An interview with Among Animals contributor Patrick Hicks (“Aren’t You Pretty?”)
by Jennifer Doyle
Q: Patrick, in “Aren’t You Pretty?” Christmas brings great destruction the night of the house fire, yet, our narrator later imagines Sara “opening box after box of healthy skin”—a vision of renewal and restoration. Can you expand on the dualism between Christmas’s reputation and its burden upon this family?
A: When I was crafting the essence of this story, I immediately thought of setting the house fire against the peaceful calm of snow fluttering down through the night. I suppose this naturally led me to think of Christmas and, from there, what the season means to families. In the passage you mention—about Sara opening box after box of healthy skin—I was thinking of longing and materialism, and how Andi wanted to give her niece the one thing she couldn’t possibly give her: restored health. Having the action set against Christmas was almost accidental, but it opened up these interesting possibilities of selfishness and selflessness, as well as family responsibility.
Q: Your characters are often compared to non-human entities. Is there an overall correlation between fire “[eating the house] alive as if by a wild animal,” comparing Sara to “images of hurt animals,” and the narrator’s initial opinion that humans are incapable of kindness? Does this play into our narrator’s transformation when revisiting the wreckage and discovering a neighbor bestowed “…a wonderful act of kindness”?
A: I can understand Andi’s feelings about humanity and cruelty, especially when I consider her job at an animal shelter. I was intentional when I described the fire as a type of wild animal because, to Andi, that’s how she would see it. And when she returns to the house—when she sees all the destruction—I was surprised to find that a neighbor had used his snowblower to clear the sidewalk. That sentence just flowed out of me and I remember pausing after I had written it. It’s such a Minnesotan thing to do—to help your neighbors during winter like that. Maybe it’s not so much an “act of kindness” that is highlighted in that particular scene, but an act of typical Minnesotan-ness? Either way, Andi is touched by it, and that’s the important thing. It rejuvenates her a little, I think. It makes her realize that not everything is lost.
Q: Our narrator prefers a life comprised of “just [her] and [her] little zoo.” Yet she attempts to convince her brother to return to her—and her niece’s—life. Can you explain her struggle between her ideal living conditions and her drive to bring the family back together?
A: I’m still fascinated by Andi because on the one hand she is incredibly generous, but on the other hand she is also incredibly selfish. She is so loving towards animals and she throws open her house to the most damaged among them. And yet, she likes her independence and free time, too. She enjoys going home and being single. It’s as if she opens the borders of her heart at work, but she then closes them down again when she returns home and shuts herself off with a smaller group of animals. Her drive to bring the family back together again is initially very selfish, at least for me. If Steve doesn’t come home, it means that she has to take care of Sara. And she doesn’t want to do that. She doesn’t want to become an instant mother and have her little slice of selfish paradise taken away. That’s why she wants Steve to come back. If he comes back, her life is easier. Most people would act this way, I think.
Q: It appears that “aren’t you pretty?” represents our narrator’s goal to find beauty in what is clearly damaged. What can you tell us about developing this connection?
A: It’s human nature to find goodness amid evil, and beauty amid ugliness. I’m not sure this is necessarily healthy because it can turn our attention away from evil and make us focus, instead, on something else. Take the Holocaust, for instance. By focusing on acts of goodness and clemency, we turn away from the overpowering and punishing evil that swallowed up Europe. We look for the candle in the darkness when, really, the darkness is the story. So, I’m not sure that Andi is searching for beauty amid what is damaged. I’d like to think that she is offering love in spite of this damage. That is, she is offering love to the loveless and rejected. For me, she sees these animals that have been hurt in horrible ways and she loves them because she knows no one else will. That’s beautiful. It’s one of her traits I’m most drawn to.
Q: When researching your latest novel, The Commandant of Lubizec, you traveled to Warsaw and Krakow to visit Operation Reinhard death camps. Did you conduct similar research when writing “Aren’t You Pretty?”
A: I did. It all started when I realized there weren’t many stories set in a burn unit. And I was interested to tell a story set in such a place. But first, I had to figure out how a character would end up in a burn unit. So I interviewed the fire chief here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He’s a wonderful and quietly heroic man named Jim Sedaris, and he told me about fighting house fires in winter. He explained the technical aspects of firefighting but, more importantly, he helped me see how families react when a loved one is caught inside an inferno. I couldn’t have written the first half of the story without the information and insight that he gave me. Likewise, the second half of the story was made exponentially stronger when I visited the burn unit at Avera McKennan Hospital, also in Sioux Falls. The nurses there are just amazing. They suited me up in hospital garb and showed me around. All the medical aspects in the story are accurate, and everything I mention is lifted directly from my long day with them. They told me about burn victims, about debriding, about recovery stages, and much, much more. I even had the opportunity to interview a middle-aged woman who was in the burn unit. She had been working at a fast food restaurant when a drunk driver plowed through the side of the building. All the hot oil from the deep fat fryer was splashed onto her legs—she had third-degree burns on her thighs, her knees, her shins, everywhere—and she tried to explain the pain. I had on a hospital gown, and a mask, and rubber gloves, and I just listened to her. She groaned in excruciating pain. She said it felt like her legs were still burning. And when she talked about being debrided twice a day … well, I’ve never forgotten that. Thanks to her, and the nurses, and Jim Sedaris, the story came alive in ways I never could have imagined otherwise. I’m a big believer in research. I’m just a conduit for a story, and that means I have to understand the language and background the story is speaking. That means interviewing people. It means stepping out of my office and going places I’ve never gone before.
Q: You are also the writer-in-residence at Augustana College. Will you paint a picture of what you refer to as your “lab”? What purpose do each of your two desks serve?
A: I’ve got two desks in my office. They are at a ninety-degree angles to each other, and I have one chair that allows me to swivel between them. I use one desk for writing fiction (that’s where my computer is located) and the other desk is for poetry (that’s where my pencils and erasers and spare paper is located). It helps me to focus my thoughts and creativity if I can say, “Right, okay, you’re at the poetry desk now, so write some stanzas.” Or I can spin my chair to the left and work on fiction. I call my office a “lab” because I want my students to understand that being creative means trying out new things. What happens if x and y and z are added together? I don’t know. Let’s find out. Most people understand that hard work and experiments happen in laboratories, but for those of us involved in the creative arts, I think people are a bit flummoxed about what we do. How does creativity happen? How does that work? I teach at a small liberal arts college, and it’s helpful for my students who do biology and chemistry to understand that writing requires lab time, too. I may not have Bunsen burners or centrifuges in my office, but it’s a lab all the same.
Q: You’ve referred to writing as a “hypnotic magic trick”—what do you mean by this?
A: When we’re carried away by an amazing piece of writing, our brains are under the control of someone else. That’s hypnosis. When a writer does her or his job exceedingly well, we forget that we’re reading and we surrender our imaginations to a world beyond our bodies. That’s what reading is: It’s essentially an out-of-body experience. As a writer, I’m drawn to this magic trick. I’m just so in love with how literature can mesmerize us and connect us across time, across continents, across religion and culture, across even the grave. With a little splash of ink on a page, we can see beyond ourselves and live for a moment in the world of someone else. That’s astonishing, and I believe it makes us better human beings.