An Interview with Lara Ehrlich
Words By Lara Ehrlich, Interviewed by Suzie Bartholomew
What inspired you to write this collection? Did you always know you were going to create a short story collection, and if so, how did that affect your writing process?
The collection began with the title story, which I began writing as a young adult novel. I wrote hundreds of pages but it wasn’t gelling, and I realized that’s because it was meant to be a short story! I pared it down to the kernel of the story: the relationship between the mother and daughter.
While writing this and the next few stories in the collection, I was interested in exploring the threshold between childhood and adulthood and how fraught this period is with anxiety, fear, shame, and desire—feelings children don’t yet understand when anticipating their adulthood. Throughout the years, my focus shifted to the concerns of adulthood, wifehood, and motherhood—the various roles women accumulate throughout their lives.
As these themes came into focus, I began writing toward them. For example, the protagonists of “The Vanishing Point” and “Burn Rubber” were originally male, but as the collection became woman-centric, I realized that all of the stories should be from a female perspective, and I changed those protagonists into women. That choice transformed the stories. My goal was to publish the stories as a collection so I wrote with that cohesion in mind, even as I published them individually in literary magazines.
These short stories all have some animal element in them, whether it’s real or fantastical. Did you go into creating this collection of stories with that element in mind?
I was halfway into the book before I realized that the stories all had animal elements, some more obvious than others. Once I recognized this element, I began to incorporate it more consciously into the stories. In part, this obsession comes from my love of fairy tales, which so often center on the transformation of animals into humans and humans into animals as a means of both entrapment and escape.
In the swan maiden folktale that’s central to “Animal Wife,” for example, a human man steals a swan’s feathered cloak, trapping her in human form. There are many variations of this myth, featuring selkies, snakes, and fish, in which a wild beast is trapped and domesticated. She eventually reclaims her skin and returns to her true form, abandoning her family along with her human identity.
Each of the women in these stories are unique, yet they’re easily recognizable as women we know, or women we have been. How did you tackle creating these characters?
I tackled each character differently. I’ll use Diana, the protagonist of “The Vanishing Point,” as an example. Diana constructs a biomechanical deer suit and lives in the woods behind her childhood home. I needed her to be physically believable as a human and as a human wearing an animal body—and mentally and emotionally believable in her attempt to escape her life through transformation.
I grounded Diana with realistic details so readers could suspend their disbelief as Diana embarks on her fantastical transformation. I interviewed women scientists to accurately represent Diana’s biomechanics career and the challenges she’d face as a woman in academia. I learned that the emphasis on postdoctoral research, grant-funded positions that prevent PhD scientists from starting their careers in earnest until their mid-thirties, pressures women to choose between work and family. I gave Diana this anxiety of being caught between her career ambitions and her yearning for a family, having just lost her parents. I did a lot of character layering to capture what Diana’s body feels like at various points, how her mental state changes, what she wants, and what, by the end of the story, she’s resigned to want.
We get to see not only how situations affect the women in your stories on the surface, but also how those same women choose to react to those situations at a deeper level. How important was it for you to show the inner lives of women?
It’s crucial! In the majority of these stories, I found my way into a protagonist’s inner life through her exterior life, through transformation and fantasy. In “Foresight,” for example, a woman drinks a potion that allows her to see the outcome of every choice she makes, which branches off into countless other choices until she can see all of her possible lives branching into infinity. The protagonist lives hundreds of lives in the space of that 800-word story—but in the physical world of the story, only a few minutes pass. Nothing more happens on the surface than the woman drinking Foresight and lying on the couch; the story takes place in her inner world. Each story in Animal Wife is driven by its protagonist’s interiority; the story’s situation is often a vehicle for accessing it.
Some of these stories seem to have similar scenarios for their characters, such as a group of girls waiting for their friend who left in a strange boy’s car or relationships with significant others that don’t end well. Did you intend to have similar moments in your stories or was it something that just happened? Is there a shared world for any of these stories?
While I didn’t intentionally incorporate those scenarios, they came through organically within the world of the stories. Once I noticed the echo, I consciously leaned into it to ensure that the scenarios resonate in a new way each time. In “Six Roses,” a teen girl drives off with boys she doesn’t know, leaving her friends feeling helpless and scared. In “Burn Rubber,” an adult woman recalls a friend who had driven off with strangers and projects that scenario upon her own young daughter, reflecting her fear that she’s losing control over her child.
