Friday, August 12, 2016

A Love Letter to Lily: Steven Rowley and Lily and the Octopus

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am a dog person. I'm also, actually, a huge fan of cephalopods. So when I first saw the cover for Steven Rowley's recently released Lily and the Octopus, I thought, "Oh, perfect! A weenie dog and an octopus- my two favorite animals..." Then I read the inside cover: Old. Dog. Tumor. Gulp. The book sat on my dining room table and we eyeballed each other for a few days until finally I had the guts to open it to the first page. I steeled myself and started reading. And laughing. And eventually, yes, crying, and, in the end, recommending the book to anyone and everyone who would listen. Lily and the Octopus is the sort of novel that comes along every once in a while and wraps its arms around you, refusing to let go. And I wouldn't want it to.

I am thrilled and honored, then, to bring you an interview with Steven Rowley. If you're interested, but still nervous about checking out a "sad dog book," I think this conversation will alleviate some of your fears. For Lily and the Octopus so magnificently transcends that depressing label: in reality, it is a story not about death, but about life. About life and courage and the honest, raw vulnerability of unconditional love.

Steph Post: I’m not going to lie, I started reading Lily and the Octopus with some trepidation. Even before I cracked the spine I was nervous, because, well, it was obviously a book about a dog. And we all know how dog books end…. The last time I read a novel about a dog, I think it was Marley and Me, which has nothing on Lily and the Octopus by the way, I was a hot mess on the final page. I called my then-boyfriend in tears and was so upset that he thought something had happened to my real dogs who were, of course, snoozing through it all. So I knew that I was going to cry over Lily. And I did. Starting around page 250. My now-husband came home to find me curled up in a chair, with red eyes and eyeliner streaks, and all he could say was “you read that dog book after all, didn’t you?” What I’m getting at here, is that Lily and the Octopus is a book that makes a person cry. In a profound, beautiful, cathartic, but still sniffley and salty, kind of way. How much did you consider your readers’ emotional reactions when you were in the process of writing the novel? Did you ever want to not write Lily and the Octopus because of how you knew it would affect people?

Steven Rowley: This may sound terribly selfish, but I didn’t really consider the reader when I first sat down to write. Mostly, in retrospect, that’s because I didn’t set out to write a book. While Lily and the Octopus is very much a novel, I did have a dog named Lily who passed away from cancer in 2013. When she died, I was surprised by how sidelined I felt with grief. So when I decided to write about her, and about what that relationship meant to me, I was only doing so to help myself understand our bond and (hopefully) to heal. But it is the number one question I get: “Am I going to cry?” (Actually, the number one question is “Why an octopus?” But the trepidation is right up there!) And I can’t answer that for everyone. But I’m surprised by how much the idea of crying is a red flag for certain readers. I understand that for most of us our time to read is limited and there are many books vying for our eyes; life is hard and reading is an escape. But when I have such a connection with a book that it provokes a visceral reaction, I think that’s a good thing! When I finished the manuscript, I was very proud of it as a piece of writing, but even I didn’t know that it had the power to really connect with readers the way that it has. It’s been deeply humbling. And my goal was never to leave anyone despondent. If I walk you to that edge, I promise to help guide you back!     

SP: I had to open up with the tear-jerking question, but there is so much more to Lily and the Octopus than sadness. Part of the reason readers are so enamored of the character of Lily is how you clearly and simply voiced her, a dachshund, through the mind of her human, the novel’s narrator Ted. We are able to hear Lily speak because Ted articulates her thoughts for her. This includes everything from her Cate Blanchett impressions, to her barking, exclamatory reaction to dolphins. As a dog person, reading Lily as talking seemed pretty normal, as I’m the sort of person, like Ted, who carries on one-sided conversations with her dogs and assumes that my dogs are doing the same back. Still, I’ve never seen this narrative technique used in fiction. Did voicing Lily just come naturally as you developed the story, or did you have to struggle to create a way for readers to both understand, and, more importantly, bond with the character of a dog?

SR: Thank you! I actually think the book has many laughs and encompasses the full spectrum of emotions. Lily speaks in two ways throughout the book. AT! TIMES! IN! ALL! CAPITAL! LETTERS! That is meant to be a literal translation of her barking. At other times she speaks conversationally, which is the main character Ted carrying on both sides of their dialogue. I heard someone describe this as a book about a talking dog and I had to correct them. Lily doesn’t actually speak (although she says volumes with a well-raised eyebrow). Novel writing is a very solitary occupation and when you’re alone a lot with the dog, it’s only a matter of time before you talk out loud to the dog. And then it’s not so long after that when the dog starts “talking” back. Finding that voice on the page came very naturally to me, and once I had settled on two ways to represent her speaking voice I was off to the races.

SP: In addition to communicating with Lily, Ted also has conversations, and encounters, with her tumor, which he sees and experiences as an octopus. It all makes perfect sense in the context of the novel and giving the octopus a voice is one of the elements that I think really works to enamor readers to Lily. Like Ted, readers are exasperated and furious at the octopus, especially as he is, obviously, a total asshole. This takes something scary, but impersonal, (a tumor) and turns it into something which can attempt to be reasoned with (a talking cephalopod), making it more personal, but even more infuriating. Giving the octopus a voice raised the bar for me, because it added such an extra, maddening layer to Lily’s story. How did you come up with the idea for the character of the octopus? Would you have been able to tell the same sort of story if Lily was described as simply having a tumor or dying of some other sort of disease?

