Moving Beyond Humanness: An Interview with Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

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A girl sheds jellyfish from her skin. A man grows a Joey in his artificial womb. One woman buzzes with locusts, while another carries a sparrow in her chest. A bank teller adopts a baby hippo he finds in a baby hatch. A man’s girlfriend gives birth to a live school of fish.

In their collection, With Animal, released by Black Lawrence Press in May 2015, Carol Guess and Kelly Magee explore parenthood, childrearing, gender, and family with a refreshing subversion of our expectations. The stories in this collection ask us: What if children weren’t born in the way or the form that we expect them to be? What if children were born with fur or teeth or wings or gills? Guess and Magee write moments of heartbreak with confidence, not afraid to pair loss with frowny-face emoticons. They merge the fantastical and the mundanely modern with ease, a characteristic that defines many of the stories in With Animal.

Here, Carol Guess and Kelly Magee speak with interviewer Dana Diehl about parenthood, writing toward your obsessions, and the process of coauthoring a story collection.

Dana Diehl: I haven’t read many (maybe any) coauthored short story collections. What did the coauthoring process look like for you in With Animal? What first inspired you to write stories together?

Carol Guess: Kelly and I passed beginnings back and forth, each writing half a story and then letting go. What freed us was the promise that we wouldn’t change each other’s words. It was a playful challenge: here you go, don’t change anything, just make the story work any way you can. Writing this way felt incredibly liberating.

Kelly Magee: Carol had done other collaborative books, and she approached me with the idea to write something together. I mentioned that I’d been into fairy tales and magical realism, and then she sent a list of possible ideas. On the list was “people who have animal babies,” and I was certain: that one. We each decided to write half of a story per week and then trade, so each story was begun by one of us and finished by the other. It was a tremendously energizing way of writing. I loved starting a story but not having to worry about the ending; and I loved getting a story start from Carol that already had developed characters, ideas, and settings. We wrote much more quickly than I typically do, but it worked because of this sense of shared responsibility.

One of the many things that impresses me about this collection is that the concept of being with animal (or human/object/etc.) never gets tired. Every story feels like a new, exciting start. Do you have any advice for writers who are similarly working toward a theme?

Carol: Right now most published collections are thematically oriented, so working with a theme is partly pragmatic: I want to publish the books I write. But an adroit theme also generates material. Focused on a fascinating concept, I find myself thinking about it while I’m jogging or grocery shopping. The right theme is a daily reminder, the lens through while I see the world for several months.

Kelly: I’m glad it feels that way! It felt cohesive to me, as we worked, but the concept also opened up limitless possibilities for variations. Carol and I have talked about why we think it worked so well for us, but it may be that it’s just one of those mysterious things. I was drawn to it because pregnancy and childbirth seems like times when the everyday world becomes imbued with magic. Strange things really happen: hair gets thicker, for example, so it seemed like a logical extension of that phenomenon for someone pregnant with a sheep to grow fur. People have odd cravings, so of course a woman pregnant with a dragon would crave fire. As far as advice, I think writing toward your own obsessions is key. Finding a theme that is both cohesive and holds the potential for reinvention can be difficult, but you know it when you see it.

Pregnancy, birth, and parenthood are persistent obsessions in our culture. Why were you drawn to these topics?

Carol: Actually, I wasn’t. I’m not a parent, and I chose long ago not to have kids. But Kelly’s enthusiasm and knowledge about parenting was contagious! I loved the way she worked in details about her own pregnancies, her own experiences as a mother. For me, parenting operates at the level of metaphor: I’m an artist, and my writing is what I create. So I was focused on the feeling of production, on what it means to be alive with an urgent need to give back to the world around me.

Kelly: The short answer is because I’m a mother of young kids. It’s a very real part of my daily life. But also, I’m a nontraditional mom in a number of ways, so I enjoy thinking about the ways people invent and reinvent traditional family structures. As a queer person, I was disconcerted by the ways pregnancy normalized me in some situations and stigmatized me in others. I was also highly aware of how definitions of “family” were politicized in order to erase and/or police me and my family. I’m attracted to writing about being both an insider and outsider in one’s own family—the family you’re born into vs. the family you grew up with vs. the family you create yourself. Thinking about human/animal families gave me a way to talk about the difficulty in communicating across boundaries that so many people (everybody?) face in all these different kinds of families.

“One day the hurricane blew in, dripping and smelling of lake water. Wearing a necklace of teeth. Iron in its hair.” “You’d raised me on mazes, raised me to be smarter than I’d been at problem-solving.” I love the way your collection blends beast with human, human with storm. Can you speak to what it was like giving personality to the nonhumans that occupy these stories?

Carol: What’s funny about With Animal is that I didn’t realize until after the book was finished that I was returning to a theme I’d started in my second novel, Switch. In Switch, I followed the lives of a butch-femme lesbian couple, Jo and Caddie. I expanded Jo’s gender transformation (she’s passing as a man) into magical realism: in the course of the novel, Jo turns into a cat. I’ve always felt that discourse around gender transformation actually limits us, because people never talk about moving beyond humanness. When I teach queer studies, students are really invested in transgender experiences and identities, in nonbinary realms. And that makes sense to me, but how about moving beyond humanness too? I am a profoundly feral creature, and feel more kinship with cats and dogs than people some of the time. This collection was a way to explore this feeling without pathos. By which I mean: there are so many stereotypes about women who care for animals—that they are “crazy cat ladies.” Why do we stigmatize compassion for nonhuman animals this way, associating it with loneliness and mental illness? I wanted the stories to be sexy and full of life, to associate caring for nonhuman animals with passion and power.

Kelly: This is one of my favorite things to do. I have another series of stories that gives places their own points of view—I love to experiment with voice and perspective. Also, as I mentioned, I’m fascinated with fairy tales, which often have talking animals of one sort or another. What is most interesting to me is to try to get into the mind of something very different from me without necessarily sanitizing or infantilizing. I wanted the animals in my stories to be strong characters that resisted compartmentalization or moralizing. I wanted them to be wild. As such, they couldn’t always behave in ways humans would, or even in ways humans would find appropriate. I’m always trying to push my own boundaries in stories, to write in ways that make me feel uncomfortable, so that I don’t remain complacent or become, god forbid, didactic. I wanted these animals and creatures to be frustrating and dynamic and irreverent and convincing.

If you were to have an animal-baby, what animal would you choose it to be? Or, an alternative to that question, what kind of animal-baby would you have, whether or not it was the animal you wanted?

Carol: I’d have twins: one cat, one dog. For freedom and loyalty. Sleek fur and sharp claws.

Kelly: Something pack-minded and loyal. Something that will stick around. I’ve been writing about wolves a lot lately, so maybe a litter of wolves. My daughter is convinced that she’s a selkie (a human-seal creature from Irish mythology), so maybe I already have a human-animal hybrid child.

What is next for you?

Carol: I’m in the middle of several collaborative projects, but really longing to write a single author poetry collection again soon. I toggle between fiction and poetry, between stories and sound. I’m excited to find out what comes next by writing my way there.

Kelly: I’m at work on a collection of fairy tale retellings that includes vicious mermaids, pet wolves, cannibalism, and evil stepmothers. And lots of monster mothers!

***

Dana Diehl is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She currently serves as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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