Interview: Lara Ehrlich
The woman on the cover of Lara Ehrlich’s debut short story collection appears to be almost airlifted from the 1950s—she could be an actor from The Donna Reed Show or perhaps a model for LOOK magazine, all aproned and ironed and fingernail perfect. Though unlike the manicured artifice of the “perfect housewife,” this woman’s body has a wildness, a hunger, a howl stirring beneath, and we are witness to its unveiling as a snarling wolf bares its teeth and tears a space for itself across the face of the woman. This dramatic and unforgettable cover is a perfect teaser for the question explored in the following pages: what happens when the wolf within woman breaks through the surface and emerges?
The fifteen stories within Animal Wife correspond with this duality of the woman and the wolf, the exterior and the interior, the domestic and the wild, the performative and primal natures that contribute to the lives of Lara Ehrlich’s characters as they seek liberation from the societal expectations and self-doubts that attempt to control and dominate them.
Animal Wife, released in September 2020, is the winner of the Red Hen Press Fiction Award. A collection of fairy tales for the modern age, it chronicles the many transformations of women: from girls into wives, mothers, and monsters. As their bodies transform, so too do their definitions of the word “woman” itself. Ehrlich’s fiction swirls with magic, mourning, and grace, and provides readers with hope that even in uncertainty, there is wonder. In change, there is evolution. In vulnerability, there is strength.
I communicated with Ehrlich over email about possibility, power, and resilience.
Cameron Finch: The stories in this collection complement each other beautifully! How did you go about choosing these particular stories and curating Animal Wife?
Lara Ehrlich: I began writing the stories in this collection about ten years ago. At that time, I was obsessed with exploring the period of transition between childhood and adulthood, and I began writing stories about girls grappling with all the uncertainty, shame, and heightened emotion that comes along with it. You can see those themes play out in the stories that comprise the first third of the book (“Animal Wife” was the first story I wrote).
As I began contemplating motherhood, my focus shifted and I began writing about women wracked with indecision as they look ahead to an unknowable future (like the protagonist of “Foresight”). I also played out my own fears by writing worst-case motherhood scenarios, in which women lose themselves to the role of Mother (“Burn Rubber”), flee their responsibilities (“Kite”), and literally disappear when no longer of use (“Paint by Number”).
I’d always written toward a collection, but those themes revealed themselves slowly throughout the years and some stories I wrote during that time didn’t make it into Animal Wife, while one or two made it into the book at the last second. The process of curating the book was both intentional and organic.
CF: The book largely chronicles the transformations of young girls into women and the transformations of women into mothers of young girls, and so the cycle continues. Yet, the declaration “I will never be a lady” is decried to us on the first page of the first story. There’s something fascinating about this verbal defiance against becoming the very thing we are told we should become. Is the concept of resistance something you consider important to your work?
LE: God, yes! I grew up a strident feminist. I was enraged that boys and girls were separated in gym class; the boys would play football while the girls watched outdated (even then) Richard Simmons videos in the hallway. I made an enemy of the gym teacher by insisting daily that the girls should be playing football, until she finally banished me to the field to play football with the boys by myself, which was not my desired outcome. I trained and competed in karate and was adamant that I be treated no differently than the boys—I even insisted for a summer that I be called Larry.
As I grew up, my understanding of feminism became more complicated, and I began to question that impulse to erase my femininity in pursuit of equality. It was infuriating to realize that even my earliest attempts to defy sexism were grounded in patriarchal messaging. The line you noted reflects that impulse. The protagonist of the story “Animal Wife,” a young girl, is told by her father that she should act like a lady, so to her, the obvious rebuttal is, “I will never be a lady.”
That defiance against becoming the thing we are told we should become plays through the rest of the stories, in different forms. We’re told we should be mothers, and that we should devote our whole selves to motherhood. To me, the answer is not to refuse motherhood—it’s to choose for ourselves how we define motherhood. We’re told we should act like ladies. The answer is not to act like men, but to choose for ourselves what it means to be a woman. That is the true resistance.
CF: Were there any fairy tales or monster tales that you read and returned to during the writing of these stories? And how do you feel your stories are in conversation, or at odds, with these tales of the past?
