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"The Trouble of Taxonomizing Dogs": An Interview with Robert Glick

Robert Glick is Coeditor of Versal and Assistant Professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches creative writing and digital literature. His work has appeared in The Normal School, Denver Quarterly, Black Warrior Review, and The Gettysburg Review.

His story, "Instar," appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about kindness, rabid dogs, and fiction writers who think like poets.

Where did “Instar” begin for you?

There’s a beginning that we can call an inception point, an image perhaps, and there’s another moment, later, when vectors form a multi-dimensional intersection, and there, you can almost see the crackling overload of language and idea and stress and emotion.

Early on, I knew a great deal about the front story (Jess and Lix finding Ajla, who has just been assaulted in the bathroom of the corn maze mini-mart); I also knew that I didn’t want to tell that story directly, not yet, though Ajla would eventually have her own narration. But really, the story germ didn’t manifest until I had read Rabid: A Cultural History of the World's Most Diabolical Virus by Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy. Rabies, with its discursive ties to gender, to zombies, and of course to dogs, allowed me passage to talk about the ambivalent, sometimes catastrophic ways our innocent caretaking goes horribly wrong.

The “beginning” for me is almost always a question of style, structure, or language rather than a question of image or event. Yes, the image of Jess sleeping under the piano for protection solidified my desire to tell this story, but really, I owe everything here—both through her sentence syntax and her recursive mode of storytelling—to Susan Steinberg. The narrators in her great collection of stories, Spectacle, gave me a space for Jess to speak in lyric and often impossible ways.

I’m in love with the language surrounding the dog. To name just two of my favorite lines: “The slow cracking of each kibble between Chunk’s teeth made me happy, like a bright flower you luck onto growing out of a tree trunk.” and “My room was full of angry dog hairs.” The narrator has a complicated relationship with the dog. She is afraid of it, but also protective of it. What about dogs interested you when writing this story?

Certainly, as you suggested, dogs, especially for young kids, engender both deep love and, at times, intense (and justified) fear. It struck me that the same dog (even when not rabid) can evoke both emotions, which saved me the trouble of taxonomizing dogs into the tiny soft cuddlies and the big scary steel-jawed. Confronted with such a dog, the brain addles, can’t figure out what kinds of investments one can safely make.

In the framework of the story, the dog could be allowed into interior spaces as bats or squirrels (other carriers of rabies) couldn’t, and so could explore the limits of allowing children to self-actualize, of asking parents to impose themselves. Furthermore, the rabid dog gives us a more complex model for identity and personality; who’s to say that we don’t learn identity formation from animals? And lastly, because Jess knew this particular dog, she could struggle with forms of betrayal that ultimately accelerate her political awakenings.

This piece oscillates between writing that is strictly narrative and writing that is enigmatic and lyrical. When do you think a story benefits from entering a more lyrical space?

I’d apply a bit of pressure to the binary. For me, everything begins with language; the idea of language as transparent, as simply a vehicle for plot, as neutral or objective or unideological, is absurd. Language defaces, deforms, reveals, conceals. So I want even the more direct passages to be lyric, not necessarily in terms of lyrical language or an ambiguity of meaning but in terms of an attention to sound, rhythm, construction, linguistic or neural association. I would be flattering myself to say I think like a poet, but I regret deeply that all fiction writers don’t think more like poets.

You’re of course correct, though, in suggesting that there’s a kairos to moving into a more lyrical space. For me, I like it to be established early, not only as an emotionally shattering end-game. I like it when people toggle the tension between using the lyric in apostrophes and digressions and when they use it for more direct event-moments. And I like it when people express the lyric in addressing the banal and sometimes abject rather than coupling it strictly to the sublime (which of course can also be abject).

I’m not convinced the lyric is a separate mode, something we trot out on special occasions. It doesn’t have to slow the story down; it doesn’t have to map onto a narrator who has a special reason to imagine the world in lyrical terms. I’d argue instead that it’s fundamental to how many of us think; that the lyric is a norm rather than an exception.

Your story is pretty dark throughout, but it ends in a moment of kindness. Why did you choose to end in this moment? Did you always plan on ending it here, or did you stumble upon it?

It’s a moment of kindness, when Jess takes home her friend’s dog, that causes all the trouble in the first place. So while I wouldn’t fully place the rabid dog in parallel with Ajla, there’s a kind of echo here, a suggestion that Jess (otherwise nicknamed the Little Scorpion, which accounts for the title of the story) is still capable of and willing to pursue these acts of empathy and compassion, despite the possibility that the outcome might devastate her. Once I figured out that I wanted the front and back stories in conversation, Jess’s moment of kindness (which, to be frank, might be also seen as an ethical duty) felt like the only place the story could end.

Now for a strange question. If this story was a breed of dog, what would it be?

That’s difficult. It’s probably a big, sometimes mean dog, a dog equally capable of violence and devotion. A dog like a pit bull or a German Shepherd. No, it’s undoubtedly a Rottweiler. I once lived above two Rotties I loved; yet a few years prior, two other Rotties had killed my cat, so perhaps it was that deep ambivalence that best represents “Instar”.

What projects are you working on now?

The story “Instar” is a version of a chapter in my current novel project, The Paradox of Wonderwoman’s Airplane, which I’m in the process of revising. As a result, I knew a lot of about what happened before and after the time period of “Instar”, and I already had an extensive network of ideas to toy with.  

In addition to the not-insignificant challenge of writing a novel, the project is composed of both print and digital components—so I’m also building digital works that come from within the novel itself, like bits of programming that Jess codes in high school, or bits of radical cartography designed by another character, or even performance pieces written by Ajla. I hope that more writers think about print as something that leaps, like a flea, onto other mediums, then leaps back, traversing in and off and back to print, bringing the material of print into conversations about writing.

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