Interview: Carol Guess and Kelly MaGee, Author of With Animal

Shelf Unbound: How did you decide to write this book together, and what was your writing process?

Carol Guess: Kelly and I were having coffee together (we both teach at Western Washington University) when we decided to collaborate on a book manuscript. My goal in collaboration is to challenge myself, to match myself with a writer whose skills are different from mine. Kelly is very good at narrative structure. She can actually tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. I’m primarily a poet, always distracted by the musicality of language, by shaping sentences in service to sound. I wanted to apprentice myself to someone who could write The Short Story. What I had to offer was my poetic sensibility, my energy, and a wild imagination. By the end of the project, Kelly was finding her poetic voice and I was excited about writing short stories. So we schooled each other. 

As for the actual writing process, we worked in shifts, each writing the beginning of a story, then passing it along to the other writer to finish. We rarely edited each other’s words, but sometimes we broke story starters in half, or moved the beginning to the middle or end of a story. The trick was to create the illusion of a seamless whole. 

Kelly Magee: I had never collaborated on writing before this, but when Carol approached me with the idea, I was very interested. She had done several previous collaborations, so she had a good idea about what the potential pitfalls and challenges would be, which was helpful in getting started. I’d been fascinated with fairy tales for a while (and still am), so I suggested something loosely based around that. She sent me a list of more concrete suggestions, one of which was people who become pregnant with animals. I knew right away that that would be my choice. I tend to write without having any sense of where I’m headed, at least at first, and that makes my stories surprising but often somewhat disconnected from each other. Carol is very good at conceptualizing a whole book, and I loved the idea of trying to do this particular topic from as many different angles as we could think of. It’s such a good idea that, even though the book is finished, I regularly get ideas for new ways to write about it.

The shifts Carol mentioned—trading story-beginnings/endings —happened once a week, so we wrote these very fast. I found it so freeing to be able to take a story only as far as the first thrust before passing it along, and then to get a story that I needed to complete. It was a tremendously energizing way to work, and we were able to step up that already-rapid pace later on. I am naturally the kind of writer who labors over a story for weeks and months, so to be producing a couple of stories a week seemed magical and wonderful.

Shelf Unbound: You’ve got a man giving birth to a kangaroo, a lesbian giving birth to a school of fish, and all manner of other plays with gender and sexuality. What interested you in exploring these subjects?

Guess: I realized after I’d finished writing With Animal that I began this project with my second novel, Switch, which was published in 1998. In that book, a butch lesbian turns into a cat purely for the thrill of experiencing transformation. I linked shape shifting to gender fluidity, implying that there’s something magical about the way humans play with gender and sexuality. Writing With Animal allowed me to continue to explore the themes of transformation and boundary crossing. I see gender and sexuality as a continuum; why shouldn’t there be a continuum of human and non-human animal lives as well? 

The book also demonstrates my impatience with the assimilationist emphasis of the contemporary American LGBT movement. I’m interested in all the radical places my imagination can go, and in the radical potential of sex/gender play and pleasure. Some of that has gotten lost as queers focus on marriage and military service. I wanted to write about bodies, emotions, and physical sensations. 

Magee: When talking about pregnancy, it’s nearly impossible to leave the body, and the gendered body, out of it, so I think that came up pretty organically. One of my personal ongoing projects is to complicate mainstream ideas about gender, sexuality, and family —probably because I come from, and have, a nontraditional family myself. But then there’s the animal world, which seems to push the line between what is possible and impossible, and transferring that to human sexuality became an intuitive part of the project. So, like, it’s not true of the animal world that the female is always the one to give birth, for example; transferring the characteristics of various animals into human terms (and vice versa) presented endless narrative possibilities. 

I am very much interested in rewriting the “sexless mother” stereotype as well. I like complicated characters who want things they’re not supposed to want, and so I got inspired dreaming up unsanctioned desires for these mother/parent-characters. I get frustrated by one-size-fits-all definitions of gender and sexuality, so I’m always most compelled by characters who are outliers, shape-shifters, and rebels.  

Shelf Unbound: These stories portray parenting as heartbreaking and tragic. Do you view parenting that way?

Guess: That’s a tough question; thanks for asking. I had an abortion many, many years ago. It was very much my body, my choice; the right choice for me. But I felt sad at the time that I couldn’t live two lives: one life in which I was childfree and could explore my art and career to the fullest and one life in which I had a child and experienced that path. 

The beauty of being an artist is that when life presents me with an impossible choice—a choice I can only make once, a choice that will change my life forever—as a writer I can live that other life, too. This is a comfort when I’m forced into a corner. So it isn’t that having children seems tragic to me, it’s that having a child represents a choice you can’t turn away from. There’s no going back. That’s what feels tragic to me. And I decided when I was still a child myself that I valued my time alone, my writing time, my independence too much to have children. But in another universe, I might. 

Magee: Well, the easy answer is that stories about parenting which portray it as uncomplicated and blissful aren’t as interesting; trouble (heartbreak, tragedy) makes for better plot. But in real life, I absolutely love being a mom, and I think it is great fun. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My kids gave me ideas for some of these stories. There is one about a sparrow that I wrote and wrote and couldn’t figure out how to end. So I asked my son what he would do if he had a story about a woman who gave birth to a bird. And he suggested the ending that I ultimately used. 

The hard answer is that yes, in addition to being wonderful and satisfying, of course parenting is heartbreaking and tragic. Every time your kids get their hearts broken, yours goes with it. Loving anything opens you up to heartbreak; and loving people since the time they were tiny and depended entirely upon you is a fierce and encompassing kind of love. My kids are still pretty small, but as they age I experience both the wonder and the heartbreak of watching them become independent beings, separate from me and yet still so connected that I feel their joy and their pain in my own body.    

One of the specific tragedies I come back to again and again in writing is the difficulty in communicating across gulfs of age, or temperament, or, in this case, species. You know what you want to teach your children, but you have no idea how to do it; or you fear you are teaching them the wrong things; or you fear you’ll never understand them, or they you. All we have is this strange, fallible system of language, and I loved the way these stories provided a vehicle for writing about attempts, and failed attempts, to communicate among family members.

Shelf Unbound: One of my favorite stories is “With Horse,” in which a woman gives birth to twin girls—one a human and one a horse. What was the starting point for that story and how did it come together?

Guess: Kelly started that story and I was so excited when I read her beginning! Brilliant. I spent a lot of time thinking about what the characters wanted. Ultimately I decided that the twist had to be that the human/horse twins would compete for their mother’s attention —but that their bond as twins would trump their bond as daughters. 

Magee: I’m so glad you liked that one! That was one of the earliest stories we wrote, and I was in love with the idea of extending the kind of medicalized conceptions/births people really undergo to the possibility of animal children. My pregnancies involved medical interventions, and somehow it made the process more mysterious to me instead of less. So in that way, it seemed like a natural extension of this idea that you might be able to have twins of different species. I was also drawn to the idea of the mother feeling excluded by the child-animal bond, and how that feeling might cause her to act out.   

Shelf Unbound: What did you particularly enjoy about writing together?

Guess: Every time I got a new story starter from Kelly over email, I felt like I was opening a present. 

Magee: The energy that came from the premise and the quick pace was definitely my favorite thing because it kick-started a writing habit that was in need of a kick.  

Continue Reading.