LE: I grew up reading fairy tales and monster stories—Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Edgar Allan Poe, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robin McKinley, Angela Carter, and so many others. Those stories soaked into my consciousness. When writing Animal Wife, I did return to touchpoint authors; specifically, Hans Christian Andersen, whose stories have always given me a sense of sinking into a different realm ruled by its own logic. I tried to figure out how he accomplished that elusive feeling when I was writing the more fairytalistic stories, like “Animal Wife, Revisited.” I also read about fairy tales to explore the genesis, rules, stereotypes, and motifs of various types of stories, especially those categorized as “animal spouse” tales. Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde is a great resource, as is the journal Fairy Tale Review.
All of the stories in Animal Wife that are grounded in fairy tale are in conversation with their origin myths and, more importantly, with fairy tale dynamics. Fairy tales often put girls and women at risk in order to be saved by men. Men capture animals for wives, and treat women as animals. Women are murdered and abandoned and die in childbirth. I used these tropes to inform my stories and explored how they would play out when heroines do not act the victim.
CF: I recently read the poem “Elvis Has Left the House” by James Tate, which so much reminded me of your story, “The Tenant.” Both pieces feature a human and a wild animal (a bear in “The Tenant,” a raccoon in “Elvis…”) comfortably cohabitating. The animals become household companions, fixtures in our protagonists’ domestic routines. Most of all, both animals are revealed to emerge and disappear following the deaths of significant people in our protagonists’ lives. What begins as a piece of absurdism transforms into a tender meditation on grief and mourning. How does writing and developing nonhuman characters allow you personally to more fully explore the emotions and experience of being human?
LE: Well, I talk to my cat, and I attempt to read his emotions and needs as if he were human—especially when I’m feeling sad or anxious. Times of intense emotion can bring us even closer to animals in that way; we seek comfort in what we believe to be their unconditional love. The way we interact with animals, particularly during these times, can tell us a lot about ourselves.
I’m also fascinated by the physicality of animals. Throughout my life, I’ve found my own body to be terrifying, shameful, powerful, painful, beautiful, ugly—and mysterious, as it created and then birthed an entirely new human body. That experience, more than any other, brought me into profound connection with my animal nature, with what it means to inhabit an animal body.
I’ve also become obsessed with exploring transformation and costuming—how seeking to become an “other” with the intention of losing our human selves can in fact reveal to us our most human weaknesses and desires. In “The Vanishing Point,” the protagonist builds a mechanical deer suit to shed her human self and live in the woods behind her childhood home. She finds, however, that the suit rubs against her human skin, exerts pressure on her joints, upsets her stomach—making her all the more aware of her human body.
CF: The book’s first and last stories involve a girl born with feathers searching for the mother who abandoned her. Can you tell us about the origins of these two distinct but connected stories? What drew you to explore, and revisit, these characters from multiple perspectives?
LE: The last story, “Animal Wife, Revisited,” was originally embedded within “Animal Wife” as the origin story for the mother of the story’s protagonist, Alex. During the revision process, with feedback from my critique group at the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, I realized that including the fairy tale sapped the mystery of Alex’s story. It doesn’t matter if her mother is or is not a swan maiden—it matters only that Alex believes she is. When I cut the fairy tale from “Animal Wife” and allowed the swan maiden folktale to undergird the story in a more structural, organic way, the story finally clicked.
I never throw out writing; I only move rejected sections into a big Word doc called STUFF. When reviewing that doc, I realized that the mother’s origin story stood on its own as a piece of flash fiction and that, as a separate story, it could enter into dialogue with “Animal Wife.” As the final story in the collection, “Animal Wife, Revisited” naturally asks the reader to reflect upon the first story, “Animal Wife,” from a different perspective and question the conclusions they’d drawn from that story—and hopefully, all the stories in between.
CF: While there is certainly trauma and pain and danger lurking in unexpected spaces in this collection, there’s also a great deal of youthful playfulness, imaginative costuming, and comedic rhapsodies. Could you please tell us about a story in Animal Wife that was particularly fun or enjoyable to write, and why?
