Katherine had only intended to spend a few minutes outdoors wiping the birdhouse with vegetable oil, but now, over an hour after she’d started, she stood in the front yard, an oil-drenched wad of paper towels in one hand,…
A few years ago I received a calendar as a gift. This calendar featured a real, live squirrel dressed as a different famous person each month. This was for real—no Photoshop, no camera tricks. Someone had actually sewn small outfits for this squirrel and posed her in front of elaborate backgrounds. I was delighted by that calendar, and the idea of someone who dresses up squirrels lodged in my mind as a potential character for a story.
Then that summer I participated in a month-long writing residency. My desk faced sliding glass doors, which looked out onto a grassy expanse. I sat at the desk for hours each day and stared out onto a huge lawn when I took breaks from writing. Sometimes I would see my fellow residents jogging past my door or walking down the long driveway to go mail a letter, but mostly what I saw were animals, predominantly small birds and chipmunks and squirrels but once in a while a deer or a wild turkey. Most of the animals moved leisurely across the lawn, occasionally bending down for a mouthful of grass. The squirrels, though, they seemed like they had serious business to accomplish. While the birds bopped by the door, sometimes pausing to stare in at me, the squirrels were busy sprinting from place to place, burying acorns, scrambling up trees. They looked like they had deadlines to meet.
Since I didn’t have the distractions of my regular life while at the residency, I was free to stare at the squirrels for as long as I’d like, amused by their constant motion. I started to think about a character in a story who might be annoyed by the never-ending activity of a squirrel near their house. Then that dressed-up squirrel from my calendar popped back into my mind, and I decided I wanted to write a story that involved both a dressed-up squirrel and also another squirrel out in the wild, one that kept coming back to someone’s yard, a constant, uninvited guest. As I sat at my desk, observed the squirrels outside, and started drafting the story, I realized my protagonist wouldn’t be the person who dresses up a squirrel. That character would likely have a pretty good relationship with a squirrel if that squirrel allowed this person to dress it up in funny little outfits. I wanted to write a character who loathes squirrels and whose loathing has to do with something deeper than just the actions of the squirrels. And then I thought, what if that person was forced, somehow, to interact with someone who loves a squirrel so much they dress it up and take photographs of this squirrel in a variety of costumes? Would this interaction lead to even more anger, or would it be, in some way, healing? These questions helped guide my writing of the second half of this story, when Katherine is guilted into chaperoning a field trip to visit Louise Warner and her pet squirrel, Fiona Fluffernut.
Although I don’t think about symbolism while I’m actively drafting a story, I believe symbols can emerge as the story goes through revisions, and I think by the final draft Gus Gus came to represent Katherine’s concern and uncertainty about her decision to move upstate with her daughter after her husband’s death. All the anger that’s directed toward Gus Gus is really anger about the situation Katherine finds herself in as a recent widow in a new environment. A squirrel was a useful animal to employ in the story because they are, in fact, pretty annoying if you’re the owner of a bird feeder that ends up inadvertently becoming a squirrel feeder. Gus Gus allows Katherine to act out her emotions—externalizing that anger and frustration—instead of having the emotions remain interior. He gives her something physical to battle with and helps move the story from thoughts and feelings to action.
KARIN LIN-GREENBERG’s story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Recently, her stories have been published in Boulevard, Colorado Review, Memorious, New Ohio Review, Shenandoah, and the Chicago Tribune, where she was a finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. She lives and teaches creative writing in upstate New York. Learn more at karinlingreenberg.com