Animal Collection: An Interview with Colin Winnette

Animal Collection: An Interview with Colin Winnette

by Brian Chappell on October 16, 2012

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in Reviews & Interviews

Animal Collection is a new book of stories by Colin Winnette (author of Revelation, discussed here at THEthe). Like his previous book, it is a subtle blend of experimentation and dramaturgy. The concept: each story contains some kind of animal behaving in unusual and, in some cases, very human ways. From being cuckolded by a beaver, to falling in love with a hummingbird, to being impregnated by an iguana, human characters interact with animals in intimate and occasionally visceral ways. The result is a commentary on the strangeness of our own behavior, and the collection is proof of the power of certain art forms to defamiliarize ourselves to ourselves. This, to me, is the potent achievement of Animal Collection.

Here is the interview:

Brian: When we spoke about Revelation, a major theme of the conversation was the happy constraints of a framing concept. Here we have a collection of stories, each of which revolves around the image of a certain animal. How did this concept occur to you?  How “happy” of a constraint was it?

Colin: The germ for this project was pure constraint…or, better, like a dare / challenge I gave to myself because I was afraid. I had been asked to participate in a reading put on by Publishing Genius and Beecher’s Magazine at AWP DC a few years ago. I was super excited about the reading, many writers I admire were participating, and so I kept googling the reading and looking for info. Then, like the day before the flight, I discovered a poster for the event that claimed all of the authors had chosen an animal to write about and would then read that story in front of said animal’s cage…I had not done that. So I was sort of terrified and convinced of my own failure. Then there was a blizzard in Chicago (where I was living). A major one. All flights were grounded, school was cancelled, six feet of snow fell in something like two or three hours, and people were buried in their cars on Lakeshore Drive. Hunkered down in my apartment, nervous I would never make it to AWP in all of that, I decided to write 26 stories, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of which would center around an animal they had in custody at the Washington D.C. Zoo. A lot of these stories were awful, but some I loved. That was how the whole thing started. I wrote a lot more, revised considerably, and worked out a larger, more considered structure for the collection itself over the next few years. So, in a way, it was the happiest of constraints…except for those poor folks on Lakeshore Drive.

Brian: We have stories of metamorphosis, anthropomorphism, and something in between. In your thinking about this project, did you envision a clear boundary between the animal and the human? Is there a scale or spectrum of humanness or animal-ness? It’s obviously more fluid than that, but how fluid was it in your mind when you conceived of these scenarios?

Colin: The overall project, initially, was extremely fluid. As it came together, I began to detect certain underlying structures, and I worked to tease those out or, sometimes, to counteract them. Every story operates on slightly different terms so the boundaries shift. They are specific to each piece, and to the function of the “animal” in that particular piece.

Brian: More than even metamorphosis, we have visceral images of the human merging with the animal – eating a tarantula, having sex with an octopus, aborting an iguana baby, having one’s private space completely overrun by insects and vermin (which include men, in one story). This to me was a very disturbing turn, which contrasted with the lighter and outright funny tone of some of the other pieces (but maybe that’s because I’m squeamish in general). I guess the question is – if a story collection is a recipe comprised of different flavors, how did you manage the balance of the various flavors we have here?

Colin: This was a topic of much conversation with a  friend of mine, actually. The poet Ben Clark read these stories over and over again while I was working on them. He read many of the stories I wound up deleting and drafts of the stories that wound up looking completely different. At one point, he sorted all of the stories into separate categories. Something like: animal as human, human as animal, animal into human, human into animal, and so on. The various functions of the animal figure, as he could best figure them. So that was a helpful guide. But, more than anything, I was guided by the associative qualities of whatever animal occurred to me at the time I was writing the piece. That was a way I secured a certain level of variation throughout the text. Whichever animal occurred to me when I was setting out to write one of the stories would come with a cluster of associations. Some fairly common or general, and others deeply personal. Those associations dictated the movement of the story, and what was possible. So the stories had a kind of emotional and intellectual logic to them from the get go, which I then refined during revision. For that reason, some of the variation I hoped for was pretty much there from the beginning, but Ben helped me to see the “recipe,” helped to point out the ingredients, so that I might balance the whole thing more purposefully.

Brian: One unifying component of pretty much all the stories is the breakdown of relationships – lovers, families, friends. How does envisioning people as certain animals aid this feeling of disconnection and dissolution? Could it be misconstrued as a distraction (i.e., why not just depict humans as humans, rather than as animals?), or is that part of the point?

