In the following email interview, writer Bernard Cohen discusses his new short story collection, When I Saw The Animal (paperback, Kindle).
To start, is there a theme to the stories in When I Saw The Animal?
I haven’t quite got the book theme down to an elevator pitch, but looking at When I Saw The Animal‘s assembly in retrospect, it coheres around how our practice of ordinary life and environment of ordinary language imprints on us: the people and signs and behaviors we pass in the street, the institutions that set limits to the ways we interact with each other and with other species. Most of the protagonists are caught up in how we rehearse or resist these impositions in their deep and passing relationships, how it is to be human animals, how we do our best or not quite our best to navigate it all.
Does When I Saw The Animal have any kind of framing device. Y’know, like what Clive Barker did with his Books Of Blood collections?
In an earlier book, Hardly Beach Weather, I used the device of a long drive, 1200 miles, and everyone the characters met had a story to tell them about love. When I Saw The Animaldoesn’t have that extra layer of story to it because I wanted these stories to connect with readers directly and unmediated by an additional stratum of narration.
In ordering the stories, I had in mind musical ideas on connection and picking up themes and echoing themes from earlier pieces.
Some of the stories in When I Saw The Animal been previously published in magazines and anthologies. But are the versions in Animal the same as when they were published before?
They’re pretty much the same. The publisher encouraged me to keep changes in published work to a minimum, so I only made changes where something struck me as particularly clunky.
In terms of the individual stories, what genres do they cover?
Naturalism, science fiction, metafiction. The title story is probably the closest to fantasy, though I’m sure the disturbance is more like Ionesco’s Amedee than Ursula Le Guin. The final story, “Attributed to Jeremiah,” is a kind of biblical lament — the title refers to The Book of Lamentations — though there’s slightly more cursing in it.
Some of the stories in When I Saw The Animal have also been described as being darkly humorous. Do you agree?
I hope they’re funny as well as real; it’s always risky to find your own work funny, laugh at your own jokes. In “Rock Platform,” the protagonist finds a body in a rock pool as the tide comes in. She really, really wants to help, but is too messed up to do anything but hinder police as they try to recover the body in that little window of time as waves crash over the scene. In “Gilberto,” a kid brings home a huge dog, completely misreading how his family might feel about the new member. People are caught in situations beyond their control, and they respond unselfconsciously. We’re a pretty funny species as well as tragic.
Who do you see as being the biggest influences on your humor, especially in reference to the stories in When I Saw The Animal?
Interesting to consider that. Absurdism certainly has a role; I’m thinking Beckett and Ionesco, but also The Goon Showand Being There and a bit of a shout out to Miguel de Cervantes and Voltaire’s Candide. I find American metafiction very funny — Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish — and I’m a fan of Michael Chabon.
Aside from the people you just mentioned, are there any writers who were a big influence on any of the stories in When I Saw The Animal, but not on your earlier books?
“ClickBait” has its characters in a BuzzFeed kind of world. Does that count? Similarly, “Lingua Franca” is a very short story designed to be read with online translation. There are a few pieces in When I Saw The Animal which use OuLiPo-style constraints, so I’m thinking of Georges Perec and Raymond Queneau.
What about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games; did any of them have a big impact on any stories in When I Saw The Animal?
“Fire in My Brain, That You’d Like to Put Out” draws its title from the 1980s pop song “Buddy” by the New Zealand group Snapper. This was proto-grunge music, and I tried to get the feeling from that song into my story.
Speaking of movies, et al., has there been any interest in adapting any of the stories from When I Saw The Animalinto a movie, TV show, or game?
The first story, “Gilberto,” has been optioned by an independent producer and I’ve drafted the script. The tricky bit will be casting a big enough dog. I’d love someone to pick up “Rock Platform,” which is very visual and colorful.
Now, it has been my experience that short stories are a great way to introduce yourself to a writer. My introduction to Kurt Vonnegut, for instance, was through Bagombo Snuff Box.
I love Vonnegut — when I was a teenager, he was the first writer I’d read who really played with how a writer might address readers. For me that was inspiring.
So do you think the stories in When I Saw The Animal are representative of your style, and that this is a good introduction to your writing?
I do think these are representative of the range of styles I’ve used in my novels, and a concise way to get to know my work.
Finally, if someone enjoys the stories in When I Saw The Animal, which of your novels would you suggest they check out and why that one?
Do I get two choices?
For someone who enjoys satirical humor, try The Antibiography Of Robert F. Menzies. It won Australia’s main award for humor writing, the Russell Prize, and is playful with form. In it, a long dead prime minister is brought back to life by the forces of conservative nostalgia. Things don’t go well. It’s also a footnoted novel, and its intro is authored by a particularly unreliable character.