Difficult People Are Everywhere: Jennifer Caloyeras, Author of UNRULY CREATURES, Interviewed by December Cuccaro

Jennifer Caloyeras is the author of two young adult fiction books, Urban Falcon and Strays. Unruly Creatures, published by West Virginia University Press, is her debut short story collection. In the collection, Caloyeras explores societal alienation, bodily betrayal, and the poignant search for a true intimacy often found through the safety of substitution. A teen from an aloof family experiences his father’s affection dressed as a turkey while working at a furry cuddle party. A girl struggling through high school biology is hired to babysit her demanding neighbor’s lifelike baby doll. A breast cancer patient preparing for radiation therapy comes to identify with a cow stranded in a meteor crater. Dark humor threads these stories, providing both relief and a sense of discomfort as they beg answer to the question: What part of us is our humanity?

The author of three books, Caloyeras’s short stories have appeared in Booth, Storm Cellar, and other literary magazines. She recently served as the artist-in-residence at the Annenberg in Santa Monica and teaches writing at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. To learn more, please visit jennifercaloyeras.com.

I see a lot of [George] Saunders in this collection, particularly in the dark humor and satire of “H20.” Who are your other major influences in the short fiction genre?

The cat is out of the bag! I am a huge Saunders fan, especially when it comes to satire. “H20” was actually the last story I wrote for this collection and it was a departure for me, structurally (it’s a combination of epistolary, memo-writing, and traditional prose.) I love so many writers in the short fiction genre, but at the top of my list would have to be Lorrie Moore, Edith Wharton, Jim Shepard, Ann Beattie, and the incomparable Zsuzsi Gartner, who was also my thesis advisor when I was working towards my MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia.

Your previous works, Urban Falcon and Strays, are both young adult. While there are several stories in the collection that overlap the young adult genre with a “coming-of-age” theme, these stories are definitely not aimed at a young audience. How does your approach to coming-of-age differ between your adult-oriented fiction and your young adult fiction?

I have a hard time, sometimes, with the labels that distinguish different types of literature. I hate feeling bound by categories, so I did my best, with this short fiction collection, to just stay true to who I am as a writer, knowing that the YA lens might be placed on some of my stories and I’d have to be okay with that. Some of these stories, “Unruly” and “Stuffed” in particular, were reinterpolations of fairy tales, which were, in a way, some of the first and certainly most popular ubiquitous coming of age stories. I will be teaching a Writing the Young Adult Novel course at UCLA winter quarter and one thing I will be talking about week one is why YA is so popular, not just for a young adult readership. As a writer, there’s so much drama inherently built into that time in life as every experience is a “first” and as a young adult, it always feels like everything is at stake.

The title of the collection works on a couple different levels, with both people and animals as the “unruly creatures.” But I found myself most drawn to the stories where these creatures intersect: “The Sound of an Infinite Gesture” and “The Dolphinarium” both explore relationships between animals and the people attempting to “humanize” them. In the end the protagonists are closer to their animal nature than they are to humanity. What would you say is the relationship between animal nature and human nature? How did your time as a dog columnist influence your views on human and animal bonds?

I think I can get a little obsessed with the way humans are constantly trying to posit themselves against/amongst animals, depending on how it best serves us. “We’re nothing like them!” or “They’re just like us!” depending on the circumstance. I wanted to explore this idea with the stories that you mention above as well as how the animal nature tends to take over in heightened situations. Reva, the woman in Dolphinarium in the Sixties, is probably the same woman who, today, would be glued to her computer making friends in a chat room rather than going out into the real world and having real-life interactions. I was recently in San Francisco at the California Academy of Science and I was driving my kids crazy because I made them stare at the ant colony forever. I mean, talk about an organized society! They even had a special trash area where they recycle. And no shady politicians!

“Plush” and “A Real Live Baby” were great looks on some fringe elements of society. How much research typically goes into writing a story that takes place in an unusual group? Is there a duty to represent these subcultures faithfully?