The stories are not linked, in that their characters don’t cross over or the locations are not the same—but they could exist within the same world. It was important to me that the world of the book be cohesive, believable, and follow its own rules—but that harmony doesn’t depend on the stories existing in the same town or within the same group of friends. Even the two pieces that are closest in nature, the bookending stories that share an origin myth, could be two parts of the same story from different perspectives—or their own stories within the world of the book.
I was fascinated by the strength of your shortest pieces. How did you manage to encapsulate a whole story in just one paragraph?
I strive for stories that are stark and efficient, where every word feels necessary like poetry. I pared the shortest stories to their hearts so they feel powerful and complete in a compressed space, whether that’s a few pages, a paragraph, or a single line. It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that a story must be thousands of words to be important, but length isn’t a measure of significance. Sometimes I’ll revisit a piece and challenge myself to tell the same story in one page, then one paragraph, then three sentences, and finally, one sentence. By paring it down to its finest point, I sometimes find that’s the story I’ve been trying to tell all along.
When it comes to many of the Animal Wife stories, there seems to be an underlying thread of tension or emotion that we don’t quite recognize immediately. What inspired this narrative choice? How did you decide to go about teasing that out?
The stories are not plot heavy. In “Burn Rubber,” for example, a woman becomes psychologically trapped in her car and drives around the Chicago suburbs for an indeterminate amount of time. On the surface, there’s not much to that story—but a story doesn’t have to be driven by plot; it can be driven by other elements that create a sense of momentum, like ratcheting up tension in the characters’ inner lives.
In “Beware the Undertoad,” the teenage protagonist returns to her grandmother’s house at the beach summer after summer, encountering the same group of vacationing kids, including a boy who becomes the object of her fantasies. As she grows up, her relationship with the other kids—particularly the boy—becomes more emotionally fraught, as does her understanding of a sea monster the children call the Undertoad. Her anxieties and fears drive the story toward a physical confrontation with the boy and the monster.
In some of the stories, your main characters have names, while others remain unnamed. Was this an intentional decision or did it just end up that way? Would you say there is a benefit to having unnamed characters?
It’s an authorial choice that impacts the way readers experience a story. When a character’s name is withheld, it’s unsettling. You’re denied a level of intimacy with that character, and the character is denied that intimacy with herself. I didn’t name the character in “Burn Rubber,” for example, because her identity has been subsumed by her role as a mother and a wife, which has eroded her sense of self. She’s referred to as “the mother.” Naming is empowering. Un-naming is an erasure of self.
Now that your book is out there, what’s coming up next? Do you have any plans for another short story collection or novel?
I’m working on a novel loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” about a restless siren who becomes human, only to find that she is equally restless in that body. She runs off with her daughter to open a mermaid burlesque where they perform as sirens. A fun note: Last summer, I attended the Weeki Wachee Sirens of the Deep summer camp in Weeki Wachee, Florida, where women have been performing as mermaids since 1947. There, the park’s legendary sirens taught me how to swim in a tail. I wrote about that experience in Lit Hub.
If there is anything you would want readers to take from reading Animal Wife, what would it be?
Rage. I’m furious that my daughter was born into a world in which women still confront inequality, indifference, and violence. Our bodies are policed and raped and sold. Many still have to choose between family and career, and if we pursue both we are ground to the bone because work-life balance isn’t valued in our capitalistic society. Yet, we’re told that if we just “lean in,” we can “have it all.”
That’s impossible. The cost of daycare is prohibitive, we’re still paid less than our male counterparts, and we carry the mental load at home. The more we feel we should be doing, the more inadequate we feel because we can’t possibly do it all. We blame ourselves because that’s what women do—and it’s what our society does. We’re bombarded with the message that we’re bad mothers, bad employees, and bad wives. We’re monsters.
Now add a global pandemic into the mix! COVID-19 has widened these cracks; as the New York Times reported, the pandemic is going to “take our women 10 years back” in the workplace, with one in four women contemplating dropping out of the workforce. Between August and September 2020 alone, more than 800,000 American women left their jobs, vs. 216,000 men.
Animal Wife doesn’t offer solutions—it’s not feasible to live in the woods as a deer or beat the shit out of awful men while rocking a sequined cape—although that’s what I want to do sometimes. But as we confront the systems and rules designed to keep women in kitchens, I hope these stories give voice to our rage.