FIVE QUESTIONS FOR LARA EHRLICH, AUTHOR OF ANIMAL WIFE
1. Animal Wife is a book for adults, but when we initially met, you were writing for teens. Tell me about your transition from YA to adult fiction.
I thought I was writing a YA novel and wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages before I realized it wasn’t meant to be a novel. So, I cut hundreds and hundreds of pages to narrow the focus onto the mother-daughter relationship, and that’s when it became a literary fiction short story, “Animal Wife,” and that’s what created the momentum for the rest of the stories and the adult focus of the book. Also, as I started considering motherhood, a major theme of the collection, my interest starting moving to mothers from the daughters.
In a way, it was a gradual process moving from YA to adult. YA aligned with my interest in that threshold between childhood and adulthood and how scary that can be with lots of feelings of shame and anxiety, an interest which is still apparent in the collection.
The most rewarding part of the transition was finding the courage to write about women. I had always stayed away from writing about women. It was risky and scary to me and sort of vulnerable, so finding the courage to sort of turn my attention to women felt empowering.
2. The stories in the collection feel like literary fiction but contain elements from fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and magical realism. How do you feel genre influences your writing?
I don’t ascribe to that MFA rule that genre fiction isn’t literary. We’ve all heard that as writers, there’s literary fiction, and then there’s horror, sci-fi, and romance, and those are all genre fiction and somehow less than literary fiction. I don’t believe that: It’s insulting to say that horror is any less literary than straight literary fiction. I feel like it goes the other way, too: some readers see literary fiction as . . . stories that don’t have a plot and they don’t have a point . . . [they see] literary fiction as snooty or not relevant.
I didn’t really think about genre as I was writing the stories. It was more like whatever the story needed to make it come alive is what I used to bring it alive. And I love that there’s elements of horror and scifi and a little bit of romance in there with magical realism and literary fiction, and there’s flash fiction in there.
3. The collection feels quite unified, while each story can stand alone very easily. What steps did you take to connect all of them together?
I always just wanted to write a book, whether they were books of short fiction or books of long fiction. My first intention was to publish them in literary journals, because I love them, and I love short fiction, and I love that community.
But I also knew I was writing short stories toward an ultimate collection, so though I published them individually, I intended for them to then come together in a complete book. There were a couple of short stories that I wrote that I didn’t put in. For example, one had a male protagonist, and I wanted the collection to be solely from a female perspective.
When putting together the collection, for each piece, I thought where does it fit, how does it fit, and how can I adjust it so that it will fit. It was a conscious weaving together. There’s a lot of echoing, so you’ll notice certain phrases recur, like “undertoad” is in two different stories (more prominent in the one called “The Undertoad”), and there are some elements of characters doing similar things.
For example, with “The Monster at Marta’s Back,” that story was originally a little more straight-forward. That character that Marta meets on the train was sort of just a creepy guy, and to me it didn’t feel like it fit with the rest of the collection because the stories get progressively stranger and that one stuck out in the end as more rooted in realism. I worked to make it feel much more menacing and added some ambiguity so that it felt more connected than the others as well.
4. What is your favorite story in the collection and why?
That’s like trying to choose your favorite child, which feels inappropriate. I think my favorite in the collection is “The Vanishing Point,” in which a woman builds a mechanical deer suit to live as a deer in the woods behind her childhood home. That’s the last one I wrote. That one felt like the direction I want to head in for my next project. I didn’t want to stop writing that story. It was so much fun and so exciting and one of the more challenging ones to write, too, because I had to research deer biomechanics and academia.
5. You’re a new-ish mother, and have a full-time job, and have managed to get a lot of wonderful writing done. How do you hold it all together?
Well, I’d been asking women out to lunch out before Covid and asking how do you do this and they said, “Thank you for thinking that I’m doing it all—my life is a shitshow every day.” It was so reassuring to hear that these women were struggling just as much as I was and that it wasn’t as easy as it looked.
Yes, from the outside, I have a child, and I’ve been writing a lot of things, and I give myself credit for that. I’m not going to disparage it. But you don’t do all those things at the same time. It seems like women are doing all this stuff at the same time because seemingly all at once, an essay comes out, a book comes out, then posts on Twitter, but there’s a lot of time leading up to it. The mermaid story I wrote a year ago just got published. The short stories I wrote over eight years, and the collection is coming out now. The full-time job I have is very demanding but has ebbs and flows, so I’m not constantly in meetings.
So all these elements can be shifted around the stovetop of life: sometimes on front burner and sometimes on back burner and sometimes falling off the stove.
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