in dreams. In the dark of our bedroom her belly lit up, transparent. I could see tiny shapes moving in circles. An aquarium where her roundness should be. Even a castle, green seagrass like glass. A faint sound of gurgling.”
— from “WITH FISH” – by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
I am completely taken with this story, given the straightforward, yet evocative perspective, voice, and imagery. The viewpoint of “WITH FISH” is that of a woman, who relays the tale of her girlfriend’s pregnancy and reveals her own feelings of ambivalence, concern, helplessness, and love. Realism slips into magical realism. I could ask about the drafting stages of this piece and how the final version came about. Instead I’ll ask this: cichlids, guppies, or goldfish?
Carol: Kelly will have to answer that one! I’ll just say that I loved the concept of this story, because it allowed us to write about queer sexuality without writing about identity politics. That was one of my aims with this collection: to capture something about queer lives, specifically queer sexuality and kinship structures, without preaching or talking directly about politics. It’s really my anti-assimilationist manifesto, but minus the manifesto part.
Kelly: Cichlids, guppies, and goldfish!
Samish Waters Glinting Light – by Todd Horton
“Once, a woman fell in love with a snake handler. She drove out to the country to visit him in a church that was a trailer. There were fire ants in the driveway, mannequins in the yard. The handler was the only one inside except for the snakes.”
— from “WITH SNAKES” by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
“WITH SNAKES” is one of my favorite moments in this collection, especially because it slides into the place and passion of all that’s Pentecostal. From the first line on, the stories of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty come to mind. The progression of woman to man to congregation to snakes is extraordinary, each astonishing, each opening into the next. Was there forethought to the four-part structure here, or did it arrive first-class, a sweet surprise?
Carol: Great question! The structure of this story came from an obstruction. I wrote the second half of the piece, and I had trouble matching the very distinctive voice Kelly created in part one. She crafted such a unique, authentic sound and I couldn’t imitate it. Rather than try to match her voice, I shifted perspectives. As I approached the ending, I began thinking about the cruelty involved in keeping pets that must be fed other live animals to survive. I knew I wanted to end the story by shifting the reader’s attention onto the complex lives of snakes and mice, and away from humans and religion. Ultimately much of this collection highlights beliefs I hold dear as a vegetarian – I’ve been vegetarian for over 30 years – and animal rights activist. That shift in perspective was very deliberate.
Kelly: Sometimes I get locked into an idea of what I’m doing and lose that sense of possibility, and often Carol’s ending would remind me of the huge range of technique available to writers. I think the first time she shifted perspective was with “With Sheep,” and I thought – oh right! We can change point of view! I love writing with multiple points of view in my solo stories, but I’d been so focused on finishing Carol’s stories with her characters intact that I sort of forgot about that. When “With Snakes” came along, I loved the way she’d told and retold the story, and had another one of those aha! moments.
The Silence that Lives Between – by Todd Horton
Mind Like the Spring Moon – by Todd Horton
“In this version she’s not a virgin, so the immaculate conception is harder to explain. The difference is that she’s only ever been with women, and though she’s participated in plenty of original sin, it hasn’t ever, to her knowledge, involved sperm. But these are lingering doubts…”
— from “WITH ANIMAL” – Carol Guess and Kelly Magee
A retelling of the immaculate conception, the title story, “WITH ANIMAL,” involves a single woman suddenly giving birth in a petting zoo to a babe who’s “a cross between a pit bull and a baby panda.” This story is wildly funny and magical and intensely hopeful. Anything you’d like to tell about how you decided to enter this world, and what you learned along the way?
Carol: This is my favorite story; I had so much fun crafting the ending. I challenged myself to write past what I could imagine. At first I worked on a very different narrative, in which the suitcase opens to reveal stairs leading into a secret tunnel. This ending felt forced, so I was thrilled when the character seemed to speak from nowhere and tell me what she saw inside the suitcase. It really came from her; she seemed real to me, and the new ending felt perfect.
Kelly: I’m obsessed with the idea of immaculate conception, so it just seemed natural to write this alternate Second Coming into the book. I love writing versions of existing stories, where you have a framework in place and can be imaginative with the details. This story was just pure fun to start: finding all the strange and funny ways to pair the Biblical story with the modern world. This is one of those stories (“With Unicorn” is another) that I sat giggling to myself while I was writing. I hope everyone finds a story like that at some point.
Thank you so much, Kelly and Carol, for this great conversation!
Carol: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure and an honor to be asked such great questions!
Kelly: Thank you!
Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Darling Endangered, Doll Studies: Forensics, and Tinderbox Lawn. Forthcoming books include collaborations with Kristina Marie Darling, Kelly Magee, and Daniela Olszewska. She is Professor of English at Western Washington University.
Kelly Magee’s first collection of stories, Body Language, (University of North Texas Press) won the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Short Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ninth Letter, Literary Mama, The Nashville Review, The Tampa Review, Diagram, Black Warrior Review, Indiana Review, Crab Orchard Review, Colorado Review, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.
Author photos – with permission of Carol Guess and Kelly Magee.
All other images with permission of Todd Horton, painter and cover artist of “WITH ANIMAL.”
A selection of online “WITH ANIMAL” stories: With Human – Juked / With Dragon – Smokelong Quarterly / With Cat – Word Riot / With Fish – Passages North / With Horse – The Adirondack Review / With Jellyfish – Sundog Lit / With Me – Communion Literary Magazine / With Spider – Jersey Devil Press / With Locust – Spittoon / With Snakes – Front Porch Journal / With Raccoon – Animal Literary Review
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted in the Arts section of Hothouse Magazine.