Colin: Well, I grew up on Disney films, so who knows what kind of havoc that wreaked on my sense of what exactly is “human,” but…

It’s different in each story, but the function of each animal brings something to the equation that I feel wouldn’t be there otherwise. For example, the iguana. That story is terrifying to me. It’s a joke my friend Blake and I used to make, that we always thought our parents didn’t understand us, when the reality is, they just couldn’t sometimes. It wasn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that I know Blake better than his parents ever could, just because we’re about the same age. The terms of our era were so radically different from our parents’, the disconnect was so severe, there was just no real way to bridge the gap. Any parents who are willing to listen to their kids and genuinely accept what they think and feel and do, without question, without feeling complete alienation and bewilderment every once in awhile, those are some pretty amazing people…or they’re faking it. It’s the kind of parent I hope to be (the genuine article, the amazing kind, not the faker), but what terrifies me is the question of whether I will have the self-awareness to realize when I’m not. Anyway, the joke Blake and I used to make was that it was easy to say parents “just don’t understand,” up until the day your kid is suddenly dating a Tyrannosaurus, and all you can think to say is, “I just don’t want you hanging out with that dinosaur! It’s unnatural!” Of course there’s something about racism in there too, I suppose, but for me it’s more about feeling fundamentally alienated from your child’s life. Or that’s the hook of the story. That’s what complicates it. I mean, would you have allowed her to birth the iguana?

And, just for the record, humans are totally animals.

Brian: Speaking of – the other major “human” theme is one that I’ve already briefly mentioned – the invasion of one’s space and privacy. To what extent is this a comment on the fact that the spaces and zones we build around ourselves are arbitrary and fragile? Am I putting words in your mouth here? Better than a tarantula, I guess. Stylistically, though, one way to convey this invasion of privacy (beyond various really creepy scenes) is the use of the second person. You open the collection in the second person, and one entire story consists simply of “You are here.” Who is you in Animal Collection? How many you’s are there?

Colin: Arbitrary and fragile, yes. Those are words I would use…and even have used when answering earlier questions. Each You, as with each animal, and each story, is very different. It is a way of incorporating the reader at times, or of generating an extra-textual character who is being addressed. For example, the Beaver story does not ask that the reader occupy the space of the You, any more than he/she would any other character. But the You story, that’s all about you, Brian, or me, or whoever is holding the book, really. On the one hand, it’s extremely literal. It’s also a joke. A bit of fun. But one that I felt was essential. It’s one of the last ones I wrote. I was pretty proud of it.

Brian: We have lots of animals, but also lots of voices and perspectives. As many as there are stories, really. This builds on that multivocal component of Revelation. I tell my students that writing is less akin to directing a film as it is to acting in one. How do you get your mind around the different voices and personae from story to story, especially when they’ll only live and breathe for a short time? To what extent do you “become” the voices you depict?

Colin: I abandon a story pretty quickly if I can’t embody the characters I’m writing. For me, it’s literally a physical sensation. I can feel it. I move in certain weird ways sometimes when I’m writing. You’re completely right that it’s like acting in a film, rather than directing it. Although, sometimes, once you know your characters well enough, and if you want to create a kind of stiffness or something, you can move them around like a director, like set pieces. I didn’t do that much here in AC, but I did do that a little in Revelation. They’re different projects, but they do overlap in certain areas. With AC, I was very invested in the voice of each character, or each story. It comes out when I read them, which is something I really love to do. (As a side note, whenever I read the “Tarantula” story, someone inevitably asks, “did you really…?”). I can’t say exactly what caused it, it likely has to do with the associative qualities each animal brings to the story, and what those associations allowed me to access. I was also able to play around a lot with these pieces, so I wasn’t stuck in one voice for any particular length of time. I could start writing and ride the wave of a particular voice until it stopped. Until it was done, and I could just end right there. I didn’t have to keep coming back to it and dragging more out of it. What I loved about writing this book is that I felt so free to make each piece be exactly the length it needed to be. I felt no pressure to extend a piece to make it more like a “short story” or to cut the longer pieces down so they better fit with the flash pieces. The book needed range. It required a variety of approaches to telling a story—and these are all stories, even if they’re poems. It’s a bestiary, an abecedarium, a zoo. It’s an animal collection.

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