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Tuesday
Jul262016

"Creatures of Complication": An Interview with Kelly Dulaney

Kelly Dulaney began in the cinders of Arizona; now she lives among the red rocks of Colorado. She is the author of the novel Ash (Urban Farmhouse Press 2016) and her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fairy Tale Review, Penny, The Best American Experimental Writing Anthology (BAX) 2015, The Collagist, Caketrain, and Abjective, among other venues. She holds and MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and edits The Cupboard Pamphlet.

Her story, "Oil Dog," appears in Issue Seventy-Two of The Collagist.

Here, she speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about buried family history, dogs, the quest for oil.

Please tell us where this story began for you.

Truth told, this story is not entirely fictional and so it did not begin strictly with me.

I have been working for some time to understand the way in which narratives are passed through a family line—I want to know why we repeat and deny the actions of our ancestors; I want to know how we emerge out of our forebears. In 2014, I began to interview my family members about aspects of our family history that had been deliberated buried by those long dead—particularly those buried by my grandfather, Richard Gordon Dulaney. I also began to comb through family documents that had been in storage: old letters, paper clippings and the like. I discovered a copy of a legal deposition that laid out the true timeline and concerns of my grandfather’s life—suddenly, I could see what had made him what he was and I could see how that echoed outwards through the family line.

Here is what in “Oil Dog” is true: my grandfather worked the oil fields of Saudi Arabia in the 30s, earned a degree in physics and deployed to Europe as an officer in the 40s, and planned and purchased the pipe for the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline in the late 60s; my father did survive a fiery and disfiguring car accident; my brother did deploy to Kandahar, Afghanistan; Alexander the Great did once conquer the known world, naming cities and sectors in it for himself (like Kandahar).

I had the impulse to take these truths and weave them—to see what close placement could reveal. I also had the impulse to tell a lot of lies about what I had discovered, because I feel that an invention can lead one closer to an emotional truth than can a litany of facts.

This story is admirable for the way it addresses a global problem without being preachy or prescriptive. Often we see novel writers tackling the “big issues.” Do you think short stories can address issues in a way that novels cannot?

That’s a good question! It’s not one that I’m sure I have an answer for—I hesitate to say that one form can do something that another cannot because I am almost always immediately proven wrong. That said, I do think short stories occupy a strange space in the literary landscape: it’s a form pushed within the workshop—perhaps for ease of pedagogy or tradition—but not one that usually gets the kind of acclaim or attention that the novel does. Perhaps some writers save their energy for the “big issues” until they know they have a novel’s worth of words to write; perhaps short stories that tackle these aren’t as on the radar as they ought to be. I’m not sure. I do know that I myself feel more at home in shorter, more fractured forms—in writing, I want to focus in on emotional resonance rather than explanation.

Why did you choose a dog to represent the demand for oil in this story?

Dogs are creatures of complication. They occupy the border between the human and the natural worlds. They’re uncanny and culturally loaded. They’re communicative, showing an intense interest in and responsiveness to human activity and thought. Dogs are chthonic, too. When my brother redeployed, he told me that it was difficult to see dogs through an American lens again—he had seen them be literal corpse-eaters. I can’t shake that dissonance—a dog is hearth animal kept in the home and a dog is a dangerous animal that scavenges that which has not been properly interred.

There is so much that isn’t interred; there is so much that is kept at the center of the home. I did not intend for the dog to be a representation of the demand for oil (though I really like and respond to that reading); I did intend the dog to be a representation of haunting, of border-space, and of war. Oil lends itself to these things because it is land and territory based and because humans have always found a use for it. And my grandfather remade himself in images of oil and war—whatever he was before that he tried to erase. None of his descendants have been able to properly inter those images: we are still responding to their effects. Or I am—and I keep calling people’s attention to that which they’d like to forget.

So the dog—it seemed a natural link to me.

Describe how you settled on the chronology of this story. One of the many interesting elements of “Oil Dog” is how you move us through time—from the 1930’s to the present day and to decades in between. What was it like to write a story in this way?

I struggled with chronology in my initial drafting! Some of my first attempts were too much like a weak cloud—all dissipation, no tension. Some of my first attempts were too long, too windy—a result of trying to scatter time. So I left it alone for a long while, then came back and played cut up. I preserved only the placement of the first section (necessary to me because it normalizes the presence of the oil dog) and last section (necessary for its ambiguity). From there, I allowed myself to organize in a way that slowly divested the oil dog of its ability to say a full name (moving from “Richard Gordon” to “Alan” to, simply, “Oss—”) and that allowed me deeper access to theaters of war (moving from my grandfather on the practice plains to Alexander at pause in the midst of his campaigns to, finally, my brother in Kandahar). Having those arcs in place allowed me to add the other sections as punctuative or commentary moments, without sacrificing the narrative tension that I had wanted.

What are three last books you read?

In some kind of order, these are:

1: Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which I loved for its rhythms and variances in voice, for its refusal of anything that might be easily expected in favor of rot and character.

2: Aase Berg’s With Deer (translated by Johannes Göransson)—a reread, and one that I return to often. The lemurs! The fox. Everything in it seethes. It’s so strange and so good.

3: Yu Xiang’s I Can Almost See the Clouds of Dust (translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain). A former student challenged me, once—he said that my canon is too western. That’s true. I bought this book because of that and then became caught it its interest in framing, its interrogation of narration. I can’t get out of this book and I don’t want to—I want to stay behind Xiang’s door. She’s so loyal to her own eyes.

What projects are you working on now?

I am still writing about strange dogs—flint dogs, salt dogs, red dogs. I want to write a book about myself—about what made me, about my inability to name what matters most to me. I have a title—Cynocephali—and a six part structure. I’m waist-deep in that work.

And, when that’s too much, I rewrite Greek myths that are about bodies. I want to make that into some kind of collection, though I’m not there yet. One day! One day.  

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