For me, the story always comes first. What I mean by that is the heart of the story. I am not the kind of writer who does months or research ahead of the story. The story comes and then as I’m in the revision process, I’ll get into the research aspect in a way that supports the story. Personally, I am turned off by stories that scream, “Look at what a thorough job I did researching! See? Did you catch all those details??” because that can take over / take away from the story. “Plush” came about because my friend Matt had come over talking about Furry parties and I was enthralled. Then began the “what if” part of thinking about a story. Then I started writing it and then I began researching how these parties really work (there is a whole rule-based system to them). So, that’s my process. I suppose these sort of subversive groups fall in line with my interest in animal communities; they’re both alternative communities, in a way.

So many of your protagonists are compellingly detestable, particularly Ernest in “Big Brother.” What draws you to write about difficult people?

Well, difficult people are everywhere, so there’s a lot to draw from there. I tend to like unreliable/unlikeable narrators. I know that isn’t for everyone. I recently finished reading Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! And there’s a perfect example of a wholly unlikable narrator at the helm of a perfectly wonderful and funny book. I think with those types of story set-ups, there has to be a moment (or many of them) where the other, more relatable characters comment on the main character. In “Big Brother,” we see the story unfold through Ernest’s eyes and our default is to align with him, but pretty soon after we see that his viewpoint is not the popular one and we learn this through the supporting characters’ reactions.

Along that same line of thought, there’s an unfair expectation that authors have to pull back from writing heavily flawed female characters; where a male character might be an anti-hero, a woman is simply “unlikable” for her flaws. Are you ever concerned with the reception of characters like Shea from “Bloodletting” and the unnamed protagonist of “Airborne”?

I like Shea! I find her flippant and smart and caring (I mean, look how she cares about the cow!) I have never felt the pressure to pull away from flawed characters. And as a writer, I certainly have no control over how readers react. If judging a woman as “unlikable” for her flaws is a thing, I think that’s a symptom of our society first and foremost. But I do know there are some readers out there who would be turned off by a book where the protagonist is not someone they’d elect to sit down and spend some time with. I’m not in the business of writing people a friend. I want to tell good stories, warts and all.

In another interview you mention that you are the kind of writer who gets restless easily. How many projects do you usually have running at the same time? How do you decide what ideas need to be immediately pursued and what ideas can be shelved for later?

What project to follow haunts me daily. I think I need a writing advisor, the way someone has a financial advisor (I suppose that’s what an agent is for, but three books in and I’ve never had one, so I’m on my own!) I always have a few ideas in my head for a book or a story. I try to write them all down. Currently, I’m revising a young adult novel and a children’s chapter book. I am over halfway through my first novel for an adult audience, but just decided on a major structural change, so there’s a lot to revise there. And then looking forward I have two book ideas and each time I think about it, the other one is the frontrunner, so I’m not sure which I’ll sit down to write when the time comes. Hopefully, I’ll be more sure of myself then. You’re in it for the long haul when it comes to writing a novel (less so with a short story) so it really has to feel worthy of one’s time.

You’re currently teaching at the UCLA Writer’s Extension Program. What is the most common mistake you see with young or inexperienced writers? Has teaching changed your writing process?

That’s a tough one! I have to say that some amazing writers come through this program. I am always so impressed at how inventive the writers in my class are and how willing they are to take risks. I get a lot of publication questions for a beginning writing class, so maybe I’d land there to answer your question. I understand people are interested in how the publication process works, but my advice would be not to rush your work towards publication. Take all of that energy and time and devote it to writing and rewriting and when it’s the absolute best you think it can be, then you can ask about the publication process.

Teaching has absolutely benefited my writing process. For starters, it’s made me more articulate about my own process. And because I’m constantly harping on certain issues with my students “you changed POV!” or “How can the theme be further reinforced?” – all of these reminders are swirling around in my head when I go to write, so I am more aware as a writer. I really love editing other writers’ work (I opened up my editing services to the public a year ago) and editing other writers’ work is certainly good practice when it comes to editing my own writing.

 

 

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December Cuccaro is an undergraduate senior at Winthrop University in South Carolina. She plans to pursue a Creative Writing MFA if Trump’s tax reforms don’t dismantle the American higher education system.

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