SR: I don’t remember the single moment that I settled on an octopus, other than it came from thinking about the story in thematic terms. I wanted to write about attachment and how difficult in can be to let go. There was something about an octopus, something with tentacles and suction cups, that lent itself so perfectly to that goal. Also, many times cancer grows in tentacle-like ways through the body, reaching and unfurling and spreading. So an octopus made sense to me pretty much from the get go. It was never Lily and the Giraffe, or Lily and the Hippopotamus. I did not know that the octopus would speak. My goal from the outset was to write the emotional truth of the story, no matter how weird or rubbery the plot began to be. I think I even surprised myself when the octopus first spoke. 'Oh! That’s… interesting.’ But octopuses are so smart and scientists say they can learn and even play, so his speaking was just one more way to needle Ted and get under his skin. I do harbor some guilt for villainizing the octopus – they really are incredible creatures!   

SP: Ted, whom Lily sometimes thinks of as Dad, is going through some of his own issues separate from Lily’s battle with the octopus. He is in therapy, very lonely and is stuck in the dating doldrums. Having him speak to a therapist could mislead the reader to think that perhaps Ted is crazy, or at the very least unstable, which would explain why his dog, and her tumor, can talk to him. The section “The Pelagic Zone” can easily be read as a complete delusion. But I think that reading Lily and the Octopus from that perspective negates the entire story. Were you ever concerned that readers might dismiss Ted, Lily and the octopus’s complex relationships as simply figments of his imagination?

SR: To me, more than it is the story about a man and his dog, Lily and the Octopus is about a man who is stuck in his life and how often the biggest obstacles blocking our paths are, if not outright imagined, greatly exaggerated. I would hope people wouldn’t think Ted is crazy. While the octopus is there from pretty much page one, I tried to introduce the other elements of magical realism carefully and integrate them naturally so as not to confuse the reader. As a writer, I am very fascinated with the human brain’s ability to create these elaborate constructs to keep us from having to face what we’re not yet capable of seeing. I think that’s what Ted is doing. Deep down he knows the deal, but the octopus and the epic battle in the Pelagic Zone are his way of processing loss. I did a lot of reading on Freud’s theories on loss, and many of us know the K├╝bler-Ross model outlining the five stages of grief. I worked hard to concoct Ted’s personal coping recipe from how the healthy brain is known to grieve.    

SP: Despite the heart-stabbing, Lily and the Octopus is also riddled with humorous moments, even if they are dark, dark moments. How important was it to balance out the gravity of the story with Lily’s silly innocence or the absurdity of talking inflatable sharks?

SR: Being able to laugh, even through the darkest moments in life, is essential to sanity and survival. Especially being able to laugh at oneself and to remember to look at the world every now and again with childlike wonder. I find so much of life to be absurd when you think about it in the context of a bigger picture, or get too stuck in the trance of small self. So I wanted the book to be funny, because I wanted the book to be like life. There’s an honesty in humor. And dogs are really funny. They just are. You can’t write about dogs and not introduce a few laughs.   

SP: The first chapter of Lily and the Octopus is pretty near perfect, but the author in me couldn’t help but imagine what your agent and editor first thought of it: A guy and his dog are discussing boys on a Thursday and then he discovers an octopus on his dog’s head. Did any of your first readers have a dubious reaction to the first few pages? Were there any odd or awkward discussions about the beginning of your novel?

SR: I’m very fond of the first chapter still, and it’s usually what I read at appearances and signings. Even through the long process of publishing a book, through endless rewrites, tweaks and edits, the first chapter is pretty much exactly what came pouring out the first time I sat down to write. In fact, before I understood that this was going to be a novel, there was a time I thought the first chapter was a short story. That it would somehow exist on its own. But I can see now how very frustrating it would be as a short story, because there isn’t really an ending or any kind of resolution. In terms of landing with an agent or a publisher, the whole book was a tough sell and the opening pages were indeed discussed. (Try reaching out to literary agencies and asking if they want to read a manuscript about a dog with an octopus stuck to her head. You can actually hear crickets in response.) What I learned was not that I needed to change the pages or alter my vision, but I had to become much smarter about how I talked about the book and how I pitched the manuscript to those I wanted and needed to read it. That meant talking about it in terms of an emotional arc, thematically as opposed to the actual plot. But the first pages are very much the book; they establish the relationship, the humor, the voice and I fought hard to keep them.      

SP: Finally, I have to ask, how much of Lily and the Octopus is true? Lily was obviously your real dog and even now, looking back at your dedication to her in the acknowledgments section, I feel that choking around my heart that accompanied me throughout much of your novel. I’m assuming that the Trent and Byron mentioned are also the same as the two characters in the novel. Despite some of the departures from strict reality in the story, could Lily and the Octopus be considered a memoir? Or is more along the lines of an ode or a love letter, rendered in novel form?

SR: There’s no denying that there are elements of the book that are autobiographical, and that the work is deeply personal – but I don’t consider it a memoir. To me, as you say, it’s a love letter to Lily and to the spirit of our relationship. I do have a best friend named Trent and my boyfriend’s name is Byron; I borrowed those names as shorthand when I was developing those characters and they kind of stuck. And there are some similarities there. But in order to spotlight the relationship between Ted and Lily, I tried to remove Ted from humanity as much as possible. Ted has one friend, and one sibling, and one parent, whereas I am blessed with many friends and a large family. The Lily that’s in the novel, however, is exactly the dog that I had. And now I’m grateful to have this beautiful catalog of memories printed and sandwiched between two hard covers that stands alongside my most prized possessions – my collection of books.

Much love and many thanks to Steven Rowley for stopping by! And please be sure to check out Lily and the Octopus. It will be worth all the tears; I promise.

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