LE: Thank you! “Desiree the Destroyer” was particularly fun because I could poke fun at myself through the character of the straitlaced proofreader, Eve, who approaches life with trepidation—then switch gears and play off of her mannerisms with a completely opposing character, Desiree the Destroyer. I just loved writing Desiree, which gave me the opportunity to come up with the most outlandish counterpoints to Eve’s (and often my own) anxieties. Eve meticulously shaves her body hair? Desiree grows it long and sleek. Eve gets arthritis in her shoulder from proofreading? Desiree wields her body as a weapon. I could write a whole book about all the weird and wonderful things Desiree does.
CF: How has becoming a mother influenced what you are compelled to write about, or perhaps how you approach your writing subjects?
LE: I’ve hinted at this above, but becoming a mother was the single most intense catalyst for change in my writing. Until I began considering motherhood, I’d been writing about young characters, often boys. I think this was likely because writing from my own point of view, writing about girls and women, felt too vulnerable and raw.
In the midst of a major life transition—from a relatively young independent person to a middle-aged mother responsible for another human life—my writing also underwent a major transition. I became fascinated by womanhood, motherhood, wifehood, all the roles some women accumulate throughout our lives, each one its own period of transformation. I wanted to be vulnerable and write raw, and my writing improved dramatically for it.
Right now, as a mother of a four-year-old girl, I’m not interested in—nor could I write—the types of stories that used to interest me. I’m not interested in writing about boys, or men. I’m not interested in writing about young singletons or about characters whose lives bear no resemblance to mine. It’s not that I think those characters or stories are unimportant, and I may even return to them at some point—but right now in my life, directly because of my still-new role as a mother—I’m particularly invested in exploring that role and other types of women’s transformations.
CF: I know that since your book’s release, you’ve been hosting Writer Mother Monster: Interviews with Authoresses, which is a virtual series “devoted to dismantling the myth of having it all and offering writer-moms solidarity, support, and advice.” Who have you hosted on your show recently, and what is something you have learned from these conversations that you would like to bring into your writing practice as you work on future projects?
LE: Writer Mother Monster is a weekly series and, to date [January 10, 2021], I’ve spoken with eight exceptional writer-moms: Amy Shearn, Blair Hurley, Liz Harmer, Tzynya Pinchback, Katie Peterson, Daria Polatin, Katie Gutierrez, and Melanie Conroy-Goldman. It’s been fascinating to talk to women at every stage of motherhood, from mothers of weeks-old babies to mothers of twenty-somethings. My guests have been divorced, happily married for years, abused, encouraged, overwhelmed, and joyful. They’re poets, novelists, short story writers, screenwriters, scriptwriters, professors, and, in one case, a volunteer at a maximum-security men’s prison. Each guest has broadened my own perspective on writing and motherhood and offered me actionable advice for centering my craft in my often chaotic life. Above all, I’ve been struck by my guests’ resilience and joy.
I’m striving to approach my writing with renewed joy, to recognize that motherhood—in all of its messy, infuriating, exhilarating ups and downs—informs my writing like no other experience. And pursuing a passion that is solely mine and allowing my daughter to witness me doing so, makes me a better mother.
LARA EHRLICH’s work has been published in literary magazines, including F(r)iction, Hunger Mountain, and StoryQuarterly, and has been recognized with many awards and fellowships; most recently, Animal Wife received the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, judged by New York Times–bestselling author Ann Hood, who called the collection “sensual and intelligent, with gorgeous prose.” Lara lives in Connecticut with her husband and daughter.
CAMERON FINCH’s writing has appeared in Isele Magazine, Entropy, Windmill, Glass, and Tiny Molecules, and her interviews with authors and small presses can be found in The Rumpus, Michigan Quarterly Review, Electric Literature, CRAFT, and The Adroit Journal. Find out more about her at ccfinch.com or on Twitter at @_ccfinch_.
Visit Writer Mother Monster for archived and upcoming episodes including those with New York Times–bestselling author Ann Hood, journalist Lori Tharps, poet Rachel Zucker, and novelist Elle Nash.