An interview with Among Animals contributors Carol Guess and Kelly Magee (“With Sheep”)
Q: As co-authors of this story, what was your writing process like?
Carol: Kelly and I had so much fun writing “With Sheep.” It’s part of a book-length collection titled With Animal; each short story focuses on a human who becomes pregnant with an animal baby. Our writing process was simple: we each wrote half a story, then exchanged halves. Starting and finishing stories presented different challenges. This story was difficult for me because the voice Kelly created seemed so confident and strong; I wasn’t sure how to add to it. So I switched characters and point of view, not wanting to add to Kelly’s fabulous narrative but to provide an alternative perspective. Ultimately, I think “With Sheep” feels like part of a larger story, maybe the beginning or end of a novel. Perhaps Kelly and I will return to it some day.
Kelly: This story began with voice: the narrator who is witnessing the birth of this animal baby, and the breathlessness of the character and the situation. From there, the world of the story began to come alive, and it was so much fun to think of the details that might be possible in such a world. Once I read Carol’s ending and point-of-view switch, I was thrilled. It’s one of my all-time favorite endings of all the stories we’ve collaborated on. I loved that in this world where animals and people were being commodified, what triumphed was the instinct to parent, to empathize, to care for each other.
Q: What inspired you to fuse animals and humans together with motherhood?
Carol: Our original idea for a collaboration was to write twisted fairy tales. But that had been done many times before; we wanted to add something unique to the fairy tale feeling. I remember sending Kelly a long list of possible topics, including something to do with humans and animal babies. (Another topic was bikini baristas, so maybe that can be our next project.) Kelly picked up on the idea of animal babies right away, and brought so much knowledge about motherhood, childbirth, and science to our project. What made me happiest, though, was discovering that we have compatible imaginations: neither one of us is easily shocked, and we don’t play it safe. We both write by placing trust in our readers: we trust they will follow us wherever we go.
Kelly: I’m a nontraditional mother myself, so it wasn’t such a stretch to imagine other kinds of nontraditional mothers. I’m also fascinated by pregnancy and childbirth as times when the body goes through a kind of shape-shifting that, at times, seems magical. Many of the stories in the larger collection, With Animal, are exaggerations of things that really happen during pregnancy. Women typically lose hair more slowly during pregnancy, for example, so their hair seems thicker; in “With Sheep,” I expanded that idea to give my character fur. I love times when real life pushes our suspension of disbelief, and motherhood seems to me to be one of those times. But one of the most compelling parts of working on this project was the chance to flip conventions about humans and animals. In many of the stories—this one included—the lines between human/animal, body/mind, and language/behavior were collapsed. It was fascinating to explore the animalistic side of the human characters and the rich interior life and language of the animal characters.
Q: In general, how does your creative work reflect your relationships with animals?
Carol: I’m deeply committed to nonhuman animal rights. I don’t eat animals or engage in violence toward animals, and I’ve worked for animal welfare most of my adult life by volunteering in shelters and engaging in animal rescue. But this project was the first time I felt that passion coming together with my passion for writing. I don’t know why I never connected the two before; after all, I’m involved in Queer activism, and I connect that to my writing. From now on I suspect all of my writing will engage with nonhuman animal lives in some way. It was great writing with Kelly, because she’s similarly passionate about animal welfare. I knew that our representations of animals would always start with the assumption that animals are deserving of respect, dignity, and meaningful lives.
Kelly: I’m always seeking to understand more about human/animal relationships, and writing “With Sheep” (as well as other stories in the collection) gave me a chance to think through some of the questions I still have. I am interested, for example, in how to honor and respect the place of the animal in the human world. I am suspicious of attempts to infantilize animals, something which was very interesting to explore in the context of this story. I love thinking about the successes and failures of different kinds of language, human and non-human, and the blur between the two. Often my characters led me in directions I didn’t expect, and the direction Carol took the story definitely kept me thinking about new possibilities and new questions, which fosters more new work. For me, the exciting part of writing is when I’m heading somewhere entirely new and I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of it. “With Sheep” definitely did that.