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An interview with Among Animals contributor Philip Armstrong (“Litter”)
Q: Why did you choose a dog’s point of view for this story? In what ways was it challenging, and was there any special research you did?
A: Whenever we write about animals (or whenever we think about them or engage with them in any way, in fact), we’re unavoidably projecting onto them our own ideas about what they’re like and how they experience the world. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing—in some ways it’s the same thing we do with other humans, too—but I do think we have an obligation to try and remember how different other species are from us, and how different their worlds must be, while at the same time recognizing likely areas of common experience (senses, emotions, perceptions). Pretending to be an animal is one of the best ways of doing this: children do it, and lots of cultural activities find ways of letting adults do it, too (I’m thinking of shamanism, carnival, wildlife documentaries, even certain sports). Fiction, because it can create the impression of being inside another mind, offers amazing potential for undertaking this experiment. But it also poses massive challenges. For example, how does a writer go about representing a dog’s experience of the world through smell? What is the best narrative point of view to create the impression of a dog’s inner world? In the end, I decided to write my story in the second person (“you”) as a way of inviting the reader to try out my idea of what a canine world might be like, while at the same time—because use of the second person tends to remind us we’re engaging in something invented—remaining aware that it’s nothing but a human guess about that world.
Two items of “special research” helped shape the way I wrote the story. One was reading Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, which is full of fascinating theories about how dogs experience the world. The second, and most important, was observing and having adventures with Lola, who was my beloved dog friend for sixteen years. She passed away in February of 2013, not long after I completed the story.
Q: As the co-director of the New Zealand Center for Human-Animal Studies at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, what role do you think fiction has in the world of animal studies?
A: To me, the main thing that written fiction can do, better than any other form, is create the sustained and deep illusion of being inside another mind. It’s the nearest thing we have to mind-reading or telepathy. That makes it a fantastically rich way of exploring how humans think and feel about other animals, and even speculating on how other animals might think and feel about us. The second thing I’d say is that really well-written fiction has the capacity to allow the reader to experience forms of feeling and perception that are radically new and unusual, outside of the normal conventions—which means it can help expand our repertoire of feelings and perceptions about other animals, and about being animals ourselves. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace is a wonderful contemporary example of this.
Q: What advice might you offer to creative writers who hope to write about animals? That is, what is important to keep in mind as well as to avoid?
A: I suspect that the same things apply in writing creatively about animals as in writing about anything else. First, the golden rule: keep your reader in mind, and think all the time about how she or he will experience what you’re writing. Second, the very best way (perhaps the only way) to learn how to write well is by reading—read a lot, read many different things, and read attentively. And third, find a voice that suits the way you write, as well as the perspective you’re writing from. That last one’s the trickiest, I think, and it takes some experimentation with different styles and different tones to get it right.
Q: What else could readers turn to if they like the idea of experiencing the world from a dog’s perspective?
A: I’d strongly recommend Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy, which is about a child growing up as part of a pack of feral dogs in Russia (partly based on a true story); Paul Auster’s wonderful Timbuktu, which is written from the point of view of a dog who is the companion of a homeless man; and the poetry collection Unleashed, edited by Amy Hempel and Jim Shepherd, which contains many wonderful poems by famous writers, written from the point of view of their dogs.